Thursday, April 30, 2009

Review: The Other Queen

It's a novel. It's historical fiction. I'd definitely have to put more belief in the fiction than the history, as Philippa Gregory gives us a new slant on Mary Queen of Scots in this novel published last year. Told through the eyes of Mary, and the couple chosen to be her 'host and hostess', George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, and his wife Bess of Hardwick, the Countess Shrewsbury, we are given a good look at Mary's life in the early days of her forced stay in England. As the imprisonment drags on, we learn as much about the Shrewsbury duo as we do about Mary. Bess is portrayed as a penny-pinching, money grabbing spy for Elizabeth's chief advisor (and Mary's chief protagonist) Lord Cecil. George is Bess's husband #4, and she's heretofore managed to better herself from each previous arrangement, somehow getting hubbies #1,2,3 to deed everything they owned to her, and not the children of any of these unions. In fact the book opens:
Every woman should marry for her own advantage since her husband will represent her, as visible as her front door, for the rest of her life...She can be pious, she can be learned, she can be witty and wise and beautiful, but if she is married to a fool she will be "that poor Mrs. Fool" until the day he dies.
She evidently signed it all over to George when she married him, because she wanted to be a Countess. Now however, she sees her fortune going out the window as the Shrewsburys must foot the extravagant bill for Mary (up to 30 dishes a night for dinner! and a staff of over 100 to be housed and fed, royal linens to be washed, etc etc etc). George on the other hand, being the great honorable Galahad wannebe he was raised to be, finds himself tumbling head over heels in love with Mary, but bound by honor to do Elizabeth's bidding. Until the end , he is duped by Mary, and finds it inconceivable that she would ever participate in any kind of plot against her cousin Elizabeth. Bess recognizes almost immediately what is going on and reports it all faithfully to Cecil. By a careful 'managment of the books' she arranges to have her husbands expenses paid for by 'loans' from her money, and when he is practically forced into bankruptcy, she gets him to sign the houses and lands back over to her. Clever woman our Bess... It is possible to judge Mary Queen of Scots from a number of different perspectives. Gregory's take that she was a conniving wench who used whoever she could to get what she wanted (a throne perhaps???) is probably close to being, as we say here in Maine, spot on. A good listen--well done by the three narrators. It's a great 'read' if for nothing else than to hear Bess of Hartwick expound the feminist views more appropos to the 21st century. Good on her if she was really able to pull them off. The book even ends with Bess' remarks the day Mary is beheaded:
And nobody in this world will ever call me Mrs. Fool.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Review: The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane

It's that time of year when I get ready for the annual granddaughter summer visit. Now that she's 8 1/2 and reading very well on her own thank you, I've been searching through the stacks at the library (and in our library) for suitable volumes for "her" shelf in the guest room. At the same time, I needed to add some titles to my "Award Winners" category on the LT 999 Challenge. This filled both requirements. Such a beautiful story, in a beautiful book full of gorgeous and gentle illustrations. I can't wait to give this to my grand-daughter. I'll have to get her one of her own because I know she won't want to part with this one to send it back to the library. The story is of a rabbit who learns to love and let himself be loved as he goes through a series of (mis)adventures, disasters, different names (and genders) and belonging to various people. It is a story absolutely bound to steal children's and adult's hearts. It can be read aloud to younger children, and then cherished by older ones. No wonder it won so many awards! It is a timeless chldren's classic that would be a welcome addition to any bookshelf.

Hiking vicariously

My cousin Jason has been hiking the Appalachian Trail since April 1st. Through the miracles of modern science (don't ask me how--I'm not that good), he sends pictures to his mom every night, and she posts them online on a trail journal. Today we got our first real text post. It has been fun to watch him, follow his progress on a map of the AT, and now share his thoughts. I was touched by his closing and share it with you:
Oh Great Spirit Who made all races Look kindly upon the whole Human Family and take away the arrogance and hatred which seperates us from our Brothers. Cherokee Prayer
What a delightful young man he is--we can't wait for him to finish his trek in October and spend a few days with us when he comes down off the mountain in Katahdin. If you're interested in Jason's adventures, you can follow his at Trail journals

Review: Summer in Tuscany

I've been in a sort of reading funk and needed something light and fun to get me back on track. This certainly fit the bill. Good romance with great food, just enough sex, wonderfully fun characters, and a feel good story. The story begins in New York, where "Nona" Gericho receives a letter telling her she has an inheritance back in her hometown in Tuscany, so she uproots her daughter Gemma--a busy ER doctor with a secret aversion to future romance, and her granddaughter- a 'show-me' 14 year old with green hair and the appropriate tatoos, to go with her to retrieve it. Enter the hunk, an American artist named Ben Rafael, his prissy teenage daughter Muffie--aching to burst out of her shell, an outrageously flamboyant Brit ex-pat (countess whatever) and a whole host of delightful characters trying to help Nona (now that's she "home" self-restyled Sophia Maria) claim her castle. It's a treat. And it made me hungry. ETA: I listened to this while I was washing windows. The narrator Celeste Lawson has a delightful Italian accent, and reads the Italian really well. An Audio delight. Sure was the most fun I had washing windows in a long time.

Review: Mysteries of the Middle Ages:

Thomas Cahill's series Hinges of History started with a bang with the publication of How the Irish Saved Civilization in 1995. This is the 4th in the Series, and it is a beautiful ART book. I love history. I love to read history books, although many tend to be dry and academic. Cahill is not academic, but this book could never be used as a text book. It is supplementary reading; it is not even quite history. It has an agenda that is actually stated in the subtitle: "The Rise of Feminism, Science, and Art from the Cults of Catholic Europe." However, it is not until the last chapter that we are bombarded with his personal angst with 20th and 21st century Roman Catholicism. To say there's an ax to grind is putting it mildly. Raised and educated as a Catholic, his bias and love for, and now his anger (however righteous one might view it) about Catholicism has almost turned him into a modern day Dante. Reading the last chapter, I was waiting to see to which circle of hell he consigned present day leaders. And......while I am no fan of George W. Bush, Cahill's thinly veiled vitriol (he claims he was referring to Phillip the Fair)--in his ending diabtribe, the last paragraph of the chapter "The Politician's Emptiness" was aimed directly at W.
...the acquisitive, dissembling, violence-prone politician...who could lie to himself and lie to others...give orders to torture the helpless and banish the innocent while on his way to church, hold men prisoner indefinitely without charging them...refuse to acknowledge the mercenary motives of his closest advisers, abrogate international treaties, pollute whole ecosystems while pretending to do otherwise, and declare his vicious wars just, necessary and blessed by God.
Certainly, the study of history should lead us to lessons learned. Cahill's lessons learned are quite biased however. At least he admits that he left out huge chunks of Medieval History (this book covers approx 900-1300 A.D.) of the period--he has one "Intermezzo" (it doesn't even rate being called a chapter) for "Entrances to Other Worlds..The Mediterranean, The Orient, and The Atlantic." Aside from being the proximate cause of half of Europe spending an inordinate amount of time, money and manpower on the Crusades, the Muslims get short shrift for any contributions they may have made. OK OK...he stated on the cover he was studying Catholic cults. The Iberian peninsula, the British Isles, and anything not centered in the Holy Roman Empire, especially present day Italy, is given only glancing mention. My mother always told me that if I couldn't say something nice, not to say anything at all. So if we put down the Hinges of History book, and read the subtitled book, this is an exquisite discussion of the early Renaissance in Italy. Beginning with the lucious endpapers of deep blue and sparkling gold showing the Ceiling of Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, through the numerous maps and charts helping the reader keep track of the myriad of players in the political doings of the times, to the 57 (!!) color illustrations of works of art of the period, this is a gorgeous feast for the senses. It is almost like reading an illustrated manuscript of the period. Even the font is spectacular. This book deserves to be picked and read if for nothing else than the sensual experience. Each chapter (until the last two) presents a piece of his explanation of the influence of the Catholic church on modern day feminism, science and art. Hildegard of Bilgen, Heloise & Abelard, Francis of Assissi, Thomas Aquinas and Dante receive star billing. In fact, I wish I'd read this before embarking on my earlier read of Dante this year. Cahill has a classic education, and certainly takes great pains to present his theories in very readable, easy to understand prose. It is not dumbed down, never boring, neither does it exhibit blatant snobbery. While I normally prefer my history books with more specific citations and references than Cahill offers, I'm not left with the impression that his research is lacking. It is interpretive research at its best. He presents suggestions for further reading based on his assessment of what he thinks his readers might be interested in. If we look at this as a history book, it's maybe a 3 star. If you look at it as a narrative of very specific theories, well-researched and supported, exquisitely presented, it's a 5 star.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Review: Gilead

Warning...this is not a real review because I just could NOT finish this book. I read almost 125 pages, then tried listening to it on audio, and frankly just found it plain BORING. I know it won the Pulitzer, but it's not a prize winner for me. Set in the midwest, the main character is a dying old man who has been a preacher all his life, he was the son of a preacher, and his best friend was a preacher. He marries late in life, has a son, and decides as he's dying, to write letters to his son to be read in the son's adulthood. This is after he claims to have hand-written 67,000 pages of weekly sermons. The man sure do like to hear his own words! But those words are dry, drier, and make for the driest book I have ever read. Several other reviewers have indicated that it takes a while to get into, but after two weeks of 'getting into', I'm not willing to sap my energy anymore. Perhaps this is the reason for my previously reported reading funk?

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Review: Olive Kitteridge - Pride and the Pulitzer

We in Maine have reason to be proud today. Elizabeth Strout, a graduate of Bates College here in Maine, just won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for this wonderful collection of stories Olive Kitteridge. Here's what I wrote for my 999 challenge review earlier this year:
I read this originally last year and didn't care for it. I just couldn't stand the central character. This was the January read for our "Read around Maine" online book group which grew out of our Literary Map of Maine, so I thought I'd give it another chance to see if other people had the same reaction I did. I'm so glad I read it again. I think when I first read it last year, I was so ill, that I had no tolerance for hard times or nasty people.
This is an exquisitely written book of stories about life in small town coastal Maine. I almost feel I know every one of these people. Each story could be a stand-alone, but Olive Kitteridge, a strong, opinionated, stoic, often unhappy woman appears in each story. While change is happening, Olive seems not to notice. Her story and that of her husband and only son are so well-written that you don't have to like her to love the book. The writing is clean, crisp, and you can almost smell the pines, feel the mist, and hear the foghorns while you read. I am thrilled that Elizabeth Strout received this honor. It's certainly deserved.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Review: NIGHT by Elie Wiesel

Earlier this year, I read a book Great Souls by David Aiken in which the author presented biographical tributes to six people he thought had made significant contributions to humanity in the 20th century. Each story was so well done, and made such an impression on me, that I set out to read something more about each of the honorees. In the case of Elie Wiesel, I decided to read his first book, NIGHT, a short, dramatic, painful and powerful description of his life in German concentration camps during World War II. He was only 14 when taken prisoner. Able to stay all of his time with his father (and encourage the older man while receiving his father's support), he takes us with him on rides on the crowded cattle cars, through a life of living on one cup of coffee, a small piece of bread, and sometimes a bowl of very thin soup daily, while doing hard labor, or forced marches, trying to avoid being identified as one chosen to go to the crematorium. The story of how he goes from being a star Talmudic student in the pre-war Jewish ghetto, to an almost total rejection of a God who could allow all this horror to occur, is written in a stark, simple, and heartbreaking prose. It was not an enjoyable book to read, but an essential one. The audio book version I listened to ended with the acceptance speech he delivered when he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. The speech was as inspiring as the book , and greatly affirming. This is a must read for any human who wants to understand what it means to be human. The closing sentences (after he had been emancipated from the camps) say it all:
"One day when I was able to get up, I was able to look at myself in a mirror on the opposite wall. I had not seen myself since the ghetto. From the depths of the mirror a corpse was contemplating me. The look in his eyes as he gazed at me has never left me."

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Review: Delectable Mountains

Pilgrim's Progress never made it onto my reading list, but this book gave me just enough hint about it that I'm going to go and at least pick up a copy to see more. This is actually a mystery story, one of the Benni Harper series in which Benni, wife of police Chief Gabe Ortiz in San Celina finds herself helping her grandma Dove direct the children of the Church as they work to present a musical play based on Pilgrim's Progress. While the children learn their lines, and make progress toward the Delectable Mountains of the book, the church custodian is murdered during one of the rehearsals. A small girl is the only witness (or is she?), Gabe's long-lost cousin Luis suddenly appears in town, an old beau starts getting too cozy, a priceless violin is stolen from the Catholic mission in town, and Benni, (smart girl our Benni) begins to think there may be one too many coincidences in all of this. The ending is particularly suspenseful and exciting. This is the first of this series I've read, but the plotting, setting, and characters will certainly have me going back to search for earlier ones, as I look for PP on the shelves to find out what it was really about. I actually listened to this in audio, and it was extremely well done. The different characters, accents, and motivations were easy to hear, and made it quite an enjoyable experience. I love books that lead me to look for others.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Review: There is a Season

Wow! That's what I said when I first picked up this book. Wow! is what I said after almost every chapter, and Wow! is what I'm still saying as I try to bring my senses back to earth after wallowing in this book for almost a week. This work, a meditation on the famous words of Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, "To everything there is a season..." is also a series of reflections on the art of John August Swanson's incredibly sumptuous serigraph Ecclesiastes which provides the cover art and illustrations for each chapter. Chittister begins with reflections on the Seasons of Life and the Dimensions of Time and studies each element of the zodiac in the center of the picture and on the cover off the book. I seldom quote from books when I do reviews, but Joan Chittister had me gasping with some of her insights: Speaking of the scriptural verses she says: "...I saw...Swanson's painting...and suddenly, in the struggle to understand the print, everything came together. The words took on a timbre I had not heard before; the ideas sprang to meaning in a new way, a new form.The painting with all its complexity made it very clear....Life is the citadel of time in which we find ourselves and which we ourselves build...." pg. 1. She goes on to examine each element of the picture matched to its appropriate "a time to...." One of my favorites is "A Time for Peace". The picture shows a young person standing in front of lambs lying down with a huge lion, with figures above sharing a meal of bread and probably wine, stars, sunbursts, a figure of what is obviously a dove meant to portray the Holy spirit, peacocks, birds, all in drenching colors. Chittister begins by quoting Kazantzakis "I fear nothing. I hope for nothing. I am free." then she posits that "...we are too enslaved to ourselves to be at peace."(pg. 107). She talks about how noisy the world is today, blocking out our ability to be quiet, to listen, to THINK.
She says "..Quiet has become a phantom memory in this culture. Some generations among us have had no experience of it at all....In New York City, in Small Town USA, (noice pollution) is blaring every hour of the day....Muzak in elevators, ...people standing next to you on cellphones, ...the ubiquitous television spewing talk devoid of thought... we don't think anymore. We simply listen."
She discusses how we are afraid of silence, how different societies in the past dealt with thinking and silence. She quotes the desert monastics, and ends this section by saying that "Peace will come when we stretch our minds to listen to the noise within us that needs quieting and the wisdom from outside...that needs to be learned." (pg.109). Each section is just as deep and thought provoking. Each provides enough food for the soul to last an entire season of seasons. The final chapter, "A Time for Every Purpose under Heaven" shows dancers, musicians, a panoply of colors and banners and joy. She uses this to recap everything and ties it together:
"No doubt about it, the cycle of time shapes and reshapes our misshapen selves until we have the opportunity to become what we can." "There is a time to kill whatever it is within us that fetters our souls from flying free... There is a time... sow the seeds that will be reaped by the next generation... weep tears of pain and ...loss to dignify the going of those...people in life who have brought us to where we are... embrace the goods of our life with great, thumping hugs.... reap, to work without that what must be done in life can be done... find ourselves in someone else so that we can find ourselves at all. let go of whatever has become our captor... be born fresh and begin again... laugh, to let go of the propriety and ...pomposities die, to put things to an end... heal ourselves from the hurts that weigh us down... build up, to construct the new world.... (pp.113-118)
This book is not readily available in libraries or used book stores. I don't think too many people will want to part with it. I gave my original copy to my son and his wife for a first anniversary
present (paper gifts!!), and had to get another one online. It's that good. It's every adjective you can think of and then some. The words are almost poetry. The artwork is breathtaking. All I can say is Wow!

Baseball and Multi-colored Fun

Well.... the baseball season is now in full swing, giving me the opportunity to enjoy three of my favorite pastimes at the same time. I love to watch the Red Sox, followed closely by the Orioles (I grew up in Baltimore). I truly enjoy doing various kinds of needlework, and always have two or three projects going at any one time. And as has become obvious, I am never far from a book. During baseball season I can do all three at once, and really feel like I'm accomplishing something. Before he died, my dad was famous for cross-stitching and watching 3 different TVs (3 different stations) at the same time--must be genetic.

While the game is on, I won't try any really intricate stitching that requires a lot of counting, but most pieces have large sections that are just 'fill-ins'. Right now I'm filling in the sky on a harbor scene I've been working on for more than a year. Last night while I watched the Orioles go down to ignominious defeat (I gave up when the score reached 17-4), I was able to stitch, and listen to a great semi-cozy mystery by Earlene Fowler called Delectable Mountains.

I only put them all down when my mom calls to 'watch' the ball games with me. At 84, she is a bigger baseball nut than any of us, and can quote statistics, tell you where new players were last year, give the entire schedule for the upcoming month, and generally make up great non-cuss words to express her displeasure when her O's go down the -----er. (her quote not mine) So we 'watch' at least 3 or 4 innings together on the phone almost every evening.

However, it becomes quite brain taxing (and here I have difficulty multi-tasking) if she is watching the Orioles and I'm watching the Red Sox --particularly if they're not playing each other!--with two games to keep track of, and Mom's comments on life in general--and the neighbors and relatives in particular-- I find it almost impossible to sew, and obviously since I only have one set of ears, audio books are out of the question at that point.

Listening to audio books has become a great pleasure and almost an addiction. Particularly with the advent of public libraries offering downloadable audio books, my MP3 player is always well-stocked. I listen while I cook, while I drive (no earphones- I use the car's CD player), while I sew, while I walk, and whenever I want to drown out carnage being spewed from the TV (my other half is a crime TV junkie). It's a great way to enjoy an added dimension to words that authors put on paper. Those words are not always as forceful, or inspiring, or entertaining if your brain is only interpreting them through your eyes. When you have another reader's intonations, and oral interpretations, there's an added bonus.

So take a try at the multi life. It really is fun. Just don't try to take any of it too seriously. Life's too short. So what if you have to re-wind, or put down the sewing, or take off the earphones, or curse the umpire. Just step back, get up, get some popcorn, have a beer. It's life, it's a ballgame and the book, the sewing, and the lousy ump will be there when you get back, Pappelbon will soon be coming in from the bullpen and you won't have had to spend $15 to enjoy your timeout.

You can even watch in your 'jammies!

Thursday, April 16, 2009

A morning at the Dentist

Like most people, going to the dentist is not normally at the top of my "fun things to do" list. But last week, I discovered my dentist is a reader. So is his chairside assistant. As I was in the chair in the"open wide" position with tons of tubes, clamps, cotton rolls and lord only knows what else jamming my mouth, we somehow got into a terrific discussion of books, libraries, and TV adaptations. It's amazing how much communicating you can still do when your tongue is numb and you're not really allowed to speak. The old Roman "thumbs up/down" works really well. We did all agree on several books, and each of us agreed (I think) to go look up a book suggested by one of the others. I just wish I could remember what they were. The novacaine somehow migrated to my brain cells. The dental assistant told me about the reading club she belonged to and asked for suggestions for the next was her turn to choose. I suggested Monica Wood's Any Bitter Thing , Kate Jacobs Friday Night Knitting Club, Geraldine Brooks People of the Book, and Sue Waters Water for Elephants. Turns out this last was their current read. Then we had a hilarious but fun discussion of Alexander McCall Smith's various series, and all agreed that the 1st Ladies' Detective Agency was definitely the best. They were thrilled to find out that HBO has made a TV series of these wonderful stories. Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, and the whole loveable cast is there, faithfully portrayed, and delighting us as much as the books. The show is running every Sunday nite on HBO...check it out. And in the meantime, get your hand signals and your book list ready before you head to the dentist next time. Ask them to write down their recommendations. They'll be good ones.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Final Arrangements

Yesterday, I attended a funeral. Nothing unusual, although various family members had some reservations about "the arrangements". One of the neighbors and I agreed that we had best be sure that our survivors had in writing what it was that we wanted, didn't want, or absolutely insisted upon when we finally go off to the great library in the sky. Today, in one of my library listservs, I found an answer to a prayer I didn't even know I'd said: Here is my ultimate dream casket. If I lose some weight, maybe I can take some of the books with me too! Of course, I've always said that Heaven is a big overstuffed chair in the middle of a library containing everybook I'd ever want to read. Maybe I should travel light and trust it will all be there for me.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Review: The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon

I Did It!!! I finished the whole book. Me...the world's biggest scaredy cat. Everything they say about Stephen King's incredible writing ability is true. Once you start, and realize you're not going to be eaten by a three headed monster, you cannot put the book down, now matter how hard your heart is beating, or how much your hands are trembling. In this really not too scary story, nine year old Trish goes for a walk on the Appalachian Trail in Maine with her mother and her 14 yr old brother. As Mom and Pete walk in front of her, they get into the typical parent-teenager argument and Trish drops back. When she needs to pee she goes off the trail so she won't be seen. Mom and Pete go on, Trish gets disoriented and tries to take a short-cut to catch back up with them. I'd like to say the rest is vintage Stephen King, but this is the only one of his works I've read. His vivid, clear portrayal of Trish's attempts to survive alone in the woods are reminiscent of Hemingway. Sparse words, incredible imagery. Just enough 'scare' factor to keep you awake. Trish, who has a crush on the Red Sox closing pitcher Tom Gordon, discovers she can pick up the games on her walkman, and by carefully shepherding her batteries, she manages to listen to games, and survive several adventures on the wild lands of Maine and New Hampshire. I'd like to think my granddaughter, who is the same age, would have had the spunk and courage to get through an ordeal like this, but I'm not sure, and I certainly don't want to test the question. This is a great story, suspenseful, brilliantly written, and worth every minute of your time. Just read it in the daylight.

Reviews: Ego Trips in Annual Doses

Lately, I've read (or endured) several books written that had as a theme a year's worth of thru Julia's cookbook, (Julie and Julia:365 days, 564 recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen) finding oneself in a bowl of pasta or an ashram or a hut in Indonesia, (Eat, Pray, Love) living in a foreign country without knowing the language or customs and complaining because things weren't like they were in the US, (A Year in Provence, Sixpence House, A year of No Money in Tokyo,) and deciding to read the Bible and live it literally --to hell with what his wife wanted--(A Year of Living Biblically). The latest (although not necessarily published later than the others) to drive me over the edge is supposedly about reading passionately (italics are mine) for a year from a pre-determined list. (So Many Books, So Little Time) The author of this self-flagulating piece wants us to believe how arduous it was to figure out what to read, and how this almost paralyzed her in her attempts, how at the end of the year, she still hadn't read all of the books on her list (she only wanted to read one book a week), but had substituted others along the way. Frankly, I'm getting really tired of all of this year of this, year of that, blah, blah, blah. I wanted to yell at all of them...get a grip, get a life. And for goodness sake...if you're that obsessive, seek help. The only one in the bunch that was worth anything.....and it was so good I almost hesitate to mention it here in the same breath (it deserves its own review)....was Joan Didion's Year of Magical Thinking, winner of the National Book Award. Ms. Didion didn't set out to spend a year mourning her husband after his sudden death, nor did she set out to have an adventure to write about so she could write a book, or collect a big advance from her publisher. This one is about real life and what happened during that year. It wasn't a phony, ponied up premise to sell a was real life, with real feelings portrayed in an exquisite openess. If you missed it when it came out, be sure to reach for it, particularly if you're tempted to try some of these other 'look at my wonderful/questing/awful/fun/lousy year' books on the shelves. Save your year for the real thing.

Review: The New 50 Simple Things Kids Can Do to Save the Earth

Forget Baking Cookies--This is Neat Stuff for Kids! I wish I'd had a book like this when I was growing up. It would have been worth at least 5 Girl Scout merit badges, 2 or 3 science projects, and lots of feel good fun. I got an advanced copy as part of LT's Early Reviewer program, and for once feel like I've hit the jackpot. Young granddaughter (8 1/2 yr old) will be arriving for her annual summer vacation with Tutu and we are really going to have a great time with this one. Much more fun than baking, or even roasting marshmallows. This is a well organized, interesting, appealing book directed at youngsters from about age 9-15. Parents, grandparents, scout leaders, teachers, and even baby-sitters will also love it. Topics covered include recycling, water and air pollution, wildlife preservation, climate change, keeping the earth green, and energy conservation. But forget the topics, it's the layout that is so terrific. Each section begins with a quick multiple choice question called "Take a guess." It sets the tone for short presentations on the topic: Did you know? What You Can Do, Amaze Your Friends (what kid can resist that?) and See for Yourself. "What You can Do" includes projects for both home and school, things to do alone, or with a group. It's full of games, quizzes, experiments, and puzzlers. It is easy to read, doesn't talk down to kids, and still manages to be interesting enough for all of us grandmas. And to put frosting on the cake, it has an incredibly well researched list of web pages for more information. Grab one when you see it...we can all pitch in and help save the planet, and have fun doing it.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Review: The Shack

I hadn't planned to read this book. The last book on my Theology list that I had planned to read this week to finish up Lent was Jose Saramago's Gospel According to Jesus Christ HOWEVER.....I got about 40 pages into it and decided that Sr. Saramago's vision of gospel and JC was NOT mine, and my mind would just not go that far. So, I needed something to read, wasn't ready to tackle Karen Armstrong History of God and my eye fell on The Shack which I'd picked up off the donation pile at our library last week just to look through to see what all the fuss was about. I'm one of those people who can read a book like this and love it. Oh, I can see how some people who take their Bible very literally are NOT going to like this. Others will have trouble with the level of the writing, which is as one reviewer said 'kinda hokey.' Ten years ago, I would have thrown this book in the trash heap. But now, the fact that the author states up front and at the end that you can believe it or not, makes it a wonderful grace if you choose to accept it. I for one have no difficulty at all with having pancakes with God as long as she pours Maine maple syrup on them --- and I don't mean that to be flip. I think we go thru stages in our life where we have different perceptions of (and therefore relations with) God, religion, sacred scripture, etc. In fact, this book and some of it's theories (and its vision) came up for discussion several times in a Lenten scripture study I just finished at my church. It's a great book for office lunch discussions...lots of different ideas but encouraging all to be respectful and mindful that others don't always believe the same way we do. I found it a thought-provoking read and will probably recommend to several people I think will like it. For me it was a 4 star, for others it will be trash. For a few it will be a life-changing event. I think most books in this category will have widely ranging ratings depending on the reader's background and reason for choosing the book to begin with. Not sure I want to see the movie, but the book is worth a look.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Help Desk Sandwich

Those of us who have achieved a certain level of chronological advantage are constantly being reminded that we are members of the so-called sandwich generation, i.e., we are being called upon constantly to help with aging parents, and young children or grandchildren. In my case it's true, but there's a flip side. I'm often calling on them to help me. Lately many of my calls for help - both incoming and outgoing - seem to be of the 'geek squad' HELP DESK variety. My mother (who at 84 is on her way to becoming very computer literate) always has a new question about how to do some thing or other. In her case, our calls often spend as much time on learning the vocabulary of hard/software as actually going through key-strokes. It once took me 15 minutes to realize that when she said "plug" I was seeing that apparatus at the end of a power cord that plugged into an electrical socket for energy. She was seeing the USB connection she had knocked out of the back of the PC which she was vacuuming ! On the other end of the spectrum, I find myself calling my children for assistance on technical stuff, whether it's computer related, or has to do with a variety of ever-emerging electronic gizmos, gadgets, or online opportunities. They are often quick to point out that something or other wasn't really aimed at my "demographic." I despair of ever being able to navigate Facebook. Even my 8 yr old grand-daughter knows how to get around a computer as well as I do. At the age of four, she assured us we could 'text' on our cell phones even if we were out of range to make a verbal call!! Digital photography and up/downloads are something we're all still trying to manage. Scanning and editing are the expertise of my two youngest sisters, while electronic calendaring (is there such a word?) is my sister Mary-Ruth's forte. I'm the one who gives everyone advise on web pages and blogs -- why can I master those and not Facebook I wonder? Each of us has a specific software expertise. And fortunately, each of us has a specific non-geeky specialty. I love calling MR for advice about music, flowers, Missy about books and needlework, Cheli about collecting, travel and books. Mom of course, is the all time champ for family history, baseball, and staying up-to-date on seemingly hundreds of cousins. I still call her for recipes, hints on how to get out stains, when to plant roses, and general 'pass down the generations' advice. My kids call me all the time to ask for answers on a variety of life's little (and sometimes even medium sized) dilemmas. Although I consider myself very competent and independent, I tend to make 'help-desk' calls to friends, siblings and business associates much more since I moved to Maine--I suspect it's as much to do with human contact as with finding information. Google just doesn't want to listen to my weather reports or my jokes.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Review: Amazing Grace

This book is going to be one on my "read again and again" shelf.. It is the first book in years (if ever) that I was compelled to mark up. It is beautifully written and was for me at least, truly inspirational. Raised in mainstream American protestant religion, the author then left organized church membership during her college years. As her career as a poet progressed, and her husband endured some incidents of deep depression, she began to visit Benedictine monasteries close to her home in North Dakota, and discovered the poetry of Judao/Christian scripture, and the tradition of the litury of the hours as a form of worship. Eventually, she re-joined the Presbyterian church of her grandmother, and was called to preach, while at the same time becoming a Benedictine oblate. Her book is a series of short, compellingly written inpirational essays (none more than 5 pages long) about the 'vocabulary of faith' as she calls it. There are thoughts on such words as Heresy, Reprobate, Idolatry, Anger, Herod, Hospitality, Orthodoxy, Ecstacy, Trinity, and a host of others. It is difficult for me to explain how deeply this book affected me, and how personally inspirational I found it. She certainly is well-studied, but it is the poetic insight that she imparts to traditional scriptural and 'doctrinal' terminology and worship that is so gripping. The fact that she manages to weave her personal story into this is almost a cherry on top a huge sundae. It may not be the book for everyone, but if you are looking for a positive, beautifully written, easy to read book, you will not go wrong with this one.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Review: Dante - The Inferno- A Classic

A review I saw used the well-worn, but very descriptive phrase: “I can’t believe I read the whole thing!” In my case, I read the Inferno as part of an on-line discussion for LT. There were 12-15 people participating, and we tackled this using about 6 different translations, two audio readings, a sprinkling of Roberto Begnini reading on YouTube in the original Fiorenzian dialect (absolutely splendid –see it here. )

We chatted about the politics of 12th and 13th century Florence, the classical references to Greek and Roman mythology, to Virgil, his hatred of the religious figures of the day and his references to Biblical figures of the Old Testament. I can see why this is considered one of the greatest poems ever written. Greater men and women than I have attempted to explain, commentate, educate and bloviate about this work, so I’ll refrain from that and instead offer some general conclusions/afterthoughts. You can see our entire discussion on this thread at LT.

1. I actually want to continue on with the Divine Comedy and read Purgatorio and Paradiso –but NOT this year. I think this must be taken in small gulps unless you’re doing an actual college course. Probably one a year is all I'm going to be able to handle.

2. I had to smile (How can you smile at hell?) when I got to the ending cantos and found to my surprise that Hell –according to Dante—has indeed frozen over. At least, the lake supporting the various circles of Hell has frozen.

3.I wish, oh how I wish, I had learned to speak and read Italian when my father and uncles were alive. I studied enough Latin and French and was around the spoken Italian long enough that I can scan the poem in its original and at least hear the tertia rhyma in its original beauty. What a glorious language! Although I actually read four different translations (Mandelbaum, Cary, Norton, and Longfellow) doing this study, and listened to the Pinsky translation read by George Guidall (who is such a great actor/narrator that he could read the phone book and I’d listen), I still ended each canto by skimming the Italian…no translation comes close for beauty. By the way, for the English, I like the Longfellow translation the best. (see sample side by sides here.)

Classics are classics for a reason. No matter when they were written, or what purpose the author had in writing them, they can be read and appreciated in later times and still be a great read. Granted, depending on the overall education and background of modern readers, many notes and commentaries may be needed to enhance the experience, but the original cannot be bettered. Shakespeare, move over.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Taking Horror Personally

Ok...I confess....I've never read anything by Stephen King. We must own almost everything he ever wrote, but it's the other member of the family who reads him. My Read Around Maine group is reading The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, so I thought I'd take the plunge. But............. I'm really having trouble. I don't do horror very well. I'm the one who pulls her sweater over her eyes when the bad guys start shooting in the movies, or on TV; I don't read sci-fi, or horror stories. Where the Wild Things Are is about the outer edge of my horror reading. The fact that this book features a precocious nine year old girl lost in the woods of Maine is hitting very close to home. I have a grand-daughter this age, and I have a cousin currently thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail. I'm also an avid Red Sox fan. So I'm batting 1000 in affinity, but not sure I can finish. If any of you gentle readers have ideas on how to push thru this pile of brambles, I'd be most appreciative.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Review: The Lady Elizabeth

i Historian Alison Weir makes some bold assumptions in this fictional account of the early life of Elizabeth I. In her notes at the end of the book, she indicates that while there is no absolute verifiable evidence that Elizabeth became pregnant by Thomas Seymour, there were enough historically recorded rumors to allow for the possibility. She takes these and other "possibilities" to provide us with a different slant on historical events in the life of the young 'Virgin Queen'. The story takes us up only to the day she becomes Queen upon the death of her half-sister Mary. It begins with a precocious not quite 3 year old and takes us through the 2 decades of emotional peaks and valleys that Elizabeth endured before assuming the throne at the age of 25: the death of her mother, the ensuing musical chairs list of step-mothers, her imprisonment in the Tower, her house arrest, the on again/off again availability of tutors to help her keep her very keen mind engaged, her numerous illnesses, the plots in which she (or her servants) may or may not have been involved, the constant moving from one house to another, her early teenage crush on Tom Seymour, the death of her brother Edward VI after 6 short years on the throne, her feigned re-conversion to Catholicism to please her sister Mary, the list seems endless. I both read and listened to this work--the audio is well done and easy to follow the different characters. I highly recommend this for fans of the era, although I'm not sure if I'd say this is the best place to start if you've never read anything else about Elizabeth. There certainly are no lack of other volumes on the subject.