Sunday, December 23, 2018

Defiant Optimism

Dear Mrs. BirdDear Mrs. Bird by A.J. Pearce
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Young Emmy is awfully perky but endearingly earnest and naive, and adult cynicism just can't stand up to the onslaught. She gets over her head when a seemingly small deception piles up complications. It's London, during the Blitz of WWII; Emmy has landed an internship with a newspaper and dreams of being a brave war correspondent. But really she's hired to be the assistant for the advice columnist of a tired women's magazine.

Mrs. Bird won't give advice that's really needed, keeping her column to beauty advice and admonitions to keep calm and carry on. Love advice? Fear of bombs? Out of ration cards? That Sort of Thing is Not Acceptable — and goes in the trash.

Emmy is our window into the daily struggles and joys that continue on in people's lives, even and especially when there's a war on. She's got a huge heart, and wants to help people. So in addition to "war work" volunteering, of course she answers letters from the trash bin … and of course the lesson of growing up is that helping people, even with good intentions, is never as simple as it seems.

With a great balance of sentiment, reality, and humor, the author reveals the grit and grace beneath the calm when bombs fall and break your life apart. Because they do.

This book reminded me why we have such nostalgia for WWII. It might have been the last war of idealism, for nowadays we know war has touched us all in some way — all around the globe. Many of us exist because of parents and grandparents who met during a war or because of a war; despite the wars to end wars, war's ongoing all the time.

But in all our different ways what we, as individuals, fight for is each other. We want there to be naive young men and women and children who don't go to bed hungry and happy lovers. Life does go on in the midst of tragedy and loss, and life is good. Whether we fight with words or guns, no matter the motives of war-makers — the mission in most soldier's hearts is peace.

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Sunday, November 25, 2018

Life Lessons

Happiness Is a Choice You Make: Lessons from a Year Among the Oldest OldHappiness Is a Choice You Make: Lessons from a Year Among the Oldest Old by John Leland
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There are many gems in this potentially life-changing book, though it’s not your typical self-help tome. John Leland was a middle-aged, recently divorced journalist when he was gifted the assignment to follow the lives of an assortment of New York’s elderly residents for a year. This book is a distillation of that experience and the way it changed the author’s life; it reads like letters from a cousin, unflinchingly honest yet tender.

He expected his interviews to be draining and depressing, since these old people were decreasing in their abilities each day. To him, the two most important things in American life were work and sex, and old people didn’t do either, so what satisfaction in life could they have? He found out he was wrong on all counts.

As these “oldest old”—people over 85—shared their stories, he discovered that over time these folks had developed coping strategies throughout their lives that helped them get through their days with grit and grace and left him energized and uplifted after their visits. Despite their pains, daily mental ups and downs, and some less than ideal circumstances, they had already survived loss and change of many kinds—and their life stories were wisdom.

John realized he could use what he was learning from the old folks to make his life better now. American society makes it hard to establish a relationship outside the “helper” or caretaker mode with our elders, whether we’re related or not. Here in our community we have folks of all ages as neighbors to learn from—the old learn from the young, too, John found. In fact, it might be adaptability that defines the way to a good life and a good death; the ability to adjust to life as it is rather than life as we wish it were. Barring accidents, we are all on the journey to aging and death, and we need elders as teachers and companions.

If you’ve never experienced the gift of watching someone age their way into death, "cousin" John’s book can be your circle of elders. With life stories instead of preaching, it will help erase—and confirm—some of your fears about aging and dying, and help you live the rest of your life. Appropriately for the season, the first hint is: gratitude.

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Friday, October 26, 2018

Coco for Grownups

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Open Mic Night at Westminster Cemetery by Mary Amato
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Dear reader, I did not want to like this book, but I ended up loving it. I didn’t know its structure when I ordered it, just the plot: a young girl wakes up dead in Poe’s graveyard. I must admit it’s been years since I read a play, let alone a novel written as a play. I doubted. I didn’t want to do the conceptual work of reading. But what is drama but the exploration of character, and these characters (though dead) live on the page. What the book pulls off is Coco for grownups. I laughed, I cried, I was won over. Definitely not for middle grade in America, with swearing and sex topics, but its honest portrayals of the shared difficulties of diverse people of different eras and cultures is both nuanced and impactful.
Introduced the right way, I think even whole classrooms of teens would love this book—as a read-aloud or acted-out serial. Perfect for All Souls season!

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Sunday, October 7, 2018

Perestroika and Prophecy

Nine Layers of SkyNine Layers of Sky by Liz Williams
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I kept this book from 2003 because it had a big impact on me; I remembered it had something to do with technology and environmentalism. I re-read it this week. One of those sci-fi prophecy books, evidently. It takes place in post-Gorbachev Russia and an alternate world (aliens, indigenes, or elves included), and the entire “real-world” emotions of a woman space scientist who’s cleaning for a living, and the despair and particularly the government sound just like America today. Putin is even mentioned as one of Russia’s Great Men at the time and I have to say he has achieved his revenge here in 2018, just 15 years on. Every tactic of propaganda and gaslighting, used in the recent/current American political scene—every tried and true tactic of totalitarianism is part of the background of the story...also how much women have to fight for respect and make do without it. It is kind of awkward and a the author writing nowadays probably wouldn't have written such sexist scenes--but it's Russia, paternalistic Russia. And as we've been made aware, not much has changed since the 1970s in many countries for many men and women in the real world. And not much in the way of politics has changed in all human history, either.
It’s a good book and offers up for hope dreams, change, science, and alternate worlds. For our dreams, we should look both to the past and the future. But please not the Russia or the America of today.
I recommend the book, especially as a re-read.

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Thursday, October 4, 2018

Afterglow for Aftertaste

Aftertaste: A Novel in Five CoursesAftertaste: A Novel in Five Courses by Meredith Mileti
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I would love to read more from this author. The most important thing for a novel for foodies is obviously that the author can transport you to kitchen or dining table and inspire you to cook or eat. that's what elevates a novel whose basic plot has been done and done and overdone in movies and other books. It's knowing where to highlight flavors, hurry up the service, let your diners linger, provide the perfect bite; a novel is a meal to be savored and remembered, and you'll remember the food.

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Thursday, September 6, 2018

Major Fun with Foundryside

Foundryside (Founders, #1)Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Loved it: concept, characters, story. I read it all today, engrossed. He does such a great job with engineering and physics, magic as technology, free will and fate, all wrapped up with the excitement of a Star Trek movie--lots of explosions in the context of "doing the right thing." A product of true writerly alchemy: a fantasy flavored as space opera. I only hope the sequels retain the balance of hope over horror, but for the next, I'm hooked.

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Friday, June 15, 2018

Limits Force Creativity

The Tethered Mage (Swords and Fire, #1)The Tethered Mage by Melissa Caruso
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I loved it for its theme of people of different backgrounds forced into partnership in order to make life better. It's a good theme for now and the times to come. There's character development instead of cookie-cutter role playing. Even though I received an e-galley, I bought and read the paperback. It was worth the cost. I'll read the sequels.

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Crescent City Magic

The City of Lost Fortunes (Crescent City #1)The City of Lost Fortunes by Bryan Camp
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

An amazing job. I did not have high expectations, but I was blown away by this deeply felt, perfectly imagined, nuanced and ultimately uplifting novel. And he gets the magic right.

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Friday, January 12, 2018

What a Plant Knows

What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the SensesWhat a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses by Daniel Chamovitz
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Elegantly expressed overview of current plant research, comparing plant senses and human senses. Debunks some of the ideas expressed in The Secret Life of Plants, at least as they were popularized in the media, and yet in the end saying plants are aware. Disappointingly short, only 141 pages plus 30 pages of notes, index, and acknowledgements. Highly recommended for people who love to read science. Good discussion of epinegenetics, also. Saw it reviewed in Science News, asked the library to order, and will be getting it back so the 10 other people in line can read it.
It was so good I bought the book. Scientists who write well are even more rare than writers who write well about science...but if they're writing, they're not doing the science...but if they're not explaining the science...anyway. Richard Feynman, Loren Eiseley, Michio Kaku: that kind of five stars writing.

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