Monday, August 31, 2015

Part of Our Lives - A People's History of the American Public Library

Title:  Part of Our Lives - A People's History of the American Public Library
Author:  Wayne A. Wiegand
Publication Information:  Oxford University Press. 2015. 320 pages.
ISBN:  0190248009 / 978-0190248000

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Indisputable fact - American love their public libraries."

Favorite Quote:  "Although public libraries could never be all things to all people, the history presented here shows they have been more things to more people than most cultural authorities - including many librarians - have realized."

My friends have rolled their eyes and said, "You're reading what? A history of libraries? Why?" For certain books, I would agree that such a book may not be for everyone. This one though may appeal to a much wider audience than the title may suggest.

The author Dr. Wiegand is the F. William Summers Professor Emeritus of Library and Information Studies at Florida State University and the author of numerous articles and books on libraries. Oxford University Press began publishing in the late 1400s and has been in the business ever since. They are, of course, world-renowned for their publications as they work to fulfill their mission (as stated on their website) of "excellence in scholarship, research, and education." In other words, the source of the history in this book is reliable and authoritative.

Admittedly, I am precisely the target audience for books. I obviously am very passionate about books.  I am regular patron of my local public library. Okay, more than a regular patron. My local library has always been my home away from home. Over the years, I have volunteered and worked in different libraries. The public library services have always been an important factor in choosing a home. I like to say that I raised my children in the library. So, I knew as soon as I saw the title that I wanted to read this book.

Of course, I recommend this book to anyone avidly interested in books. I would also recommend this book to anyone with an interest in US history. This book is a walk through US history from the mid-1850s to present day through the lens of a public library.

The writing style and the history presented is very much anecdotal. The author explains this approach in the book itself. "Assessing what happens in library places does not easily fit into statistical taxonomies documenting library use, yet anecdotes like this demonstrate that public libraries help build community in multiple ways." The story-based approach make the book much more accessible. I find myself able to relate to the people and events. When the anecdotes refer to places I know, it adds an additional element of interest, with many moments of "Hey, I know that library, but I didn't know that..." For example, some interesting, random facts from the book:
  • When libraries had limited collections, having an overdue book was an offense for which people were arrested and jailed.
  • The card in a card catalog (remember those!) was measured in centimeters because Melvin Dewey, the inventor of the Dewey Decimal System, tried his whole life to get the US to adopt the metric system.
  • Library stacks used to be accessible to librarians only. Patrons had to wait in line and request a book. When patrons were finally allowed in the stacks, people were not always happy because "generations of patrons were now forced to read narrow vertical book spines by uncomfortably contorting their necks."
  • Originally, many people fought to keep the youth out of libraries fearing that the young would the peaceful environment of the library and the quiet needed for the pursuit of learning.
Interesting stories aside, this book is serious history about the role the public library has played in history. One motto for the American Library Association has been "The Best Reading for the Greatest Number at the Least Cost." "Best" implies that libraries seek to help people grow in their reading tastes. "Greatest number" implies that libraries try to reach the different facets of their community, whether in bring patrons in to the library or bringing books to patrons. "Least cost" implies that infallible truth that the quest to stretch limited funding as far as possible is a never ending battle.

From this objective, the major theme that emerges in the book is the library as the heart of a community - a gathering place where ideas develop and discussed, a welcoming and safe shelter, and a haven for intellectual freedom. This role and the exact definition of that goal has changed and evolved as our nation has evolved. Through this lens, this book depicts many serious issues of US history such the role of government, immigration, war, race relations, the Civil Rights movement, and Communism. The book is definitely one of the more readable and interesting history books that I have found. I would recommend it anyone looking for this unique perspective on our nation's history.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Friday, August 28, 2015

An Invisible Thread

Title:  An Invisible Thread:  The True Story of an 11-Year-Old Panhandler, a Busy Sales Executive, and an Unlikely Meeting with Destiny
Author:  Laura Schroff and Alex Tresniowski
Publication Information:  Howard Books (reprint edition). 2012. 238 pages.
ISBN:  1451648979 / 978-1451648973

Book Source:  I read this book as this month's selection for my local book club.

Opening Sentence:  "The boy stands alone on a sidewalk in Brooklyn and this is what he sees:  a woman running for her life, and another woman chasing her with a hammer."

Favorite Quote:  "But I also think about how fleeting such moments of innocence are, about how good intentions and wide-eyed optimism and even love can only protect us from the harsh, corrupting reality of life for so long."

Two weeks ago, I attended a forum on criminal justice reform. The focal point of the discussion was the racial disparity in the treatment of individuals arrested for committing crimes. Political, judicial, and racial leaders spoke, each providing recommendations for change and recommendations for how best to help individuals re-entering society after release from the criminal justice system. Interestingly, the discussion focused on redemption; the question of prevention did not come up. What can be done to change people's lives, to give them an alternative to the streets and to a life of crime to survive? What choices are there for a child of streets? Who reaches out to help?

Reading this book for my book club proved timely for this is a story of hope and a story of prevention not redemption. It is a story of how one person can change a life, and how that can ripple out to a family and perhaps eventually a community. Laura Schrod is that person. A busy city executive, she one day turned around for an eleven year old panhandler. In doing so, she changed Maurice's life and perhaps her own.

Several things surprise me about this book. First, I did not expect Laura Schroff's own childhood and life to be such a big part of this book. A lot of this book reads as a healing for her, coming to terms with her own history of growing up in abuse and fear. The book reveals much about her relationships with her parents and her siblings, but it leaves many questions unanswered, particularly about her brother Frank and his eventual demise.

It is also surprising that for me, Maurice seems missing from this book. He is central to the story of course, but we only ever hear about him. The only words to come from him are in the letter in the epilogue. Even the letter mirrors too closely the events highlighted in the book. We only truly see the parts of his life that touch Laura Schroff's. I want to hear about what she didn't see. I want to hear his perspective of going home after a Monday with Laura. I want to hear about surviving on the streets. I want to hear about the very tough choice to take the right path and not the immediately expedient one.

It is also surprising that a book about such charged issues as abuse, neglect, poverty, abandonment seems distant emotionally. The account seems documentary in nature. It tells the story but does not make me, as the reader, feel the story. My reaction to the book becomes an intellectual one at the reality that individuals - especially children - lead such lives in our nation, but my reaction is not an emotional one.

Regardless, some of our leaders today could learn from Laura Schroff. Sometimes, a kind word and a helping hand can change the course of a life. Person by person is how we set the course of a community and a nation.

Book Club Note:  This book led a lively discussions that led far beyond the book. As usual, our opinions on the topics were as diverse as our background. Some of the questions we talked about:

  • What made Laura's mother stay in her relationship?
  • Would any one of have turned around for Maurice?
  • What does a "privileged" life mean? What privileges do we take for granted?
  • How typical or atypical is Marice's life? Is it something any one of us have come close to experiencing?
  • Given the exact same upbringing as Laura's, would a man have turned around? What difference, if any, does gender make?

Most of the conversations came back to the question - What would you do in the same situation? The book came with questions from the publisher, but we decided that we much preferred our own, very personal conversation.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Learning to See Creatively

Title:  Learning to See Creatively, Third Edition: Design, Color, and Composition in Photography
Author:  Bryan Peterson
Publication Information:  Amphoto Books. 2015 (third edition). 1988 (original). 144 pages.
ISBN:  1607748274 / 978-1607748274

Book Source:  I received this book through a publisher's giveaway free of cost in exchange for an honest review. Thank you Blogging for Books.

Opening Sentence:  "All of us who are blessed with sight can see, but why is it that someone right net to us can see something of interest yet we somehow miss it?"

Favorite Quote:  "Creativity is perhaps best described as a combination of inventiveness, imagination, inspiration, and perception ... These are challenges that continue to be part of the wonderful world of image-making, challenges for which the sole responsibility of success or failure rests squarely on your shoulders."

You may be able to buy the most elaborate, expensive camera around. You may have a whole arsenal of lenses and equipment. You may simply be walking around with a camera that fits into your pocket. Equipment definitely helps, but what matters the most in photography is the eye of the photographer behind the camera. You create your images. Do you just point your camera and shoot or do you make conscious choices as to where and how you point your camera? What do you see when you look through the lens? According to this book, you can teach yourself to "see," and the more you practice, the more natural that "seeing" becomes.

The book expands on the process of seeing in many ways:

  • Lens choice - a telephoto, a macro, a wide-angle and others, talking about the difference between what the eye sees and what a camera sees and the difference between what different lenses see.
  • Design elements - line, shape, form, texture, pattern and color
  • Image composition - what you choose to include and what you choose to exclude, with the focus on the fact that it should be a deliberate choice
  • Light - after all, what is photography other than to capture light
  • Editing - use of Photoshop to convey your artistic vision for an image.

Each section includes many photographs in full color. The book itself is published on heavy photo paper. What is wonderful is that the photographs, many of which are taken from Bryan Peterson's own portfolio, show the same scene shot in different ways to illustrate the concepts he is discussing. The caption for each photograph includes information on the camera, lens and various camera setting used to create the shot. The text talks through why the photographer made the choices that resulted in the image. It is that walk-through of the creative process that is the art of "seeing."

Reinforced throughout is the idea that the more you practice, the better you get. This is not an art that can be learned by simply reading a book. The book can help, but you have to go out and do it. Sprinkled in the book are some exercises for you to practice with. After all, Bryan Peterson is not just an accomplished photographer; he also had authored many books and runs a photography school.  Bryan Peterson's books have long been resources of photographers looking to learn. This book is no different.

Mind you, this is not really a book for the complete novice photographer. It assumes an understanding of the terminology of photography - f-stop, step it up or down, ISO, an XXmm lens, shutter speed, and so on. Yet, the before and after examples alone would benefit any photographer for they show the change in the image due to the change in the choices of the photographer. The writing style of the books is also like a personal narrative or conversation (lots of you... and I....), making it more accessible to readers. If, as a novice, you are willing to look up and learn unfamiliar terms, then this book can help you to "see."

For an amateur photographer as myself, the book is a great expansion of the resources I have to improve my photography. What I love about a photography is that behind the lens of a camera, I do indeed see things differently. I learn to focus on the wonder and beauty that surrounds us each and every moment. I learn to slow down enough to notice. I learn to pay attention to the moment and the environment around me. I learn a valuable life lesson - sometimes to see differently, you don't have to change what you are looking at; you simply have to change your perspective. This book, through its lessons and its vivid examples, reinforces these ideas. I will definitely keep it on my shelf for inspiration and for reference. I look forward to getting out with my camera and practicing my ability to see the world around me.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Courtesan

Title:  The Courtesan
Author:  Alexandra Curry
Publication Information:  Dutton. 2015. 400 pages.
ISBN:  0525955135 / 978-0525955139

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "It is the Hour of the Snake, a time of day when the sun works hard to warm to earth."

Favorite Quote:  "A story is a garden you can carry in your pocket. The stories we tell ourselves and each other are for pleasure and refuge. Like gardens they are small places in a large world. But ... we must never mistake the stories we tell for the truth."

Sai Jinhua (1872-1936) was a courtesan - a prostitute. Her life took her from her father's house to a brothel and from China to Europe and back again. She played  a role in Chinese foreign relations. History has portrayed Sai Jinhua as both a heroine and a depraved villain. Her legend changes depending on the storyteller. This book depicts her as neither a heroine nor a villain but rather as a young woman with a truly tragic life.

If you want to understand to what extent this fiction is historical, read the Author's Note. Accounts of Sai Jinhua's life exist but conflict each other. This book is "the product of ... imagination" and "the story of a woman's life the way it might have been." Locations have been changed. Historical figures such as Empress Sisi of Austria, whose paths may or may not have crossed Jinhua's, have been included in this story. This time and place such as the events of the Boxer Rebellion are historical, but the rest of this book is all fiction. The Author's Note is a wonderful addition to help distinguish fact from that fiction. An additional bibliography is included for readers interested in the actual history (or at least other accounts of her life.)

Even the fictional history in this book has wide gaps. Jinhua's life is presented as "the five courses of a banquet served up one after the other." Unfortunately, that gaps are never quite explained. For example, how does a man find a girl in the middle of the millions of people with no explanation? How a does a child who essentially grows up in bondage all of a sudden come across like a learned young woman becoming proficient in several European languages? How is a friendship, that is left for years with no contact, reestablished so quickly and seamlessly? How does one single meeting lead to a lifetime of waiting for a love to return? Reading through, I feel like I am missing part of the story. Each part is complete in itself, but the bridges between the sections are missing.

The big question I am left with is why write such a graphic telling of this story. Even in the first few chapters, the book describes a beheading, a physical examination of a child equalling abuse, a brutal foot binding, and rape. I almost stopped reading at this point for those descriptions are not for me. So, reader beware.

Jinhua was a courtesan - a prostitute. Orphaned at age 7, she was sold into prostitution. At age 12, she was put on the "market". That chronology is horrifying just in thought. Is it necessary to describe the acts involved? The descriptions, particularly of rape and violence against women, continue throughout the book. The story is heartbreaking; I don't need the physical descriptions to make it so.

I don't know quite what to make of this book. It is based in history but is more fiction than history. It is a tragic and often times disturbing story. Did I like it for the historical context? Did I dislike it for the descriptions? I am still undecided, but it is a debut novel that keeps me reading. For that, I look forward to seeing what Alexandra Curry writes next.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

A Window Opens

Title:  A Window Opens
Author:  Elisabeth Egan
Publication Information:  Simon & Schuster. 2015. 384 pages.
ISBN:  1501105434 / 978-1501105432

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "I drag my suitcase out from under the bed and start packing."

Favorite Quote:  "Also, please don't waste time wondering whether it's possible to 'have it all.' Banish the expression from your vocabulary; make sure your friends do, to. A better question is What do you really want? Driving headlong into the second quarter of your life without asking this question is like going grocery shopping without a list. You'll end up with a full card but nothing to cook for dinner. Figure out what you feel like eating, and then come up with your own recipe for the whole messy, delicious enchilada."

"Alice Pearse thought she would live Happily Ever After ... Then she realized she was in the wrong story." An intriguing description that draws me in. Alice and Nicholas are happily married. Nicholas is a successful attorney. Alice has a part-time job which she loves and enough time to drive carpools and volunteer for the PTA. They have a house in the suburbs. As far as Alice is concerned, they are living happily ever after.

Then, Nicholas loses his job. He decides to set up his own business, and Alice decides to seek a full time job while their income is unstable. The perfect job seems to find her. Scroll, a new startup, has a vision for bringing books and reading to every shopping area around, and they seek out Alice to be part of the team. Alice jumps at the chance to be part of an exciting new adventure in books. Happily ever after may be possible after all.

Or not. Nicholas finds the transition harder than he expected and heads down a destructive path. Alice's father battles cancer. Alice's best friend, a book store owner, becomes a victim of businesses like Scroll. Alice may lose her trusted babysitter. The shiny exterior and glorious promises of Alice's new employer do not match the reality. Maybe happily every after is not to be.

So goes the very real and very relatable-to-me life of Alice Pearse. As a daughter, wife, mother, and paid and volunteer employee, I relate to her struggle to keep a healthy balance between the various facets of life. Of course, the book is a slightly condensed, slightly exaggerated version of the ups and downs, but that only sharpens the picture I can relate to. The book has a lot of funny moments, but it also has many heartfelt emotions, particularly in Alice's relationship with her father. I find myself moved by her experiences, cheering for her, and putting myself in her shoes and thinking what would I do?

The fact that her work is centered around books makes this an even more enjoyable story for me. What book lover doesn't enjoy references to other books and a discussion of all things book related. For example, here are a couple of Alice's humorous references to books:
  • "Dad, I already read What Color is Your Parachute. Now I need the sequel:  Your Husband's Parachute is Broken. Kidding, but still."
  • "We joked that there should be a brochure called What to Expect When You're Not Expecting Much."
Her new employer Scroll becomes a commentary on current discussions in the book world - the role of print versus e-books, the struggles of small independent bookstores, and the challenge to encourage children to read in a world of electronic gaming. Along the way, the book coins some lovely, amusing terms such as:
  • "platform agnostic" - those who read in all formats, prints and electronic, with no clear preference.
  • "carbon-based books" - in other words, print media.
Alice's life like ours is a sometimes bumpy ride, full of joys and sorrows. Ultimately, Alice finds the story in which she belongs; I hope the same is true for all of us.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Everybody Rise

Title:  Everybody Rise
Author:  Stephanie Clifford
Publication Information:  St. Martin's Press. 2015. 384 pages.
ISBN:  1250077176 / 978-1250077172

Book Source:  I received this book through a publisher's giveaway free of cost in exchange for an honest review. Thank you Shelf Awareness.

Opening Sentence:  "Your pearl earrings are rather worn down."

Favorite Quote:  "She had been waiting, she realized. Always waiting ... waiting for her life to be replaced by some other ... waiting for that she felt ought to be hers ... waiting to be recognized and accepted in the social scene ... waiting for some sign about what her life's goal ought to be ... Maybe it didn't work like that. Maybe you had to change things step by step."

What would you do to fit in and to belong to the "right" group? What wouldn't you do? How far would you go? What if, no matter what you do, you don't seem to belong?

That is where Evelyn Beegan is. She has always been on the outskirts of the Old Money crowd. An only child raised in an upper middle class home, Evelyn has always disdained her mother's focus on the looks and behavior needs to belong to a certain set. Evelyn went to the "right" prep school, and her mother always encouraged her to make the "right" friends. Even now, her mother's focus is on Evelyn finding the "right" husband.

Now out of college, Evelyn is making her mark on New York City, or at least trying to. She has landed a job at People Like Us, an elite, invite-only social networking site. Her job is to sign up the "right" people to give the site credibility among the elite.

This job pulls Evelyn right back into the world of debutante balls, weekends in Adirondacks, summer homes, and lavish parties. At first, it's the job. Then, Evelyn's desire to fit in and to belong grows stronger ... and stronger .... and stronger. It pulls her into a web of lies, deceit, betrayal, and debt that spirals out of control. Entwined in Evelyn's need is the fact that a family scandal threatens to push the Beegan's beyond any hope of ever belonging to this social circle.

Evelyn's descent into her almost obsession with being "in" is clearly depicted step by step in the book. For this reason, she is not a particularly likable character for most of the book. For most of the book, I cringe at her decisions and want to talk some sense into her. As a reader, the destructive nature of her path is so clear that it seems amazing that she does not see it herself. I don't find myself cheering for her, but I do feel sad for her. Everyone has felt that need to belong and to fit in in their lives. So, her emotions are understandable even while her actions are despicable.

The book is primarily a character study with an escalating repetition of social situations. Evelyn tries "to pass as one of them." She meets with some success. Evelyn goes further and further to fit in, living beyond her means and even betraying her true friends. Evelyn seems to be moving up step by step on the social ladder, one step closer to "making it." Repeat in a bigger social arena. Repeat in ever grander social situations. However, is she really or is she just one mistake away from being on the outside again? Does it truly matter? Is this truly what she wants?

The focus on character rather than plot makes the book a rather slow read. This book also seems a very familiar read as if I have read the story before. The concept of old money and a newcomer wanting to fit in is certainly not a new one. This book does not really bring anything unexpected to that theme. The book proceeds as I expect and ends as I expect.

Two interesting side notes on this book. First, the title is a reference to the chorus from a Stephen Sondheim song titled "The Ladies Who Lunch." Second, movie rights for this book have already been sold. Overall, the book is an okay story but not the next Edith Wharton that it's being publicized as.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Very Good Lives: The Fringe Benefits of Failure and the Importance of Imagination

Title:  Very Good Lives:  The Fringe Benefits of Failure and the Importance of Imagination
Author:  J. K. Rowling
Publication Information:  Little, Brown, and Company. 2015. 80 pages.
ISBN:  0316369152 / 978-0316369152

Book Source:  I found this book while browsing at my local library.

Opening Sentence:  "President Faust, members of the Harvard Corporation and the Board of Overseers, members of the faculty, proud parents, and above all, graduates."

Favorite Quote:  "We do not need magic to transform our world; we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already:  we have the power to imagine better."

What J.K. Rowling writes, I tend to read. Or in this case, when she speaks, I listen. My children grew up with the magical world of Harry Potter. We read all the books together, and we watched all the movies together. Many times over. Even now, we revisit both often. Even now, we finds words of wisdom hidden behind the magic and adventure. For those precious childhood memories, J.K. Rowling will always be a part of our family's history.

So, when I found this book while browsing at the library, I immediately checked it out. This book is essentially a transcript of the commencement address J.K. Rowling delivered at Harvard University in 2008. The address was published in a hardcover book form this year - $15 for a short book with only a couple of thousand words.

Why the price tag and why would you pay for text you can read or find in a video you can watch online? According to the dust jacket, the proceeds from the sale benefit Lumos, a charity founded by J.K. Rowling to benefit disadvantaged children. Some of the proceeds support the financial aid program at Harvard. I am guessing this is because the speech was after all delivered at Harvard. According to the publisher website, ninety percent of the proceeds go to Lumos and ten percent to Harvard financial aid. Harry Potter fans will of course recognize the "lumos" reference, a spell to light up a want and spread a warm light. An appropriate name for a charity to bring some relief to the lives of children.

The address is, as you would expect, inspirational for graduates and a reminder for all of us about choosing our path. As the title suggests, the key tenets of the message are failure and imagination. Failure becomes a way to learn and to move forward. Imagination gives us the power to see beyond failure and lights our way forward. Not new ideas but sound advice. Even if you decide not to purchase the book, read or listen to the address.

Based on content alone, it's hard to publish an entire book with only the text of a commencement address. To give this book some volume, the text is divided into short snippets, a few sentences a page. Each accompanying page includes an illustration by Joel Holland. Joel Holland's portfolio includes illustrations, hand lettering, and other book covers. The illustrations in this book are simply presented, using only three colors - black, white, and red. Many illustrations are also literal, picking up on a word or a phrase from the text. For example, one page has red boxes with white edges wrapped in a black ribbon to pick up on the word "gift." A simple black grid is on a page that talks about "prisoners." I would love to find information on the artistic choices made for this book; I tried researching it but cannot find any information at all. To me, the simplicity of the illustrations and and their direct relationship to the words keeps the focus on the words, which is as it should be. The illustrations serve their purpose of provide a charming packing in which to present the words.

I am so glad I discovered the book at the library. I look forward to getting my own copy and, once again, sharing J.K. Rowling's words with my children.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Orphan #8

Title:  Orphan #8
Author:  Kim van Alkemade
Publication Information:  William Morrow. 2015. 416 pages.
ISBN:  0062338307 / 978-0062338303

Book Source:  I received this book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "From her bed of bundled newspapers under the kitchen table, Rachel Rabinowitz watched her mother's bare feet shuffle to the sink."

Favorite Quote:  "I'd look like Frankenstein's monster ... no, not a monster - an Amazonian warrior. Ridiculous, yet the idea did make me straighten my spine. Why not let her name it? The reality would be the same either way."

I am really torn about this book. It is based on true events; it illuminates horrific history about the use of children in scientific experiments. It documents the physical and emotional scars these children carried the rest of their lives. It documents the destruction of lives in the name of science. The world needs to remember these children and their stories and ensure that such atrocities never ever occur again. This book preserves that history, including images and an account of the true people and places that inspired this book and a bibliography pointing to the actual historical sources.

This story straddles two time periods - Rachel Rabinowitz's childhood from about age four on in 1918 in New York City and Rachel Rabinowitz as an adult in the 1950s. As a child, Rachel's is brutally orphaned, separated from even her brother, and placed in a home for infants. In the home, the doctors responsible for her care use her and other children as subjects in their science experiments. The scientists garner praise and recognition for their work. Rachel and the other children who survive are discarded to an orphanage, their lives forever altered. As an adult, Rachel works as a nurse. A new patient under her care turns out to be Mildred Solomon, one of the doctors from the infant home. This brings back the horrible memories of Rachel's childhood and triggers thoughts of revenge or forgiveness. What decision will Rachel make? Where will Rachel's history lead her?

I am glad I learned the history this book illuminates. I really wanted to love this book for that reason, but I do not.

While I find the history of these orphans tragic and heartbreaking, I don't find Rachel's character to be empathetic. A distance seems to exist. It might be because the story jumps between time periods. It may be because the infant Rachel's story is told as a third-person narrative while Rachel tells her own story as an adult. It might be because some of Rachel's actions are not particularly likable. It may be because Rachel does not seem to develop as a character; her discoveries about her own childhood seem not to generate the change you may expect. Her life is filled with sadness, but the sadness does not quite reach out of the book. My sadness remains for the orphans of history but not specifically for Rachel Rabinowitz, Orphan #8.

I also do not care for the presence of sexual scenes in this book - both heterosexual and homosexual. Both are unnecessary for the story. Dominance and power can be demonstrated without describing forced sex.  Similarly, love and acceptance of physical appearance can be shown without a sexual encounter. Such scenes are jarring, even more so in a book about orphan children.

The presence of a homosexual relationship in a book set in the 1950s also introduces an entirely distinct plot line to the book. It introduces the challenges and struggles associated with that relationship at a personal and social level at this time in history. That plot line, while valid, seems to have no place in a book about Rachel's experiences as a child. It is entirely irrelevant to her decision between "forgiveness and revenge."

Regardless of my overall reaction to the book, I honor and respect the history documented in this book. May these children always be remembered.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

A Beginner's Guide to Paradise

Title:  A Beginner's Guide to Paradise
Author:  Alex Sheshunoff
Publication Information:  NAL. 2015. 464 pages.
ISBN:  0451475860 / 978-0451475862

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Ten days aboard the Microspirit, an aptly named freighter not so much threatened by rust as held together by it, convicted me that it was time to pick an island."

Favorite Quote:  "Given that compromises were inevitable, if you don't start with the ideal, you certainly won't get there. Put another way, people rarely exceed their own expectations so might as well start big and work backward from there."

How many people dream of closing up shop, leaving everything behind, and finding paradise on a tropical island somewhere? My guess is many, including me. How many people actually do it? My guess is almost none, again including me. Well, Alex Sheshunoff did.

His biographic note states that he currently lives with his wife and two children in California. That tells you that his adventure in paradise comes to an end. How it begins is with a twenty-something year old man running his own dot com enterprise in the heart of New York City. Burnt out and disenchanted with what he himself terms "First World problems," he decides to make a drastic change. With little planning or preparation, he sets off to find a new life in the South Pacific.

Two huge presumptions underlie his ability to do so. First, he has the financial means to remove himself from his business, support his move and finance his life at his destination. Second, he is able to walk away from his commitments and relationships. He breaks up with his girlfriend, says goodbye to friends and family, and is on his way.

This book is his off-the-wall, humorous documentation of his adventure in paradise. From Step 1-Make Some Big Choices to Step 9-Live Pretty Much Happily Ever After, the book is about the people he meets (including his future wife), the friends he makes, the local culture he encounters, and the lessons he learns. The lessons learned range from very simple acts of living to life shifts in attitudes - from a recipe for reconstituted hash browns to how to build a house on a remote Pacific Island to "concentrating on what's important-not the city where you live or the house you live in."

The book is not a reflective tome, looking at serious life choices. It is not a how-to for your own flight to paradise. It is a light hearted look at an adventure. Parts of the book have me laughing and sharing his (mis)adventures. Part of it has me wondering about his reading choices for he does indeed bring 100 actual books with him to. Part of it has me looking on in awe for he actually does what so many dream of doing. What's not to like about the idea of lounging on a beautiful beach under the palms with a book to read! His reality does not quite match that ideal, and that has me laughing again.

The pace of the book is about what you expect from a casual stroll down a beautiful beach - slow and unhurried with many stops along the way to see whatever catches his fancy. Given the pace of the book, the ending seems rather abrupt. Having read his short bio before reading the book, I knew he does not ending up permanently in his island paradise. However, I did not expect the end to be so soon or so sudden. What seemed to me to be the beginning of his life on the island turns out to be almost the end of his time on the island. His next move took him to Alaska, then to South Africa, and then back to Alaska. Apparently, the search for paradise continued well beyond the island. Wonder if more stories of his adventures are to come?

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Spinster: Making a Life of One's Own

Title:  Spinster:  Making a Life of One's Own
Author:  Kate Bolick
Publication Information:  Crown. 2015. 336 pages.
ISBN:  0385347138 / 978-0385347136

Book Source: I received this book through a publisher's giveaway free of cost in exchange for an honest review. Thank you Blogging for Books!

Opening Sentence:  "Whom to marry, and when will it happen - these two questions define every woman's existence, regardless of where she was raised or what religion she does or doesn't practice."

Favorite Quote:  "It never ceases to astonish me how readily we presume to know ourselves, when in fact we know so little."

The Oxford English dictionary defines a spinster as "an unmarried woman, typically an older woman beyond the usual age for marriage." The dictionary prefaces the definition with an annotation - "derogatory." Being a spinster has not been considered a positive outcome, or a goal to be aspired to. (The etymology of the word comes from fourteenth century English, originally signifying the occupation of spinning thread into fabric. Spinning was often undertaken by young women. Thus, as a woman remained unmarried, she continued to spin. Gradually, the term came to signify the woman herself rather than the occupation.)

With this one word title and a cover that evokes an era gone by, the book sets itself up as a thoughtful look at women who remain unmarried - not by circumstance but by choice.

Unfortunately, this book is completely not what I expected, and not in a good way. What I expected was a cultural look at independent women "making a life of one's own." I expected a historical perspective on how views on single women have changed. I expected a modern take, hearing from current women on their life choices, both the benefits and the challenges. I expected some research or data to show cultural trends. I expected, by the end of the book, to dispel the negativity surround the word spinster and to learn of women leading fulfilled lives, comfortable and happy with their choice to remain unmarried.

What I read is a memoir of one woman and stories on women in history who inspire her. The book does not explore the community of women today who choose this path of life. Kate Bolick's inspirations, her "awakeners" as she called them, are historical - Maeve Brennan (1917-1993), Neith Boyce (1872-1951), Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950), Edith Wharton (1862-1937), and Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935).

What is really unexpected is that all five of these women were at some point in their lives married. That belies a discussion of spinsterhood although the author does by the end of the book offer her own definition of spinster - "shorthand for holding on to that in you which is independent and self-sufficient, whether you're single or coupled." Unfortunately, changing the definition of the title word at the end of the book means that the book is not truly about the topic suggested by the title. This is a memoir - a personal account not a sociological analysis at women choosing the unmarried life.

What is also unexpected is that a book about being a "spinster" devotes so much time to discussing relationships. Throughout this journey, the author appears to be in a relationship. While relationships are all different and enter into all lives, why does a book on spinsterhood spend time talking about things like the sadness of breaking up and jealousy and references the author's significant others by initial - D, R, S, and W? Why does a woman "making a life of one's own" seem to go from one relationship to the next? Even if being a spinster applies only to the institution of marriage and not other relationships, I would rather read about a rich, vibrant life of her own - career, friends, interest, travel, etc. - rather than relationships. Again, this book becomes a memoir - a personal account not a sociological look at women choosing the unmarried life.

All content aside, I have a very difficult time with the writing style of the book. The book goes between the author's life and her stories of her inspirations. For me, it meanders from idea to idea without putting the ideas into a cohesive framework. Reading through, it's unclear what the main point of the book is. A few paragraphs in the final chapter do bring together the author's call to action - what the word spinster can mean for any woman. Perhaps, that explanation at the beginning of the book would help provide the context necessary and lead the reader away from the expectation that this is a book actually about spinsterhood.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

We Never Asked for Wings

Title:  We Never Asked for Wings
Author:  Vanessa Diffenbaugh
Publication Information:  Ballantine Books. 2015. 320 pages.
ISBN:  055339231X / 978-0553392319

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "The edge of the mattress dipped as Alex sat down."

Favorite Quote:  "You made a mistake. One *** enormous, stupid mistake ... That's all ... Now get over it. Buck up and fix it, and if you can't fix it, keep going anyway. It's the only way to live."

Letty is about thirty years old and a struggling single parent to Alex and Luna. Until now, Letty's own mother has been mother all of them. However, now Letty's parents have made the decision to settle in Mexico, the home they once left behind when they came to the US as immigrants. Now, it is up to Letty to make a life for herself and her children.

A precocious, gifted fifteen year old named Alex. A sweet, innocent, and oh-so-young six year old named Luna. How could you not fall in love with such main characters? Especially if the book begins as their mother and loving grandparents essentially abandon them. The sight of a fifteen year old trying to be a parent and a little girl need reassurance is one that tugs at the heart strings.

Vanessa Diffenbaugh's beautifully visual descriptions of the Landing further pull me into the lives of these children. The visual nature of the descriptions - the birds, the squelching water, the rocks -  creates quite a picture of the Landing. The Landing is separated only slightly geographically from the wealthy Mission Hills but worlds apart in life style. The differences are stark.

Although the premise of loving grandparents and a mother abandoning two children is a shaky one,  the beginning descriptions and the engaging characters of the children make me put away my disbelief. I want to know why, and I want to know what happens. Unfortunately, the "why" for the grandparents is not explored in the book. That's a story and struggle of immigration that I want to hear.

My other concern with this book is that some things work out a little too perfectly. Children remain all alone for a week; not only do they survive but no one notices. A teacher who sees the potential in a child is willing and able to be a mentor. An absentee father comes into his child's life and immediately becomes a supportive, compassionate parenting partner to the mother. All seems to be forgiven without a word. A colleague/friend just happens to be wealthy and well-connected; he also seems to be perfectly willing to take on and resolve any and all issues that come up. Solutions present themselves, often too neatly packaged. The book loses some sense of reality and some of its ability to convey a true picture of the hardships of trying to create a new life for yourself in a new land.

My overall reaction to this book is also that it is very busy. The main plot is about immigration - Mexican immigration into the United States - both legal and illegal. The main plot then gets cluttered with additional story lines - the gifted fifteen year old, the drinking, the romances, the handicaps, the school, and the past. Underlying all of it is the metaphor of the migrating birds and the feathers they leave behind. There is a lot going on in this story. The story seems to flit between the different topics, never really letting the reader settle in with any one. Although the writing is very visual and arresting, the constant shift in focus is challenging.

The story is a challenging one to engage with but the writing creates some engaging characters and a wonderfully visualized setting. That makes me look forward to Vanessa Diffenbaugh's next book.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Make Your Home Among Strangers

Title:  Make Your Home Among Strangers
Author:  Jennine Capó Crucet
Publication Information:  St. Martin's Press. 2015. 400 pages.
ISBN:  1250059666 / 978-1250059666

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Canals zigzag across the city I used to call home."

Favorite Quote:  "I was wrong to believe the stories we'd been told about ourselves."

Lizet is from a family of Cuban immigrants. She is the first in her family to go to college. She is obviously a bright girl. She graduates high school, and in her senior year, navigates the college admission process and the financial aid process successfully all on her own. She is admitted to an exclusive college in the Northeast. Not an easy feat.

The book begins once Lizet has already started college. The jump from Little Havana to a small liberal arts college in the Northeast is a big one for Lizet. The pull of these seemingly opposite directions is at the heart of Lizet's struggle. A premise for a strong character and an emotional story.

Unfortunately, I spend the remainder of the book looking for a glimpse of that determined, intelligent young woman that the book sets up. It's difficult to find. I find myself frustrated with many of Lizet's comments and choices. Her views on her own family and those around her seem to fulfill all the stereotypes rather than dispel them - from her sister who is a young, unwed mother to the rich debutante types at college. She figures out admissions and financial aid but cannot seek academic help at school, struggling and almost failing. She seems to look down on her background but runs back to it. Overall, unfortunately, she becomes an unlikable character.

A key sub-plot of the book is about Ariel Hernandez, a young boy whose case mirrors the actual history of Eli án González. That actual case occurred in 2000. Elián González's mother attempted to flee Cuba with her son. She died en route. Elián was placed with maternal relatives in Miami. A court battle ensued as his father demanded his return to Cuba. Ultimately, parents rights won, and Elián was returned to his father.

In the story, the case impacts Lizet in a myriad of ways. Her mother gets passionately involved in the fight to keep Ariel here. It becomes a source of consternation and embarrassment for Lizet. In addition, everyone at college asks and expects Lizet to be invested in the case for she is "the Cuban girl" - probably the only Cuban they know. Again, Lizet hides, she runs, and she feels sorry for herself - all of which gets rather annoying.

This is just not the book for me. My path too is an immigrant experience, and all of us are familiar with the experience of forging our own paths as unique and different from those of our parents. Those experiences are the basis of this book. I was hoping for insight and emotions as were found in The Book of Unknown Americans. Yet, this book incites none of the same reactions; I find myself completely unable to relate to the characters in this book.

What I have learned about cultural background is that you either have to own it or spend your life running from it. Yet, however, far you run, it is still and will always be a part of what defines you. So, choose to own it. Be proud of who you are. If you are the first one of "those" someone meets, let it be a great first one of "those." Prejudices exists as does a lack of knowledge and understanding. Be confident in who you are and with that, show people that "those people" really are not so different. Our similarities far outweigh our differences. The "strangers" are more alike than different.

That perhaps is the major reason this book does not work for me. I don't think Lizet ever gets to that point, and that is a shame.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.