Tag Archives: book review

In Their Own Words (A Book Review)

When I was about ten, I spent a full year checking out, then renewing, my favorite book from the library. Finally for my birthday my mom and dad gave me a gift certificate to my favorite bookstore, The Red Balloon, who special ordered the book for me. What was the name of the book? My Prairie Year, based on the diary of Elenore Plaisted.

my prairie year

The book was put together by Elenore’s granddaughter. I made my mom read the book to me over and over again. I loved hearing about the different tasks involved in living out in the prairie. I imagined running through the sheets drying on the clothes line. I was thankful I didn’t have to warm the irons up on the stove before pressing my clothes. I loved reading about how Father tied a string from the barn to the house so that he wouldn’t get lost when he went to the barn to milk the cows during the winter blizzard. (I thought about tying a string from my house to my garage several times this winter, just in case.)

The book made homesteading in the Dakotas in the late 1800s come alive for me. And the pencil drawn illustrations are beautiful.

When I started teaching, I came across another book that I loved almost as much. It has become a “sacred text” in my classroom, which means that we read it again and again. This book, also a memoir, is called When I Was Young In The Mountains by Cynthia Rylant.

when

Though the setting is in the mountains of Appalachia, there are many obvious comparisons. Rylant uses incredible imagery as she tells of visiting her grandparents home in the mountains. In prose so lyrical it almost reads as poetry, she illuminates everyday events, such as eating so much okra that she makes herself sick, warming up water for the evening bath in the old wood stove, being baptized in the local pond, and killing a snake as long as a room.

My love of memoir has grown with me as I have gotten older. The stories we tell of our lives are some of the most precious gifts we can give. Both these women have given incredible gifts of time, place, and adventure. In continuing the Women’s History Month theme, I wanted to highlight their voices and their stories.

In my own classroom, I use these books as “mentor texts” to highlight personal narratives in writing. In my home, I can’t wait to read stories to my little boy that tell of women like these two, strong and courageous. (Because it’s important to grow strong daughters, but it’s just as important to grow sons who respect strong daughters.)

My hope is that they will be well loved books in many others’ libraries.

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Intended Audience: All ages

In the aftermath of horror and in the midst of grief, we must dance to heal and survive – or bake cakes.

Baking Cakes

Baking Cakes in Kigali  by Gaile Parkin

Cakes.  Birthday Cakes.  Bat Mitzvah Cakes.  Graduation Cakes.  Christmas Cakes. Humans the world over bake cakes to honor, to celebrate, to mark an important ceremony.   The cutting of a cake at a wedding is a symbolic, social ritual: the bride and groom cut the cake together and share a piece  to symbolize their union and their promise to forever provide for each other, before distributing it to wedding guests. Cakes signify celebration and sharing, no matter where one is from or what language one speaks.

Gaile Parkin’s soul-warming story centers around cakes and celebrations  in the most unlikeliest of places:  Kigali, Rwanda, scene of the Rwandan Genocide of 1994. The novel opens only six years later, in the living room of a philosophical  and “Professional” cake baker, Angel Tungaraza.  Angel is a pragmatic, hopeful and proud native Tanzanian, who has relocated to Rwanda with her husband, Pius, and their five orphaned grandchildren to build a new life after the death of their only two children.  Angel is undergoing the “Change”, putting on weight, but still enthusiastically creating colorfully-iced cakes which she sells to friends and neighbors to help support her family.

africa cake

Parkin’s debut novel was first published in 2009 and is divided into 14 chapters.  Each chapter centers on a specific celebration and Angel plays the role of the “everywoman” cake baker as the stories of the celebrants, the attendees, and Angel’s family, friends and neighbors unfolds.

Angel is determined, good-natured and warm-hearted and seeks to help other others find their inner strength and rebuild their lives in the aftermath of the genocide, “”those hundred days while violence was tearing this country to pieces like a chicken on a plate”. Much of the narrative centers on Angel’s apartment block in Kigali, the home of aid workers from around the world and native Rwandans whose paths cross and whose lives intertwine.  These characters experience a shared humanity despite their varying origins, races, traditions, and cultures.

rwanda_map

Despite the many beautiful cakes, celebrations and seemingly simple stories, painful, heart-wrenching pasts lurk in the background and the complexity of our world emerges from the pages with startling clarity.  At its core, the book tell us about love, acceptance and the ability to look forward and celebrate a hopeful future in the wake of an HIV epidemic, mass murder, suicide, and hate.  It also looks hard at the ideas of truth, unity and reconciliation and what it means to not only say, but live, the words “Never Again.”

As I was glancing through the pages of this book while writing this review, I realized how much this story – and Angel – stuck with me, even though I first read it 3 years ago.  It is an engaging read – but the hope in this book is a vital force and simply encouraging.   The ability to make something positive, especially at times when there is little hope and much to mourn, is an essential tool to living this gift of our life on this planet to its fullest.  It brings to mind a favorite philosopher of my husband’s, Zorba the Greek, who, after his son died, danced  –

It was the dancing When my little boy Dimitri died…and everybody was crying… Me, I got up and I danced. They said, “Zorba is mad.” But it was the dancing — only the dancing that stopped the pain.

I think Angel would have baked the cake for Zorba’s dance party – and there would have been even more healing and hope.

Suitable for ages 14 and up.  It is helpful to have some background of the Rwandan Genocide of 1994 prior to reading (or, like me, you can always zip to the web).

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Talking, Language, Memory, Anthropomorphism, Mirrors & Love

  missing fern

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, By Karen Joy Fowler

“The spoken word converts individual knowledge into mutual knowledge, and there is no way back once you’ve gone over that cliff.” Rosemary

The written word also reveals secrets so I will start this review by saying that I will do my best not to go over the cliff in order to allow anyone who reaches for this book – as the result of reading this post – the opportunity to experience it as the author intended.  Whatever you do, don’t read the book flaps or the back cover.  I read this unique novel on my kindle and for once, I feel I am the better for it.  I downloaded it after reading a 2013 Great Book Picks (or something like that) and didn’t recall what it was about when I decided to begin reading it the other day.

This is a superb read – loaded with suspense, cleverly written, fascinating characters and compelling subject matter.  It is full of beginnings.  Read it through to the end (it won’t be hard to) and I can almost guarantee that you will be enthralled by the narrative and the narrator.

fowler book

I immediately fell in love with the voice of Rosemary, Karen Joy Fowler’s narrator of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves in the prologue of this story of families, academic scientific research, college towns, science,  ethics and the animal rights movement.  Rosemary immediately reveals that she was a “great talker” as a child and that her parents valued her “extravagant abundance” and “inexhaustible flow” of words; nonetheless, her mother’s tip to polite social behavior was to pick one thing to say (your favorite) when you think of two or three things to say. Her father advises her early on to begin in the middle of any story, especially given her propensity to use her words to prolong her encounters with anyone who will pay attention to her.

And so she begins to tell “the middle” of her story, ten years after her older brother disappeared and 17 years since her sister vanished.  And we begin to learn about Rosemary, a college student in her fifth year at UC Davis with no degree on the horizon.  She is arrested after throwing a glass of milk in the cafeteria for no discernible reason. And it is through the aftermath of her arrest, and the days that follow, that the reader learns about her unusual family, her struggles in Kindergarten (“kindergarten is all about learning which parts of you are welcome at school and which are not”), her journey away from talking to silence (“I’d come to silence hard”), and how a family will always struggle to be together even when staying together seems impossible.  

And as the narrative unfolds, past sins and secrets are revealed and mysteries are deciphered.  And Rosemary slowly begins to find herself in her search for her missing siblings.  She ponders: “I wonder sometimes if I’m the only one spending my life making the same mistake over and over again or if that’s simply human.  Do we all tend toward a single besetting sin?”  And we begin to understand why Rosemary must look more carefully in “the mirror,” despite her rejection of her own reflection, made ironic as she lectures a self-important college guy on the “mirror” test and how “we’ve been using it to determine self-awareness” since Darwin.

I loved this story and its thoughtful presentation of animal research ethics. Pieces of ourselves can “go missing” for years, much like Rosemary’s siblings, and sometimes the only way to find them is to look hard in the mirror and truly see what is there. Because who in this life has never been completely beside themselves?

beside ourselves Fern

Ages: 14 and up.  Some profanity.

Book Review: Wallace’s Lists by Barbara Bottner and Gerald Kruglik

wallaceslist

Every so often you stumble upon a book that so moves you, you can’t stop thinking about it, telling people about it, and reading it over and over again. Wallace’s Lists is that book.

Wallace is a lovable, extremely rule-bound character. Each day he makes lists, and only allows himself to do what is on his list. This is safe and comfortable for Wallace, until Albert moves in next door.

Albert is the curve to Wallace’s line. He is the artistic, free-spirited neighbor who confuses and intrigues Wallace. As quickly as Wallace can update his lists to accommodate Albert’s ideas, Albert develops new ideas. Albert loves changing his mind. “Changing my mind is an adventure,” he explains. But Wallace does not like adventure.

Wallace is faced with a dilemma. Stick with his familiar lists, or risk going “off-list” to continue his friendship with Albert.

This book speaks to me. I find myself cheering for Wallace, willing him to be brave, all the while deeply understanding the fear-scape of “what ifs” he imagines while falling asleep at night. When faced with my own fears, I too question adventure.

But ultimately, it is a story of friendship, and the ways that friends allow and even compel us to be brave, to do more and become more than we would on our own.

The book is an excellent way of teaching internal conflict, bravery, and friendship. Plus, there’s a lot of inferred humor.  Not surprisingly, this book is never available in our classroom library, but is passed like contraband under the desks from student to student.

The illustrations in this book are wonderful (done by Olof Landstrom). When I’ve read it aloud to my students, they often make me stop and let them get closer to the illustrations.

wl2

I would recommend this book for all ages, and believe that the older you are, the more you will appreciate it.

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