Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Wagons West: Brigham Young and the First Pioneers by Richard E. Turley Jr. and Lael Littke

genre: middle grade non-fiction

Say the name Brigham Young and for most people, immediately "Mormon" and "Pioneer" come to mind. This book is a younger middle grade account of Brigham's experience as a leader of that first pioneer trek - I had expected more general "pioneer stories" but really, this is the story of the first specific journey.

It is heavily based on original sources and the text is seemingly non-biased, truly only accounting what happened and what people said about it without judgement. Sometimes he was frustrated and sometimes the pioneers were petty and that's ok. People are complicated and I appreciate that students who read this can get a real sense of how hard the journey must've been as well as the complicated and contentious history that led to the Mormons heading west in the first place. As the descendent of dozens of pioneer families, this kept my interest and provided some new insights.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

The Practice House by Laura McNeal

genre: historical fiction

When two missionaries knock on Adeline's front door in Scotland, she has no idea that this visit will change the course of her life.  When her sister is converted and moves to America, Adeline eventually decides to join her, while soon after choosing to go even farther west on her own just as the Dust Bowl is threatening to shroud and suffocate midwestern civilization.

Wow this was a depressing book.  I'd loved the author's previous work I'd read, Dark Water, and when the blurb talked about Mormon missionaries I thought I'd give it a try.  I should've given up half way through - I kept hoping that somehow SOMETHING would go right for someone, or SOMEONE would make a choice that would bring them actual happiness but nope, not really. I get that the Dust Bowl period was brutal - and what I DID like about this book was the solid historical setting, the gritty life of a Kansas farmer in the thirties, all of that is very real.   But nothing and no one ever felt redeemed in this story and it's hard to work through such a long book never feeling any kind of relief, a time to enjoy what's happening instead of always being uncomfortable because someone's in a strange unrequited relationship and someone else is ready to commit adultery and someone else is always trying to uncut everyone happiness.  The writing is good enough that I wasn't annoyed by it but after a while, I just finished it because I felt compelled to.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

The Boy on the Wooden Box: How the Impossible Became Possible...on Schindler's List by Leon Leyson

genre: middle grade non-fiction/memoir

Leon Leyson's idyllic Jewish childhood in a tiny town in Eastern Poland is only a fond memory as his family begins a new life in Krakow, just as Hitler is setting his sites on this neighbor country to Germany.  Soon, like all other Jews in Poland, Leon finds himself in terrible danger, moved into a ghetto and fearing for his life and the lives of the people he loves most.  Still so young, only a teenager, when a chance meeting of Leon's father's will put him on a list that will change everything.   A man named Oskar Schindler is going to have an impact on Leon that will last for his entire, long life.

I really appreciate this addition to the middle-grade canon of Holocaust Memoirs - what an incredible, painful and inspiring story.  Leon is both a typical child/teen but also courageous and passionate.  To read the story of Schindler's list through a child's perspective really gives you a sense of Oskar Schindler as a compassionate and aware individual.   Leon doesn't ignore his faults but he doesn't harp on them either.  What Leon does is share one story - HIS story - a story of one life whose course was changed because of another person's decision to take a great risk for someone else.  It's readable, emotional and tender.  I liked the map at the beginning and the photos as the end.  I loved hearing Leon's voice through his words, not just his memories but how he's processed them as an adult, how he knows what happened then but what he understands about it now.

This is an incredible book and I'm so glad I found it by chance at the library.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Joys of Travel: And the Stories that Illuminate Them by Thomas Swick

genre: non-fiction, essays, travel

Thomas Swick is a traveler's writer - if you already enjoy travel, chances are you will feel like he is articulating ideas you had but never had words for.   The anticipation before a journey, the way just being somewhere new can heighten the senses and make you feel more alive, the constant drive for novelty.  All those ideas really resonated with me.  His essays also take us to foreign destinations and explore his own experiences there - Poland, Key West, Germany, Bangkok.  Since he is definitely more into meeting strangers than I am, I marveled at how often he ends up in the homes of people he doesn't know. Truthfully, he did inspire me to try and reach out a bit more when I am out, to strike up conversations if for no other reason than to get outside myself and really try to learn about other ways of living.

Sometimes I found our author a bit condescending - he's SUCH a travel, it's SO obvious.  Maybe if I just read the essays one at a time in a newspaper or magazine over a long stretch it wouldn't have bothered me, but to read them all at one time felt a bit like he was shoving the awesomeness of his experience in my face.  Not all the time, but occasionally.   One thing I really liked was how often he would quote other familiar writers and their feelings about wandering.

This short compilation didn't bore me and feel like I did widen my horizons a bit by reading it - I think my next travel experience (which of course can never come soon enough!) will be a bit different because of his perspective, so that's something.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

A Night Divided by Jennifer A. Nielsen

genre: middle grade historical fiction

Life isn't easy in post-WWII Eastern Berlin but when, overnight, a wall is built cutting her city in two, Gerta's life gets even harder. What's worse is that on the night the wall was built, Gerta's father and brother were on the western side of the city. Separated from her family and hating the constraints of life under the Stasi, Gerta is well aware of what even thinking of freedom can do. Soon, though, her repressed life has her willing to do anything to escape and be with her father again.

This is a good piece of middle grade historical fiction. Greta is a tough protagonist but realistic - she makes poor choices and has to deal with the consequences and her problems are very real. The harshness of the time period is rendered in such a way that you GET that is scary and horrible without things being overly graphic or upsetting. I liked the focus on her family and relationships and the escape story is harrowing and powerful. While it ended rather abruptly, all the way through I was rooting for Gerta and I'd bet other young readers will too.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Irena's Children by Tilar J. Mazzeo (audiobook)


There are few cities who can claim the level of WWII destruction that Warsaw, Poland experienced.  It's unthinkable, really.  For the Jews in this city, the crime of their identity resulted in first, a life on the brink in the ghetto and then, with sickeningly few exceptions, murder.  For the Poles living during this perilous time, you could either stand by and watch or you could choose to fight.  And there were far more ways of fighting than just holding a gun or making a bomb.  For Irena Sendler, a Polish Social Worker and left-wing activitist, her way of fighting was to rescue children - to take them from right under the noses of the Gestapo and to secret them away to safe houses and orphanages where they could wait out the war.

This book was both astonishing and absolutely horrific. It's a beginning to end look at the Warsaw experience during the war, told from the eyes of its resistance and, most particularly, its cells that were committed to hiding young Jews.  The sacrifices and risks of so many regular people is beyond inspiring.  I had a hard time keeping track of all but the most commonly used names, although the author does a good job of helping job our memory about details, clearly the saving of children was a monumental effort made by many individuals across the city and countryside.

Not only was she helping to smuggle children,  Irena's biggest contribution was her "lists" - her compilation of true identities and locations so that, hopefully one day, families could be reunited. And she knew she was doing all of this at the peril of her own life.  There is so much horror here.  The kind that made me cover my mouth with my hand and try to not be sick.  The atrocities against children just cannot be forgotten.  Not ever.  Any group that slaughters the innocent and vulnerable must be stopped.  This book truly shows how people whose hearts are more committed to the right than they are committed to their own safety and comfort can work amazing things.  And like the starfish being thrown back into the ocean one at a time, every infant carried out of the ghetto in a tool box, every toddler carried through a filthy sewer - for every one of these precious ones, Irena provided them with a miracle.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Prague Tales by Jan Neruda

genre: fiction, short story

Jan Neruda, the author of this collection, is a big thing in the Czech Republic.  A street in the Mala Strana (lesser town) area of Prague is named after him because of the kinds of stories that are included in this collection.  Jan is a noticer of people - small details in small lives are at the crux of these stories.  Some in first person, some in third, they are all about individuals and the minutiae of daily living.  Shopkeepers, students, grocers and, especially, landlords and tenants and barkeepers - all of these folks one might interact with on a daily basis are given backstories and dreams.  

As a translation, obviously all the names are very foreign and sometimes I had to just let it go when I couldn't keep people straight.  A few stories were very engaging and others were a bit boring and I felt like I was slogging but when I look at the collection as a whole, what I really have is a sense of what life would have been like in this time and place.  What did one worry about and how did one scrape together a living?  Peddlers and flour shop owners, policeman and beggers - no one is wealthy here, this is a hard scrabble life and Neruda gives everyone their due.  Yes, he is a bit anti-Semetic and some characters feel a bit caricatured but overall, it's clear that he found his passion  in looking into lives and then hashing them back out again on paper.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner

genre:  young adult contemporary fiction

Growing up in a tiny Tennessee town, there is no way to keep big secrets, not really.  It's no secret that Dill's father, a pentecostal preacher, made choices that affected both his community and Dill's family. It's no secret that Lydia is an up and coming internet sensation with a blog that is just quirky enough to be her ticket out of town.  It's no secret that Travis, son of lumber mill worker, would rather live inside a fantasy novel than in real life.  But there are little secrets, the ones that sometimes you're even afraid to admit to yourself - those secrets can change you in ways both destructive and electrifying.  For these three, at the beginning of their senior year and just on the cusp of the wide open world, it's time to take stock of all that's both revealed and secret and decide who and what they want to be.  If they can be brave enough to dream it.

I did not expect to like this so much.  I don't know why. I think the title threw me, maybe.  But this book had me both weeping at some points and absolutely back in my own first real teenage love the next.  The friendship here is so solid and realistic - how we know SO much about each other and yet, in our teenage selfishness, there is also so much we miss either because it hurts to much to look or because we're so caught up in our own stuff that we don't even know we're missing it.  He captures this so well and while this book is actually painful at some points (I was literally weeping), I feel like it caught me in its grip - I CARED about this three teenage kids and what happened to them.  The contrast between all the parents seemed a bit extreme but not in an unrealistic way - just in the way I would've noticed as a teen myself - hating my own life and wondering "why can't I have parents like that?"  The writing is refreshing - quirky and passionate.  Lydia has some awesome one liners that I had to highlight as I read.

While there is enough language and sexual tension that I'd hesitate to give it to a young teen, there is a lot of heart in this book and to step into the heartache that can live in a rural and outcast life is, I think, a good thing.

Monday, May 8, 2017

A Long Way From Home by Saroo Brierley

genre: memoir

When Saroo is five years old, he becomes separated from his family - and not separated like lost in a store.  He accidentally ends up on a train that takes him hundreds of miles away from the familiar streets of his Indian neighborhood.  After being adopted in an Australian family, Saroo's journey to find his family is an astonishing one.

I first heard this story when my daughter showed me a trailer for the movie - I was floored by it.  How is this even possible?  And while I can't give the book five stars because the writing is a bit repetitive and not particularly beautiful, this is a five star miracle, in my opinion.  Several times I was brought to actual tears, trying to imagine the emotions not only of Saroo but also of his birth mother and his adoptive mother.  I appreciate Saroo's honesty in this memoir and the sense it gave me of just another way of life.  His experiences while in India are just so foreign compared to my own, he and I were born at about the same time and his early life might as well have happened on another planet with how similar it was to mine.  What we have in common? A mom that loves us.  Siblings that we watch out for and that watch out for us.  And those most precious things are what he left behind on that horrible train ride.

I loved that we get know the story from beginning to end. The audio version I listened to was well performed and compelling and I found myself wanting to talk about Saroo with all my reader friends.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

genre: novella, fiction

Gregor Samsa has a problem.  He woke up one morning and found, to his surprise, that he'd changed into a bug overnight. On the outside he now looked like some kind of huge nasty bug, but on the inside? He's still Gregor.  And he can't speak but he still has to interact with his family and that's tricky.  Because not only is he silent but he now LOOKS LIKE A BUG.  It doesn't go particularly well for him even as he allows himself to try and use this new body to create surroundings that he feels comfortable in - since he doesn't live in a vacuum, he has to rely on the patience and kindness of others, not the best position to be in when you're a bug.

Woah.  This story.  It's incredibly readable, rather gut-renching sad and also, obviously, a bit strange. Magical realism? To be sure.  No one seems particularly freaked out that he's an insect now, they just think it's a giant shame.  I found the way Gregor's family reacted very interesting - no doubt it is symbolic of his own relationships and his own feelings within the sphere of Kafka's personal life.  When I finished I immediately wanted some analysis beyond what I could tease out myself, and in my reading I wasn't surprised to read how deeply and frequently the story is studied in school - so many themes and ideas to discuss in here. Kafka certainly created a rich and layered text within a rather simple story.
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