Wednesday, April 30, 2008


ESCAPE: Carolyn Jessop with Laura Palmer: Broadway Books: Nonfiction: 413 pgs.

One dark night in 2003, with $20 cash and eight children in tow, Carolyn Jessop fled for her life. She left behind the only world she knew, a polygamist community located along the Arizona-Utah border, and became the first woman to successfully leave the clutches of the compound with her children. After a frightening, bitter court battle, she also became the first woman ever granted full custody of her children in a dispute involving the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints.

At 18 she was forced to become the sixth wife of 50-year-old Merril Jessop. Uncharacteristically permitted to attend college and work as a teacher outside the home she shared with the other wives, she had to turn her paycheck over to her husband. Withstanding marital rape, she conceived eight children all the while hoping she would gain better treatment for her and her children.

Jessop's memoir portrays females' lives as those lived without basic human rights. They are objectified, treated as property, subject to mind control and perpetually subservient to the patriarchy. Her story is well-written, powerfully poignant and ultimately pertinent given recent news events in Texas.



TROUBLE; Gary D. Schmidt; New York: Clarion, 2008; 297 pgs. Young Adult Fiction

Henry Smith's father has always told him that you should build your house far enough away from trouble that Trouble can never find you, but when Henry's older brother is hit and cruelly injured while jogging, Trouble arrives in spades. Although Chay Chouan, the young Cambodian refugee who fell asleep at the wheel, runs for help and turns himself in, racial tensions erupt when he is sentenced only to probation, community service, and the suspension of his driver's license. Henry and a friend leave their newly troubled community to hitchhike to Maine, where Henry intends to climb Mount Katahdin as he and Franklin had planned to do. And who should pick them up but Chay Chouan running from his own demons. Though some of the circumstances of this narrative may seem unlikely, and the point to be made a bit overdone, the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts. These appealing young men learn through hardship and sharing that trouble always comes, as does grace. A beautiful book, by the Printz and Newbery honor winner.


Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Roomates: My Grandfather's Story

ROOMMATES: MY GRANDFATHER’S STORY: Max Apple: Warner Books: Nonfiction: 211 pages

The saga of an ambitious, immigrant Lithuanian Jewish family in Michigan and the exceptional bond between baker grandfather Rocky and his grandson, the author, who replaced a dead son in the old man's affections, is recounted here by Apple. This focuses on the choleric but lovable Rocky and his guidance of his grandson into manhood, including their sharing quarters during the author's graduate studies at the University of Michigan. Their loving though often stormy relationship was seriously tried only by Rocky's dislike of Debby, the woman Apple married, who ultimately won him over by bearing two great-grandchildren. During Debby's long, terminal illness, Rocky, at age 103, "bounced back into action . . . too busy to die," caring for the author's children and the household just three years before his own death.

I was intrigued by the premise of this book- a grandfather living with his grandson at college. This book told both the joys and sorrows of Max Apple’s family. This biography was a quick read, although I felt that the ending fizzled out.


Monday, April 28, 2008

So Brave, Young, and Handsome

SO BRAVE, YOUNG, AND HANDSOME; Leif Enger; New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2008;
285 pgs. Fiction

Leif Enger’s long-awaited second novel, “So Brave, Young, and Handsome,” is a circular tale—it begins as it ends. Perhaps somewhat autobiographical, the story is told by Monte Becket, author of a surprise bestseller of derring-do in the Old West. “Martin Bligh” was the story of a pony express rider, “ . . . a story to make a boy lean forward; it had Indians and great ships and the buried gold of Coronado and two separate duels, including one with sabers.” On the strength of the first book’s success, Monte quits his job at the P.O. and styles himself an author, but after seven starts of new books and no finishes, he decides he had better reclaim his day job. At that precise moment, a white-haired man rows out of the mist of the river, and by and by invites Monte for a six-week trip Out West where he will seek forgiveness from a lost love. The conventions of the picaresque novel come richly into play as Monte and Glendon run afoul of (the historical figure) Charles Siringo, who as a former Pinkerton agent is trailing Glendon for the crimes of his youth. Baptisms of flood and fire follow, a friend is gained and violently lost, followed by redemption of many sorts in a California citrus orchard. “So Brave, Young, and Handsome” is no “Peace Like a River,” but it is certainly the very best next thing.


Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Apples are from Kazakhstan: the Land that Disappeared

APPLES ARE FROM KAZAKHSTAN: THE LAND THAT DISAPPEARED; Christopher Robbins; New York: Atlas & Company, 2008; 296pp. Nonfiction

Easily the best book I have read this year, and among my top 5 favorite travel narratives of all time, Christopher Robbins history/travelogue/character study of Kazakhstan and her people is rich and fascinating reading and reveals with painful clarity the specious slander of the Borat movie. Robbins' interest in Kazakhstan began with a chance meeting with a man from Arkansas
on his way to Kazakhstan to marry a widow he met on the Internet. As they parted company the Arkansan said "apples are from Kazakhstan," and intrigued by the notion (which turned out to be true), Robbins followed up. The result is a fascinating narrative of the human result of Soviet repression on the people of the steppes, of the extraordinary beauty of a land largely invisible to the West, and of the character of a people who have brought their land back to life. Stories of open air atomic testing and the destruction of the Aral Sea alternate with hair-raising trips in -30 degree weather in a Soviet-era Lada with nearly treadless tires. Robbins had unparalleled access to Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev, a man of extraordinary vision and capacity who has brought Kazakhstan into the twenty-first century as one of the few successful former Soviet republics. Splendid.


Monday, April 21, 2008

The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio

THE PRIZE WINNER OF DEFIANCE, OHIO: Terry Ryan: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks: Nonfiction: 351 pages

In the 1950s, the Ryan family struggled to make ends meet. Ten kids and a father who spent most of his paycheck on booze drained the family's meager finances. But mom Evelyn Ryan, a former journalist, found an ingenious way to bring in extra income: entering contests on the backs of cereal boxes and the like. Terry Ryan, Evelyn's daughter, tells the entertaining story of her childhood and her mother's contest career with humor and affection.

I really enjoyed reading this book. It reminded me of “A Girl Named Zippy” which I also enjoyed. The story was humorous and really gave me a feel of what small town life was like in the 1950s and 60s. I would recommend this to anyone looking for a biography that reads like fiction!


Suite Scarlett

SUITE SCARLETT: Maureen Johnson: Point: Young Adult: 353 pages

Scarlett Martin lives in the small New York City hotel that her family owns. On her 15th birthday, Scarlett’s given responsibility for one of the suites in the hotel and suddenly becomes entangled in the life of the suite’s summer resident, Mrs. Ambersen, an eccentric actress who makes Scarlett her assistant. Scarlett and her entire family—caring parents, struggling actor brother, sheltered younger sister, and beautiful older sister—are warm and grounded characters who make a nice foil for Mrs. Ambersen and her (mostly) well-meaning schemes and antics. Fun and fast-paced.


Friday, April 18, 2008


UNWIND; Neal Shusterman; New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007; 335pgs. Young Adult Fiction

After the Heartland War, which pitted Pro-Lifers against Pro-Choicers, a truce is reached with a third option: abortions are outlawed, but any child between the ages of 13 and 18 may be "unwound," or harvested for organs, hair, skin, appendages, all body parts. According to The Bill of Life, "human life may not be touched from the moment of conception until a child reaches the age of thirteen. However, between the ages of thirteen and eighteen, a parent may choose to retroactively 'abort' a child . . . on the condition that the child's life doesn't 'technically' end." Unwanted babies must be delivered full term, but the Storking Initiative allows mothers who don't want, or can't care for their children, to leave them on a doorstep of their choosing--if the mother is caught, she must keep the baby. If she gets away, the baby, by law, belongs to the people on whose doorstep it was found. Connor is being unwound because he fights too much and has become a problem to his parents; Risa is being unwound because she has no parents, and as a ward of the state has no talent significant enough to allow her to continue to take up bed space; Lev is a "tithe" who is being offered by his religious parents as a sacrifice to the greater good of the community. Lev doesn't want to escape his fate, but Connor and Risa do and when they have a chance they make a break for it taking a resistant Lev with them. As the three teens make there way through the Unwinds underground, sometimes together and sometimes separately, a host of moral, ethical, and political issues become part of the nonstop action. One would image such a scenario to be far-fetched, that it would be impossible for parents to discard their children just because they had become troublesome, but Shusterman perhaps believes this: that the child is father to the man; that the seed becomes the flower; that every life is precious at any age or stage. Unforgettable.


Monday, April 14, 2008

The Blue Door

THE BLUE DOOR; David Fulmer; New York: Harcourt, 2008, 325pp. Fiction

Shamus award winner David Fulmer introduces boxer turned private eye "Fast Eddie" Cero in "The Blue Door," the story of a great South Philly band whose lead singer disappears without a trace at the height of his career. Eddie picks up PI work because he's too busted up to go back into the ring, but after a few domestic infidelities cases, he starts to nose around in Johnny Pope's three-year old story because he is taking a liking to Johnny's sister Valerie, a singer at The Blue Door nightclub. There are many suspects but not many clues in this wisecracking, hard-drinking (bad language), blue collar detective novel. The dialogue is so crisp, and the characters so engaging, the case itself almost becomes tangential to the felt reality of Philadelphia in the early sixties. Eddie is such an endearing guy, tough, clear-eyed, but kind--one hopes he will appear again--and again.


The White Darkness

THE WHITE DARKNESS; Geraldine McCaughrean; New York: HarperCollins, 2007; 369pp. Young Adult

Sym, a fourteen-year old hearing impaired girl who thinks her dead father didn’t love her, is obsessed with Antarctica, thanks in part to her “Uncle” Victor’s interest and
the polar regions books he gave her for every birthday. Tormented at school, Sym is delighted when Victor (her father’s former business partner) offers to take her and her mother to Paris for a three-day, two-night vacation. Sym's mother's passport goes mysteriously missing and Victor’s “Paris” vacation turns out to be a ruse to get Sym to Antarctica. Sym's excitement soon turns to dismay and then to a fight for her life when Uncle Victor’s true self and bizarre schemes are revealed. Lucky for Sym she is sustained through her troubles byTitus Oates, one of the five explorers who died in Robert Falcon Scott’s second Antarctic expedition, but who lives on in her mind as an extraordinary presence in this virtuoso novel of adventure and psychological suspense. Winner of the American Library Association’s 2008 Michael Printz Award for best young adult novel, “The White Darkness” was obviously originally written for a British audience who would be familiar with Scott’s second expedition. Some knowledge of that tragic journey makes this tale much richer and more accessible, and McCaughrean has added a postscript—Scott of the Antarctic—which she suggests should be reviewed in advance to help frame the story for anyone unfamiliar with polar exploration. “The White Darkness” is a richly imagined, beautifully well-written story that should lead many readers to the original story.


This I Believe


Edward R. Murrow hosted a radio segment titled “This I Believe” in the 1950s. It featured brief statements of personal belief or life philosophies from both famous and unknown radio listeners. In 2005 the idea was resurrected and reintroduced on NPR. In this compilation, the host and executive producer of the NPR segment make available some of the best essays from the original and the current broadcasts. Essays come from a wide range of people, including well-known personalities like Helen Keller, Colin Powell, Eleanor Roosevelt, Bill Gates, and Gloria Steinem. Contributors share their belief in a wide range of topics. Among other things, they believe in reading, in being present, in having integrity, and in putting flowers on graves. This is a thoroughly enjoyable and uplifting reading experience, full of thoughtful contemplations on how we live our lives and why.


Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The Ladies Auxiliary

THE LADIES AUXILIARY: Tova Mirvis: Ballantine Books: Fiction: 336 pgs.

Batsheva moves into a strong Orthodox Jewish community in Memphis, Tennessee. She is a convert to Judaism and a recent widow trying to find a close-knit community in which to raise her young daughter. Batsheva is shockingly modern and fervently spiritual and from the very beginning the other women in the community don't trust her.

As Batsheva adds her own twists to rituals, traditions and holidays some women in the community are inspired while others are shocked. When several of the teenage girls become close to Batsheva and then make some bad decisions, she is the first one the community blames.

The author, Tova Mirvis, grew up in a neighborhood similar to the one portrayed in this novel. She does an excellent job of conveying the everyday happenings of an Orthodox Jewish community in the South. She also explores the effect fear and intolerance can have on everyone involved. There is a lot of humor in the book and it was fascinating to learn about a different religion.


Christine Falls

CHRISTINE FALLS: Benjamin Black: Holt: Mystery: 340 pages

This is the first book in a series about 1950s Dublin pathologist, Quirke. The author, Benjamin Black (a pen name for John Banville) who was nominated for an Edgar award for his first foray into mystery fiction.

Hard drinking Quirke has always felt the world was against him. His first love married his adopted brother and his wife died in childbirth. When Quirke drunkenly stumbles upon his brother changing the cause of death records of a young woman named Christine Falls, he finds himself almost unwillingly searching for the reason for this cover-up and soon gets in deep enough to receive threats.

Black’s lyrical use of language and psychologically complex characters is a divergence from the typical fast paced detective novel, but in my opinion offers much more to think about after finishing the book.


His Majesty's Dragon

HIS MAJESTY’S DRAGON: Naomi Novik: Ballantine Books: Fantasy: 375 pages

A blend of fantasy and history, this delightful novel is the story of Will Laurence, a British navel captain, during the Napoleonic wars and Temeraire the dragon. Captain Laurence and his crew take over a French frigate on its way back from the Orient and discover in the cargo an unhatched dragon’s egg, but before the ship can make it back to land, the dragon hatches.

Dragons must agree to be harnessed shortly after hatching or they become feral beasts. So when Captain Laurence and Temeraire bond, Laurence agrees to give up command of his ship, become the dragon’s aviator and join His Majesty’s Aerial Corps.

The author does a wonderful job of integrating dragons into this time period. But what kept me turning the pages were the characters especially stuffy yet true-hearted Captain Laurence and eager to please but slightly rebellious Temeraire.


The Silver Swan

THE SILVER SWAN; Benjamin Black; New York: Henry Holt, 2008, 290 pgs. Fiction

If you need a few laughs, better look elsewhere. Benjamin Black is the murder mystery pseudonym of Booker prize winning author John Banville and he has chosen his pen name
well because this book is a very dark story of a faked suicide, a blackmail/porno operation,
a father who pretty much loses his already disaffected daughter by trying to save her from a truly icky guy. Black/Banville is a fine prose stylist with the bleakest of outlooks, as befits any winner of the "dark is deep" Booker. The Silver Swan is a finely tuned psychological drama, but be prepared if you read it for the irresistable impulse to crawl under your bed that will follow.


Monday, April 7, 2008

I Heart You, You Haunt Me

I HEART YOU, YOU HAUNT ME: Lisa Schroeder: Simon Pulse: Young Adult: 226 pages

Fifteen-year-old Ava’s boyfriend, Jackson, died in an accident for which Ava blames herself. Now Ava feels Jackson return to her as a ghost, and she struggles to choose between maintaining a relationship with Jackson and embracing the life that still exists without him. Told entirely in free verse, this is a well-written tearjerker that teens will eat up, despite the slightly saccharine ending.


Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Service Included: Four-Star Secrets of an Eavesdropping Waiter

SERVICE INCLUDED: FOUR-STAR SECRETS OF AN EAVESDROPPING WAITER: Phoebe Damrosch: William Morrow: Nonfiction: 228 pages

Phoebe Damrosch landed her dream job at Thomas Keller’s 4-star restaurant in New York City, where she worked for two years serving the rich and famous. Damrosch takes her readers behind the scenes, revealing the waiters’ extensive training, the drama of evaluation by a professional food critic, and the staff’s devotion to food. Damrosch writes well and the first half of the book is extremely enjoyable, but the second half suffers when the author’s relationship with an unfaithful co-worker takes over the story and moves the emphasis away from the food world.


The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks

THE DISREPUTABLE HISTORY OF FRANKIE LANDAU-BANKS: E. Lockhart: Hyperion: Young Adult: 345 pages

Having blossomed over the summer, Frankie returns to school and immediately catches the attention of Matthew, a privileged and well-connected boy who introduces Frankie to the inner circle of her exclusive boarding school. Frankie soon discovers, though, that not all doors are open to her, and Matthew is keeping secrets about an all-male society on campus. Feeling underestimated by her boyfriend, Frankie secretly takes control of the society and orchestrates a series of events that disrupt the school.

Frankie is an extremely likeable character who is smart and strong and dares to take action. This story begins like any number of Girl Meets Boy young adult novels but progresses to challenge the conventional plot in an amusing, girl-power book.