Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place: The Mysterious Howling, Book 1 by MaryRose Wood.
Here’s a new juvenile fiction novel that will delight readers (Gr. 3-5) and would make an excellent family or classroom read-aloud. There is much for children and adults to discuss as the lovely young lady, Miss Penelope Lumley, leaves the Swanburn Academy for Poor Bright Females to become governess for three wild children who were raised (presumably) by wolves in the woods.
The Academy prepared Penelope with a well-rounded education, which included several pithy sayings attributed to the founder, Agatha Swanburn. These include:
“There is no alarm clock like embarrassment.”
“All books are judged by their covers until they are read.”
“One can board one’s train only after it arrives at the station; until then, enjoy your
“Complaining doesn’t butter the biscuit.”
“That which is purchased in a shop can easily be left in a taxi; that which you carry inside
you is difficult, though not impossible to misplace.”
Under Penelope’s charge, the three youngsters, Alexander, Beowulf, and Cassiopeia, are soon able to communicate and behave in a more civilized manner than many of the adults who come to Ashton Place for a fancy party. With mysterious howling and a squirrel running amok, the men charge off in a frenzied hunting pack and the mansion is (partially) trashed as the children temporarily return to the wild ways.
As the story closes we learn that we “must wait and see what happens next.”
Despite this admonition, I can't wait to get hold of the 2nd book: The Hidden Gallery which is coming out in February of 2011.

(I was in the car for 5+ hours yesterday. The trip was made enjoyable as I listened to the narration by Katherine Kellgren.)

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Friday, August 27, 2010

Stones Into Schools: Promoting Peace with Books, Not Bombs, In Afghanistan and Pakistan by Greg Mortenson. Since he nearly lost his life in 1993 as he attempted to climb Pakistan’s K2 (large mountain), Mortenson has dedicated his life to promote community-based education and literacy programs, especially for girls.
Having previously read Mortenson’s best-seller Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace… One School at a Time (and the young reader’s version, Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Journey to Change the World… One Child at a Time; and the picture book version, Listen to the Wind), I feel that I have a really good idea of what Mortenson has been doing!
If I had anything to say about it, Greg Mortenson would be getting the Nobel Peace Prize. Not only did he begin his work to build schools and promote literacy for girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan without any official organization or government assistance, but he has kept on spreading literacy far past the culmination of his original goals.
When asked why teaching girls is so important, one of Mortenson’s responses is based on the an old saying, “If you teach a boy, you teach an individual; but if you teach a girl, you teach a community.”
Mortenson’s schools are not for proselytizing or teaching children to be like Americans. They are promoting literacy, not ideologies. Throughout the years this approach has been able to cut across barriers of politics, religion and class to win the hearts of the world (except for the Taliban).
Three Cups of Tea is now required reading for officers who are serving in Afghanistan and the American military forces are beginning to realize that ‘books, not bombs’ might in fact be a better strategy to bring lasting peace to the region.

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Sunday, August 22, 2010

Alexander Mccall Smith is widely recognized as the author of the very popular #1 Ladies Detective Agency novels. I’ve enjoyed those along with everyone else, but have actually preferred the Isabel Dalhousie series by A.M.S.

Here are the books in that series (to date):
The Sunday Philosophy Club (2004)
Friends, Lovers, Chocolate (2005)
The Right Attitude to Rain (2006)
The Careful Use of Compliments (2007)
The Comfort of a Muddy Saturday (2008)
The Lost Art of Gratitude (2009)
The Charming Quirks of Others (2010)

I’ve just been listening to the audiobook of ‘The Comfort of a Muddy Saturday’.
In this installment, Isabel recognizes that she feels compelled by conscience to assist a moral neighbor. She thinks that we have a moral duty to forgive others, and there are several instances requiring forgiveness throughout the story.
There is also discussion of the distinction between the rational line of guilt and a neurotic one which may produce an undeserved sense of shame.
Isabel feels herself very fortunate to be in love with a wonderful person, to have a beautiful baby son, a job she treasures, a more-than-comfortable home, and no worries about her financial future. Is it any wonder that she has the time to spend philosophizing upon other people’s problems?
As the editor (and owner) of the Review of Applied Ethics, Isabel suggests that letters/papers with moral merit are often dull. As a reader of Mccall Smith’s books about Isabel and her issues of moral merit, I would argue that when the issues are cleverly presented in a novel, the reading can be delightful, insightful, and thought-provoking.

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Thursday, August 19, 2010

Shortly before I went to bed last night I finished listening to the audiobook The Women by T.C. Boyle (read by Grover Gardner; Blackstone Audio Inc). Unlike the night several months ago when I finished Loving Frank by Nancy Horan, I slept fairly peacefully. Both books are about Frank Lloyd Wright, his wives and mistresses, and his Wisconsin home, Taliesen. Thoughts of the fire and murders that took place at Taliesen are certainly very disturbing, and descriptions of that horror are placed near the end of both books.
Before reading these novels I knew only that Wright was Welsh (like my mother’s side of the family) and one of the last century’s greatest architects. He was also very impressed by the Japanese people and culture, as I am since my travels to Japan in 2005. He was also a colossal egotist who felt entitled to the things and women that pleased him. He paid for that conceit with loss of loved ones, property, acceptance by his rural neighbors, and commissions for work.
His style was flamboyant. His energy is described as buoyant, even as he aged. I have to admire him whilst I shake my head at his foolishness. Three times he took a mistress while married and cursed the press for hounding them, though he knew that he needed favorable publicity for the sake of his business. He and his women were born several years too soon. The mores of their times were too rigid for them.
The narrative Boyle used in telling the stories of Frank’s mistresses was inventive. He uses one of Wright’s young apprentices, a Japanese man, as the narrator for the tale. As such, Tadashi Sato weaves his own story into Wright’s story and becomes a sympathetic character. Tadashi obviously idolizes Wright as an architect and loves Taliesen as a home, even though it is clear that he would never emulate Wright’s behaviors.
The second intriguing aspect of this narrative is the reverse chronological order in which Boyle tells the story. I would venture to guess that he does this to build tension and suspense … from Olgivanna (the woman whose presence caused the least turmoil) to Miriam (the drug-addicted southern belle) to Mamah (who was murdered as Taliesen was burned to the ground). Initially I found the order off-putting, but since I had read Loving Frank and done some other background research on Wright, I found the re-ordering of chronology to provide added intrigue and perspective.
Last summer I drove with some friends to tour Taliesen. It is beautiful, peaceful, and so evocative of Japanese elegance. Sadly, though, it needs a wealthy benefactor who can provide funds for needed restoration and ongoing upkeep. (Hiroshi Yamauchi, Bill and Melinda Gates, Warren Buffett … are you reading this?)
Readers, if you have thought of ever visiting Taliesen I would suggest sooner rather than later.

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Sunday, August 15, 2010

My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor (audio; spoken by the author)
What a powerful narrative and inspirational speaker! Many thanks to Lori Petersen for bringing this book to my attention. The timing of it couldn’t have been more perfect. As I listened to the audiobook version of Taylor’s story, I got the bad news that I didn’t get the job I’d been hoping for and had dreamed would be perfect for me. Because of the beautiful way Taylor describes the brain and our reactions to the world around us, I was able to accept my “bad” news with sorrow, but move on without letting anger or grief take hold. I know myself well enough to understand that would have been my eventual reaction, but the book helped me process so much more effectively.
I would recommend this book to absolutely everyone. It really seems to have two purposes: first, to help us understand what a person goes through when they are having a stroke and how to help and comfort them. The high rate of strokes in our society leads me to believe that all of us should be familiar with symptoms and what to do if a friend, loved one, or we ourselves show those signs. As a former brain scientist, Taylor was able to explain with a perfect balance of science and lay-speak. In other words, she didn’t make it too complicated.
But the added bonus of this book is a spiritual component in which Taylor discusses the way she was tuned in to the right hemisphere of her brain during the stroke. She loved it. It was peaceful for her. She missed that sense of inner peace when her left hemisphere began to return. From that perspective, Taylor dedicates much of her book to helping readers understand how we all can learn to take full advantage of our brain’s power (without drugs or alcohol) to silence the chatter of our left brain and tune in to the peace of our right brain. It would be good if we could all ‘be in our right mind’ once in awhile!
I googled the author’s name and the title after I’d finished listening, and lo and behold, I found out that Taylor has appeared on Oprah and there is even an 18 minute video of her giving an abbreviated version of her story in an appearance on stage. Check it out
but don’t think that is all you should do. The book is so much more worthwhile!
If you have the time and inclination to get caught up in the dialogue (furor, in some cases) between some scientists who claim she isn’t a real scientist and others who claim she has helped them find a link to God) read the blog postings at and type in “Jill Bolte Taylor”. You’ll need to click on the article title and then the article and over 200 comments from readers will pop up. I read many of them and they are very interesting. What a reaction this topic generates!!!
I’d love to have our book discussion group talk about some of the issues and debate generated by Taylor’s book and presentation.
I’m going to be go see the movie “Eat, Pray, Love” this afternoon with some book club friends. The part about India will be much more interesting to me now that I’ve read My Stroke of Insight! Is transcendental meditation similar to the meditation Taylor describes?

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Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Red Pyramid by Rick Riordan is another action-packed fantasy mixed with mythology. This time Riordan weaves Egyptian myths into the quest of siblings Carter and Sadie Kane who are attempting to save their father (and the world) from total destruction. Twelve-year-old Sadie is a sarcastic young rebel who has been raised by her old-fashioned grandparents in London while her fourteen year old brother Carter has accompanied his archaeologist dad around the world. (Mom is dead.) They never knew that their parents were both powerful magicians who fought against demons and Gods. Now they are ‘hosting’ the Gods Horace and Isis and need to both fight to maintain control of their minds and bodies as well as fighting for the future of humankind.

This book ends with a tease. The protagonists tell the readers that they are trying to find children who are descendents of the pharaohs. They are putting an amulet inside a school locker, but the location of the school is deliberately ambiguous. The right kids will read this book and will find the locker. The locker combination is 13-32-33. The students who can open the locker will know what to do and will be trained as magicians to help in bringing about peace between Gods and humans.

In an afterword, Riordan explains to his readers that much of the story is based on fact. The ‘house of life’ was part of Egyptian society for thousands of years. Archaeologists have discovered the spells and the types of wands described in the book.

This is a fun book for 6th grade students who will be learning about ancient Egypt as part of their school curriculum.

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Thursday, August 05, 2010

Alley Oop was a cartoon caveman who traveled via a 20th century scientists’ time machine. I remember loving to read of his adventures when I was in first grade, just blossoming as a reader. Like many others, I, too have dreamed of time travel and enjoy reading stories that employ this plot development.
The Outlander by Diana Gabaldon was published nearly 20 years ago, but I’d never read any of her works till now. It takes place in 1945 and 1743 Scotland when a young and beautiful English woman is suddenly transported back in time via a Stonehenge-like formation of huge boulders. She has just endured life as a nurse during WWII and has seen the carnage of war-wounds and as soon as she arrives in Old Scotland, Claire is thrust into the battle-ground of clansmen fighting English Red Coats. Neither side trusts her; both think that she is some kind of spy. The clansmen kidnap her and bring her back to their castle, where the laird puts her to work as a ‘healer’. She is forced to marry – against her will, especially since she is already married to a man in the 20th century. She is also accused of witchcraft and nearly submitted to tests of witchcraft – trial by water, fire, etc.
I really loved the beginning of the story, but as the sex scenes and violence became more prevalent, I felt that the author was using them to sensationalize the story. How many times does Claire have to be almost raped?! Later came the homosexual scenes in which Jamie is raped. The villain, Captain Randall, is a sadist homosexual. The Duke of Sandringham is described as a caricature of the foppish homosexual. Politically incorrect, at the least, and they certainly ruined my enjoyment of the story. It probably sells more books and makes the plot suitable for a titillating movie, I suppose.
To be honest, I loved the history and the details but I won’t read any more of the books in the series. I must admit that I read the Wikipedia synopsis’ of the books in the series and read editorial reviews because I did feel a connection to the main characters and wanted to know what might happen to them.
Final note: I'm sure I am in the minority, but I would not recommend this book to my friends and certainly not to students.

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