29 June 2009

19. The Natural Laws of Good Luck

The Natural Laws of Good Luck: A Memoir of an Unlikely Marriage
written by Ellen Graf was a delightful read and I am grateful to the LibraryThing Early Reviewer program and Random House for providing me with the opportunity to read and review it. At its core, the book is the melding of two cultures.

When Ellen found herself 46 years old with only one child at home, she discovered she was lonely. Her Chinese friend offered for Ellen to marry her brother in China. Ellen took a huge leap of faith and went to China to meet her potential husband. Without speaking the same language, the two get married and muddle through Chinese legalities to return to Ellen's New York mountain home in wedded bliss. The most interesting passages in the book deal with how this marriage progresses with the blending of a free spirit and a traditional Chinese man! As I read the book, I wondered if some of the Chinese tactics might minimize silly spats in my own marriage. Great book!

TITLE: The Natural Laws of Good Luck: A Memoir of an Unlikely Marriage
AUTHOR: Ellen Graf
COPYRIGHT: 2009, August
PAGES: 256
TYPE: non-fiction, memoir
RECOMMEND: I really enjoyed this book. If you like information about different cultures, you will likely really like this book.

18. A Corner of the Universe

A Corner of the Universe by Ann Martin is a Young Adult novel dealing with the difficult subject of mental illness. Told from the perspective of 13 year old Hattie who is also the narrator, we learn of a most unusual summer in the small town of Millerton. While Hattie is expecting a normal summer vacation - which means a quiet summer working at her parent's boarding house and reading, instead she learns that she has an uncle named Adam who she did not even know existed. She is puzzled by Adam's strange and sometimes outrageous behavior. She learns that Adam has a mental disorder, but Hattie loves his outgoing and loving nature. Still there are times that he becomes angry and menacing. As the story progresses, the reader comes to love them both. Then tragedy strikes and Hattie feels responsible, even while she does not understand exactly what has happened.

I enjoyed reading this book, although my one complaint is that the Adam's mental illness was never adequately defined. Since the novel takes place in 1960, the reader is exposed to the biases and culture of the time regarding mental illness. Adam had been sent to a school and was not discussed by the family until the school closed. In other words, Adam was a shameful secret. This work might be useful in a discussion of how things have changed.

In the afterword, the author shares that the book is loosely based on her own experiences with an uncle who had mental disabilities.

TITLE: A Corner of the Universe
AUTHOR: Ann Martin.
PAGES: 189
TYPE: fiction
RECOMMEND: Because I haven't read any other YA books dealing with mental illness, I think this one is pretty good. Anyone have any suggestions?

22 June 2009

17. Hatchet

Hatchet, by Gary Paulsen, was a 1988 Newbery Honor Book and after reading the book, I agree that it should have been selected for this honor. Reading the book reminded me of Jean Craighead George’s works which are also wonderful. Hatchet is a at its core a book about ingenuity and survival.

Thirteen year old Brian Robeson knew the secret of why his parents were getting a divorce. While he was not happy about the secret or the divorce, he was going to spend some time with his father in Canada. Unfortunately, the small place crashes and Brian must learn to survive alone in the wilderness. He has only one tool – a hatchet his mother gave him before his flight. The remainder of the story is filled with natural beauty and observations by a young man who learns to live with nature to save his own life.

TITLE: Hatchet
AUTHOR: Gary Paulsen
PAGES: 222
TYPE: fiction
RECOMMEND: This book was very interesting and would be of interest to young boys who might not enjoy reading – this has a bit of adventure.

16. The Graveyard Book

English author Neil Gaiman is already well known for his graphic novel series The Sandman, which has outsold comic book favorites such as Batman and Superman. Gaiman’s newest novel, The Graveyard Book, is the 2009 Newbery Award winner. Targeting the younger young adult market (grades 5-8 perhaps), Gaiman tells the story of Bod. No“Bod”y escaped from a murderer when he was just a toddler and found himself under the care of a diverse group of ghosts in a nearby cemetery. Unfortunately, the murderer who killed Bod’s family is still looking for him! And growing up in a graveyard has its own set of challenges.

Over the course of the book, Bod grows up and has many adventures with the outlandish inhabitants of the graveyard. He studies just like other children, with help from historians and language teachers, among others. Bod even ventures out into the world where he finds that a little bit of magic goes a long way. In the end, Bod is alive and must go live with the living, leaving behind all of his deceased friends, but holding on to the memories.

TITLE: The Graveyard Book
AUTHOR: Neil Gaiman
PAGES: 307
TYPE: fiction
RECOMMEND: I enjoyed this book which had just the right amount of fantasy and glee.

18 June 2009

15. Forbidden Bread

Let me begin this review with thanks to LibraryThing for providing me with the opportunity to read this wonderful book. The second thing is that my lifelong dream has been to be a Slovak peasant – knowing of course, as author Erica Johnson Debeljak discovers in her book Forbidden Bread that this group doesn’t exist in Central Europe as the romanticized vision I have in my head. But when Erica first moved to Slovenia with her lover and fiancĂ©, the rural lifestyle and traditions were still common and she describes these with great detail.

When Erica Johnson met and married Slovenian poet Ales Debeljak she moved across the world to Slovenia, just as this country was swirling with national pride and development in a post-Communist world. Erica did not speak the language, did not understand the culture, and wanted desperately to please her new husband and his family. She chronicles her difficulties, challenges, and triumphs in this very funny memoir of adaptation. For anyone who has studied European history, the bureaucracy came as no surprise, but her funniest encounters with the red tape were found in her stories of being pregnant.

Debeljak supplements her stories with photos from her own collection. The reader truly gets a sense of their daily life, even over time. Like the author, I was sad with the last chapter which explains that even during her short time in Central Europe, many things had changed. The things that endeared her new country to her were obsolete, but not forgotten.

TITLE: Forbidden Bread
AUTHOR: Erica Johnson Debeljak
PAGES: 304
TYPE: non-fiction, memoir
RECOMMEND: Because I love Central Europe, I loved this book. It is hard for me to separate out these feelings to know if you would also love it.

06 June 2009

14. Shanghai Girls

I am grateful to Random House Publishing for providing me with the opportunity to read and review author Lisa See’s latest novel Shanghai Girls. I loved her earlier novels and this one was equally enjoyable. In addition to the beautiful story of family and love, the novel explores an area of World War II history with which I am somewhat unfamiliar. Reading the novel has compelled me to do a bit of my own research on the Chinese experience during the early twentieth century.

Shanghai Girls follows two Chinese sisters, Pearl and May, as they are forced to leave their family in Shanghai and travel through war-torn China to America to live with their husbands, brothers whose father bought and paid for the two girls. Unfortunately their journey to America is not easy and their lives are changed on the trip. Still, the two young women are together and gain strength from their relationship; the strength to continue.

Pearl, the older sister, is the narrator and we learn of the hardships the girls face through her voice. We watch as May becomes more acclimated and as Pearl learns to love her husband. Still, the Chinese are treated as less than full citizens in their new country. After WWII, the situation becomes even more intolerable and secrets which have kept the family together threaten to tear it apart. Through Pearl, the reader comes to know and love the extended family and grieves with the girls as first one and then others die. It is interesting to see the role of women in the Chinese culture, both in China and the United States – especially the changing roles.

Although Lisa See’s earlier book On Gold Mountain is autobiographical, describing her family over the past 100 years, the website On Gold Mountain (produced in association with the Smithsonian Program for Asian Pacific American Studies) shows artifacts and photos that substantiate the places described in great detail by See in Shanghai Girls.

TITLE: Shanghai Girls
AUTHOR: Lisa See
PAGES: 309
TYPE: historical fiction, Chinese culture
RECOMMEND: I loved this book - perhaps more than Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.

12 & 13. Harry Potter 1 and 2

I never thought that I would read the Harry Potter books. My children all read them, some very enthusiastically. I have seen all of the movies except for the new one. Lucky for me, I don't remember the movies at all...not because the movies were bad, per se, just my memory for movies is awful. I am re-entertainable! So why did I read them? I have a student worker and good friend, MiaPia, who is obsessed (she would not be hurt by this statement, rather flattered) with all things Potter. So she asked me to read them, begged really. How could I say no?

I really enjoyed Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone - I mean after all the hype and the movie, it felt like I was getting reacquainted with old friends. The characters are just as I imagine them and like everyone else, I was worried for Harry, sad for Harry, mad for the others. The book is well-written and I thought back to all of the vocabulary enhancement my children gained while reading this at a younger age. I finished Book 1 very quickly and moved on to Book 2.
TITLE: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
AUTHOR: J.K. Rowling
PAGES: 320
TYPE: fiction, Children's literature
RECOMMEND: I loved it.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets seemed to be the book that I remembered the most from the movie, but that enhanced my reading experience rather than ruining it. I went through the book waiting and waiting for Harry to open that chamber. I like it that new characters are introduced as we follow along with Harry, Ron, and Hermoine. I loved Ginny and her sweet crush on Harry and begged MiaPia to tell me who ends up with who in the end.
My favorite quote from the book: Dumbledore speaking to Harry - "It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities." p. 333 Great statement to live by. Of course, I quickly finished the book and now have moved on to Book 3.
TITLE: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
AUTHOR: J.K. Rowling
PAGES: 341
TYPE: fiction, Children's literature
RECOMMEND: I loved it.