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It’s another bestseller. But it wasn’t on the bestseller list when I read a review of it and decided that it looked too fun to pass up. I even had to return it partway through and go back on the hold list for it, due to an unfortunate number of exciting books coming in all at the same time.

PhotobucketA Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness Dr. Diana Bishop, student of alchemy, has been trying for most of her life to forget that she was born a witch. After all, being witches cost her parents their lives. She doesn’t use magic or associate with other witches. And while the magical community back in upstate New York was used to that, the witches at Oxford are being less understanding that she’s only there to do research for an upcoming paper. Two things happen that bring already simmering tensions to a boil. First, large numbers of supernatural creatures witness Diana find and even open a lost alchemical manuscript that has been magically hidden in the Bodlein Library for years. And then, an ancient vampire named Matthew Clairmont, witnesses her use her magic when she thinks she is alone. Soon magical creatures of all three types – daemons, witches, and vampires – are pressuring Diana to retrieve the manuscript again and share the contents with them. Somehow, she finds herself trusting the vampire more than anyone else. I loved all the clearly well-researched history in this book. I liked that the vampires weren’t only a century or so old, but really, really old, with Diana’s family having similar roots in Salem history. Matthew speaks Provencal and quotes troubadour poetry on occasion. The witchcraft is a blend of modern paganism with traditional storybook spell craft, which works well in a fantasy set in a realistic modern world. This is a book steeped in a love of books and history, with self-discovery, adventure and romance. It’s exciting both in characters and story to be interesting, while still feeling like literature rather than fluff. (I got into a whole conversation about this with another mother who was reading this as our children were at physical therapy.) I did get a sinking feeling as I got towards the end of the book and realized that there was no way the story could finish in the number of pages remaining. Sure enough, it’s a fat fantasy book with two more presumably just as fat planned to follow. But more good books aren’t a bad thing, right? I was also quite amused to note that you can friend not only the author but also Diana and Matthew on Facebook, and that Harkness has playlists for the main characters available on her website.
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book coverNurtureShock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman Our “common sense” about children reflects a lot of thinking that hasn’t held up to testing, usually along the lines that children react like adults. This book by award-wining science journalists tells what newer research shows about various aspects of child development. A few areas were already familiar to me, but most of them were new. They are all discrete and entertaining articles, to make for good dipping into. Topics include the negative effects of praise (by now familiar to me), the importance of sleep, the impossibility of kindergarten iq testing, teaching self-control, why children lie and what it means, infant speech development and why educational videos don’t work, why watching typical preschool tv shows makes kids more aggressive, how to keep siblings from fighting, and why teens feel that arguing is showing respect. Many of the articles would seem to require systemic change to actually implement – things like starting high school an hour later or delaying gifted program testing until third grade. Some are hopefully possible, like being conscious of your own lying behaviors in front of your children or being more conscientious about putting them to bed early. But mostly, this is just a fascinating look into the way children and teens work. Someone else please read it so I can talk about it with you!
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book coverThe Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin Is happiness really worth pursuing? Rubin decides that yes, it is. Her happiness affects her whole family’s happiness, and she doesn’t want the best years of her life to slip by without her being able to enjoy them. Happiness is quite a deep topic, but fortunately, Rubin puts in the heavy lifting on the philosophy reading end of things to produce a book that’s easy to read while covering a wide spectrum of ideas about happiness. She picks an overarching happiness-increasing goal and a handful of smaller goals for each month, and talks about what ideas are most effective and easiest to accomplish – two quite independent variables. A sampling of her ideas: declutter, exercise, be kind to her husband and children, spend money well, find and do what she really likes to do, find a spiritual guide, start a blog (after which the text includes comments from blog readers). This was both entertaining and thought-provoking.
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book coverThe Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Ann Barrows. Read by Various (cast) Another book that deserves to be a bestseller. Writer Juliet Ashton made a living writing humor about World War II, but now that the war is over she’s tired of humor and needs a new book topic. Then she receives a letter from a man on the island of Guernsey, who’s somehow come into possession of one of her old books and wants more of the same. As Juliet learns more about the occupation of Guernsey and the Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society that began first as a front for curfew-breakers, she corresponds with more and more of its members on Guernsey. The story is told entirely in letters and telegrams, to and from Juliet and her publisher, her best friend and the publisher’s sister, and the American publisher who’s smitten with her, as well as the various members of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Though the war and its aftereffects are necessarily present and dark, the overall effect of the books is hopeful and extremely charming. The audio version is read by a nearly full cast, giving extra depth to the story. I listened with delight and wished the book went on longer than it did.
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Not dead. Just now getting over early pregnancy narcolepsy. I've been reading lots of books while doing lots of eating, but having difficulty finding the energy to write reviews on top of everything else that needs to get done. I'm not going to write up reviews of the romance novels, but I will note as an aside that I read one where the protagonists were virgins. They finally got into bed together, and afterwards asked each other how it was. Not so good, they decided. They'd work on their technique some. I was astounded at the honesty.

This book has been really popular, but I think deservedly so.

book coverThe Little Giant of Aberdeen County by Tiffany BakerThe hook of the plot is the narrator, Truly, a girl who is born large, grows quickly, and never stops. Her sister, Serena Jane, is the prettiest girl in town. When they are orphaned, Serena Jane gets her own room with a nice family in town, while Truly is packed off to live on a poor farm on the outskirts of town. She befriends other outcasts – Amelia Dyerson, the daughter of the family where she lives, and Marcus, too small and too smart to fit in at school. Truly’s memories of growing up are mixed in with her odd adult life, caring for the town doctor, Robert Morgan, her sister’s ex-husband. Truly also shares the town stories of the first Robert Morgan, who came from the South after the civil war, and seemingly out of frustration married the local herb-witch, Tabitha Dyerson. Out of this plot-line comes Truly’s on-going search for Tabitha’s legendary Book of Shadows. Truly’s story of being too large to belong anywhere had a strong potential for freakishness but turned out a beautiful story of the search for humanity and blessing.
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This one has been on the bestseller list for a while. I resisted reading it. Probably because the ladies were going to be dealing with depressing stuff and because it was a bestseller? So much for knowing my own tastes. Once again, my colleague S. put it on hold for me. And once I opened it, I had a really hard time putting it down.

book coverThe Friday Night Knitting Club by Kate Jacobs Georgia Walker was young, single and pregnant when an older lady suggested that she use her knitting to make a living for herself. Now, her daughter Dakota is 12 and Georgia is the proprietress of a thriving New York City knitting store, Walker and Daughter, which is also staffed by the elderly and widowed Anita. As our story opens, a group of women wanting companionship and help with their knitting coalesces into the Friday Night Knitting Club. Our cast includes Georgia’s old friend from publishing, K.C., who is always starting but never finishing big projects; Lucie, a single and out of work television producer; Georgia’s daughter Dakota, who provides baked goodies; and Darwin, a women’s studies grad student bent on proving that knitters are submitting themselves to the patriarchy. The plot thickens further for Georgia as Dakota’s father James, missing since the pregnancy was discovered, turns up. Her old best friend from high school, now a rich society lady, also comes in to commission a hand-knit ball gown. The story switches between all of the major characters, as they all work through their own struggles and learn to rely on each other. It’s classic strong female friendship stuff, with some Wisdom from the Grandmothers (and a random priest) thrown in. It’s all about the characters and the relationships, and is already being promoted for book clubs. Did I mention that I read during rare knitting opportunities?
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Could I resist a book about the travels of a beautiful illuminated book? No, I couldn’t.

book cover People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks It’s 1996. Hanna Heath is a young Australian book conservator, asked to work on the famous Sarajevo Haggadah. This book, which really exists, tells the story of Passover, and is a very rare example of a Jewish illuminated book. As Hannah takes apart the book to remove its horrid nineteenth century binding and examines all its pages, she finds various artifacts in it – a white hair, a butterfly wing, a red stain, and salt. Hanna’s journey around the world to find out what these things are is interspersed with the stories of how the artifacts came to be there and the people of all three monotheistic religions who cared for the book over the centuries. There’s a reason this book has been a bestseller – it’s got good characters, fascinating settings around the world and through history, and a compelling plot.
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So here’s me, a Christian uncomfortable with Christianity, other Christians and most especially books published for Christians. When my mother gave me this book to read, I started it dutifully but didn’t necessarily expect to enjoy or finish it. Happily, I was very wrong. But then, it wasn’t written especially for Christians, either.

book coverSpeaking of Faith by Krista Tippett For the uninitiated, Tippett is the host of the NPR show with the same name, which I am not up early enough of a Sunday to listen to. In the show, I hear, she interviews people whom she feels have spiritual wisdom to share, of all religions and none. In the book, Tippett explores the meaning of faith, finding middle ground between the poles of various religions, non-believers and believers. It includes her personal faith journey, plus conversations with many people. She talks the power of faith in everyday life and talks about “thick faith”, complex and woven into life, as opposed to “thin” faith, which is superficial and fanatic. Tippett discusses religion as a container for spirituality where both have value, the power of mysteries and the importance of trying to discuss them, and the forgotten value of virtue. She looks at what we can do to stop poverty and suffering and the role that faith and hope play in this struggle. It was a very difficult book to do justice to in a short review, but I found it profoundly meaningful. It definitely looks most closely at the three monotheistic religions and Buddhism, so those who fall outside of those camps may find it more difficult to relate to. This is a powerful yet gentle book, small drops of arguments adding up to a river of persuasion in support of faith.
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book coverSneaky Chef by Missy Chase Lapine Lapine starts the book with a rather lengthy argument for hiding veggies rather than forcing kids to eat them undisguised. She then gets down to business, explaining the theory of hiding unpopular nutrition inside favorite foods, matching color and texture and adding whole grains without being obvious about it. Next come recipes for several purees – white, orange, green, purple, bean, as well as several juices. Most of these use multiple veggies for added nutritional punch. If you're handy in the kitchen, you can stop right there – just read the theory, and start adding her purees to your food. Or, go on to the recipes. These look quite solid. Yes, she uses veggies purees and whole grains, but they are mostly real food. She will mix butter and olive oil for a buttery taste without all the cholesterol, but not call for trans-fat free margarine, or separate the eggs to cut down on the fat. I'm still of the opinion that kids need cholesterol and natural saturated fats, but her approach is both easy to substitute full-fat items back in, and moderate as far as the low-fat crowd goes. The recipes that we've tried have gone over very well – macaroni and cheese was actually creamier after the addition of white puree, and went down like a charm. Mr. Froggie Pants is also excited about trying breakfast ice cream and cookies, and any of the desserts. I'd use the theories for adults as well as kids, because couldn't we all use a little extra veggie power in our meals? And don't we want it to taste yummy, too?
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book coverThe Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein Journalist Klein gives us a superbly researched history of modern economics that ranks among the most disturbing things I have ever read, on par with the literature I read for the Theology of the Holocaust class I took in college. Once again, reading a book that was dense and important makes for a long review, even leaving out lots of very important bits, so a cookie for anyone who makes it through.

In the good old days after World War II, there lived an economist by the name of Keynes. He theorized that people who felt economically insecure and victimized would turn to fascism and extremism. To protect from this as well as communism, he advocated strong government to ensure social equality and regulate business. This was the theory behind the Marshall Plan, which helped Germany recover economically when popular sentiment would have left the evil Nazis to suffer.

The current popular theory of economics started in parallel with two seemingly unrelated people. One was a psychologist named Ewan Cameron, who theorized that if mentally ill people could be stripped of their personality with electric shocks and drugs, their personality could be rebuilt. The research was carried out in Canada but funded by the CIA. It turned out that Cameron was half right: it’s possible to strip personality away. It’s not possible to rebuild it – you’re just stuck with a shattered person. At the same time, a man named Milton Friedman was developed a new theory of economics. Instead of controlling businesses and taxing businesses and people to level society, Friedman claimed that capitalism left to itself would regulate itself, and become a thing of abstract beauty. He used early computer models to “prove” this and tried to move economics from a “soft” to a “hard science”. Friedman believed that the way to do this was to shock a people or a nation into acceptance, either by the sheer economic shock of making massive changes all at once or using whatever means were necessary. Friedman died just last year, having won the Nobel Prize in economics and revered by many.

Read more... )

Wicked

May. 8th, 2004 04:49 pm
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I'm getting behind... but here's a start.

Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire Who doesn’t have a soft spot for Oz somewhere in them? And the occasional fractured fairy tale – also great fun. It was with glee that I began listening to this book. Indeed, it turns the Oz of the classic story on its head, in a way that is often disturbing. The Wizard is not a bumbling but beneficent ruler, but a crafty and self-serving despot who holds a terrified Oz in a stranglehold. Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of West, doesn’t really consider herself wicked or a witch. She grows up a loner, isolated because of her green skin, traveling around Oz with her missionary father and studying at the University. Finally, the state of affairs in Oz prompts her to take action, and the Wizard takes notice. But the story is only beginning, and while the country may be imaginary, the issues are not.
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Well, it would be nice if I could read along a theme, but I think I’ll just have to give up on that. Instead we have, as usual, a random assortment of books.

East by Edith Pattou East is based on one of my favorite fairy tales, “East of the Sun, West of the Moon.” Growing up in rural Norway, Rose was told that she was born facing the east, which meant that her nature was to stay at home. When she discovers that she was actually born facing north, the direction of adventurers, she is both outraged and excited. Then, an enormous white bear offers to save her sister’s life and her family’s fortune if she will come with him. Feeling that she is finally giving in to her true nature, she does. And of course this is only the beginning of the adventure. I loved this book for the strong characters, the narration, switching in first person between characters, the great sense of place and time – and of course, the romance and adventure.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon The book starts off as the narrator, 15-year-old Christopher, discovers his neighbor’s dog dead in her back yard. I’m not particularly interested in dead dogs, so it took a lot of many-starred reviews for me to actually pick up the book. I really enjoyed it. It’s a quirky and insightful look into the life of an autistic boy trying to understand the world around him. I loved his explanations of the world around him – things he likes, things he doesn’t quite get. For example (not a direct quote, as I don’t have the book here) “Chatting is where you talk with another person, but it is not questions and answers. I cannot do chatting.” Or … no, you’ll just have to read the book.

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