Archive for the ‘True Stories’ Category

Review of A Beautiful, Terrible Thing, by Jen Waite

Wednesday, October 25th, 2017

A Beautiful, Terrible Thing

A Memoir of Marriage and Betrayal

by Jen Waite

Plume (Penguin Random House), 2017. 258 pages.
Starred Review

I thought I’d read just a chapter of this book on Friday night. But once I started, I couldn’t look away until I’d finished.

Yes, it’s the true story of an apparently wonderful husband who cheated, lied, and turned out to be a psychopath. (There is a disclaimer at the front that this is not an official diagnosis. This isn’t an official diagnosis, either.) Many of my readers know that I, too, had a husband who cheated – and the long, awful time of suspicion and being lied to and desperately trying to fix things eventually ended with finding out it had all been much worse than I’d thought.

Jen Waite’s story is different from mine. She had only five years she thought she’d had a good marriage (and came to find out, he’d been cheating very early on). But that feeling of devastation? The world-toppling discovery that leaves you not knowing what was ever real? The wondering, always wondering what he’s up to right now and compulsion to check? All of that felt horribly familiar.

When I read that her husband was working long, long hours – through the night to the early hours of the morning – I just cringed. (That one took her a long time to figure out. And I know why – He’s working so hard! You want to be supportive! He’s sacrificing so much time for his job!)

Anyway, this is a story of a marriage – how they met and fell in love quickly – and betrayal. The discovery happened shortly after the birth of their first child. Jen Waite tells the story beautifully and suspensefully. She starts with the moment she read the email her husband had written that changed her world. It’s just a paragraph, which ends like this:

What I am seeing must have a logical explanation. It must be a misunderstanding. As soon as I can talk to my husband, he will explain and everything will be OK. This is not an emergency yet. If I can just hear his voice, I will be able to breathe again. Balancing the baby in one arm, I reach for my cell phone with the other, unconsciously bouncing my knees to soothe my daughter’s screams.

After that, she alternates between sections describing “Before” and “After.” The “Before” sections deal with how they met and built a life together. The “After” sections involve finding out what, actually, happened, and how she very slowly figured out the extent of his betrayal.

Jen finishes up the book describing how she has resolved to become a licensed therapist, specializing in recovery from psychopathic relationships. Yes! So it ultimately becomes a story about wresting good out of a nightmarish situation.

For me, reading it gave me a sense of solidarity – a reminder that I wasn’t the only one who ever got cheated on. (I know this intellectually, but that’s different from feeling sympathy as the author describes going through it.) But it also gave me a lovely realization of how far I’ve come. Yes, I remember being so devastated – but I am not devastated now! I remember trying to get my life back on track and find my footing – and (Wow!) I have done so! Not only am I working full-time as a children’s librarian and youth services manager – I even had my dream come true and am on the Newbery committee! And I would never have even become a librarian if my husband hadn’t left me – I was enjoying working part-time far too much.

I liked her emphasis that life goes on and we can emerge better and stronger. Yes! This is true!

You may not have such a personal connection with this book, but either way, it’s still a gripping and emotional true story. It will give you insight, compassion, and understanding for people caught in such an awful situation.

I checked the author’s website, and she’s got further encouragement for people who are putting their lives back together. May she continue to grow better and stronger because of what she’s been through.

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Moto and Me, by Suzi Eszterhas

Wednesday, August 9th, 2017

Moto and Me

My Year as a Wildcat’s Foster Mom

by Suzi Eszterhas

Owlkids Books, 2017. 40 pages.
Starred Review

This simple nonfiction book for kids was a big hit when I booktalked it to early elementary school grades.

The story is this: Author Suzi Eszterhas was living in Africa as a wildlife photographer. A baby serval was separated from his mother by some tourists who thought he was in distress during a fire. They took him to a ranger station. The baby needed a foster mother to take care of him and teach him how to live in the wild. Suzi stepped up for the job.

The story is illustrated with abundant photographs – and Moto is adorably cute! The author explains clearly how she fed and tended him. He learned on his own to hunt, practicing with the stuffed toy she gave him, Mr. Ducky. The pictures of him learning to hunt, climb trees, and puff himself up in defense (to look bigger) are also adorable.

The book isn’t long, but it’s packed with information and photos. I was fascinated by Moto’s story, and kids will be, too. And now I know much, much more about servals (African wildcats) than I ever did before.

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Review of Al Franken, Giant of the Senate, by Al Franken

Saturday, August 5th, 2017

Al Franken, Giant of the Senate

by Al Franken

Twelve (Hachette), 2017. 404 pages.

Okay, I’m going to stop being embarrassed for liking Al Franken’s books so much. Years ago, I read Lies: And the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right and enjoyed it, but I didn’t post a review because I wasn’t ready to admit how much I enjoyed it. (Though to be fair, he included more “jokes” in that one, and I thought went a little too far in spots.)

This book has a lot more restraint – and he talks about how difficult it was to learn that restraint! Yes, I also liked that he left out foul language. There’s a note right at the beginning of the book:

Throughought this volume, whenever you see a very mild oath like “Fiddlesticks!” (or some gentle name-calling like “numbskull” or “dimwit,” or some old-timey synonym for “bull—-” like “poppycock” or “flim-flummery”), followed by the letters “USS” in superscript, that means I’ve replaced something far more plainspoken with a less offensive phrase or expression. The “USS” stands for “United States Senate,” the body in which I now serve. I feel I have a duty to both my colleagues and my constituents to make at least a token effort to preserve its dignity and decorum. I wish I could say the same for that dunderhead [USS] Ted Cruz.

Call me a prude, but I found the result much more pleasant reading – and more creative language – than his earlier books where he didn’t show that restraint. (Though I did think the note was really funny!)

This book tells the story of how Al Franken got into politics and what he’s trying to do in the Senate (represent the people of Minnesota).

He’s a Progressive, and so am I, so that’s partly why I enjoyed his book so much. But it’s also an entertaining story (He does know how to write and how to entertain.) of politics in America today.

It’s funny, though – He does tell a lot of stories about jokes his staff wouldn’t let him tell! Way to get back at them! And most of them are quite funny. And the context tells the reader that they are, in fact, jokes. In almost all cases, you can see that his staff was right and he shouldn’t have told the jokes when he was initially tempted to.

The chapter on Health Care was enlightening – and timely. I also like the chapters where he shows that it is still possible to do good work on things both parties can agree on. And I like the chapters with stories of Minnesotans. These show why Al Franken is doing the work he does.

But I think my favorite chapter was the one on “Lies and the Lying Liar Who Got Himself Elected President.” He explains at the beginning that maybe it’s a little weird, but dishonesty has always gotten under his skin. I guess that rang true because I’ve always felt the same way. I feel like catching someone in a lie should be their utter disgrace.

But he goes on to say:

Back in the good old days, fact-checking politicians was a different ball game. Looking back now, it seems almost adorable that I made a decent living writing books about catching right-wing Republicans in their lies. What I did was effective, I realize now, mainly because a lot of their lies had the veneer of plausibility, and because at least some of the liars liked to pretend that they were telling the truth – which was of course a lie, but which was also part of the fun.

But now we seem to have entered an era where getting caught lying openly and shamelessly, lying in a manner that insults the intelligence of both your friends and foes, lying about lying, and lying for the sake of lying have all lost their power to damage a politician. In fact, the “Trump Effect” yields the opposite result: Trump supporters seem to approve of the fact that he lies constantly, including to them. Like a movie that is loosely based on a true story, Trump’s fans seem to feel that he is making the dull reality of politics more fun and interesting by augmenting it with gross exaggeration, and often utter fantasy.

He goes on to explain why this is important.

I really think that if we don’t start caring about whether people tell the truth or not, it’s going to be literally impossible to restore anything approaching a reasonable political discourse. Politicians have always shaded the truth. But if you can say something that is provably false, and no one cares, then you can’t have a real debate about anything….

I’ve always believed that it’s possible to discern true statements from false statements, and that it’s critically important to do so, and that we put our entire democratic experiment in peril when we don’t. It’s a lesson I fear our nation is about to learn the hard way.

That’s why my Global Jihad on Factual Inaccuracy will continue. I cling to the hope that national gullibility is a cyclical phenomenon, and that in a few short years we may find ourselves in an era of Neo-Sticklerism. And a glorious era it shall be.

One can only hope!

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Review of Hamilton: The Revolution, by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter

Thursday, August 25th, 2016


The Revolution

Being the Complete Libretto of the Broadway Musical,
With a True Account of Its Creation,
And Concise Remarks on Hip-Hop, the Power of Stories, and the New America

by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter

Grand Central Publishing (Hachette), 2016. 288 pages.
Starred Review

This book is magnificent! Now I really need to figure out a way to get to see the musical.

This is not, however, a good choice for audiobook listening. That’s how I started it, hoping maybe they’d include some clips from the show. Nope. (Only some bars as an introduction.)

The book itself has wonderful material added to the text about the musical. It includes the complete libretto, with large photographs. Most pages of the libretto, in fact, are superimposed over or printed next to large format photos of the actors singing that particular song. The libretto is peppered with notes from Lin-Manuel Miranda.

They tried to include these things in the audiobook. There are two “additional” CDs. One includes pdf files – of the libretto, perhaps with photos. (I didn’t check.) The other is Lin-Manuel Miranda reading the notes. But since the notes are simply read – out of context, not in place in the libretto (Presumably where they go on the libretto is in the pdf.) – you’re going to want to read them, anyway.

Now, I had listened to the first two CDs before I went on vacation. While in California, my sister played for me the wonderful cast album, which gave much more context to what I had listened to. When I got back, my hold came in on the print form of the book – and I learned that the words of the songs are all written out – right next to the information about writing and casting that song. So I switched to the print form and read the words to all the songs, with notes and with pictures, in the right order along with the chapter about writing that song and what it meant in context.

The story of writing and casting the musical and all that it means in America today and why it’s such a phenomenon is the subject of this book.

Here’s a section from the Introduction where Jeremy McCarter explains the plan of the book.

It tells the stories of two revolutions. There’s the American Revolution of the 18th century, which flares to life in Lin’s libretto, the complete text of which is published here, with his annotations. There’s also the revolution of the show itself: a musical that changes the way that Broadway sounds, that alters who gets to tell the story of our founding, that lets us glimpse the new, more diverse America rushing our way. The fact that Lin wrote the show largely in sequence means that this book can trace the two revolutions in tandem. The story of the show’s creation begins at the White House on May 12, 2009, when he performed the first song for the first time. It ends with opening night on Broadway, August 6, 2015, just after he completed the final scenes of the show.

The story is fascinating – both the story put into the musical and the story of the creation of the musical. I have now also placed a hold on Ron Chernow’s biography of Hamilton, which inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Here’s a section from a chapter about Ron Chernow’s help in the writing of the musical:

He walked into a rehearsal studio in the Garment District and was, by his own admission, “shocked” by what he saw. The men who were going to sing the roles of Washington, Hamilton, and the other Founding Fathers were black and Latino. Not being a rap listener, Ron hadn’t given much thought to the fact that the people best able to perform the songs that Lin had been writing might look nothing like their historical counterparts.

Lin and Tommy saw no difficulty in making this imaginative leap. In fact, they raised it to a principle. As Tommy would state it again and again in the years that followed: “This is a story about America then, told by America now.”

Within five minutes, Ron was carried away by what he heard. He became what he calls a “militant” defender of the idea that actors of any race could play the Founding Fathers.

Just having all the words of the songs is by itself a reason to get the book – because the songs are packed with information. Having read the whole thing, I’m planning to buy myself a copy of the cast album and listen to it all again – I will catch so much more.

There’s all kinds of background information here about casting the show and putting it on, but one of my favorite chapters was about special performances they did for local high schools – and the energy that the teachers harnessed and brought back to the classroom. They included some exciting stories about the students engaging with the material.

Then they ended the chapter talking about what will happen when Hamilton is licensed to be performed in schools.

Its subject matter will appeal to history teachers, its array of juicy roles will appeal to young actors, and its mélange of musical styles will appeal to almost everybody. In a given school year, they imagine, that might mean 600 or 700 student productions around the United States.

What will it mean when thousands of students step into these roles at age 15 or 18 or 20 – roles that have changed the lives of the original cast members, who encountered them at a significantly later age? Leslie says that playing a Founding Father has made him feel newly invested in the country’s origins, something that always seemed remote from his life as a black man in America. “The empathy that requires, the connections you make, the lines you draw between the things you want and the things they wanted, that you love and they loved, I never found all that connective tissue before this show.”

Lin hopes those student productions will strive for the diversity of the original production, the ethnic mix that makes Hamilton look like a message beamed back from Future America. It means that whatever impact the show might have on Broadway, and however long it might run, the biggest impact won’t be in New York: It’ll be in high school and college rehearsal rooms across America, where boys learn to carry themselves with the nobility of George Washington, girls learn to think and rap fast enough to rip through “Satisfied,” and kids of either gender (Lin isn’t doctrinaire) summon the conviction of John Laurens, the freedom-fighting abolitionist, who sings, “Tomorrow there’ll be more of us.”

The book is framed by two performances for President Obama, and there are reflections at the end that communicate part of why this musical is so inspiring.

Unless Lin made the whole thing up – and nobody has said that he did – it suggests that however innovative Obama’s speeches and Lin’s show might seem, they are, in fact, traditional. They don’t reinvent the American character, they renew it. They remind us of something we forgot, something that fell as far out of sight as the posthumously neglected Alexander Hamilton, who spent his life defending one idea above all: “the necessity of Union to the respectability and happiness of this Country.” Obama’s speeches and Lin’s show resonate so powerfully with their audiences because they find eloquent ways to revive Hamilton’s revolution, the one that spurred Americans to see themselves and each other as fellow citizens in a sprawling, polyglot young republic. It’s the change in thought and feeling that makes all the other changes possible.

The Obama presidency will end in January 2017, but the show that shares so much of its spirit will keep running. At the Rodgers that night, the president all but anointed Hamilton as a keeper of the flame. His “primary message,” he said, was to remind people of the need to keep hoping and to work together, but “this performance undoubtedly described it better than I ever could.” The most important affinity that Hamilton will carry into its future isn’t a specific message, though, political or otherwise: It’s an underlying belief in stories, and their power to change the world.

Good community organizer that he is, the president knows that stories can be an engine for empathy, and a way to show people what they share. It’s why he introduced himself, in that first big speech in 2004, by telling his own story. In the years to come, some of the many, many kids who are going to see and even perform Hamilton will be newly inspired to tell their stories too. Every time they do, the newly kaleidoscopic America will understand itself a little more.

“I can do that,” they’ll say. And if they’re like Alexander Hamilton, they’ll add, “And I can do it better.

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Symphony for the City of the Dead, by M. T. Anderson

Saturday, August 13th, 2016

symphony_for_the_city_of_the_dead_largeSymphony for the City of the Dead

Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad

by M. T. Anderson

Candlewick Press, 2015. 456 pages.
Starred Review
2016 YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults Finalist

I’m not sure why this book is marketed for young adults rather than old adults, except that it’s super interesting, contains lots of photographs, and isn’t written in tiny print. The story doesn’t pull any punches or hide any of the horrors of war, nor does it focus on the time in Shostakovich’s life when he was a young adult. But yes, it’s interesting for young adults, as any well-written narrative nonfiction would be.

The book begins with a prologue that piques the reader’s curiosity. The first scene is of a Russian agent smuggling a small box of microfilm to an American agent in 1942. The microfilm has come through Tehran, Cairo, and Brazil on its way to New York City. The contents of the microfilm? The Seventh Symphony, the Leningrad Symphony, by Dmitri Shostakovich.

Why had the Soviet government arranged so carefully for this piece to be shipped to the West across battle lines, across a Middle East that was swarming with Fascist tanks, across seas festering with enemy subs? How could it possibly be worth it?

And who was the composer of this desperately sought-after score? Dmitri Shostakovich spent the first several months of the Siege of Leningrad trapped in that city under fire, writing much of his Seventh Symphony in breaks between air raids. He had first announced that he was working on the piece over the radio in September 1941, just a few weeks after the Germans had started shelling the city. . . .

This is a tale of microfilm canisters and secret police, of Communists and capitalists, of battles lost and wars won. It is the tale of a utopian dream that turned into a dystopian nightmare. It is the tale of Dmitri Shostakovich and of his beloved city, Leningrad. But at its heart, it is a story about the power of music and its meanings – a story of secret messages and doublespeak, and of how music itself is a code; how music coaxes people to endure unthinkable tragedy; how it allows us to whisper between the prison bars when we cannot speak aloud; how it can still comfort the suffering, saying, “Whatever has befallen you – you are not alone.”

M. T. Anderson does tell the story of Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony and thoroughly explains why it was so important and why symphony orchestras all over the world wanted to perform it. But more than that, he tells the life story of Dmitri Shostakovich and the story of St. Petersburg, the city of his birth, later called Leningrad. This story requires telling the story of Communism coming to Russia, with the rise of Lenin and Stalin. And then it tells the story of World War II, and how at the outset Stalin believed Hitler’s promises and eliminated Russian military leaders who told him otherwise.

The majority of the book, though, is about the Siege of Leningrad, during which Shostakovich wrote his Seventh Symphony. This siege lasted 872 days – the longest siege in recorded history. Hitler had decided he didn’t need to attack the city – it could be starved.

The story is not pretty. The author doesn’t shy away from the deaths – and the cannibalism. Shostakovich was evacuated from the city before the end of the siege, but the author still fills us in on what was happening in Leningrad where Shostakovich’s sister was still living. Especially poignant is the story of the musicians who were still alive in Leningrad assembling to perform the Seventh Symphony.

Eliasberg [the conductor] remembered that night for the rest of his life. (It was to be the high point of his career.) “People just stood and cried. They knew that this was not a passing episode but the beginning of something. We heard it in the music. The concert hall, the people in their apartments, the soldiers on the front – the whole city had found its humanity. And in that moment, we triumphed over the soulless Nazi war machine.”

Naturally, while reading this book, especially the description of the symphony, I had to look up a performance on the internet and listen. Knowing the background made it far more meaningful.

Notes in the back explain the difficulties associated with piecing together this story. As M. T. Anderson asks, “How do we reconstruct the story of someone who lived in a period in which everyone had an excuse to lie, evade, accuse, or keep silent?” This book is an amazing piece of scholarship wrapped up in a gripping narrative and sprinkled with an abundance of photographs.

If you are at all interested in the life of Dmitri Shostakovich, the fate of musicians and artists under the Soviets, the rise of Communism in Russia, World War II and the Russian Army, or the City of Leningrad, you can’t find a more absorbing way to learn more than reading this book.

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Humans of New York: Stories, by Brandon Stanton

Saturday, August 13th, 2016

humans_of_ny_stories_largeHumans of New York


by Brandon Stanton

St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2015. 428 pages.
Starred Review

I loved Brandon Stanton’s first book, Humans of New York. Now I love his second book even more. In the first book, about half of the photographs had captions. In this book, he interviewed everyone, and includes snippets or in-depth stories from those interviews.

You still have high quality photographs of random people, in all their variety, from the streets of New York. But you’ve also got their stories.

Honestly, some of these stories will break your heart. Others will make you shake your head. Some are inspirational. Some are simply cute. There were several with the caption “Today in microfashion,” showing a small child dressed in a striking outfit.

What comes home to me after reading it is the sheer number of amazingly unique people on our planet (let alone in New York!).

Many of the stories go on for paragraphs. This isn’t as quick a read as the first book. However, I’ll quote a small selection of some tantalizingly short captions to give you an idea. Imagine wonderful photos of the people doing the talking.

“I’ve got what I want. I’ve got a place to live, a girlfriend, and a child. My biggest struggle is just figuring out how to maintain.”

“I spoil every girl I’m with. I’m bringing this dog to my girlfriend now. I’ve already gotten her a snake, a rabbit, and two dogs. She loves animals. She wants to be a vet.”

“Sometimes, when I’m going home to see her, I think: ‘Nobody should be this happy on a Tuesday.’”

“I went to a psychic the day before I met him. She told me I was about to meet the woman of my dreams. I said: ‘I’m gay.’”

“Had cancer six times. Beat cancer six times.”

“Three thousand years ago I had a disagreement with Zeus about the Trojan War, and he’s been harassing me ever since.”

“I’ve completed a series of monumental-sized drawings in ballpoint pen of girls who’ve killed their mothers.”

“It’s hard to adjust. You’re reading a story to your daughters every night, then the next thing you know, you’re only doing it once or twice a week. It’s been hard letting go. It all happened without my consent. It only takes one person to want a divorce. And that person wasn’t me.”

“She helps me with my math homework. When I run out of fingers to count on, she lets me use her fingers, too.”

“I once crash-landed a plane in a desert in Tunisia. I wasn’t even the pilot. The pilot got hysterical and I had to grab the controls.”

Reading this book is a wonderful way to celebrate the amazing diversity of humans.

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Watch Out for Flying Kids! by Cynthia Levinson

Saturday, June 25th, 2016

watch_out_for_flying_kids_largeWatch Out for Flying Kids!

How Two Circuses, Two Countries, and Nine Kids Confront Conflict and Build Community

by Cynthia Levinson

Peachtree, Atlanta, 2015. 216 pages.
Starred Review

I booktalked this book in local elementary schools this year. It’s a story about real kids, with a large format and lots of pictures — and everything in it is true.

A section of the Prologue neatly explains why this is an important book:

Watch Out for Flying Kids spotlights a little-known corner of this universe: youth social circus.

As the first word of the name suggests, “youth circus” refers to programs in which the performers are children. The nine performers featured in this book are teenagers.

The word “social” refers to the mission of bringing together young people who would not ordinarily meet — or, if they did, might fear or oppose each other. The two organizations portrayed in this book — the St. Louis Arches and the Galilee Circus — bring together young people from vastly different backgrounds and cultures through training in circus arts. The goal of both groups is to replace fear with respect and opposition with trust, changing the world one acrobat, contortionist, and flyer at a time.

Why wouldn’t these kids meet if it weren’t for circus? Why might they even fear or mistrust one another? The three white and two black troupers who are Arches live in different neighborhoods and go to different schools in St. Louis, Missouri, a city that is segregated by race and income level. The two Arabs and two Jews who perform with the Galilee Circus in northern Israel live in towns segregated by religion, ethnicity, language, and history. They represent groups that have been violently at odds with each other for hundreds of years.

Watch Out for Flying Kids shows what happens when all of them get together. That is, it demonstrates how they learn to juggle their responsibilities, fly above the fray, balance schoolwork and circus work, unicycle circles around people who doubt them, tumble gracefully through life — even when injured — and walk the tightrope of politics and friendship.

This book looks at the two circuses, the St. Louis Arches and the Galilee Circus, over the years 2005 to 2014. Nine kids in particular are highlighted and their journey described.

Performing in a circus is tremendously difficult, and the hard work and dedication required is conveyed well. The two circuses got to visit each other’s countries and perform together, and the book also shows us the challenges of working together across cultures.

This is a wonderful, inspiring and informative book about a group of kids working hard, forming a community, and putting on a great show.

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Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of The Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh, by Kathryn Aalto

Saturday, June 11th, 2016

natural_world_of_winnie_the_pooh_largeThe Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh

A Walk Through the Forest that Inspired the Hundred Acre Wood

by Kathryn Aalto

Timber Press, Portland, Oregon, 2015. 307 pages.

Back in 1999, my family and I got to visit Ashdown Forest and play Poohsticks at the original bridge, so I was delighted when I learned that someone had written a book about the place where A. A. Milne lived and where the real Christopher Robin played, the sites made famous in Winnie-the-Pooh.

This book is filled with photographs, which makes it especially wonderful. The author starts by telling the life stories of Alan Alexander Milne and Ernest Howard Shepard and how they came to collaborate.

Milne had a childhood rich in experiences of wandering the outdoors, and provided the same for his son. Telling about his life shines light on the stories he later chose to tell.

For Milne, warm early memories of roaming the natural world with his brother Ken inspired him to create the setting for what would arguably become the greatest children’s books of the twentieth century, touching generations, selling millions of copies, and being translated into dozens of languages. The books were richly inspired by his adventures with Ken and reflect themes of freedom, adventure, friendship, and cooperation. When Milne wrote about the Hundred Acre Wood, it was a way to revisit his own golden memories, as we shall soon find out.

Milne and Shepard had an unusually involved collaboration, and Milne shared royalties with Shepard, in an unusual relationship for that time.

The emotions in the illustrations came from the inkwell of his heart and observations of real-life, but Milne also had a hand in matters. He expressed how he envisioned the stories and characters. Drawings evolved in conversations over tea and lunch, in letters between the two men, at the Milne home on Mallord Street in London, and, of course, on a visit to Hartfield. Unlike Picasso, who said, “I draw not what I see but what I think,” Shepard drew from real life. In fact, his visual memory was so acute that he could re-create on paper events and people he remembered from years earlier. Knowing how Ashdown Forest inspired the stories and setting Milne created, Shepard visited and sketched Ashdown Forest in 1926, the two men walking to Poohsticks Bridge, Gills Lap, and elsewhere. The bee tree, Wol’s tree, Galleons Lap, and the Enchanted Place were real places Shepard interpreted with a notebook, pen, and pencil in hand. He wanted to capture a tangible sense of place to set the adventures. He sketched pine trees and heathland and watched Christopher Robin making mud pies with Graham, Shepard’s son, in the gardens at Cotchford Farm.

This was interesting and explains why the drawings of Winnie-the-Pooh don’t look a whole lot like the original bear belonging to Christopher Robin which is kept in the New York Public Library:

Shepard’s masterful illustrations were tenderly drawn from real life. He enhanced Milne’s characters – their dialogue, manner, and adventures – to capture the charm Milne put in words. All the creatures were drawn from Christopher Robin’s own stuffed animals except for one: Winnie-the-Pooh. This characterization was inspired by Growler, a teddy bear belonging to Shepard’s son. Years later, Shepard recalled telling Milne, rather sheepishly, how Growler lost a fight with a dog in a Montreal garden. Perhaps they commiserated. Perhaps Milne felt relief. He, too, had a secret. Roo, he revealed, had met a similar fate in the jaws of a dog in a nearby orchard.

After writing about the history of the two creators and their collaboration, the author talks about the places – actual and imaginary – from the books. This is the part that makes me want to go back to Ashdown Forest. She found the origins or inspiration for nearly all the places in the book. Yes, some of them I definitely remember visiting with my family, but I will bring this guidebook if I ever go again and find the places I missed. I will also plan more than one afternoon to spend there. She makes a strong case that the best way to explore A. A. Milne’s natural world is by walking, and there are an abundance of walking paths in Ashdown Forest.

We also would have done well with the tip to bring our own sticks to the Poohsticks bridge! There aren’t many to be found at the site where Christopher Robin played the traditional game – though we did see lots of sticks downriver! In the one site she mentions apart from Ashdown Forest area, the author and her family went to the 2014 World Poohsticks Championship in Oxfordshire.

The third section of the book tells, fittingly, about the natural world of Ashdown Forest, its history and the flora and fauna found there.

Though the Hundred Acre Wood is imaginary, you can still see it in the gorse, heather, and Scots pines of Ashdown Forest, which lives on and changes slowly over time. Milne’s classic stories also live on, showing no signs of abating in the hearts and minds of readers around the world. What many are not aware of, however, is how much history is present in this ancient landscape, shaped as it was (and is) by kings, commoners, and conservators. The forest has a story of its own – one that began long before Milne’s characters ambled in and became a part of it.

With this three-pronged approach – Milne’s life, the book places, and the history of the forest – the book feels a little repetitive. Poohsticks, for example, are mentioned more than once in each section. The author uses the least excuse to quote from Winnie-the-Pooh, which is certainly forgivable, though wasn’t always necessary (at least for this reader, who pretty much has it memorized myself). In the section about the flora and fauna, there were many photos, but they didn’t always match up to what was mentioned, though that may just be a layout issue.

Overall, this is a wonderful book that makes you want to go immediately to Ashdown Forest and spend a few weeks with the spirit of a boy and a bear playing in the Enchanted Place at the top of the forest. I wish we’d had this book before we visited, and now I must go again some day. Anyone in my family, be alerted: There is a place called The Hatch Inn in the neighborhood, where William Butler Yeats and Ezra Pound used to hang out. (My family name is Hatch.) If I had known this existed, I would have made sure to visit that as well.

How does the story continue between Christopher Robin and Pooh bear? That is a narrative left to our imaginations. But we can return to that place, the Hundred Acre Wood, with its honey trees and sandy pits, rabbit holes and tree houses. It is not merely a fabled literary landscape that exists only in our minds. It is Ashdown Forest, a living landscape where Milne walked for decades and which inspired him to set these stories. You and I can visit it today. And if you and I can visit those enchanting places in more than our imaginations, is that time of our lives truly gone?

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Headstrong, by Rachel Swaby

Monday, March 28th, 2016


52 Women Who Changed Science – and the World

by Rachel Swaby

Broadway Books, New York, 2015. 273 pages.
Starred Review

I was going to write that all parents of daughters should read this book. Then it occurred to me that this would be a fabulous book to hand to a teenage daughter. Then I realized that all educators should read this book. Finally, I realize that I think this is a book everyone should read.

Quick, name a scientist who was female and who changed the world with her work. Most people think of Marie Curie and draw a blank when they try to come up with any further names. Rachel Swaby specifically left out Marie Curie from this book. But she found 52 other women who did world-changing scientific work.

I heard Rachel Swaby speak at the 2015 National Book Festival. She was wonderful, so delighted and intrigued by the stories she’d uncovered about these amazing women. I checked out the book and since then have been reading one chapter a day. The fifty-two chapters are an easily digestible 3-4 pages, but highlight the way these women changed the world.

The author chose women who are already dead (“whose life’s work has already been completed”) and she leaned toward women who overcame obstacles, so these stories are inspiring as well as informative. She includes women who worked in the fields of medicine, biology, genetics, physics, geometry, astronomy, math, technology, and invention.

The Introduction explains why this book is so needed:

This book about scientists began with beef stroganoff. According to the New York Times, Yvonne Brill made a mean one. In an obituary published in March 2013, Brill was honored with the title “world’s best mom” because she “followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children.” Only after a loud, public outcry did the Times amend the article so it would begin with the contribution that earned Brill a featured spot in the paper of record in the first place: “She was a brilliant rocket scientist.” Oh right. That.

The error – stroganoff before science; domesticity before personal achievement – is so cringe-worthy because it’s a common one. In 1964, when Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin won the greatest award that chemistry has to offer, a newspaper declared “Nobel Prize for British Wife,” as if she had stumbled upon the complex structures of biochemical substances while matching her husband’s socks. We simply don’t speak of men in science this way. Their marital status isn’t considered necessary context in a biochemical breakthrough. Employment as an important aerospace engineer is not the big surprise hiding behind a warm plate of noodles. For men, scientific accomplishments are accepted as something naturally within their grasp. . . .

We need not only fairer coverage of women in science, but more of it. . . .

As girls in science look around for role models, they shouldn’t have to dig around to find them. By treating women in science like scientists instead of anomalies or wives who moonlight in the lab as well as correcting the cues given to girls at a young age about what they’re good at and what they’re supposed to like, we can accelerate the growth of a new generation of chemists, archeologists, and cardiologists while also revealing a hidden history of the world.

By her own standards, Hertha Ayrton was a good scientist. So was the detail-oriented seismologist Inge Lehmann, and the firecracker neuroembryologist Rita Levi-Montalcini, too. The scientists in this book aren’t included because they were women practicing science or math in a time when few women did – although by that criterion, many would fit. They’re included because they discovered Earth’s inner core, revealed radioactive elements, dusted off a complete dinosaur skeleton, or launched a new field of scientific inquiry. Their ideas, discoveries, and insights made earth-shaking changes to the way we see the world (and that goes for the seismologist, too). . . .

So instead of calling every standout woman in science the Marie Curie of her field, the next time someone really lives for their work, let’s call them the Barbara McClintock of their specialty. If a scientist charts new territory, let’s refer to them as the Annie Jump Cannon of their particular exploration. If a researcher puts herself in physical danger for an experiment, let’s say she’s like any number of the scientists here who worked with radioactivity or mustard gas.

There are fifty-two profiles in this book. Read one a week, and in a year you’ll know whose research jump-started the Environmental Protection Agency, who discovered wrinkle-free cotton, and even whose ingenious score has now saved generations of struggling newborns. So little coverage has been dedicated to these scientists elsewhere that, in going through these profiles, I hope you’ll feel like you’ve gained a breadth of knowledge that rivals that of Salome Waelsch.

This book hit home to me because I was one of a small minority of women in a graduate mathematics department in the 1980s. It would have done me good to know that outstanding scientists and mathematicians who were women were nothing new at all.

And the book is interesting, too! Each brief biography begins with an intriguing paragraph and then gives you the rest of the story about these women who indeed overcame challenges and accomplished great things.

This book would be a fantastic place to start for novelists looking for actual historical characters with fascinating lives. I say this because I’ve already read a wonderful novel about one of the featured scientists, Sophie Kowalevski, Beyond the Limit, by Joan Spicci. I’m left wanting to know more about most of these amazing women.

Here are a few introductory paragraphs to get you intrigued:

Maria Sibylla Merian loved bugs long before scientists had uncovered their mysteries, loved them at a time when few people were interested in those vile, disgusting things. Acquantances assigned credit or blame for her unusual passion to her mother, who had looked at a collection of insects while Merian was still in the womb. Something about those pinned and polished bodies, shimmering powdery wings, and articulated legs instilled a fascination in the child growing inside her.

Two members of the division of war research at Columbia University spent an entire day grilling Chien-Shiung Wu about her work in nuclear physics. Regarding their own top-secret projects, the interviewers remained dutifully mum until the very end of the day, when they asked if Wu had any idea what they were up to. She cracked a smile. “I’m sorry, but if you wanted me not to know what you’re doing, you should have cleaned the blackboards.” They asked her to start work the next morning.

During the last two and a half decades of her 103 years, Italians liked to joke that everyone would recognize the pope, so long as he appeared with Rita Levi-Montalcini. Though she stood only five feet, three inches, the stories of her work and her life were as large and dramatic as her iconic sideswept hair.

Alice Hamilton’s professional successes – of which there were many – fell at the intersection of science and social issues. Although she earned a degree in medicine from the University of Michigan, gaining further training in bacteriology and pathology at the University of Leipzig and the University of Munich, she didn’t think herself capable of becoming anything more than a “fourth-rate bacteriologist.” But what she lacked in bravado, she made up for in her dedication to problems both “human and practical”: typhoid outbreaks, lead poisoning, and the widespread horror of occupational disease.

Learn the fascinating stories of these and forty-eight other women and along the way become better informed about history and better understand how capable women are and have long been at being scientists.

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Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Furiously Happy, by Jenny Lawson

Wednesday, October 21st, 2015

furiously_happy_largeFuriously Happy

A Funny Book About Horrible Things

by Jenny Lawson

Flatiron Books, New York, 2015. 329 pages.
Starred Review

Jenny Lawson is The Bloggess, the author of one of the funniest blogs on the Internet. I listened to her first book, Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, and laughed and laughed. I’m trying to remember why on earth I didn’t review it, and suspect it’s probably because I was embarrassed to recommend someone who uses so much coarse language to my prim and proper friends? But I’ve since recommended some of her columns, particularly the one about Beartrum, to enough friends to be sure that the laughter far outweighs any outrage. (And maybe my friends aren’t so prim and proper after all?)

This one, too, has plenty of coarse language and plenty of talk about body parts that don’t usually come up in polite society. But oh my goodness, Jenny Lawson is just so funny. And this book has some open and honest talk about mental illness, which makes it all the better and gives it a great message even beyond making you laugh.

This is not, I’m afraid, a good book to bring to a doctor appointment to read in the waiting room. I brought it, realizing that it’s a good book to dip in and out of, and knowing I wouldn’t be bored. However, I hadn’t stopped to think how I would sound giggling nonstop or letting out random chuckles and snorts. I tried to contain them, but didn’t completely succeed. At the very least, I was smiling ridiculously, looking pretty similar to the raccoon on the cover.

As Jenny says in the disclaimer:

This is a funny book about living with mental illness. It sounds like a terrible combination, but personally, I’m mentally ill and some of the most hysterical people I know are as well. So if you don’t like the book then maybe you’re just not crazy enough to enjoy it. Either way, you win.

The “Furiously Happy” title comes from a blog post the author wrote about being Vehemently, Furiously Happy, just to spite her depression.

This didn’t mean that I wasn’t still depressed or anxious or mentally ill. I still spent my share of weeks in bed when I simply couldn’t get up. I still hid under my office desk whenever the anxiety got too heavy to battle standing up. The difference was that I had a storeroom in the back of my mind filled with moments of tightrope walking, snorkeling in long-forgotten caves, and running barefoot through cemeteries with a red ball gown trailing behind me. And I could remind myself that as soon as I had the strength to get up out of bed I would again turn my hand to being furiously happy. Not just to save my life, but to make my life.

Yes, there’s serious and very helpful talk about mental illness, but there are also random funny bits and hilarious stories. I can’t think of a better way to review this book than to quote a few. I’ll try to limit it to bits without swearing. (If swearing really bothers you, alas, you should avoid this book. Also, you might not want to listen to it in the family car.)

“I’m not going to say I told you so” is pretty much the same thing as saying “I told you so.” Except worse because you’re saying “I told you so” and congratulating yourself for your restraint in not saying what you totally just said.

The phrase “Rest in peace” seems incredibly self-serving. It basically means, “Stay in your grave. Don’t haunt me.” The opposite would be “Fitfully toss” or “Go jogging.”

I don’t understand why people keep pushing that “Don’t be some random person. BE UNIQUE” message. You’re already incredibly unique. Everyone is incredibly unique. That’s why the police use fingerprints to identify people. So you’re incredibly unique . . . but in the exact same way that everyone else is. (Which, admittedly, doesn’t really sing and is never going to make it on a motivational T-shirt.) So none of us are unique in being unique because being unique is pretty much the least unique thing you can be, because it comes naturally to everyone.

People who think it’s so hard to find a needle in a haystack are probably not quilters. Needles find you. Just walk on the haystack for a second. You’ll find the needle. They’re worse than floor-Legos.

Talking about Rory, the taxidermied raccoon on the cover:

Victor thinks taxidermy is a waste of money, claiming that “there are only so many things you can do with a dead raccoon.” But I have proven him wrong time and time again. Victor pointed out that what he’d actually said was “There are only so many things you should do with a dead raccoon,” and honestly that does sound more like something he’d say, but I still disagree.

There’s an essay about when her doctor prescribed antipsychotics. I like this paragraph. She knows how to look on the bright side and make you laugh, too.

Truthfully, though, there are some advantages to being on antipsychotics. First off, you can say you’re on antipsychotics. This might seem silly but when you go to the pharmacy and you’re standing in line with twenty germy people sneezing all over the place you can honestly say, “Would you mind if I went first? I have to pick up my antipsychotic meds and I REALLY needed them yesterday.” This tactic also works for grocery lines, the DMV, and some buffets.

Here’s some good logic:

Technically, if I were farther away from the center of the Earth then I’d be subjected to less gravity and then I would weigh less. So I’m not really fat. I’m just not high enough. Victor says I sound pretty high already but I suspect he’s just being insulting.

But the simple fact is, there’s no such thing as real weight. Only mass. Weight depends entirely upon the gravity of wherever you are, which is why if you weigh yourself on the top of Mount Everest you’d be closer to outer space and you would weigh slightly less than you would at home. But you’d have to lug a scale up to the top of Mount Everest to prove it, which would suck. Honestly, they should just leave a scale up there for people. Although, maybe they already have one, because who’s going to drag a scale back down Mount Everest? That would be crazy. Frankly, I never understood why people climb that thing in the first place, but if there’s a scale up there telling you that you’re skinnier than you think then I guess I can see the draw. . . .

Regardless, on the moon I weigh about as much as a large toaster, so using that logic I’m not overweight. I’m simply overgravitated. Spell-check says that I can’t be “overgravitated” because that isn’t a real word and suggested that I probably meant to say that I’m “overly aggravating.” Victor says spell-check has a point.

Spell-check and Victor are both dead to me.

Perhaps if people are so concerned with obesity they should just work on making the Earth have less mass so there’s less gravity. . . . Victor says this is a clear case of “deflection” and I agree because I assume “deflection” is something scientific used to deflect mass from Earth and, thus, make us all lighter. Victor says he thinks I don’t know what “deflection” means. I think Victor doesn’t know what “being supportive” means. (It means letting me lean on him a little when I’m standing on the bathroom scale.) I think this is all pretty commonsense. Victor says it’s not at all.

And the Bloggess is so good at helpful ways to think about yourself!

I try not to get caught up in appearance issues though because my grandmother always used to say, “It’s what’s inside that counts.” And that’s probably true because with my luck my best feature would be hidden deep, deep inside my body. I suspect my best feature is my skeleton, which is a shame because it might be the most elegant and hauntingly graceful skeleton ever but I’ll never get complimented on it while I’m still fleshy enough to appreciate it. That’s why I’d like people to say “Nice skeleton” to me now. Just give me the benefit of the doubt, you know?

I’ve started handing out similar compliments to strangers, but not about their skeletons, because that would seem disingenuous or even sarcastic since I’m already pretty sure I have the sexiest skeleton ever. It’s dead sexy. See what I just did there? I credit my skeleton with that joke. Clever and beautiful. No, instead I say things like “I’d wager you have an exquisite pancreas.” Or “I bet your tendons are fantastic.” People are usually so overwhelmed that they move away very quickly or tell me they don’t have any money on them. No one is ever prepared to accept compliments from strangers about their internal organs, which just goes to show how seldom we compliment them.

Along those same lines, I love the part where she explains that the person we should be comparing ourselves to is Galileo. But first I have to include where she explains the Spoon Theory:

The Spoon Theory was created by a friend of mine, Christine Miserandino, to explain the limits you have when you live with chronic illness. Most healthy people have a seemingly infinite number of spoons at their disposal, each one representing the energy needed to do a task. You get up in the morning. That’s a spoon. You take a shower. That’s a spoon. You work, and play, and clean, and love, and hate, and that’s lots of spoons . . . but if you are young and healthy you still have spoons left over as you fall asleep and wait for the new supply of spoons to be delivered in the morning.

But if you are sick or in pain, your exhaustion changes you and the number of spoons you have. Autoimmune disease or chronic pain like I have with my arthritis cuts down on your spoons. Depression or anxiety takes away even more. Maybe you only have six spoons to use that day. Sometimes you have even fewer. And you look at the things you need to do and realize that you don’t have enough spoons to do them all. If you clean the house you won’t have any spoons left to exercise. You can visit a friend but you won’t have enough spoons to drive yourself back home. . . .

Really, the only people you should be comparing yourself to would be people who make you feel better by comparison. For instance, people who are in comas, because those people have no spoons at all and you don’t see anyone judging them. Personally, I always compare myself to Galileo because everyone knows he’s fantastic, but he has no spoons at all because he’s dead. So technically I’m better than Galileo because all I’ve done is take a shower and already I’ve accomplished more than him today. If we were having a competition I’d have beaten him in daily accomplishments every day of my life. But I’m not gloating because Galileo can’t control his current spoon supply any more than I can, and if Galileo couldn’t figure out how to keep his dwindling spoon supply I think it’s pretty unfair of me to judge myself for mine.

You’ll even get complimented if you read this book:

How can we be expected to properly judge ourselves? We know all of our worst secrets. We are biased, and overly critical, and occasionally filled with shame. So you’ll have to just trust me when I say that you are worthy, important, and necessary. And smart.

You may ask how I know and I’ll tell you how. It’s because right now? YOU’RE READING. That’s what the sexy people do. Other, less awesome people might currently be in their front yards chasing down and punching squirrels, but not you. You’re quietly curled up with a book designed to make you a better, happier, more introspective person.

You win. You are amazing.

But my favorite bit of all is when she recounts what her husband Victor said to her. He’s a gem. (I won’t get into how this contrasts with something specific my ex-husband said to me about the chronic headaches I used to get. Let’s just say I love Victor vicariously for this sentence.)

Last month, as Victor drove me home so I could rest, I told him that sometimes I felt like his life would be easier without me. He paused a moment in thought and then said, “It might be easier. But it wouldn’t be better.

Well look at that. I was only going to quote a few good bits. There are far too many! And there are many, many more where that came from! If any of these made you smile, read the book! I can honestly say it left me happier, encouraged, and feeling much better about my own failings and my own quirky, wonderful life.

It didn’t, however, give me the slightest inclination to start collecting taxidermy. However, I am glad that The Bloggess does, and thus brings joy to people all over the world.

Buy from

Find this review on Sonderbooks at:

Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

What did you think of this book?