Review of Heart and Soul, by Maeve Binchy


Heart and Soul

by Maeve Binchy

Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2009.  418 pages.

Starred review.

Sonderbooks Stand-out 2010: #4 Fiction

Maeve Binchy’s books are warm, friendly, and cozy.  She specializes in telling stories about a community of people.  In Heart and Soul, the community is a new heart clinic in Dublin.  We look through windows into the lives of the people who come to work at the clinic, the patients, and others touched by them.

To add to the fun, the author brings back old friends who played a part in her earlier books.  You definitely don’t need to have read the earlier books to appreciate Heart and Soul, but it does make you feel that you are catching up with old friends.  I found myself wishing that I had not missed her last book, Whitethorn Woods.  I will definitely have to rectify that.

In Maeve Binchy’s earlier books, there seemed to be a pattern that the more ideal the marriage seemed, the more sure you could be that it was doomed.  These more recent books are gentler.  People still have problems, but personally I’m glad that there are less dirty rotten cheating husbands than in some of her earlier books.  Her characters cope with their problems with courage, compassion and resilience, and it’s delightful to spend time in the company of these people.

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Review of Tales from Outer Suburbia, by Shaun Tan


Tales of Outer Suburbia

by Shaun Tan

Arthur A. Levine Books (Scholastic), 2008.  96 pages.

Starred review.

Truly Shaun Tan is the supreme master of the short-short story genre!

This book contains fifteen illustrated stories that are strange, strange, strange.  They are bizarre, they are haunting, and they are completely delightful.

There’s water buffalo who lives on the corner and points people in the right direction.  There’s an exchange student who leaves a surprising gift.  There’s a boyish expedition to the edge of the world.  All the stories are told as if someone’s matter-of-factly telling something that happened to them, once.

This is the sort of book you have to share.  I found myself exclaiming over each story, so of course I got my teenage son to read it.  Even that wasn’t enough, as I decided I had to share it with my other son, too, so this is his present for his twenty-first birthday. 

As The Arrival did, in many ways this book creates an entirely new category.  Let’s see, I suppose you might call it illustrated science fiction short-short stories.  I think I’ll just call it irresistible.  Try it yourself — read one story and see if you aren’t too intrigued to stop.

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Review of The Composer Is Dead, by Lemony Snicket


The Composer Is Dead

written by Lemony Snicket

music by Nathaniel Stookey

illustrations by Carson Ellis

HarperCollins Publishers, 2009.  36 pages.  1 CD

I love these new Peter and the Wolf wannabes!  Like The Shoebird, The Composer Is Dead is a picture book story with orchestration.  The accompanying CD is narrated by Lemony Snicket himself.

The story is fun, though not particularly captivating.  However, it does serve to introduce the instruments of the orchestra, and I did find the accompanying music beautiful.

The composer is dead.  All the instrumental sections of the orchestra are suspects, but they have a wide variety of alibis.  A lot of generalities are given about the instruments, which are sometimes fun and sometimes simply stereotypical.

The Violins answered first, of course.  The violin section is divided into First Violins, who have the trickier parts to play, and the Second Violins, who are more fun at parties.

The tuba said, “I’m a confirmed bachelor.  I was home all night playing cards with my landlady, the Harp, taking sips of warm milk from a little blue cup.”  The accompanying tuba and harp duet was particularly beautiful.

I thought the closing was a bit lame — that orchestras have murdered composers for years, so this is no different.  So the mystery in the book falls rather flat.

As with The Shoebird, this adds some nice variety to ways you can teach kids about the orchestra.  This one had nicer music and a story that helps listeners notice the differences between the types of instruments.  I don’t think it’s time to throw away Peter and the Wolf yet, but this is a nice addition to the Introduction-to-the-Orchestra repertoire.

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Review of A Curse as Dark as Gold, by Elizabeth C. Bunce


A Curse as Dark as Gold

by Elizabeth C. Bunce

Arthur A. Levine Books (Scholastic), 2008.  395 pages.

Winner of the William C. Morris YA Debut Award 2008.

Starred review.
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2010: #4 Fantasy Teen Fiction

I do love fairy tale retellings.  A Curse as Dark as Gold takes the basic story of Rumpelstiltskin and sets it in a woolen mill shortly before the Industrial Revolution.  The author retains the feeling of magic and romance, and gives us a determined and strong heroine.

When Charlotte Miller’s father dies, leaving an enormous mortgage on the mill, Charlotte knows she must do something to keep Stirwaters running.  The entire village depends on the mill for their livelihoods.

But everyone says there’s a curse on the mill, and as soon as Charlotte and her sister Rosie overcome one seemingly insurmountable obstacle, another one rises up to take its place.  So when a strange man who calls himself Jack Spinner offers to help, Charlotte seems to have no choice.

This story is dark, as it does involve curses and difficulties.  But Charlotte is such a determined, capable character, you quickly find yourself rooting for her to succeed, even though you can’t imagine how she’ll pull it off.

The author fills the story with details about the woolen industry before the industrial revolution, so it almost feels more like a historical novel than a fantasy.  However, there is a strong undercurrent of magic, which practical Charlotte does not want to acknowledge.

This is a magnificently written book, and I’m excited to learn it’s Elizabeth Bunce’s first.  If this is how she begins her writing career, I will eagerly wait to see what she writes next!

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Review of A Is For Art: An Abstract Alphabet, by Stephen T. Johnson


A Is For Art

An Abstract Alphabet

by Stephen T. Johnson

A Paula Wiseman Book (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers), New York, 2008.  42 pages.

Starred Review.

Here’s an alphabet book for adults!  Or teens.  Or children.  A Is For Art is amazing and thought-provoking and clever and playful all at once.

The illustrations are photographs of actual abstract art works.  The artist says,

“For the past six years I have been exploring the English dictionary, selectively choosing and organizing particular words from each letter of the alphabet and, based solely on the meanings of the words, developing a visual work of art.  I took ordinary objects and made them unfamiliar, removing functionality in order to reveal their potential metaphorical associations, which can lead in turn to overlapping and sometimes paradoxical meanings.  I call these individual works ‘literal abstractions’ and the ongoing series An Abstract Alphabet….

“And just for fun, I have included the letter shapes of each letter of the alphabet in all the works.  Well, most anyway — you’ll see.

“For me, art, like language, is about discovery.  At its very best it can be moving, transcendent.  Or on a visceral level it can simply make one laugh out loud.  Art provokes, confounds, challenges, surprises, informs, rejuvenates, and stretches our way of seeing the world.  We cannot get enough of it.  So I hope that my work in this book will ignite and inspire dialogues about art, words, and ideas, which might quicken children and adults to generate creative associations and explore new ways of pulling abstractions out of the real.”

This book, left around, will pull people into delighted browsing.

My personal favorite was the sculpture for the letter M.  Here’s the explanation:

Meditation on the Memory of a Princess

“Motionless, a man-made, monochromatic magenta mass mimics multiple mattresses and makes a massive mound near a mini mauve marble.”

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Review of Miss Spitfire, by Sarah Miller


Miss Spitfire

Reaching Helen Keller

by Sarah Miller

Atheneum Books for Young Readers, New York, 2007.  208 pages.

Starred review.

Here’s the novelized story of Annie Sullivan, Helen Keller’s teacher.  Sarah Miller does a magnificent job making us feel what it must have been like for a poor orphan to come miles to teach a spoiled, passionate blind and deaf child, who showed an ability for clever imitation, but didn’t show glimmers of understanding.

Annie taught Helen discipline, and then gave her the power of words.  But she might never have persevered if she hadn’t been a spitfire herself.

This book carries the reader into a compelling piece of history, and gives us a window into the mind of someone whose sheer stubbornness was responsible for a miracle.  But how amazing that she didn’t give up before that wonderful day came!

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Review of Sandy’s Circus, by Tanya Lee Stone


Sandy’s Circus

A Story About Alexander Calder

by Tanya Lee Stone

illustrated by Boris Kulikov

Viking, 2008.  36 pages.

Here’s another delightful picture book biography.  It gives you a feel for what the artist has done and makes you want to know more.  The story is told on a level that will intrigue both children and adults.  I especially enjoy the playful illustrations.

“There once was an artist named Alexander Calder.  Only he didn’t call himself Alexander.  And he didn’t call the things he made art.”

Tanya Lee Stone and Boris Kulikov beautifully capture the inventive, experimental quality of Sandy Calder’s art.  They show how he playfully created a moving, working circus out of wire.  His art was more than a static display to look at.  It was a show where things happened.

The author tells us that “even the mobiles that hang over baby cribs would not exist without Calder.”  This is the story of a man who brought a sense of play into his life’s work.

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Review of Hate That Cat, by Sharon Creech


Hate That Cat

by Sharon Creech

Joanna Cotler Books (HarperCollins), 2008.  153 pages.

Starred review.

Hooray!  Miss Stretchberry moved up a grade, and Jack is in her class once again!  This wonderful follow-up to Love That Dog features Jack doing further explorations with poetry as well as coming to terms with the cat next door.

Hate That Cat plays with language, as Jack writes poems in the style of poets like William Carlos Williams, Walter Dean Myers, and even Edgar Allen Poe.  (The example poems are included at the back.)

This is a wonderful exploration of what you can do with poetry, but along the way it tells a heart-warming story about Jack, who still misses his dog, Sky.

Here’s a wonderful poem Jack writes about his mother, who is deaf:


(Inspired by Mr. Edgar Allan Poe)

by Jack

See her hands in the air waving here waving there!

What flickering formations

those compositions dare!

How she sing sing sings

in a swish and a bound

bringing sound sound sound

To the silence of the air

to the silentabulation of the hush

and the hums

of the air, air, air, air,

air, air, air–

of the humming and the hushing

of the air.

This book doesn’t take long to read, but it will inspire even an adult reader to look at poetry in a new way.

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Review of Shattered Dreams, by Larry Crabb


Shattered Dreams

God’s Unexpected Pathway to Joy

by Larry Crabb

Waterbrook Press, 2001.  218 pages.

Using the Biblical story of Naomi, in Shattered Dreams, Larry Crabb talks about how sometimes God’s best for us comes through the destruction of all our hopes.  Sometimes our deepest, truest dream can only happen when our superficial dreams are shattered.

He explains it this way:

“The highest dream we could ever dream, the wish that if granted would make us happier than any other blessing, is to know God, to actually experience Him.  The problem is that we don’t believe this idea is true.  We assent to it in our heads.  But we don’t feel it in our hearts.

“We can’t stop wanting to be happy.  And that urge should prompt no apology.  We were created for happiness.  Our souls therefore long for whatever we think will provide the greatest possible pleasure.  We just aren’t yet aware that an intimate relationship with God is that greatest pleasure.”

Sometimes, when our dreams shatter, and we feel pain, and God doesn’t make the pain go away:

“It’s there that we discover our desire for God.  We begin to feel a desire to know Him that not only survives all our pain, but actually thrives in it until that desire becomes more intense than our desire for all the good things we still want.  Through the pain of shattered lower dreams, we wake up to the realization that we want an encounter with God more than we want the blessings of life.  And that begins a revolution in our lives.”

I thought of this book as an excellent reminder.  I didn’t feel like the author was saying anything brand new, but it was good to hear someone giving voice to the truth that God can work through our pain.  Through difficult times, we can learn to desire God — and find Him — as at no other time in our lives.

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Review of The Verbally Abusive Relationship, by Patricia Evans


The Verbally Abusive Relationship

How to Recognize It and How to Respond

by Patricia Evans

Adams Media Corporation, Second Edition, 1996.  218 pages.

This book is the Patricia Evans book originally recommended to me by a friend.  This was the first one she wrote, shedding light on the problem of verbal abuse.  The other books expand on the ideas presented here.  I highly recommend all of the books.

Verbal abuse is a crazy-making situation.  The author explains how the verbally abusive person and his partner are coming from two completely different realities.

“Because of his need for dominance and his unwillingness to accept his partner as an equal, the verbal abuser is compelled to negate the perceptions, experiences, values, accomplishments and plans of his partner.  Consequently, the partner may not even know what it is like to feel supported and validated in her relationship.  She may take his negation as a lack of common interest or as a misunderstanding.  In truth, a verbally abusive relationship is a more or less constant invalidation of the partner’s reality.”

The author elaborates:

“The fact that she can’t come to an understanding with her mate simply because he is abusive and will defeat her through abusive power plays is almost incomprehensible to the partner.  Not coming to this realization, however, leaves the partner living in an incomprehensible reality where she is blamed for the battering of her own spirit.”

Being blamed for the battering of her own spirit is the line that resonated with me.  As if it’s not bad enough to be told that one is a terrible person, reality is twisted so that if she protests, now she’s told she’s someone who’s always fighting, a terrible, argumentative person.

Patricia Evans also explains why it’s so difficult to break out of such a situation:

“Extraordinary self-esteem is precisely what is required to recognize that her mate is in another reality — that he sees the world through the model of Power Over.

“Unfortunately, living with a verbal abuser increasingly undermines the partner’s self-esteem making recognition that much more difficult.  It takes tremendous self-esteem to validate one’s own reality when no one else seems to have done so.  Sometimes, just a book that describes it, or knowing that one person “out there” understands can make all the difference.”

Perhaps this is why I found this book so affirming, so life-changing.  She gives a name to the words that were making me feel terrible.  They are verbal abuse.  No wonder I feel bad.

“Verbal abuse:  Words that attack or injure, that cause one to believe the false, or that speak falsely of one.”

Often this takes the form of rewriting history, such as picking lots of fights and then saying that the partner is so argumentative, no one could live with her.

Patricia Evans also discusses at length how to respond to verbal abuse.  She compassionately warns you that it is difficult and encourages you that you have taken a big step in simply being able to recognize abuse.  She affirms that abuse is irrational, and it is not your fault.

I like this encouragement:

“Don’t ever delude yourself into thinking that you should have the ability to stay serene no matter how you are treated.  Your serenity comes from the knowledge that you have a fundamental right to a nurturing environment and a fundamental right to affirm your boundaries.”

In a divorce, the primary form verbal abuse takes is accusing and blaming.  The author has some good words to say about responding to accusing and blaming:

“Don’t spend a second trying to explain that you weren’t doing what you were accused of doing or guilty of what you were blamed for.  Just say, ‘Stop it.’  Abusive statements are lies about you which are told to you.  They violate your boundaries.  The abuser in effect invades your mind, makes up a ‘story’ about your motives, and then tells it to you.  No human being has the right to do that to another.

“Generally, accusing and blaming involve lies about the partner’s intentions, attitudes, and motives.  They leave her feeling frustrated and misunderstood and, therefore, especially desirous of explaining herself.  If she does try to explain herself, the abuse is perpetuated.

“One more word about ‘explaining.’  If you are encountering abuse and feel that if you could explain things he’d understand, remember this:  If someone started throwing rocks through your windows, you would be more inclined to tell him to stop than you would be to explain to him why he shouldn’t throw rocks.  Verbal abuse is like a rock thrown through your window.”

She also talks about recovery.

“Recovery from verbal abuse is the opportunity to accept all your feelings and to recognize their validity.  You may be the first person to recognize and accept them and to know that they are not wrong.  They are, as we have said earlier, indicators that something is or was wrong in your environment, and it isn’t you.”

She includes a list of affirmations that support victims of verbal abuse, adapted from a list by Jennifer Baker Fleming.  I like the list so much, I’m going to include them all here:

I can trust my own feelings and perceptions.

I am not to blame for being verbally abused.

I am not the cause of another’s irritation, anger, or rage.

I deserve freedom from mental anguish.

I can say no to what I do not like or want.

I do not have to take it.

I am an important human being.

I am a worthwhile person.

I deserve to be treated with respect.

I have power over my own life.

I can use my power to take good care of myself.

I can decide for myself what is best for me.

I can make changes in my life if I want to.

I am not alone; I can ask others to help me.

I am worth working for and changing for.

I deserve to make my own life safe and happy.

I can count on my creativity and resourcefulness.

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