Archive for July, 2009

Review of Wise Guy, by M. D. Usher

Friday, July 24th, 2009

wise_guyWise Guy

The Life and Philosophy of Socrates

by M. D. Usher

Pictures by William Bramhall

Farrar Straus Giroux, New York, 2005. 36 pages.

I find it rather amazing that M. D. Usher was able to write an accessible picture book biography of Socrates, based entirely on ancient sources (as the endnote declares).

The book tells an entertaining, vividly illustrated story, with sidenotes on scrolls that simply and clearly explain details of Socrates’ life and philosophy. I especially like the pictures of Socrates dancing. We’re told he loved to party.

Here’s an example of one of the sidenotes:

“What is an idea? Is it a thing you can smell, taste, or touch? If not, is it any less real than a bed or table? What is the difference between the idea of a bed and the bed itself? Socrates argued that the carpenter must have an idea or image of a bed in his mind before he can go about building one. But where does this idea come from in the first place? Socrates seems to have believed that objects in our world have an invisible, eternal blueprint to which they correspond. The eternal blueprint of a bed may not seem so very interesting, but Socrates applied the idea to larger concepts, like right and wrong and good and bad. Just as a carpenter with vast knowledge and experience can make a good bed, and in turn be a good carpenter, a person who has studied the blueprint of right and wrong can be a good person.”

This isn’t a book that students will seek out for reports, but it’s an entertaining picture book biography with surprisingly intriguing ideas. Reading this book gave me the idea of making a display at the library of picture book biographies — as a group they are underappreciated and hidden away in the more “serious” biographies. But they make intriguing reading, are highly educational, and give you an inspirational look at the lives of some truly great people.

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Review of Emotional Freedom, by Judith Orloff

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2009

emotional_freedomEmotional Freedom

Liberate Yourself from Negative Emotions and Transform Your Life

by Judith Orloff, MD

Harmony Books, New York, 2009. 401 pages.
Starred Review

Judith Orloff defines emotional freedom by saying,

“It means increasing your ability to love by cultivating positive emotions and being able to compassionately witness and transform negative ones, whether they’re yours or another’s. . . . With true emotional freedom, you can choose to react constructively rather than relinquishing your command of the situation whenever your buttons get pushed, as most people do. This lets you communicate more successfully and gain more confidence in yourself and empathy for others. Then you own the moment no matter whom or what you’re facing.”

This book doesn’t present a simplistic approach. I like that about it.

Recently, a friend asked me when I’m going to forgive my husband. I was taken aback. I thought I already have forgiven him! But on thinking about it, forgiveness from a deep wound is complicated. You still have pain from the wound. New things happen that bring up new anger. If lies were involved, there’s a certain need to discover truth. Then there’s fear of being hurt again, especially if the person who hurt you is unrepentant.

Judith Orloff acknowledges the complicated nature of emotions, and presents tools for helping you face the negative ones and begin transforming them into positive ones.

The word transformation sums up her approach. She’s not trying to make you give up or suppress your negative emotions. She’s simply giving you tools to begin transforming them.

She specifically looks at seven important transformations in the seven last chapters:

Facing Fear, Building Courage

Facing Frustration and Disappointment, Building Patience

Facing Loneliness, Building Connection

Facing Anxiety and Worry, Building Inner Calm

Facing Depression, Building Hope

Facing Jealousy and Envy, Building Self-Esteem

Facing Anger, Building Compassion

Another nice thing about the book is that, while reading it through gives you good reminders of helpful ways to lift your emotions, when you actually find yourself in the negative emotion, you can use the book as a cookbook of ideas to help you transform it.

As a physician, she has some ideas of how your body and biology can help you. For example, if you’re lonely, boost your oxytocin. If you have trouble with fear, lower your intake of caffeine.

As an empath, she also gives you ideas for letting your intuition help you. As well as some ideas about spirituality, energy flow, and psychology as they relate to these emotions.

Altogether, this book has many wise ideas about dealing with negative emotions, and I imagine at least one of these ways of looking at them is one you’ve never considered before.

I also like that she doesn’t say that negative emotions are bad and positive ones are good. The use of “negative” and “positive” have more to do with how they feel. She acknowledges that everyone has negative emotions aplenty. But she helps us use the energy they bring with them to transform into a more powerful and more pleasant emotional state.

I’m not sure how much of this book I really grasped on the first reading. As I said, I think I’d like to pick it up the next time I’m feeling depressed, for example, and think about her ideas for using that energy to move into hope.

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Review of The Frogs and Toads All Sang, by Arnold Lobel

Tuesday, July 21st, 2009

frogs_and_toads_all_sangThe Frogs and Toads All Sang

by Arnold Lobel

color by Adrianne Lobel

HarperCollins, 2009. 29 pages.

This book is based on a discovered treasure — a little handmade book that Arnold Lobel had given to Crosby Bonsall as a Christmas gift long ago. The book was black and white, so for this delightful picture book version, his own daughter filled in the drawings with color.

The frogs and toads in this book were created before The famous and beloved Frog and Toad. The book consists of ten short, sweet, and silly poems, each including frogs, toads, or polliwogs.

There’s nothing profound or tremendously significant here. But somehow, the poems beg to be read aloud. And when you finish reading the book, I am quite sure you will be smiling.

Very nice. And a lovely discovered legacy from a much-beloved author.

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Review of Dreamdark: Silksinger, by Laini Taylor

Monday, July 20th, 2009



by Laini Taylor

G. P. Putnam’s Sons, Penguin Young Readers Group, September 2009. 441 pages.
Starred review.
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2010: #6 Fantasy Teen Fiction

I thought that the first Dreamdark book, Blackbringer, was excellent. Laini Taylor built an intricate world of feisty fairies and told a tale of a young fairy becoming a champion and saving the world.

Silksinger is simply awesome.

In this book, Laini Taylor weaves together six or seven different plotlines in a beautiful tapestry rivaling the carpets of the Silksingers. The world is already built (Yes, I think you should read Blackbringer first.), so now she can get down to the business of weaving a glorious tale.

Not that she doesn’t show us more surprising and imaginative details of that world. We meet new fairies with wonderful new magical abilities, whose clans have long and storied histories, all wound and interwoven together.

Magpie is back, the feisty champion from the first book, with her friend Talon. (And the romance between them is so gently done!) The book opens with Magpie taking on a challenge.

“‘The Tapestry of Creation is failing,’ hissed the Djinn King.

“Looking up at him, Magpie Windwitch could see why the few humans who had ever glimpsed fire elementals had mistaken them for devils. With his flaming horns and his immense bat wings of hammered gold, he was magnificent and terrifying. Sparks leapt from the eye slits of his golden mask as he said, ‘My brethren must be found, little bird. Do you understand?’

“‘Aye, Lord Magruwen,’ Magpie said. ‘I understand.'”

Then, by contrast, we meet Whisper Silksinger, helpless in a desperate flight from a horde of devils. After her grandparents sacrifice themselves to save her, she’s alone on the ground, a “scamperer” whose wings don’t work.

“Tears glistened in Whisper’s lashes but didn’t fall, and ashes caught there and clumped. She was too stunned even to grieve. The teakettle had rolled onto its side in the sand and she stared at it, unblinking.

“Inside it burned an ember. It didn’t look like much, a small seed of fire, but devils would kill for it, her grandparents had died for it, and the world depended on it. And now it fell to her to keep it safe.

“What would she do? She couldn’t go home — the devils had found them there. Where could she go? She knew nothing of the world beyond her island. She couldn’t fly, and she was no warrior — she had no weapon, and she wasn’t even brave.”

We find ourselves wanting sweet and vulnerable Whisper, with the amazing gift, to be able to find the strength to save the world. To somehow survive long enough to complete her task.

Meanwhile, someone else with secrets shows up along her path. He wants to be a champion. Why do visions keep leading him to quiet little Whisper?

And who set the devils on Whisper and her grandparents? Will they find her again? What power has even dragons under its control?

I got to read an advance review copy of this book, but it is already available for pre-order on Amazon. The September publication date will give you time to read the delightful first book. Then you will be set to be blown away by Silksinger.

Although this book comes to a satisfying conclusion, the saga is not over yet, and I’m so glad! I hope the audience for these wonderful books will build as the series continues, because if Laini Taylor continues with books like Silksinger, the series will be truly magnificent!

One of the author’s strengths is to come up with imaginative details. I don’t want to give anything away, so let me just say that the abilities of the new clans and fairies who are introduced are surprising and delightful. It’s also great fun to hear stories of adventures that could be happening right under our noses, and we are just not perceptive enough to see it.

One thing’s for sure: If you ever find an abandoned bottle that appears to have a genie inside, whatever you do, don’t open it!

Dreamdark gives you fairy tales unlike any that have gone before.

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Review of Summers at Castle Auburn, by Sharon Shinn

Sunday, July 19th, 2009

castle_auburnSummers at Castle Auburn

by Sharon Shinn

Ace Books, New York, 2001. 355 pages.
Starred Review

“The summer I was fourteen, my uncle Jaxon took me with him on an expedition to hunt for aliora. I had only seen the fey, delicate creatures in captivity, and then only when I was visiting Castle Auburn. I was as excited about the trip to the Faelyn River as I had been about anything in my life.”

Corie is the illegitimate daughter of a lord. She has been apprenticed to her grandmother, a village witch. She never met her father, but after his death, her uncle found her and persuaded her grandmother to let her spend summers at Castle Auburn.

“When I learned who my traveling companions were to be, I stopped complaining and began dreaming. Bryan of Auburn was everything a young prince should be: handsome, fiery, reckless, and barely sixteen. Not destined to take the crown for another four years, he still had the charisma, panache, and arrogance of royalty, and not a girl within a hundred miles of the castle did not love him with all her heart. I did, even though I knew he was not for me: He was betrothed to my sister, Elisandra, whom he would wed the year he turned twenty.

“But I would be with him for three whole days, and say clever things, and laugh fetchingly. I expected this trip to be the grandest memory of my life.”

This is the opening of the book Summers at Castle Auburn, and the trip does become an important memory for Corie, but partly because of how much her opinions change over the years.

As she reaches adulthood and Bryan approaches his coronation, Corie begins to think differently about the custom of taking the aliora into captivity, and about her Uncle Jaxon who is so skilled at capturing them.

She begins to think differently about Bryan. We as readers can see from the beginning his petulance and selfishness and pride, but Corie’s eyes get opened more gradually. After that, she begins to see more clearly her sister’s feelings about the upcoming wedding. Or does anyone really know what her sister is thinking?

As for Corie, what place does she have in the castle? Can she do anything about the injustices against the kind aliora? Which of her two lives — in the castle or in the village — will determine her life path?

Our library has this classified in the adult section, but it’s a coming-of-age tale, and completely appropriate for teens, too. I found the story compelling enough for it to keep me going without stopping until the early hours of the morning, much to my annoyance! But it was a good tale, and though I fervently wished at work that day that I had read it in at least two sittings, I was still glad I read it.

There isn’t a lot of magic in the story — the main touch of fantasy is the fairy-people, the aliora and the imaginary herblore. A fine tale of romance and power in a medieval setting.

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Review of The Parents We Mean to Be, by Richard Weissbound

Monday, July 13th, 2009

parents_we_mean_to_beThe Parents We Mean To Be

How Well-Intentioned Adults Undermine Children’s Moral and Emotional Development

by Richard Weissbourd

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston, 2009. 241 pages.

Here is an interesting look at how we can help our children to grow up to be morally and emotionally strong. I recommend the book more for people who work with children or teens and are interested in cultural trends, but individual parents will find it interesting, too.

One significant point from the the book that struck me was reminding the reader that we are never done developing as a moral and emotional person — and our children are watching us. He reminds us not to hide our struggles and our growth from our children, because they are definitely watching.

In the introduction, the author says,

We are the primary influence on children’s moral lives. The parent-child relationship is at the center of the development of all the most important moral qualities, including honesty, kindness, loyalty, generosity, a commitment to justice, the capacity to think through moral dilemmas, and the ability to sacrifice for important principles. . . .

“What I am acutely aware matters most as a parent is not whether my wife and I are ‘perfect’ role models or how much we talk about values, but the hundreds of ways — as living, breathing, imperfect human beings — we influence our children in the complex, messy relationships we have with them day to day.”

The book was based on research, including surveys, interviews, and focus groups. It presents some very interesting conclusions that don’t necessarily match what we think about kids learning “values.”

Richard Weissbourd says about the research,

“Much of what we found was heartening. Many parents care deeply about their children’s moral qualities, and we uncovered a wide variety of effective parenting practices across race, ethnicity, and class. This book takes up key, illuminating variations in these practices.

“Yet we also found much that is troubling. Some adults hold misguided beliefs about raising moral children, and some parents have little investment in their children’s character. And the bigger problem is more subtle: a wide array of parents and other adults are unintentionally — in largely unconscious ways — undermining the development of critical moral qualities in children.

“This book reveals this largely hidden psychological landscape — the unexamined ways that parents, teachers, sports coaches, and other mentors truly shape moral and emotional development. It explores, for example, the subtle ways that adults can put their own happiness first or put their children’s happiness above all else, imperiling both children’s ability to care about others and, ironically, their happiness. It shows not only how achievement-obsessed parents can damage children, but also how many of us as parents have unacknowledged fears about our children’s achievements that can erode our influence as moral mentors and diminish children’s capacity to invest in others. It explores why a positive parent instinct that is suddenly widespread — the desire to be closer to children — can have great moral benefits to children in certain circumstances but can cause parents to confuse their needs with children’s jeopardizing children’s moral growth. It reveals how the most intense, invested parents can end up subtly shaming their children and eroding their moral qualities, and it shows the hidden ways that parents and college mentors can undermine young people’s idealism.

“At the same time, this book describes inspiring parents, teachers, and coaches who avoid these pitfalls, as well as concrete strategies for raising moral and happy children. And it makes the case that parents and other adults have great potential for moral growth. Moral development is a lifelong project. Parenting can either cause us to regress or cultivate in us new, powerful capacities for caring, fairness, and idealism, with large consequences for our children. What is often exciting about parenting is not only the unveiling of our children’s moral and emotional capacities, but the unveiling of our own.”

Definitely interesting reading!

I also found it significant that one of the author’s conclusions is that we need community. This is exactly what my church stresses as one of the most important parts of the Christian life. Doesn’t this paragraph support the importance of community?

“Reducing parental isolation — giving parents more opportunities to support one another — and creating a sense of communal responsibility for children is a second critical challenge. When parents have trusting, respectful connections with one another, they are more likely both to be effective with their own children and to monitor and guide one another’s children.”

Now, the author recommends building up community family support programs, but the way this talked about the benefits of community resonated for me with what I was hearing at church. We’re better parents if we don’t try to parent in isolation.

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Review of Graceling, by Kristin Cashore

Saturday, July 11th, 2009


by Kristin Cashore

Harcourt, Orlando, 2008. 471 pages.
Starred review.
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2010: #5 Fantasy Teen Fiction

Katsa has a Grace. Like every child whose eyes settle into two different colors, Katsa has an extraordinary gift, and was sent to the court of the king, her uncle, until it became clear what her Grace would be and if it would be useful to him.

When she was only eight years old, it became clear that her Grace was killing. She can fight and defeat anyone, with weapons or not. The king did indeed find this gift useful, and from the time that she was ten, he ordered Katsa to do his bullying for him, to punish anyone who displeased him.

Now that she is eighteen, she is finding ways to rebel, ways to use her Grace to help people, to fight injustice instead of causing it. On one mission, she encounters a mystery. Why would anyone want to kidnap the kind old father of the king of Lienid?

Then she meets the old man’s grandson, a prince of Lienid, who is also apparently Graced with fighting, and the first real challenge she’s ever encountered. They begin practicing together, and Katsa is horrified to find herself beginning to trust this man. They decide to tackle the mystery together.

This book has a great story of adventure against impossible odds, with a tremendously likable heroine who can defeat almost anyone or anything. Woven into the story is Katsa’s struggle with who she is. Is she a killing machine for a bully of a king to use for his purposes, or can she choose to be something more?

I found the romance particularly wonderful, as we watch Katsa wrestling with her feelings and her habits of not trusting anyone. I thought that part especially well-written and delightful to read.

Parents, this book isn’t for young teens. Katsa is not interested in marriage, and she and the prince decide to be lovers. Their encounters are described tastefully, even beautifully, but they are described. You might want to discuss your opinion of Katsa’s choice not to marry. To me, it seems consistent with her character and her difficulties with trust. But on the other hand, it’s clear that either one of the lovers would be completely devastated if the other one were to take advantage of the “freedom” they’ve been granted. I like the way Kristin Cashore shows us Katsa talking about being free to leave her lover, but then having tremendous difficulty actually doing it, even when their lives depend on it.

All in all, I thought the romance, with all its ambivalence and wildly fluctuating new feelings for Katsa, was the most beautifully written part of this magnificent book. I’m amazed that it’s a first novel, and am now among those eagerly looking forward to the sequel, Fire, which comes out in October 2009.

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Review of the Audiobook The Last Battle, by C. S. Lewis, performed by Patrick Stewart

Thursday, July 9th, 2009

last_battle_audioThe Last Battle

by C. S. Lewis

performed by Patrick Stewart

Harper Audio, 2004. 5 hours, 5 compact discs.
Starred review.
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2010: Wonderful Rereads

When I saw the library had The Last Battle on audio CD, performed by Patrick Stewart, I snapped it up without a moment’s hesitation. Patrick Stewart could make the phone book sound entertaining!

This is the last book of The Chronicles of Narnia, which I’ve read so often I’ve lost track of how many times. It struck me on this listening that this one isn’t so much about the story as it is about describing the wonders of what heaven may be like. After all, the main characters don’t win the last battle — they are defeated, but then Aslan makes all wonderfully right.

So I’m not sure you could really enjoy this book if you don’t believe in heaven. If you do, however, here’s a chance to glory in the magnificent voice of Patrick Stewart marvelling over the wonders of what may be in store for us. Definitely an uplifting treat!

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Review of the print version.

Review of The Forgiving Self, by Robert Karen, PhD

Wednesday, July 8th, 2009

forgiving_selfThe Forgiving Self

The Road from Resentment to Connection

by Robert Karen, PhD

Doubleday, New York, 2001. 288 pages.

Even quite a few years into the divorce process myself, I still feel that anyone going through a divorce can benefit from thinking about forgiveness, if only for your own sanity!

I’ve read quite a few books on forgiveness. This one by Robert Karen took a more academic approach, a psychological approach, to the subject. I especially liked the way he explored many different aspects of forgiveness, including our natural tendency not to forgive.

I read the book slowly, and it gave me plenty of food for thought. I maintain that thinking about forgiveness can’t help but be a good thing.

Robert Karen says,

“When I first turned my attention to forgiveness, it seemed a worthwhile, if unexciting, topic. But as I immersed myself, I realized that forgiveness is as fundamental and important as any topic in psychology. There are few places it can’t take you. It embraces the meaning of love and hate, the nature of dependency, the torments of envy, the problems of narcissism and paranoia, as well as the tension between self-hatred and self-acceptance, between striving for maturity and refusing to grow up. . . .

“In our capacity or failure to forgive we reveal our ability to recognize the humanity in someone who has hurt or disappointed us, as well as to see our own limitations and complicity. It represents an ability to imagine what life is like on the other side of the fence, where another human being is engaged in his own struggle, to let go of the expectation that people exist to be just what we need them to be. And this sensibility applies to our view of ourselves, too: for forgiving others is nothing but the mirror image of forgiving oneself. Significant acts of forgiveness also entail letting go of a precious story we tell about ourselves, risking the awareness of a larger, less self-justifying truth.

“What we do in the realm of forgiveness . . . speaks to the magnitude of our self-centeredness and the extent to which we organize the world into a simple pattern of good versus bad, as opposed to a more mature ability to tolerate ambiguity and ambivalence. In the capacity to forgive we see our largeness of heart. And, in struggling to forgive what is most difficult for us to forgive, we reveal our courage, imagination, and potential for growth. The development of forgiveness is, I now think, as clear a marker of general psychological development as there is.”

I found myself posting several quotations from this book on Sonderquotes. I recommend this book for some deep thinking about all that forgiveness means in our lives.

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Review of The London Eye Mystery, by Siobhan Dowd

Tuesday, July 7th, 2009

london_eye_mysteryThe London Eye Mystery

by Siobhan Dowd

David Fickling Books, New York, 2007. Originally published in Great Britain, 2007. 323 pages.
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2010: #5 Other Teen Fiction

“We took Salim to the Eye because he’d never been up before. A stranger came up to us in the queue, offering us a free ticket. We took it and gave it to Salim. We shouldn’t have done this, but we did. He went up on his own at 11.32, 24 May, and was due to come down at 12.02 the same day. He turned and waved to Kat and me as he boarded, but you couldn’t see his face, just his shadow. They sealed him in with twenty other people whom we didn’t know.

“Kat and I tracked Salim’s capsule as it made its orbit. When it reached its highest point, we both said, ‘NOW!’ at the same time and Kat laughed and I joined in. That’s how we knew we’d been tracking the right one. We saw the people bunch up as the capsule came back down, facing northeast towards the automatic camera for the souvenir photograph. They were just dark bits of jackets, legs, dresses and sleeves.

“Then the capsule landed. The doors opened and the passengers came out in twos and threes. They walked off in different directions. Their faces were smiling. Their paths probably never crossed again.

“But Salim wasn’t among them.

“We waited for the next capsule and the next and the one after that. He still didn’t appear. Somewhere, somehow, in the thirty minutes of riding the Eye, in his sealed capsule, he had vanished off the face of the earth. This is how having a funny brain that runs on a different operating system from other people’s helped me to figure out what had happened.”

This mystery reminds me of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, narrated as it is by someone whose “brain runs on a different operating system from other people’s.” This one is much less grim and offers an intriguing mystery with a believable solution.

This book is, fittingly, more cerebral than emotional, since Ted isn’t very good at reading emotions. Though we can see the emotions of everyone in his family are on edge when Salim disappears, and the author handles it well.

I’m not sure when I’ve last read such an enjoyable mystery appropriate for middle school students through teens. Ted is a young teen himself, but the reader can believe that he had the insight and noticed the details to solve the mystery. It isn’t a case, as in some mysteries for young people, of just happening to deal with stupid adults.

My biggest regret, after reading this book, is that I never went up in the London Eye when I was in London.

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