Sunday, July 3, 2016

Spring Adventures....Some Virtual, Some Real

We’ve had a good time this spring, and that includes some time for escape reading and literal escapes.  Ricky went to Guatemala for two weeks with his friend who speaks Spanish fluently and has family and friends there.  Ricky, intrepid explorer, got an insider’s view of the towns they visited. 
Panajachel Lago Atitlan Guatemala
Market Scene
Ricky on swinging bridge
When Ricky returned, we hosted a retirement party at our house for one of his friends and colleagues from the Cardiac Cath Lab at the VA Hospital.  Ricky was happy to welcome her into the ranks of the retired.  That same weekend we were delighted to welcome as houseguests some friends from New Orleans.  No problem, the more, the merrier.   

Then the next weekend we headed to Myrtle Beach, SC to meet up with my two sisters and their husbands for some time at the shore. 
Myrtle Beach, SC
Beach Dining
This weekend we’re celebrating the Fourth of July with another friend’s retirement party and a Fourth of July birthday party for a girlfriend’s eight-year-old. 

No matter what I’m doing, though, a book is close at hand. 

Berkley Prime Crime, 2004
Years ago a friend turned me on to Professor Gideon Oliver, the so-called “Skelton Detective,” so when I saw one of these mysteries by Aaron Elkins in my Little Free Library, I snagged it to read.  It was fun to reacquaint myself with the fictional professor and his Park Ranger wife Julie, especially since this adventure occurred in an Italian villa.  A child is kidnapped, a skeleton is uncovered on the villa grounds, and no one is quite who they seem to be. This wasn’t a great book, but I enjoyed reading about Gideon Oliver and his forensic investigations.  The prolific Elkins, a forensic anthropologist born in 1935, continues to write the Gideon Oliver books and serves on the Olympic Peninsula [Washington] Cold Case Task Force.  He has written another series featuring a museum curator of Renaissance and Baroque art, and writes two series with his wife, Charlotte Elkins. 

Penguin Press, 2001

I’ve tried to read books in this unique series but never got very far before I quit.  Apparently I never started with the first book in the collection, or perhaps I was just in the mood to read an unusual book this spring.  This time, Agent Thursday Next’s world made sense to me within the rules of this version of 1985 Great Britain where characters can pop out of their novels, either voluntarily or taken by force, and people can enter books through a portal invented by Thursday’s eccentric uncle.  Her father can stop time and time travel, so he’s always popping in and out of her life.  Great Britain’s literary resources are taken very seriously.  There are riots over who wrote Shakespeare’s plays.  In this book, Next’s mission as Special Operative in the Literary Detection unit is to find Jane Eyre, who has been kidnapped from the pages of the Bronte novel, before harm comes to her.  For whatever the reason, this time I clicked with the book and thoroughly enjoyed my time in this alternate universe.  Fflorde who lives in Wales gave up a career in the film industry to write books.

Grand Central Publishing, 2011
Harry Bosch is approaching retirement from the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) Open-Unsolved Homicide Unit, which investigates unsolved murders going back 50 years.  He is also trying to be a good single parent to his teen-age daughter.  Bosch and his partner Daniel Chu are assigned a cold case with a couple of strange details.  DNA evidence has been analyzed from a 1989 murder/rape and is linked to a perpetrator who is in custody, already convicted of a rape.  The only catch is this guy was 8 years old when the first crime was committed.  Bosch and Chu are charged with figuring out what is going on.  At the same time a prominent councilman and vocal LAPD critic’s grown son either jumps or is dropped from a hotel balcony, a real high hotel balcony.  The councilman insists that Bosch be assigned his son’s case.  In the end, Bosch solves both cases, but justice for all the victims is harder to come by.

I recently succumbed to temptation and bought the first two Harry Bosch mysteries, because I was heading to Myrtle Beach for my vacation and needed reading material.  Of course reading time turned out to be rare, but I was prepared to read while catching some rays, either at the beach or at the pool.   

Grand Central Publishing, 1991

I started this novel at the beach and finished it quickly upon my return home.  A body is discovered in a large drainage pipe at Mulholland Dam near the Hollywood sign.  It turns out to be a recently deceased guy who LAPD Detective Harry Bosch knew years ago in Vietnam, a fellow tunnel rat.  The death was set up to look like a drug overdose but Harry is suspicious.  The dead man appears to be connected to a big bank heist.  Harry must discover who else is involved in the daring bank vault theft.  He doggedly pursues the case despite roadblocks put in his path by the FBI and his own LAPD.  The beautiful FBI agent, Eleanor Wise, enters Harry’s life in this book.  Harry finds her irresistible but can he trust her, and how many people are going to die before Harry can expose the truth?  

I'm afraid my distance traveling may be over for awhile as I've scheduled knee replacement surgery for later this month.  In the meantime, we have a couple mini-adventures, or in-state trips coming up. I guess I'll have a chance to tackle my shelf of TBR books now. 

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

One Thousand White Women: the Journals of May Dodd, by Jim Fergus
(NY: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1998)

A birthday gift from my sister-in-law and her husband, this book somehow got buried in my TBR pile.  I recently uncovered it and read it.  Wow!  This novel takes you on a wild ride into the North American West of 1875.

The Cheyenne are trying to find a way to assimilate into the white man’s culture.  The chief Little Wolf travels to Washington, DC to make an unusual request.  He asks the government to provide the Cheyenne with 1,000 white women who are willing to marry Cheyenne men, have their babies, and thus produce a generation who can bridge the culture gap.  Cheyenne culture is a matrilineal society.  All children belong to their mother’s tribe.  Thus, the “mixed” children resulting from these unions would be members of the dominant white society and could help their elders live together in peace.

The book’s premise is based on a real request, made in 1854 at a Fort Laramie peace conference, by a Cheyenne chief who thought it would be a perfect way to merge the cultures.  In real life the request for white women wasn’t positively received, but in this novel author Jim Fergus examines the question, what if this exchange had occurred? 

Fergus convincingly describes May Dodd and the other women who volunteer for this government assignment using Dodd’s letters and journals as his literary vehicle.  Life on the plains, living as one of the spouses of Chief Little Wolf, unfolds vividly through the eyes and experiences of May Dodd.

A beautifully written book, One Thousand White Women was a regional book award winner of the Mountains and Plains Independent Booksellers Association.  It is historical fiction at its best.  The Western expansion left a trail of death, destruction, and broken treaties.  This novel captures this unfortunate reality all too well.

Several days after reading this book, Ricky and I attended a house concert in Shreveport to hear the band 2-Bit Palomino, featuring husband-wife team, Ren and Andi Renfree and their fellow performer, Bill Ward.  This concert series in our neighborhood features singer/songwriters in an intimate listening setting. 
Photo from Shreveport House Concert series Facebook page
Female vocalist Andi Renfree who sings lead, back-up and plays percussion and harmonica in the band co-wrote a song, The Buffalo Grass, which perfectly fit with the feelings I was experiencing after reading One Thousand White Women.  The lyrics of the song are provided if you want to listen to 2-Bit Palomino’s Bill Ward sing it, or rodeo cowboy/singer Chris LeDoux also recorded it shortly before his death.

"The Buffalo Grass"

It’s been forty-five days since the snows have begun
I stare at the fire and long for the sun
As the bitter winds blow through the mouth of the pass
I sit here and dream of the Buffalo grass

The ponies are shaggy; their coats have grown long
With heads down, they huddle together as one
At the window my breath forms a mist on the glass
As I patiently wait for the Buffalo grass

The Seasons still turn
And the prairies still yearn
For those who were here long ago
The Sioux have all gone and the Bison moved on
Soon, I will follow them home

Mollie passed in September and left me alone
Now my heart is as heavy and round as a stone
Too many years have gone by too fast
And I long for the feel of the Buffalo grass

The animals sleep while the world holds its breath
The woods are as still and as silent as death
When the mountain streams flow, spring will follow at last
And the wind will blow free through the Buffalo grass

The Seasons still turn
And the prairies still yearn
For those who were here long ago
The Sioux have all gone and the Bison moved on
Soon, I will follow them home

The geese will return as a symbol of change
The elk will be foraging out on the range
Once again nature’s palette will color the pass
And I will find peace in the Buffalo grass
Yes, I will find peace in the Buffalo grass

Sunday, June 26, 2016

The Head Start Community Assessment, or What I Did This Spring

This is what I consider a “cleansing post,” because it bridges the gap between when I last posted and now.  I have to write clean-the-desk post(s) before I can move on, but it won’t hurt my feelings if you don’t read this long, somewhat academic post. 

This spring I signed a contract with my former employer, the agency that operates the Head Start program in Caddo Parish.   For a fee, I agreed to compile a community assessment for the program, a task that must be completed every five years.  I had done the last one and thought it would be a simple process of looking at the sources I used before, finding the updates, plugging new figures into the old document, and I’d be finished.  I was wrong, wrong, wrong!  The process turned out to be extremely time-consuming.  I’ve either been working on it or procrastinating working on it, thus, powerless to do anything else, for months. 

Desk during community assessment and my faithful dog companion

The stack on the right is the rapidly growing stack of parent surveys.
I decided that the agency needed to conduct a parent survey to determine whether the program is meeting the needs of the students and their families, as well as determining what challenges the families had faced during the last program year. 

I devised a survey that borrowed heavily from a document recommended by the national Head Start folks, but it was long—two pages of questions.  I foolishly didn’t use an app for the survey, nor did I use a bubble answer form that could be calculated by machine.  No, it was all to be done by hand—first the families’ responses, then hand-tabulated by me.  I figured this would be a pilot year, and only a few families would complete the survey, then the survey could be streamlined based on our experience and become a tool used annually by Head Start.

Over 500 families responded to the survey, almost exactly one-third of the families served—Head Start is funded to serve 1,564 preschool students annually. This unexpected response would keep me busy every night, hand-tallying the results.  Ninety-four per cent of those responding indicated that they were satisfied with the overall preschool program. Transportation services (or the lack thereof) had caused frustration for some families.  When asked about their feelings about the teachers and assistant teachers, 96% of those queried said they were satisfied.  Some folks indicated they were neutral to the two questions, but only one parent said they were dissatisfied. Other questions yielded similar results. 

The administration and I were pleased with the results.  Sometimes unhappy parents get more of our attention than the quiet, satisfied parents, and we don’t feel as successful as we actually are.

In addition to the parent survey, I researched and reviewed census data, Head Start and Early Head Start (HS/EHS) program information reports, statistics from state agencies, and assessments done by various groups that showed the strengths and needs of our community, primarily Caddo Parish.  I organized all the studies and statistics in a binder, behind tabs corresponding to the services provided by Head Start—education, health, nutrition, mental health, etc. and wrote a 35 page summary of my findings.

The Binder
Like many of the reports I consulted, I concluded that the problems of child poverty, generational poverty, and the negative population growth of Caddo Parish present big challenges for all Caddo citizens.  A high poverty rate and fewer people translate into an inadequate tax base to meet the community’s needs.  Other problems often accompany poverty, which I also addressed in my assessment, as well as listing some stressors experienced and reported by the Head Start families.

While it would be easy to be discouraged by the persistent issues facing our community, the voices of the parents of the Caddo Community Action Agency HS/EHS students lifted me up when they answered open ended questions about their experiences with CCAA Head Start.  I end with some of their words:

The staff was absolutely amazing, so friendly from the moment you walk through the doors. 

Communication and education friendly. Love & love & love

My daughter has become very outspoken and teaches her little brother what she learns at school.

I love the CCAA Head Start program.

I love the staff.

Great staff!  Keep up the great works. Love & miss you guys.

More than satisfied.

I love this preschool

Love her teacher’s patience

My child teachers rocked!  Pleased with the outcome, would recommend [them to anyone]!

I appreciate everything Head Start has done for my kids.  Thanks a bunch.

Love his teacher and the way she interacts with her students

Love the staff.  My son really enjoys going to school each morning.

All employees at the center are very friendly and welcoming.  Informative and helpful. Great job!

I saw a difference in my child as she began learning at school.  I was happy.

Thanks for all you do!

This has been such a wonderful program, it has been God sent!

I’m proud of my child’s progress at this center.

I am pleased with the growth academically I have seen in my child.

My daughter S—turned out better than I thought. Thank you for the wonderful help with her.

Doing a great job!

The Head Start is doing a great job with my children.  The teachers are great!

C—has learned a lot this school year.  She has two of the world’s best teachers.

This is a great school for my son.  He just wakes up and says he’s ready to go.

Mrs. M-- & Mrs. W—are the best teachers ever!

The staff is excellent with the kids.

Keep up the good work.

Good Job.

Thank you for a great year!!

I’m very pleased with K—‘s accomplishments.

Thank y’all for working with us this year.

Thanks for everything & teaching my child and preparing him for elementary [school].

For every lesson plan I was able to comment on things that I felt needed to be worked on.

The teachers really help with my twins social skills.

We go over what is going to be done [taught] each week.

I was able to express what help I thought my child needed.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Spring Reading

My personal reading challenge continues to be reading the books I already own, now amended to include those that find their way to me via our Little Free Library.  It feels like my TBR stack reproduces each night, and I fall behind daily in any effort to keep current on recently published books.  Mostly, I just read what I want to read.

This spring, my light fiction reading list has included the following:
The Lincoln Lawyer, by Michael Connelly (NY: Grand Central Publishing, 2005)

This book found its way to me from someone else’s Little Free Library.  This Connelly series features Mickey Haller, a defense lawyer, still in love with his ex-wife, a prosecuting attorney in the District Attorney’s office.  The book starts slow but picks up its pace, so it kept me reading late into the night, but I still prefer the police procedurals of LAPD Detective Harry Bosch.  A wealthy real estate agent is accused of the attempted murder of a prostitute.  Mickey is hired to defend him, but is the man innocent, or is Mickey being played?  The book was made into a movie starring Matthew  McConaughey. A theme of Connelly’s seems to be how well justice is served by the systems of law enforcement and the judicial process.  While Haller and Bosch always prevail, justice sometimes doesn’t.
Dead with the Wind, by Miranda James (NY: Berkley Prime Crime, 2015)

This series features sisters An’gel and Dickce Ducote, 84 and 80 years of age.  I like to see older protagonists in mysteries, plus this book was set in Louisiana, so I decided to read it.  The plot strains credulity more than once.  The sisters are invited to a family wedding but before it can take place, the bride, a real Bridezilla, is found dead, apparently swept off her balcony during a violent thunder storm?!  For real?  See what I mean?  The most interesting thing about this book is the author, Miranda James, is actually Dean James, a long-time librarian in Texas.  He started out writing non-fiction reference books about mysteries with a collaborator, then got into fiction writing and has since authored 18 whodunits.

Mrs. Pollifax, Innocent Tourist, by Dorothy Gilman (NY: Fawcett, 1997)

Such a treat to find a Mrs. Pollifax mystery in my Little Free Library—it just doesn’t happen often enough!  Emily Pollifax, the sixtyish senior citizen who studies judo and occasionally undertakes a clandestine mission for the CIA, is persuaded to go to Jordan with another agent to pose as an innocent tourist.  All they have to do is hang out at a popular tourist spot to obtain a book manuscript being smuggled out of Iraq.  Mrs. Pollifax, as usual, is in the right, or wrong place (depending upon one’s perspective) at the right time and ends up neck deep in multinational intrigue.  Never one to be under-estimated, Emily Pollifax survives with a little help from a Bedouin family.  The last two Mrs. Pollifax mysteries I’ve read have featured themes concerning turmoil in the Middle East.  Gilman is timely even though her novel was written 20 years ago.  Early in the book, Gilman writes that Mrs. Pollifax understands, “America was no longer immune to terrorism and bombs.”   Later a Jordanian character says, ”I think it is our one big danger of a country….That the extreme ones may become powerful and force our women to wear the heavy veils again…all of us to become unfree, when we have become quite free here. Of fear.”   

Julia’s Chocolate, by Cathy Lamb (NY: Kensington Publishing Corp, 2007)

Someone gave me this chick lit book.  Because it had the word “chocolate” in the title and because it had an intriguing opening line, I put it on a shelf and mentally marked it, “To be decided.”  I wasn’t sure I wanted to read the book, but the first line, “I left my wedding dress hanging in a tree somewhere in North Dakota,” reeled me in.  Julia Bennett is a runaway bride, leaving her wealthy but abusive fiancé at the altar.  She seeks refuge at the home of her aunt, who provided her with the only safe haven she knew as a child, and Julia knows she could count on her aunt.  Her aunt has a cadre of female friends who gather weekly to share, drink, shed inhibitions and empower each other and themselves.  The book is full of female rituals that Aunt Lydia makes up, but each woman is able to overcome her own “devil” because of the foundation gained at Aunt Lydia’s.   Julia is no exception.  In the end, it is the information about the author that interested me as much as the book.  A former fourth grade teacher, Lamb has written over a dozen books of women’s fiction.  She admits that she edits every book twelve times, eight times before she will submit the manuscript to her editor.  I enjoyed reading blog posts on her website as she provides insights into her life and her writing process.

We had a little bit of trouble last month with the Little Free Library.  About midnight on a Friday night, my husband comes flying down the stairs and says, “A group of kids just went by the library, stopped, and did something to it.  I’m not sure what, but I’m going to see.”

The six boys ran down the street when my husband went outside.  They had dumped all the books out on the ground and thrown some further down the sidewalk.  Ricky said, “I’m calling the police to report vandalism.” 

Soon two police cars pulled up in front of our house.  The officers looked at the books scattered about and the female officer told my husband, “Another officer has these kids two blocks up the street.”

She told the second officer to tell the officers to detain the youth while she reviewed the video.  She looked at our video of the incident, noted which boys did what, and asked Ricky if we wanted to press charges.  She and Ricky agreed that the boys hadn’t destroyed property, it was simple vandalism, but Ricky told her, “If you could scare them, it would be good.”

The police left.  We went to bed.

The next morning, I was in the house with the front door open and the screen door latched.  I heard someone walking up on the front porch.  It was a woman and her son.  The mother was making the boy come by our house to apologize for his part in the vandalism of the Little Free Library. She was one upset mother!  It seems a group of boys were spending the night together and had sneaked out.

The young man apologized.  I told him he could help me put all the books back in the library.  We talked a little as we worked.  It turns out he loves to read, he said The Count of Monte Cristo is his favorite book. I recommended another book from the LFL, and after examining it, he decided to check it out. 

While the boy and I were putting the library back together, a woman and her two kids stopped by. She thanked Ricky and me for finding her toddler's shoe, which the child had kicked off unbeknownst to the mother.  Ricky had found it and put it in the LFL for her to reclaim later.  The mom said she had never seen us outside to thank us personally. Then her grammar school-age son piped up and added, "You have good books in there, I like them."
We were glad the boys were apprehended before they got themselves in a real jam. Little Free Libraries—character and community building!



Monday, May 2, 2016

"Gardening’s real when so much of the world ain’t."

Gardening’s real when so much of the world ain’t-- Loretta Lynn (April/May 2016 AARP magazine)

Horse trough raised garden
Some people don’t like having an overabundance of garden produce, but I dream of such a problem—it makes cooking and eating fun and creative experiences.  Years ago when I was teaching school and enrolled as a graduate student at the University of Tennessee, I had part ownership of a large vegetable garden.  We were inundated with spinach and Swiss chard.  I had never even heard of Swiss chard!  This was before the internet so I pored through cookbooks hunting for suitable recipes.  I remember a chard and Parmesan cheese bake, but I’m not sure what else I came up with.  Other people in the house also had cooking responsibilities so they probably fixed “messes” of mixed greens and corn bread, and we all ate well.

I’m originally from a small town located in a wide valley between mountain ridges in Southwest Virginia.  Many people there agree with Loretta Lynn and still plant a garden, and harvest time inevitably brings forth an abundance of squash.  You would be hard pressed to enter a home that didn’t have at least one loaf of zucchini bread in the freezer, waiting for a new neighbor to move in, a friend to fall ill, the birth of a baby, or a bereavement.   Zucchini bread covers it all.

When I had an overabundance of zucchini in grad school, thanks to the largesse of a friend (as it was before I moved into the big garden house), I co-hosted a party that was billed as “Tribute to the Zucchini.”  I made zucchini Provençal, stuffed zucchini, zucchini dipped in a beer batter and fried, and zucchini bread, to name a few of the dishes. 

 A few years ago, I spearheaded the planting of a small garden at the Early Head Start Center I supervised.  Our successful crops were cherry tomatoes, okra, cucumbers—and zucchini.  When I bought the plants I didn’t realize that most of my staff only ate yellow squash and had never even seen a zucchini.  That meant that I had all the zucchini for myself!  I made a stacked squash casserole; zucchini corn bread, zucchini chocolate chip cookies, oven “fried” zucchini and, of course, loaves of zucchini bread. 

Zucchini chocolate chip cookies
Last week a friend gave me a bunch of Meyer lemons so I fixed black-eyed peas, sautéed Swiss chard, roasted red potatoes tossed with lemon juice and olive oil, and lemon corn bread.   
As you can see above, currently my garden is a raised bed, actually a horse trough, supported by a frame so it is modest in size.  I hope this experiment produces something edible.  If not, like Blanche Dubois, I’ll be depending on the kindness of strangers, or friends, to share their oversupplies with me.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Discovering the Harry Bosch mysteries

Maybe the Metropolitan Planning Commission knew what they were doing when they tried to close the doors of our Little Free Library.  I confess our LFL has turned me into a junkie.  I’ve become addicted to the Harry Bosch mysteries by Michael Connelly.  It started out innocently.  I saw a three volume tome of Harry Bosch mysteries in our LFL and took them out, thinking I had never read any of these books though I had heard of them.  One night when I was in the mood for something different to read, I picked up this thick book. 
I thought if the book wasn’t any good, I could return it to the LFL without reading it and have more room on my personal library shelves.  It didn’t turn out that way.  In quick succession I read the three books in that volume: The Last Coyote (1995), Trunk Music (1997)and Angels Flight (1999).  I stayed up until 1:00, 2:00 and 3:00 am reading these books.  I couldn’t put them down. 

Once I finished, I remembered I had another paperback by Michael Connelly that had been on my book shelves for months.  I found and quickly read City of Bones (2002).  I breathed a sigh of relief.  I might now get some sleep and complete other things I needed to do.  However, the next day I went out to the LFL after some school children had messed up the books.  As I straightened up the LFL, I saw someone had left another Michael Connelly mystery.  So, in the next couple of days I completed 9 Dragons (2009). 

Someone left a couple boxes of books on our porch.  Since ours is the most notorious LFL in town, we get a lot of donations.  Periodically I organize the books and share some with other LFLs if we are overstocked in a certain genre or author.  As luck would have it, one box held another Harry Bosch mystery, The Burning Room (2014), a more recent addition to the series.

I don’t worry about reading the books in order because I don’t seek them out.  They find me, so I read them in the order in which they appear in my life.
I like the titles of the Bosch books because the connection between plot and title is strong and helps distinguish one book from another in my memory bank.

The Last Coyote refers a bedraggled coyote that roams Harry’s neighborhood after the massive LA earthquake that severely damaged Harry’s home.  Or is the last coyote that Harry sees and dreams about really Harry himself who is in danger of being the last police detective of his ilk in the department?  In this novel, Harry is on forced leave from the department and takes advantage of the time off to investigate his own mother’s murder.
Trunk Music is what police term it when the killer shoots someone who is captive inside the trunk of a car at the time of the killing, an unpleasantly vivid image that describes the plot of this who-done-it. 

Angels Flight concerns the sexual abuse and murder of a young girl.  The title describes the way she was posed in death and her release from the horrors of her life on earth.
City of Bones is what the medical examiner called the grid she laid out when recovering bones from a suspected homicide site on the side of a hill. 

9 Dragons is the English translation of Kowloon, the name of the most populated region of Hong Kong. The murder of a Chinese liquor store owner takes Harry from L.A.’s Chinatown to Hong Kong where Harry’s daughter and ex-wife live.
The Burning Room refers to an unauthorized basement child care center in a tenement that was torched by arsonists. 

The Harry Bosch mysteries are gritty police procedurals, and Harry is a seasoned veteran.  His job is his life blood but his success in solving murders comes with high collateral damage to those around him.  The action is fast-paced and the body count high. Bureaucrats are Harry’s nemesis, and he often doesn’t have the support of his superiors in the police department.  Just when it appears Harry has worked his last case, he gets a reprieve and his services, investigating homicides, are again in demand.   


Friday, March 4, 2016

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikey

Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books, 2014
“On the ferry from Hyannis to Alice Island, Amelia Loman paints her nails yellow and , while waiting for them to dry, skims her predecessor’s notes: ‘Island Books, approximately $250,000.00 per annum in sales, the better portion of that in the summer month to folks on holiday.’” 

 Amelia Loman, the publisher’s sales representative newly assigned to Island Books, is on her way to meet the store’s owner and proprietor, the often irascible A. J. Fikry.  Amelia has a personality as sunny as her nails and is confident she can handle Fikry.  Recently widowed, Fikry has little tolerance for people.  His old sales rep died and no one bothered to tell him, and now he has a different book rep assigned to his store, and he isn’t happy about it.

 The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry offers a glimpse into the world of booksellers and publishers in the days when publishing houses hired representatives, essentially traveling salespersons, to visit independent book stores to pitch the publisher’s latest offerings.  The lives and stories of Amelia Loman and A.J. Fikry soon intertwine, along with a small girl named Maya, Fikry’s former sister-in-law Ismay, her writer husband Daniel, and the local police chief. 

A.J. Fikry is a multidimensional character and most of the other characters are likable and well-developed.  Author Gabrielle Zevin begins each book chapter with notes that Fikry has written to guide and educate his daughter about selected short stories.  These prefaces add charm to the book.

I enjoyed the book more when I was reading it than I did after I finished it .  The author expects the readers to suspend disbelief at multiple illogical plot elements, and I eventually reached the tipping point.  I was also disappointed with the ending.  I felt the author was in a hurry to tie up all the loose ends in the plot, so the ending seemed glib and abrupt to me.  Nonetheless, the book was engaging.  I read it all one night after supper. 

My sister gave me this book when I visited her in November.  Her book club had read it, and the book includes suggested discussion questions for book club use.   I’m sure my sister’s group wasn’t the only one to select this book. It was also the featured book of the Target Book Club.  This novel generates spirited discussions.

Author Gabrielle Zevin is something of a child prodigy.  She began her writing career at age 14 as the music critic for the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel.  A Harvard graduate, she writes for the young adult market, as well as novels for adults.  Two of her screenplays have been made into movies.  The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry spent over four months on the New York Times Bestseller List.


Friday, February 12, 2016

The Wild Girl

(Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, 2013)
Early in the 19th century, Napoleon Bonaparte is taking over Europe, and the small German kingdom of Hessen-Cassel falls quickly to the French.  As the war continues, control of this kingdom switches back and forth, leaving the residents at the mercy of the French, the German, the Russian, or the Cossack armies.  In the midst of this tumultuous time, the Grimm brothers, Jacob and Wilhelm, are collecting as many old German stories as they can to preserve them.  Once completed, they hope to find a publisher for the compilation in order to support their family financially.  At this point, most readers of this review will realize that it’s the story of the Grimm Brothers Fairy Tales, but who is the wild girl?

One of their primary sources for the old tales is Dortchen Wild, next door neighbor at one time to the Grimm family and best friend of Lotte Grimm, younger sister of the brothers.  Years later Wilhelm Grimm will marry Dortchen Wild, but not much is known about Dortchen’s early life.  Author Kate Forsyth gives the reader Dortchen’s story in this novel, based on her research of a few existing documents and using her imagination to fill in the gaps. 

As a friend of mine observed, it's ironic that the Grimm brothers are close associates of the Wild family.  The surnames often fit the circumstances of their lives.  Dortchen is considered a wild child only because she loves the out-of-doors and is full of curiosity, which sometimes leads her to defy her father.  Her father seems intent on breaking her will to insure she will never leave the family home.  The Grimms’ economic condition is often grim but their lives are generally happy.  Dortchen’s family circumstances are often grim though they are better off financially.

In the author’s notes, Forsyth explains how she came to her conclusions about Dortsen’s childhood and early adulthood.  Forsyth holds a PhD in fairy tale retelling and has the necessary research and background to pull off this fictionalized historical account of the Grimm Brothers and Dortchen Wild.

Sometimes Forsyth’s dialogue strikes a false note with me, e.g., it seems self-conscious and interrupts my immersion in the story.  Sometimes the plot timelines get “jumpy” or the facts associated with the ongoing war get confusing, interfering with the flow of the story.  None of these issues diminished my pleasure in reading the book, however, nor my admiration of the Forsyth’s knowledge and skill in putting together a fascinating story of a little known literary figure.


Sunday, January 31, 2016

January Reading: Five Books

HOLLOW CITY, by Ransom Riggs.  (Philadelphia: Quirk Books, 2014)

This is the sequel to MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN, and Riggs continues to use strange and unusual photographs to illustrate and drive the plot.  The safe loop of Miss Peregrine and her charges has been destroyed, Miss Peregrine has been turned into a bird, and the surviving children desperately seek another safe loop where they can take refuge and find someone who can turn Miss Peregrine back into a woman.  The peculiar children are chased by their mortal enemies, the wights and hollowgasts, and faced with almost insurmountable obstacles at every turn.  The characters are well-drawn, the plot continues to be fast paced and, when you finish reading this book, you're going to have to pick up book 3 immediately because book 2 leaves you hanging.


      SHOPAHOLIC  TIES THE KNOT, by Sophie Kinsella.  (New York: Bantam/Dell, 2003)

I don’t know how the children who read HOLLOW CITY feel after they finish the book, but I went to my book case looking for something humorous and so light, it would float off the shelf to me. I found it with Sophie Kinsella and read it in one sitting.  Becky Bloomwood is an outrageous heroine who, more than most brides, must juggle competing family expectations.  Somehow, with incredible chutzpah, she manages to keep everyone happy.


This book was in a stash of books a friend donated to the Little Free Library, and I snatched it to read first.  While I was familiar with Brown, I've never read one of her books.  Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, studies people who live life “wholeheartedly” in this book written for the nonacademic audience.  She defines wholehearted living as “engaging in our lives from a place of worthiness.” Over the course of eight years, she interviews over 1,000 people and collects 10,000 stories.  She then analyzes the stories for commonalities and comes up with ten guideposts to help individuals move toward wholehearted living.  Her ten guideposts are helpful constructs, and examples include #1 Cultivating Authenticity: Letting Go of What People Think; #4 Cultivating Gratitude and Joy: Letting Go of Scarcity and Fear of the Dark;  #5 Cultivating Intuition and Trusting Faith: Letting Go of the Need for Certainty; and #6 Cultivating Creativity: Letting Go of Comparison.  Her research perspective is called “Grounded Theory,” a form of qualitative research methodology. I enjoyed the book and may have to hang onto it for a while longer to absorb it all.
      A KILLER COLLECTION, by J. B. Stanley. (New York: Berkley Prime Crime, 2006)
This is a mildly interesting cozy mystery, with characters that aren’t that well-defined, but I persevered and got caught up in the milieu of the Carolina Pottery world near Seagrove, North Carolina.  In the book, a pottery collector is killed and no one seems unduly sad about it, but, in the end, the killer is brought to justice.  The reader learns more about pottery than necessary for the plot of the mystery.  A KILLER COLLECTION is the first book in the “Collectible Mystery” series.  I became curious about the author and discovered this book appears to be her first published mystery, and when this book and others in the series were published in an e-series, they were revised and she used another nom de plume.  Stanley now writes multiple series under different names: J. B. Stanley (2 series); Jennifer Stanley (1 series); Ellery Adams (3 series); and she is half of the writing team, Lucy Arlington (1 series).  Obviously, Stanley is a hard-working author whose works others enjoy.
MURDER IN THE WHITE HOUSE, by Margaret Truman (New York: Fawcett Popular Library, 1980)

A friend recently gave me all of Truman’s mysteries.  This is the first one Truman wrote.  Robert Lang Webster is President.  He, his wife Catherine, and adult daughter Lynne occupy the White House residence.  Ron Fairbanks is Special Counsel to the President.  When the President’s long- time family friend and Secretary of State is murdered one night on the second floor of the White House, the President asks his Special Counsel to head the team, working with the FBI and Secret Service, to find the murderer.  The problem is only a few people had access to this floor, and they are all family members or close associates of the President, so Fairbanks must tread carefully but work quickly.  Although there are elements of the plot that don’t seem feasible to me, plot twists and a surprise ending keep the reader interested.

A sixth book I read in January will get a separate post, and I have a couple more books that are partially read, so stay tuned.  What did you read to start off your year?