Friday, November 21, 2014

Review: When Mystical Creatures Attack! by Kathleen Founds

Title: When Mystical Creatures Attack!
Author: Kathleen Founds
Publisher: University of Iowa Press

October 1, 2014

I received a copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley to be considered for an honest review.

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Schoolteacher Laura Freeman has a nervous breakdown and ends up in a psychiatric hospital. This is the story of her recovery, told through letters, emails, student assignments, stories, an advice column, a journal, and even a cookbook. Side stories focus on the aspirations of two of her students, Janice Gibbs and Cody Splunk.

It's a quirky, clever format; maybe a bit distracting. It reads like a series of shorts that are interconnected, but not exactly cohesive. I did feel I had to work a little too hard to keep up with what was happening.

Dark humor and a healthy dose of social satire cover tough topics such as mental illness, suicide, postpartum depression, abortion, poverty, questioning faith, the state of education, the value of life, and finding peace and happiness. Sounds like a lot for a 200-page book, right? It was; I always felt slightly off keel. Maybe that was the point? Regardless, even though the book races through all of these issues, it delves into each one just enough to give readers something more to think over.

I wasn't blown away by this one, but I definitely liked it; a good, solid "like." The format is a lot of fun and makes for a fast-paced read. The ending was pretty poetic, but wow, what a ride!

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Review: Evergreen by Rebecca Rasmussen

Title: Evergreen
Author: Rebecca Rasmussen
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday

July 15, 2014

I borrowed a copy of this book from my local library after it was recommended to me by Anne Knows Books (see bottom of post).

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Evergreen is an "emotionally charged novel that spans generations, telling the story of two siblings, raised apart, attempting to share a life." It starts out in 1938 with newlyweds Emil and Emeline, who are trying to carve out a life together in the Minnesota wilderness. Emeline is such a dainty, somewhat naive character when we first meet her. When Emil has to leave for Germany, I love how independent Emeline becomes. She is determined to learn and do things, whatever needed to be done. She ends up having to make an incredibly difficult, heart-wrenching decision which becomes the foundation of the rest of the novel. The plot isn't surprising (especially if you read the book jacket or summary beforehand) but this is still a wonderfully character-driven read that I didn't want to end.

My only issue with the book centers around pregnancy and birth, which I felt were overly romanticized. While pregnant, the women always just "knew" the gender of their baby, and of course, ended up being correct every time. That felt kind of silly to me, but Hux's premature birth outright bothered me. He was two months early, yet all Emil says is "he's tiny but fine." I needed a little bit of followup on that for it to be believable, especially since they are out in the middle of the woods with no support. And it's the 1930s. But after his dramatic entrance, Hux is just like a full-term baby, which made me wish the preemie thing had been left out completely. With no followup, all it does in this book is perpetuate the "a preemie is merely a tiny baby" misconception.

Other than that, I was totally into this family's story, throughout all three generations. I wanted to stay with them even longer; I would have been okay with the book being twice as long, especially since Rasmussen's writing is so lovely and easy to get lost in. She has a knack for bringing a setting to vivid life in relatively few words. I could imagine all the details of the Minnesota landscape perfectly in my mind. The end was a little too tidy but you know, it was still exactly how I needed it to end. Such a satisfying read!

Evergreen was recommended to me by Crystal at Anne Knows Books, a $3 subscription-based book recommendation service that gives you a personalized reading suggestion based on your individual book profile. You provide information on book characteristics you love and hate, your ideal book length, books you've read over and over, etc. You can also link to your public Goodreads account if you think it will help fine-tune your profile. Then the book matchmaking happens! Crystal chose Evergreen for me, which surprisingly was not already on my TBR list. I like that she told me why she selected this title for me, too: "It's a wonderfully written family saga. I think you'll enjoy it because it's an interesting historical fiction novel written from multiple perspectives. I really loved how the stories were woven together through time."

Although my own TBR list is overflowing (as is the case for many of you) and I don't typically have trouble finding books I think I'll enjoy, having too many choices can be paralyzing. It was nice to give this service a try and go along with someone else's opinion of what they think I'd like. And she was spot on with this book suggestion! Crystal has been kind enough to offer my readers a free month of the service. Just head over to Anne Knows Books and use the promo code lovelybookshelf if you'd like to give it a try.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Nonfiction November Week 3: Diversity & Nonfiction (Transgender)

Week 3: Becca from Lost in Books asks: What does diversity in nonfiction mean to you? Is it about the topic or theme of the book? Or is it the race or ethnicity of the author? Do you have any recommendations for diverse nonfiction books? Are there any topics that you’d like to see written about and/or read more widely?

I've mentioned before that, to me, reading diversely means being brought into the experiences of characters who are different from me (Armchair BEA: Beyond the Borders). Sometimes this means temporarily setting aside my own lens in order to experience/understand another culture, race, gender, etc. (A Diverse Reader and Her Pilgrimage to Literary Wabi-Sabi).

Since the Transgender Day of Remembrance takes place this week (November 20), I thought I'd feature nonfiction titles that focus on the trans experience: I've included a few books I've already read (the Helen Boyd and Jennifer Finney Boylan memoirs), as well as books sitting on my TBR list thanks to recommendations by trans friends.

Image Map


My Husband Betty and She's Not the Man I Married by Helen Boyd
Helen Boyd is the wife of a transgender person, and I feel these two titles really need to be paired together. My Husband Betty is about being married to a crossdresser. She's Not the Man I Married, published four years later, focuses on her spouse's possible transition to living as a woman full-time, and how that would affect their relationship and other aspects of their life together. The books have been criticized for too narrowly portraying the trans community, but you know. . .they're memoirs. They're based on her own experiences, and she thoughtfully and deeply explores all of the emotions that spouses of trans people face.

She's Not There and Stuck in the Middle with You by Jennifer Finney Boylan
I just love Jennifer Finney Boylan. She's intelligent, sensible, level-headed; and her compassion just shines through everything she writes. Her memoirs are encouraging and incredibly thought-provoking. She's Not There is her memoir about coming out and transitioning when her children were young. Stuck in the Middle with You, published last year, explores the role and influence of gender roles in parenthood, from her own perspective (her boys now grown) as well as through the voices of a number of well-known writers she interviewed.

Essay Collections

Nobody Passes: Rejecting the Rules of Gender and Conformity edited by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore
This is a collection of essays that "confronts and challenges the very notion of belonging" and "seeks to eliminate the pressure to pass." The author sets out to ask the question, “What lies are people forced to tell in order to gain acceptance as 'real'.”

Gender Outlaws by Kate Bornstein and S. Bear Bergman
This is a collection of "essays, commentary, comic art, and conversations from a diverse group of trans-spectrum people who live and believe in barrier-breaking lives." The comic art aspect especially caught my attention, but I really love that this book makes a specific effort to include a variety of people on the trans spectrum.

The Nearest Exit May Be Behind You by S. Bear Bergman
In this collection of essays on gender and identity, Bergman "shows us there are things you learn when you're visibly different from those around you." Goodreads user Nancy says in her review: "Some of these piece should be mandatory reading if you're a human." Sold!

For Deeper Reading

Transgender History by Susan Stryker
This is a "chronological approach to the major movements, writings, and events of transgender history" in the United States, covering about a one-hundred year span. It puts the struggle of the trans community in context with what was going on in the world around them. It includes a reader's guide, as well as a pretty significant list of suggested nonfiction for further reading.

Trans Bodies, Trans Selves: A Resource for the Transgender Community edited by Laura Erickson-Schroth
This is a huge, comprehensive resource about the diverse experiences along the trans spectrum. Each chapter covers an important transgender issue (such as race, religion, employment, relationships, parenthood, and more). It incorporates hundreds of personal perspectives from the community, and since it was just released this year, the information is up-to-date.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

KidLit & Minecraft Review: Billy and Blaze

Last Sunday I mentioned that Minecraft is very popular in our house lately. SKrafty is the kid-friendly/homeschool server we joined. After we explored a bit and got the hang of things, I signed up C for a science class and a literature class, both geared toward younger kids (C is 5½). We started the Young Literature Classics 1 self-paced class, which will cover six children's classics, one per week if we stay on schedule. I thought it would be fun to highlight them here on the blog as we finish each one, especially since five (!!) of the six books are new to me.

This week's book was Billy and Blaze, originally published in 1936, written and carefully illustrated by C.W. Anderson. Young Billy receives a pony, who he names Blaze, as a birthday gift. They get to know each other, learn to ride and jump together, and eventually end up competing in a horse show. The language is simple without losing its beauty, and the pencil illustrations are just exquisite. We were turning the pages very slowly; we both wanted to look a little longer at each of these drawings. See how realistic they are?

It turns out this is the first in a series of eleven books, but it can definitely stand alone — there is no cliffhanger, no sense that the story continues. I'm sure we'll be looking for the other titles, though, because we both loved this book.

Throughout the week on Minecraft, C built a horse stable and a jump course. The most fun was riding a horse and actually playing the course when it was finished. She had a blast with that!

Our next book will be Tikki Tikki Tembo, retold by Arlene Mosel. Stay tuned!

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Review: Kid Presidents by David Stabler

Title: Kid Presidents: True Tales of Childhood from America's Presidents
Author: David Stabler
Illustrator: Doogie Horner
Publisher: Quirk Books

October 28, 2014

I received a copy of this book from the publisher to be considered for an honest review.

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From the Publisher:
The kids who grew up to be president were like a lot of other children. Some struggled with schoolwork and got into fights; others pranked their teachers and infuriated their parents. William Howard Taft was forced to take dance lessons. Gerald Ford struggled with dyslexia. Teddy Roosevelt had a bedroom “museum” full of dead animals. Kid Presidents features 20 captivating true stories from the childhoods of American presidents, complete with lively text and more than 200 cartoon illustrations. Laugh-out-loud funny and packed with cool facts, it’s the perfect read for all young future leaders of the free world.

My Thoughts:
When this book arrived in the mail, I didn't expect to share it with C. It's geared for ages 9-12, and she's only a kindergartner; I had planned to read through it and maybe save it for homeschooling use in a few years. But C saw the cover, got super excited, and immediately confiscated it. Seriously. I could not get it back until she was good and ready to give it up . . . and what parent is going to take a book out of a 5-year-old's hands, right? She flipped through its pages, pointing out everything she saw, cackling away the whole time (Doogie Horner's illustrations really are a lot of fun). We started reading the book that same night. It became the top-requested read-aloud in our house until we finished it a few weeks later. Sometimes she simply listened; other times she wanted to draw a picture as I read.

Kid Presidents is silly enough that kids stay engaged, and if C is a reliable test subject, the humor really helps them remember the content. Historical dates and context are presented gently, staying out of the way of the main focus: the challenges these kids overcame and the lessons they learned, and how that applied to their adult lives when they later became our presidents.

There is a list of all the presidents in order in the front of the book, and kid-friendly suggestions for further reading and a handy index at the end. You can read an excerpt online, and educators might want to check out the free educators' guide and event kit.

A fun read for adults, too. ;)

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Nonfiction November Week 2: Be the Expert (Language Learning)

Week 2 of Nonfiction November is hosted by the lovely Leslie of Regular Rumination, and I'm editing this post to say, I didn't know in advance that her post this week would be on language and linguistics. Thankfully we each took a slightly different spin, so you have double the book suggestions!

I'd like to talk about language learning, which has been a passion of mine since I was a kid. When I was in elementary school, I'd borrow my dad's shortwave radio (which he built!) and, late at night when reception was best, I'd try to find and identify as many different languages as I could. Then we moved overseas, and I got to learn and use Italian. After that, I was hooked. I joined International Club in high school, ended up learning smatterings of whatever I could pick up from the exchange students at our school, and in college I studied Japanese. Now I have to deal with the fact that I just don't have as much time as I used to, so I'm focused on keeping my Italian active. Here are three stages of language learning I've gone through (and periodically revisit).

1. What language do you love?
I love Italian. It's beautiful and vibrant, and it reminds me of many happy times in my childhood. Dianne Hales wrote a wonderful memoir called La Bella Lingua. Her joy and love of the Italian language was so inspiring, I went out and bought a bunch of grammar books to refresh my memory and correct some bad habits I'd picked up on as a kid.

You can probably find a similar memoir for the language of your choice: maybe Words in a French Life by Kristin Espinasse, Dreaming in Chinese by Deborah Fallows, or Dreaming in Hindi by Katharine Russell Rich.

2. Learn that language!
Once you have a language you're excited about, try learning it! DuoLingo is a fun, game-like app that is free and offers a variety of languages. It uses a Spaced Repetition System (SRS) to boost learning in an effective way. This is a fundamental idea behind Gabriel Wyner's book Fluent Forever. I gave his approach a try at the end of September, talked about it in my review of his book, and have continued with this method ever since. I'm sold; I realize just how much time I've wasted over the years studying inefficiently. The Fluent Forever website also offers language-specific resources/book suggestions, everything from grammar books to dictionaries to books you read for pleasure.

3. Practice.
Nothing beats practicing by conversing with native speakers. You can type "language exchange Skype" in Google to find people to practice with. I'm including The Bilingual Edge by Kendall King and Alison Mackey in this section. Although it's geared toward parents who want to teach their children a second language, I think it offers a lot of encouragement and insight for all of us language learners. It addresses common myths and fears of early bilingualism, which ends up being a fascinating glimpse into the way the brain learns and processes language. It also dispels common myths of fluency, recognizing that people are unique in the ways they achieve fluency, and offers a balanced, more realistic look at what fluency actually is. This book helped me put my perfectionist nature aside and jump in, mistakes and all.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Review: The Republic of Imagination by Azar Nafisi

Title: The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books
Author: Azar Nafisi
Publisher: Viking Books

October 21, 2014

I received a copy of this book from the publisher to be considered for an honest review.

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From the Publisher:
Blending memoir with close readings of four of her favorite novels—Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt, Carson McCullers’s The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter and James Baldwin’s Another Country—Azar describes how she first discovered America and its fictional landscape as a young girl in Tehran and reminds us of the crucial role that literature played in the lives of the founding fathers. Through the lens of these great novels, Nafisi tackles everything from the crisis in the humanities to the violence in our schools and offers a devastating critique of the new Common Core curriculum and its underlying assumptions about the purpose of education.

My Thoughts:
In The Republic of Imagination, Nafisi is bold about asking and tackling some tough questions. Are the humanities important to us? If so, is that being reflected in our lives? In our education system? How does freedom affect how much (or little) we value the arts? As a musician, music teacher, avid reader, and actually, as a homeschooling mom as well, I found it pretty easy to connect with Nafisi's thoughts on these questions and more.

Nafisi is passionate about the importance of the humanities in our lives . . . honestly, it radiates from the pages. Her enthusiasm is contagious. I felt inspired to re-read Huck Finn and Babbit. I realized I had to put McCullers and Baldwin on my TBR list. I took a ridiculous amount of notes, and reflected deeply about my own educational philosophy: How am I sharing my own enthusiasm with my music students? With my daughter? Nafisi's views on the way education is directly linked with living a rich, meaningful life is refreshing and so encouraging. I came away from her book feeling empowered and hopeful.

Azar Nafisi's The Republic of Imagination needs to be read. Its blend of memoir and literary/social criticism, combined with Nafisi's zeal, make for a vibrant, uplifting read. Readers are left feeling they can do something because we have the freedom — and should act upon that freedom — to share with others our thoughts and feelings about the books we read, the art we see, the music we hear, and more.