The mortgage that broke Thomas Jefferson’s heart. The worldwide cholera pandemic. The writing of Frankenstein. The first Irish famine and typhus epidemic. The opium trade beginning in the Golden Triangle. The striking paintings of JMW Turner. The surge of British polar exploration. All of these, according to Gillen D’Arcy Wood, have their roots in a single event – the eruption of the Tamboro volcano.
On April 10, 1815, the volcano, located on the island of Sambawa in the Indonesian archipelago, literally blew its top. A few days before, the volcano had hurled out a column of fire and ash; on the 10th, three columns of fire, a tsunami of lava, and ashfall up to 3 meters thick blasted the serene population of Sumbawa, killing nearly everyone on the island and forever destroying its natural resources. Ash from the explosion was flung into the upper atmosphere in tiny particles, and the equatorial winds did the rest.
Those aerosols circled the globe, blocking sunlight and changing the climate. Droughts in some areas, record flooding in others, temperatures so low that 1816 became known as the Year Without a Summer and the Year of the Beggar. Storms lashing Europe, sea ice disappearing off Greenland – all were the result of Tambora’s eruption. The secondary impact on humans began almost immediately and would govern the world’s social and economic foundations for at least the next three years. Without the monsoons, Indian peasants migrated to urban areas, where their waste polluted drinking water and sparked a nearly 20-year migration of cholera around the world. Famine struck one of China’s most fertile provinces, and without rice to eat or sell, opium became the cash crop. Clouds shot through with apocalyptic color entranced the Romantics, who captured their deadly glory in words and images. And farmers in the United States experienced for the first time crop failure leading to bankruptcy and westward migration to evade their debts.
Wood mixes the historical narrative with records from the nascent science of meteorology and modern-day measurements of volcanic dust trapped in arctic ice to document his story. He also draws parallels between the temporary climatic effects that Tambora’s eruption caused and the long-term irreversible anthropogenic climate change we are now seeing. But capturing the worldwide effect of one little-known eruption in tragic human terms makes Tambora a moving book.
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I love mysteries. From the hardest of the hard-boiled to…well, ok, I don’t really care for cozies, but I’ve read them…but I’m especially fond of mysteries that give me a strong sense of place and people along with a good puzzle. For some reason, Italian settings seem to capture all three in style and substance. (Barry has written about Andrea Camilleri’s excellent Inspector Montalbano series set in Sicily, plus there’s the Guido Brunetti collection, Michael Dibdin’s Aurelio Zen, and plenty of other series where the protagonist visits Italy.) Christobel Kent’s series featuring Sandro Cellini (The Drowning River is the first) stands with the best.
Sandro is something unusual for Italian mysteries – a private detective. A disgraced ex-cop, he’s been ordered by his wife to hang out his shingle and get out of her hair. Resigned to sitting around an office, he’s surprised when he gets his first client: an older woman whose husband died in the Arno River. Verdict: suicide. Cellini takes the case mostly gratis to comfort her, but discovers right away that the man’s last hours leave questions. What exactly was Claudio Gentileschi, architect, faithful husband, Holocaust survivor, doing when he wasn’t at home or work?
Then a young English art student disappears. Sandro had encountered her before and her mother hires him to be her “representative” to the Italian police while she makes up her mind whether or not she cares. No big deal, Veronica’s done it before, she’s got some mysterious guy she’s probably shacking up with, and she’ll come back to art school when her cash runs low. Sure her instructors and her mousy roommate are worried, but Sandro will take care of it. And he does, and learns more about Claudio and the business of Florentine art in the process.
Kent keeps the puzzle intriguing and builds to a satisfying resolution. But she also builds characters the reader knows will play important roles in Sandro’s future. His wife Luisa, who has breast cancer and is struggling with her decision to have a mastectomy; Giulietta Sarto, the former prostitute who ended Sandro’s career and is the closest thing he and Luisa have to a child; his former colleagues; but most of all, Florence itself.
This is the Florence where regular folks live alongside the tourists and the art students who come to study in the Mecca of classical art training. Ordinary bars with extraordinary food and companionable bartenders, secret passages in and out of the Boboli Gardens, odd locals who are part of the daily background of any city. In this story, the rains are continuously falling and the Arno is threatening to overflow its banks in a disaster that would equal the L’Alluvion of 1966. (For a great book about the aftermath of that flood, check out Robert Hellenga’s The Sixteen Pleasures.) Sandro Cellini knows Florence better than most anyone, and he leads us on an intimate tour while solving a puzzling mystery. Who could ask for more?
I’ve written before about Loewen’s take on history as presented to American students, but in Lies Across America he’s taken on the other history texts that we see all around us. They’re ubiquitous (except, apparently, in Maine), sometimes invisible, sometimes easily overlooked, sometimes a destination for interested visitors. These are the monuments, roadside signs and historic sites that personalize and define American history for many.
Loewen points out that these sites fall into two categories, which he calls sasha and zamani. (If you want a terrific fiction take on the same idea, try Kevin Brockmeier’s Brief History of the Dead.) Sasha essentially means people or events retained in the memory of the living; zamani denotes events or people that occurred before anyone currently living could have experienced. The monument to Arthur Ashe is an example of sasha: there are plenty of people who remember him firsthand. A statue closer to home is zamani – no one living ever encountered Norbert Berkeley. There’s another aspect to these sites, which falls into the zamani realm – who controlled the landscape when the memorial was established?
There are some extreme examples of this: a monument to the Confederacy where there was zero link to the War? The National Mining Hall of Fame and Museum that doesn’t have any actual, you know, miners? Plantation houses all across the South that talk about the design of the silverware, but never mention the people who did the work that produced the income to buy that silverware?
More common are the roadside signs that leave you scratching your head. (As an inveterate reader of those black-on-pewter signs, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve done a U-turn, parked in a questionable spot, then scratched my head at the astonishingly vague text.) “One mile north of here the Whitaker house was built.” When? Why? By whom? If Mr. Whitaker did it, did his wife help? Were there slaves? Was it built in a special way with special materials? Where can I find more? Plus, these signs are nearly always written in a generic passive voice that deliberately deflects reflection on any deeper topic.
Loewen couldn’t visit every historical marker or monument in even one state, much less in the country, but was able to read an enormous proportion of them. He offers a set of penetrating questions to ask when visiting historical sites, most guaranteed to put docents on the spot; if they can’t answer those questions, perhaps it will trigger a reexamination by the site’s managers. He also offers a tongue-in-cheek alternate for the proliferation of roadside markers.
The book is structured so that each entry is self-contained, with footnotes and a complete list of the sources that Loewen used to critique the 100 entries he limited himself to. He also cross-references entries with the same topics or themes, which means a reader can bounce around without losing interest, then go back and read new material with a fresh perspective. Best of all, he is able to balance outrage over the hijacking of history with humor, making this a great resource for teaching students how to critically evaluate what they read and hear from history.
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Tiptoe… jump… crawl… chop! Ninja stealthily sneaks around the house looking for mischief. Ninja chops balloons, steals cookies, and kicks blocks – making his brother very upset! But when Ninja’s brother shows that he can be quiet and sneaky too, can the two of them play together?
At the end of the day there is not one ninja, but two! Ninja and his brother team up to form a running, jumping, karate-chopping team.
Ninja never tires of creeping around the house and then bursting into action, and your little ones will enjoy acting out Ninja’s moves themselves. Ninja, Ninja, Never Stop! is a fun book to read aloud to younger children and it can serve as a good lesson about being nice to siblings or friends.
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Modern day teen Amy Gumm is having a tough time at home and at school. Her day gets worse when a tornado barrels through her Kansas trailer park home and deposits her in the land of Oz. Amy quickly finds out this isn’t the Oz of the storybooks. What was beautiful and magical is dull and dead.
Like Dorothy, Amy wanders the countryside looking for a way home. Along the way she makes a few friends. But instead of watching out for wicked witches, Amy and her companions are on the lookout for the Tin Woodman and his soldiers.
Dorothy came back from Kansas many years ago and something has gone very, very wrong.
The Tin Woodman is now the Grand Inquisitor of Oz. You can get arrested (or worse) for sass, for not smiling, for lack of loyalty… As Amy comes quickly to realize, all of Oz is subject to Dorothy’s bizarre and selfish whims.
The Scarecrow and Lion aren’t much better. Scarecrow used his brains for horrible experiments which make the machine-human hybrids of the Woodman’s army. The Lion attacks villages and kills innocent people. He is fearless – and completely lacking compassion. And Glinda the Good is actually an evil slave-driver who makes the Munchkins mine for magic!
All is not without hope. There is an underground movement to remove Dorothy from power. The formerly wicked witches want Amy’s help. They spring her from prison and begin training her in magic and combat techniques so she can play her part in freeing Oz from the tyranny.
This debut novel certainly gives a unique and dark twist to the Wizard of Oz story. The tale itself follows a familiar story arc of a strong, female teen relying on herself to overcome obstacles (think Hunger Games, Divergent, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) – but the similarities and differences with the familiar children’s story makes this new YA book a very interesting read.
Dorothy Must Die ends with plenty of questions still needing to be answered. A sequel is expected in March. I’m looking forward to my next trip to Oz.
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It’s Veterans Day, formerly known as Armistice Day, the day the guns finally went silent in a Europe shattered by World War I. The Armistice was scheduled to begin at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. One bitter joke that made the rounds in the trenches – “Why didn’t they wait ’til the eleventh year?”
Of all the novels which emerged from the War to End All Wars, All Quiet on the Western Front is surely the greatest. While its imagery and the episodes it recounts did not exactly break new ground, Remarque captures both the external devastation of the war and the internal havoc it wreaked on a generation of soldiers. The fact that this story is about Paul Baumer, a German, matters little – it could be about Paul Bois or Paul Wood, or any young man from any country affected by the War. They saw the same horrors, suffered the same degradation, endured the same unendurable lives. But there was a difference even within the armies, and All Quiet on the Western Front unflinchingly told readers how an entire generation was lost.
Paul and his classmates join the Army en masse under the exhortation of their schoolmaster. Filled with patriotism and the orderly knowledge only young men fresh from the classroom could retain, they enter their training regime and begin to learn the ways of a random world. When they arrive at the front, they learn entirely new lessons about a chaotic world striving to kill them. They serve with men of all classes and from all regions of Germany, all of whom are gradually descending to the most basic levels of humanity. Paul and his friends have the farthest to fall, but the trenches eventually make all men equal.
When I was very young, All Quiet on the Western Front gave me a graphic illustration of war stripped of its illusions of honor. Only as an older reader did I become aware of Paul’s complete loss of self. Having gone straight from childhood to a debased manhood, Paul realizes that he has nothing to return to – unlike the older men, he cannot take up a pre-war life. Unlike the younger, he cannot return to a meaningful school life. That changed my understanding of the ending, which I had remembered along the lines of Richard Thomas’s portrayal of Paul in the 1979 movie. Remarque’s original is far more tragic.
The original title, Im Westen nichts Neues, translated literally from German means “In the West, Nothing New.” Whether Remarque meant it as literally as the translation suggests, or as a warning in light of the increasing aggression and xenophobia characterized by the rise of the Nazis is hard to say. Unfortunately, it seems that Ecclesiastes was and continues to be right.
Find All Quiet on the Western Front in the WRL catalog.
I work on a public service desk, so I see lots of people from all walks of life and economic classes. When they ask for computer help, or to use the phone, it is impossible not to see or hear what they’re doing. (The cardinal sin of librarianship is denying them service based on those observations.) But when I hear someone reeking of cigarettes negotiating a payday loan, or see a woman with a toddler and a baby bragging about her sexual adventures on Facebook, it’s hard not to mentally question their choices. Linda Tirado has given me 191 pages of smackaround for my presumption in asking those questions.
Tirado came to international attention when her essay on the bad decisions many poor people make went viral. Based on that attention she was able to get a book deal to expand on the post, and to share the experiences of other people she knows. Those people might as well be the ones I see coming in the door of the library, because they face the same problems: minimum wage jobs where they rarely get 40 hours, second jobs that frequently conflict with the first, unreliable cars, uncertain housing, lack of resources or time to buy and cook fresh food, and difficult choices about prioritizing the little money they earn.
So why do poor people smoke? Wouldn’t you, if it cut down on hunger, gave you a jolt of energy, and allowed you some break time at work? Why do poor people live in such lousy housing? Wouldn’t you, if you had to come up with first and last months’ rent plus a security deposit on a place that goes for more than a few hundred bucks a month? Why do they pay sky-high interest rates on short term loans? Wouldn’t you, if your car broke down and it was still a week until payday? Why are they so poor at planning for the future? Wouldn’t you be if a supervisor, a manager, a district supervisor, and corporate policy all dictated when you could go to the bathroom?
Our prejudice towards the poor is enshrined in our public policy, which begins with an automatic suspicion that poor people can be divided into the worthy poor and those who are to blame and ought to pay the price. And I’d bet you couldn’t get 10 regular people, much less the 21 senators, 51 delegates and 1 governor in Virginia to agree on who is worthy. Tirado’s writing is conversational and often funny, but her humor doesn’t negate the anger in her voice when she talks about those policy-making individual and political prejudices. And her name couldn’t be more perfect for this book – it’s a cross between a tirade and a tornado, demanding that we listen and pay attention.
Check the WRL catalog for Hand to Mouth
Get Well Soon, Grandpa! by An Swerts and Jenny Bakker is a great book to help parents explain what happens when an older family member gets sick.
In the story, Faye visits her grandpa for the night, and when he is getting ready the next morning he has a stroke. Faye is very nervous as she calls her mom, who then arrives with the doctor.
Grandpa Bert is admitted to the hospital and stays there throughout the summer. When he gets out, he comes to stay with Faye and her mom. Faye learns about physical therapy and speech therapy from the therapists who come to help her Grandpa.
This is a longer book and would be great for older children. If a family member is ill or injured and has to go to the hospital, reading this book with your children can help you answer questions they may have. The story is very informative about what happens when a loved one has a stroke, but is also told gently, and can help to ease children’s fears.
Check the WRL catalog for Get Well Soon, Grandpa!
Jennifer D. shares this review:
The author, Jody Feldman, attributes her inspiration for this story to an encounter with a student looking for a read-alike for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. While The Gollywhopper Games has a bit of the flavor of that classic book, Feldman has certainly crafted a story that stands on its own.
Gil Goodson is determined to participate in this year’s Gollywhopper Games, an annual event sponsored by the Golly Toy and Game Company. He has done his research and is ready to play. If only he wasn’t running late to stand in line to get an entry ticket. Being late is not the only thing Gil is up against in his effort to win the grand Gollywhopper prize. His father, a former Golly employee, was accused of stealing millions from them a year ago and although he was acquitted he is still the town pariah. Gil wants the family to move from their home in Orchard Heights to make life easier, and that’s just what his father has agreed will happen, if Gil wins the Games.
Gil must match wits with thousands of other contestants in feats of knowledge that combine facts about the Golly Company with general trivia and physical challenges. He makes friends and encounters old foes as the story plays out, and you will find yourself cheering for the good guys and hoping the cheaters get their comeuppance. The toy company’s headquarters, where part of the game is held, is almost another character in the story, since it is just as fantastical as Wonka’s chocolate factory. See if you can figure out the puzzles before Gil and his competitors. Would you have won the Gollywhopper Games?
Check the WRL catalog for The Gollywhopper Games.
Hopper and Wilson begins with a simple question: “What do you think it’s like at the end of the world?”
Hopper and Wilson decide to find out, so the two friends hop in their sailboat and sail off to find the end of the world. They hope to find an endless supply of lemonade and a staircase to the moon.
When their journey hits a rough patch, however, and Hopper falls overboard, they stop looking for the end of the world and start looking for each other. They realize that sometimes staying safe at home is better than going on a big adventure.
This is a touching tale about friendship, and is perfect for older children or children with a big vocabulary. Be sure to check out Hopper and Wilson Fetch a Star as well!
Check the WRL catalog for Hopper and Wilson.
The art of essay writing is one that requires a sharp eye, a command of the language, and a wide-ranging interest in the human condition. Calvin Trillin, one of my favorite contemporary essayists, has all of these in abundance. I first encountered Trillin in the 1980s as a writer about food and eating, with the delightful collections American Fried, Alice, Let’s Eat, and Third Helpings, now conveniently collected as The Tummy Trilogy. Later, I discovered his clever and pointed political commentary (in verse) for The Nation, where he has the enviable post of “verse columnist” (see Deadline Poet for examples). Next came Trillin the novelist, as I found Tepper Isn’t Going Out on the shelves here. So you might say I am a Trillin fan across the board.
Quite Enough of offers readers new to Trillin an assortment of his writing on food, sports, politics (and especially politicians), science, languages (especially Yiddish), and his own life. Originally from Kansas City, Trillin retains an affection for barbecue even as he revels in the food opportunities he encounters in and around the Greenwich Village neighborhood where he has lived for many years.
Like others of my favorite essay writers Trillin excels at writing about people’s lives. He clearly has an affection for the characters about whom he writes (even when he also clearly disagrees with them), and lets their voices come through. His short political poetry often skewers politicians for what they say and do, but Trillin writes with a certain playfulness that if it does not blunt the sword at least makes the blow a bit tempered.
This collection is a great place for readers to start who have never read Trillin before (though readers of The New Yorker, The Nation, and other magazines may have come across some of these pieces in their original publications). With four decades of pieces to choose from, there is really something here for everyone. Good reading for an autumn afternoon.
Check the WRL catalog for Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin.
This very satisfying debut fiction from a seasoned food writer was delightful to listen to on audiobook CD. Julia Whelan got most of the parts spot on, and even though deepening her voice for the male characters is a bit comical, the lively reading of Ruth Reichl’s intriguing tale and multifarious characters kept my daughter and me engaged thoroughly. She and I enjoy sharing many of the same books, especially adult titles that also hold appeal for teens. In fact, I would not be surprised to see Delicious! turning up among YALSA’s 2015 Alex Award nominees for books published in 2014—I hope, I hope!
Billie Breslin, also known as Wilhelmina to the Fontanari family, where Sal calls her Willie, feels fortunate to have landed a competitive position at Delicious magazine (obviously inspired by Gourmet, which discontinued in 2009 and was last headed by Ruth Reichl as editor). It doesn’t take long for Billie’s extraordinary palate to be recognized; she has the uncanny talent for detecting even the most obscure ingredients and flavors and has a knack for suggesting the precise tweak needed to perfect a recipe. Yet, she adamantly claims that she is definitely no cook! Her new friends in New York soon suspect she’s harboring some darkly saddening secret, however. Meanwhile, she’s determined to work her way into food writing, which she quickly and very cleverly accomplishes.
Delicious magazine closes down, but Billie is retained to handle customer service matters, working solo in the Timbers mansion, where she stumbles upon a secret room. Mysteriously secreted letters slowly reveal the details of a World War II correspondence between a 12-year-old girl interested in cooking and Chef James Beard when he was on staff at the magazine. We’re also provided with letters written in the present, diary-like words Billie addresses to her older sister. This partially epistolary read brings the reader deeper into the thoughts of our leading lady. The plot revolves around Billie’s collaboration with Sammy and Mitch to preserve the historic letters and library before it’s too late.
Some of the most remarkable characters in Reichl’s very clever and page-turning tale are those who are not actually in this story but mentioned in the letters and by the characters, the librarians who organized the forbidden library and the legendary James Beard. Along the way, readers will learn fascinating details about war-time prejudices and the history of culinary challenges during rationing. Readers will even be taken on an architectural history tour of New York and learn historical tidbits about the Underground Railroad. Delicious! is delightful, and it is so pleasing to see one of America’s food-writing favorites succeed as a novelist too.
Check the WRL catalog for Delicious!
Or check out the audiobook, read by Julia Whelan.
I have written here about Ted Kooser before, as part of my annual April poetry posts. As I was browsing the new book cart, I was happy to discover that he has a new collection of poems out, and that we had gotten a copy here at the library.
Here, as in his previous collections, Kooser presents us with ordinary lives and quotidian objects, but invests them, through his feel for language, with a power we might not have seen on our own. That is his achievement as a poet, to make the ordinary extraordinary. There is a sense in the poems of endings and losses. Not in an awful way necessarily, but more in a recognition that all things, including the poet’s life, will reach an end. But there is hope too. I particularly was touched by “Swinging from Parents”:
The child walks between her father and mother,
holding their hands. She makes the shape of the y
at the end of infancy, and lifts her feet
the way the y pulls up its feet, and swings
like the v in love, between an o and e
who are strong and steady and as far as she knows
will be there to swing from forever. Sometimes
her father, using his free hand, points to something
and says its name, the way the arm of the r
points into the future at the end of father.
Or the r at the end of forever. It’s that forever
the child puts her trust in, lifting her knees,
swinging her feet out over the world.
Another wonderful section of the book was titled “Estate Sale.” Here Kooser offers a series of short poems on things that have been left behind by people whose lives have moved on. The sequence concludes with these lines:
And among these homely things,
an antique gilded harp,
its dusty strings like a curtain
drawn over the silence,
stroked by fingers of light.
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I thought that I had finally exhausted the possibilities of Victorian ghost stories to write about at Halloween time. I have covered the Jameses, Henry and M.R., LeFanu, as well as all the anthologies (here, here, and here), or so I thought. But one dark, rainy, October afternoon, while prowling the quiet stacks of the library in forlorn hope of discovering something occult, I came across a mysterious, worn, leather-bound tome whose title, as best it could be read, was Necronom…. OK, it was actually an unusually warm autumn day, bright and sunny, the library was packed, and the book was a trade paperback copy of The Oxford Book of Victorian Ghost Stories, edited by Michael Cox and R.A. Gilbert. It was a good find nonetheless, and most likely safer than dipping into the Necronomicon, that accursed text.
Here, the editors have assembled a fascinating collection of less common ghost stories from both well-known writers of the Victorian period as well as those whose star has perhaps fallen (or maybe never really rose). Le Fanu is here as is Elizabeth Gaskell. Fantasist George MacDonald has a place as do Arthur Conan Doyle, Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, and E. Nesbit. Many of these authors are better known for other genres of work than ghost stories, but I can attest that they all can raise the hair on the back of your neck in a fashion suited to the season. A host of lesser known writers also appear in the collection. I particularly enjoyed R. S. Hawker’s “The Botathen Ghost” from 1867, a story of a haunted preacher in 17th-century England.
Like most early ghost stories, these tales appeal more to psychological terror than the gore and violence that seem to dominate contemporary horror writing. Revenants, arcane objects, and unusual books and paintings are often at the center of the tale, and handling them as often as not is definitely the wrong thing to do. These are great stories for reading aloud, as many of them probably were intended to be. But also just fun reading in the fall when the dark comes early, and the shadows begin to creep.
Check the WRL catalog for The Oxford Book of Victorian Ghost Stories.
Jennifer D. shares this review:
Two stories are being told as the novel begins, one about Peter and one about Thea, and as the book progresses the stories converge in an unexpected way.
Thea lives underneath Greenland in a community called Gracehope. The inhabitants have lived under the ice for centuries aided by technology that far surpasses that on the surface—what they call the “wider world.” Gracehope is beginning to grow beyond its means, and Thea believes that it is time for her people to rejoin the rest of the world. Her mother died in pursuit of a way to expand Gracehope, and the desire for exploration has certainly been passed along to her daughter. Thea meets with great resistance, however, because Gracehope’s inhabitants remember how savagely they were once hunted in the world above. Gracehope is their refuge.
Peter is the son of a scientist who studies glaciers, and for the first time he will be accompanying his parents on a research trip to Greenland. His mother is strangely nervous about his coming along, and not just the “he’ll miss so much school” type of nervous. She has been known to have episodes where she seems to detach from life, which his father explains away by saying she has a headache. Peter knows something else is wrong. He’s had a headache before, and it didn’t make him act like that. When his mother starts questioning Peter about how his head feels, he decides not to tell her his secret. One of his headaches came with a vision, a glimpse into the future.
Aside from its imagining a community beneath Greenland, First Light is a subtle fantasy story. Certain characters have abilities outside the norm, but this is not an explosively supernatural novel. It’s an excellent story filled with questions that I’m pleased to say are all answered well enough for me by the end. It’s a nice change from the cliff-hanging series titles that are so popular right now. I can’t wait to see what Ms. Stead has in store for us next.
Check the WRL catalog for First Light.
Hope Vestergaard’s What Do You Do When a Monster Says Boo? is a wonderful book about sibling behavior, and a great model for older siblings.
Throughout the book, the “monster” does all sorts of bad things – pulling things, throwing hair, and yelling, to name a few. The book shows the best ways to handle little monsters, as well as some ways that aren’t so good.
When your monster is your little brother or sister it may be hard to keep your cool. What Do You Do When a Monster Says Boo? can show kids what it looks like to be patient with a hyper or misbehaving younger sibling.
Children of all ages will laugh at the monster acting silly, and parents will appreciate the suggestions for older siblings that the book gently provides.
This rhyming book has wonderful illustrations, and is a great choice to read to the whole family.
Check the WRL catalog for What Do You Do–When a Monster Says Boo?
Writing yesterday about Michael Pollan’s Cooked got me thinking about other great books about food and its preparation. In my mind, Harold McGee’s masterful On Food and Cooking is the best writing I have found on food, covering chemistry, preparation, taste, individual fruits, vegetables, fish, cheese, meats, and pretty much anything else you might eat—algae anyone?
Whether you want to know about sugar substitutes and their qualities (p. 660-661), how baking pans affect the qualities of the item being baked (p. 563), what drinkers mean when they talk about the “tears” in strong wines or spirits (p. 717), or how you get from tea leaves to black, Oolong, or green tea (both Chinese and Japanese) (p. 438) there is something here for you.
Along the way, McGee includes recipes, food lore, quotations, and more, but the heart of the book is the comprehensive exploration of how cooking, fermenting, and other forms of processing affect the taste, texture, and edibility of food stuffs. An obvious appeal here is for readers who are cooks themselves and are perhaps developing new recipes. McGee is a great source for figuring out how to best combine and prepare ingredients. The book also is a useful compendium of cultural histories of food and ingredients. For instance, the chapter “Cereal Doughs and Batters” begins with a section on the evolution of bread from prehistoric to modern times (concluding with a section on “The decline and revival of traditional breads.”
On Food and Cooking is best read by dipping into an chapter that looks interesting, but be forewarned, McGee is an addictive writer, and, like a bag of potato chips, you will find yourself wanting to read just one more section. For readers who have forgotten their chemistry, there is a helpful “Chemistry Primer” at the end of the book that covers atoms, molecules, chemical bonds, energy, and the phases of matter. Any food lover will find a banquet of topics here to feast on.
Check the WRL catalog for On Food and Cooking.
Ever since purchasing On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen by Harold McGee back in the 1980s, I have been a fan of books that explore the scientific and cultural aspects of food and its preparation. I recently picked up a copy of Michael Pollan’s wonderful Cooked and was delighted to discover another title I need to add to my permanent collection of food books.
Pollan is probably best known for The Omnivore’s Dilemma, where he explores in sobering fashion how we eat in the 21st century. In Cooked, he looks at the four elements—fire, water, air, and earth—and how humans use these elements to transform animals and plants into food. Pollan has a clear affection for food and food preparation, and his enthusiasm and passion drive the stories here. In each of the sections of the book Pollan seeks out experts in the field—a barbeque grill master, a master baker, wheat growers, brewers, cheesemakers, and more—and talks with them about their work. Like John McPhee, another of my favorite writers, Pollan gives his characters the stage and lets them talk about their own passions in their voices.
Pollan also writes engagingly about his own attempts at cooking. Pollan writes about grilling, making liquid-based dishes, baking bread, and brewing not only as an observer but also as a participant. In doing so, he makes clear the value in preparing your own food from scratch, rather than purchasing processed meals. Cooking forces us to slow down, think about things closely, and then to share with family and friends the results of our work.
Cooked also provides a somewhat bleak picture of contemporary eating habits and commercial food preparation. In exploring the concepts of taste, Pollan relates how the processed food that makes up a disturbing percentage of our diet relies on unhealthy amounts of fat, sugar, and salt to make up for the lack of careful, and slow, preparation. After reading Cooked you may come away wanting to spend a bit more time in the kitchen, baking a loaf of sourdough bread, making a hearty stew for a cool fall evening’s meal, or appreciating a well-aged cheese. At least I hope so.
Check the WRL catalog for Cooked.
Possum Come a-Knockin’ is a rhyming-text book that shows a family in the country going about their business when they get an unusual visitor.
Granny and Pappy, Ma and Pa, and Brother and Sis are all too wrapped up in their activities to notice someone knocking at the door, but Tom-cat, Coon-dawg, and the narrator (who calls herself “me”) all know something isn’t right. They all hear someone knock-knock-knocking on the door.
You’ll watch through the window as each member of the family goes on knittin’ and whittlin’ and cookin’ taters, until finally the pets cause such a ruckus that they go to investigate. But when they open the door, the mischievous possum is nowhere to be found!
This book, written by Nancy Van Laan, is fun to read aloud, and you and your children will laugh at the great illustrations. Grab a copy and have fun watching this zany family!
Check the WRL catalog for Possum Come a-Knockin’.
Charlotte shares this review:
You get to Alcatraz by being the worst of the worst. Unless you’re me. I came here because my mother said I had to.
The original setting is the first great thing about this book: it’s 1935, and Moose Flanagan’s family has just moved to Alcatraz. His father works as an electrician and part-time guard on the famous prison island. Between his father’s long work hours and the family’s ongoing troubles trying to raise his special-needs sister Natalie, no one seems to have much time for Moose. So maybe no one will notice this scheme cooked up by the warden’s daughter, a 12-year-old femme fatale named Piper, to market Alcatraz laundry service—the only laundry service run by convicted felons!—to kids at school.
In 1935, no one used the word “autistic” yet, which makes it even harder for Moose to explain why his 16-year-old sister needs babysitting, or throws tantrums, or has such a phenomenal gift for numbers. Mrs. Flanagan has tried everything she can imagine to break through Natalie’s isolation. Her last hopes are fixed on a progressive, experimental boarding school, the Esther P. Marinoff. But if the school won’t let Natalie enroll…
I expected this book to be funny, but I did not expect it to bring tears to my eyes, which may have happened. Sure, the gangster legends and the rules of life on a prison island are interesting. Did you know Al Capone started the first soup kitchen in Chicago?
But this is not a one-gimmick book; it’s a compassionate story about an ordinary, likable family under a lot of stress. There are tensions in every relationship, especially between Moose, a kid shouldering the responsibilities of an adult, and his mother, who can’t enjoy her son’s accomplishments without resenting the things her daughter will never have. The character of Natalie was inspired by the author’s sister, Gina, who had a severe form of autism; maybe that’s why both the strengths and the weaknesses in this family seem so true.
And it’s funny. If you’ve already enjoyed this book, head straight for the sequel, Al Capone Shines My Shoes, in which Piper continues to be a real piece of work, Moose finds it difficult to be best friends with everybody, and J. Edgar Hoover gets his pocket picked during dinner. Now with more gangster action!
Check the WRL catalog for Al Capone Does My Shirts.
Or try the audiobook.