Wednesday, August 24, 2011

On My Honor

by Marion Dane Bauer
narrated by Johnny Heller
Prince Frederick, MD : Recorded Books LLC, p1998.

Joel and Tony have been best friends since they were small. Joel has always been the obedient, cautious one; Tony is a charismatic daredevil. Tony's latest scheme is to bike out to the state park and climb the bluffs. Joel doesn't want to, but what boy wants his best friend calling him a coward?

It almost sounds like the set up to a heavy lesson story, doesn't it? Instead, through a third person narration closely tied to Joel's point of view, we see a realistic boy who wants to do the right thing, but also save face with his friend. While it isn't necessarily the type of story I'd choose to reread, I can see why it was a Newbery Honor book.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The King's Speech (the book)

by Mark Logue and Peter Conradi
New York : Sterling Pub. Co., 2010.

This is the dual biography of Lionel Logue and King George VI, a recounting of their friendship and the many speeches they worked on throughout the years. Despite the title and subject matter, this is a very different work than the movie, with a broader focus and greater span of years covered.

I watched The King's Speech a few months ago, and was intrigued enough to learn more. Mark Logue, the grandson of speech therapist Lionel Logue, had found his grandfather's diaries and papers soon before the shooting of the movie, and much of what he found informs this book. While some years felt a little bit like a listing of the king's speeches, a broader awareness of history, especially during World War 2 really help fill out the story and give it context. I actually wished for a bit more history, but I'll content myself with writing down a few titles contained in the notes at the end.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

by Betty Smith
New York : Trumpet Club, 1989, c1947.

Francie lives with her brother Neeley and their parents, Katie and Johnny, in Brooklyn in the early 1900s. They're a poor but hardworking family determined to make better for each generation. Though we're given information about both parents and their families, this is primarily Francie's book, as we see her grow from a child into a teenager with big dreams.

This is the type of story that's primarily about character and writing. Francie is the one we're rooting for primarily, but we're given enough information to sympathize with her family, such as her hardworking, no-nonsense mother Katie, and even her father, Johnny, a talented singer who has a weakness for drink. I felt with her every roadblock, every trial and joy. I enjoyed the style of writing, a descriptive narration that would often tell me a back-story or information about what a secondary character was thinking, and sometimes tended towards the flowery, but I could definitely see this style annoying someone else (even me, if I was in a different mood). This was my first time reading this classic, and certainly won't be the last.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

So Many Books, So Little Time

by Sara Nelson
New York : G.P. Putnam's Sons c2003.

In 2002, Sara Nelson, a book reviewer and journalist by trade, decided to spend the year reading a book a week and writing about her experiences. What resulted is this book, a collection of essays and ruminations on reading: her process choosing a book, reading more than one book, books vs. movies, and much, much more.

I love to read, and I love to read about reading. I am, admittedly, part of that niche, ready-made audience for this book. I enjoyed Sara's thoughts because I could relate and because she had a truly funny way of getting her points across. One essay that stands out in my mind was her discussion of reading more than one book at a time, and how sometimes she has books that she reads at home, but not in public. This could sound snobby, but it didn't to me because throughout the book she's talking about the "low" and "high-brow" literature she's reading, not ashamedly but in a friendly, confessional sort of way. Instead, it reminded me of when I was reading V for Vendetta for a class, but I stopped reading it in public because I kept getting asked if I'd seen the movie (I haven't). So I started bringing out Reading Matters, a collection of research on reading in the United States, that looked smarter and was my "fun" (ie., non-school) book at the time. This was one of many ways in which I found I could completely relate with Sara, which is ultimately, why I fell in love with her book.

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate

by Jacqueline Kelly
narrated by Natalie Ross
Grand Haven, MI : Brilliance Audio, p2009.

Calpurnia Virginia Tate - generally called "Callie Vee" by her six brothers - discovers an interest in science, much to the consternation of her mother, who would like her only daughter to be a proper young lady. But at practically twelve in 1899, Calpurnia is finding, with encouragement from her naturalist grandfather, a whole wonderful world opening up to her.

I didn't expect to like this book as much as I did, fearing that Kelly wouldn't be able to help bashing Christians in a book talking about a girl learning about science and Darwin in Texas. She does a good job of treading lightly and treating issues more complexly than that, however. A quote from The Origin of Species opens each chapter, and Callie has an adventure trying to borrow the book from the library. But her grandfather, an admirer of Darwin, is also good friends with the local minister, and there are no lectures on believing one way or the other. Callie is a great character. I loved the realistic interactions between Callie and her brothers, or her mother, especially. Callie jumps into things with both feet, like a true eleven-year-old, wondering about the world around her, whether it be the natural world or her oldest brother's love life. Narrator Natalie Ross did an excellent job of capturing her voice, as well as making each of her brothers and other characters sound distinctive.

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Unheard

The Unheard: A Memoir of Deafness and Africa
by Josh Swiller
New York : Henry Holt and Co., 2007.

In the 1990s, Josh Swiller joined the Peace Corps and was sent to Africa to build a well. Born with significant hearing loss, Josh was mainstreamed (that is, sent to public school with hearing kids rather than to a Deaf school where he would have learned ASL). He can speak and read lips, but has always felt on the margins in a hearing world; he learned ASL at Gallaudet, but was not a part of the Deaf culture there, either. In Mununga, a practically forgotten village in Zambia, Josh finds that his hearing loss doesn't matter as much. There is less background noise to contend with, people face him to speak, and don't mind when he asks them to repeat themselves. But this small village is fearful and violent, and Josh soon finds out that building a well is the least of his worries.

I had a love/hate relationship with this memoir. The stories Josh tells are absolutely heartbreaking and maddening. I generally felt depressed about the state of Africa while reading - in the face of childhood diseases, AIDS, and fear as he describes, what hope is there? Also, I didn't particularly like Josh. His bullheaded way of trying to move projects forward grated on me, and I was annoyed rather than amused by his anecdote of "cultural exchange" via showing some of the locals the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition. But he does know how to craft an exciting narrative, keeping me reading despite my misgivings and pacing his stories in such a way that I was hard put to find a good stopping point.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Searching for God Knows What

by Donald Miller
Nashville, Tenn. : Thomas Nelson Inc., c2010.

What if the Christian church is so focused on theology that it's lost sight of what really makes one a Christian? Miller contends that the American church has reduced a complex relationship with Jesus Christ to a formulaic gospel of steps to becoming a Christian. In Searching for God Knows What, he seeks to emphasize the relational nature of the gospel and demonstrates how different a worldview this would be from mainstream American culture.

A friend of mine lent this to me months ago because it related to a conversation we were having at the time. Of course, I've since forgotten the original impetus, but it didn't really matter in the end. Miller's style is extremely conversational and not particularly well-written, with a few over-the-top analogies to make his points. At least once, he got his facts wrong, as when he says that King Herod had the children of Israel murdered (according to Matthew 2, he ordered that boys under the age of 2 in Bethlehem and the vicinity be killed, not the entirety of Israel). Despite these flaws, from time to time a sentence or a paragraph would make me stop in my reading tracks. He would manage to crystallize an idea or use an illustration that was truly thought-provoking. I didn't always agree with Miller, ultimately. He clearly does not "get" sports, for example, and his politics clash with mine. But I enjoyed the challenge to think about exactly what I believe about my relationship with God, and how this necessarily affects my relationship with others.

Monday, August 8, 2011

The Joy of Pi

by David Blatner
New York : Walker and Co., 1997.

This is a quirky history of pi in 130 pages. From the ancients to the modern day, the number that would be able to decipher a circle's circumference by its known radius has fascinated mathematicians. Blatner discusses a variety of history revolving around pi, including the development of equations to calculate it and devices people use to memorize it to several decimal points.

The first thing that drew me to the book was its design. Its cover is yellow, square, and just a bit bigger than the old Beatrix Potter books I read as a young child. Peppered throughout the text are tidbits of information highlighted in squares, rectangles, or circles a different color from the page. And - the most fun aspect of it, in my opinion - throughout the text is, as if a footnote, is pi calculated to one million decimal places. Because most of the information is accessible to a layperson, I was willing to overlook the many equations that went completely over my head.