Read Across America!

In celebration of Read Across America, one of my local elementary schools held a Reading Day. For the second time since they launched this program, the school librarian asked me to read to a class. I was thrilled and immediately told her I would.

A couple of years ago, I read Hooway for Wodney Wat, one of my favorite books at the time. (It still is, but lately I've fallen in love with Olivia. Can you blame me?) The kids loved it and we talked about reading, bullies, rats and more.

This year, I let the librarian choose the book for me -- and I am glad I did. This year's book was new to me: Henry's Freedom Box. It is a true story about Henry "Box" Brown, who mailed himself to freedom after his wife and children were sold by his wife's owner. It was a fabulous book with great illustrations.

Lately, I have felt very personally the ravages of slavery. When I read about people being "owned" or "sold," I flinch. The horrific implications of slavery became very real to me when I realized the terrible limitations Phillis Wheatley experienced. This incredible poet and very intelligent woman was owned by other human beings. She was taught to read and write almost as an experiment. Otherwise, this woman would have been invisible. Slaves had no identity. They were property. The idea makes me reel in shock every time the reality of it settles into my mind.

And so I read this book to a roomful of fourth graders. At one point, as Henry watched his wife and children disappear down the road, I wanted to cry. I looked into the cluster of children at my feet and was thrilled that none of us experienced that horror and hoped none would feel that kind of pain.

The story was poignant, the illustrations beautiful and the book a wonderful read. We talked about the Underground Railroad, which they were studying, and Harriet Tubman. I enjoyed myself and I hope the children did, too.

I knew the all loved to read because I asked. Every child's hand shot up when I asked who loved to read. Their hands shot up in the air again when I asked who was reading a book that day. They loved the library (both school and private) and planned to visit soon.

Just the night before, my 3-year-old godson Conor and I read a couple of books together. He's learning words and letters, and I'm looking forward to that "light bulb moment" when he realizes the letters spell words on the page. I remember when I experienced that moment. It was a beautiful thing and everyone deserves it.

So celebrate reading and Dr. Seuss, and Read Across America, people!


A Thousand Splendid Suns -- Review by Chris

The buzz around A Thousand Splendid Suns was incredible. Everyone raved about it -- and when that happens, I am suspicious. I loved The Kite Runner. Could Khaled Hosseini strike twice?


This time, Hosseini takes on a difficult voice: the voice of a woman. Multiple women, actually: of different ages, different backgrounds, different education levels, different regions. He does an excellent job. His voices, his characters are authentic, rich and vibrant. They are real.

The relationships are very real, too. Readers feel the anguish of a rejected daughter, a beloved daughter, a lonely daughter, an abandoned daughter, a frightened wife, a jealous wife, a supportive and loving mother, an anguished mother, a woman in love.

There are a number of women in this book, but two characters are central: Miriam and Laila. Miriam's youth is joyous but troubled. From the start, her angry, bitter mother tries to tell her the ways of the world for a harami like her. Her father visits every Thursday, and she feels special. Her world has been this way always: living in a small hut with her mother, her father living somewhere in town, on the other side of the creek. Her world is small and everything seems simple to her, as with any child. Too soon, she grows up and realizes that while her mother was troubled, she was not completely inaccurate about the world.

Leila is the daughter of an educated man and a lively, strong woman. Unfortunately, she arrives late in life when her mother has lost her sons to the army fighting the occupiers of her beloved Afghanistan and her father has lost his livelihood. However, she is smart and lively and she sees things in the world that make her love her country and her people, especially her family and Tariq, a childhood friend who from an early age is terribly important to her. When her family finally comes together in a beautiful and successful way, tragedy strikes with images that are as horrific as any a young girl should bear.

Both Miriam and Leila find themselves in heartbreaking situations, and both make the best choices they can under the circumstances. And both watch the world unfold at their doorstep.

This is what I loved most about this book: the personal viewpoint. Much like A Handmaid's Tale, the world presented in third-person narration is limited to the character's immediate experiences. There are situations in which they learn about the world around them, but for the most part, their world is their homes and families. Information is controlled by the totalitarian regime of their country and homes.

With his second book, Hosseini presents an Afghanistan that is rich and full, so much bigger than the nation this country ignored until 2001. As with any story, it is the characters that make it special and memorable, and Hosseini again creates characters that remain in the reader's heart and mind long after the final page is turned.

I strongly recommend readers purchase this book and read it, then share it. It is not an easy read, but it is a compelling read, memorable and beautiful, tragic and resonating. A Thousand Splendid Suns reminds us that a country is more than its politics: a country's heart truly is its people.


Last Night at the Lobster — Review by Chris

In the hands of Stewart O'Nan, the intricacies of the everyday are very revealing and worthwhile. It's in these details that his characters are born, and in which the reader learns so much.

My first exposure to O'Nan was The Good Wife, in which we spend a couple of decades with Patty, the young wife of a man convicted of a felony. This book was so good that to this day I can still feel Patty as she navigated her way through the penal system and raised her son alone while remaining devoted to and supportive of her husband.

O'Nan's latest book, Last Night at the Lobster, introduces us to Manny, the manager of a Red Lobster outside a mall in Connecticut. It's not a successful restaurant, and we meet Manny as he drives into the parking lot to open the restaurant for the last time. Corporate has decided to close this particular restaurant five days before Christmas.

If that isn't bad enough, Manny was allowed to take only five of his employees with him when he was transferred to the Olive Garden in the next town over. Oh, and he's being demoted to assistant manager at the new place.

Did I mention there is a blizzard forecasted? The sky is unceremoniously dumping foot after foot of snow on the region on this auspicious day.

Manny is not the reason the Lobster has floundered. If anything, his conscientious attitude is a great advantage to the corporation. Manny has made it his duty to keep his restaurant running. Every thought, every action, has been its sustenance. Now he has to shut it down. With every action Manny has to take, we see the dedication coupled with sadness and futility.

One last insult: Manny and his employees may not tell their customers the restaurant will not open after this day, so he has to treat it like it will be there tomorrow.

In Lobster, Manny has a typical atypical day with what to him is a familiar cast of characters. It may be their last day, but everyone still dances the same steps they have practiced together every day. He has worked with these people, but he does not romanticize them. Those who do not arrive for their last day of work are not vilified. He knows he built relationships that, for the most part, are temporary. Those who are not transferring with him will not seek him out. He knows this and does not blame them.

The customers are typical, but in O’Nan’s hands, they are not stereotypical. Readers see the retirement party, the mother with an ill-behaved child and the grandmothers through Manny’s eyes. His assessments are not hostile. He is realistic. Anyone who has worked in restaurants or food service recognizes them. (Come to think of it, anyone who has eaten in restaurants will recognize them.)

For O’Nan, the characters are the story. Stories unfold with every thought, every action, every gesture. It is sad and lovely, exquisite and haunting. These people will stay with you for a long time.

I recommend this novel. I have two more O’Nan novels I have found at used bookstores in the area, and I look forward to reading them as well.

Oh, and one last thing: go to the book's Web page and enjoy the subtle yet special effect. (Hint: you'll want to go back in August....)


How Do You "Shop" for Books?

This morning, as I perused the book section of the local newspaper, I wondered how other people find books to read.

Me, I troll constantly for books. I feel a little like a shark. Seeking books to read is as natural to me as breathing. It's not that I don't have enough to read, for heaven's sake. Even after my moratorium, my nightstand creaks under the weight of the pending book pile. We won't even mention the "vertical" stacks in my den (one of which nearly beaned a cat last weekend).

I just love books. I love the news stories about them, the adventure of seeking them, the thrill of encountering a new gem. I love the feel of books, turning them over in my hand as I ponder them, reading the dust jacket blurbs, wondering just how accurate the reviews are. (I mean, one doesn't expect to read "Ick!" on a dust jacket, does one?)

The thrill is as much in the hunt as in the actual discovery. I check out book reviews, book news, book and literature blogs, author interviews. I check out list of award-winning books. I look at paragraph-long reviews in The New Yorker. Sometimes book discoveries aren't anywhere near the arts and literature section. When that new television show is based on a book (only the show's writers disavow hearing about that suspiciously familiar storyline), the story can be in the Regional or Metro section of the paper.

Nearly every day I find a new gem: a new book, an interesting new author, a tidbit about a dead author.

I also keep a list of books in my organizer. More often than not, I'll recognize a title buried in the sports section of the thrift store book section and hold in my hands that bio on cousins (tsars, emperors and kings) that started World War I. My list is ever-growing and, frankly, it's terribly long. I started to have to annotate it with when I read it and, if I didn't finish it, why. However, I will continue to add to the list (and update Terry Pratchett's book list, which ends with books set to be published in 2006, shame on me).

Most importantly, I listen to people whose opinion on books I respect. Carole is my go-to person on books; we may not always agree on books, but I trust her judgment. If she likes a book, I am more likely to give it a chance. I also trust Kathy's opinions on books, especially since she recommended No Angel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and Feast of Love. I also trust Lois, whose recommendation of The Red Tent compelled me to give it the college try it deserved and whose comments on Heart-Shaped Box prompted me to keep my Reading Buddy close.

How do you determine what books to read? Where do you look? Whose opinions do you trust?


About That Moratorium....

As you most likely remember, Carole and I famously declared a moratorium on book purchasing in January. I say "famously" in part because it was a public declaration and in part because Rose didn't believe me.

My skeptical co-worker was not convinced that I could survive such an animal. She watched me distribute Borders coupons throughout the office in December, counsel people on what books would be suitable for whom (and even where they'd find them at My Borders) and discuss what books I would find on my bookshelf after the holidays (including a copy of Weird Virginia she let me win from the office gift exchange).

She laughed long and hard when I told her about my agreement with Carole, but she gave me the benefit of the doubt.

Until the first book arrived in the mail January 10.

She looked me right in the eye as she handed me the padded envelope and asked, "This isn't a book, is it?"

(Try explaining Half.com in a situation like that. Ordering Peyton Place and A Christmas Memory on December 26 was not the same as breaking the moratorium, even if the books were delivered in January. At least, that's my story, and I'm sticking to it.)

Aside from People of the Book, those were my last two books purchased from Christmas until February 2.

And it was glorious.

Don't get me wrong, I missed many things about hunting for books. In January, I did not wander the aisles of My Borders. I did not haunt Yesterday's Rose. The local library was closed, so I did not find books for a dime. Even Salvation Army was off-limits. I did not want to slip.

However, I did not suffer the guilt of stacking on the nightstand one more book that I knew I wouldn't read anytime soon. Nor did I add too many more books to the towering stacks wobbling on the floor at home. I received many books as gifts at Christmas, and I still had to find homes for them somewhere in the home library. I had my hands full.

Truthfully, I enjoyed the time off.

And when it was over, I perused my favorite secondhand stores and purchased eight books for about as many dollars: two were gifts, two were for the L3 and the rest sounded too interesting to pass up (heads up, Carole!).

Am I reformed? Absolutely not. But I am sated for now. After forcing myself to think before purchasing, I think I know the difference between books I pick up while the ink is still drying (Jasper Fforde, Geraldine Brooks, Khaled Hosseini) and others I can pick up when I have the time. Wanting every book published is all well and good, but where will I keep them?

(That is not the question I asked myself when I picked up a first edition hardback copy of the Warren Commission Report or a pristine first edition of The Godfather to replace my tattered crumbling oft-read copy. I am, after all, only human.)

And if tomorrow I walk out of Yesterday's Rose with yet one more handful of books, I give you permission to laugh at me. I'll join in.


Away — Review by Chris

Would you walk halfway around the world through untamed treacherous terrain and put yourself at the mercy of strangers, to find your child?

For Lillian, the lead character in Away, that was perhaps the easiest decision of her life. Her decisions — and the journeys on which they took her — are wonderfully and richly captured by author Amy Bloom, who chronicled Lillian's journey from Russia and back.

The rest of her existence she had known loss and sadness, want and pain. Lillian had scratched out a living with her family in Russia, married Osip and bore a child as was expected of her. That would have been her life — had her goyim neighbors not decided she and her family were evil. After a night filled with knives, broken china, axes and blood, she managed to send her daughter to the chicken coop to save her life.

It was the last time she would see Sophie alive.

In her mind-numbing grief, Lillian left her family farm and packed her meager belongings in a satchel. After weeks in steerage, listening to the tips of wiser and more worldly fellow passengers, she arrived on the busy streets of Lower Manhattan with only her talent as a seamstress and her cousin's address.

She does not stay in one place very long. At each step, she adapts, and she has willing and generous teachers along the way. Her cousin Frieda makes sure she realizes nothing in life is free, not even a spot as a night sleeper (and day seamstress) in the cramped apartment. Meyer takes her into his home and life, but to give him a veneer of respectability, and she learns companionship. From Reuben, she learns how to be a woman of refinement, to pronounce the Ws and to speak and understand English. Yaakov, whose life ended and began with the death of his wife and child, brought her the love of the thesaurus and a path to Siberia.

Even so, word of Sophie's life came from an unreliable source: an opportunistic cousin who wanted her life. Why would Lillian take the word of someone who told her the impossible while placing her hand on the small of her back and shoving her out the door?

But a mother who wishes for the impossible may not feel the pressure on her back. She may not listen to saner heads who wonder aloud whether Sophie would live best with a grief-stricken mother whose dreams are troubled and dangerous. Other minds might wonder if Sophie would remember this woman years afterward, whether Lillian's love is enough to tear her away from her new family, the only family she might remember. But other minds, saner minds are not Lillian's, and in the end they can only advise and assist. Through it all, she lost a lot and gained little, helped others and was helped, loved and was loved in return.

The story is rich in detail. From Bloom's descriptions, readers can visualize Meyer's love nest, Frieda's tiny and greasy apartment, the absolutely dark closet in which she crossed part of the American continent and the second broom closet in which she crossed the rest. Readers wince at her infected blisters, her tattoo, her lice.

The only disconnect I found in the story was when Bloom introduced us to two other characters in the story, giving them the same weight and importance as Lillian. At least one did not warrant that attention, and it felt a little gratuitious, as though Bloom did not want to waste the research or she wanted to make a point. It is minor.

However, this minor point does not take away from the beauty of the book. It's more than a travelogue. It's an epic story of survival that challenges us to wonder if we would risk it all and literally walk toward one life while walking away from another.


Little Children — Review by Chris

Little Children is not for the squeamish, for those who wish to skate across the top of the story and see the characters through smudged, wavy window panes. Tom Perrotta, author of Election and, most recently, The Abstinence Teacher, plops his readers into the middle of intimacy. The author pulls back the covers and shows the cadaver on the table. It's exhilarating, unsettling and poignant.

Sarah is a smart woman who succumbed to desperation while a Starbucks barista and married a man who showed interest in her as a sexual being. A few years later, she is a misfit feminist suburban housewife with a demanding 3-year-old daughter and a husband whose regrets and desires are catching up with him. If only those desires involved his life at home....

Todd is studying for the bar while staying at home to raise his 3-year-old son Aaron. His wife, Kathy, spends her days researching her documentary film about World War II vets. While Todd finds ways to avoid the bar exam (including football, harassment and skateboarding), Kathy plans ahead for the time when her dashing "Prom King" will take over the role of breadwinner and allow her what she sees as the luxury and opportunity to stay home with their child (and maybe expand their family).

Everything is quiet and uneventful until Ronnie McGorvey moves back in with his mother, May, on Blueberry Court. Ronnie is a pariah: he was imprisoned for the sexual assault and murder of a Girl Scout selling cookies. Everyone knows about his presence because of the relentless spotlight shone on him by Larry, a former police officer who retired after his fatal shooting of a teenager in the local food court. Larry's sense of purpose has shifted: he tells himself it is the safety of his 4-year-old sons and the other children near Blueberry Court, but his every moment is spent making sure Ronnie is punished for his wrongdoings.

Sarah wants her life to be bigger than remembering to bring goldfish when they meet their friends at the park. The term "friends" is used loosely; Sarah can't take seriously the "perfect" mothers like Mary Ann, who always has the right juice and the right snacks, whose children behave and whose idea of literature is "Good Housekeeping." Sarah wants some intellectual stimulation. Or something.

The "something" turns out to be Todd. She is brazen enough to approach him in a nearly wanton way, and he is awestruck by her energy and disregard for Playground Politics.

They are an unlikely pair: she is not the beauty queen his wife is and he's not the staid paunchy middle-aged businessman her husband is. And yet they find something in each other that draws them to each other, something they cannot find at home. Todd looks at Sarah, really looks at her, and Sarah supports Todd's reticence regarding the bar exam.

Meanwhile, readers find themselves in the home and life of a child molester. These Blueberry Court homestead scenes are intimate and familiar, and introduce the real Ronnie McGorvey. The real man is not the one his mother introduces to his blind date, but the one readers meet on the blind date. That section is heartbreaking, tension-filled, poignant and more than just a little sad and creepy.

Another character who fills the pages (and the reader's minds) is May McGorvey, a woman who knows her son is not quite right but cannot, simply cannot, give up on him. She is the one who insists he fill out a personal ad. She takes him to church. She is not naive, however; she knows a personal computer is a dangerous tool in the hands of her middle age son. Hers is a life of fear mixed with hope and surrounded by caution. She also is a pariah, much like her son, and her life is irrevocably changed by his actions, too.

Action is rife in the book. Characters develop through their actions, more so than their thoughts and feelings. Those who follow up on impulses, who take the first step followed by the second one, fill Perrotta's pages. We watch every step, every swing, every tackle, every departure, every car trip.

Readers are insiders here, and the intimacy haunting and beautiful — and very, very real. We see the lonliness of suburbia, the alienation of personalities, the intimacy (or lack thereof) inside the home and the marriage bed.

As the books careens toward its finale, the reader is nearly breathless with anticipation. It all comes down to one moment, one location, one fateful interaction. In the hands of other writers, the ending would have been a disappointment, but Perrotta's vision makes sense.

The characters are rich and real, full-bodied and immediate. The story is compelling, colorful strings woven into a fascinating fabric. I highly recommend this book.


Seeing Redd — Review by Chris

Spoiler alert: This is a review of the second book in The Looking Glass Wars series. By its nature, the review will reveal at least part of what happened in the first book. If you want the first book to be a complete surprise, which is my personal preference, stop reading now and leave this page.

You have been warned!

Not everything is what it seems, Frank Beddor's sequel reminds us. After being immersed in a Wonderland controlled by Redd, we know what to expect: squalor, betrayal, deceit and danger.

However, we also learn that Redd is not the only one to try to bring on such unpleasantness.

As we join our intrepid heroes in Seeing Redd, Wonderland is recovering as best it can from Redd's influence, with the cleansing power of Alyss' strong White Imagination. Everyone is back: Bibwit Harte, Dodge, General Doppelganger — even the walrus butler. Hatter Madigan has left the queen in Homburg Molly's capable hands.

And they are capable — only Molly feels inferior. She can't believe that the queen truly trusts her and she looks at many things as a slight.

The queen herself is trying to fit into her new role, but again, she's learning how to be queen every day (with help from her loyal and wise tutor). She has rediscovered Dodge and wants to know where that will go.

Hatter is learning a new role himself while mourning Weaver, his only love.

Even those who are looking to disrupt the new peace are learning. King Arch, the chauvinistic king we met briefly in the first book, is back — and looking for a chink in the new queen's armor. Even Redd and The Cat, banished to the apparent safety of the Heart Crystal, are learning a new role: how to notch up their viciousness while being just a little blurry. (Choosing the wrong painter can have its drawbacks.)

More than once, blindness (despite Glass Eyes) takes characters down unforseen paths and make alliances they might not ought to — or should they?

Readers learn more themselves: about the Heart dynasty, the Looking Glass Mazes, about Earth and Wonderland. Readers learned more about the politics of Wonderland and Borderland, its neighbor.

This book was hard for me to read. I tend to tense up when the going gets tough, and I was tense the entire time I read the book — which means it was good. Better than that, I literally had no idea where the book was going. Although the story went places I didn't expect, it followed the logic of the world in which it took place. The ending was stunning and marvelous.

It also introduced some very interesting new characters, mostly deliciously imagined Black Imaginationists, beautifully setting up the third book in the series.

I also discovered there are companion pieces to this series, including Princess Alyss of Wonderland and Hatter M: The Looking Glass Wars, the latter of which is a graphic novel spin-off.

But first, read Seeing Redd and The Looking Glass Wars (but not in that order). You will be glad you did.


Practical Demonkeeping — Review by Chris

Reading Christopher Moore's first novel, Practical Demonkeeping, is like climbing into a car having no idea where you are going but knowing you're going to have a great trip.

Moore has a gift for weaving a whole bunch of disparate characters into the fabric of the story and allowing them to unfold with wry wit. I found myself marking page after page for great lines and humorous observations.

Travis as spent a deceptively long lifetime dealing with the demon Catch, a short, stout, scaly demon whose countenance changes when he feeds — and who remains invisible until that time.

Jenny is a 29-year-old a waitress who has just left her husband, Robert, a sorry besotted lovesick waif.

Robert is staying with The Breeze, a drug dealer whose actual face time is shorter than his story arc, and encountering way too many new faces — including the face of a man in his dreams, a man making love with his wife.

Then there's Augustus Brine, the elderly owner of a tackle and convenience store who knows his true calling is that of a madam, who encounters Gian Hen Gian, a small Arabic man who consumes his weight in salt every day.

Effrom, a World War I vet, is lost without his wife Amanda, who chose this week to visit their daughter and leave him to deal with insurance salesmen looking for her.

Billy Winston lives a double life, one of which includes red high heels and motel accounting.

Howard is convinced that aliens walk among us, and just happens to be fluent in Greek (which comes in handy).

Rivera wants to nail The Breeze or he will have to trade in his policeman's badge for the smock of a Slurpy-server at the local 7-Eleven.

Rachael is the high priestess of Pagan Vegetarians for Peace, beautiful and dangerous, with a past no one could imagine.

Mavis runs the Head of the Slug, keeps an eye on the downtrodden around her town and, thankfully, can handle a firearm.

Author Christopher Moore has a way with people. Fictional people, that is. Each of these characters is lovingly described with a candor many authors cannot sustain. Each has a role to in this passion play, only it never is what the reader expects. Flour bombs? Suitcases? Telephoto lenses? Computer conversations? All this and more are woven into this tale.

One night, the dogs won’t stop barking. The next day, Travis and Catch limp into town with a broken radiator and the uncanny ability to play pool better than the town expert. Robert, who is spending his last dollars drowning his sorrows, encounters the man of his dreams, so to speak, and is flabbergasted when the man’s car winds up in his — well, Jenny’s driveway.

Meanwhile, the enlightened Augustus Brine encounters someone who tells him what will happen in Pine Cove if he doesn’t act to change the course of the town’s future.

As night falls and the people of Pine Cove discover just how terrible the night can be, all hell breaks loose. It’s not just Robert’s unfortunate choice of luggage, or Augustus forgetting that fuses of different lengths detonate at different times. It’s not just Jenny’s first date in a decade and Travis’ first in a lifetime. It’s not Mavis with her tape recorder, or Rachel with her discovery of what she thinks is an invisible earth god. It’s not just Billy seeing Catch (which is never a good thing) or Augustus learning about demons, Djinn and Solomon. It’s all that and more.

I laughed, I cheered, I gasped, I chuckled, I was surprised and delighted. I thoroughly enjoyed the book and heartily recommend it to readers with a sense of humor and affection for the slapstick and the far-fetched. I can’t wait to read Fluke and Lamb (both of which Carole recommends and the latter of which, if I remember correctly from my quick glance, involved Jesus resurrecting a lizard killed repeatedly by his little brother — how can I lose?).