"Outside a dog a book is man's best friend, inside a dog it is too dark to read!" -Groucho Marx========="The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid." -Jane Austen========="I don’t believe in the kind of magic in my books. But I do believe something very magical can happen when you read a good book."-JK Rowling========"I spend a lot of time reading." -Bill Gates=========“Ahhh. Bed, book, kitten, sandwich. All one needed in life, really.” -Jacqueline Kelly=========

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

What was I reading?


What I was reading...

On my birthday, two weeks ago (Feb. 19th)---

Moloka'i by Alan Brennert

This is quite possibly the best book club selection we've ever discussed. Check out my review (hyperlinked) to see why I think this.

A year ago (2020) ---

The Year of the Monkey by Patti Smith

My, oh my, what a weird book. But as I look back on my review I think it has a lot of literary merit. (Click on hyperlinked title to read that review.)

Three years ago (2017)---

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

This is an incredible, INCREDIBLE audiobook using over 160 unique voices. I highly recommend it in the audio format. Others who read the print version weren't so sure.

Six years ago (2015)---

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

I enjoy looking back on my old reviews. I remember being very fond of this book, but my review reminds me why and now I can say it again:  if you haven't read this book year, what are waiting for?

What about you? What were you reading last year and a few years ago?


Nonfiction/Information book reviews: THE FIGHTING INFANTRYMAN and WINGED WONDERS

As a secondary school librarian I used the term 'nonfiction' a lot. Heck, over half my library was full of nonfiction titles. But if my job were an elementary school librarian I would have to learn to call them 'information books.' Today I will be reviewing two information books designed for elementary grade children and these two reviews will fill out my review of the 21 Cybils finalist books I read as a judge for the award. By now I hope you have read the other nineteen reviews and are aware of how excellent all the finalist selections were this year.

Winged Wonders: Solving the Monarch Migration Mystery
by Meeg Pincus.
This delightful children's information book has a lot going for it. First the subject--butterflies. Secondly, the unraveling of a mystery that stumped scientists for many, many years. And thirdly, the knowledge that school children helped solve the mystery---Where do all the monarchs go when they migrate? In 1976 the world learned the answer. They migrate to the Oyamel fir tree groves of Central Mexico which is almost two miles above sea level. But who should get credit for this discovery?

Author Meeg Pincus and illustrator Yas Imamura show the readers how it was a team of people who, when all their parts were put together, solved the mystery. It was the college teacher who spent all summer chasing monarchs in his car trying to determine where they were going. It was the school children in Minnesota who painstakingly attached tiny papers onto the wings so if anyone found it they'd know how far the monarch flew on its journey. It was the hippie and his girlfriend who marched around the forests of Mexico until they found the spot where millions and millions of monarchs covered every  branch. It was the Mexican people who showed the hippies where to go.

If I were a elementary teacher teaching a science until, I would use this book for sure. It has darling illustrations and clearly shows the students the scientific steps taken to solve this wonderful mystery.

Source: e-book provided by the publisher.

The Fighting Infantryman: The Story of Albert D.J. Cashier, Transgender Civil War Soldier
by Rob Sanders, illustrated by Nabi Ali

Albert Cashier was a born a girl in Ireland in the 1800s but wearing boys clothes was much more convenient when herding sheep. Later when Albert and his stepfather stowed away on a ship coming to American it seemed safer to dress as a boy during the journey and by the time they arrived in New York the old name was discarded and Albert was his name. For many years Albert worked at jobs only men would be hired for. Though short he grew up to be strong. When the Civil War was beginning Albert volunteered to serve but he had to pass the physical first. When the doctor only looked at his hands and feet, Albert passed and served honorably in the Union Army for four years. His secret was still intact. After the war he returned to Illinois and lived a quiet life surviving off his small war pension and the odd jobs he could pick up. One day when he was in his 60s Albert was in a car accident. The doctors and nurses agreed to keep his secret once they discovered his gender. Somehow it got out anyway and many people didn't believe that he was the 'man' who served in the Civil War so they wanted to take away his small pension. But members of his army company stood up for him and said that yes, this was the Albert they knew. Because of this accident and the news that accompanied his story, we now know about Albert Cashier, a transgender Civil War hero.

There is really no discussion of Albert's sexuality, just about his gender. I read this book to my three-year-old grandson in front of his parents. Afterwards I looked up and said, "I hope you are okay with this." Ian's Dad said, "He is already familiar with this topic because of Mulan." Just more information for a little kid to confirm that people are people and it is okay to be who we are!
The book has plenty of back matter which includes a photograph of Albert Cashier. I think this book is completely appropriate for elementary children.

Source: Print edition from the publisher.


Monday, March 1, 2021

TTT: My Most Popular Blog Posts in 2020

 Top Ten Tuesday: 

(Off the board) My most popular blog posts in 2020 based on comments / traffic.

1. Review: Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Letham. Feb. 28, 2020. (4/1202)

2. Review: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent. Jan.2, 2020 (25/182)

3. Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite books published in the last decade. Jan. 13, 2020 (35/199)

4. Review: Normal People by Sally Rooney. Jan. 17, 2020. (23/167)

5. Top Ten Tuesday: Starred Reviews. Feb. 3, 2020. (19/318)

6. Top Ten Tuesday: Books I Like that I Don't Talk About Much. April 13, 2020. (26/182)

7. Review: Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry. April 24, 2020. (27/303)

8. Top Ten Tuesday: Books I Wish I'd Read as a Child. April 27, 2020 (46/593)

9. Editorial: Black Lives Matter---A Look at the Literature. June 5, 2020 (14/238)

10. Sunday Salon: Independence Day and So Much More. July 5, 2020. (34/230)

11. Top Ten Tuesday: Pets I Have or Would Name After Book Characters. Nov. 16, 2020. (44/150)

12. Sunday Salon: Sept. 13th. Sept. 13, 2020. (27/197)

13. Sunday Salon: On the Count Down. Oct. 24, 2020. (25/188)

Wow. this was harder to do than one would think. I'm actually not exactly sure if I really captured the most popular posts or not. I do think it is interesting that most are from the first half of the year, which makes sense in terms of more time on the Internet.



Ger Duany is one of 20,000 children who left Sudan during its decades long civil war. These children are commonly called the 'Lost Boys of Sudan.' Walk Toward the Rising Sun: From Child Soldier to Ambassador for Peace is his story.

Ger Duany was born in village named Akobo in what is now South Sudan. His goals in life were modest: to be a good son and brother, maybe get an education, and when he was grown to become a soldier like this father. He wanted to make his parents proud of him. But then his village was attacked by the Sudanese Army and as a young teen he found himself a soldier himself, carrying a gun, and fighting with anyone at the drop of a hat. At fourteen he escaped to Ethiopia and lived in a refugee camp for a while. There for the first time in his life he went to school and found that he really enjoyed the intellectual stimulation. He didn't want to return home because of the lack of schools there but he did eventually go back to Sudan. In his young life he had encountered so much death and destruction when he was offered the chance to go to America via Kenya, he jumped at the chance.

Once in America life didn't seem to unfold as he planned either. First off he was embarrassed to be the oldest student in his high school with the lowest level of education. He also found other Sudanese boys to hang out with and would often get into fights. He didn't know how to be a good student with so little practice at it. After moving around a bit he finally ended up living with his relatives in Indiana, finished high school, and got a college scholarship to play basketball. Though he was very tall he wasn't very solid and injuries became a problem for him causing him to lose his scholarships. Around the same time he was approached to audition for a movie that Reese Witherspoon was making that was set in Africa. He got the part. Later while living in New York he found himself working as a male model. 

On the outside life seemed good. But on the inside Ger Duany was plagued by nightmares and desperately wanted to know about his family left behind in Sudan. When he did get back to Sudan and was able to see both of his parents the path forward began to, emerge for him. He realized that his childhood traumas didn't need to dominate his life as an adult. Once freed from these demons he could finally move forward with purpose and hopefully could be an inspiration for others. He is still acting and modeling but now he is also a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and a Peace Ambassador. 

At the end of the book he is reminded of the time, as a teen, when he and his family had to flee without a map just heading in the direction of the rising sun. He says:

"I pray these stories about my journey will engage, entertain, and galvanize you. May all your journeys continue toward the rising sun."

What I liked about the book:

  • Like the book The Cat I Never Named about the Bosnian War, I learned so much that I didn't know about the Sudan Civil War. These first hand accounts are important sources of information to open up our minds about the travails of other citizens of the world, helping create empathy and understanding. 
  • I listened to the audiobook read by Ger Duany. His English isn't perfect and his accent helped me to feel the setting and people better.

What I didn't like about the book:

  • Ger Duany's anguish and feelings weren't always apparent through the printed word. I wondered if this was a translated memoir, originally written in Arabic or his native language but it wasn't.

Source: Print book from the library and Audible purchase for the audiobook.


Sunday, February 28, 2021

Sunday Salon, Feb. 28, 2021

This relates to my blog today. I've basically got nothing new to talk about. Sigh*

Weather: overcast. Yesterday was lovely, though, and we worked in a long dog-walk. When I say "worked in" I mean between watching TV and eating something.

Family: Don is watching golf on TV. Carly is doing laundry and playing video games. I am writing a blog about nothing.

Books: I finished one book this week Moloka'i. I finished it in the nick of time for book club on Wednesday. In fact, I recommend it for a book club selection. Here is my review if you want to see why. I am working on two more book club selections for upcoming months: The Last Resort by Stapley (31%) for my SOTH club and Fifty Words for Rain by Lemmie (53%) for our RHS club. I would describe my feelings about both of these books as lukewarm. Wait until I finish them for a full review before you decide to read them or not. A lot can happen still.

Cybils Nonfiction Finalists reviews: I have now posted all but three of the twenty-one reviews for the finalists I read for the nonfiction category. Check out my reviews by following the links in this post.

Cookies: I baked the cookies I found in this article: Douglas Shortbread Cookies with Jam. (Bloomberg News.) I think the family would review them as excellent and they are quite easy, in fact the title of the article calls them 'no-fail.'

Bingeing: We are binge watching "Call the Midwife."  In two weeks we have watched four seasons. I know. Who cares?

What happened the flu this year? Hardly any cases. Could it be masks and social distancing actually works? Hmm?


Watch this and laugh: If you are one of the few people in the world who hasn't seen this, watch it now!-- Silent Monks Sing Hallelujah Chorus. It makes me so happy.


A few more funnies I found this week:

1. Does no one at Amazon double check to make sure that names and colors are correct? Like Gary and Gray are the same thing?

2.  I'd say this is me exactly these days. If I have to go to the grocery store for food, the trip is so unique and exhausting I have to rest when I get home. Ha!

3.Yeah. Scientist, explain this to me.

4. Isn't this the truth? 



One of the best parts for me of judging nonfiction finalists for the Cybils Award is being 'forced' to read books like this, Throw Like a Girl, Cheer Like a Boy: The Evolution of Gender, Identity, and Race in Sports by Robin Ryle. In the past I may have a read a chapter or two of such a book most often if I was searching for some specific information. But now I reading these nonfiction books looking not only for content but also for good writing and a pleasant presentation of the information.

Robin Ryle is a writer, sociologist, professor of gender studies, and a sports fan. She has been teaching a class on gender, race, and sports for the past fifteen years at Hanover College in Indiana. She brings not only an expertise on the subject but also a passion. 

Because the book covers a plethora of information on related topics I decided to outline the book for you brings out a few examples that really struck me.

"When Cheerleaders Were Boys" is the title of the first chapter. It deals with gender separation and what we think of as girl and boy sports. Surprisingly prior to WWII cheer-leading was done almost exclusively by men and often the men were athletes whose sports weren't in season at the time. At the time before the switch, therefore, cheer-leading was viewed as a very athletic endeavor. When women started cheering, the athletic nature of the sport was diminished and was often sexualized. Now men didn't want to do it any longer for fear of being viewed as homosexuals. With that introduction the rest of the chapter talks about differences in sports from a gender point of view and what Title IX has accomplished for women in sports.

The next chapter has to do with gender testing and the Olympics. It is a very current topic as public schools and universities grapple with how to treat trans athletes fairly. I am sure we will continue to hear more and more about this in the future.

Are men better athletes than women? Ryle uses several examples of how women who are given the opportunity and the training can be just as good or even superior to men in many areas of sports. I found it very interesting to learn that in the 1922 Olympics women performed at 30% slower than men but in the 1984 Olympics the differences were a little above 10%. Given the opportunity for good training and coaching, differences between genders are slight.

I found the chapter of sexuality in women's sports to be especially interesting. Great female athletes are often described in male terms---"tomboy', "mannish", even "muscle moll", which is a gangster term from the 1930s. If a female athlete today doesn't want to be thought of as a lesbian, she may do extra things to play up her femininity both on and off the field. Softball players may wear big bows in their hair as an example of this apologetic behavior. Black female athletes have an especially hard time navigating societal expectations with sports competitiveness. My daughter reminded me of what Serena Williams has had to go through that other tennis stars haven't had to. If she gets angry with a ref or complains about a bad call, she gets fined for being an angry black woman. There are so many double standards in sports and this is one of them.

The last three chapters have to do with cultural aspects of sports using examples baseball, cricket, and basketball, racism in sports focusing a lot of American football, and acceptance (lack of) of homosexuality in professional sports today. A lot of what I learned was both eye-opening and disconcerting.

One again, I wish I'd had this book back when I was teaching high school sociology. I think it contains the type of information that would have really interested my students.

What I liked about the book:

  • Each chapter builds on the last chapter so by the end of the book the reader will have a very clear idea of the ways that gender, identity, and race are impacted in the the sporting world. Many of the examples are historical which gives the reader to view what is happening today in light of how far we have come.
  • The topics helped bring clarity in my own thinking around trans or gender neutral athletes. It is a topic which I am sure we will hear more about in the future.
  •  The reference section of the book is well-done with chapter notes, a long bibliography, and an index.

What I didn't like about the book:

  •  My library didn't have a copy of this book so I have to read it in a pdf format supplied by the publisher. There were no photos or text-boxes with information. Does the print edition have these? I don't know. But without them the general appeal for high school students is diminished by half at least.

Source: pdf file supplied by the publisher.


Saturday, February 27, 2021

Nonfiction review: NO VOICE TOO SMALL

No Voice Too Small: Fourteen Young Americans Making History
is a children's nonfiction book designed to inspire our children to make a difference in their community and world.

In the book we meet fourteen young Americans who did something remarkable and helped change the world. Each activist inspired a poet who related to an an aspect of the young person's identity. The poets used different poetic styles to introduce the activist and their action. Then artist Jeanette Bradley's illustrations of the fourteen young people helped bring their stories to life.

Ziad, a Muslim, often was treated unfairly. At fourteen he held face-to-face conversations with almost everyone at his high school. "It's hard to hate someone you know." His TEDxTeen talk has been viewed all over the world.

Cierra Fields starting sharing information about her experiences with skin cancer when she was twelve. She was speaking out to help improve the health care available to the Cherokee Nation.

When Jazz Jennings was three she told her parents she was a girl not a boy. When her local soccer team banned her from the team, she and her parents took the fight to the US Soccer Federation. Now, thanks to Jazz, transgender kids can play soccer on teams aligned with their gender choice.

All fourteen students have incredibly brave and inspiring stories. 

The collection is edited by Lindsay Metcalf, Keila Dawson, and Jeanette Bradley. Poetry contributions were made by Nikki Grimes, Joseph Bruchac, G. Neri, Janet Wong, and Guadalupe Garcia McCall, to name a few.

What I liked about the book:

  • The inspiration I received by reading about the fourteen students and their efforts to make the world a better place.
  • The poetry in so many forms and from such a variety of poets.

What I didn't like about the book:

  • I can't figure out what the age range is for the target audience for this book. I tried reading it to my grandson, age three, and he was not interested at all (too young). Many of the stories are about actions taken by teenagers but that age group would not be interested in a picture book. I'm guessing that the perfect ages for the book would be between nine and twelve.
Source: print book supplied by the publisher. 


Review: MOLOKA'I by Alan Brennert

It is possible that our book club has just finished reading and discussing the perfect book club selection in Moloka'i by Alan Brennert. Feel skeptical? Let me explain why I think so.

First, the summary: Young Rachel Kalama lives with her big family in Honolulu in the 1890s.  At senven Rachel is diagnosed with leprosy and is forcibly removed from her family, first to a hospital compound in Honolulu and then, when she doesn't improve, to a leprosy colony on Moloka'i, a remote island in the Hawaiian chain. It is about 25 miles east of O'ahu. Rachel and her family had hoped that she could live with her uncle, who also had leprosy and was living on Moloka'i, but health regulations required that all unaccompanied minors live in a dormitory setting run by the Catholic church. There Rachel made friends with other little girls also living with leprosy and with Sister Katherine who became a lifelong friend as each of her friends succumbed to the disease. The book not only chronicles Rachel's life from the 1890 to 1970, but also the history of both the Hawaiian Islands and the history of leprosy treatment, later called Hansen's Disease. Rachel's life, though marred by disease, isolation, and unimaginable tragedy is also full of joy, courage, and dignity.

The leprosy colony in Kalawao, Moloka'i in 1922 on the Kalaupapa Peninsula, chosen for its remoteness.

So why was this such a good book club selection? Well, first there was a ton of topics to discuss: colonialism; the Hawaiian monarchy; Hawaiian culture--which included religion, food, and words; the evolution of leprosy treatment; cultural and familial reactions to leprosy; Moloka'i; historical events like the invention of airplanes and WWII; childbirth and adoption; missionaries and the Catholic Church; friendship and family. This list is not exhaustive. I'm just giving you a smattering of topics covered in MOLOKA'I. These are the discussion questions we used and which beautifully opened up the text for us.

In the 1940s airfare between the islands was possible. This photo was taken in 1940 and shows Moloka'i in the background. At one point in the book Rachel travels by air in a plane like this.

Our group selected Moloka'i, first published in 2003, because one group member asked a bookstore clerk for his recommendation since she rarely buys books and wanted to make sure she got a good one. Without a beat he recommended this book. I was interested in the book because I know little about this Hawaiian island and because as a child I encountered some people who lived in a leprosy compound in Africa, where my father was a missionary. I remember the disfigurements which have haunted my psyche for a long time. It was time to learn more about this terrible, historical disease.

Apparently Moloka'i has at least one sequel and an almost cult-like following for those who like historical fiction. Only one person in our group said they loved the book, most of us just 'liked' it and thought the writing to be just average. What was excellent was the storytelling about so many topics and the scope of the project. I listened to the audiobook so had the advantage of hearing the Hawaiian words and language pronounced correctly while the readers of the print editions had the benefit of being able to turn back pages to catch threads or characters missed on the first pass. 

I am fairly positive that everyone left our book club meeting with a deeper appreciation of the book after the discussion than they had when they arrived. I know I did. 

RHS Book Club, February 2021.


Friday, February 26, 2021

Nonfiction review: THE CAT I NEVER NAMED


Of all the YA and MG nonfiction books I have consumed recently this one, The Cat I Never Named: A True Tale of Love, War, and Survival by Amra Sabic-El-Rayess, took me the longest to get into and to finish. That said, I have a feeling it will also have the biggest impact.

Amra was 16 when the war in Bosnia broke out. One day her Serb neighbors all disappeared from her town and the bombings started. Before that day she was just a normal high school kid worried about grades and thinking about her friends and if she would ever fall in love. The next day she and her family are fighting for their survival. If not for the sweet little stray cat who adopted her family, Amra is not sure that any of them would have survived. Throughout the book the little cat they call Maci, which is 'cat' in the Bosnian language, seems to appear at moments when the family needs her most: Amra's brother moves away from a corner just moments before it is bombed because he hears the cat meowing; Amra is brought back from a debilitating depression because of the cat's sweet disposition; Amra was supposed to be on a plane that crashes but isn't because of the cat's intervention.

So what was so impactful about Amra's story? First I couldn't help feeling guilty that I as an American wasn't paying close enough attention during the duration of the Bosnian War to even be aware that the Serbs intended to kill all Bosnians just because they were Muslim. Prior to now I didn't even realize that a genocide was taking place. Because of this book I've done a bit of research and discovered that the Bosnian War started after the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1992 and lasted for about three and half years, ending in December 1995. Over 100,000 people died during the war and 2.2 million people were displaced. There was indiscriminate bombing on civilians in cities who were also starving because food was not available or the world relief food was confiscated and never made it to the people like Amra and her family. Maybe as many as 50,000 women were sent to what Amra called Serbian 'rape camps'. Most of these women were Bosnian Muslims

Second, Amra Sabic-El-Rayess likens what happened in her country to what she see happening in the USA today with the hatred and divisions being allowed to grow and spill over into all aspects of society--- where one race of people are not given the same respect in the justice system or in society as everyone else. She uses this book as a warning to us. Her messages was powerful and heartfelt.

Yet, despite the horrors of war Amra finds some joy. She falls in love. Though she can go to school very few days in the school year, she enjoys the times she can be with her classmates and the challenge of learning new subjects like how to speak English. Later, amazingly, she earns a full ride scholarship to attend college in the USA. In her notes at the end of the memoir, Sabic-El-Rayess says, "I hope my story shows you how important educations, teachers, schools are. Maci saved my life. Education gave me a new life."

I am not sure if teens will flock to read this book but I hope it does end up in some kids hands and can make a positive difference in their lives. I was thinking who I think would like this book. My mom, who is 91 years old, was the first person who popped in my head. Though it is marketed toward teens I really think it has broader appeal and adults will enjoy it, too.

Now a note about my slow start with this book. As I was racing to read the 21 Cybils finalist nonfiction books in five weeks I seemed to stall out on this one. On closer examination the book seemed to tap into some of my fears surrounding the coronavirus pandemic and issues related to the blind allegiance in Trump followers. When I muscled past those feelings and settled into the memoir and its superb writing, I was completely charmed. I also switched from the print edition to the audiobook. Hearing the correct pronunciation of names and places helped me relate to the story and picture the events better.

What I liked about the book:

  • This first hand account by a then teenager brought the realities of Bosnian War into focus for me. I also found ways to connect Amra's story to today's new here in the US.
  • The writing was spot on. I was weeping by the end.
  • There are a few pages of after notes about the war and the establishment of new political boundaries. Amra's family now lives in what is called Bosnia-Herzegovia today. There is one page of suggested books for further reading and another for suggested movies about the war.

What I didn't like about the book:

  • I had a hard time getting started on this book. After 50 pages I completely stalled out for a few weeks. This probably has more to do with me than the book itself.
Sources: Print checked out from the library. Audiobook purchased from my Audible account.


Thursday, February 25, 2021

Nonfiction review and quotes: HONEYBEE: The Busy Life of Apis Mellifera

Honeybee: The Busy Life of Apis Mellifera by Candace Fleming, illustrated by Eric Rohmann   

Book Beginnings: 

One morning deep in the nest, a brand new honeybee squirms, pushes, chews through the wax cap of her solitary cell into...a teeming, trembling flurry. Hmmmmmm!

Friday56 (Page 40, last in the book): 

Bees are the only insect in the world that make food people can eat...honey!

Summary: Get up close and personal with one honeybee, Apis, as she embarks on her journey through life. This charming children's book conveys a lot of information along with lovely illustrations about this vital insect.

Review: Think you know a lot about bees? Think again. You will realize you know very little about bees when you read and revel in this masterpiece about the life of one bee. I read this to my young grandson a few days ago and he really got into the story of what Apis does on each day of her short life. At the end of each page the reader is asked if Apis is ready to fly yet. The answer at the top of the next page is "Not yet!" Ian got into saying "not yet" with me. Apis has to do a lot of tasks before she is able to fly and collect nectar. This book is not only a personal favorite, it has received starred reviews from SEVEN publications, and rave reviews from many others who don't give stars. The illustrations are simply gorgeous.
What I like about the book:
  • It is so engaging. "Not yet" kept my grandson engaged in a book designed for children a bit older than him.
  • Think you can't learn something from a children's book? Read this one and you'll be amazed at what you didn't know before you read it.
  • The last few pages are designed for the use of adults who want to discuss/do more with the subject. Helping out honeybees, a Bit more buzz, and lists of resources are great places to start.
What you didn't like about the book:
  • On the second to last page of the story, Apis dies. On the last page a new bee is beginning her life.  Not that I didn't like this part, indeed it was necessary to tell the whole story, it just requires quite a bit of explanation to young children. Sensitive kids might even feel sad.
Publishing info: Neal Porter Books, c. February 2020, 40 pages. 
Age range: 6-9 years old, but everyone will like it
Source: Print edition checked out from public library 


Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Nonfiction review: JANE AGAINST THE WORLD

I always tend to read books with either a librarian's or a teacher's eye. That was certainly the case as I read Jane Against the World: Roe v. Wade and the Fight for Reproductive Rights by Karen Blumenthal. First as a librarian I had to check the call number to see if the book would be shelved with other court cases or with books about sexual/social issues. 342.7308 falls within the category of books dealing with constitutional or administrative law, so now I can picture where it would sit on the library shelf and who its companion books would be. 😊 Secondly as a teacher  I always try to imagine students actually reading the books I am reviewing. with this book I can only imagine students reading it, or part of it, if they are assigned Roe v. Wade as a topic for their AP Government class. 😕

That said you'd think I didn't really like the book and there you would be wrong. This book is tremendous. It pulls together historical aspects of sexual and reproductive rights, and knowledge and legislation on this topic, focusing not only on abortion but on birth control and education leading up to the landmark case of Roe v. Wade in 1973. 

Before I was a librarian, I was a high school health teacher. Just about every other page of Jane Against the World gave me some new information that I should have known as I was teaching about reproduction to my students or elaborated on known details. The author, Karen Blumenthal, said in her notes that she started the project as a look at abortion through the history of the famous lawsuit Roe v. Wade. But she found as she was trying to understand Roe she realized she needed to understand how the lawsuit came about and about the laws that preceded Roe. Before she knew it she was enmeshed is a larger story about women's rights, reproductive rights, racial discrimination, medicine, and religion. It is amazing that the book wasn't twice as it is.

My daughter and I had a heart-felt conversation about abortion and reproductive rights after I finished Jane Against the World. She is a genetic counselor who sometimes delivers information to her patients about the genetic condition of their fetus that cause couples to consider aborting. These patients have that option because they live in a state where abortions are available and considered a viable health treatment. But she reminded me that all of her patients have health insurance and have gone through the testing to determine genetic conditions. Many women in the USA and the world do not have the money or the option to do this. Even today if abortions were made illegal, women with money would obtain them while women with fewer financial resources would be left to suffer back-room abortions or carry a pregnancy to term against their will. The hypocrisy of the situation is deplorable. While many right-to-lifers rail against abortion they also do not want people to receive free birth control. It is quite maddening.

Every high school and public library must purchase a copy of this book. It is excellent.

What I liked about the book:

  • It is very readable and thorough.
  • It is an excellent research tool with over 60 pages of chapter notes, a long bibliography,  a timeline of reproductive rights, and an index.
  • The story doesn't stop when Roe passed. A whole section covers what has happened around abortion rights since its passage.
What I didn't like about the book:
  • At times I did feel like the book got down pretty deep into the weeds of all the details. Occasionally I found myself speed-reading through those sections. I was interested but not that interested. But by in large, the book is an excellent research tool and a fascinating read in its own right.

Source: print edition checked out from my public library.


Tuesday, February 23, 2021


In the forward of The Talk: Conversations about Race, Love, and Truth the editors Wade and Cheryl Hudson talk about their own experience giving "the talk" to their two children because they wanted to make sure that they knew the ways to stay as safe as possible in a society that is too often hostile to African Americans. Other contributors talked about how they broached the subject with their daughters about staying safe around their gender and about sex. Others talked about their Native American heritage or recalled the time they received "the talk" from one of their own parents. The universal theme in all of the conversations: parents love their children, want them to be proud of their heritage, and pray that they will be safe as they go out into the world. Parents want to empower their children. All of the conversations are are real and honest. If an event caused the child to feel small, these parents wanted to turn the conversation around so the child could embrace the truth: they were born to be big.

The essays and illustrations are created by a diverse cast of authors and artists using a variety of mediums, styles, and forms. There are letters, lists, poems,  short stories, and essays. Illustrations (all in black and white) rendered in watercolor, collage, pen and ink, acrylic, comics, and digital styles. The messages shared are diverse and heart-warming in their sincerity.

I devoured the book, smiling, laughing, crying, and sighing as I read these tender remembrances of tough but necessary conversations.  I recalled "the talk" I had with my mom after I started menstruation. Oh, was that mortifying. I cringed at the thought of the parent having to teach their child what to do if a police officer pulled them over---hands on the dashboard, move slowly, speak calmly. Oh, to live in a society where that conversation was not necessary. A Latinx parent reminded her child to not be ashamed of her first language. "Our words are beautiful. Our words belong here. They give you more ways to understand people around you...Remember that no language is better than another." An Asian-American parent tells her daughter to not accept the cliche "China Doll" from people or men, because it diminishes her. They think she is as cute as a toy, but she is really strong and fierce! So many wonderful empowering messages in this book to contemplate and to savor.

What I liked about the book:

  • At the end of the book all the authors and artists were named and their accomplishments highlighted. Some I had heard of before, most I hadn't. I was glad to learn more about each of them.
  • The variety of contributors was refreshing: Blacks, Jews, Muslims, LGBTQIA+, Native American, Asian-American, Latinx, and immigrants.
  • All the conversations, whether personal or historical in nature, and in whatever writing style moved me and helped advance my own empathic knowledge.

What I didn't like about the book:

  • Once again I am wondering if this book is being marketed to the right audience.  As a Cybils Award nonfiction judge I am told this is a Middle-grade book, for students from 5th to 8th grade. I do think all people would benefit from reading this book children to adults, but I just have a hard time imagining young pre-teens picking this book up on their own. Note to parents: If you want your kids to read it, check it out (or purchase it) yourself and read it together!


Monday, February 22, 2021

TTT: Books I've read since the coronavirus invasion that made me laugh

Top Ten Tuesday:
Admittedly there isn't enough to laugh about these days, but every once in a while I find myself reading a book which helps lighten my mood. All of these books I've read since last March when the coronavirus invaded our world.

1. Cicada by Shaun Tan
Cicada is made to work day and night. When he finally retires he has his revenge. I love this illustrator and all his books. This one makes me laugh just to think of it.  (Read in March 2020.)
2. The Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams
The second book in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series which is almost slap-stick funny. (Listened to audiobook in May 2020.)
3. Weather by Jenny Offill
I don't think this book is meant to terribly funny but I found this story, about a woman whose life isn't what she thought it would be, quite funny at moments, especially some of the turn-of-phrases. (Listened to audiobook in July 2020)
4. Pete the Cat and His Magic Sunglasses by Kimberly and James Dean
Okay, I know this is a children's book, but honestly few things delighted me as much this past year as reading funny books with my grandson. (Read aloud to grandson in August 2020.)
5. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce
Not meant to be a humorous book there were some funny, off-beat moments. (Read in September 2020)

6. James Herriot's Cat Stories
If you are familiar with James Herriot's stories they almost always include some cute, humorous event involving animals. (Reread in September 2020.)

7. The Princess Bride by William Goldman
The book, like the film, has some very funny, memorable lines. (Read e-book in October 2020.)
8. Born a Crime by Trevor Noah
What would you expect when a comedian writes a book? (Listened to the audiobook in October 2020)

9. The Shepherd, the Angel, and Walter the Christmas Miracle Dog by Dave Barry
This book is both hilarious and poignant. (Reread aloud with family in December 2020)

10. Anxious People by Frederik Backman
Not laugh-out-loud funny but there were a few choice scenes and one particularly cartoonish character that lightened the mood. I haven't read very funny books since the beginning of 2021 so I had to pick the most funny of the not-so-funny books to choose from. (Read in February 2021.)


Normal: One Kid's Extraordinary Journey
(Young Reader's Edition) is a memoir written by a mother-son duo. Nathaniel Newman and his mother, Magda, tell the story of his growing up with the same craniofacial syndrome as the boy, Auggie, in the book/movie Wonder.

By the time Nathaniel was fifteen he'd endured over 65 surgeries to his face and neck. He and his family had moved eight times which required making all new friends every time. Yet he and his family tackled ever situation with love and resilience.

Wonder by R.J. Palacio was published when Nathaniel was eight. It's publication had a huge impact on Nathaniel and his family.  Nathaniel and his family were involved in the making of the "Wonder" movie. Nathaniel was even given a screen test to see if he could act the part of Auggie but the director opted for using an actor wearing makeup and a mask. Wonder also helped his brother, Jacob, tremendously because he had had to cope with all the bullying directed toward Nathaniel.

The book is written in an engaging way, seamlessly moving back and forth between mother and son dialogue. It also utilizes hilarious black and white cartoons that help the reader know Nathaniel and his sense of humor better.This is an example from the dedication page:

What I liked about the book:

  • First off, Nathaniel and his mom are both very likeable so I was very invested in what happened to them.
  • The way the book is laid out is welcoming and easy to navigate. I cold always tell who was speaking, Nathaniel or Magda.
  • Nathaniel doesn't want anyone to feel sorry for him, he wants people to be more empathetic toward people with differences. Like the book Wonder, Normal can significantly help move people toward that goal.

What I didn't like about the book:

  • Even though it says it is marketed toward "young readers", I kept wondering about who the target population was. I am not sure that middle grade students would be attracted to this book. But, as you know, I am not a middle-grade person. I could be completely wrong. Certainly every teacher who assigns Wonder as a class read should read this book and make it available for those students to check out.
Source: Print edition checked out from the public library.


Sunday, February 21, 2021

Sunday Salon...Birthday Edition

Grandson Jamie. We hadn't seen him for about three weeks and we couldn't believe how much he changed in that amount of time.

Overcast, threatening rain, rather gloomy.

Birthday: I turned 64 on Friday. My husband woke me by singing the Paul McCartney song, "When I'm 64". Have a listen from the Beatles remastered Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band record. Fun, huh? When I was a preteen listening to this song for the first time age 64 seemed like so-o-o-o-o old. Now here I am. All day there were little happy birthday moments. My hubby purchased a lovely cake from a local bakery, my daughter made risotto for the first time while Don barbecued steaks. No one complained when I requested the game I wanted to play--- Quiddler. My eldest daughter wasn't able to make it over with her family but they did visit the next day. Both of my sisters called. My mom and brother remembered me in other ways. So now I am officially old. 
"The King's Favorite": Banana cake with peanut butter and chocolate frosting. (The king is Elvis Presley, in case you are wondering.)

Family: We had a fun visit with our oldest daughter and her sons yesterday. Jamie is five months old and so curious. Here he is interacting with a little stuffed elephant who plays peek-a-boo with his ears. He is holding his teething giraffe in his hands. The boy always wants to have something in his mouth. His brother Ian is three. Ian was playing a dice game with Auntie but wanted to keep score. When she told him her score he would scribble something down on the pad. One time he looked up from his scribbling and announced that he just drew a boat.

Lent: With Ash Wednesday Lent began. It is 40+ days of reflection before Easter. This year we attended the Ash Wednesday service on Zoom and pretended to put ashes on each other's foreheads. Now we are participating in Again and Again practices daily to see if we can get some spiritual practices to stick. Today's practice: Read one chapter in your Bible today. Good plan!

George, aka The Puzzle Cat, is enjoying another puzzle moment on our latest completion this week.


Prayers for Texas: The news out of Texas this week were so dire. My prayers today and all week were lifted up for those who were suffering in the cold without heat or water. In America? Tragic. And I can't help but jump on Ted Cruz, the Texas Senator who left the state to vacation in Mexico while his whole state was in a deep freeze. Tone deaf, for sure. He is not a leader. Everyone remember this in the future.

Just a few funny items that came my way this week:

1. Um, let's see. What is the name of this yellow fruit?

2.This one took me a moment:

3.I'm pretty sure we've all met a teenager like this one...This one makes me giggle, afterall, I was a high school teacher for thirty+ years. I've seen this stance many times.


5. And the one that made me laugh the hardest this week:

 Have a good week!


Nonfiction Review: DINOSAUR LADY

The children's nonfiction book The Dinosaur Lady: The Daring Discoveries of Mary Anning, the First Paleontologist by Linda Skeers makes a correction in the historical record giving credit to a woman for her discoveries which led to the identification of the first dinosaur. Until recently little was known about this woman, who while living in Lyme Regis on the English coast in the early 1800s, discovered, while she was searching for fossils, a full skeleton of a creature eventually named Ichthyosaurus, "fish lizard." It was ultimately determined to be an extinct creature and became the first know dinosaur. She continued discovering aspect of fossils which led to paleontology as a scientific specialty.

Last year in my role as a Cybils Award judge one of my favorite books, The First Dinosaur: How Science Solved the Greatest Mystery, also dealt with the Mary Anning and other early paleontologists and their discoveries. During her time on earth Mary Anning got very little credit for what she discovered and for her contributions to science. She was not allowed to join the Geological Society of London. Everyone was talking about her discoveries but they weren't talking about her.

Thank goodness for children's books like The Dinosaur Lady: The Daring Discoveries of Mary Anning, the First Paleontologist so that young girls know that they, too, can make great discoveries and contributions to science today.

What I liked about the book:

  • The illustrations, done by Marta Alvarez Miguens, are engaging and fun. Children reading this book will know where Mary was when she made her discovery of the first known dinosaur and where she sat to work as she investigated the mysteries of paleontology.
  • There is an illustrated and helpful timeline for her life. It includes authors notes and a short bibliography.

 What I didn't like about the book:

  • Unfortunately it didn't pass the Ian test. My dear three-year-old grandson lost interest mid-book and actually got up and walked away while I was reading it to him. The publisher says it is for children aged 4-8 years, so perhaps he is just too young for this topic. That said, I liked the book a lot and if I were a children's librarian I would certainly put this book into my read aloud circulation.


Saturday, February 20, 2021

Nonfiction review: ALL BOYS AREN'T BLUE

All Boys Aren't Blue is a YA memoir written by George M. Johnson, a LGBTQUIA+ activist. The story is about his young life as he grappled with an awareness of what made him different from his peers, siblings, and  cousins. Many of his memories are warm and wonderful while many are gut-wrenching and heart-breaking about growing up black and queer.

Unlike so many people, George Johnson grew up in a warm and supportive family dominated by his mother's mother, Nanny. She knew instinctively that George was different and took him under her wing. Her love and acceptance of George went a long was to launch him into the person he has become today. She said, "I love all of my grandkids, but I love each of you differently. Because you each need different things." George said that phrase "different things" part spoke to his soul.

The family may have been warm and accepting but the world often wasn't and George shares many stories, starting with getting his teeth knocked out in kindergarten at age six, when kids bullied or teased him in school. Kids can be so mean for the littlest infractions like pimples or frizzy hair, imagine how awful they can be to an effeminate boy. Throughout the book George explores the "intersectional identities in his own life by weaving questions of gender, masculinity, brotherhood, family, and Black joy throughout all this stories" (Book Jacket).

George decided he wanted to write this young adult memoir as a reassuring testimony for queer men of color, so that they can find a way to integrate themselves into a whole, perfectly designed person.

What I liked about the book:

  • My favorite parts of each chapter were the summaries of that chapter's theme. For example, at the end of the chapter about his own name, George Johnson says, "Suffice it to say, respect people for their names, and how they choose to identify. This also goes for respecting people for their choice of pronouns--him/her, she/he, they/them, god, goddess, or whatever."
  • This book is really important as is its placement on the shelves of libraries that teens frequent. Black queer teens need to be able to find themselves on the pages of the books they read.

What I didn't like about the book:

  • Every chapter wasn't directed to the generic reader which made it awkward and confusing at times. Sometimes George seemed to be writing a chapter to a particular person, referring to that person as 'you' while most of the chapters referred to others by their names. Occasionally he would insert a letter written specifically to one person. These at least used a different font so it wasn't as confusing.
  • Several times in the book George Johnson refers to people who have died untimely deaths and how the deaths impacted him. By only giving the barest of details, readers are left out of the full emotional impact of the event. I didn't want to be a voyeur, it just felt like a few more details would have been helpful and warranted.
  • This isn't really a criticism but a warning. This book is not designed for younger teens or pre-teens. There is some descriptions of explicit sex

Source: print edition checked out from public library.


Friday, February 19, 2021

Nonfiction review: The Story of CIVIL WAR HERO Robert Smalls

As you may have figured out by now, all of these nonfiction book reviews are over the books I read as a Cybils judge for the nonfiction category. By the time these reviews are published, three winners for this category will already be announced on February 14th. I hope to review all 21 of the finalists. Keep your eyes out for more reviews, since I think this is only my eighth, there are a lot more to come. This year in addition to books for secondary-aged students the team of judges are also evaluating nonfiction books aimed at elementary students. The Story of Civil War Hero Robert Smalls by Janet Halfman was written with that younger audience in mind, probably for 3rd-5th graders.

Robert Smalls was born a slave in 1839 in Beaufort, South Carolina. As a child he was expected to help with the household chores, but as a teen he was hired out to wait tables and make deliveries to rooms in a hotel and later had a hired job to work on the waterfront loading and unloading cargo. He had to send most of his wages home to his "master" but was able to keep a bit of what he made for himself. After growing bored with that job, he moved on to making and rigging sails and started learning the skills required to be a wheelman, or a boat pilot. When the Civil War started, Smalls would have preferred to volunteer on the Union side but was forced to work on confederate causes. One day, after loading several cannons on board a steamship, Smalls instituted a plan he has been scheming on for a while---to steal the ship, with the cannons on board, and sail it to a spot where he could surrender it to the Union Navy. His plan worked as planned and all the black men that worked on the boat along with all their family members made it to safety on the northern side. After the war, now a free man, Smalls returned to Beaufort where he was one of sixteen black men elected to Congress during reconstruction.

The short book, just over 80 pages, is designed around short chapters when contain a few pages each of Smalls story and then some relevant background information about the topics in that chapter. 'Slavery'; 'sailing ships in the 1800s'; 'what caused the Civil War?'; all helped give Smalls' story context and a fuller meaning.

As I was glancing though reviews of this book on Goodreads, I came upon a review written by a mother who had read the book to her son. She said, "Whenever I read an amazing historical book like this with my child, I am angry that my own education was deprived of these amazing stories from American history and how miseducated I was about the history of the Reconstruction era. The story of Robert Smalls is inspiring and enraging and important." I concur. Imagine for a moment that the person who had stolen the ship with several cannons on board was a white person. Don't you think that the history books would have sung his praise? It angers me that so much of what we were taught in schools only glorified white history and downplayed, ignored, or vilified history made by people of color. I am so glad that there are publishing companies like Lee and Low Books, willing to set the record straight finally!

What I liked about the book:

  • Robert Smalls was an American hero. This book tells his story, one we all need to hear.
  • The back story information was delivered in small bites and didn't try to over-educate the reader all at once.
  • There are nearly twenty pages of reference materials, glossary, index, timeline, bibliography, and suggested further reading materials listed.

What I didn't like about the book:

  • I know it is necessary, but I don't like to read information broken up by other tidbits of information in boxes. This book does a good job putting extra material at the end of each chapter but it still breaks up Smalls' story.
  • I don't think that the illustrations, done in black, white, and greys, added much to the story. Other historical charts and photos did add points of interest, however.