Friday, February 27, 2009

Happy Birthday, Dr. Seuss

"If we didn't have birthdays,
you wouldn't be YOU!
If you'd never been born,
then what would YOU do?"
~Dr. Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel)
I'm jealous. Green with envy. In my daughter's sixth grade class, the kids will be reading all day long on Monday, March 2. They can even wear their pajamas to school if they wish.The National Education Association sponsors Read Across America, which is now in its twelfth year. This national program focuses on motivating children to read, and the celebration takes place each year on or near March 2, the birthday of Dr. Seuss. Across the United States, thousands of libraries, schools, and community centers participate by bringing together kids and books. Aren't these children lucky? I wish I could take a "pajama holiday" and read all day long. Just one day! Since I can't right now, I plan on setting aside about an hour during the day on Monday for reading. After all, it's a birthday celebration, and I don't want to be a party pooper.

How will you celebrate,
what will YOU do?
Will you read all day?
Or just an hour or TWO?

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Blogging with Moxie

"A girl should be two things: classy and fabulous."
~Coco Chanel

Spunk. Spirit. Courage. Energy. Pluck. Know-how. It's that je ne sais quoi that separates the good blogs from the so-so ones. It's moxie. Can you get it from a book? I'm betting on it. The IT Girl's Guide to Blogging with Moxie by bloggers Joelle Reeder and Katherine Scoleri promises to enlighten bloggers of the female persuasion and put a spring back into our steps. I've been reading Blogging with Moxie and it is a lot of fun (stay tuned for better blogging!). Written with a wonderful sense of humor, this reference book may well become the best friend of many women bloggers. It offers a great deal of inspiration, advice you'll actually want to listen to, and even some recipes to try, for refreshments such as photo-finish frappe and chocolate cream pie for the baking impaired.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Reader

Don't let the size of this book fool you. I've just finished the pithy book The Reader (Der Vorleser) by law professor and writer Bernhard Schlink, a haunting story of love and guilt in which the legacy of Nazi crimes unexpectedly and dramatically enters a young man's life. Published in Germany in 1995, and in the U. S. in 1997, it was the first German novel to top the New York Times bestseller list, has been translated into at least 37 languages, and is often read in college courses in Holocaust and German literature. The Reader was made into a movie starring Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes, which I intend to see.

Set in post WWII West Germany in 1958, fifteen-year-old Michael Berg gets sick in the street on his way home from school, and a tram worker takes him to her apartment and helps him get cleaned up. Later, he visits the woman, Hanna Schmitz, to thank her, and is drawn into an intense and strange love affair. Besides the considerable age difference between them--she's old enough to be his mother--their clandestine meetings are unusual in other ways and include a ritual of reading aloud. At her request, Michael reads to Hanna, before they shower and make love. Hanna mysteriously disappears after a misunderstanding, and Michael is overcome with feelings of guilt and loss. Years later, when Michael is studying law at the university, he attends one of the many belated Nazi war crime trials, and is utterly shocked when he recognizes Hanna in the courtroom, on trial with a group of former Auschwitz concentration camp guards. During the proceedings, it becomes evident that Hanna is hiding something which is even more shameful to her than murder, something that might save her from imprisonment. I do not want to spoil this story for you, so I'll refrain from revealing the secret or what happens. (Why not read it for yourself? Or see the movie, which has been nominated for numerous Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Actress.) The Reader is an important literary work which illustrates the guilt and shame that the Germans bear for the Holocaust, and the moral divide between the generations, and is unforgettable in its psychological and moral complexity.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Chinese Cinderella

When I write my book reviews, although they contain my opinions, I try to keep from going overboard emotionally. I'm not a journalist, just reporting the facts--but neither am I an overly emotional writer, or person. However, reading Chinese Cinderella: The True Story of an Unwanted Daughter was quite an emotional experience for me. I often felt on the verge of tears, and was completely outraged by the way this poor child was treated, as a nonentity in a rich family. It was unbearable to me, that this innocent, gifted child was ignored, mistreated, and made to feel bad about just about everything.

Published in 1999, Chinese Cinderella is a beautifully written memoir by Adeline Yen Mah. My eleven-year-old daughter read this book first, then passed it on to some friends, and because I sometimes read literature for young adults, told me I had to read it next. The book describes Adeline's early experiences growing up in China during World War II, and is a revised version of part of her autobiography, Falling Leaves.

Poor Adeline! Her mother died soon after giving birth to her, and the family shuns her and regards her as bad luck. After her father remarries, she receives constant abuse from her stepmother “Niang” (the Chinese word for mother) and siblings. Although she's an outstanding student at school, at home she's made to feel as if she doesn't exist, at the complete mercy of a cold, despicable stepmother. She's forced to become independent at a very young age, walking to school and back by herself in the worst weather. Her father's guilty of neglecting her, and allowing his second wife to be cruel and unjustly punitive towards her.

With strong scholastic ability and intelligence, and the support of one person in her family who believes in her, Aunt Baba, Adeline manages to do well academically. In spite of a very difficult upbringing, she's able to triumph over her past and eventually attends medical school. Chinese Cinderella lives up to it's name, and although it's shockingly sad, it's also a book about hope and the resiliency of the human spirit, about reaching dreams in spite of the worst possible circumstances. I'd like to read Adeline Yen Mah's full autobiography, Falling Leaves, an international bestseller published in 1997.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane

Beautiful story. Captivating illustrations. I've just read the most charming book by Kate DiCamillo, with illustrations by Bagram Ibatoulline, which was published in 2006 and became a bestseller. This was serendipity of the best kind; I had no intention of reading The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, but it fell into my hands after having been returned to my daughter, and once I picked it up and started it, I had no choice but to continue. Not just a book for children, DiCamillo presents profound truths in a simple, beautiful, and imaginative way. Written from the point of view of Edward Tulane, a vain and haughty china rabbit, this is a story that alternately breaks and then warms your heart, as Edward embarks on the worst and best of adventures after he's separated from his owner, a little girl named Abilene who loves him very much. He does not love her back, nor does he care for anyone but himself. Soon the richly dressed rabbit's fate changes--was it due to Pellegrina's story about the princess? Stripped of his fine clothing, even made to wear frilly dresses, this rabbit is in for a rude awakening. We travel with Edward on a journey both physical and emotional--from the bottom of the sea to the net of a fisherman, from the top of a garbage pile to the knee of a hobo, from the bedside of an ill child to the streets of Memphis--and experience his separation, hardship, uncertainty, and metamorphosis. Whether shared with a child, or enjoyed privately, this is a book to be read and reread, and is destined to become a favorite.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Dewey

As soon as my children were able to write their names, they got their own library cards and I'd take them to the library at least once a week. We'd attend story time, participate in a variety of activities, and check out books. We'd marvel at L.C. (short for "Library Cat"), who lived at our the public library. L.C. was a friendly black cat with some white markings, and seeing her always made our trips to the library more special. Perhaps because I grew up in NYC, I'd never met a library cat before L.C.--except for the two marble lion statues outside of the downtown library. Until just recently--and please forgive my ignorance--I had no idea that library cats have a long history and can be found in almost every state and even other countries, Japan, Russia, and many European countries, including Croatia, Italy, Hungary, Latvia, and The Netherlands.

Unfortunately, our L.C. got into a bit of trouble with some dogs, and in 2001 was named in a $1.5 million lawsuit by Richard Espinosa against the city for “lasting physical and emotional injury". According to Espinosa, L.C. attacked his assistance dog (who helped protect him from panic attacks). In the end, the claim was dismissed as frivolous; but because L.C. had also attacked another dog prior to this episode, she had to resign from her position at the library, leaving us disappointed.

When I passed by the book Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the Worldat the store, I was immediately drawn in by the wise expression on the cat's face on the cover. (I know, I know, don't judge a book by its cover; but if a cover catches my eye, the book's going to catch my attention.) Little did I know that this library cat, Dewey, was world famous, the subject of videos, films, radio programs, calendars, newsletters, and more. In fact, Dewey's even on Facebook, with over 4,900 fans! (This number is growing, and I've already had to update it a few times.)

Published in 2008, written by Vicki Myron and Bret Witter, Dewey is the tale of the cat-in-residence at the public library in Spencer, Iowa from the perspective of Vicki Myron, a dedicated librarian there for twenty-five years. It's the bestselling story of a beloved cat and more, as Myron also chronicles Iowa's history, and the struggles this single mom faced in her own life.

Dewey, whose full name became Dewey Readmore Books, was found stuffed into the return book slot at the library on the coldest night of the year, half-frozen, but he proved to be a great survivor, as well as an extraordinary friend to many. Extroverted and intelligent, Dewey was loved by the town of Spencer, and helped to make the library a destination for people worldwide. This is a very touching biography about a truly remarkable cat, who always sensed who needed him the most. According to Wikipedia, a movie based on this book is in the works, which is expected to star Meryl Streep.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Barack Obama: Dreams and Hope




















I love to read biographies about great people, and in an attempt to get to know our forty-fourth president better, I've just read Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance by Barack Obama. This #1 New York Times bestseller was originally published in 1995, and republished in 2004 with a preface by Barack Obama. The memoir details his early quest for an identity as he grows up and learns about his absent father through relatives in the U.S. as well as Kenya. As a mixed race person, Barack Obama struggled to carve out an identity for himself, find his calling in life--and eventually achieved the ultimate American Dream, to become the President of our great country.

Candid and gripping, this autobiographical narrative tells Barack Hussein Obama's story up until his entry into Harvard Law School. He was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, on August 4, 1961, to Barack Obama, Sr. of Kenya, and Stanley Ann Dunham (called, "Ann") of Wichita, Kansas, both students at the time at the East-West Center of the University of Hawaii at Manoa. His mother was white and his father was black, and at that time interracial marriages in the U. S. were rare. Obama's parents separated when he was two years old, and divorced in 1964. His father remained an enigma to young Barack Obama (often called, "Barry"), because he saw him only once more before his death, when Obama Sr. came to Hawaii for a month when his son was ten years old.
After her divorce, Ann Dunham married Lolo Soetoro, an East-West Center student from Indonesia, and the family moved to Jakarta. When Obama was ten, he returned to Hawaii and lived with his loving, white grandparents--his mother joined them later--for the educational opportunities available there at the prestigious Punahou Academy. Along with this opportunity, however, he first became conscious of racism as an African American.

Obama enrolled at Occidental College after high school at Punahou, but transferred to Columbia University and majored in political science. After college, he worked for a year in business, then moved to Chicago, working for a non-profit doing community organizing in the Altgeld Gardens housing project on the city's South Side. He also joined Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ. Before attending Harvard Law School, Obama visited his African relatives in Kenya and this is the final setting of the book. In addition to telling the story of Obama's life and discoveries about his father, this book includes much self-reflection on his own encounters with race and race relations in the United States. Through his words, Barack Obama comes across as caring, down-to-earth, and intelligent (of course), with a unique and interesting background. I didn't know that he spent a few years of his childhood in Indonesia after his mother remarried, and there are many other equally interesting aspects of his life described in vivid detail.

Currently I'm reading his second book, which is as sincere and thoughtful as his first, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream. In it Obama discusses his political convictions in chapters titled: Republicans and Democrats, Values, Our Constitution, Politics, Opportunity, Faith, Race, The World Beyond Our Borders, and Family. I must admit that I've been skipping around a bit, instead of reading the chapters in order; the chapter called "Family", where he talks about his wife, Michelle, and children, Malia and Sasha, is genuinely touching. The book's title was derived from a sermon delivered by Obama's former pastor, Jeremiah Wright (this sermon is mentioned in Obama's first book). While a Senate candidate, Obama delivered this keynote address at the 2004 Democratic Convention, which catapulted him to national prominence. In 2006, The Audacity of Hope was published in book form, which elaborates on many of the same themes in his convention speech. This is one of my favorite passages from his speech:

"In the end, that's what this election is about. Do we participate in a politics of cynicism or a politics of hope? John Kerry calls on us to hope. John Edwards calls on us to hope. I'm not talking about blind optimism here -- the almost willful ignorance that thinks unemployment will go away if we just don't talk about it, or the health care crisis will solve itself if we just ignore it. No, I'm talking about something more substantial. It's the hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs; the hope of immigrants setting out for distant shores; the hope of a young naval lieutenant bravely patrolling the Mekong Delta; the hope of a mill worker's son who dares to defy the odds; the hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too. Hope in the face of difficulty. Hope in the face of uncertainty. The audacity of hope!"

Senator Obama's victory in the historical presidential election of 2008, forty-three years after the Voting Rights Act passed, which finally to gave African Americans voting rights, aptly illustrates the meaning of "The Audacity of Hope". And when you think about it, the most important things we may dare to have are dreams and hope.

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