Archive for the ‘52 Books in 52 Weeks’ Category

For the 30th book that I read this year as part of the 52 Books in 52 Weeks challenge, I chose Golden Sun by Ruth Sanderson. This is actually a youth fiction book that I read to Olivia, but it fits the goals of the challenge (e.g., over 100 pages, has a plot).

The book is the fifth one in the Horse Diaries series, and is a wonderful story that combines history, Native American life, and horses.
Much like how the book Black Beauty is narrated by Black Beauty (the horse) himself, Golden Sun is written in a conversational tone and told from the perspective of the horse (also named Golden Sun).
Golden Sun is a chestnut snowflake Appaloosa. During the summer, he treks through the mountains with his rider, a Nez Perce boy named Little Turtle who collects healing plants. He accompanies Little Turtle on his Vision Quest where both realize their true calling.
Golden Sun intersperses words used by the Nez Perce which Olivia and I knew because we had read the Kaya books (an American Girl series about a Nez Perce girl).
The Kaya books had a translation/dictionary in the back to explain what the Nez Perce words meant which was helpful. Having read that series first, we had a greater appreciation and understanding of Golden Sun.
Golden Sun has realistic, beautiful illustrations by Ruth Sanderson. Her ability to capture the detail and beauty of horses is consistent throughout the entire Horse Diaries series.
There is a sixth book in the series that will be released (hopefully) soon. Both Olivia and Sophia are looking forward to reading it.

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For the 29th book that I’m reading this year as part of the 52 Books in 52 Weeks challenge, I chose When We Were Friends by Elizabeth Joy Arnold.

I just started reading the book on Friday, and can tell it is a book that I’m going to like it. The writing style is easy to read, and the characters are well-developed and seem like “everyday” people – they could be one’s friends, neighbors, or colleagues. 

The book is best described on the back cover:

Lainey Carson and Sydney Beaumont were the closest of friends — until they reached high school and Sydney’s burgeoning popularity made it easy for her to leave the contemplative, ungainly Lainey behind.

Eighteen years later, Lainey, who lives at home caring for her mother, is an artist who’s never found the courage to live her dreams. When Sydney shows up on her doorstep with her infant daughter, insisting that Lainey is the only friend she can trust, Lainey reluctantly agrees to take temporary custody of the baby to protect her from an abusive father.

But that very night, Sydney appears on the evening news — claiming that her daughter has been kidnapped. Unsure of whom she can trust, Lainey is forced to go on the run with a child who is not her own — but whose bond with her grows stronger every day they spend together.

In search of a safe place to stay, Lainey befriends a man who, concerned for their welfare, offers them a home. But as the two grow closer she starts to realize that he may be harboring his own secrets.

An utterly riveting story that will keep you turning the pages, When We Were Friends asks how we define motherhood and family, whether we ever truly overcome our pasts, and what friendship really means.

From some of the reviews I read about the book, the plot is unrealistic and a bit far-fetched. However, if you know that going in you can adjust your expectations. For the most part, the reviews of this book are positive and it comes highly recommended.

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For the 28th week of the 52 Books in 52 Weeks challenge, I’m reading Slaughterhouse-Five or The Children’s Crusade by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. after a friend recommended that I read this book.

Honestly, I approached the book with a bit of trepidation given part of the title: slaughterhouse. I wondered why in the world he’d recommend a book with a rather violent word. Certainly, I thought, the type of action in this book would not be pleasant.

Maybe it was, perhaps, because I told him about the book I read last week called Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks. Excellent book…though quite a disturbing topic about which to read (bubonic plague). What I found fascinating about this well-written book was that the characters are very similar to how people would act in any disaster or crisis.

Some people choose to run away from a crisis in fear; others choose a range of negative behavior; and others come forth and truly made a difference in helping comfort those affected by the disaster (in the case of Year of Wonders, it was the plague).

Back to Slaughterhouse-Five or The Children’s Crusade.  This is a satirical novel about a soldier’s time-traveling, World War II, and life experiences.

Billy Pilgrim is the main character who is a Chaplain’s Assistant.  He is an ill-trained, fatalistic, and disoriented American soldier who doesn’t like wars. During the Battle of the Bulge, Billy is captured by the Germans who put him and his fellow prisoners in a former slaughterhouse in Dresden. Their building is known as “Slaughterhouse Number 5.”

Both the German guards and POWs hide in a deep cellar. Because of their safe hiding place, they are some of the few survivors of the city-destroying firestorm during the Bombing of Dresden in World War II.

After the war and being in a plane crash, Billy believes he was kidnapped by extraterrestrial aliens from the planet Tralfamadore where they exhibit him in a zoo. He becomes “unstuck in time” and experiences past and future events repetitively and out of sequence.

Although Billy truly believes he can travel in time, I think these are hallucinations or a way of coping with the effects of war. Some are memories of events he went through…while others are just fantasies and mental images he creates to simply get through his life.

As Billy travels (or believes he travels) forward and backward in time, he relives moments of his life – fantasy and real. He spends time in Dresden, in the War, on Tralfamadore, walking in deep snow before his German capture, in his post-war married life in the United States during the 1950s and 1960s, and in the time of his murder by Lazzaro.

All of these moments and locations (with the exception of Tralfamadore) deal with misery, sadness, boredom, and death. Reliving these experiences – and revisiting places which have brought such pain – is something Billy does throughout the book and his life.

Slaughterhouse-Five or The Children’s Crusade is, perhaps, one of the most non-linear, unusual narratives I have ever read. That being said, it is a fascinating book about free will, fate, and the disordered nature of human beings. The writing style emphasizes the mental chaos and confusion that Billy felt because of the effect of the war and of seeing Dresden.

The one thing that was a bit bothersome about the book was the author’s overuse of the phrase “So it goes.” Apparently it is used 106 times in this 186-page book. The phrase is a method of transition when death has happened or is mentioned, and the author moves onto a different topic. It underscores the unimportance and insignificance that he places on death.

It’s interesting to note that the author himself was in Dresden when the bombing happened. There are a few times when the author indicates that he was present at certain places, including Dresden. Vonnegut did this by saying “That was I. That was me. That was the author of this book.”

Slaughterhouse-Five or The Children’s Crusade is ranked the 18th greatest English novel of the 20th century by Modern Library. It is recognized as Vonnegut’s most influential and popular work. It is certainly, in my opinion, worth reading.

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This week, as part of the 52 Books in 52 Weeks challenge, I’m reading Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks. 

The description on the back cover summarizes this historical fiction book well: 

When an infected bolt of cloth carries plague from London to an isolated mountain village, a housemaid named Anna Frith emerges as an unlikely heroine and healer. 

Through Anna’s eyes we follow the story of the plague year, 1666, as her fellow villagers make an extraordinary choice: convinced by a visionary young minister they elect to quarantine themselves within the village boundaries to arrest the spread of the disease.

But as death reaches into every household, faith frays. When villagers turn from prayers to murderous witch-hunting, Anna must confront the deaths of family, the disintegration of her community, and the lure of love.  As she struggles to survive, a year of plague becomes instead annus mirabilis, a “year of wonders.” 

I began reading this book and didn’t want to put it down 38 pages later.  Picked it up again in the evening and reluctantly put it down at 65 pages.  The author writes with great regard for period detail, and uses elegant prose. 

Inspired by the actual remote British village (Eyam) commemorated as Plague Village because of the events that transpired there in 1665-1666, the author tells this story from the perspective of 18-year-old Anna Frith.  Ann was widowed by the mining accident that took her husband’s life.

After her husband’s sudden death, she is unable to work the mining claim that had provided a decent living for her family.  Instead, Anna is reduced to working as a servant at the village rectory and to taking in a border sent her way by Michael Mompellion, the rector.

Unfortunately for everyone in Eyam, the new cloth that was brought into the village by this traveling London tailor was infected with the “seeds” of the plague that was soon to devastate the village.

The Church in Eyam contains detailed displays and accounts
of when the village went into voluntary quarantine
when “The Plague” was imported in infected cloth from London in 1665.

Eyam, a village of less than 400 citizens, had one church (see picture above) and Michael Mompellion (its rector) was depended upon for his leadership and moral guidance. He asked his congregation to close the village off, with no one allowed in or out until the plague had run its course.

Reluctantly, the villagers agreed that it was the right thing to do. Little did anyone expect that two-thirds of those sitting in the church that day would not be alive one year later.

The Year of Wonders is both a captivating and harrowing account of the bubonic plague, and its effect on a community as well as the people – rich and poor…child and adult…alike.  It’s a fascinating look at what happens to a group of people who made the decision to cut themselves off from the rest of the world to await their fate.

As more and more people die the painful death that comes with bubonic plague, some find a strength that they never knew they had while others become filled with doubt and all of the worst aspects of human nature. Eventually, Anna, and Michael and Elinor Mompellion provide the care and comfort that makes it possible for the village to honor the pledge that it made to protect its neighbors.

Geraldine Brooks fills the Eyam/Plague Village with realistic human beings who, in barely twelve months, display all the best and worst that human beings have in their nature. The people she describes in Year of Wonders are no different than the people you might encounter the next time that you find yourself in a natural disaster that temporarily cuts your area off from the rest of the country.

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For the 26th week of the 52 Books in 52 Weeks challenge, I chose All That Matters by Jan Goldstein.  I enjoyed this book; and read it in a couple of days.  Although it was rather predictable, it was a very moving story of the relationship between a granddaughter and grandmother. 

The story centers around a 23 year old suicidal woman (Jennifer) who finds happiness and purpose in life with the help of her grandmother, a Holocaust survivor.

At the beginning of the book, Jennifer thinks there is little to live for: her mother is dead, her Hollywood-producer father is busy with his picturesque new family, and her boyfriend has dropped her. She attempts to take her life, but ends up being released into the care of her grandmother, Gittel “Gabby” Zuckerman.

Gabby takes Jennifer back with her to New York with the hope of helping Jennifer.  It is not so much Jennifer’s story that is fascinating, but rather Gabby’s story of surviving the Holocaust that is the most engaging part of the book.

As the author notes at the beginning of the book, “When I was a young boy my father’s first cousin, Fania Ingber, shared with me the story of how she survived the Nazis: hiding in the forest as a young girl and later in the attic of a righteous woman for two years.  Those details help form the character of Gabby.  Through her I humbly pay tribute to all the survivors, the Fanias of the world, each with his or her own indomitable spirit.”

Keeping this in mind, when Gabby finally shares her story with Jennifer during a trip they take to Maine, it is captivating to read – even if it’s fiction.  Gabby said that after witnessing her parents and sister murdered by the Nazis that she didn’t have the will to live.  She was found wandering in the open by a woman who had frequented her father’s shop (he was a tailor). 

The woman (Mrs. Pulaski) screamed at her, “‘Foolish girl, don’t you see it is not for you to throw away what your family was so desperate to have? You must choose life. You must live for those who had no choice.”

She described how she hid in Mrs. Pulaski’s attic: “During the day I would cling to the slanted walls.  This way my feet would not touch down on the floorboard.” (This was important because Mrs. Pulaski was a seamstress who had customers who came to her home and any noise from the attic might alert others that she was hiding someone…a crime punishable by death.)

Gabby continued, “Hanging on, I would feel my knuckles turn white with pain. Many times they became so numb I could not feel them again for several hours.”  She lived this way for a very long time as a teenager, and eventually broke down crying one night as Mrs. Pulaski comforted her. 

Mrs. Pulaski said, “There are times when it seems everything good in life has been taken from us…Now is such a time.  But I promise you, little one, if you open your eyes, your heart, you will find there are still gifts waiting for you each day.”

She encouraged Gabby to try to find at least one good thing each day – a dream, a bright yellow butterfly sunning itself, a glimpse of sunlight through the crack in the roof, a memory of her mother’s cooking, the sound of rain, and so forth.

After sharing her story with Jennifer, Gabby told her, “There is a gift waiting for you each day…If you’re willing to see it, hear it, even feel it, it’s there.” 

It was on the trip to Maine that this story was shared.  In addition, Gabby and Jennifer visited several places that sounded interesting including the Norman Rockwell Museum. 

There were paintings there that were based on a speech given by President Franklin Roosevelt outlining the Four Freedoms to which every human being was entitled:
-> Freedom from want
-> Freedom of worship
-> Freedom of speech and expression
-> Freedom from fear

As I read (and re-read) these Four Freedoms, I thought of the last book I read (Another Place at the Table) which focused on the United States’ foster care system, and the challenges that the children in it have faced in their young lives.  I thought that some of these core freedoms – freedom from fear, wants, speech/expression – were violated in many of the cases shared in that book. 

All That Matters is also the second book that I’ve recently read that encouraged one of the main characters to keep a journal.  Gabby gave Jennifer a journal and said, “The pages are empty. They wait for you to fill them, to tell about the gifts you will find each day….

“Maybe, when you are going through a difficult time – and such days are part of the challenge we get to face in living – you will take out this book and read what you have already written.  It will remind you that while there is darkness, you also have good, beauty, light, and rich memories to cling to.”

Gabby writes a message to Jennifer in her journal: “To my greatest gift, my granddaughter – Listen for me in your heart, that is where I choose now to live…for that is my heaven. Love, Nana.”

All That Matters is a story about the will to survive – on several different levels and with different characters.  It is a good reminder that each person has their own challenges…and, sometimes, the difficulties we face are small compared to ones others have had to deal with in their lives. 

The book also serves to underscore the importance of looking for at least one thing each day that is a gift…something positive that helps you get through the day.

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For the 25th week in the 52 Books in 52 Weeks challenge, I’m reading Another Place at the Table – A Story of Shattered Childhoods Redeemed by Love by Kathy Harrison. 

Kathy’s Harrison’s memoir of her life as a foster parent to over one hundred children for more than a decade is at times sad, heart-wrenching, and (thankfully) funny.  It provides a very real picture of the foster care system and some of the children in it. 

Harrison is an ordinary woman doing heroic work. She is honest about her own failures and weaknesses, about the difficulty in fostering troubled children, about the shortcomings of the foster care system, and about the tremendous need each child in that system has for a loving, attentive family.

The children who came to her were the offspring of addicts and prostitutes; the daughters and sons of abusers; and teenage parents who cannot handle parenthood.

Another Place at the Table paints an accurate portrayal of the foster care system and the challenges within it.  As one social worker wrote in a review of the book, “This book should be mandatory reading for anyone interested in becoming a foster parent. Having been a social worker in the foster care system for many years, I appreciate Kathy’s frank presentation of some of the most difficult issues that any foster parent may face.”

She continues, “Some people go into fostering with a rosy picture of helping an innocent, angelic child, and those people are setting themselves up to fail. Kathy presents a realistic picture of the ups and downs of fostering, the good and the bad, that is definitely not for the faint of heart but is a true depiction of the feelings and constitution that it takes to bring wounded children into your home. I couldn’t put it down.”

This book is definitely not “light” or “easy” reading.  It is, however, an inspiring book about the life of Kathy Harrison and the incredible impact she has made on the lives of children so desperately needing a parent and family who wanted to care for them.

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As part of the 52 Books in 52 Weeks challenge, I’m trying to also read a variety of books – some of which I typically would not read.  Concurrently, the county library is doing an adult summer reading program to encourage adults to read more books during the summer (they also do a children’s reading program). 

For the adults, you play a game of bingo, with each square a different theme (e.g., book on the big screen, biography, beach read, budget book, bygone eras).  All the themes start with “B.”

So, this week I picked out a book that would fall under the “beach read” or maybe the “belles and beaus” category. It’s called The Stuff that Never Happened by Maddie Dawson. 

The book alternates time periods with each chapter which works well for this book.  There are actually a few different stories that happen in this book during the different time periods, so this is the most effective way to address them.  The characters each have their own flaws and the author has developed them in such a way that they feel like “real people,” and the book is written in an easy-to-read language. 

I’m a bit more than half-way done with the book.  It’s taking me a bit longer than anticipated since I’ve been working on some other projects.  I should have it done this week. 

This week, I’ve also enjoyed looking at a series of books called Reading Group Choices – Selection for Lively Book Discussions.  The library had the years 2003, 2004, and 2005 on the shelf so I took all three.  Each book has a one page description and picture of the book and another page with questions for reflection or discussion. 

In each of the Reading Group Choices books, there are many books that I thought sounded interesting and that I’d like to read.  At this point, I have a list of books that I want to read that’s long enough for completing the challenge and taking me into next year.

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