Sunday, September 25, 2011

Cold Sassy Tree Olive Ann Burns

This is just what I needed this week.  It has been a while since I've read a book that I loved.  Thank you Colby for the advice to "stop what you are doing and read this now."  I loved this book!  Years and years ago (during high school maybe?), I read this after my aunt recommended it to my mom or something.  I remember I liked it, but I didn't remember anything else.  Now I can't believe I could ever forget forget it because I enjoyed reading it so much.
Cold Sassy is a fictional town in Georgia, and this book takes place in 1906.  Will Tweedy is 14, and tells the story about his family and the events that changed them that summer.  I enjoyed his voice and the southern accents, "ast," " 'tweren't," "swannee."  Olive Ann Burns uses her characters' voices to create the whole feel of the town.

In the second page of the book Will Tweedy says, "I and my little redheaded sister, Mary Toy, always followed him down the hall and he usually gave us each a stick of penny candy."  Don't you love how he added that little detail about Mary Toy?  I liked him right away.  Just a few pages later, when describing Miss Love Simpson he says "I had always admired Miss Love, with all that wavy brown hair piled atop her head, and that smiley, freckledy face and those friendly gray-blue eyes.  She was a merry person, like Grandpa."  Wouldn't you love to be described as a "merry person"?

There is a sweet story that his Grandma would tell about his Grandpa, "When he come back to Cold Sassy after the War, he was the handsomest man you ever seen and I was a old maid.  Twenty-one year old and never had a beau in my life.  I was fixin' to go to church one Sunday morning when this good-lookin' feller, he tapped me on the shoulder and said, 'Ain't you Miss Mattie Lou Toy?  You don't need no sermon today.  Stay out here and le's talk.'...So we stayed in the churchyard, like a re'lar courtin' couple, and talked one another's ears off.....Fore that day was over Mr. Blakeslee said he was a-go'n marry me..."  Cold Sassy Tree is filled with these little heart-warming moments. 

I also loved the sweet wisdom that Grandpa shares in nuggets throughout the book.  Like, "Livin' is like pourin' water out of a tumbler into a dang Coca-Cola bottle.  If'n you skeered you cain't do it, you cain't.  If'n you say to youreself, 'By dang, I can do it!' then, by dang, you won't slosh a drop."  Later after Will escapes a close run in with a train he is asking his Grandpa if it was God's will that he survived.  His Grandpa said, "What God give you was a brain.  Hit's His will for you to use it--p'tickler when a train's comin'."  Grandpa's religious explanations were especially meaningful.  He offers a "family prayer" right after Will's accident that is so great. 

Cold Sassy is a small town, the kind that makes "small town" an adjective. I loved how when tragedy strikes, they gather together, bring food, and take care of each other.  Of course, the other side of the coin was how when anything happens, there is someone there to judge, report and repeat what had happened.  There are so many examples of this in the story.

I loved the family dynamics, and really how no one is perfect.  Will makes some choices that drive you crazy, and Aunt Loma is such a pill, but by the end they have really endeared themselves to you.  At least they did to me.  I loved the Grandpa's teachings and his critiques of preachin' and where he thought the pastors were getting it wrong. 

This book is getting a spot in my top 10. 

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch

I have seen links to Randy Pausch's last lecture on the internet, and recently noticed that he had also written a book expanding on the lecture he gave at Carnegie Mellon.  I was curious about the hype and drawn to his story of living with a terminal diagnosis, but I was worried it might be too sad to get through.  I got through it fine, but it didn't change my life.  I think Randy Pausch has some great insights and perspectives and he shared them in a really approachable way.  It reminded me of books like Don't Sweat the Small Stuff, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, or Life's Little Instruction Book.  All fine books, but not really my favorite thing to read.  This book is, of course, set apart with personal stories, and always with the understory that this man knows he only has a few months left to live.

When he was asked to give the lecture, he asked himself:  "What do I, alone, truly have to offer?"  I think that is a worthwhile reflection for all of us.  He also mentions a coach that taught him,  "You've got to get the fundamentals down, because otherwise the fancy stuff is not going to work."  That made me think of teaching.  You have to teach them basic principles and values or the other stuff doesn't stick.

On building self-esteem he says, "You give them something they can't do, they work hard until they find they can do it, and you just keep repeating the process."  I like that, and it resonates with several things I've read lately.  I think about that a lot raising my kids!

There was a section about his habit of leaning back in his char at dinner and how it drove his mom crazy.  I kind of get his point, but my boys have broken a few chairs in our house that way, so it was kind of annoying to read.  I sympathized with his mom more than him!

There's a section where he shares that he would send a box of Girl Scout Thin Mint's with every paper he asked another professor to review, along with a short note.  "Thank you for agreeing to do this...The enclosed Thin Mints are your reward.  But no fair eating them until you review the paper."  Clever.  He finished the section with, "I've found Thin Mints are a great conversational tool.  They're also a sweet reward for a job well done."  I think that is a good example of his "voice" in this book.  I found it annoying sometimes.  But he also mentions that he's aware of his "social" flaws.  A mentor once told him, "Randy, it's such a shame that people percieve you as arrogant, because it's going to limit what you're going to be able to accomplish in this life."  He does sometimes come off as arrogant, but then again, he did accomplish A LOT in his short life.

There are chapters where he says that, "brick walls are there to stop the people who don't want it badly enough.  They're there to stop the other people."  There's another section titled, Earnest is Better Than Hip.  He explains "the head fake" and then refers to it a few times. Some of these sayings and sections seemed a little too cliche to me.  The seemed dumb.  I think to really do Randy Pausch justice, I need to watch the video of his lecture.  I think in a more concise format, it might move me more.

I was most touched by the chapters about his family that he concludes with.  It is such a tragedy to lose your father or husband, and to loose him at such a young age and so early on in your marriage is really heartbreaking.  He concludes his lecture by explaining that one of the main reasons he wanted to give it, and expand it into a book, is so his children can know him.  So he can pass on the wisdom he won't be around to give them.  I think that is beautiful, and I admire him for taking the time to write the book.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

If You Could See Me Know by Cecilia Ahern

I tried to start reading this a couple times, and I felt like the beginning was just too much.  Too much information, too forced, and I didn't really like the writing.

But because I've put down a few books lately, because the main character is named Elizabeth Egan (!), and because I liked the idea of the plot, I kept reading.  Honestly, the whole first half kind of got on my nerves.  I think the story was OK, but the writing style and the characters kind of bugged me.

Elizabeth has had a sad life.  Her mom abandoned her family, she mostly raised her sister and her dad is emotionally distant.  And now she is raising her nephew because her sister is terrible mess. Elizabeth is kind of a control freak, but is successful in her career and her younger life is revealed haphazardly throughout the book.  Her nephew meets an imaginary friend "Ivan" who take turns with Elizabeth in telling the story.  So because she is lonely and needs him, eventually Elizabeth can "see" Ivan and their friendship helps to relieve some of the sadness and pain in her life.  Imaginary friends come to help children with what they are struggling with and he does the same for Elizabeth.

Because I knew what the story was about, I decided to follow the book through to the end.  I know some people love it, so you might too.  But for me there were just too many annoying things.

There is a meeting of the Imaginary Friends, and they all give a report of their friend they are helping.  The conversation is so trite.  Like maybe the author looked up reasons kids have imaginary friends, then created the profiles by going down the list.  It was dumb.

Then there's this cheesy conversation between Ivan and Elizabeth when she's trying to figure out what his job is.  In fact a lot of the conversations between them are supposed to be clever with Ivan attempting to answer her literally as she misunderstands over and over.  Assuming he's Sam's dad, then assuming he's a silent partner, that he works with children, etc.  It was annoying to me.

So many times I felt like the whole character of Ivan was a copycat of Will Ferrell's character in Elf, and maybe even a little borrowed from Tom Hank's character in Big.  Like a child trapped in an adult's body, but most of what he says seems really profound, and only sometimes ridiculous.  Everytime he says things like, "spinning is my favorite"  I couldn't help but hear Will Ferrell's Buddy's voice.  Not very original.

I will say that the overall idea and story is heartwarming.  The idea that Ivan could fill a void in Elizabeth's life and help her learn to love again, is very sweet.  There is this moment of clarity when Elizabeth relives a tragic moment from her childhood, that seems to embody all her fears, and give her all the answers she's been running away from.  I felt like it was almost great.  It was a little too tidy for me, and the writer was trying too hard for me to really get into it.

Here are a couple of sweet quotes.

"My special power is friendship.  I listen to people and I hear what they say.  I hear their tones, the words they use to express themselves, and most importantly, I hear what they don't say.  Sighs and silences and avoided conversations are just as important as the things you do talk about."

"Those were the best times because her mother would be in one of her happy moods, delighted to be home, telling Elizabeth how much she'd missed her, smothering her with hugs and kisses so much that Elizabeth couldn't remember ever feeling sad."

I read the back flap of my library copy of this book and learned two things that say a lot.

A) Cecelia Ahern is 24.  Or was when the book jacket was made, which means that she was even younger when she wrote this.  Maybe her writing with improve with age.  (PS.  She wrote the book P.S. I Love You)

B) Film rights to this book have been bought by Walt Disney Pictures.  I bet they could make a pretty good movie out of this story.  With the right editing, it could be a really good story, the book just didn't pull it off in my mind.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson

I put this book on hold based on Tara's recommendation.  I liked it.

The story begins with a 17-year-old girl, Jenna Fox, who has come out of a year long coma and is struggling to remember everything.  I thought the beginning was a little boring, but I think that is intentional because Jenna is so awkward and confused at first.  It gets better as she makes friends, and begins to solve the mystery of her "accident" and her recently awakened self.

This is science fiction, and poses ethical questions about what might be possible in the future of bio-medical advances.  I thought that aspect was interesting, but really its just not my favorite genre.  What made this book interesting to me was the idea of how parents expectations or dreams for their kids influence their ethics.  I thought the title was very clever. 

"Jenna is so used to every move being recorded at this point that she seems to have surrendered herself to the adoration of Jenna Fox."

"Sometimes a person gets tired of being fixed all the time.  Where every little problem becomes a project.  Where every shortcoming needs to be addressed."

I don't expect my kids to be perfect (have you met my kids?), but I do want them to find one true passion and excel at it.  I want them to be good at something, or a few things, and reading this made me think about my dreams for them.  Do I adore my kids enough as their normal selves?

Although I found it thought-provoking from a parent's point of view, I think the best audience for this book is a female young adult.  Maybe 12-16?  I passed it on to my son who is 12, and he read it on the way too and from an outing and finished it.  He liked it too.  He did point out a few things they mention but don't develop much, but if I mention them it will spoil the book.