Saturday, February 25, 2012

Lights, Camera, Amalee by Dar Williams

So I was in the Juvenile section of my library and this little gem was propped up with it's cover facing out, and I got excited to see Dar Williams as the author!  I hadn't thought of her much since college, but a woman who can write an awesome song like The Babysitter's Here, must be able to tell a good story, right? (Although for the record, I like your version best, CCW).

This is the story of the summer between 7th and 8th grade when Amalee decides to make a movie about endangered species.  She was inspired by English teacher, and their end of the year project. He says, "You have many stories ahead of you.  Tell them with creativity, clarity, and integrity."

Maybe it was just my mood, but I did kind of fall for this book.  I found the adult friends of Amalee who are supposed to be these amazing people who have helped raise her to be very annoying.  There were 4 and it was hard to keep track, and to really feel like they were all necessary.  BUT I found out after I finished that there was an original Amalee, and maybe if I had read that first I would have been attached to these characters.  You know how sometimes the second book kind of assumes stuff?

It took me a while, but at about 100 pages in I was taken with Amalee and I think we can all relate to that 12-year-oldness where you feel these big grown-up emotions but you don't really know what to do with them.  Or who your real friends are, and you want to be cool and pretty and smart, you know what I mean, right?  So that part felt very Dar Williams, and I did buy into it.  I liked it.

I thought the writing was good, not amazing.  Here are some sentences I liked:

"It was like Mr. Chapelle's assignment; their silence had a language of its own."

"Thanks, Kyle," I said, trying to sound close to sixteen.

"I'd stopped being friends with Ellen and Hallie--or maybe they had stopped being friends with me-- but they still visited my mind from time to time when I was wearing pants that felt too tight or I had an idea that felt stupid."

"From what I could tell, she didn't stand out in her classes for being smart.  She wasn't an athlete, she definitely wasn't funny, and she probably still wasn't particularly nice, but I wanted her to feel like she fit in the world, because who was I to say she didn't?"


My favorite part of the book is how the movie she is making gives her the chance to repair old insults, strengthen her friendships, and really figure out some things about herself.  At the beginning it felt forced how all the adults jump on board and give her advice and guidance, and even the research at first feels too tidy.  But like I mentioned before somehow it all came together for me and worked.

Now I've got to go look up the first book!

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

As Easy as Falling Off the Face of the Earth By Lynne Rae Perkins

I don't remember how I came across this title, but I suggested it to my 12-year-old who needed to find literary devices in a novel.  It is full of metaphors, hyperboles, similies, etc.  When I talked to him about it he said he didn't really like it.  He thought it was kind of boring.  But we both agreed that there are so many mysteries you want to finish the book.

The story begins with Ry, who is travelling on a train to summer camp.  His parents are vacationing in the Caribbean, and his grandpa is housesitting.  Of course they have just moved into a new house, so he doesn't really know his neighbors or have friends at his new location.  He has just discovered that the camp is no longer going to be held, and he is desperately trying to get in touch with someone to figure out what to do.  While he's trying to get a cell phone signal, the train leaves without him, and the adventure begins.

I think Lynne Rae Perkins has a unique writing style.  I liked her clever chapter titles and intermittant illustrations.  But the story was kind of too much for me.  Everything that could go wrong does.  Ships sink, cell phones are left, cars break down.  And ultimately, Ry makes decisions over and over again that I think are crazy!  As a partent it's hard to get past him accepting rides from strangers, sleeping in crummy conditions or cutting of his lifejacket!  I would have thought it would be more appealing to younger readers, but as mentioned above, my son found it boring too.  She won a Newberry medal for another book she wrote, so I might pick it up sometime out of curiousity to see if it was just her subject that bugged me.

Has anyone else read this?  I saw some glowing reviews that kind of surprised me.  I think it's one to skip.

Monday, February 20, 2012

My Name is Mary Sutter by Robin Oliveira

Mary Sutter is a midwife, who has been trained by her mother, and is the best around.  She also wants to be a surgeon, but no one will accept her to medical school or let her apprentice.  But the civil war has just begun and so she leaves to be a nurse.  What follows is an informative story about the horrible conditions and lack of supplies medics worked under during those times.

The book is also the story of the Sutter family who is grieving the loss of their father.  Their interactions and decisions move the story.  Mary, her twin sister Jenny, younger brother Christian and her mother Amelia live in Albany together.  Mary is a like able character, and you do empathize with her family members.  But it almost felt like there was just too much going on to really pick favorites or decide which character you liked best.

The story is told by an omniscient narrator, which allows you to have insight into the thoughts and motivations of several characters.  I liked this, but again, I felt like I had a lot of information, and I didn't fall in love with anyone.  Even so, I enjoyed the book, I liked the characters, and I felt compelled to keep reading.

Mary is spunky, as she challenges a doctor who won't apprentice her, "In your opinion, is there a limit to how much knowledge one person is allowed to accumulate?  Have I reached my quota?"

I love it.

As Mary reflects how after the hard work of birth, she doesn't remember the horrors, but "the gasp of love when at last the mother encircled the infant in her arms."

If you like historical fiction, I think you'll like this book.  I remember reading little books about Clara Barton and Florence Nightengale when I was a kid.  This is a great expansion of those little snippets I learned.  I love the glimpses into the doctors who were really figuring things out.  Trying to solve the mysteries of the human body and to save lives. 

I liked the choices that Mary made.  She had been brought up in comfort, but had worked tirelessly as a midwife.  She didn't take no for an answer, or accept her current life as the only one available to her.  Instead she worked hard.  She did what no one else wanted to do, and ultimately it paid off. 

One complaint about the keep falling in love with Mary.  She's not pretty, they are quick to point out, but there's something about her.  I think this is kind of annoying.  I'm starting to feel like it's a common theme.  Remember how Jane Eyre is like that?

This is my current theory.  The women who write these books, and maybe those of us who read them, want to believe that being clever, skilled, educated, all of these things is more attractive to men then outward beauty.  Which I think is true in real life.  But the way it is written, it feels phony, in the same way falling in love at first site feels forced.

There's a great conversation, which is kind of a turning point because the Doctor is taking her seriously instead of being delicate around her.  He says, "You want to be a surgeon?  To be a surgeon is to look a man in the eye and tell him the truth.  If you can't do that, then get out of here.  Go home.....It is all butchery. Every bit of it."  Then, "Choose who you are, choose who you'll be."

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister

I'm just going to preface my review with the fact that I read this entire book in sunny, sunny California.  Most of it while sitting or laying in the sand by the ocean, with NO kids.  It was the perfect setting for this book.  I totally believe in books fitting your mood, and maybe if I was in my normal life chaos, I might not have been as taken in.
That being said, I really liked this book!  The premise is very creative, and allows the book to read more like short stories than a novel.  Each chapter follows one member of a cooking class.  Not just any cooking class, but these amazing ones taught by Lillian who gets food, and seeks to teach her class about "Essential Ingredients."  The first chapter gives us a glimpse into her sad childhood, and perspective into her love affair with cooking.  "It was the cooking that occurred in her friends' homes that fascinated Lillian."

The food is described romantically.  I can't think of a word that fits it better.  "The flavor opened like a flower across his tongue, soft and sweet."  And, "the sauce, an untouched snowfield, its smell the feeling of quiet at the end of an illness."  See what I mean?  And I love this description, "he was full of philosophy, his favorite class of the previous term, reciting passages of Plato and Kant as if they had just been written and he the first to find them."  I love that kind of passion for knowledge or litereature.

As the characters cook with each other, they support and love one another.  This can sometimes feel contrived, but I bought into it.  They pass on the things they know to each other.  "Life is beautiful.  Some people just remind you of that more than others." 

Isabelle, the oldest student, is dealing with losing her memory.  She describes, "Our bodies carry our memories of them, in our muscles, in our skin, in our bones.  My children are right here.' She pointed to the inside curve of her elbow. 'Where I held them when they were babies.  Even if there comes a time when I don't know who they are anymore, I believe I will feel them here.'  She's talking to a younger man who is grieving, and I thought it was a sweet exchange.

I liked it from the beginning.  The writing is smart, and the characters are interesting and real, if a little romanticized.

Erica Bauermeister lives in Seattle, and this book is set in the Northwest, without disclosing a specific city that I remember.  If you live here too, you know how true this is:  "It was a clear, cold evening in early February, the end of a miraculously blue day blown in from the north like a celebration.  People in the Northwest tended to greet such weather with a child's sense of joy."  That's exactly how it was here yesterday!