Charming Alternate Fairy-Tale World: Sisters Grimm Book 1

Sabrina and Daphne Grimm are two orphan sisters who have been passed from one terrible foster family to another after their parents’ disappearance.  But suddenly, they a being sent to live with a woman who claims to be their grandmother, Relda Grimm, a woman that they were told was dead by their parents.

Sabrina and Daphne are sent to live in Ferrysport Landing, New York, a quaint and relatively sleepy little town with an interesting history and even more interesting inhabitants, who are not all who or what they seem at first glance.  Here, Sabrina and Daphne learn that they are the descendants of the famous fairy tale authors the Brothers Grimm, whose tales are really a collection of case files and histories of actual magical occurrences.  No sooner have Sabrina and Daphne landed in Ferrysport when they are on their first case, saving their new town from a giant.

The Fairy-Tale Detectives  by Michael Buckley is a charming little tale filled with charming characters drawn from the rich history of German (and other culture’s) folklore.  We meet Jack, the Giant Killer, Prince Charming, the big Bad Wolf, and a variety of other characters.  Buckley’s first installment of The Sisters Grimm series is a quick and pleasant read that does a good job of building the world of Ferrysport Landing.  Granny Relda’s character is wonderfully sketched; she embodies the eccentric grandmother who is nurturing, but, as far as the sisters are concerned more than a little crazy. Buckley’s strongest character creations, however, are Sabrina and Daphne.  Buckley does a great job of sketching their relationship and drawing Sabrina as the protective older sister who believes she should be the strong and responsible one in the sisterly relationship.

In addition to two well crafted young sisters, Buckley did a fantastic job with my favorite character, by far, was Puck.  I don’t want to give too much away about how Puck, a character from Shakespeare, is integrated into the tale, but let’s just say that he is both cantankerous and charming; he’s both troublemaker and problem-solver, in his own unusual way.  He’s everything we would expect Puck to be.

Overall, I enjoyed the book and may pick up a few more in the series to read.

3.5 of 4 stars

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What the President Reads Daily: A Review of Ten Letters

Every night, President Obama opens a purple folder that is tucked inside his daily briefing book.  The purple folder contains ten letters (emails or faxes) that have been received by the White House.  These pieces of correspondence are unvetted, per Obama’s request, for this is one of the ways that he chooses to help him feel connected beyond the bubble that surrounds him as President.  The letters in that purple folder range from letters that praise Obama to those that plead with him to address a particular issue to those that are scathing remarks on his work as President.  Still, he reads the letters, and often, he responds to them.

Ten Letters:  The Stories Americans Tell Their President is a selection of ten of those ten daily letters that Obama has received throughout his Presidency.  The book focuses on not simply the letters themselves, but is the story of those who wrote the letters and why they choose to write them intermingled with glimpses into the more personal side of Obama’s Presidency.  To create this text, Salsow first worked with the White House Press Office, interviewed each of the writers of the letters contained within this book, garnered research from press releases, tapes of speeches, and news articles, as well as held a one-on-one interview with President Obama.

As someone who teaches writing, what I found most interesting were the discussions of what motivated people to write and the rhetorical choices they made about what they said to the President.  Equally as interesting were the insights into Obama’s word choices and how he felt about the power of the written letters he received, some of which he was moved to reply to privately while others he was moved to not only reply to privately but also reply to publicly in a variety of speeches.  (Saslow takes time to note which of the ten letters in this selection went on to be the focus of portions of several of Obama’s speeches regarding health care and education.

Overall, Ten Letters< is an interesting work, but I found myself wanting more from the text.  I wanted to see more of the actual original letters for not all of them were reproduced in the text.  The ones that were reproduced in full seemed to be the emails rather than the letters, which the letters themselves were summarized.  I think reproducing the original letters as part of the text would have added to the overall text itself.  I disliked the chapters that seemed to be only a telling of what the letter writer could manage to recall that he or she wrote.  I suspect that I liked these chapters least because I wondered just how accurate that recollection of the letter really was.

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The World We Found: Thrity Umrigar’s India

The World We Found is based on a great premise:  four friends that have grown apart attempt to come together when they find that one of the friends is dying.  Umrigar delves into the ties that bind friendships even after those friendships have seemingly slowly grown apart over the years.

The characters are intriguing, and as Umringar weaves the tale of these four  friends, she also explores the vastly different worlds of the socio-economic classes in India as well as offers insight into the lines often drawn between different religious sects.  However, the novel ultimately left me with wanting more at the end–a deeper exploration of class and religious differences through her development of these characters.

While The World We Found is worth the read, so much more could have been done with this tale of four friends to make it a much stronger work.

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Favorite Author

I am a member of the group Play Book Tag  (PBT) on Shelfari, a social-networking site that allows you to create virtual shelves of your books. Many of the groups are devoted to discussing and reviewing books and PBT is probably one of the most active in terms of discussions and reviews as well as games or reading challenges that group members can participate in.

One of the recent discussions in Play Book Tag (PBT) started me thinking about how we come to choose not simply the books we read but the authors we are devoted to.  The discussion asked participants to pick their three favorite authors, and, admittedly, many participants, including myself, found the choice difficult to make.  One of the participants even raised the question of how we determine what a “favorite author” is.

My husband, I firmly believe, would say that he has a favorite author, if asked:  Robert Jordan.  He has read every book in The Wheel of Time series.    Or maybe I am just assuming that Jordan is the hubby’s favorite author because he has every book in that series.  He also has almost every book that L.E. Modisett has published, particularly in the Imager series.  But does that make Modisett his favorite author, or one of this top favorites?   I recently introduced my husband to James Rollins’ Sigma series of books, not because I had read them all–I haven’t–but on the recommendation of a fellow PBT member highly recommended the books.  (I am beginning to read the series myself and understand why they come highly recommended, but would Rollins appear on either of our favorite author lists?)

One of my colleagues absolutely loves many of James Joyce’s works; she has lines from his works permanently inked on her skin.  Does this make Joyce her favorite author?  I’m not sure, but I would say that is was quite possible since inking lines from a text on your skin is quite the commitment.  She also loves Flannery O’Conner and F. Scott Fitzgerald.  But are they among her favorite.

So, just what makes a favorite author? And how do we pick?  Does the amount of works we own by an author signal that they are our favorite?  What if we have only read one book by an author and absolutely loved it?  Should that author be considered a favorite?  What if we simply read everything an author publishes even if some of the works are a bit mediocre?  Should that author be considered a favorite?

Do we have categories of favorites?  Favorite fiction authors?  Favorite non-fiction authors?  Favorite classic authors?

I finally narrowed down my three in the discussion on Play Book Tag to the following:

  • Joyce Carole Oates
  • Richard Russo
  • Michael Connelly

But I also reserved the right to change my mind.

Do you have a favorite author?  Can you list your three favorite (and yes, the limit is three)?    How did you pick these three?

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Alas, Time Escaped Me

When I started this blog, I fully intended to post daily.  Then, time slipped and I promised myself that I would post at least weekly.  Alas, the semester started and work began.  Teaching four classes a semester with approximately 25 students per class means that instead of reading books I am reading essays, and reports, and other projects at the rate of about 100 every two to two and a half weeks.

So, time goes by and some things have to give as I juggle reading all that student work.  Unfortunately, one of those things was this blog.

Now, here is is Christmas break, and the new semester begins in a little less than two weeks.  Instead of steadily reading all those books I missed out on during the course of the semester, I find myself preparing for the new semester by working on a syllabus for each course and planning projects.

But, I am making myself a new promise.  I will manage to find more balance this semester so that I can read for pleasure, and not just for work.  And I will manage to post an entry here every week.  Whether that entry will be a book review or not is another question.

Until then, happy reading and happy blogging my friends.

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A Historical Portrait of American Food Culture: The Food of a Younger Land

I spotted this book on one of my colleagues bookshelves about a year and a half ago. When I would stop by his office, I would often pull the book off the shelf, read the description on the back and then lazily thumb through the pages without really looking.  Finally, about 6 months ago or so, I told him I would like to borrow the book, mainly because I assumed it was going to be a bit along the lines of some of Michael Pollan’s works.  My colleague, who had not read this book, said “Go ahead and keep it; I don’t really want it.”  Unfortunately, it has taken me those six months to get around to reading it (or finding the time to read it).

First let me say that my assumption that this book was similar to Michael Pollan’s works, especially The Omnivore’s Dilemma was wrong, very wrong.  However, I was not disappointed in The Food of a Younger Land on that count.  Nor was I disappointed in it for what was written within the book itself.  I was disappointed when the book ended because I wanted so much more from the book.  But, alas, that could not be, given the circumstances surrounding the creation of the book, which I will soon explain.

A mere fifteen months after Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s inauguration as President of the United States, the Emergency Relief Act was passed in April 1935. And less than one month later, FDR, despite the controversy surrounding the Emergency Relief Act of 1935, signed an executive order creating the Works Progress Administration, the WPA. The goal of the WPA, as FDR envisioned it, was to put “blue collar laborers to work building government projects”, focusing at first on small and useful projects (as these were deemed less controversial). Many of these projects included government and public buildings, including some of the buildings that still stand on the campus of the Toledo Zoo (in Toledo, Ohio.)

In addition to putting blue collar laborers to work, however, a small and often overlooked clause in the Emergency Relief Act of 1935 also mandated that “assistance to educational and clerical persons; a nation-wide program for useful employment for artists, musicians, actors, entertainers, writers….” be provided. Thus, in the summer of 1935 Federal Project Number 1 got underway. Federal One included the Federal Art Project, the Federal Theater Project, and the Federal Writers’ Project. (Subsidizing art or artistic endeavors of any kind had never been, and still isn’t, very popular with the American public, so Federal One met with much controversy and skepticism.)

During the course of its existence, the Federal Writers Project employed several well recognized regional writers as well as writers and poets who both had or would come to have some national prominence. Among these included Stetson Kennedy, Saul Bellow, Jack Conroy, Conrad Aiken, Josef Berger, John Cheever, Kenneth Rexroth, Ralph Ellison, Eudora Welty, and Zora Neal Hurston. Ellison used the time he was employed with the Federal Writers’ Project to work on his novel Native Son while Hurston had already published a few novels, including Their Eyes Were Watching God but the time she was employed by the FWP.

It is from the Federal Writers’ Project that the idea for and the much of the content of this book springs. The earliest major undertaking (although there were several smaller ones) of the FWP was to create a series of guidebooks, one for each state. (Eventually, one of each state, Puerto Rico, Washington DC, and several smaller regional ones were created from this project.) It is not these guidebooks, however, that are the focus of The Food of a Younger Land; instead, its focus is on one of the second major projects that the FWP strove to undertake: America Eats.

America Eats was the idea of Katherine Kellock (who was also the person behind the idea for the successful guidebooks. With America Eats Kellock hoped to undertake a “nationwide examination of what America eats. However, America Eats was not simply to be a collection of recipes. Rather, Kellock stressed that this new project, which was to produce quite the hefty end product, was to examine “American cookery and the part it has played in the national life” and to “preserve not only traditional dishes but also traditional attitudes and customs”.

Unfortunately, America Eats was never completed. As the country moved beyond the Depression and many of the writers who worked for the Federal Writers’ Project left to pursue their own writing careers or to take other jobs, the effort to complete this last project was greatly reduced. In 1943 when the WPA finally closed down, only a few boxfuls of notes, some incomplete essays, transcripts of interviews, and “thoughts” about certain regions and their foods had been collected. Not every state was represented in these pages and the pages were shipped off in their boxes to the U.S. Library of Congress, where Mark Kurlansky discovered them.

What we get in The Food of a Younger Land is a good portion of what was to be America Eats. Kurlansky did not include everything from the boxes he went through at the Library of Congress, and much of what he did include was not edited. The names of the authors who originally wrote the pieces are included (if an author was noted in the papers Kurlansky found) and Kurlansky provides a brief bio of the author. If no author was noted on the papers, then no author is credited in teh text. Since Kurlansky didn’t edit the pieces, much of the writing does truly reflect the cultural, social, and even political beliefs of the time. This reflection of the cultural and social times can be seen in the use of the original language of the pieces, some of which is not considered culturally or socially acceptable today.

What The Food of a Younger Land offers us, as readers, is a fascinating look at the role of food in American culture, from the role of Maple-Sugaring in New England to the controversy over which version of clam chowder, New England or Manhattan, is the best, to the controversy over which is the true original recipe for a mint julep. Regional and ethnic foods and traditions are covered and discussed. We see the role of the automat in New York City, Coca-Cola parties in Georgia, fish fries on the Levee in Mississippi, Washington Community Smelt Fries, cooking for threshers in Nebraska, Alabama Cane Gridings and Pullings, the menudo parties in Arizona and foot washings in Alabama. And, we also get glimpses of unusual foods, many of which we would perhaps not dream of eating, including fried beaver tail from Montana.

Such interesting glimpses of life and food are offered that you are left to wonder what it would have been like if America Eats had been completed. What regional delights did we miss out learning about from those states that are missing?

There are so many fascinating pieces in this slim, for the subject covered, 450 page book that I don’t feel like my review does it justice. It really is a fascinating read.

4 out of 5 stars

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Drawing from the Pool: Lisey’s Story

Lisey’s Story is quite literally the story of Lisey Debusher Landon, widow of the famous and wildly popular writer Scott Landon. Two years after Scott’s death, Lisey must come to grips not only with Scott’s death but with various aspects of their twenty-five year marriage as she begins to go through and decide what to do with his belongings.

While the premise of Lisey’s Story may seem quite simple–a grieving widow must finally come to terms with her loss–what we are given by King is a complex story in which Lisey must face the demons that her husband faced; demons that she has shoved to the side and repressed. Lisey must journey to the mysterious Boo’ya Moon, a place that was both the source of Scott’s inspiration and his despair. As she unveils the layers of their past through a series of memories (merely remembering aloud in the present) and through flashbacks (full movements to the past), Lisey comes to understand the complexity of not only her relationship with Scott but the past that haunted him. In the process, Lisey’s own story more fully emerges.

Through Lisey’s Story King offers readers a very personal and intimate journey into the heart of creativity for a writer. In fact, readers may find themselves wondering just how personal this look into the private life of a writer really is. Lisey and Scott’s story is told through layer upon layers of flashbacks. While well crafted, this layer, at first, is a bit frustrating until you get the pacing of story. Some of Lisey’s memories of Scott are presented while Lisey is in the present simply recalling an event, but then King, sometimes in mid-sentence, moves readers to the particular time frame that Lisey is recalling. So through layers of flashback, we are moved to the time that Lisey is recalling and the past becomes present and she relives these portions of her life with Scott.

King’s description of Boo’ya Moon, the mysterious, magical, and threatening space (place) that Scott travels to through the craft of his writing are simply fantastic. His tying of this place to the act of Scott’s writing really makes you sit back and think about whether we all have such a place that we journey.

 

4 of 5 stars

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A Little Mystery and Some Recipes: Catering to Nobody

Goldy Bear, owner of Goldilock’s Catering, in Aspen Meadow, Colorado finds herself in a bit of a pickle when her ex-father-in-law is poisoned at the wake of one of her son’s fifth grade teachers–a wake that Goldy just happens to be catering. When the police shut down Goldy’s catering business until the attempted poisoning/murder is cleared up, Goldy cannot simply sit by and wait. Her business is her livelihood (and so much more), so she decides to do a bit of investigating on her own. Soon she finds herself embroiled in the middle of the investigation and unpeeling layers of secrets regarding many of this small town’s residents, including some of her friends.Catering to Nobody, Book 1 in the Goldy Bear Schulz Culinary Mystery Series, was a re-read for me because I wanted to read the whole series and decided to go back to the beginning rather than picking up mid-stream. While the book relies heavily on the typical workings of a small town, including the tangled relationships and gossip that abound, to build the plot, it is still enjoyable as a whole. The plot is not complex; in fact, the mystery really turns out to be no great shocker. However, I didn’t find that disappointing.What is most appealing to me about Catering to Nobody are the way the characters are developed. Goldy is quirky and feisty as well as resilient. Mott Davidson could have simply drawn on the cliched stereotypical characters of a small town on verges of the larger ski resort areas of the West, but she doesn’t do that. Sure, Goldy’s ex-husband does get referred to as “The Jerk”, and he fits that bill, but Mott Davidson writes characters that I think many a reader will be drawn to because they can be so easily related to.

Reading the menus for Goldy’s catering events or just the descriptions of the goodies and treats she is making for her son’s school events is enough alone to make me want to read the book. As a bonus, we do get some recipes for Goldy’s cakes, cookies, and other dishes sprinkled throughout the text, so for readers who are also bakers or foodies, the recipes are even there to try out. And I must admit that there are one or two, I may just have to try.

3 out of 5 stars

 

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Mailbox Monday: 2012 Pulitzer Finalists

Mailbox Monday is a weekly meme…..

Technically, it’s past Monday and a bit into Tuesday morning as I post this.  Time got away from me today, not because I was terribly busy but simply for no real good reason at all.  It was a lazy Monday here, and somewhere along the line I lost a couple of hours to a nap, a very rare occasion in this house.  So, here I am posting in the wee hours of Tuesday morning instead.

Today’s mailbag featured the 2012 Pulitzer for Fiction Finalists.  No Pulitzer Prize was awarded for fiction in 2012.  Supposedly, none of the finalists really stood out that much from the other finalists (or short listed works), so the prize committee simply chose not to award a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for 2012.

So, a few of us who belong to the group Play Book Tag on Shelfari have set out to see if we can do what the committee could not do–pick a winner.  Thus, I am reading the works that were short listed and will be reviewing them.  I do hope you will check back for my reviews later (toward September) when our group is scheduled to discuss which selection we think deserved to win the prize.

 

Train Dreams ~~ Denis Johnson  Johnson’s novella focuses on Robert Grainer, a day laborer in the American west.  Readers will follow Grainer’s journey through personal defeats and victories along with the sweeping changes that come to the American West during this transformative time.

 

 

 

Swamplandia! ~~ Karen Russell  Meet the Bigtree  family who live in Swamplandia, an island home and gator wrestling theme park in Florida.  Ava Bigree has lived her entire life here, and when her mother falls ill and her family begins to fall apart, Ava undertakes the mission of saving her family.

 

 

 

The Pale  King ~~ David Foster Wallace Wallace immerses himself in the world of the IRS Regional Examination Center in Peoria Illinois as a newly arrived trainee.  The job is repetitive and boring, so much so that employees receive boredom-survival training.  But Wallace sees beyond this surface of mind-numbing routine to the unique and extraordinary personalities of the employees.

 

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Time Traveling Via Train: On the Blue Comet

Eleven year-old Oscar Ogilvie and his dad live on the Mississippi River side of Cairo, Illinois. Oscar and his father spend much of their time, after the loss of Oscar’s mother, bonding over creating elaborate layouts on which to run their Lionel model trains. The stock market crashes, Oscar’s dad loses his job, they lose their house, and Oscar’s dad travels to California looking for work, leaving Oscar to live with his Aunt Carmen, who is not nearly as fun as his dad.

While his dad is away, Oscar meets Mr. Applegate, a teacher from Texas, who has come to Illinois looking for for work after losing his teaching position. Mr. Applegate not only helps Oscar with his math but introduces Oscar to the concepts of physics, Einstein’s theories, and the idea of time travel or time pockets.

Oscar witness a horrible crime and suddenly finds himself propelled through time and traveling on a train. He heads to California to find his dad, only to find that he arrives in California at a far different time period than he left Illinois in. On the Blue Comet focuses on Oscar’s adventures as he travels through time from Illinois to California, then to New York all while trying to get back home to the time when he was eleven so that the criminals can be caught and he can, hopefully, resume his life with his father.

Overall, the premise of On the Blue Comet is an interesting one, but at times the plot seems a bit too thin and wraps up a bit too neatly, but I suppose this is to be a bit expected for the target age range (about 4th grade to middle school) for this novel. What makes On the Blue Comet an interesting read overall are the characters that Oscar encounters through this travels across country and through time. Some of these characters include Dutch, a college student studying at Eureka College in Des Moines, Iowa, Mr. H., a famous Hollywood director and producer of suspense and crime movies), several Walls Street bankers, lawyers, and investors, Mr. Joseph P. Kennedy, and one of his young sons (presumably JFK).

Wells weaves some subtle elements of history throughout the text, which makes it quite an intriguing read. Dutch, for instance, is someone famous (or becomes someone famous) but Wells never reveals the name he is more famously known as. Wells also does a good job of grounding each of the time periods that Oscar visits in not only the historical events of the specific time but also in the social mores of the time. I think that she does an excellent job of keeping true to not just the events of those time periods, but the cultural and social values of the periods. The eye for detail for each period that Wells exhibits is excellent while still leaving herself room to take some creative license for the purposes of the overall plot of her novel.

The best part of the book, however, is the relationships that Wells creates between her characters, especially those of Oscar and his dad, Oscar and Mr. Applegate, Oscar and Dutch, and Oscar and Claire. Wells creates characters and relationships that seem real and genuine; Oscar and his father share a bond over trains that you can imagine any boy and his father having; Mr. Applegate is the kind of teacher that 11 year-old boys, or any 11-year-old student would want (and parents would want for their kids), and Dutch seems to genuinely care for the strange boy he meets on the train who tells him a fascinating tale of how he ends up on the train in the first place.

3.5 stars out of 5

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