Blogs: Adults

​A few years back my husband was working in the storybook-beautiful and cosmopolitan city of Prague, and I had the chance to visit. He explained to me that I should not pet dogs belonging to strangers and I should keep my voice down when on the subway or bus. And it was true, voices were hushed on public transportation. One of our Czech friends explained that people became very worried about eavesdropping during the Soviet Era, so privacy was essential. 

Tram in PragueWhile the Czech Republic had the Velvet Revolution in 1989, there and in so many other Eastern European countries souls and psyches were scarred by years of corruption. On the other hand, they and other Eastern Europeans are still working to build a new kind of country.

For more about post-Revolutionary Prague, and a chance to look into the life of an American expatriate, Aaron Hamburger’s ebook The View from Stalin’s Head is essential. For an inside glimpse from Romania, watch 12:08 East of Bucharest where sixteen years after their soft revolution, townspeople all claim to have taken part in the protests in the square. Too bad the actual TV footage shows otherwise! Moving to East Germany, the stories in Ingo Shulze’s Simple Stories are not simple--they criss cross to build an intriguing novel that shows that blackmail, for instance, and other unsavory parts of life still lingered after the Berlin Wall.

We all know the scenario.   A few friends come over to visit, small talk fades, and everyone stares at one another in awkward silence.  Suddenly, the party erupts into excited cheers when someone suggests a game of “Thirst-Quench relay.”

“Four men or boys should be the runner in each of the competing teams for this, and they will have one girl partner.  She stands at the bottom of the lawn, with a tumbler and jug of water… but each runner when he reaches his team’s girl partner, must pause, and be fed by her with a tumbler full of water with a teaspoon.”  -- Games for Small Lawns by Sid G. Hedges

Sound like fun? No? Fine, be a spoil sport.   Maybe human croquet, tyre wrestling, or a good old fashioned shoe race is more your speed.  Books such as “Games for Small Lawns” offer a variety of entertaining options for your next social gathering.  The games are simple, require minimal equipment, and are guaranteed to turn the average party into something unforgettable.  After all, who doesn't’t love a good game of “nails”?

 

 

 

I have an embarrassing confession to make. For me, up until very recently, the name 'Biafra’ referred only to the former lead singer of the Dead Kennedys, Jello Biafra. I might have known it alluded to something larger, but I couldn’t have told you a thing about Biafra, the short-lived independent republic of Nigeria.  That only began to change when I picked up Half of a Yellow Sun by Nigerian author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Image of book jacket: Half of a Yellow SunHalf of a Yellow Sun was published back in 2006 but I was led to it via Adichie’s 2013 novel, Americanah.  I was so struck by Americanah's mixture of humor, social commentary and a heart wrenching love story, that I immediately sought out Adichie's other novels.  I’m in good company on this Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie love train. Beyonce has famously sampled portions of Adichie’s TEDx talk on feminism for the remix of her song flawless; and the increased publicity Adichie has received, paired with her own sharp musings on everything from fashion to Nigeria's new anti-gay laws, is quickly making her a literary ‘it’ girl for a whole new audience.

July 2014 promises to finally bring the film adaptation of Half of a Yellow Sun to the United States.  The story unfolds in late 1960s Nigeria, when a series of military coups, and the violent persecution of the ethnic Igbo population, led to the secessionist state of Biafra.  Adichie tells this emotional story through the eyes of two wealthy Igbo sisters, a shy British expat and a thirteen year old peasant houseboy. These different perspectives give a vivid and personal portrayal of both the euphoria of independence and the heinous brutalities of the resulting civil war.

One more thing- The film stars Chiwetel Ejiofor and Thandie Newton. With no disrespect to the great acting accomplishments of Miss Newton, 2014 belongs to Chiwetel Ejiofor. The enormously talented British actor, born of Nigerian-Igbo parents, may not have taken home the Oscar this time around, but his powerful portrayal of Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave demonstrated what he is capable of as an actor. The world already knew Beyonce was flawless. Chimamanda and Chiwetel have since joined her.  I have high hopes that the movie adaptation of Half of a Yellow Sun will follow suit.  You have until July to read the book first- go!

The ReturnedLast week, I was immersed in zombies and honestly, I'm not really a zombie-loving-type person. Okay, I love Shaun of the Dead and when I was younger, I watched my share of The Night, Dawn, etc., of the Living Dead. But then I got older and people rising from the grave just became too creepy and scary for me. Then I found The Returned (Les Revenants). It's a French TV series that is amazing! It's like a beautiful French film only better because it's 8 episodes long! The basic premise is that random people have returned from the dead. I like to believe that it's pretty farfetched that the dead will come back to us in the same form they left, however The Returned seems a pretty realistic portrayal of how people might react. Some of the living view it all with disbelief or suspicion, hostility, joy, or as a sign from God. There are twists and turns throughout the season as the histories of the dead are revealed. There's a serial killer that returns, just to keep you on the edge of your seat. Mon dieu! And thankfully, there's going to be a second season. I can't wait! It's available on Netflix right now or you can add your name to the waiting list at MCL.

While I'm waiting for the second season, I might see what Resurrection, a new, heavily-hyped TV show is like. This show is loosely based on a teen The Returned bookbook called The Returned by Jason Mott (they changed the name of the show so that it wouldn't be confused with the French show). I zipped through this book in less than a day but I'm still thinking about it days later. In this version of the dead coming back, we see people (or some version of those people) appearing far from their homes. A huge bureaucracy has been set up to deal with the vast number of the returning dead. Some families want their loved ones back and some do not; some of the townsfolk are welcoming and some become openly hostile. It's a sweetly melancholy book and a page-turning thriller. I hope that the TV show, Resurrection, can pull it off.

And in the time between watching The Returned and Resurrection, try one of my favorite horror shows.

One thing to note:  I am not a Jane Austen fanatic.  I have not read all of her novels.  I do not dress up in Regency costume.  I visited the Roman Baths in Bath, England, but skipped the Jane Austen Centre.  Don’t get me wrong;  I enjoyed reading  Pride and Prejudice even though my high school English teacher (on whom I had a mild crush) loathed it.  Mr. Conner’s admission was a bold one to make at an all-girls school.  Frankly, Mr. Conner’s statement is a bold one to make anywhere because everyone and her twin sister seem to adore Jane Austen.  Here’s a book, though, that fans and non-fans alike can enjoy:  Longbourn by Jo Baker. 

Longbourn book jacketLongbourn, to refresh the memories of those for whom high school was a long time ago, is the name of the Bennet home. While the Bennets, the Bingleys, Mr. Darcy and various other characters well-known to P&P readers show up in the wings, the servants Sarah, Polly, James, Mr. Hill and Mrs. Hill take center stage.  In an author’s note at the end of Longbourn, Ms. Baker calls the servants in P&P “ghostly presences.”  In Longbourn, she “reaches back into these characters’ pasts and out beyond Pride and Prejudice’s happy ending.”  

She has done an amazing job of it.  I was totally invested in Sarah’s heartache, James’s plight, and the sheer slog of keeping five young ladies fed, in clean clothing and on time for all of their social engagements.  I still wanted to slap Kitty and Lydia and strangle various other characters who had irritated me in P&P, but I didn’t have to dwell on them much before I could move along to a more compelling character and story.  Jane Austen is dead.  Long live Jo Baker!

It is perennially fascinating to me to observe what children see and don't see. Taking Child the Younger shopping provided a teachable moment and lovely conversation about gender identity and sensitivity when he noticed a happy boy his age dressed in a long pink ball gown Cinderella would envy. Child the Elder recently failed to notice that he had spray-painted the cement walk in front of our house while priming some models or that he had permanently super-glued two of these same said models to my dining room table. (No one failed to notice my screaming when I discovered these tiny unwelcome dinner guests.)
 
The things and people closest to us are often the last things we see. I was in middle school before it dawned on me, only with the comment of a friend, that there was something immediately noticeable to everyone else about my father's appearance. Later in life I met someone who had a similar experience with her father. He got up and put on two prostheses each and every morning. This was the norm at her house. It never occurred to her that her dad was missing both his natural legs until a friend happened to mention it.
 
Wool book jacketWhat if normal means growing up in a vast underground silo? Wool by Hugh Howey was just the dark dystopian page-turner I needed while Portland was buried in snow. Juliette is a smart and scrappy mechanic from the "down deep" lowest floors. Her brief and tragic love affair and her loyalty to those she lives and works with counters the shadowy IT department that maintains control of the silo. The many generations and over one-hundred floors of the silo come complete with a unique history, class system, and form of justice. The story begins with Sheriff Holston investigating and processing the death of his wife. The secrets he uncovers about the silo go with him when he, too, commits the ultimate taboo and asks to go outside. Will Juliette survive becoming the silo's new sheriff? Will her human connections be enough to sustain her in a dangerous quest to save the only society she knows?
 
Our children, too, are growing up with a new normal. Our day-to-day behavior as parents seems largely invisible and unimportant--unnoticed--until something The Big Disconnect book jackethappens and we realize our children are constantly watching and learning from our actions, large and small. One child, a seven-year-old in a play therapy session, had this to say in Catherine Steiner-Adair's book The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age: "My parents are always on their computers and on their cell phones. It's very, very frustrating and I get lonely inside." Clearly, we need to take a hard look at how our use of technology is impacting the fabric of family life. This is an important book. As the author says, "We can't afford to wait and we don't need to wait to see this much of the picture clearly: Technology, social media, and the digital age have converged on the American family, first transforming it and now threatening to replace the deepest and most vital human connections that children need to grow and thrive." The good news is that we can, as parents, mindfully use technology as an ally to strengthen family bonds instead of allowing it to erode them. This is the best parenting book I have seen in a long time--timely, interesting, easy to read and full of practical advice with a positive and hopeful outlook on our connected age.
 
Corvus book jacketSometimes the birds that don't stand out for their songs or plumage are the ones we should be noticing. Corvus: A Life with Birds by Esther Woolfson combines anecdotes of raising and living with corvids with beautiful prose. Set in her town near Aberdeen, Scotland, Woolfson describes her life with Chicken the rook, Spike the magpie, Ziki the crow and a whole cast of supporting doves and other more conventional pet birds (including a crabby cockatiel named Bardie.) The total brain-to-body mass ratio of ravens, crows, magpies and other members of the Corvidae family is equal to that of great apes and whales and only slightly smaller than that of humans. These birds recognize faces, mimic speech and sounds, and use tools. Their impressive capacity for long-term memory and complex problem-solving has been proven. Woolfson's close proximity and careful study of the birds in her life provides a rare glimpse into their fascinating minds. Read this and I promise that the ordinary crow you curse for picking open the garbage bag on trash day will never look the same.
 
Because now you see it.

Northwest Passage bookjacketI've always loved singing, and the sound of a lot of powerful voices joined in harmony. So when a picture book celebrating Stan Rogers' song Northwest Passage showed up in the library, I was thrilled. Never heard of him, you say? Let me explain.

The name Stan Rogers resonates for generations of Canadians. A singer/songwriter who died at 33, he captured the romance of life across the vast landscape of the country.  He sang about the prairie farmers, Nova Scotia fishermen, and Alberta oil field workers. His songs portrayed the struggles of average people as heroic. Perhaps that's why his music excites a pride that Canadians don't always exhibit.

I like how this picture book works on so many levels. Follow the lyrics at the top of each page to learn about the ill-fated Franklin and his crew who, in 1845, tried to find a Northwest Passage through the Arctic to Asia. If you want to know more, read the detailed history on each page. Matt James provides gorgeous illustrations that depict Stan Rogers and his dog in his VW van, contemplating Franklin's voyage while making his own cross-country jouney. And of course, those of you who know it can sing along.

This song has particular resonance for me. One day I was with a group musical friends in a cafe when the song came on over the sound system. We all joined in at the top of our lungs, because it's impossible to sing this song quiety. Nearby, a table of tourists commented 'how quaint'. Looking back, I see how incredibly geeky this must have seemed - especially for those who wouldn't understand the mythic status that Stan Rogers had for us.

If you've never had the pleasure of hearing the song, I present to you Northwest Passage, as sung by the great man himself.

Lori, a regional librarian describes her latest read, A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki: "Nao, A Japanese teenager navigates the rough road of life by writing to a future reader in her diary. Meanwhile ( but also later) Ruth, a writer in Canada with angst of her own is reading the diary she found washed up on the shore. Time, self and relationships play a big part but great characters keep me reading. A healthy dose of Zen philosophy and a bit of Proust also keep it interesting!"

TigerA year or so ago, I started having a frequently recurring dream that I was living with something dangerous, usually a big cat, a tiger or a lion. In the dreams, I would try to go about my business while being conscious that the dangerous creature could lunge at any moment. It took me a while, but I realized finally that the dreams were about my teenage daughter. I knew long ago that my oldest, who I will call Thing One, would be a difficult teenager, and I tried to ready myself, but I was not ready. So I dived into the world of parenting books at the library until I found Laura Scribner Kastner's Getting to Calm. I find that I need to keep it around and go back to it again and again in order to keep my head in the right place and keep my cool when Thing One is behaving like the little girl in The Exorcist.

Getting to Calm doesn’t just throw theories at you; it actually walks you through conversations between teens and their parents, showing not only the content, but also the process, analyzing each participant's responses. It points out mistakes that parents make and explains what parents should avoid, and shows how to be more successful talking with teenagers.  With the help of this book, I stopped seeing my daughter's resistance to rules and instruction as a personal rejection, but as something she simply has to do, part of the process. Mind you, I have to remind myself of this again and again, because sometimes my gut response is that I’m living with a demon.

Getting to CalmI've accepted that there’s not an answer that will magically make everything go smoothly. It feels kind of like my idea of Buddhism. Being a parent is something you practice from day to day, as mindfully as you can. And keeping this book close will help me do the best I can, along with deep breathing, counting to ten, conversations with other parents who have already lived through this, and occasionally, a glass or two of wine. I might make it through Thing One’s adolescence. By then, Thing Two, a little over three years younger, should be in the thick of his own teen years.

In March, we're looking forward to spring and all things sweet and bittersweet. Here are a few titles to welcome the season.

For adults:

The Frangipani Hotel by Violet Kupersmith is a collection of short stories haunted both literally and figuratively with ghosts. Publisher's Weekly says, "The stories shimmer with life. The heat and tumult of Vietnam's cities are palpable, and the awed wonderment of humans confronted with supernatural occurrences is artfully conveyed."

Precious Thing by Colette McBeth is getting rave reviews and is being compared to Gone Girl.  Two childhood friends have grown apart and over time their roles in the friendship have been reversed. Then one disappears.

We don't really need to tell you why we are looking forward to Homemade Doughnuts: Techniques And Recipes For Making Sublime Doughnuts In Your Home Kitchen by Kamal Grant, do we?

Do you have a bunch of uncompleted projects lurking around your house like little pockets of guilt? Here comes Creative Block: Get Unstuck, Discover New Ideas. Advice & Projects From 50 Successful Artists by Danielle Krysa. Maybe something will get done!Josephine bookjacket

For teens:

In the irreverant Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith - The main character, Austin narrates the end of the world "when a twist of fate sparks the birth of mutant, people-eating praying mantises. Austin not only records the hilarious and bizarre tale of giant, copulating bugs but his own sexual confusion and his fear about hurting the people he loves." (School Library Journal)

For kids:

A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd promises to be a fun story about a girl who lands in a quirky little town that just might be magical.

In Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker, saturated colors and gorgeous artwork serve to illustrate the life of this artist and civil rights pioneer.

 

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