Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Flight Behavior : Mom & Me Review

For a summary-sans-spoilers of Flight Behavior, head to the bottom of
this post.
 When "Mom & Me" stumbled upon the opportunity to review one of our mutual favorites' latest novels, we scrambled all over ourselves to be first in line.  And - happily - we queued up in time.

So:  Barbara Kingsolver's Flight Behavior.  The Lacuna's equal?  Her next Poisonwood Bible?  Or Prodigal Summer on steroids?

Me?  I'm saying the last one. Flight Behavior delivers many of the elements on which Kingsolver's fans have come to rely: world issues front and center, a richly developed female protagonist, and prose neatly fitted to Kingsolver's setting and themes. 

Issue-wise, it's as ambitious as anything she's done.  For a novelist to attempt to convert skeptics to acceptance of climate change and its life-altering consequences for ordinary individuals via a story also designed to humanize and elevate the impoverished citizens of Appalachia, well, that's moxie.  And I have to admire Kingsolver's unceasing desire to write about what matters rather than what (necessarily) sells.  I'd rather read her third best book than another Gone Girl or cookie-cutter Patterson paperback any day.  And that's pretty much what Flight Behavior was for me: a valiant effort.

And pleasant to pass the time too.  I used the "tandem read" strategy to immerse myself in Flight Behavior, listening to Kingsolver read it when I was driving and reading it myself when I got home.  Over the course of many days in their presence, I came to feel that Dellarobia Turnbow, and Cub, and Preston and Cordie, and Dovey and Hester and Bear - not to mention the sheep and the scientists and the preacher and the collies and the activists - were indeed my neighbors, be they all the way on the other side of the country and in a fictional world.  I can still see the Turnbows' back pasture, so similar to many I drive by every week;  their serviceable but characterless house, much like my own; and their steeply canted, fir-forested hillside, a hazy mirror to the one I'll likely hike this afternoon. 

So - in my view - Kingsolver has once again deftly accomplished her primary job as a novelist: she has created a world that we inhabit like our own, that we continue to visit in our minds' eyes, and that we call back in memory as we re-see our own world through the prism of hers.

And, Mom?
Flight Behavior--Whose? Yours? Mine? Monarch's? Dellarobia's? Cub's? Hester's? Bear's? Ovid's? Everyone's?

The multiple answers to that question drove me through a book that begins slowly and continues in what, to me, were fits and starts. Momentum here isn't the name of Barbara Kingsolver's game. Her game, as I see it, is to grab us with her confused young mother protagonist in a quandary about her life; then the reader accompanies Dellarobia.  Dellarobia is trying to figure out how she let life lead her rather than taking charge and trying to make life what she would like it to be. Her flight pattern is what moves the book and, as I indicated, the route and timing are erratic.

Flight Behavior describes a year of natural aberration that descends upon a mountain in Tennessee owned by Dellarobia's father-in-law, who has contracted to have clear-cut.  Dellarobia discovers the global phenomenon lurking in these trees; this sets up the book's storyline.

From there, the story makes many twists and turns, connecting all of the main characters to their own lives and to their families. The novel offers us insights into how much people wish life to have certainty and control in their lives and, ultimately, how little most folks have of those characteristics.

Some of the most beautiful, story-moving passages:

"Summer's heat had never really arrived, nor the cold in its turn, and everything living now seemed to yearn for sun with the anguish of the unloved. The world of sensible seasons had come undone." (49)

"From this high part of the pasture they could see in all directions through the barren woodlands. The topography of the farm came clear: the steep, high reach of mountains behind, the narrow drainage of the valley below. It occurred to her how much was obscured in summer by the leaves. With all those reassuring walls of green, a person could not see to the end of anything. Summer was the season of denial." (256-257)

"But being a stay-at-home mom was the loneliest kind of lonely, in which she was always and never by herself....A gut-twisting life of love, consecrated by the roof and walls that contained her and the air she was given to breathe." (59, 60)

All in all: "Mom & Me" would recommend this to Kingsolver fans and to those willing to meander through a novel focused on important global-local issues rather than plot.
As always, our gratitude to Trish and all at TLC Book Tours for offering us the opportunity to keep "Mom & Me" growing as we review exciting new titles each month.


The very least you can do in your life is to figure out what you hope for. The most you can do is live inside that hope, running down its hallways, touching the walls on both sides. — from Kingsolver's Animal Dreams (my personal second-fave, after The Poisonwood Bible)

Mom & Who? 
Mom's a retired science librarian/tech writer in New Mexico; I'm a high school English teacher in Washington state. We share a love of our imperfectly tended gardens (OK, mine's oh so much more imperfect than hers), lifelong learning (not a day goes by...), Jacques Pepin, travel, show tunes, our two-legged and four-legged family members, and - of course - books.

Once a month or so, we offer up a tandem review about a new book we both suspect you'll enjoy.  We hope you'll find our "dialogue" valuable reading in and of itself, and that we'll inspire you to try your own inter-generational read-along, be it with our picks or with your own.

Looking for that plot summary? 

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Sneezles : Poem In Your Post

     Christopher Robin
     Had wheezles
     And sneezles,
     They bundled him
     His bed.
     They gave him what goes
     With a cold in the nose,
     And some more for a cold
     In the head.
     They wondered
     If wheezles
     Could turn
     Into measles,
     If sneezles
     Would turn
     Into mumps;
     They examined his chest
     For a rash,
     and the rest
     Of his body for swellings and lumps.
     They sent for some doctors
     In sneezles
     And wheezles
     To tell them what ought
     To be done.

     All sorts of conditions
     Of famous physicians
     Came hurrying round
     At a run.
     They all made a note
     Of the state of his throat,
     They asked if he suffered from thirst;
     They asked if the sneezles
     Came after the wheezles,
     Or if the first sneezle
     Came first.
     They said, “If you teazle
     A sneezle
     Or wheezle,
     A measle
     May easily grow.
     But humour or pleazle
     The wheezle
     Or sneezle,
     The measle
     Will certainly go.”
     They expounded the reazles
     For sneezles
     And wheezles,
     The manner of measles
     When new.
     They said, “If he freezles
     In draughts and in breezles,
     May even ensue.”
Christopher Robin
Got up in the morning,
The sneezles had vanished away.
And the look in his eye
Seemed to say to the sky,
“Now, how to amuse them today?”

                      - A.A. Milne, from The Complete Poems of Winne The Pooh

For all who awoke this morning, as I did, in sore need of a Zycam and a good long sneezle-free sleep.

MFB, in hopes of a speedy recovery,

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Lincoln Thanksgiving : Poem In Your Post

Give thanks, all ye people, give thanks to the Lord,
Alleluias of freedom with joyful accord:
Let the East and the West, North and South roll along,
Sea, mountain and prairie, one thanksgiving song.

- from "The President's Hymn" written by William Augustus Muhlerburg
for President Abraham Lincoln, 1863

Did you know that Abraham Lincoln is responsible for popularizing what we now know as Thanksgiving as a national holiday?  Is there no aspect of American culture he didn't influence?

Before you head out to the acclaimed film "Lincoln", you simply must take a look at this fascinating post by Tori Avery of "The History Kitchen" for PBS Food. Not only will you learn loads about Lincoln and Thanksgiving, you might - like me - be convinced to scrap your plans for a store-bought pumpkin pie and embrace the pumpkin pudding Mary Todd Lincoln and her contemporaries likely created for their own Thanksgiving celebrations.

MFB, gratefully,

p.s. Muhlerberg's a fascinating character himself, so click the link above to learn a bit more about this famed education reformer turned Episcopal clergyman.

Monday, November 12, 2012

A Train in Winter : "A Mom and Me Review"

This month, you'll get a "Mom and Me" two-fer: First, today's post on A Train in Winter, acclaimed biographer Caroline Moorehead's historical recounting of women resisters in WWII occupied France.  Then, on November 27, come on back for our tandem review of Barbara Kingsolver's hot-off-the-presses novel, Flight Behavior.

Find it on Indiebound or Amazon, among others.
Background from Harper Perennial
They were teachers, students, chemists, writers, and housewives; a singer at the Paris Opera; a midwife; a dental surgeon. They distributed anti-Nazi leaflets, printed subversive newspapers, hid resisters, secreted Jews to safety, transported weapons, and conveyed clandestine messages. The youngest was a schoolgirl of sixteen, who scrawled "V" (for victory) on the walls of her lyc√Če; the eldest, a farmer's wife in her sixties who harbored escaped Allied airmen. Strangers to one another, hailing from villages and cities across France—230 brave women united in defiance of their Nazi occupiers—they were eventually hunted down by the Gestapo. Separated from home and loved ones, imprisoned in a fort outside Paris, they found solace and strength in their deep affection and camaraderie.

In January 1943, they were sent to their final destination: Auschwitz. Only forty-nine would return to France.

Drawing on interviews with these women and their families, and on documents in German, French, and Polish archives, A Train in Winter is a remarkable account of the extraordinary courage of ordinary people—a story of bravery, survival, and the enduring power of female friendship.

Mom's take:
"They had learnt, they would say, the full meaning of friendship, a commitment to each other that went far deeper than individual liking or disliking; and they now felt wiser, in some indefinable way, because they had understood the depths to which human beings can sink and equally the heights to which it is possible to rise." (314)

Reading these words, quite near the end of the book, said exactly what I had been thinking. This is a book full of terror, debasement, betrayal, but also a work of courage, love, forgiveness. And it is a work worth reading, particularly if one has not been exposed to the Holocaust story in a personal way.

Surely there are gruesome passages at which I squirmed and said to myself "How could humans do such things to other humans?" Why would anyone participate? It made me think of what seem unthinkable punishments that have occurred in more recent times. Again, why would anyone participate? The book raises questions about human beings and what defines the word 'human'.

But the courage of the survivors as well as those who did not survive testifies to what
endurance, creativity, depth of feelings, community, mental and emotional focus can produce in humans who are pushed beyond limits.

Sadness was everywhere but especially for the mothers who had left small children behind. Lulu and Madeleine Zani had left babies and were missing their first walking and talking: their children would not know them. "It was a bitter punishment that none had imagined."

So, who were these women and why were they aboard the train? There were 230 of them. They were farmers, shopkeepers, factory workers, seamstresses, a few students, a doctor, a dentist, a midwife, four chemists, a singer, teachers, secretaries. And why were they on the train? They had resisted the occupation of France by the German army.

Forty-nine of the 230 French women on the Convoi des 31000 (the train) returned from 29 months in the German camps. Sixteen women had children waiting for them and 22 of them were reunited with their mothers. But 53 mothers didn't come home, leaving 75 orphans between them.

Sadly, when the women returned home people generally didn't want to hear about the hardships they had endured and, for many of the women, talking about it was too hard emotionally.

The research by Caroline Moorehead is amazing: lots of written materials were located but the authenticity of the book rests for me in the personal interviews with several survivors and/or their families.

And mine:
For me, the first section was a disjointed and often off-putting muddle.  Descriptions of individual women resisters - not to mention their many male family members and fellow-rebels - were brief and so various as to push me out of the text:  no sooner did I solidify one character's identity in my mind than we were off to the next, not to return again until they were killed or boarded the train for part two.  Frustrating.  A hazard of historical writing, perhaps, but a more focused approach, perhaps using ten or so women as signal characters rather than offering just a tantalizing tidbit on each of one hundred or so women, may have yielded a more memorable and engaging first section, in my view.

The last chapter of the first section and the entire second section were much more focused and engaging, mirroring the myriad other accounts of transport in crushingly over-crowded cattle cars and dire circumstances at Nazi-run concentration, work, and death camps.  Such subject matter cannot fail to move any reasonably empathetic reader to horrified anger and even to tears.  This holds true for A Train in Winter as well, although my previous background in the history of this time period made the exercise of reading part two one of  teeth-gritted determination to honor those who died by re-visiting my knowledge in stomach-turning detail.  No shortage of awful events here.

As I was reading this history, Diane Ackerman's work of historical journalism The Zoo Keeper's Wife kept coming to mind, as did Elie Wiesel's harrowingly focused and intensely brief memoir Night and Marcus Zusak's novel The Book Thief.  All these treat related subject matter, yet with the developed central character(s) I yearned for in A Train in Winter.  I can recommend the latter two books without reservation, and Ackerman's as worthwhile for those intensely interested in the subject matter.  My mom says that Suite Francaise by Irene Nemerovsky sprung to mind for her.  If you found any of those titles worthy, A Train in Winter may be the next history book to add to your list.

In a nutshell: We both found this book's content well worth confronting.  For me, the construction of part one and the conflict between how this book was billed and what it actually turned out to be left me frustrated. For Mom, they didn't: she accepted A Train in Winter on its own terms and appreciated it for what it was rather than waxing vexed over what she (we) thought it would be.  As with our collaboration to review our first "Mom and Me" book, The Good Muslim, our conversations about A Train in Winter made reading and reviewing time well spent.

Our mutual thanks to Trish and all at TLC Book Tours for offering this opportunity.


Mom & Who? 
Mom's a retired science librarian/tech writer in New Mexico; I'm a high school English teacher in Washington state. We share a love of our imperfectly tended gardens (OK, mine's oh so much more imperfect than hers), lifelong learning (not a day goes by...), Jacques Pepin, travel, show tunes, Tignanello handbags, our two-legged and four-legged family members, and - of course - books.

Once a month or so, we offer up a tandem review/virtual dialogue about a new book we both suspect you'll enjoy.  We hope you'll find our "dialogue" valuable reading in and of itself, and that we'll inspire you to try your own inter-generational read-along, be it with our picks or with your own.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Let America Be America Again : Poem in Your Post

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There's never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this "homeland of the free.")

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery's scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one's own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I'm the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That's made America the land it has become.
O, I'm the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home—
For I'm the one who left dark Ireland's shore,
And Poland's plain, and England's grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa's strand I came
To build a "homeland of the free."

The free?

Who said the free?  Not me?
Surely not me?  The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we've dreamed
And all the songs we've sung
And all the hopes we've held
And all the flags we've hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay—
Except the dream that's almost dead today.

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that's mine—the poor man's, Indian's, Negro's, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people's lives,
We must take back our land again,

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!

                               - Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes
Extraordinarily immediate isn't it?  One wouldn't guess that this poem was written more than half a century ago.  But then again, many Hughes poems hit us right where we live today.

For more of his genius, visit his page on Poets.org, and then follow the links to find out more...


Tuesday, November 6, 2012

These Things Happen : Review

A vibrant, fresh coming-of-age novel, the first from an Emmy and Peabody Award winning writer?  Don't mind if I do.

A contemporary fiction for mature young adults (Oxymoron? no.) that will be read with relish by adults as well, one that's both laugh-out-loud funny on nearly every page and surprisingly moving in all the right places?  Hand it over pronto, please.

And shift over a seat, John Green, Libba Bray, and David Levithan, 'cause a worthy peer just stepped up to the table.

It's These Things Happen.  And he's Richard Kramer.

What's it about?  (From the PLC Tour site.)
THESE THINGS HAPPEN takes place right now, even as we speak … it’s the tale of a modern family, set among Manhattan’s progressive, liberal elite, the adults all prominent in their professions, rearing their children to be the same, confident that nothing much can harm them, ever.

The story starts when WESLEY BOWMAN, 16, sharp and funny and defiantly individual, moves downtown from his book editor mother’s home on the Upper East Side home to live with his father and his partner for the fall term of school; Wesley, becoming a man, feels the time has come for him to more closely know (his words here) the “man from whom I did, actually, spring.” Kenny, who came out after his marriage to Wesley’s mom ended, is a much-honored gay-rights lawyer, a regular on Rachel Maddow, Charlie Rose, a frequent contributor to the Op-ed page of the New York Times.

But Wesley, when he moves in, finds his father distant and inaccessible; he has much more luck connecting with his father’s partner, George, a former actor/dancer who now runs a theater district restaurant. George is present, genuinely interested, fully at ease with himself; all the things Kenny is not. He and Wesley become like father and son, really, and not because George is in any way trying to supplant Kenny. It’s just that these things happen.

Then everything changes. When Wesley’s closest friend surprises him and everyone else when, after being elected class president, he comes out at the end of his acceptance speech. The two boys find themselves at the center of an act of violent, homophobic bullying (even though Wesley is straight). Within the family, tolerant facades crumble as George, suddenly, becomes suspect. Wesley’s mom values and cares for him, and has worked to have a relationship with him, as she suspects this will assure the presence of Kenny in Wesley’s life. But, now, with Wesley in the hospital being held for observation (“When did I,” she wonders, “turn into someone whose kid is held for observation?”) isn’t it her duty to wonder and worry about what might have been going on when her back was so progressively turned? Did she fail to keep her son safe? Does she, indeed, know him? Does she know George, so delightful and pleasing, an author of agreeable evenings? And, more worryingly, does this accomplished, insightful, deeply curious woman really, in the end, know herself?
Why does this novel rise above so many competent yet cookie-cutter works featuring teen protagonists?

First, Kramer's created richly nuanced, smart, funny, and likable characters.  He demonstrates compassion for each character's imperfections, while offering us qualities to admire and aspire to in his protagonists and supporting characters as well.  

Second, the novel explores the complexities of a variety of salient contemporary topics, from parent-child relationships to blended families to "coming out" as a teenager to surviving in these times of economic uncertainty.  The events in this page-turning, smart new novel range from lightly comic to downright heart-breaking, and that's just the way most readers like their coming-of-age novels. 

And finally, the writing itself sings. When I read to review, I post a sticky note at every telling turn of phrase, every sentence I wish I'd written myself, so I can return to these tasty morsels as I pull my thoughts together.  Here's These Things Happen, with stickies.  Few were the pages I didn't mark.
To my mind, these are hallmarks of a book destined to endure, and to offer fruitful re-readings over the course of a lifetime.  I think this is one of those books.

And you don't have to take my word for it.  First, hop over to the "Look Inside" feature on Amazon to read the first pages of this novel, or to the book's featured page at its publisher, Unbridled Books.

Then go get it for yourself.


p.s.  My actions?  If Richard Kramer comes to town on his book tour, I'll get myself to his appearance.  And he's inspired me to start saving for another trip back to NYC a.s.a.p.

In a Nutshell:  Recommended, for mature young adults and adults too. While the plot events and themes of Richard Kramer's first novel require a mature reader, it's the perfectly-pitched language and smart, decent, endearingly imperfect characters that will keep you reading and leave you wanting more from this new voice in contemporary, young adult fiction. 

Friday, November 2, 2012

Good Morning : Poem In Your Post

A Rock, A River, A Tree
Hosts to species long since departed,
Marked the mastodon.

The dinosaur, who left dry tokens
Of their sojourn here
On our planet floor,
Any broad alarm of their hastening doom
Is lost in the gloom of dust and ages.

But today, the Rock cries out to us, clearly, forcefully,
Come, you may stand upon my
Back and face your distant destiny,
But seek no haven in my shadow.

I will give you no more hiding place down here.

You, created only a little lower than
The angels, have crouched too long in
The bruising darkness,
Have lain too long
Face down in ignorance.

Your mouths spilling words
Armed for slaughter.

The Rock cries out today, you may stand on me,
But do not hide your face.

Across the wall of the world,
A River sings a beautiful song,
Come rest here by my side.

Each of you a bordered country,
Delicate and strangely made proud,
Yet thrusting perpetually under siege.

Your armed struggles for profit
Have left collars of waste upon
My shore, currents of debris upon my breast.

Yet, today I call you to my riverside,
If you will study war no more. Come,

Clad in peace and I will sing the songs
The Creator gave to me when I and the
Tree and the stone were one.

Before cynicism was a bloody sear across your
Brow and when you yet knew you still
Knew nothing.

The River sings and sings on.

There is a true yearning to respond to
The singing River and the wise Rock.
So say the Asian, the Hispanic, the Jew

The African and Native American, the Sioux,
The Catholic, the Muslim, the French, the Greek
The Irish, the Rabbi, the Priest, the Sheikh,
The Gay, the Straight, the Preacher,
The privileged, the homeless, the Teacher.
They hear. They all hear
The speaking of the Tree.

Today, the first and last of every Tree
Speaks to humankind. Come to me, here beside the River.

Plant yourself beside me, here beside the River.

Each of you, descendant of some passed
On traveller, has been paid for.

You, who gave me my first name, you
Pawnee, Apache and Seneca, you
Cherokee Nation, who rested with me, then
Forced on bloody feet, left me to the employment of
Other seekers--desperate for gain,
Starving for gold.

You, the Turk, the Swede, the German, the Scot ...
You the Ashanti, the Yoruba, the Kru, bought
Sold, stolen, arriving on a nightmare
Praying for a dream.

Here, root yourselves beside me.

I am the Tree planted by the River,
Which will not be moved.

I, the Rock, I the River, I the Tree
I am yours--your Passages have been paid.

Lift up your faces, you have a piercing need
For this bright morning dawning for you.

History, despite its wrenching pain,
Cannot be unlived, and if faced
With courage, need not be lived again.

Lift up your eyes upon
The day breaking for you.

Give birth again
To the dream.

Women, children, men,
Take it into the palms of your hands.

Mold it into the shape of your most
Private need. Sculpt it into
The image of your most public self.
Lift up your hearts
Each new hour holds new chances
For new beginnings.

Do not be wedded forever
To fear, yoked eternally
To brutishness.

The horizon leans forward,
Offering you space to place new steps of change.
Here, on the pulse of this fine day
You may have the courage
To look up and out upon me, the
Rock, the River, the Tree, your country.

No less to Midas than the mendicant.

No less to you now than the mastodon then.

Here on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister's eyes, into
Your brother's face, your country
And say simply
Very simply
With hope
Good morning.

                        - Maya Angelou

Vote, people.  Vote.

Perhaps, if you vote well, we may collectively inspire another such work of genius.  This was President Bill Clinton's inaugural poem.  You can see and hear the brilliant Ms. Angelou delivering it here: 

And bless every citizen who votes from knowledge of the issues at hand and of the policies of our potential political leaders, with the hope of a better day for all beings.

MFB, oh MFB, with liberty and justice for all,
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