Sunday, November 13, 2016

Review: The Wheel on the School

Book: The Wheel on the School by Meindert DeJong
Challenge Prompt: Read a book set somewhere you've always wanted to visit 
Setting: Shora (analog for Wierum), province of Friesland, the Netherlands
Pages: 298

You may or may not know this, but in 1897, my great-grandfather was born in Sint Annaparochie, a little town of about 4,000 people, in the Dutch province of Friesland and near the coast of the North Sea.  Due to this fact, and the fact that the vast majority of my mom's family comes from the Netherlands, "the low countries" has long been tops on my list of places to visit.

Some 30 kilometers away from Sint Annaparochie is Wierum, Meindert DeJong's birthplace and the basis for the town of Shora in his Newbery Medal-winning book The Wheel on the School.  Shora is more than just a setting in this book; the town and its environment are characters in the story, forcing plot action and development.  This particularly comes into play late in the book, but is present throughout the story.

The Wheel on the School tells the story of the six schoolchildren of Shora and their search for a wheel.  If this sounds like a random, odd search, it has a purpose.  Lina, the only girl in Shora's school, begins one day to wonder why storks never come to Shora when they come to other villages in the area.  The schoolchildren determine that they need to put a wheel on the roof of the school to give the storks a place to nest since there are no trees around.

The problem is, there are no spare wheels just lying around in Shora.  The kids have to look all over the place - even where a wheel couldn't possibly be - and get help from villagers eager to bring storks back to Shora.  At times, the story almost feels like one of those Nancy Drew adventure games, where you have to complete this task to get something you need for another task, which you need to complete to meet your main objective, and so on and so forth.  That's not a knock on the story; quite on the contrary, I enjoyed the intertwining storylines.  The kids have many intriguing adventures and meet many new people on their quest for a wheel.

As I mentioned before, Shora and its environment act as characters in the book in the same way that Wonderland acts as a character in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.  Whether Lina and the others are climbing the dike, jumping ditches, getting stuck on a stranded boat as the tide comes in, or digging things out of the mud, nature plays a large role in this story.  As I chose this book because it is set in a place where I want to visit, I very much enjoyed reading about Shora - DeJong's writing was so descriptive that I felt like I was there.

Final Recommendation: Read it!  It is charming, descriptive, dramatic, and wonderful.  If you're looking for something super intellectually deep, this probably isn't it - it is, after all, a kids book.  But that isn't to say it's shallow.  It has valuable lessons for kids and adults and is a thoroughly enjoyable read.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Review: The Great Divorce

Book: The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis
Challenge Prompt: Read a book by an author you love
Pages: 146

Image result for the great divorce

If you know me at all, you know that I love C.S. Lewis.  Ole' Clive Staples has been one of my favorites since I read The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe in elementary school.  Having read the entire Chronicles of Narnia series, Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, and many more, he is far and away one of my favorite thinkers.  Part of the ending of The Last Battle is perhaps my favorite piece of prose ever.  And no matter how many times I read his work, I always find something new to marvel at.

Lewis takes his turn at allegory in The Great Divorce, where he tells the story of a man who finds himself on a bus going from hell to heaven.  One by one, he sees the "visitors" from hell confronted with whatever particular hang-up is preventing them from meeting Jesus, reinforcing Lewis' idea that the gates of hell are locked from the inside.  In many cases, it is heartbreaking to read.

Admittedly, this was not my favorite Lewis book.  Maybe it's because I've never enjoyed reading about hell that much, but I found it less compelling than many of Lewis' other works.  That said, it is still compelling reading, and it made me think about what hurts and hang-ups I am holding on to.

 In The Great Divorce, Lewis says, "If we insist on keeping Hell (or even earth) we shall not see Heaven: if we accept Heaven we shall not be able to retain even the smallest and most intimate souvenirs of Hell."  We cling to things that, in the end, don't matter.  Tonight, as I watch election coverage and see how many people are basing their happiness or sadness on the results, I am reminded that in the long run, it doesn't matter.

I think as humans, we have an inherent fear of appearing weak or needy - especially as Americans.  But a crucial part of following Jesus is acknowledging our own weaknesses and acknowledging that we really can't save ourselves.  It calls to mind another quote of Lewis', this one from Mere Christianity:

Give up yourself, and you will find your real self. Lose your life and you will save it. Submit to death, death of your ambitions and favorite wishes every day and death of your whole body in the end: submit with every fiber of your being, and you will find eternal life. Keep back nothing. Nothing that you have not given away will ever be really yours. Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead. Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in.

Final Recommendation: Read it!  It will make you think and evaluate some of your choices.  Lewis is always a keeper, and this one is definitely one to add to your bookshelf - or digital library, whichever you prefer.  Just read it!

Review: The Jungle Book

Book: The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling
Challenge Prompt: Read a book that was made into a movie
Pages: 216

The Jungle Book has been made into a number of movies, most recently the Jon Favreau-directed film from earlier this year, and most famously the 1967 Disney animated film.  Though I have not seen this year's film and I haven't seen the Disney version for some time, from what I know, there are significant differences between those versions and the original book.

First off, about half the book is not really about Mowgli.  Which is not necessarily a problem.  I particularly enjoyed "Rikki-Tiki-Tavi," about a mongoose who protects his human family from a pair of cobras.  (Side note: if you've never seen a video of a mongoose fighting a cobra, check it out.  It's crazy.)  "Rikki-Tiki-Tavi" is a popular story in its own right, having been published on its own many times.  "The White Seal," about the eponymous Kotick, was also an enjoyable story.  

Then, of course, there are the stories about Mowgli.  The "man-cub" adopted by wolves has many rip-roaring adventures of his own, not the least of which is when he is kidnapped by the Bandar-log (the monkey-people) and has to be rescued by unlikely allies Bagheera, Baloo, and Kaa.  Though Mowgli plays a minor part in the back half of the book, he is still undoubtedly the hero.

But after all, the book is entitled The Jungle Book, not The Mowgli Book.  It certainly is a story of the jungle, and as someone who grew up adoring movies and books about animals (I wanted to dress up as Nala from The Lion King for like a year when that movie came out), I very much enjoyed reading about Kipling's anthropomorphic animals.

Final recommendation: Read it!  It goes pretty quickly and the stories are interspersed with cute "songs" relating to the previous stories.  It is charming in its simplicity and its wildness (I'm not sure that's the right word, but hopefully you know what I mean).  I think you'll enjoy it - I know I did!

Monday, October 31, 2016

Review: The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane

Book: The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe
Challenge Prompt: Read a book about a lion, a witch, or a wardrobe (a fitting coincidence, then, that I'm posting this on Halloween)
Pages: 368

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, Katherine Howe's debut novel, tells the story of Connie Goodwin, a PhD student in history at Harvard.  After passing her orals, she plans to spend the summer researching and writing her dissertation.  But inspiration is hard to find.

When her eccentric hippie mother calls and asks her to spend the summer packing up her grandmother's abandoned house in Marblehead, Massachusetts, Connie finds inspiration is closer than she thinks.  On her first day in the rickety old house without electricity or a phone and which is overgrown with all manner of plants, Connie discovers an old key with the name "Deliverance Dane" written on an attached key.  The search for Deliverance Dane's story leads Connie deeper and deeper into the world of the Salem Witch Trials and the occult.

I have always found it particularly interesting to read people's theories about why the Salem Witch Trials happened.  From fungus to actual witchcraft, many theories have been put forth.  Howe (who, by the way is related to two accused Salem witches, Elizabeth Howe and Elizabeth Proctor) bridges the gap with Deliverance's physick book.  Not quite a spell book, not quite a medicine book, Deliverance's physick book blurs the line between concrete reality and abstract possibility.

Effortlessly switching back and forth between 1991 (Connie's story) and 1692 (Deliverance's story), Howe weaves together a compelling and chilling story, as both Connie and Deliverance find themselves in more and more danger.  I found myself wanting to keep reading even late into the night on a weekday when I had to get up at 5:30 the next morning.

Howe incorporates real people like Deliverance Dane, the five or six "afflicted" girls of Salem, and accused "witches" like Rebecca Nurse and Sarah Good.  She blends facts with fiction well enough and thoroughly enough that the end product is believable and enjoyable.

Final Recommendation: Read it if you're in the mood for an occult thriller.  I wouldn't recommend that anyone under college-age read it, though, due to some adult content.  Nothing explicit or terrible, but not something I would want kids or teenagers to read.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Review: Breakthrough

Book: Breakthrough: Elizabeth Hughes, the Discovery of Insulin, and the Making of a Medical Miracle by Thea Cooper and Arthur Ainsberg
Challenge Prompt: Read a book that will make you smarter
Pages: 247 (not including almost 50 pages of endnotes, sources, and acknowledgements)

Some of you may know that I was diagnosed about 18 months ago with Type 1 Diabetes.  As such, I was very interested in reading about how insulin was isolated and developed for human use.  I was particularly struck by the fact that in 1922, when insulin was first used in treatment of diabetics, T1D sufferers were given a prognosis of about a year of survival, and then a coma and death.  Their only hope was to wait for a cure (that no one was really sure was coming) and perhaps try Dr. Allen's starvation treatment to buy time.  That was it.

T1Ds often talk about how insulin isn't a cure; it's just a treatment to keep you alive until they find a cure.  And I cannot tell you how often I wish that my life was "normal" - that I wouldn't have to count carbs and do finger sticks four plus times a day and jab myself with all sorts of needles and tubes.  But when I read Breakthrough, I realized how lucky I am that I have those options - that this disease that took the lives of so many is just an inconvenience and annoyance to me.  Indeed, one of the comments on the back cover of Breakthrough says (emphasis mine):
"The twentieth century witnessed many medical miracles, but perhaps none was so transformative as the discovery of insulin for the treatment of diabetes.  Breakthrough is the fascinating take of Nobel Prize-winning research, of a young girl who should have died as a child but instead lived to see seven grandchildren, and of a drug that turned a death sentence into something more akin to a chronic nuisance." - Kenneth T. Jackson, Barzun Professor of History, Columbia University
 As a T1D, I literally owe my life to Dr. Frederick Banting, Charley Best, J.J.R. MacLeod, and Bert Collip (for the sake of time and space and my readers' interest, I will not go into the debate about who deserves credit for the discovery of insulin).  This doesn't even mention the countless scientists who paved the way before them.  The story was pretty ugly at times, for instance, when the team tore itself apart because of their competing egos, jealousies, and petty rivalries.  But it was still a fascinating read, between the race to extract and refine insulin to a usable level and the stories of the children waiting for a cure.

In some ways, Breakthrough was two different stories - the story of the discovery of insulin, and the story of Elizabeth Hughes.  I enjoyed reading both, but I realize there are many who thought that the book could do without one or the other.  It didn't bother me that much; I think the authors blended the two enough that it wasn't too jarring to switch from one story to the other.

Many other readers of this book also had problems with fictional conversations between historical characters.  I understand that criticism as well, but it didn't bother me.  I chose to look it as the way things could have gone, rather than the way they did go.

Final Recommendation: Yes, read it, if you're interested in reading a medical drama about a literal life-saving drug.  As someone who benefited from the discovery of insulin, I found the story fascinating and had a special appreciation for it.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Review: The Hundred Dresses

Book: The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes; Illustrated by Louis Slobodkin
Challenge Prompt: Read a book with pictures
Pages: 80

Eleanor Estes' Newbery Honor book, originally published in 1944, tells the story of three schoolgirls - Maddie, Peggy, and Wanda.  Wanda Petronski, who lives in the "low-class" area of Boggins Heights, tells her classmates that she has one hundred beautiful dresses in her closet.  Given that she wears the same faded blue dress to school every day, her classmates roundly mock and tease her for her "lie", in addition to her unusual last name.  When Wanda and her family move away, Maddie is forced to consider her treatment of Wanda and if she should have behaved differently towards her.

While this book is first and foremost a book about teaching children to be kind to each other, it also holds life lessons for adults.  Nearly half the book is devoted to Maddie's thoughts and actions after Wanda leaves; Maddie is wracked by guilt and a desire to atone for her actions, but atonement eludes her.  Finally, she concludes that "she was never going to stand by and say nothing again... she would never make anybody else so unhappy again."

Much of the time, we think that we leave behind petty insults and childish taunts in... well, childhood.  But as adults, I think we are simply more skilled at hitting the mark.  We may not mock someone else about their clothes or their last name, but we find the things that make them... them and pick on them for it.  But whether it's making fun of last names or driving a family to move because of repeated use of ethnic slurs, words hurt.

The old saying goes, "sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me."  But often times, words hurt more than physical injury - or at least they last longer.  I still remember mean things that were said to me as far back as elementary school, and while I know that the things said about me were not true, it doesn't mean they didn't hurt.

But I'm starting to get off topic here.  As you may be able to tell, this book has a message that hit close to home for me.  This book is easily accessible for children, but adults who choose to read it will also find a more complex story lurking under the surface.  At 80 pages, it's a short yet satisfying read.

One final note: Caldecott Medal winner Louis Slobodkin's illustrations are phenomenal and add a lot to the story.  It's worth getting the book just to look at the illustrations.

Final Recommendation: Absolutely, you should read it!  It's worth the small investment of time required to read it, and you'll probably find yourself coming back to it time and again.  I know I will!

Monday, October 24, 2016

Review: All the Light We Cannot See

Book: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Challenge Prompt: Read a book from the library
Pages: 529

Here it is: the first book review for the 26 Books Challenge!  Having heard great things about this book, I decided to pick it up from the library and give it a try.

All the Light We Cannot See tells two concurrent (and eventually, intertwining) stories - the first about Marie-Laure LeBlanc, a blind French girl who flees with her father from Paris to the seaside village of Saint-Malo; the second about Werner Pfennig, a German orphan who is a prodigy with radios and technology.  As World War II winds down, Marie-Laure and Werner's stories get closer and closer until they finally intersect.

Add to that a German sergeant major searching for a legendary gemstone, a scale model of Saint-Malo, and the French Resistance, and you have All the Light We Cannot See, a compelling and thought-provoking tale.

Doerr's writing style is unique, and I personally had trouble getting into it.  I particularly had some trouble with the fact that the timeline jumps back and forth - not trouble tracking with the story's timeline, but it made the novel seem disjointed to me.  I don't say this as a knock on Doerr, just an observation.  On a positive note, I found many of the characters extremely compelling, particularly the highly intelligent and intuitive Marie-Laure.  Werner's unchallenged acceptance of Nazi propaganda had the dual effects of making me think about the nature of good and evil versus what society says is good or evil and making him a rather unsympathetic character until the end (in my eyes, at least).

But maybe that was Doerr's point - that many people, either during World War II or today, blindly follow what society tells them until they "see the light", so to speak.  Though Marie-Laure is blind, she sees and observes more than most other characters, particularly Werner.  While Marie-Laure is physically blind, Werner is socially blind.  That's an inelegant way of phrasing it, but I hope you know what I mean.

Final Recommendation: Read it if you were already interested in it.  If long (500+ pages), intellectual novels aren't your thing, you might want to skip this one.  I enjoyed it, but am not necessarily sure I would read it again.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

26 Books Challenge

If you know me at all, you know I love books.  I love books as much as Jane Austen loves happy endings, as much as the Brontes love the Yorkshire moors, as much as Mark Twain loves making fun of politics and politicians.  I have a reputation at work for finding new books every other week or more.  Yes, I may need to seek professional help. :)