Friday, December 11, 2009


Anderson, Laurie Halse. Chains. Simon & Schuster, 2008.

Plot Summary
Sal is a slave that instead of being freed upon her master's death, is sold to Mr. and Mrs. Lockton, British Loyalists during the American Revolution. Sal and her sister Ruth are house servants until Madam Lockton decides to sell Ruth. This drives Sal to try an escape which leads to a branding on her face. Sal ends up helping both the British and the Americans be becoming a messenger. She is now looking out for herself.

My Thoughts
I enjoyed the story but felt that some of the situations Sal found herself in were possibly revisionist history. Would a Captain actually pass a top secret note to a slave girl? Would a slave be able to walk through the city without questions? Would the dying Lady Seymour really agree to Sal's plan? However, the questions of accuracy do not overshadow the narrative.

I liked that Anderson created an historical fiction book that takes place during the American Revolution. As I've visited some of the places mentioned, I felt the realness of the war. Anderson also included a "Q & A" section at the end of the book. I'm not sure who is asking these questions.

By reading this book, I was able to step back in time to shatter some misconceptions that many have about the issue of slavery and the dividing lines between the North and South that would surface in a war almost one hundred years later.

I was a little mad at the ending of the book, though. I don't want to spoil it here. I will just read more of Laurie Halse Anderson's works.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Madonnas of Leningrad

Dean, Debra. The Madonnas of Leningrad. New York: Harper, 2006.

Plot Summary
This is a poignant story about a woman who suffers from Alzheimer's. She doesn't remember why she's at a wedding, but she remembers in great detail surviving the German occupation of her beloved hometown. Marina was a docent at the Hermitage Museum. Before the Germans moved into Russia, Marina and her co-workers carefully stored away priceless art for safe-keeping. The memories of the art is what helps Marina survive--not only through the war but also in the present day.

My Thoughts
This was a great narrative and wonderful love story. I liked how Dean switched the time; it was not confusing to keep up with what was happening and it gave me a sense of what living with Alzheimer's must be like. The love is not only apparent between the characters, but it is apparent between Marina and the art.

Marina creates a "memory palace" of the art in the museum (Dean 68). Keeping the tour running in her head created a survival technique that allowed Marina to endure the many heartbreaking situations of the war. I liked hearing the concept of the memory palace. Sometimes I consciously take "pictures" with my mind to capture moments. Where are they stored in my brain? How do I recall these "pictures"?

Marina met Dmitri and promises herself to him. Later, by chance, they reunite and immigrate to America. When they start a family, they don't share their war experiences. Their children have no true idea of what their parents endured during the war.

Marina and Dmitri's daughter Helen doesn't realize that her love of art really comes from her mother. It made me think of how generations don't always share with the next their own "memory palaces." It made me want to hear stories from my grandparents. It made me want to listen better to the stories my parents are willing to share. It made me want to ask more questions. Would I get accurate answers or filtered responses? Will I share with my daughter the truth or a version of the truth?

I also enjoyed all of the art references in the book. I did take some time to look up the pieces of art to see if I recognized any of them. The way Dean describes them, though, creates a vivid picture in my head, especially at the end of the book when Marina is giving a private tour of the museum to a group of cadets. I felt like I was seeing the art with them.

I'm glad I read this book! One of my favorite lines from it is, "it is a terrible thing to have loved ones...make(s) their pain yours" (Dean 148). I felt pain reading this book, but it was not painful to read.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Breaking Dawn

Meyer, Stephenie. Breaking Dawn. New York: Little, Brown & Co., 2008.

Plot Summary
This book is the fourth of the Twilight series. We follow Bella, Edward and Jacob through another phase of their lives. In this book, though, a new character emerges who puts quite a spin on each of their lives.

My Thoughts
Even though the suspense and action and love story are here, this is probably my least favorite of the series. I didn't find myself reading this one as fast as the other books. Perhaps it is because I knew it was the last book, and I didn't want the story to end.

There are several twists in the story that are logical, but I found myself questioning the believability. Could this really be the course of events if these items were possible? How did Meyer create the idea? Why didn't I realize that Jacob was really only a shape shifter (probably because I don't read too much about the supernatural)?

I think I've been clear that I really like Jacob, so when he says, "this was the problem with hanging out with vampires--you got used to them. They started messing up the way you saw the world" (Meyer 284), I found myself feeling messed with by the story like Jacob felt with the vampires. I can see these characters. I can feel what they feel. I think Meyer does a fantastic job creating a saga. I feel like I understand vampires more and even question my personal beliefs about the possibility of them existing. Maybe...

I'm sad that the series is done, and I will read Meyer's other book The Host which I understand is NOT the story of Bella, Edward and Jacob.

Thanks Ms. Meyer for four wonderful reads!

Tuesday, September 29, 2009


Meyer, Stephenie. Eclipse. New York: Little, Brown and Co., 2007.

Plot Summary

The saga continues with Bella, Edward and Jacob. This time, though, forces join together to fight a common enemy...someone from Bella's past that just won't let the past go.(I'm not writing too much about the plot because I don't want to spoil what happens).

My Thoughts

Again, Meyer weaves a wonderful story of these characters I've grown to know. I'm never certain what Bella will choose to do and how she will really live as a vampire. The suspense and tension of this triangle is believable, and we see just how much Jacob and Edward love Bella in their own way. I can't wait to read the fourth book!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Palace of Illusions

Divakaruni, Chitra Banerjee. The Palace of Illusions. Anchor Books, New York: 2008.

Plot Summary
This is a story of an Indian woman named Panchaali. She desires to be envied by all, but she doesn't realize what her wish will actually bring to her life. In her quest to be admired and loved, she marries five brothers (at one time, alternating years of actually being with each of them), lives in a beautiful palace, loses everything, is forced to live in the forest for many years, and finally realizes what she most desires, she already has.

My Thoughts
This story gave me quite an insight into Indian culture. It was hard for me to keep up with some of the characters, as the names were similar (and hard for me to pronounce). I took all summer to read this book (in spurts), so I probably would have been better off to read it in fewer sittings. There was intrigue and mystery. I felt that Divakaruni did a good job explaining the significance certain aspects of the culture that I would not otherwise understand. Divakaruni also did a good job weaving the supernatural elements with the story. I believed what Panchallai said happened did happen exactly the way she explained.

There is a helpful family tree chart and list of major characters in the story that I referred to when I'd forget characters. Two things I marked in the book that I thought were important were: when the sage warns Panchaali "only a fool meddles in the great design" (Divakaruni 40) and almost at the end of the book when Panchaali states, "when I'd had the chance to appreciate them, I'd spent it venting my dissatisfaction" (Divakaruni 349). I think as humans, we often don't appreciate what or who we have until it/they are gone.

Another nugget of wisdom from this book is "a problem becomes a problem only if you believe it to be so" (Divakaruni 9). I think this is a mantra for the power of positive thinking.

Sunday, August 16, 2009


Westerfeld, Scott. Uglies. New York: Simon Pulse, 2005.
Plot Summary In this futuristic novel, everyone is ugly until they turn 16 and then they undergo an operation to make them pretty. Tally Youngblood, the main character of this book, looks forward to the day when she will be pretty. That it until Shay comes into her life and changes her perspective, with a little help from Dr. Cable, a Special Circumstances doctor who forces Tally to betray her friend, her beliefs and her way of life.

My Thoughts
It took me several pages to get into this book, but then I couldn't put it down. This is the first book of a trilogy, and I can't wait to check out the next installment. The first book ended with quite a twist.
I think Westerfeld makes interesting commentary about how we see ourselves and the past. Is being pretty the best we can aspire to be? Does this operation really make a person symmetrical, thereby perfect? Are the Rusties really so dense that their civilization collapsed because of their physical features? Westerfeld does not answer these questions, nor does he pose them directly, but I found myself thinking.
At first, the technology references bothered me, but as the characters developed, I understood the setup and the importance of explaining the technology. I wondered about how far Westerfeld's fiction would become reality. I also kept thinking about Lois Lowry's book The Giver as I read. The idea of the perfect world is appealing, but at what cost?
Again, I can't wait to read the next installment of New Pretty Town and see what happens to Tally, Shay, David, Maddy and I think Croy will be a bigger part of the story. We'll see.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Water for Elephants

Gruen, Sara. Water for Elephants. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books, 2006.

Plot SummaryThis novel is written as a biography of one Jacob Jankowski, a veterinarian student that finds himself working for the circus. The novel spans seventy years and uses flashbacks to transport the reader from the past to the present and back to the past.

My thoughts
This was a great summer read! During lunchtime, I would sit outside and let myself "go" to the circus. I enjoyed the characters and the plot development. I learned about the other side of circus life---the life that "rubes" don't know about--the life that could mean life or death by the flick of a wrist. I became attached to the humans and the animals. I felt compassion for all.

Included are pictures (most from Ringling Brothers' archive) depicting different scenes of the circus life.

This is a love story, a mystery novel, and a testament to friendships that are made in life. I despised Uncle Al and August. I feel for Camel and Walter and wonder how many others live without families--even when they have one.

I enjoyed how Gruen intertwined the narrative. The prologue is actually part of Chapter 22. The use of flashbacks is not confusing but quite pertinent to the story. They occur when thoughts are interrupted.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

In the Beauty of the Lilies

Updike, John. In the Beauty of the Lilies. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996.

Plot Summary
This novel is actually four novels in one book. The novel follows four generations of a family, starting with Clarence Wilmot, a Presbyterian clergyman who loses his faith and ending with Clarence's great-grandson Clark's story that mimics the Branch Davidians in Waco.

Critical Analysis
It was hard for me to pick up this book and read. It just seemed to drag on and on and I would find myself counting the pages until the next section. My book club actually met 3 1/2 weeks ago to discuss it, and I just finished it today. Since I'd already invested so much time reading 3 of the 4 generations, I had to keep going, but it was not an easy read.

The characters are believable. Family connections are made and lost. People follow their own dreams. I never thought Updike included unreal characters. The Wilmot's family lines spread across the world and that is plausible. I liked how each book within the book followed a new generation and ties were shown to previous generations. I thought of my own family and how with each passing generation, the less we know about each other. I'm not sure if that's Updike's message to us or not.

Since I was beating the clock, so to speak, on getting this read by a deadline (even though I didn't finish the book by the deadline), I didn't mark as much in the book as I might had I enjoyed reading. I was just trying to get through it. I enjoyed reading Clarence's story (the first part of the novel). I marked several things in his story that spoke to me about my own church:
"Young members are the lifeblood of any church if it is to serve the needs of coming generations" (36) and "a church is a community whose strength lies in purity and zeal, not in its buildings" (37). I enjoyed the religious history that Clarence's story provides. There is even an allusion to Jonathan Edwards' sermon of how God holds us over the flames of hell like a spider (Updike 18).

The second story is Teddy's. This character seems too afraid to try that he just allows life to happen to him, and he is perfectly content with that. Teddy is not ambitious, but his daughter (the third book) is decidedly so. She makes things happen, moral or not.

One thing that I did mark was the title reference. Hannah, one character in the fourth section of the novel, comments, "We try to live as the lilies" (Updike 385).

This is a book that I probably will sell back to the bookstore.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee

Shields, Charles J. Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee. New York : Henry Holt and Company, 2006.

Plot Summary
As this is not really a fiction book, there's not a plot. The writer sets up a chronology of Harper Lee's life. He spends time in Harper's childhood, through the "assistantship" to Truman Capote in Kansas, writing Mockingbird, the filming of the novel and the aftermath of success.

My thoughts
I absolutely enjoyed reading this book! I've taught To Kill a Mockingbird a number of times, but reading this book helped me learn more about Harper and how Mockingbird is a reflection of her life, but it is also a stand alone reflection of life in the South during the 1930s.

In the opening pages, Harper is in New York writing. The author then sends the reader back to Alabama for the family history. Shields describes Harper Lee as "tall, with a long stride...the wind blew back her chestnut brown hair" (13). When I read that, I decided that I, too, wanted chestnut brown hair. (So, yes, I colored my hair brown).

I learned so many things reading this book. I took notes how Lee's life parallels the novel which I can use the next time I teach the novel. I marked pages that I want to refer to again when I teach the novel (how Capote felt about her Pulitzer, Harper's English teacher's "rules" for composition, the casting of the film). I feel like I know better the person Harper Lee now. I can understand her reluctance to publish anything else---everything will be compared to Mockingbird. I know how she helped Truman Capote access information to write his novel In Cold Blood. I see how family matters first to Harper and how she did not let fame and fortune ruin her friendships. She became a true benefactor to the town of Monroeville.

I have a feeling that Harper Lee has a storehouse full of writing that we will see long after she leaves this world. She just can't share with us while she's alive.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009


Robinson, Marilynne. Home. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2008.
Plot Summary
This is a story that follows Glory and Jack and their coming home to be with their dying father. "Jack is Jack" is repeated throughout the book and the reader. The book spans just a few months, but these months are pivotal to the Boughton family. This story mirrors the story of the prodigal son.
My Thoughts
Home. This is a place of refuge to most, but to Glory and Jack, home becomes a place of resolving the past. "Home. What kinder place could there be on earth, and why did it seem to them all like exile? the soul could be put at ease, restored. At home. But the soul finds its own home if it ever has a home at all" (Robinson 282). They are minister's children who have not lived up to what their father expects. Glory has a "questionable" marriage and must quit her teaching profession. Glory is a sentimental character. "She wept easily" and a little too often in this book (Robinson 14) .

Jack has dropped off the face of the earth for twenty years. He is truly a character on the fringe of society. The longer he is at home, the more we find out about his absence and his state of mind.
"It was hard for me [Jack] to be here. I could never--trust myself. Anywhere." (Robinson 273). The reader also wonders if Jack came home to receive his father's blessing. By the time Jack gets up the courage and conviction to say something about this to his dad, his dad's dementia has started.

One thing that I enjoyed about this book is Robinson's embedding of hymns. As I read, I caught myself humming the familiar tunes as Jack played them on the piano. I wish that I would have marked them as I read because I think they are significant. One hymn that is repeated in the novel is "Softly and Tenderly" which describes the mood of the house. Glory, Jack and their dad all move through the house softly and tenderly.

As Robert Boughton is a retired minister, there are many biblical allusions in the text. One ironic seed that is planted early comes from Proverbs. "Train up a child in the way he should go and even when he is old he will not depart from it. The proverb was true in her [Glory's] case" (Robinson 110). Even though Glory is the dutiful child and is taking care of her father, we see much more "training" with Jack. He knows Scripture. He questions his father's beliefs. He seeks understanding. Yet, he is the character whose life patterns are negative.

Home is a companion book to Robinson's earlier novel Gilead. In both novels, we see events from two perspectives: Glory Boughton (Home) and Reverend John Ames (Gilead). As I have not read Gilead, I was pleased to hear at the book discussion some connections or "the rest of the story" about events that happened to Jack.

Overall, I enjoyed the book and it raised questions to me personally, but it is not a book I will probably read again. I might try Gilead to see Ames' side of life in the town Gilead.

Monday, February 23, 2009

The Zookeeper's Wife

Ackerman, Diane. The Zookeeper's Wife: A War Story. New York: W.W. Norton, 2007.

Plot Summary
As this is non-fiction, there's not really a plot. Ackerman tells the story of Jan and Antonina Zabinski (Warsaw zookeepers) that aided the Underground and managed to save many people during the German occupation of Poland. Ackerman uses Antonina's diary as a primary source.

My Thoughts
I thought I would enjoy this book much more than I did. reading the book jacket piqued my interest. Ackerman includes historically accurate details, and at times I felt like I could hear the bombs dropping on my own house. However, the book seemed to drag on and included little "side stories" that I didn't think needed to be there. I do feel like I have a better understanding of what happened in Warsaw during WWII. I also enjoyed learning about what happened to zoo animals when bombs destroyed their homes. I've never really thought about it before now. I've read about cities being destroyed, but Ackerman relates more details than I've ever learned with a history text.

I was disappointed in Chapter 35 entitled "Aftermath" because there was no transition from Chapter 34 to 35. Ackerman tells us what happened after German troops left Warsaw, but this chapter seems to stand alone. Chapter 35 relates how the author came to gather information for the book, but the information is rushed. Chapter 36 begins by describing Bialowieza, the "awe-inspiring landscape" that "inspired many European fairy tales and myths" (Ackerman 318). After reading almost 300 pages, I expected something different at the end.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Barack Obama: We Are One People

Schuman, Michael A. Barack Obama: We Are One People. Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow Publishers, 2008.

Plot Summary
This is a brief biography of Barack Obama. There are only nine chapters in the book, and it includes many illustrations.

My Thoughts
Two things: this is definitely a juvenile fiction book and the author apparently favors Obama. This was a quick read of Obama's life, which is what I wanted. Since he is our current president, I wanted to know more about him. I didn't follow all of the media blurbs and campaigns smears during the election, so I hoped by reading this book, I would get an unbiased, objective look at who this man is. At several times, I felt like the author was a cheerleader for Obama or the facts of the anecdote were a bit slanted.
Overall, I did learn about our new president, which was the goal of reading this book.

Friday, January 16, 2009

A Year in the South

Ash, Stephen. A Year in the South: Four Lives in 1865. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.

Plot Summary
This book, beginning on January 1, 1865, follows the lives of four people for the course of the entire year.

My Thoughts
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. It coincided with what I was teaching at the time, so it offered four insights to that pivotal year. The portraits Ash created helped me understand things that a history book has yet to teach me.