Month: August 2008

by Martha Beck
Expecting Adam describes the author\’s experiences as a Harvard graduate student expecting a child, who she discovers has down\’s syndrome. First she has to decide whether to keep the child, or abort him. Then she struggles with confronting those who find her decision unacceptable- portraying the Harvard community as being totally intellectual-driven, elitist and unsympathetic to students who have difficulties balancing academics and challenges in their personal lives. Even after her son is born, the book still focuses mostly on the author\’s personal problems and not what it is like to raise a disabled child. Eventually she realizes she needs a change in perspective- but the way she goes about it really surprised me. Her exploration into supernatural and paranormal spiritual experiences totally strained my ability to believe her story. The were just too many unbelievable events, one after another. Beck\’s writing is wry, sarcastic, funny- and terribly unflattering (even condescending and unkind) to her family members and academic peers. I have to say if I knew her personally, I\’d really cringe at reading this book. She herself comes across as being emotionally unstable and quite selfish at times.

Sadly, I found out this book was first written as a fictional novel, but Beck couldn\’t get any publishers interested until she marketed it as non-fiction. So is this another fake memoir? I\’ve become highly skeptical of the veracity of any memoir by this point. And because reading Expecting Adam raised doubts of the author\’s credibility in my mind, I wonder now how much of Leaving the Saints was purely fabricated or exaggerated too? You can read more about the author here and here.

Rating: 3/5                    335 pages, 2000

by Adam Caplin

I sat up through some wee hours last night because I just couldn\’t put this down! New Kitchen Garden is a beautiful book highlighting herbs, vegetables and fruit. Rather than giving detailed instructions on how to garden (although it does cover some basics), this book is an enticement of visual beauty. It introduces the reader to types of produce that are not only good to eat, but also look pleasing tucked into your already-existing perennial border or flower bed. Suggestions abound on how to arrange and intermingle the plants so that they are not only next to beneficial flowers (like california poppies with zucchini), but also juxtaposed with those that make a pleasing visual contrast or display. Tips on growing plants (including fruit trees!) in limited space, recommendations of particularly tasty, hardy or pretty varieties, and a collection of scrumptious looking recipes at the end make this book a treasure. A few times I felt like some pertinent information was left out. For example, when going through the fruit trees, it clearly states why some kinds are difficult to grow, but when twice mentioning that radishes are tricky, doesn\’t say why.

I have to admit, I was mostly drooling over the photographs. The plants all look gorgeous, lush and healthy. The recipes look spectacular, and yet they appear simple to make, most only requiring the garden produce, fresh herbs, and some staple kitchen ingredients. New Kitchen Garden introduced me to a number of plants I\’m unfamiliar with: angelica, borage, chervil, cardoon, chocolate-flavored mint! and suggested cooking them in ways new to me: asparagus flan, lettuce soup (the leaves pureed), pumpkin-cilantro curry. I just tried the lavender scones, pleased to find a recipe for this plant that has so far remained untouched in my garden (I\’m not big on tea, nor interested in making potpourri, and didn\’t know what else to do with it). The scones are delicious. This evening I\’m going to try the roasted zucchini recipe, too.

Rating: 4/5                        143 pages

by Gretchen Moran Laskas

This story is set in a secluded valley in the Appalacian mountains of West Virginia, during the 1930\’s. In a time when there were few conveniences, drugs were quackery viewed with suspicion, most everybody knew each other and was interrelated somehow. The main character, Elizabeth, is the daughter of a midwife. Her mother has trained her in the lore, but when Elizabeth learns that the midwives not only delivery babies but silently murder those born deformed or unwanted, she can\’t bear the thought of performing such acts. Especially since she\’s an illegitimate child herself.

I took The Midwife\’s Tale to my favorite, seldom-used reading spot: a nice, hot bath. And it failed me. I thought the story sounded intriguing, but the characters were not. The moment when Elizabeth discovered her mother\’s \”red book\” listing the names of murdered infants, and her inner struggle with the issue felt totally downplayed. The setting and details did not come alive for me- even the herbal lore, which I was curious about. And the love stories just seemed too silly. Elizabeth only wants one man, who\’s married to a foreign woman. Then she dies, so Elizabeth moves right in, marries the guy, raises his child. But he doesn\’t love her back… After seventy-five pages, I just couldn\’t read any more. It was so disappointing. There\’s another book I read several years ago placed in the same setting- and it was much better. When I can remember the title, I\’ll write about it here.

PS: there\’s only three days left to enter my blogiversary giveaway! The winner gets their pick from two different stacks of books, or four Book Mooch points. So go on over and leave a comment for a chance to win.

Abandoned                    243 pages, 2003

Vol II
edited by Diane Relf

Like the first volume, Notes from The Virginia Gardener, Vol II contains a bunch of tips and ideas on gardening. It\’s easy to read and I skimmed through both volumes fairly quickly, jotting down lots of notes. Some of the information is repetitive, not only shared between the two volumes but often repeated within the same one several times. I must have read about wiping dust off houseplant leaves five times! My favorite tips from this volume were instructions on how to make your own biodegradable seedling pots from newspaper or brown paper bags, and some novel ideas for deer repellent. I\’ve read before about using hot pepper sauce, hanging strong-smelling bars of soap in trees, or (of course) fencing. But this volume also suggests applying lion or tiger manure! (Isn\’t manure from carnivores bad for the garden? and where would you get it from?) or mixing a dozen rotten eggs into five gallons of water, which will spray an acre. The booklet says it \”emits enough odor to repel deer, but not offend the gardener.\” What about the person mixing the rotten eggs into the bucket? I can\’t imagine any way of plugging my nose to make the stench from twelve to eighteen rotten eggs bearable!

As with the previous volume, I really liked the illustrations, which look like they come from publications at the turn of the century. Many show farming tools and implements (horse-pulled lawn mower, anyone?) or different varieties of things like cucumbers and corn.

Rating: 3/5 …….. unpaged, ?

Vol I
edited by Diane Relf

As far as I can figure out, this is a reprinting of selections from The Virginia Gardener Newsletter (1983-1989) which publication comes from the Department of Horticulture at Virginia Tech in Blackburn, VA. It\’s the first item I\’ve borrowed from my local library that wasn\’t a regular book. Notes from the Virginia Gardener is a little spiral-bound volume, with un-numbered pages divided into sections by season. It\’s mainly a collection of gardening tips. I was pretty pleased to discover this, because I wanted to find information specific to gardening where I now live. Although a lot of the tips have to do with things I don\’t have in my yard- roses, tons of perennial flowers, fruit trees- it gave me a good idea of what grows well here just by reading about them. There\’s lots of information on what time of year is best to do certain things in the yard like planting, pruning, dividing perennials, fertilizing certain flowers, etc. Also some info on seasonal care for houseplants. I really appreciated the ideas on reusing common household items for things like making garden labels or measuring inches of rainfall. Charming, antique-looking woodcuts illustrate the pages very nicely. And I really liked the little tidbits like this:

An experiment at the University of Massachusetts demonstrated that a hubbard squash can lift a John Deere tractor. As it grew within a set-up of springs and beams, the squash raised the tractor off the ground. Now if only that power could be harnessed for garden work!

Rating: 3/5                        unpaged, ?

Fifty Americans Share Lessons in Living
edited by Erica Goode

A collection of letters from adults written to children offering insight, advice, moral guidance and encouragement, often sharing their own experiences. These are not only from parent to child but also directed at grandchildren, nieces and nephews, or kids that the adults have mentored in some way. Written by celebrities as well as ordinary everyday people, the authors of these Letters to Our Children come from all walks of life, but their counsel all has a common thread. They care deeply about and feel responsible for these children, and want to pass on values and integrity learned in their own lives. Many of the letters discuss issues the authors found difficult to address in face-to-face conversation, which made them more interesting to me. Some I found very inspiring, others not so much. This is a book I picked up at random when visiting someone\’s home and looking for reading material. I wasn\’t expecting much, and was pleasantly surprised.

Rating: 3/5                        256 pages, 1996

Lezlie of Books ‘n Border Collies gave me the Super Commenter award today. Thanks so much, Lezlie! For me, one of the most rewarding things about blogging is the comments. That’s the only way you know someone’s actually reading what you have to say, not just glancing and passing on. I always like hearing from my readers. Here’s some bloggers I appreciate for frequently helping to carry on the bookish conversation:

Janet of Findings
Verbivore of Incurable Logophilia
Trish– Trish’s Reading Nook
Bybee of Naked Without Books
Nymeth of Things Mean a Lot
BookfoolBookfoolery and Babble
Nyssaneala of Book Haven

It’s always fun when I get an award to try and trace it back to its originator. With this one, I got as far as Hootin’ Anni, seeing many different and interesting blogs along the way (most of them not about books). If you\’ve been awarded here, please pass it on to seven other bloggers!

and Other Stories
by Robin McKinley

Robin McKinley is one of those hit-or-miss authors for me. The first book of hers I read was Beauty, and it remains my very favorite. I\’ve liked a lot of her other works, and found others just- well, uninteresting. This was one. A Knot in the Grain contains five short stories. Four are rooted in fantasy worlds (several in Damar), the last titular one has a modern setting.

A mute girl travels with a dis-empowered mage to his master\’s mountain, where they both seek healing and she must choose between a unsuspected opportunity or returning to her humble home and those she loves.

An orphaned princess is oppressed into ignorance by her cruel uncle, then given in sacrifice to a beast half man, half stag. But the Stagman rescues her instead, carrying her off to Luthe\’s mountain…

A desperate woodsman steals herbs from a witch\’s garden, who exacts the payment of his unborn child. The girl grows up as the witch\’s daughter. When she learns who her real parents are and the witch\’s intentions for her, she runs away. But nothing she finds in the greater world compares to the love she has- for the witch\’s troll son.

A humble farmer marries a beautiful girl much younger than himself. He\’s very happy until he overhears rumors casting doubts on their relationship. He must learn to accept who she really is- and not to fear the mysterious hill of buttercups on his farm.

The last story tells of a girl whose family moves during her last year in high school. Upset at leaving her friends behind, she finds solace in re-reading old fairy tale favorites from the small local library and hiding out in attic of their new, old farmhouse. But then she discovers the attic has a secret…. What I liked best about this one was the descriptions of her forays to the library and into novels. And I did like the message of \”Buttercups\”.

These stories are mysterious and dreamlike, full of hidden portent. And that\’s just what frustrated me about them. I kept having lots of questions that never got answered. Threads left hanging. I don\’t mind a few mysteries remaining at the end of a story- sometimes that makes it fell more real because after all, in real life you never know the reasons behind everything. But here I wanted to know. Things like where did the Stagman come from? What were those things the girl buried in the ground? What was the curse on Coral\’s family? What was living inside Buttercup Hill? Why did Erana love the troll? I suppose that\’s another thing that left me unsatisfied: I didn\’t feel like I really got to know any of the characters very well, their motivations or personalities. Maybe that\’s just what you get with short stories- there\’s not enough room to fit it all in. I rather wish some of these stories were developed into full-length novels; the premises are very interesting.

Rating: 2/5                   195 pages, 1994

by Stephen Green-Armytage

If you\’ve ever thought chickens are dull, take a look at this book! Extraordinary Chickens showcases dozens of exotic and unusual breeds. I knew that some chickens are bred for show, but I had no idea how beautiful and bizarre they can be. There are chickens little and big, streamlined and fat. There are chickens who look like they\’ve had a perm (frizzles) and ones with such fine feathers it looks like mammal fur (silkies). Chickens with pom-poms on their heads, or on their feet. Some have fantastically strange combs- including ones split like two horns- others have no combs at all and look like vultures or crows. Chickens with no tail, and chickens with tails twenty feet long! Chickens with beards, with mowhawks, with whiskers! There\’s even a chicken with a naked neck. It made me think of the sphinx cat. I thought the most striking feather pattern was on the Sebright. And the most beautiful the Yokohama. There\’s even a photo of the red jungle fowl, which looks just like a chicken to me! Besides the stunning photographs, there is an essay \”The Strange and Beautiful World of Exotic Chickens\” which was quite interesting, and brief notes on all the featured breeds.

Rating: 3/5                112 pages, 2000

It\’s been some time since I did any Booking Through Thursday memes. I wasn\’t going to do this one, since I feel I\’ve already talked about the library I visited as a child here. But I really enjoyed reading about others\’ library experiences, so I wanted to share a few more (even though I\’m several days late). Here\’s the BTT question:

What is your earliest memory of a library? Who took you? Do you have you any funny/odd memories of the library?

I don\’t remember when I first visited a library. My mother always read to us daily as children, and I\’m sure she took me to the public library before I could do more than chew on board books. It seems like we went almost every week. There were always library activities: storytimes, crafts, puppet shows, summer reading programs, etc. I remember two that were particularly cool: one where we made dragons (or dinosaurs?) out of clay, and then next week picked up them up baked and glazed from a kiln! I kept mine for the longest time before it broke. Another where we made Ukrainian easter eggs with a method that uses wax. Very cool!

But of course, the main memories of library visits are about books. When I was very small, I tried to remember the shelf locations of my favorite picture books, since I couldn\’t remember (or read) author names. I still know the layout of that library better than any other I\’ve ever used. I remember the first time I went from the children\’s and juvenile fiction side of the room to browse the adult fiction. I felt so brave! I was nervous someone would tell me I wasn\’t old enough to read those books.

My sisters and I used to take piles of books home at a time. Even back then I liked re-reading my favorites. My mother would recognize which books she\’d seen me read before, and make me pick out new ones as well. I remember protesting one time that I\’d already read them all! Can you imagine how presumptuous I sounded? All the books in the entire library? I don\’t remember exactly what her reply was, but I felt sorely chastised for my ridiculous statement.

There was a time when my older sister and I read a lot of Chose Your Own Adventure books. We would first read them picking our natural responses, then try and read every possible combination of choices. I can\’t remember how many variations we got out of those books, but it was a lot. For some reason, my mother disapproved of them. I think they\’re pretty silly now, but back then it was highly entertaining. I\’d like to think these books help get some kids interested in reading, because of their interactive nature.

I can\’t think of any funny stories from my early library visits. But thinking about the Burien Public Library I recall one of its most attractive features. Just inside the entrance there is a lobby/courtyard with a little glassed in atrium that has no roof. It was always full of plants, and I think there was a small fountain. I always remember the pleasant sound of dripping water (but that could just as well have been rain). It was so pretty.


All books reviewed on this site are owned by me, or borrowed from the public library. Exceptions are a very occasional review copy sent to me by a publisher or author, as noted. Receiving a book does not influence my opinion or evaluation of it


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