Monthly Archives: March 2013

Eleanor and Park, by Rainbow Rowell

In the latest installment of Cheryl Gets a Smart Phone, I have learned how to download and listen to an MP3 audiobook on my Droid! Let’s just bask in that glow of accomplishment before we even get to the review of the book. I had to go stand in the Digital Librarians’ office to download the software. We call this room the DigiDen, a small room filled with happily busy geeks, pooling all of their creative ideas and techy know-how. It’s heady stuff, and it’s just down the hall from me. Anyhow, several of them are Droid users, so I stood there with my phone in hand saying, “Now it says this. What do I press?” After a few steps and some great advice, I was ready to go. I actually downloaded the book in the Food Lion parking lot the next night.

So, now that I’ve congratulated myself on my ever-increasing knowledge (of names of tech-savvy Droid users whom I can harass), let’s move on to the very worthy audiobook.

Eleanor and Park, by Rainbow Rowell, is a love story. It’s also a book about parents’ new partners, child abuse and neglect, and several other gritty topics. Eleanor has just returned home after a year of living with family friends. Her new stepfather threw her out when she expressed her negative opinion of his treatment of her mother. Unfortunately for everyone, Eleanor has several younger siblings who continued to live with their mother and this drunken, abusive creep. Not too far away, Park lives with his deliriously happily married parents, an ex-Marine and a Korean beautician. Although Park is short and quiet, the kids at school leave him alone because he and the bully, Steve, have been friends since they were little kids. The first day that Eleanor gets on the bus, wearing ill-fitting thrift store clothing, no one wants to let her sit beside them. Finally Park, very ungraciously, allows her to sit by him.

As these two very different teens begin to crack open the doors to their private worlds, a very tender love story begins, a story so unlikely that they hesitate to admit it even to themselves, let alone their classmates or their family. Eleanor, in particular, lives in such extreme poverty and fear that shame keeps her from revealing any details of her life. As they share a love of music and comic books, their relationship becomes obvious to the outside world, and the world comes rushing in. Everyone has an opinion, some expected and some quite surprising. Tragically, they come to realize that people their age are powerless to control their own lives. However, they can make courageous— but painful— decisions.

The blistering language in parts of this book is entirely appropriate for the situation. Rowell’s brilliant writing packs an emotional wallop, and you will become completely invested in the characters, despising some and treasuring others. The plot unfolds slowly, building tension and dread. The voice alternates between the two main characters, allowing the reader to experience life and love with both of them. Since I listened to the audiobook, I have to give kudos to the readers, Rebecca Lowman and Sunil Malhotra— especially Sunil. I cannot imagine Park with any other voice, and now I want to listen to everything Mr. Malhotra has ever narrated.

Eleanor and Park is definitely at the top of my list of teen fiction so far this year. Although written for teens, I can’t imagine an adult who would not appreciate it even more, particularly because the adult characters are fully fleshed out, which is not typical in young adult literature.  If you don’t object to the language, go right now and buy it or put it on hold at your library.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. My opinions are my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Gulp, by Mary Roach

Although life has been exceptionally full lately, I have found time to read, and I’m on a reading tear. When that happens, you just don’t stop, because you know that someday soon, you’ll hit a wall. If you’re an avid reader, you know what I mean. It’s as if you just can’t get enough ice cream, so you have ice cream for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks every single day until one day you wake up feeling as if you’ll be sick if you eat one more spoonful of ice cream. Sometimes, you just can’t stand to read another word, so you take advantage of the manic periods while they last.

Every once in a while, I need a good dose of nonfiction, especially since I get so wrapped up in all of those fictional lives that they start to blur. Nonfiction can make an excellent palate cleanser. I have been a fan of Mary Roach for some years now, and I was lucky enough to get hold of an advance reader copy of her latest work, Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, which is, obviously, about the digestive system. As Ms. Roach related at the BEA author breakfast a couple of years ago, she used to be a travel writer, but after she found herself in Antarctica several times, she started to think, “What in the world am I doing?” So she decided to be a science writer instead. I have never read any of her travel writings, but I can say that she is to science writing what Bill Bryson is to travel writing: simultaneously hilarious and informative.

Mary Roach has an insatiable and unapologetic curiosity about pretty much everything. Her other books include Stiff, concerning human cadavers, Bonk, exploring sex research, and the anomalous multi-word title Packing for Mars, about living in outer space. Gulp takes us all the way from the sense of taste and the amazing solvency of saliva to, well, everything at the other end. Mary has made a lot of odd friends along the way, and she is not at all shy about visiting various experts to enlist their help in her quest for esoteric knowledge. In Gulp, she visits a prison in order to interview a convicted murderer about how prisoners are able to smuggle drugs and other contraband into the prison by hiding them in, ah… a little human storage area. While crossing the prison yard, she casually laments her age, depressed because none of the convicted killers are staring at her. Mary is game for anything, happily participating in research studies (“Can I taste it?”) and lab experiments. I would have liked more time devoted to intestinal bacteria, since I’ve been fascinated by them ever since I discovered that those pro-biotic supplements are sold in “colonizing units.” Did you get that? We are purposely setting up colonies of creatures in our own intestinal tracts! Actually, there are already colonies there, and I think we’re trying to drive out the indigenous tribes with new settlers.

Gulp was good, but not my favorite Mary Roach work. Her books appeal most to those who are neither squeamish nor prissy. I am not the least bit squeamish, but I must admit to a bit of prissiness, since a few of the chapters toward the end contained too much scatological humor for me. It goes with the territory, so to speak.  My favorite Roach book remains Stiff, her book about human cadavers. It’s not that corpses are a hobby of mine, but there was so much information that I had never heard before, and it was chock-full of her sly wit. Shortly after reading it, I participated in a county Human Resources training workshop, and one of the attendees worked for the state crime scene investigation unit. I asked her if she had ever been to the human cadaver farm in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, that Mary Roach mentioned in her book. She quietly admitted that she had had some training there. Now, when you watch those CSI-type shows on TV, the women are always tall, athletic brunettes in thigh-high stiletto boots. This girl had long, blond hair, big blue eyes, and looked about 18. I could imagine her throwing a birthday party in a kindergarten class. I could not imagine her estimating the time of death by the extent of the decay.

I highly recommend Mary Roach’s books to anyone who is curious. The topic really does not matter, because her writing style will make you interested in something new. Get ready to laugh and learn, and don’t miss the footnotes. Sometimes they’re the best part.

Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy, provided by the publisher. Opinions are my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else. Gulp will be available on April 1st.

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The Silver Linings Playbook, by Matthew Quick

When Pat’s mother signs him out of the mental institution after four years, it’s not because he’s recovered. Oh, no. It’s just that he’s a nice guy, and he’s really not making progress anymore. Yes, he committed a crime technically, but he needs to get back to a normal life.

Problem is, Pat thinks that he’s only been in the “bad place” for a few months, so he is shocked to find that his friends and relatives have married and had children since he went away. He struggles to reconcile this time warp with his only goal in life: to reconcile with his wife, Nikki. All of Pat’s thoughts and actions are targeted to this one result. Pat has lost fifty pounds and is exercising obsessively so that Nikki will take him back. He lifts weights, does hundreds of sit-ups, and runs fifteen miles a day. He drinks four gallons of water every day, one shot glass at a time. He reminds himself of all of the things he used to do that bothered Nikki and consciously tries to change them. Although Nikki had asked Pat for “apart time” after he went to the bad place, he is sure that apart time will soon be over, since he has worked so hard to become the perfect husband that she requires.

Pat grew up in a house ruled by Philadelphia Eagles football. Pat and his brother, Jake, played football in school, and their father was once thrown out of an Eagles game for assault. The dad is a bullying Neanderthal who refuses to speak to Pat when he first comes home, but his mother is eager to provide whatever he needs to recover. Pat has other great people on his side: his brother, Jake; his best friend, Ronnie; and his strange new therapist, Cliff. Ronnie and his wife introduce him to her sister, Tiffany, a beautiful young woman who is struggling with her own mental issues after her husband’s death. Can two deeply damaged people heal one another, or will they destroy one another’s minds?

My colleague, Tracy, came in one morning saying that she had seen the movie The Silver Linings Playbook and loved it, but that you have to read the book first. Of course, I immediately put it on hold, because I only had seventy-three other books on my nighttable, so I knew I could get to it in no time. I had read another book by Matthew Quick, a teen novel called Sorta Like a Rock Star, and I liked it very much. It’s one of the few young adult novels that portray religion in a positive light, and The Silver Linings Playbook also shows Pat’s Catholic faith as a given in his family. No doctrinal insights, just faith as a part of life. Pat is an extremely likable guy, although you may want to slap him around a bit for his refusal to face reality, but you can’t help being on his team as he works so hard to be perfect. Quick slowly reveals the reasons for Pat’s denial, including his mysterious hatred for Kenny G.

Recommended for adults who love an engaging, fast read and don’t mind the rough language. Quick is a writer with an appealing voice, and I hope to read more of his work in the future. My husband also liked this one, and I’d say it’s a book that men and women would both enjoy. I read this novel in one sitting and felt happy for hours afterward. I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I will soon! Read the book first!

Note: I read a library copy of this book. My opinions are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Quintana of Charyn

I finished this third volume of the Lumateran Chronicles about half an hour ago, and I’ve been struggling to figure out what to say, since I can’t just weep all over the computer screen. The manufacturer recommends against that, actually.

If you have not read this high fantasy series by Australian writer Melina Marchetta, run— do not walk— to your nearest library or bookstore and obtain the first volume, Finnikin of the Rock. The second is Froi of the Exiles, and it is just as wonderful. Quintana of Charyn is the third and final volume in one of my favorite series ever—which is why I’m weeping, of course.  If you have already read the first two, I am sorry to say that you will have to wait a month to read Quintana, but don’t worry! It is so worth the wait.

Since anything I say would be a spoiler, I’ll speak in general terms, but if you haven’t read the first two, it may be dangerous to continue beyond this point. When Melina Marchetta, who had won awards for her contemporary realistic fiction, announced that her next book would be high fantasy, the entire litosphere was rocked. Book critics in general have a low view of fantasy; you may notice that it is rarely on any awards list, except for awards specifically for fantasy or science fiction. It is considered fluff and not worthy of serious literary types. The Lumateran Chronicles are very serious literature.

The people of Lumatere have been exiled from their homes since the Day of Weeping a decade ago, when the royal family was assassinated and the residents of the peaceful country were slaughtered. The neighboring kingdom of Charyn, in turn, has been cursed with barrenness, and no children have been born there in almost a generation. This is the story of their suffering and healing, their hatred and forgiveness. Oddly enough, although it is marketed to teens, most of the characters are married, and bearing children is a major theme. Not many teen books explore the marital problems that can be caused by attachment parenting. There are a half-dozen or so major characters and a score or more minor characters, and all of the stories fit together harmoniously. Quintana herself is a bewilderingly complex character, one who will stay with me for a long time. Strangely, Marchetta’s male characters are much easier to love than her strong female characters, who are often maddening—or just mad.

What makes it all work, though, is Marchetta’s incredible writing.  Some of her scenes were so searingly beautiful that I had to flip back a page or two and read them again. The war scenes are cruel and the poverty grueling, but the fierce love between the couples who have endured unimaginable pain shows a deep understanding of human relationships. But it’s not all dark and difficult! There is joy and beauty, as well as humor and teasing.

If you have not read the first two, you are lucky, since you will be able to read them all at once! I had to wait a year or so between each volume, and Marchetta does not provide a little “Previously, on the Lumateran Chronicles” summary, as your weekly TV shows might. She just plunges right in, which is probably a good thing, considering that they already run about 500 pages each. The only series like it is the Queen’s Thief series, by Megan Whalen Turner. I might even like this one better—at least until Turner’s next volume.

Oh, so highly recommended.

Note: I read an advance reader copy of this book, obtained because I begged the wonderful Jill Faherty and Erica Karcher of Baker & Taylor’s Children’s and Teen Services, who also sent CATS lip balm. 🙂  Opinions are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Jepp, Who Defied the Stars

You know how sometimes you get a book that everyone has been telling you is just fantastic, and you end up underwhelmed? And then other times, you pick up something that no one is reading, but the critical reviews and description sound good, and it turns out to be so much more than you expected? Jepp, Who Defied the Stars, by Katherine Marsh, is one of the latter.

When teens think of dwarfs, they may think Lord of the Rings, but this book is about non-magical, vertically-challenged people. Marsh spins a story about a neglected niche of the renaissance, the treatment of dwarfs in the houses of royalty and nobility. She was inspired by the paintings of Diego Velazquez, who created many portraits featuring dwarfs.  To “collect” dwarfs was a sign of wealth, and their treatment was somewhere between pets and slaves. As they were often employed as jesters, there seems to have been an assumption of an inverse relationship between height and wit. Although they were often pampered like lap dogs, they were not free to leave their masters.

This story is about Jepp, the real-life dwarf who served Tycho Brahe around 1600, and much of the book is historically accurate, although the author has taken a few liberties. Jepp grew up in an inn, living a fairly normal life and surrounded by loving family, until a traveler came through one day during his sixteenth year and offered him a thrilling life at the court of the Infanta, who was actually the Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia of the Spanish Netherlands. Here in court, Jepp had the opportunity to indulge his love of learning and gain an excellent education. He lived in a miniaturized portion of the castle with several other dwarfs, and they maintained their own private universe, enjoying their various pursuits, but always on call to entertain her highness. Because of an extreme emergency, Jepp attempted to help a friend to escape the castle, and in a very complicated disaster, he ended up being bound and thrown into a cart headed to Tycho Brahe’s Uraniborg island.

Jepp is always tortured by his ignorance of his father’s identity, and his quest to discover his past drives his fortunes and misfortunes in the present. Jepp experiences love and loss and love again, and his adventures are extraordinary because of his place in society. Both the Infanta and the famous astronomer, Tycho Brahe, are shown through the eyes of someone who sees both their lofty positions in the world and the pettiness of their values. Marsh offers a great deal of food for thought on topics such as the medieval relationship between astronomy and astrology, free will and fate, faith and science, and ownership of one’s own soul. Although the story is filled with adventure, Jepp’s introspection makes for a deeper read. Highly recommended for teens and adults.

Note: I read a library copy of this book, and my opinions are my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else. The painting is Las Meninas, by Diego Velazquez.

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Teal Tracking 3: 45 Pounds Down!

ImageWell, I have fought for each and every pound the past few weeks, but I will say that I am closing the gap! This time, I’ve lost 22 pounds, and David has lost 23. It has been tough! I hit a patch where the scale would not move no matter what, and then I lost two pounds in two days. Whew!

One hopeful development is that I believe that walking on the treadmill has become a habit. I may not think, “Oh, boy! I get to walk on the treadmill now!,” but I do go directly to my sock drawer after dinner and put on socks and walking shoes. Around the end of the second lap, I always think that I’ll make this a short walk, but by the end of the fourth lap, I’m trying to see if I can beat my last speed and incline. I usually end up walking for 35-40 minutes, up to 3 miles per hour (don’t laugh), and an incline of 6%. For me, that’s excellent.

We are taking a break from careful eating just for today, since it’s our 33rd anniversary, and we’re headed to Carrabba’s for dinner. Have you had the mussels? Yum! I took the day off from work, but David started his new position in property management today, so I’m home painting my toenails lavender for spring. I’m an optimist; it’s supposed to be a frosty weekend.

Since I think I’ve exhausted Robert Lustig’s major YouTube videos, my colleague and I are now on to Robert O. Young’s pH Miracle. We read Scott Brick’s testimony on Thursday. It appears that this popular audiobook narrator had thyroid cancer and went to Dr. Young’s treatment center, since having thyroid surgery would destroy his career. If you’ve heard him, you’ll appreciate what a tragedy that would be. He’s been following the pH (alkaline) diet, and the tumors are actually shrinking. There is a Robert Young book about pH and diabetes, so I had to send for it on interlibrary loan. I can’t imagine what this could be, and picture myself swallowing baking soda. Anyhow, I will let you know.

Since I’ve taken a few days off for some intensive reading, you’ll soon be seeing several more book reviews in this space. Hopefully, I’ll love everything I read!

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