Monthly Archives: November 2014

The Family Romanov, by Candace Fleming

Family Romanov 2While Tsar Nicholas II and the Empress Alexandra were entering the royal palace wearing jewel-encrusted robes, peasant mothers were adding dirt and sawdust to their bread in order to stretch their meager food supplies. The peasants made up 84% of Russia’s population, but they never blamed the tsar for their tribulations. They were sure that it was the small number of land-owning nobles who were to blame, because they believed—as did Nicholas and all of his forebears– that he was their Beloved Father. If he knew of their troubles, surely he would help them.

It is true that the tsar was ignorant of the grinding poverty of his subjects. Russia is a huge country, with vast tracts of remote, icy tundra. Nicholas and his family rarely left the western cities of St. Petersburg and Moscow, traveling from palace to palace surrounded by advisors and courtiers. They only heard what the nobles wanted them to hear and believed that God had ordained them to rule the people absolutely. So when the first peasants banded together to petition the tsar for redress of grievances, he thought they were just a small band of troublemakers and had his soldiers mow them down. The people were shocked and enraged. Opportunists like Vladimir Lenin took advantage of this unrest to provoke the nation to rebellion, and so began the movement that changed Russia into the Soviet Union and continues to influence Russian life even today.

It seems amazing in this day of internet news, cell phones, and texting, but Nicholas honestly did not understand the magnitude of his subjects’ anger. For years, he continued to think that they loved him and that only a few people were being unruly. Although he used increasing force against them, Nicholas never questioned his perfect right to do so. There was a White Russian movement, which was on the side of the tsar, but they were too small and weak to reach him in time. Even on the day of their assassinations, the royal family believed that they were being moved to safety.

Candace Fleming used primary sources and riveting storytelling in this new account of an important chapter in recent history. Russia has always seemed to be living in a past era to me. Catherine the Great seems practically medieval, but she reigned when George Washington was president. Incredibly, Nicholas II was tsar of Russia only a hundred years ago. Fleming presents both sides of the story, including letters from soldiers to their parents during World War I and the abundant photographs taken by Nicholas’ children, who were passionate about photography and carried their cameras with them everywhere.

This beautiful volume garnered six stars from professional review journals, an almost impossible feat. Fleming’s greatest triumph, in my mind, is in demonstrating that history is not necessarily a story of the good guys versus the bad guys. Sometimes it’s difficult to tease out the truth about right and wrong, and in this case, the reader’s sympathies can change from one page to the next. If this is so, how can we judge the motivations of those around us today? How will history portray our age? Perhaps both sides are right in some respects. On the other hand, perhaps no one is right. A very thought-provoking read, sure to spark discussion.

Highly recommend for teens and adults, and I hope to see some awards decorating the cover in January.

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

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Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson

Brown Girl DreamingAlthough award-winning author Jacqueline Woodson was born in Ohio, her earliest memories are of living in her maternal grandparents’ house in Greenville, South Carolina, after her parents separated. Growing up in the segregated south in the 1960s was difficult, but her grandparents surrounded them with so much love that young Jackie’s childhood was warm and solid. There were grown-up situations that the children didn’t understand, and she chafed under her grandmother’s strict Jehovah’s Witness beliefs, but once she discovered the written word, Jacqueline had a way to communicate and to create meaning in her world. She was writing poems and putting collections together when she was still a little girl.

As I wrote in this blog in June, I have long been a fan of Jacqueline Woodson, who spoke about this book at School Library Journal’s “Day of Dialogue.” She says that her stories come to her in verse, with air where the white space should be. This lovely memoir of her childhood is written in verse, sometimes with formal poetic structure, and sometimes in free verse. Her beautiful poem about the library’s place in her life was heartwarming to this children’s librarian. Although there was some sorrow in her childhood and she was never wealthy, Jacqueline WoodsonWoodson writes with a child’s perspective, which can be achingly sad, but always with an innocent belief that everything would be better as soon as the grown-ups solved a few problems.

Later, her mother moved with her children to Brooklyn, and Jacqueline met her best friend, Maria. Now that she was older, she was more attuned to the social changes in the country, and began to question both the laws in her country and the faith of her family. In her mini-rebellion, she and Maria even listened to music that her family wouldn’t like. If I had a quibble with the book, it would be that this sea change in her thinking was rushed. After a long time of describing her early childhood and her years with her grandparents, it seems that in just a few pages we go from Sly and the Family Stone to Angela Davis to Black Panthers to her Uncle Robert becoming a Muslim, and then suddenly we get a page with a list of everything she believes—or does not believe—today. It almost seems like a different book, and it made me wonder if her editor wanted her to cut that part so that the book would fit better into the children’s section instead of the teen section. That is just my surmise, however.

Overall, this memoir, which was a National Book Award finalist and is certainly in the running for a Newbery Award, glows with the love of her family and the passion of a young girl who discovers her gift for writing. Recommended for everyone from nine to ninety.


Update! Brown Girl Dreaming won the 2014 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. Congratulations, Ms. Woodson!

Disclaimer: I read a signed galley of this book, obtained from the author. Opinions are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Blue Lily, Lily Blue, by Maggie Stiefvater

Blue Lily Lily BlueBlue Sargent is struggling to deal with her life since her mother disappeared, while Raven Boy Richard Gansey III gets a visit from old Professor Malory, a friend from England who has come to assist him in his continued search for an ancient Welsh king believed to have been buried in the Virginia mountains. The quest for the king has to be connected to Blue’s mother, one of the supernaturally gifted women with whom Blue grew up.

This third book of the “Raven Cycle” slowly develops the relationships among all the characters as they move into their senior year of school and realize that their lives may diverge permanently in just a few months. Blue comes to realize whom she truly loves, and yet she remembers that if she kisses her one true love, he will die. Adam is now supernaturally bound to Cabeswater, the forest where the king is buried, and it is wearing him down and yet strengthening him inwardly so that he can finally face his father in court. Ronan Lynch, who was a lead character in The Dream Thieves, is still as angry as ever, but more able to deal with reality than before the self-revelations of that volume. And Noah is, well, becoming a little more dead all the time.

There are new characters, as well. Professor Malory is brilliant and disheveled, as all old professors should be, and Jesse Dittley, the mountain man, is hilarious, endearing, and surprisingly wise. Other new characters are quite wicked and nasty, and Ms. Stiefvater does not flinch in fully exposing evil in all its ugliness. She is somehow able to mix scenes of thoughtful introspection or meaningful conversations with breathless chase scenes, incredibly tense drama, and unexpected heartbreak.

Maggie Stiefvater

Maggie Stiefvater

If you have not had the pleasure of reading “The Raven Cycle,” you should run out and get The Raven Boys and start there. Cautions are that it is very dark and deals with witchcraft and related topics, such as cursed tombs and fantastical creepiness. This is not to say that it is not also delightful and sometimes humorous, though. In one scene, one of Blue’s crazy aunts is being attacked, and her main concern is that she not spill the Manhattan that she just poured. My dad used to love Manhattans in the winter, so we have been drinking Manhattans in our house ever since I read this passage. Maggie Stiefvater is one of the finest young adult writers out there, and although I do not read many series all the way through, I got this one the day it came out and read it before all of the other forty books on my nighttable. She does not disappoint.

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

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Oh, Yes, She Did!

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2014-11-09 14.33.10Today, I added a new “first” to my list: I walked a 5K event. Other people at this event could say, “I ran a 5K race,” but I walked. I have to say that I was really nervous, since I have not done so well on the treadmill lately, and my trepidation grew even greater when I got winded walking from the parking lot to the starting line, but we toughed it out. David and I were eager to support the Epilepsy Foundation of North Carolina, and especially, as you can see on David’s shirt, our girl, Zora Carlin.

2014-11-09 15.08.26The sheer number of strollers and dogs involved helped to calm me down as we started the first lap of Tatum’s Trail, although the first leg was uphill all the way. I reminded myself that the first mile is always the hardest on the treadmill, and it was easier outside with pretty scenery and people to talk to. Not to mention the motivation that comes from being outpaced by two-year-olds and Chihuahuas.

2014-11-09 15.00.34We were still in the woods when we heard them announcing the winners in all of the categories, so I gave up my dreams of a trophy. We were not last, though! Seeing the kids who were benefitting from the walk made it all worthwhile. You don’t have to wait for such an occasion in your neck of the woods to contribute, though. The Epilepsy Foundation receives no government funding, so they would be glad to receive your donation any day of the year. You could bring smiles to the faces of families like the Carlins.

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Steve, Eva, Dawn, and Zora Carlin

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The Marshmallow Test, by Walter Mischel

Marshmallow TestWalter Mischel is part of a team of researchers who have been conducting experiments in which they tempt small children with goodies that they shouldn’t eat. He has been doing this for decades, which would put him in the running for Sadist-in-Chief if he did not thereby extract all sorts of information helpful to the rest of us. Foremost is: “Don’t Do It.”

Dr. Mischel and his team watched through a two-way mirror to see how children coped when researchers put one marshmallow in front of them, and then told them that if they did not eat that one marshmallow, they could get two in fifteen minutes. The behavior of the children showed ways in which some children occupied their minds in order to delay gratification, whereas other children lacking such strategies scarfed up the marshmallows and lost the lottery of life. Children who were able to delay marshmallow consumption at age four were also able to excel in school, marriage, careers, and, obviously, waistlines later in life.

Before those of you with compulsive preschoolers cash in their college funds in despair, the good news is the new research on the plasticity of the human brain. Now that we know that your DNA does not determine every detail of your life, and that new neural pathways can be created even in old age, Mischel is able to present readers with strategies for building good habits of self-control. Since Dr. Mishchel was able to quit smoking, he has first-hand experience in battling a stubborn amygdala and putting the prefrontal cortex in charge. If you want to know what in the world that last sentence meant, be sure to check out the book.

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

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Call Me Eowyn

House of HealingThis is probably the longest stretch between posts that I’ve ever had! We have been holed up here in the House of Healing for the fall. I returned to my doctor last week to receive a clean bill of health, although I have to remain on Nexium until the Saturday before Thanksgiving. If I have problems after that, it’s swallow-the-light time. However, I feel so much better that I hope for good things.

TrubioticsRight now, I am on a kick in which I eat everything with good bacteria in it, since I have effectively killed every bit of bacteria I ever had with nuclear doses of antibiotics. Eating bacteria on purpose has never been a goal of mine before, but now I can direct you all over the grocery store for gut-gratifying foods. The pharmacist recommended a 30-day course of TruBiotics, the One a Day brand probiotic supplement, so that was step one. I already eat Fage yogurt every day, and I decided that I would also drink kefir, since I used to drink that in my ‘70s health food days. GoatLet me just say that the fruity—obviously sugary—kefir that I drank then was much more pleasant than unsweetened kefir, which is a serious assault to the taste buds. I’ve tried sweetening it up with different things that are acceptable to diabetics, but , well, *shudder*. Sauerkraut that is found in the deli section, as opposed to canned sauerkraut with vinegar, is also filled with busy little creatures.  The hot dogs I’ve eaten it with are probably not so healthful.

A few weeks ago my son went in for some minor surgery, so we’ve been worrying over him and helping as much as we can. We are all getting better here! We have had flu shots! We have excellent digestive health—barring any unexpected Ebola outbreaks! Soon we will have our fireplace tank filled with kerosene, and we will be ready for the snowy winter forecast!

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