American Princess, by Stephanie Marie Thornton

American PrincessAll she wanted was her father’s approval, but when Theodore Roosevelt looked at his daughter, Alice, all he saw was his beloved wife who had died giving her birth. Alice loved her stepmother, but Edith had a brood of younger children taking up her time, so Alice lived her life finding ways to get attention.

Of course, she had had a good education, especially for a woman, so her father endeavored to use her popularity with the press to his advantage. He sent her on photogenic foreign trips and made sure that she repeated all the approved party lines to the press. She was charming and witty, but journalists are always sniffing for a whiff of scandal. Alice’s friends were not the most virtuous ingénues in Washington, unlike her boring cousin Eleanor, and she loved living on the edge. Her parents read the society pages each morning with trepidation. Alice carried on so scandalously with Nick Longworth that it is a wonder that she didn’t find herself with child before they finally married. After many years of marriage, however, she decided that she was unable to conceive a child, only to find out during her affair with Senator Borah at age 40 that, surprisingly, that was not the case.

The first part of Thornton’s novel reads like a historical romance, and I admit that I was disappointed. As Alice grows older, however, the story becomes more serious, as well. Alice Lee Roosevelt Longworth was born in tragedy, and her long life was punctuated with sorrow. She was witness to— and often in the center of— great historical events, including the turn of the 20th century, two world wars, and the first moon landing. She held salons filled with the movers and shakers of government, and she traveled all over the world. She outlived almost everyone she knew, and she knew almost everyone. Her later years found her meeting Queen Elizabeth when she was just a sweet young thing of 50 and Jacqueline Kennedy just after she became Jacqueline Onassis. She never lost her wit or her spunk before she died at the age of ninety-six.

This enjoyable novel is perfect for students of twentieth-century history, admirers of the heroic lives of great women, and anyone who enjoys a ripping story filled with far too much action to fit into one life—except that it did.

Recommended.

Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

** This is the cover of the galley that I read; however, the cover will be updated before publication on March 12th.

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An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones

american marriageCelestial and Roy had been married for a year now, and they were just beginning to talk about babies when they went to visit his parents for the holidays. While they were fast asleep in the middle of the night, police broke into their hotel room and dragged Roy away. An old woman he had been kind to earlier in the evening had been raped, and although she couldn’t see her attacker in the dark, she pinned it on Roy. He went to prison for being a young black man in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Their families were in shock, and a well-connected uncle immediately went to work to get Roy released. Celestial visited him regularly, and at home she toiled harder than ever to succeed in her doll-making business, along with the help of her childhood friend, André. Roy got a new cellmate, an older man who became a mentor. The years went by, and they each made a life for themselves. Nothing happened as they had planned, but they had to keep on living and making the best choices they could.

Tayari Jones’ novel, an Oprah pick and on many “Best of 2018” lists, deals with a myriad of issues that tie into and flow out of one another. Certainly, racism in our criminal justice system is front and center, but while news stories concentrate on the injustice to the individual, Jones takes us inside a relationship, a young marriage that is imperfect and just trying to find its footing, but filled with hopes and dreams waiting to come to fruition. When the husband is incarcerated, it is not just a crime against him, but it also tears a rift across his wife’s life, the lives of his parents, her parents, their friends, and even the children they might have had. It creates a ripple effect spreading out from their little circle of two.

Jones also examines marriage itself. All couples bring baggage into a relationship, and who can say what would have happened if Roy had never gone to jail? Perhaps he would have been successful in business, or perhaps his uneasiness about the difference in their families’ finances would have overcome him. Perhaps he would have been supportive of Celestial’s business, or perhaps jealousy may have made him petty and broken their marriage apart. Perhaps children would have healed all of their problems, or perhaps they would have thrown them into sharper relief. Celestial and Roy will never know what their marriage was meant to be, because their involuntary separation has become the defining issue of their lives, and while that may not be the true cause of every problem they face, it will certainly bear the blame.

This compelling story reveals the complexities of all American families, generations filled with secrets and bound by blood, love, betrayal, and compromise. The chapters are told in turn by the main characters, giving the reader a sympathetic understanding of everyone’s perspective. All of the characters are realistically flawed, and I remember telling a colleague one morning, “At this point, I’m just furious with all of them,” but I couldn’t wait to get back home to see what happened to them. Celestial and Roy will get under the readers’ skin and stay with them long after the novel is closed.

Recommended.

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

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Louisiana’s Way Home, by Kate DiCamillo

louisiana's way home“The day of reckoning has arrived,” said Louisiana Elefante’s granny before she packed her in the car at 3 AM and headed away from their home in Florida. Somewhere near the Georgia state line, Granny started moaning and moved into the back seat, leaving twelve-year-old Louisiana to drive off the interstate and find a dentist in a strange town.

The problems all go back to the curse of sundering that Louisiana’s family has carried ever since her magician great-grandfather sawed her great-grandmother in half on stage and neglected to put her back together. Her trapeze-artist parents, the Flying Elefantes, died long ago in a tragic accident, and she and Granny have only one another to lean on. However, as Granny often tells her, she is wily and resourceful, and besides, she can sing.

Louisiana will need all of her resourcefulness, as well as that of her new friend, Burke Allen— son of Burke Allen, son of Burke Allen—to help her with the unexpected catastrophes that befall her in this delightful and tragic story. Readers may remember Louisiana from DiCamillo’s earlier novel, Raymie Nightingale (reviewed here), in which we learn that she is the winner of the Little Miss Central Florida Tire beauty pageant. Two years later, she is still taking her grandmother’s practical and somewhat devious advice, such as:

“It is best to smile. That is what Granny has told me my whole life. If you have to choose between smiling and not smiling, choose smiling. It fools people for a short time. It gives you an advantage.” (p. 11)

Kate DiCamillo is one of the most consistently excellent children’s authors living today. She turns out book after book for younger and older children, and all are instant classics. Her distinctive characters– from porcine wonders to heroic mice to diminutive beauty queens– are stalwart and brave, even when their circumstances are tragic. The dialogue is precocious, hilarious, and poignant. DiCamillo understands that children are rarely in control of their lives, but that there is enough love in the world to rescue all of us, if we can just find it—or give it.

Although Louisiana is twelve, this is a middle-grade novel, like its companion. It is not necessary to read Raymie Nightingale in order to enjoy Louisiana’s Way Home, but why would you deprive your child of the chance to read two Kate DiCamillo books?

Very highly recommended.

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

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A Child’s Calendar, by John Updike and Trina Schart Hyman

Child's CalendarOur library system runs a report to find titles that are getting low on copies, and we selectors review it to find the gems that need to be re-ordered. Some titles and series are deservedly going out of print, but others are beloved classics that every library should keep forever. I was intrigued to find A Child’s Calendar— which I had never read— on that report, so not only did I order more copies, I also checked out a copy for myself.

I knew John Updike as the celebrated author of adult books like Rabbit, Run or The Witches of Eastwick, and many others, and was unaware that he had written this collection of poems for children. Originally published in 1965, Updike made many changes and reprinted the volume in 1999. There is a poem for each month of the year, sweet and nostalgic, with traditional families and realistic humor. Here is the last stanza of the March poem:

The mud smells happy
On our shoes.
We still wear mittens,
Which we lose.

Child's Calendar interiorPerhaps the best part of this discovery was that Updike chose one of my favorite illustrators for the updated edition. Trina Schart Hyman uses rich colors and black outlines to create busy, charming family scenes. Her diverse children and adults live in mostly rural and small-town settings, displaying both the labor and laughter of everyday life. There is usually at least one hilarious detail in each tableau, and despite the beauty of the illustrations, they are miles away from treacle.

Snow WhiteHyman illustrated more than 150 books in her lifetime, many award winners. She won a Caldecott Medal for her version of Snow White, a more traditional and serious rendition than the Disney story, with heartbreakingly beautiful pictures. A Child’s Calendar won a Caldecott Honor. My first introduction to her work was as a homeschooling mom when we read Margaret Hodges’ St. George and the Dragon, a selection from Spenser’s Faerie Queen, in which England’s patron saint rescues Una, the one true faith, from the evil dragon of heresy. St George and the DragonBut your child doesn’t need to know all that. It’s just a great adventure story, with a handsome knight, a beautiful maiden, and a scary dragon. Besides the full-page paintings, Hyman decorates the text in the fashion of a medieval manuscript. Poring over the details is a delight.

 

Surprisingly, Updike and Hyman were both born in Pennsylvania and later moved to New England. As a result, there is much more snow in their calendar than we will ever see in North Carolina, but our warm children can experience sledding and icicles in these pages. Other scenes of planting, raking leaves, and going to the beach may be more familiar. This is a book to treasure for generations.

A lovely way to feed little souls.

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

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The Faithful Spy, by John Hendrix

Faithful SpyIn every age, during times of greatest crisis, there are unlikely heroes quietly sacrificing themselves for the greater good. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one such man, a theologian and pastor who died trying to assassinate Hitler before he could slaughter more innocent people.

There are many excellent biographies of Bonhoeffer, and he was a prolific writer himself, but John Hendrix has created an entirely new type of work by producing a graphic novel biography for teens. In just green, red, black, and white, the pages convey danger and tension, with emotive drawings and hand lettering that tell the story of Dietrich’s childhood and young adulthood, his travels to Rome and the United States, and his evolution of thought and faith that brought him to his resolution to join a plot against Der Führer. At the same time, Hendrix spins a brief but enlightening backstory of Germany’s history from World War I to the rise of Hitler: how the German people were demoralized and struggling, and the ease with which a dictator can gain power when the people are looking for a savior.

Hendrix succeeds at my top criterion for Bonhoeffer biographies: he is open and honest about Dietrich’s active participation in a political plot without denying, twisting, or trivializing his faith. There are no easy answers here. Bonhoeffer was a pastor of the underground, “confessing” church, a man whose Christianity was the center of his life, but also a man who was determined to kill another man. How he reconciled those two realities is the subject of endless speculation and rivers of ink, but some writers deal more honestly than others.

My only problem with The Faithful Spy is that the printing is sometimes less clear than it should be. Particularly for some passages of very fine print, the coloring makes it nearly illegible. Perhaps teenagers’ eyes will handle this more easily than mine.

In a time that cries out for heroes, Dietrich Bonhoeffer is one of the best. He was brave, intellectual, kind, willing to learn, and yes, faithful. Teens and adults will also enjoy Eric Metaxas’ more comprehensive biography, reviewed here. As noted, there are many books and collections of writings by Bonhoeffer himself. His most famous is probably The Cost of Discipleship, but for an introduction to his thought, the two slender volumes Life Together and Letters from Prison are quite accessible.

John Hendrix is also the author and illustrator of the dazzling picture book biography, Miracle Man, reviewed here.

Highly recommended.

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

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Thin Places, by Tracy Balzer

Thin PlacesMany centuries ago, Patrick brought Christianity to Ireland, and the faith thrived on this isolated green island with little outside influence. As Europe fell to the barbarians and entered the Dark Ages, monks from Celtic lands preserved manuscripts and spread learning back across the continent. How did such a small population have such a great impact on history? What were the spiritual practices they followed that kept the flame of faith alive?

The subtitle of this slender volume is An Evangelical Journey into Celtic Christianity. Ms. Balzer is an evangelical American who researches and teaches at John Brown University about this early age of Christianity in a country just emerging from paganism. Balzer leads groups to the island of Iona, where Columba founded a monastery just out of sight of his beloved Ireland so that his heart would not long for returning. Iona is considered a “thin place,” where the veil is thin between the physical world that we see and the spiritual world that is just beyond our vision and perception. Spiritual experiences are more frequent in thin places than in our usual workaday world, and Balzer wanted to find out why. She has made the pilgrimage to Iona and similar Celtic sites many times and has kept a journal of her observations and conclusions.

The book is divided into chapters by the several spiritual practices Balzer considers essential to Celtic spirituality, with appropriate passages from her journal, followed by historical research and ways to fold these practices into our own lives in the twenty-first century. She ends each chapter with a Celtic prayer and questions for reflection. In one chapter, she discusses how Celtic monks had spiritual mentors or anamchara who were transformational in their lives. Balzer describes the way that the monks’ prayers differed from ours and the paramount importance of silence for hearing from God. Celts went on pilgrimages that were not as goal-oriented as those of continental Europeans, and, as we know from their educational institutions all over the world, they were not afraid to love the Lord their God with all of their minds. These are some of the issues she explores winsomely and intimately in these pages.

As American evangelicals, we sometimes feel the accretion of centuries of manmade traditions and practices weighing down our understanding of transcendent reality, and we look for ways to scrape off the layers and find the living faith again. The New Testament tells us of the very first churches planted by the apostles, but I wanted to see how a group of gentiles, freshly introduced to the gospel, carried on the faith before Rome took hold of them firmly. The ancient Celts were much more aware of God’s omnipresence and his activity in every moment of life. I was surprised by the monks’ emphasis on the Trinity, and their prayers are poetic praises to the Three in One. And, as always, I was reminded of the importance of intentional silence in our noisy lives.

Readers who wish to step outside of time for a while will find some wisdom here. Balzer’s layout is organized and clear, and her discussions are a good introduction to Celtic thought, particularly for non-Catholic Christians. Her notes and bibliography are rich with material for further exploration.

Recommended.

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

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The Book of Boy, by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

Book of BoyBoy is out climbing an apple tree, talking with the goats, when the pilgrim buys him from his master and takes him on a voyage to Rome. Along the way, they need to “rescue” seven relics in various cities. Boy is forced to wear the pack of stolen goods because they burn the pilgrim’s hands, but he doesn’t mind, since it hides the hump on his back. He is not happy about stealing, but the pilgrim always seems to have an alternate explanation that soothes Boy’s conscience. He suspects that the pilgrim is not who he appears to be, but then, neither is Boy.

This fascinating and mysterious trek through the landscape and religion of the Middle Ages unlocks pieces of a puzzle while wrestling with questions of appearance and reality. Villages are dirty and devastated by plague, but there are still poor people willing to share their last meals. The institutional church could be riddled with vice and deceit, but there are still believing priests who are kind and loving. The grasping and powerful may confuse and abuse Boy, but he manages to maintain his innocent goodness.

Who doesn’t love an adventurous road trip? It’s one of my favorite kinds of stories. There is usually a main character and a sidekick, but in this case, the main character is the sidekick. A quest, a series of interesting settings and characters, dangers, mishaps and rescues, and all the while the interior journey as our hero learns along the way. Boy is a joyful and glorious creation.

Very highly recommended for upper elementary through middle school, The Book of Boy would also make an exciting family read-aloud. Some historical and theological explanations may be necessary for younger children.

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

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