Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Day 82: Powerful Perennials

As many of you know, I am a published novelist.  Cedar Fort Books has been good to me and I've made some good friends among the authors.  So when I put out a notice that I would be willing to review books by people from my publisher, I got a bunch of responses.  We'll get to those later, but one of the requests was for a gardening book, Powerful Perennials.

I admit that I am not a gardener.  I have a succulent named Janet and last year, I killed my roommate's bell pepper plant by accident.  My roommate, meanwhile, has a complicated system of starter pots and seedlings and a kind of mini-greenhouse sitting on our kitchen table until the plants are ready to go in the ground.  But I'm interested in learning and that's one of the reasons that I took an interest in that request.  (Plus, the author shares a name with my favorite aunt.)

Nedra Secrist doesn't just give you the kind of advice that you find on the back of a seed packet or the side of a houseplant container.  I was relieved by the tone of the book as soon as I read the prologue and found that she had experience instructing gardeners from those who do it for stress relief to those improving their health.  She knows what it's like to try to make an Eden out of a desert and has practical advice that isn't Greek to me.  (Though, given my background in classics, Greek might have helped.)

I plan to pull this book out again when it comes for next year's efforts.  I might just request a corner of our garden to be my personal lab.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Day 83: A TIME OF ANGELS

I asked my roommate to name a genre and said I'd review a book from that category.  She chose historical fiction and after listing the two books I'd reviewed, I remembered my favorite book set in the time of the Spanish Influenza.

The story takes place in a very tight-knit community in Chicago, 1918.  Hannah and her sisters live with relatives while their parents are unable to come home from the war.  Meanwhile, people in their building are falling ill and coming to her wise old relations for help.  There's no telling if or when Hannah's own family will fall prey to the influenza and what she will do if her worst fears come true.

I love this book on a number of levels.  Her family dynamics are well-written, showing both the respect Hannah has for her elders and the misunderstandings that come from the generational gap.  She has a complex love for her family, but also cares for people who are only related by address.  This is also a very realistic depiction of a practicing Jewish family and the near-familial closeness of those of their same faith reminds me of having lived in Provo, where most of my neighbors were people I saw on Sundays.

Mostly, I enjoy that the drama is almost entirely a matter of what-if and worst-case scenarios.  Fear can be related to very intangible things, but no less powerful than fear of an assailant or a weapon.  Hesse does a great job of focusing on things that are more terrifying to the characters than the war on distant shores.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Day 84: HOW TO BABYSIT A GRANDPA

Once in a while, Katey and I pick a library and spend an afternoon there, reading picture books to each other.  Sometimes, they're familiar--in our first session, I got choked up reading my favorite book (The Polar Express)--but more often, they're books that struck as us funny or interesting or profound when we thumbed through them earlier that day.

Yesterday, we had one such session.  I read a book about Irish step dance (complete with accents), a short biography of Babe Ruth (Boooooooooooooooooo), an Arab fairy tale about camels, a book about winter and finally, today's review subject.

I have many fond memories of my maternal grandparents.  We lived in Oregon near them and would have outings to Eagle Creek, where we would have pancakes and sausages and go fishing.  On my sixth birthday, Grandma had me stay overnight and taught me how to use a typewriter.  Even when we moved to Massachusetts, Grandma and Grandpa Nelson would come to visit and Grandpa would almost always fix something around the house.

This book, therefore, amused me greatly.  It instructs children on how to feed, entertain and comfort their elderly guest.  It even deals with how to calm a grandpa who has separation anxiety.  It shows "empathy" for Grandpa's need for a nap and understanding of what grandparents really treasure about their hosts.

And don't tell him, but I'm totally getting this book for my dad to keep around the house for when my nephews and nieces visit.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Day 85: THE MARTIAN

As you can probably tell, I enjoy telling the stories behind how I find books.  Some of them will be more ordinary--I'll be reviewing a book I had to read in Mrs. Elliott's Honors American Literature class in 1998--but I do like connecting a book to a place, a time or a person.

In this case, it's San Jose, CA over Memorial Day weekend a couple of years ago.  I was spending five days with my brother's family and as soon as he picked me up from the airport, my brother turned on an audiobook.

There aren't many books that start out with profanity that I would recommend.  The first sentence ends with one in the past tense.  Then you get a bit of context and you realize that you wouldn't be able to be polite in a similar situation.

Mark Watney, a member of the Ares III mission to Mars, was hit by flying debris during the mission evacuation.  His vital signs flat-lined and in spite of his crewmembers' efforts, they were unable to recover the body.  Where it gets complicated is that the first line of the book is from Mark's first log, recorded after he woke up alive and alone on Mars.  He is a botanist and a mechanical engineer who might be able to live long enough for the next mission to Mars to arrive at the Schiaparelli Crater in a while.  That is, if the hazards of the uninhabitable planet don't kill him first.  And the future astronauts don't know he's alive.

The book is phenomenal.  Andy Weir basically posted it on his blog and crowd-researched the plot, the science, etc.  Followers would give him information on complications or how to make things work.

Back on earth, there is a huge public relations issue after America lost an astronaut.  They hope that the next mission will be able to recover his remains and to their horror, they discover that his body doesn't show up on the satellite footage and someone is moving the equipment around and using the solar panels.

While the story is riveting (I actually screamed for joy when something went awesomely right), my favorite moments are things like the US Postal Service having to stop circulating Mark Watney's commemorative stamp because they've never had a stamp for a living person before and the NASA/JPL efforts to help him being called Project Elrond.  (In the movie, Sean Bean of Boromir fame is in on this project.)

So be prepared for a bit of profanity and lots of hatred towards disco music.  But read this book and feel the way you did when you first saw Apollo 13.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Day 86: INSTANT MOM

I found this book on one of my mailing lists recently and immediately recognized the name Nia Vardalos. If you don't know the name, you probably remember her film, My Big Fat Greek Wedding.  Having laughed myself silly at how familiar the Greek culture was to me, since I knew a lot of Greek-Americans in Boston, I impulse-bought her memoir.

The book chronicles her efforts to become a parent, whether going through IVF or suffering a miscarriage or finding out that her surrogate had been unable to get pregnant.  Then things turn as she finds herself able to adopt a young girl and she learns to cope with life as a parent.

Adoption stories are near to my heart.  I have a sister who is a year and twenty days older than me, but since she's been part of our family since she was three days old, I never knew life without her.  I remember having a conversation with her son about how he feels towards his step-brother.  He said something along the lines of "We're not brothers if we're not blood-related" and I immediately lamented that I couldn't be Aunt Kaki if that's all that counted.  As soon as he remembered that I'm his aunt without a blood relation, he conceded that it counted.  I also have a 7-year-old in Lowell who calls me Auntie Kaki (his brother isn't that articulate yet) and three Filipino-Cambodian children who do the same.  So I'm well aware of how close a family adoption, formal or otherwise, can create.

Nia never makes light of the subject, even some of her experiences border on the hilarious.  There are sacred moments in the book, such as when she has a dream about holding her hand out to a little girl with blond streaks in her hair and when, months later, the blond-streaked little girl she just met calls her Mommy.  As expected, her huge Greek family has things to say about her adoption of an American child.

The best part of this is that it's non-fiction.  I found myself crying in understanding of her pain after only thirty-two pages and getting just as emotional when the adoption was finalized.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Day 87: HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE

Remember when I told you about my first job, shelving books at the public library?  I had an excellent boss who worked with my school schedule and treated me as a valuable member of the staff.  But before that, she was adamant on one particular thing.  On my first day, she handed me a copy of Diana Wynne Jones' Howl's Moving Castle and told me I had to read it before I was allowed to work under her.

You may have seen the excellent animated movie and it does share some of the elements, but let's set that aside for now.  This is a story of a girl who, like any industrious peasant, runs afoul of a witch in her quest for her life's purpose.  She is transformed into an elderly woman and has to work out how to break the spell.  The only reliable source is the wizard, Howl, who has a reputation for causing trouble and also being invaluable.  When she infiltrates the castle as a kind of housekeeper, she finds a fire demon who knows how to avoid a question, a young apprentice wizard who gets easily distracted and a little discouraged at times and the wizard himself, who is temperamental and eccentric.  They have their own priorities and obstacles and there are often misconceptions to overcome and a secret identity for Howl that I would, in a million years, never have seen coming.

It's one of those books that refuses to fit into any category and is therefore appropriate for many ages.  I am personally more fond of the sequel (because it's one of the most absurdly adorable love stories I've ever read), but the number of subplots and twists does nothing to detract from the well-paced and character-driven story.

And I will quote my favorite line:  "I think we should live happily-ever-after.  It should be a hair-raising experience."

Day 88: BROKEN CHORDS

Since this is a book about an instrument with 88 keys, I thought I'd use it for this particular day.  I also accidentally missed its day because I was up against an anthology deadline.

The author is Barbara Gilbert and the book is a relatively short one, in which a virtuoso (she refuses to be called a prodigy) is accepted into the finals of a high-pressure piano competition.  Her most likely rival is attempting for a third time to win the resulting scholarship and has given up everything (including his apartment) to make this last-ditch effort.   Meanwhile, the main character is unsure if she wants to win and questions why she is playing in the first place when an injury forces her to scale back her life as a musician.

I have an absolute obsession with books written accurately about musicians and their training.  I read a book last year that had a wonderful plot, but the piano teacher spent every lesson in the book in awe of her student's fluid arpeggios and the way her hands moved gracefully over the keys.  This, clearly, was not written by someone who has taught any kind of music lesson.  My piano teacher is my mother and while she will sit back and quietly take notes when I'm playing a Beethoven sonata or a Bach invention, she notices plenty.  She can tell when I am half an inch too far back on the bench and have collapsed wrists.  She notices a different in the sound when I play with the inside edge of my finger instead of the flat part.  I remember putting on headphones and playing a Haydn sonata on an electronic keyboard.  She could tell from the click of the keys that I needed to change my fingering.  That is the kind of expertise and attention to detail that I expect from acclaimed music teachers.

It might be snobbish to say that I wish more people got into the technicality of music in books and Broken Chords delivers.  In this, a disaster is caused by a person applying insufficient pressure to one of the pedals during the competition.  Clara talks extensively about the difficulty of relearning a section of a concerto with new fingering because she relies so much on muscle memory.  I relate to this book because I remember knowing the shape of the first notes of a piece, but forgetting the position on the keyboard so that I started playing it several notes higher than it was meant to be and having to readjust my hands when I hit the note that wasn't where it should be.  I relate to her frustration with her wrist injury because I sprained mine on Thanksgiving one year and had to give up any piece that made me do octaves for a month.

But this is not just a story for obsessive musicians.  The characters are extremely real, whether the daughter who struggles to identify when her parents are proud of her to the brother who feels overshadowed by his virtuoso of a sister, to the rival who plays Gershwin to relax before his critical performance.  It's a book for anyone straining to find true humanity in fictional characters.