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Archive for the ‘Two Peas in a Pod: Similar Themes’ Category

Sometimes we seek out books about certain places or topics (e.g., our Iceland post). Sometimes, the books we happen to be reading and current events collide. This happened earlier this year when the anniversary of the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights act converged with our reading two pieces of fiction dealing with the aftermath of the civil right movement in Mississippi.

Besides the fact we read these two books back to back, what do these two books have in common?  Both present the authors’ views of post 1960s Mississippi – in one case the book is set in the present day and in the other in the late 1980s.  Both have plots that depend upon evolving race relations. Both invoke the 1960s civil rights movement as they try to solve current dilemmas. Both invoke quintessential town squares we come to expect in books that take place in the American South (think To Kill A Mockingbird).  Both were very well received by book critics at The Washington Post and New York Times. And, most importantly for a Book Jam post in June, both picks fit the “summer thriller” category. We hope you enjoy taking them to the beach or to a treehouse or to your mountain cabin or to your favorite chair on very your own front porch.

Natchez Burning by Greg Iles (March 2014) – I am glad this is the first part of a trilogy, as much was left unfinished for the next two books to tackle.  After reading John Grisham’s Sycamore Row, I was drawn to this novel of Mississippi and a present day crime rooted in the 1960s civil rights struggle. The details made my stomach turn — mostly because much of what Mr. Iles plotted is based in actual unsolved cases involving disappeared “negroes” and the white people who tried to help. However, I don’t think that summer reading is required to be light and there are plenty of characters to cheer for, so we call this as a great summer read.  Honestly, this novel is more of a saga written as a thriller with current social issues intertwined in the plot, but whatever you call it, it is a book I recommend.

Others recommend it as well.  The Washington Post’s review stated both that “With ‘Natchez Burning’, Greg Iles is back better than ever“, and that the book brings “… an impressive beginning to what could prove to be an epic exploration of the nation’s secrets and hidden sins, and it marks the return of a gifted novelist who has been out of the public eye for much too long.” ~ Lisa Christie

Sycamore Row by John Grisham (October 2013) – Mr. Grisham is a master at plot and suspense, and has once again created a page-turning story. Since I am a fan of the movie A Time To Kill, spending time with Jake Brigance during Sycamore Row — this time three years after the trial from A Time to Kill – felt like a mini reunion. Again, as with Mr. Iles’s book, other reviewers agree this is a must read. As the New York Times review stated “‘Sycamore Row’ reminds us that the best legal fiction is written by lawyers.” Or as the Washington Post reviewer wrote “‘Sycamore Row’ is easily the best of his books that I’ve read and ranks on my list with Stephen King’s “11/22/63” as one of the two most impressive popular novels in recent years.” Please note: This book ended up on many best of 2013 lists — lists that include authors whose novels tend not to become blockbuster movies  — and it was also previously mentioned by The Book Jam in our 2013 last minute holiday gifts post~ Lisa Christie

BONUS pick on this Mississippi Theme:

Mudbound by Hilary Jordan (2008) — This novel provides yet another reason to always read Bellewether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction winners.  This story set in post WWII Mississippi is a heartbreaking story of racial relations, poor treatment of returning veterans, and the high price of silence as members of two families living in rural Mississippi collide. ~ Lisa Christie and Lisa Cadow

 

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Last week’s school vacation found us traveling the country with our families. And that meant we perused a few airport bookstores.

The Price of Silence: The Duke Lacrosse Scandal, the Power of the Elite and the Corruption of Our Great Universities faced us from the “featured books” table or shelf in most of these stores. Seeing that book over and over got us thinking. We then 1) remembered that April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and 2) recognized that people all over the country, not just in elite colleges, are dealing with issues relating to sexual assault and the price of silence around these issues.

Then, since when we think, we think of books, we started thinking about books that have helped us think about sexual assault issues for an April post. So today, we highlight two GREAT books — and we really mean REALLY GREAT — that on some level deal with sexual abuse. Our pairing is a bit creative because sexual assault is not what we would say either of these books is about if you asked us to summarize their plots in a sentence or two. But, they both address the topic in some manner, and both are books we recommend as great reads.

Getting away from the fiction, we want to link to our superb local resource on these issues – WISE. We also encourage anyone reading this post to learn about sexual assault resources wherever you reside and read. Because as we recently learned, victims are closer to most of us than we realize.


Now, without further ado we say — whether you want to think about the important topic of sexual assault prevention or not — please read these two AMAZING novels (the second one is targeted towards young adults). We promise you will not regret a minute of the time you spend flipping their pages (electronic or paper).

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra (2013) – A truly, truly, truly amazing debut novel about the pain and suffering inflicted during the Chechen conflict(s) and the power of love. From the opening pages describing the abduction and disappearance of a man from his home, Mr. Marra connects the lives of eight unforgettable characters – the daughter of the abducted man, the father of a despised informant, a doctor trying to hold together a hospital with only three staff members – in unexpected ways. With incredible writing and gifted storytelling, this is a superb read. I honestly can not praise it enough.

How does this book fit today’s theme? Without giving too much away, one of the characters falls victim to human trafficking as she tries to escape the war. This causes reflection on abuse of women during conflicts of all sizes. ~ Lisa Christie (seconded by Lisa Cadow)

Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell (2013) – Set during one school year in 1986, this is the story of two star-crossed misfits — both from the wrong side of the tracks and smart enough to know that first love rarely, if ever, lasts, but willing to risk love anyway. When Park meets Eleanor, you’ll remember your own high school years, riding the school bus, any time you tried to fit in while figuring out who you were, and ultimately your first love.  I also truly believe, that when the book ends, you will think hard about children from the “other side of the tracks” and those from family situations that are less than ideal.

How does this fit with our theme?  One of the characters is abused by a family member. Again, this abuse not what the book is about, but rather an important plot line that makes you think about domestic abuse and how it hides. ~ Lisa Christie

 

 

 

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With the news from Crimea and Venezuela lately, we have been thinking a lot about revolution, protest, democracy, refugees, as well as about daily life for those who live during political uprisings. So, to help us all work our way through the news, we have selected three books to share with you — two books for younger readers and one for adults.  (One other superb pick – A Constellation of Vital Phenomenon – was slated to be part of today’s post, but will be reviewed instead in a post later this spring.)

Yes, our three picks take place in Latin America. However, wherever these books are located, we honestly believe the empathy they elicit transfers — to the Ukraine, Syria, the Congo and many other areas of conflict.

Yes, we highlight these books with hope that we all learn something to help us process today’s news.

Yes, (and this is a very, very important point) we also recommend ANY one of these three choices as a SUPERB book for you to read.

I Lived on Butterfly Hill by Marjorie Agosin (2014) – Celeste Marconi is eleven and has bigger problems than many pre-teens.  Her country – Chile – is in the midst of being overtaken by a military dictatorship.  As events unravel, 1) one of her best friend is among those “disappeared” by the General, 2) her parents go into hiding to protect her from their now dangerous support of the previous leader, and 3) her “grandmothers” send her to far-away Maine to live with her Tia (aunt) and escape the problems the dictator has brought her family in Chile.  Yet, throughout this novel she becomes more than her circumstances.  This is an excellent introduction both to South America and to all that being an exile entails. The Book Jam recommends this both to middle grade readers and adults who love them. And to be honest, parts of this novel have remained with me long after I closed the last pages. ~ Lisa Christie

Before We Were Free by Julia Alvarez (2002) – Do not let the small size of this novel fool you; it appears sparse, but says so much about what happens to families when a country’s politics take a dangerous turn. In this novel (based upon Ms. Alvarez’s own experiences in the Dominican Republic), the young protagonist, Anita (named in honor of Anne Frank), is coming of age in a Latin American dictatorship. Most of her relatives have already emigrated to the United States, a few of her relatives have disappeared without a trace or gone into hiding, and the government’s secret police are terrorizing family members who remain because of their suspected opposition of the dictatorship. The power of family and the danger of politics hit home with the slim volume for middle grade readers. ~ Lisa Cadow and Lisa Christie 

The Hummingbird’s Daughter by Luis Alberto Urrea (2005) – With a bit of magic realism, Mr. Urrea tells the story of Mexico’s expansive history, beginning in 1889 with civil war brewing. Around this time, a 16-year-old girl, Teresita, the illegitimate daughter of the wealthy rancher Don Tomas Urrea, woke from a strange dream that she has died. Only it was not a dream; this rebellious young woman actually woke with a power to heal. What she did with this power shapes Mexico even today. Mr. Urrea took twenty years to complete this novel based on his great-aunt Teresita, who possessed healing powers and was acclaimed as a saint. The Book Jam hopes you enjoy every aspect of his labors. As a fan of Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, I certainly did. ~ Lisa Christie

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Looking at all the PR leading up to this weekend’s Oscars ceremony, we started thinking about all the books that have inspired award-winning films. To Kill a Mockingbird, Gone with the WindThe Help and The Godfather just begin this list. Then, we started thinking about what we have read lately that could inspire the next round of directors and screen writers. And, of course, we found a few books to recommend. Even if these books never become movies, we hope you enjoy them in their prose form.

Pick #1The UnAmericans by Molly Antopol (Feb. 2014) – What would make a better movie than a collection of short stories about people who made movies in the mid-20th century, and were persecuted as a result of their beliefs? The UnAmericans is this book, and wow would it provide great characters for Hollywood’s current best to make their own.  But, while you wait for its screen debut, please read this great collection of fiction.  Now, the envelope please –oops we meant now, our review:

To start, I HATE short stories. They leave me bereft because just as I am starting to care so much about their characters, they are over.  So the fact I am recommending a collection of short stories is rare and special. This collection is amazing. Each story has unforgettable characters. Each is well written by one of Stanford’s Wallace Stegner Fellows (a sign for the Book Jam of an author who can write – hello Bo Caldwell).  Yes, I was a bit sad at the end of each one because it was over.  How did I survive?  I chose to concentrate on the overarching theme, and look at it as a strangely constructed novel about a variety of interesting “communists”/immigrants to America from the various countries that were once known as those behind the Iron Curtain. ~ Lisa Christie

Pick #2 — The Boy on the Wooden Box by Leon Leyson (Dec. 2013) – Yes, someone has already made Schindler’s List. However, we truly believe the true story of one of the young boys he saved would make a great leap to the big screen. But, until Mr. Spielberg hears our advice, please read this true story of one of the young Jewish boys saved during WWII by Herr Schindler.  In this book, the boy reflects, as an older man, how chance, kindness, luck, intelligence, but most importantly Mr. Schindler, saved his life.  This book for young people outlines important themes, brings life to unsung people that we should know about, uses care and candor throughout, and is well-written.  ~ Lisa Christie  

Pick #3Ripper by Isabel Allende (Feb. 2014) – What could be a more sure-fire hit than a movie: 1) filmed in San Francisco, 2) with a Latino lead who is not the stereotypical drug dealer, but is instead a police detective, and 3) that at its core is actually about a bunch of wicked-smart teen gamers who help solve the mystery of a serial killer? Well If Ripper ever becomes a movie, that is what you would see.  In the meantime, enjoy Ms. Allende’s first mystery that combines murder, San Francisco and gaming.  In it,, the teen daughter of a SF detective teams with misfit teens in an online game where players attempt to solve the identity of Jack the Ripper.  The game becomes real when a grouping of murders in SF looks like the work of a serial killer.  With access to her father’s files, the unintentional involvement of her rather unique mother and grandfather, the girl and her gaming friends prove instrumental in figuring things out. We predict a sequel featuring these teens, and at least a movie or two.  ~ Lisa Christie

BONUS PickUnder the Egg by Laura Marx Fitzgerald (March 2014) – Just before posting today’s reviews, our town’s lovely children’s librarian put a great middle grades novel in our hands.  And, since the author herself credits the book Monuments Men as essential to her story, it seems timely to include a review of this superb book in an Oscars post.

Publishers Weekly says “Fans of From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler will find this another delightful lesson in art history.” That fan base includes us; so, we were thrilled to read this.  What would the movie look like?  Well, it would follow Theodora Tenpenny around Manhattan as she tries to solve the mystery of a painting she uncovers (literally) once her grandfather dies. It would include her eccentric mother who has spent at least fifteen years doing nothing but completing her mathematical dissertation and consuming very expensive tea (certainly not providing for Theodora).  It would show how two amazing, but lonely, girls can make great friends.  And, it would introduce viewers to both the world of amazing art, and the importance of asking for help when you need it.  Not bad for an author’s first children’s book! ~ Lisa Cadow and Lisa Christie

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Confession time: Neither of the Book Jam’s Lisas usually reads self-help books, or makes a big deal out of New Year’s Resolutions. Yes, we think about them and make promises to do better, but lists and perfectly executed plans are not our norm.  However, when we started the Book Jam we did vow to try to read books that we would not normally pick up on our own in order to reach as many readers as possible.  And, as we thought about posts for the 2014, and specifically a New Year’s themed post, we picked up a few books from a genre we rarely visit (or at least not since we quit dating) — the self-help genre.  Honestly, they helped.  How?  Well, both caused us to think a bit differently about conflicts and concerns in our life, and they provided a bit of comfort in that we could relate to aspects of each of our chosen author’s lives. Here are our two recommendations.

The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown, PhD and LMSW (2010) – We first heard of Ms. Brown because of a TED talk.  Then she seemed to be everywhere – on multiple NPR interviews, in magazines, books in friends’ homes.  So we picked up this book of hers and read.  In it, she takes her research studying difficult emotions such as shame, fear, vulnerability from her career at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, and adds insights from her own “mid-life unraveling”. (This is her term for the more typically named mid-life crisis.)  She defines the unraveling as a time when you are “challenged by the universe to let go of who you think you are supposed to be and embrace who you are“.  Her conclusions from this research and work?  Well, we would sum it as follows — that courage, compassion and connection are gifts that only work when exercised.  In this book, she shows both how this exercise is possible, and how it changes those who practice these gifts.

The Soul of Money by Lynne Twist (2010) – A great entry into thinking about how you interact with money and how it interacts with your life. And, since money is everywhere and determines so many things in one’s life — job, food purchases, type of home, type of neighborhood one’s home is in — thinking about how you approach and relate to money seems important.  Using anecdotes from her work as a fundraiser for large non-profit organizations and her personal life, she shows how one’s thoughts about money filter one’s interactions with the world.  Groundbreaking?  Probably not, but we found it useful as she caused us to think about money — a topic we honestly find uncomfortable discussing during out best moments.  She also has us thinking about our own work and how we value it. Stay tuned for any ways this thinking affects our future reading choices.

Disclosure: We did not read these books straight through, but instead picked them up a bit at a time over the past few months.  For us, this felt like the right way to approach these authors.  We mention this only to give you “permission” to dabble, rather than immerse yourself in self-help genre, in case you too usually avoid this genre.  And, we promise our next post will delve into the power of fiction.

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 Bowl of Roasted Yellow Squash  Mediterranean grilled vegetables on a plate (view from above)  Pumpkin boats with mince filling
Autumn means that the easy meals of summer — from vegetable gardens and farmers markets — are no longer our go-to options.  It also means that families with young children are a wee bit busy with school, hockey, driver’s ed, basketball, soccer tournaments, homework, art classes and ballet and well, laundry.  The word we’re hearing in our tiny New England town is that many of us are a bit tired of our tried and true recipes.  With this in mind, we searched for some “new to us” cookbooks, and have two to recommend to add some variety and ease to your autumnal meals. (We also included a well-crafted mystery to read while your soups simmer and your veggies roast.)

FC9781250006257Moosewood Restaurant Favorites: The 250 Most-Requested Delicious Recipes From One of America’s Best-Loved Restaurants. By The Moosewood Collective (2013). If you haven’t yet been able to make a pilgrimage to one of the most beloved vegetarian landmarks in the country, then you can satisfy yourself with the newest compilation of recipes from the Moosewood Restaurant in Ithaca, New York. This cookbook is full of vegetable-based inspirations to fill a kitchen for years. You won’t find a lot of cutting-edge fare in this collection but what you will find is honest-to-goodness dishes that will remind you all that can be done with the bounty of the plant kingdom with ingredients you are likely to have on hand. Recipes for Classic Gado Gado, Peruvian Quinoa and Vegetable Salad, Moosewood’s Classic Tofu Burgers, Kasha and Mushroom Pilaf, and oodles of vegetable stuffed pitas grace these colorful pages. And since most of us are lucky enough to have at least a handful vegetarians and vegans in our lives, this books is helpful to have on hand to feed, satisfy, and to continue to surprise these lovable folks with satisfying dishes. A great gift for the holiday season. ~Lisa Cadow

Product DetailsSoupesoup by Caroline Dumas (2010/2012 English translation) – While in Quebec last week, I was amazed by the food (and kept trying to ascertain where Louise Penny’s fictional town of Three Pines would be placed).  In one of the many cafes we visited, I commented to my husband that we needed a better repertoire of delicious, nutritious and quick-to-prepare meals to serve during that too brief interval between the end of hockey practices and the beginning of homework.  Then, in a wonderful moment of “ask and you shall receive”, I found a superb road map for nutritious and memorable meals when pressed for time –  Soupesoup by Ms. Dumas.  This book has pages of delicious looking soups and sides, almost all requiring ten or fewer ingredients that you might already have in your pantry.  (The sweet potato soup required two ingredients, with two optional garnishes, and was a hit in our house.)  Ms. Dumas, a renowned Montreal restaurateur, grew up in a rural Quebec town, and her book is filled with French cooking — personalized and simplified by her unique experiences.  As Ms. Dumas states in the introduction, because she acquired a sense of urgency in the kitchen from working as a canteen cook on movie sets, she tends to “cook with spontaneity, moving around the kitchen quickly, often surprising myself with the results”.  I look forward to putting her recipes to the important “I don’t have much time to produce good food” test all winter long. ~ Lisa Christie (NOTE – it appears this title may be hard to find in the USA. We will keep searching for an independent source.)

And now a book to keep you occupied, but not too distracted, as you wait for things to cook.  Since we already referenced Louise Penny in this post, we are reviewing her latest as this post’s fiction pick.

How the Light Gets In by Louise, Penny (August 2013) – In this outing, Ms. Penny ties up (in very satisfying ways) most of the loose and lingering ends from the past four or five Gamache mysteries.  We think this is one of the best books in her series, and look forward to seeing where this series goes now that so many characters are ready to move on from their past misdeeds.

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We are back from our August “gone reading” break and have some wonderful books to share with you. We chose only two for today’s post and will highlight many more during the remainder of 2013.  Some future picks will include cookbooks, memoirs (some are even cooking memoirs!) as well as a few great old-fashioned stories.

So before Autumn officially begins next week and the leaves truly blaze with color here in Vermont, we thought we would start with one title each that rose to the top of each of our lists.  These are not necessarily our favorite books from the summer, but they are the ones we are still thinking about, even as the leaves begin to fall to the ground, and ones we can recommend highly to all of you.  And, by pure coincidence the reviews both mention Jane Austen.

And now, drumroll please….

 We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (2013). This book shows just how well Karen Joy Fowler can write. She burst on to the literary scene in 2004 with her bestseller The Jane Austen Book Club and while I enjoyed her first novel, this most recent effort eclipses it, taking a deep look at human and animal behavior, and the meaning of family. Part of the power of this story results from the way Fowler has chosen to craft it –  the first eighty pages yielding a surprise to the reader who comes to it without knowing too much at the outset.  If you don’t want spoilers and trust me as a reviewer, then read no further and just pick up a copy of this book and get started.  But for those who wish to know more, continue on. This is a fictional portrait of a family who chose to raise a chimpanzee in their home alongside their biological children (based on actual experiments that were happening in the United States in the 1970’s). Meet narrator Rosemary and her older brother.  Then move around in time with them from college years, to adulthood, and back to childhood as a picture of this strange upbringing emerges, and their later lives take shape in reaction to it. What the reader is ultimately left with after turning the last page is an insight into the profound relationships and connections that exist in the animal kingdom. Highly, highly recommended. ~Lisa Cadow

Capital by John Lanchester (2012) – This book is brilliant.  As you begin, you think it is a straightforward story about a disparate group of Londoners united only by the fact they all live on the same street – Pepys Road in London.  And, it is true — the novel plots an intriguing story line.  However, what sneaks up on you is the social commentary. Hopefully, without creating unfair images, or unintentionally offending anyone, you could think of the author as a male Jane Austen for modern times.  How, could we compare him so?  Well, mostly because Mr. Lanchester (an award-winning journalist and novelist) nails life in the 21st century and all its messes and glories — immigration, bank failures, the consumer culture, football, love, art, terrorism, dying, twitter, to name a few.   Each chapter is a short two to three page look into the lives of people residing in one of the various houses on Pepys Road. The next chapter takes up the next household’s stories, and the next circles back again.  In each chapter, each resident is reacting to their own unique life and the personalities that inhabit it, but also to the fact they are all receiving anonymous postcard pictures of their homes each marked with the ominous message — “We want what you have”.  Each chapter is also a cliffhanger, often causing you to read on longer than your time, and your need for sleep, should allow.  As the chapters stitch together, this book lingers long after the last page.  Enjoy. I highly recommend this for anyone in the mood for a contemporary novel that offers insight without preaching, and laughter. ~ Lisa Christie

 

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