Terrible Typhoid Mary, by Susan Campbell Bartoletti

bartoletti-terrible-typhoid-maryWhen I was an elementary school student in Southern California and discovering for myself which books I enjoyed, I often gravitated towards biographies. Some of my favorites were biographies on Helen Keller, Annie Sullivan, Harry Houdini, and Harriet Tubman. I still remember the covers of each of those books, all of which were worn with use. (In fact, the Helen Keller biography still sits in the bookcase next to me, as do many other childhood favorites.)

I mention this because I know that Terrible Typhoid Mary, by Susan Campbell Bartoletti, would’ve been added to the group. It’s exactly the kind of biography I would’ve read again and again. Not only is it a fascinating true story, but it’s also extremely thorough, and written so well that everyone involved is brought to life. The reader is immersed in colorful descriptions and an interesting cast of characters, who just happen to be real people. (Dr. S. Josephine Baker, one of the first female doctors in the United States, is also prominently featured.) We can just imagine the increasing rage building on Mary Mallon‘s face when Health Department employee, George Soper, finally tracked her down and tried to explain that she was a carrier of Typhoid and was making others ill. We can also imagine the scene where she chased him–and others after him–out of her kitchen with knives and a few choice words.

Mary Mallon’s story is captivating for many reasons and the author covers them all. As the first “healthy carrier” discovered (but not the last,) many important human rights issues are brought to the surface. Did the government have the right to arrest and quarantine Mary when, technically, she had not broken any laws? Did it have the right to insist that Mary give samples of her blood and bodily waste? Were Mary’s stubbornness and violent temper the reasons she was singled out and forced into decades of isolation? Could her situation have been avoided?

The historical period of this real-life drama created other dilemmas. There were hoards of new immigrants flooding into New York City at the time. Sanitation was becoming more of a challenge as population increased. Indoor plumbing, daily baths, and sewers were not yet the norm. The idea that microscopic germs cause disease was also extremely new. (Vaccinations were even newer.) Germ theory was a difficult concept to explain and a source of skepticism among the masses.  And Mary Mallon, a proud, hard-working Irish immigrant who worked her way up the domestic ladder to become a cook for elite families, refused to hear that she wasn’t clean and that she had infected the households who ate her meals. But where do her rights begin and end? Doesn’t the Health Department have a responsibility to stop the spread of disease and prevent an epidemic?

Adults, young adults, and elementary school children will enjoy Terrible Typhoid Mary. It’s the perfect marriage of writer and subject. Teachers and home-school parents will also appreciate the author’s comprehensive bibliography, a terrific example of citing primary and secondary sources that could even be used in a separate lesson. As a biography for school-age readers, this one is as good as it gets.

A well-deserved 10/10 Stars

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Every Day, by David Levithan

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In 16 years of life, “A,” an entity who is neither male or female, has lived every day in a different body. The name “A” is self given. That, an email address, and a favorite book are the only consistencies A knows. Everything else is a mysterious, Quantum Leap-style existence, with no relationships, no family, no connections.

Enter Rhiannon. On the day A inhabits the body of Justin, Rhiannon’s self-absorbed boyfriend, A connects. The dilemma is clear. How do you maintain a relationship, let alone explain your unique situation, when tomorrow is always uncertain? Uncertainties exist for all of us, but the variety of bodies, lives, families, distances, mental/physical health situations, and transportation options dictate the level of control A has in pursuing this connection.

With no rules and no explanation as to why A is destined to live this way, A has had to create rules. Try not to derail the life of who you are inhabiting too much. Try to be responsible with a body that is not your own. Embrace goodness. If possible, try to leave the person a bit better than when you arrived, even inserting some happy memories once in a while.

Seeing glimpses of so many lives has given A a bit of an advantage in some ways, but has also created some severe deprivations. If there is any positive lesson to be learned from witnessing A’s struggles, it is the importance of stability and loving relationships in a person’s life.

There is no doubt that David Levithan is a creative writer. I was much more absorbed in this story than with Dash & Lily. The author makes some fascinating choices with the bodies A inhabits.  I still think Levithan walks a tightrope in some of his themes and ideas, but I understand that is his prerogative. But as such, it’s my opinion that parents ought to pre-read his books.

As I mentioned in another review, I am not in the author’s target age demographic. I cannot help but look at his YA novels from an adult perspective. And, while Every Day was not peppered throughout with popular profanities (as in Dash & Lily,)  David Levithan’s strong social opinions took their place. It’s clear he has an unapologetic loathing for many things most people would consider traditional.

As far as plot, my main dissatisfaction with Every Day was the ending. It was horrendous because, in order to know what really happens next, the reader is forced to move on to the sequel, Another Day.  I don’t like feeling forced. (Does anyone?) Still, guess what I’m reading next?

A half-hearted (and forced) 8/10 stars.

 

 

Wonderstruck, by Brian Selznick

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We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.

–Oscar Wilde, from Lady Windemere’s Fan

Two of our deepest longings in life, whether we acknowledge them or not, is (1) to be connected to someone or something in a world where it is too easy to feel adrift and (2) to be heard and validated through some means of communication.

Then there is the subject of communication. How do people communicate? Through a specific language, either written or spoken using an alphabet or gestures, like American Sign Language. There’s also Morse Code, Braille, semaphores, hieroglyphics, and many others. Humans have a great need and desire to communicate with one another and have, therefore, created many ways to do so. To be unable to communicate is to be isolated, even in a room full of people.

Enter the two main characters in Brian Selznick’s Wonderstruck, Rose in 1927’s Hoboken, New Jersey, and Ben in 1977’s Gunflint, Michigan. Two twelve year olds in different cities, fifty years apart. How are they connected?

The way Brian Selznick achieves this is like nothing I’ve ever seen. Ben’s story is told through the written word. Rose’s story is told through incredibly impressive and expressive pencil drawings done by the author. The drawings leave no room for misinterpretation.

Despite their differences, both children are on a similar journey with similar challenges. Both are trying desperately to fulfill those longings for connection and communication. The pacing is excellently done using the different modes of storytelling. So excellent, in fact, that the reader is aware of the overlap in the children’s stories as it’s happening (I’m trying to avoid spoilers here.) And, while the story feels like a fantasy, there’s still a sense of it could happen.

There is a lot of potential discussion to be facilitated between teachers and students using Wonderstruck as its source. I think it would work successfully in both a classroom or a home-school setting. Amazon Prime just released the movie version a few days ago, but I believe the movie works better as an addendum to the book. There is a sweetness unique to the book that is lacking in the movie, as well as a layer of truthfulness regarding Ben, because only in the book do we hear his inner dialogue. But I will say the young actress who plays Rose in the movie is mesmerizing to watch.

Overall, I recommend Wonderstruck with confidence. I was even more impressed when I read about the amount of research Brian Selznick employed in its creation. It is an award-winning middle school book, but I think it would be entirely appropriate for younger, emotionally mature children. If a parent or teacher has specific questions before sharing it with school-aged children, please feel free to contact me or leave your question in the comments. I will answer it promptly.

9.5/10 Stars

P.S. A 55-page summary and study guide of Wonderstruck is also available on Amazon, but I have not read it.

 

The God Who Weeps, by Terryl and Fiona Givens

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As I review The God Who Weeps, by Terryl and Fiona Givens, we must first discuss “audience.”

  • There are those who are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) who have great interest in the philosophical workings of their church. They enjoy dissecting, discussing, and analyzing the church to which they belong. They deeply ponder its scriptures, standards, doctrine, and history. By doing this, it only strengthens their testimonies and beliefs. (Many who find great satisfaction in such discussions, including friends of mine, belong to a network called the Mormon Transhumanist Association.)
  • There are other Christians (“other,” because Mormons are also Christians) and non-Christians who are interested in the LDS Church, who perhaps have no desire to become LDS, but are still curious and interested in reading a philosophical approach such as this one.
  • And there are those who make it their life’s work to study religions, either professionally or as a hobby–religions which fall under the umbrella of Christianity, as well as Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc., but are mostly interested in comparing and contrasting the various faiths and gleaning, what they perceive, as the best qualities of all of them. “Best,” of course, being subjective to the individual.

While reading The God Who Weeps, I identified people with interests and pursuits, like those above, as the book’s target audience.

Unfortunately, I do not fall in any of those categories. While I am an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons,) it is my experience that over-analyzing my faith and Church doctrine also over complicates it and has negative effects on my personal testimony of what I believe to be true. As a result, I usually avoid books such as this one.

That is not saying I don’t recommend The God Who Weeps. There is much good in it. Let’s look simply at the title. The idea of a “God who weeps” is that there is a loving Heavenly Father–an actual FATHER–who cares for us so deeply that our pain is His, our setbacks/worries/challenges/heartbreaks are things He mourns for right along with us.

It is this personalizing of God that I find so attractive and dear about the teachings in the LDS Church. (Among other things.) I feel He knows me individually, hears and answers my prayers, and knows the worries and concerns of my heart.

This Heavenly Father I love so very much is discussed in The God Who Weeps. However, I also feel like the best ideas (those with which I can most identify) are buried under a lot of philosophy and ideas that the authors admit they don’t agree with, but still discuss as a way to promote their original thought: that Mormonism makes sense of life.

So, I have to ask myself, what is the purpose in writing a book like this? To help Mormons feel better about a church they already belong to? To give non-Mormons an analytical perspective?

I would hope that a book like this, at the very least, strengthens the testimony of an LDS Church member. I would also hope that a book like this, at the very least, sparks interest about the LDS Church in someone who is not a member–with the disclaimer that true faith in God the Father and His son, Jesus Christ–as well as discernment about which church is true–may begin by reading a scholarly book like this one, but is actually created and nurtured through sincere scripture study, humble prayer, and a heartfelt witness of the Holy Ghost.

8.5/10 Stars

 

The Blue Castle, by Lucy Maud Montgomery

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One of the most thrilling things when finishing a book is knowing that it has qualified for my “10 Star” list, a list reserved for only the best, in my opinion. When a dear friend mentioned that The Blue Castle was her favorite book I expected to enjoy it, but I did not expect to fall in love with it. Yet, that is exactly what happened. The author, Lucy Maud Montgomery, is best known for Anne of Green Gables and its subsequent series. Yet, I must admit, I enjoyed The Blue Castle’s main character even more. (Please forgive me, Anne Shirley fans!)

I have to care about and feel emotionally invested in a main character in order for me to love a book.  In The Blue Castle, it is Valancy Stirling, a 29 year old “spinster” who lives with her widowed mother and two aunts. They are dour, puritanical, and robotic in all they do, say, and think. Even sneezing in public is a grievous sin. Valancy knows of no other life but this one–this colorless life with no friends and no future.

Why do I love this character? Because, in her longing for something more, she is deserving, quirky, humble, and imaginative. She simply wants what we all want: to be cherished, to be seen as who she really is, and to have a companion who puts her above all others. She is not ambitious or greedy. Her desires, as elusive as they may seem, are simple and valid.

In the meantime, Valancy must live in her head. Only two things bring her comfort while she waits– her John Foster novels, with their color and life and pearls of wisdom: Fear is the original sin, and the thought of her Blue Castle: a metaphor for all the happy, beautiful things currently just out of reach. In her Blue Castle, Valancy is free to think and enjoy without the daily berating she endures from her mother and aunts.

As the reader, you join in this longing and, hope against hope, that Valancy will, somehow, emerge victorious. But how?

At this point, I must resist using spoilers and simply say that The Blue Castle is worth your time. If you are looking for a story that restores your faith in everything, including quality literature and characters that you absolutely fall in love with, this is it. In addition, the writing is like exquisite poetry dripping from your lips as you read it.

A true masterpiece.

A very worthy 10 STARS.

Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares, by Rachel Cohn & David Levithan

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I want to believe there is somebody out there for me.

I want to believe that I exist to be there for that somebody.

Somewhere between the quirky Roald Dahl novels of my youth in the late 70’s and early 80’s and the books I read now in my mid 40’s, there is the Young Adult romance genre of today. I’m very aware that I’m not in the demographic this genre is targeting. I had to remind myself of that when reading John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, which I enjoyed and finished quickly. I had to remind myself of this again (several times, earnestly) while reading Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares.

The premise is unique and attractive, something of a “Sleepless in Seattle” motif, where two New York City teenagers–independent and far too smart for their own good–begin a “relationship,” such as it is, through letters in a red Moleskin notebook, an idea conjured up by Lily’s brother, Langston, and his boyfriend, Benny.

With twists and turns, colorful secondary characters, and the underlying question of “when and where will they finally meet in person?” Dash & Lily has a lot of potential from the get-go. Whether or not it meets that potential is a toss up.

In discussing the book with others who have read it–all adults ranging from their 20’s to 40’s–there was division. We agreed there was plenty of wisdom in the characters of Dash and Lily, some with which even “grownups” could identify. (Like in the quotes above.) We also agreed that the characters’ “teenage intellect” seems to be given a great amount of philosophical leeway. Is the modern teenager really like this? Not being one, I couldn’t tell you. I was a teenager with above-average intelligence in the 1980’s but my internal dialogue sounded nothing like the teens in these pages. (It still doesn’t.) But if a modern teenager wanted to feel very intelligent by identifying with the characters as fictional peers, I suppose that *could* be achieved here.

There is also the sexualization of the characters. Again, not being in the target audience, I don’t know if it’s accurate. These characters are both left alone by their (seemingly selfish) parents in a way I’ve never seen before. They’re sixteen years old, for Pete’s sake. (Some reality suspension, clearly.) Such independence gives way to opportunity…

So, my guess is that it (the teenage sexualization) is accurate for some, but advanced for others, depending on their upbringings and life experiences.

These conflicts make it difficult to review the book objectively, but not impossible. Personally, I didn’t much care for it. It’s merits (many) were overshadowed by its flaws (abundant.) I felt there was an underlying cry by the co-authors to the Young Adult audience it is attempting to reach, saying “please like me.” Many will. Many already have.

However, if I had a teenager, I would be offering him or her other options, of which there are plenty.

7/10 Stars

 

A Girl’s Guide to Moving On, by Debbie Macomber

“Clean escapist romance.” That would be the best description of Debbie Macomber’s genre. Escapist lit is not necessarily a bad thing, but it certainly doesn’t challenge the reader. It’s familiar, comfortable, and predictable.

I experienced A Girl’s Guide to Moving On as an audio-book checked out from our local online library. Over a period of two weeks I would listen to it through headphones while walking around the neighborhood on clear afternoons, plugged into my car’s audio system while running errands, or while making dinner and folding laundry. It is perfect for such mundane activities.

The two audio-book narrators take on the roles of middle-aged Leanne and her 30-something daughter-in-law, Nichole. The plot follows their stories back and forth with an easy-going fluidity. Both are on the brink of divorce from their two-timing husbands (keep in mind that Nichole’s ex is Leanne’s son,) both are adjusting to a newly simplified lifestyle, both are looking to redefine themselves as someone other than “so-and-so’s” wife.

Of course as a light romance, that last point is doomed to failure. Personally, I take issue with “moving on” being characterized as finding a new romance so quickly after a divorce, but, as with most escapist literature, we have to be forgiving and suspend reality a bit.

Enter Rocco for Nichole and Nikolai for Leanne. Both story-lines have their “will they or won’t they” hiccups, bumps, and obstacles. Both men are supposed to be the antithesis of the ex-husbands. While Rocco is a “rough around the edges” gentleman, I found Nikolai to be demanding, jealous, and something of a bully. Perhaps others would disagree, but I was not rooting for that particular relationship.

As the story progressed I found myself staying with the characters more out of curiosity than actual emotional investment. By the end, there were no real surprises, no real lessons learned by anyone, just the satisfaction of having everything end exactly as I had predicted. If anything, it was a “placeholder” type of book–one you read until you find something better, which wouldn’t be difficult.

7/10 Stars

The Time Keeper, by Mitch Albom

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“There is a reason God limits our days.”

“Why?”

“To make each one precious.”

Once upon a time there was no time. At least, the concept of time was unknown to mankind until a man named Dor began trying to measure it. In doing so, he changed the world. The question is, was it changed for better or worse?

Dor became Father Time, but not by choice. Like “Mother Nature,” Father Time is one of those mythical figures who has no holiday for us to celebrate, except maybe our individual birthdays where we honor the passing of time until we want to forget that it’s happening. However we try to control time, either by cramming as many activities into a minute or an hour; or with healthy habits, medicines, or cosmetic surgery to slow it down, it marches on. With or without us, Time marches on.

In his solitude as Father Time, grieving for his lost love and his mortal life, Dor watches two people on earth. One is Victor Delamonte, a self-made millionaire who has been diagnosed with cancer. The other, a smart but solitary teenage girl named Sarah Lemon, whose high school crush is, well, a lemon. Time, and the ever-futile attempt to control it, is about to play a huge role in both their lives. When these seemingly random lives intersect…I can promise you will never look at a clock the same way again.

Confession: When I “read” The Time Keeper, by Mitch Albom, I didn’t actually read it. I did something unusual for me, which was listening to the audio book available through my local digital library. It was read by Dan Stevens, a very capable reader who convincingly acted out the characters’ voices, and who is also playing the Beast in the currently popular Disney movie.

The author uses some beautiful imagery and phrasing, many that I wish I could’ve underlined, so reading the book is certainly not a waste of time. (Pun intended.) Listening to it was simply an experiment of mine in using my library’s audio book feature.

The plot is unique, truly unlike any I’ve read before, and the book would make a terrific book club selection if you happen to be in one. It encourages thought, discussion, and makes one pause at how our own individual lives and time are being used. Without a doubt, the most interesting book I’ve read in quite a while. Highly recommended.

9.5/10 Stars

Comfort and Joy, by Kristin Hannah

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In Kristin Hannah’s novel, Comfort and Joy, high school librarian Joy Candelaro is a realist, but still a dreamer. Her beloved job is real. So is the fact that her ex-husband, Thom, and her sister, Stacey, are now a couple.

It is one thing to choose to change your life, but it is something else entirely to have change thrust upon you without your approval. This particular change has hit Joy like a ton of bricks. Being the result of betrayal by the two people she trusted most in the world has made it even more difficult. How does someone recover from something like this? How does someone regain a semblance of control when everything she knew has been tossed to the wind? All she has left to hold on to is her job, and it isn’t enough.

Joy’s answer is to give herself a spontaneous gift. A change of scenery should do it; the chance to leave dusty Bakersfield and board a plane to the lush Pacific Northwest.

Little does she know that this decision will take her on a journey of discovery. A journey of the heart and mind.

To tell more would spoil the plot.

This is a novel that requires some compromises from the reader. The reader must suspend reality a bit, which I was willing to do. The reader must also accept the fact that not all questions (there are many) will be answered by the book’s conclusion. That was harder for me. And, although I’m glad I stayed with it until the end, there were times I almost put it down permanently. The book is flawed, but still sweet and worth your time. Resist the urge to tell yourself “that would never happen.”  Just give yourself over to the events and let the plot envelop you.

This is most definitely in the category of “Women’s Fiction.” The book taps into many of our emotions: empathy, despair, hope, and love. It is escapist and it is enjoyable.

8/10 Stars

Happy Scoops, by Katie Coughran

hs-coverIn Happy Scoops, we are introduced to Chryssa Parker. Chryssa is the girl you love to hate. She’s privileged, beautiful and smart. She leads the school as both student body president and captain of the cheerleading squad. Despite attending Intellectual Elite High School, she still rises to the top in everything she does, including making everyone around her feel inferior.

All of Chryssa’s energy goes into maintaining her popularity status. She chooses friends who are similar but submissive. The idea of not judging a book by its cover is completely lost on her. Appearance in everything is everything to Chryssa.

How could a reader become emotionally invested in such a distasteful character?

Author Katie Coughran suddenly sends Chryssa Parker on a journey that strips away everything she knows and holds dear. After an ultimatum from her parents, she is forced to take a job where personal appearance means nothing. In an instant, Chryssa must reevaluate everything she thought was important.

Amidst clever dialogue and a very unique story, we follow this unpleasant young woman on her path to humility and actually begin to care about her. Her world is turned upside down as a domino effect of uncontrollable circumstances starts to take place.

Happy Scoops is a delightful page-turner. More than once I found myself chuckling out loud at some of the funny scenes, continually wanting to read more. What’s even better is that beneath the humor are serious reminders we can all benefit from, mainly that beauty can fade at any time and that real relationships are built on compassion and concern for others.

8.5/10 Stars