Friday, April 28, 2017

Home Is Burning by Dan Marshall

Sometimes life can throw some really horrible things at you with no warning whatsoever.  Dan Marshall knows this better than most.  Although his mother had been diagnosed with cancer a few years before, she was successfully beating it and life had resumed to somewhat normal.  Dan, a recent college graduate, was living the dream in Los Angeles with a great job and a beautiful girlfriend.  His twenties were shaping up to be the best years of his life.

Then, out of nowhere, his extremely fit and health conscious father was diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease.  And by the way, his mother’s cancer has taken a turn for the worse.  At first, Dan did what most self-absorbed young adults would do:  he blissfully pretended that everything would turn out ok. However, as his mother’s phone calls became more urgent, and his guilt grew exponentially, he knew that he had to leave his California paradise and return home to Utah to help take care of his ailing parents.

What follows is a very frank and sometimes jarring account of how Dan and his siblings learn to take care of their dying father as his disease quickly progresses. Their mother is almost no help, as she is going through her own chemotherapy treatments, and is also not taking her husband’s diagnosis very well.  Dan does not try to hide the fact that sometimes they don’t do a very good job as caretakers, and he honestly admits his disgust about the situation being forced upon him at such a young age.

In the preface of Home is Burning, Dan apologizes upfront that his family has a crude sense of humor and uses profanity…a lot.  He explains that this was their “way of dealing with the world and reducing some grief and depression.”  As a result, some may find the dark humor and generous use of expletives off-putting.  Despite this (or because of it), it is obvious to see just how much this family loves each other and deals with tragedy on their own terms.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Pumpkin: The Raccoon Who Thought She Was a Dog by Laura Young

Animal lovers may agree with me that the book Pumpkin: The Raccoon Who Thought She Was a Dog, is perhaps one of the cutest ever.  Raccoons, with their masked little faces and hand-like paws, are fascinating creatures that are entertaining to watch.  However, they are not usually considered as ideal candidates for keeping as pets.  This book introduces us to a special raccoon named Pumpkin, who is the exception to the norm.

One night after a windy storm, Will and Laura Young found an injured baby raccoon that had been blown out of its nest and abandoned by its mother.  After consulting with local veterinarians and the Humane Society, it was evident that the only chance of survival this little animal had was to be hand-fed around the clock and nursed back to health by the couple.  As a result, Pumpkin became so tame and attached to her caretakers that she was unable to return to the wild.  Much to everyone’s surprise, Pumpkin also became incredibly attached to the couple’s two dogs, Toffee and Oreo.  The three animals are now constantly together; napping, cuddling, and playing.

Rather than telling a story, the book contains mostly pictures of the best-pal trio of Pumpkin, Toffee and Oreo.  Each photograph is more adorable than the last, and has a funny caption to go along with it. 

If you can’t get enough Pumpkin cuteness from reading this book, you can also check out her Instagram page at Pumpkin the Raccoon.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Rich and Pretty by Rumaan Alam

In the book, Rich and Pretty by Rumaan Alam, the characters Lauren and Sarah have been best friends since childhood.  They are now in their thirties, leading very different lives, but they still describe each other as “best friends.”  Beginning in grade school, the two girls became inseparable.  Like many friendships at that age, they spent almost every moment with each other and were fully integrated into each other’s families.  They knew each other inside and out, and it was unthinkable to keep a secret from one another.  They continued like that through high school, college and into their early twenties. 

As the two women grow into adults, their friendship changes.  More specifically, their attitudes about their friendship changes.  Sarah, who has always been privileged, falls into the traditional roles of wife and mother.  Lauren, on the other hand, has a fulfilling career and doesn’t seem to want to settle down.  The problem is:  each of them kind of resents the other for choosing a different path.

Although written by a man, the book describes the highs and lows of a lifelong female friendship extremely well.  I found myself relating to the two characters at times.  Readers who are looking for a story that is plot-driven may find this book a bit slow.  But readers like me, who enjoy a more character-driven narrative, should consider it.  You may also enjoy Bennington Girls Are Easy by Charlotte Silver, Girls In White Dresses by Jennifer Close, or Friendship by Emily Gould.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Coming Clean by Kimberly Rae Miller

Wow.  That is the first thing that I thought after finishing Coming Clean by Kimberly Rae Miller.  It is a true account of the author’s life as the child of a hoarder.  My emotions ran the gamut while reading:  disgust, pity, awe, admiration, and astonishment. 

By all accounts, Kim had a “typical” childhood.  She lived in a nice little Long Island suburb with two loving parents.  She was a good student and made friends.  However, she took great pains to hide what was going on at home.  She never invited friends over, she showered at the local gym, and she created a “decoy” house down the street at which her friends’ parents dropped her off.  She kept up an insane schedule of acting classes, dance, and other extracurricular activities to keep her out of the house.  She focused her attention on getting into college so that she could escape and live a normal life.

Kim’s father was a hoarder, and while her mother was not; she was a shopaholic and an enabler, which made the situation worse.  Both parents suffered various medical issues over the years, which also contributed.  Kim endured living conditions that included fleas, rodents, soggy floors, piles of trash, rotten food, and the absence of running water.  After she became an adult, she became obsessed with keeping her home clean and clutter free.  She also began having nightmares about living in a filthy house.

Kim eventually had to come to terms with the damage that her upbringing caused.  Over the years, she began letting her closest friends know the truth, and they helped her immensely.  It was interesting that she found it difficult to place any blame on her parents, but instead, maintained a close relationship with them and accepted them for who they are.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Heroes of the Frontier by Dave Eggers

There are three unlikely heroes in Heroes of the Frontier by Dave Eggers.  Josie, an ex-dentist who is riddled with insecurity; Paul, her wise-beyond-his-years son; and Ana, her headstrong 5-year old daughter.  After Josie’s ex announces that he would like for their children to visit his future in-laws, Josie impulsively decides to pack them up, travel to Alaska, rent an RV, and then figure it out from there.  Josie thinks that she is running away from the possibility of losing her kids, but in reality, she is running away from unresolved demons in her own head.

The story is a fairly long one, and it meanders without a plot.  However, it reads very much like an adventure story, is full of many oddball characters, and contains humor.  One of the main characters is actually not a human at all, but is the RV (fondly named the Chateau) which comes to represent a source of stability and security to Josie and her family.  Each chapter finds them meeting new people, narrowly escaping certain disaster, avoiding rampant forest fires, and becoming closer as a family unit.

Sometimes I did get frustrated with how irresponsible Josie was.  Several times throughout the book, she led her young children into dangerous circumstances and seemed to let them wander off by themselves a lot.  I also wanted her to take control of situations, rather than react passively to events.  However, by the end of the book, I was very fond of this little family and it was hard not to root for their survival.  I think having Josie possess a few undesirable traits allows the reader to recognize her state of mind at the time, and to understand how desperate she felt.

Other books by Dave Eggers are A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and The Circle.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Cy Makes a Friend By Ann Marie Stephens, Illustrated by Tracy Subisak

Cy, in this brand-new picture book, is a Cyclops, a small one that you might like to have for a friend. Cy is shy and kind of lonely, but he is a builder.  He can make lots of great things all by himself, but not a friend.  After finding that he can't build a real friend, he decides to practice his manners and his smile.  When he finally realizes that it's nice to share, he makes something that two friends can have fun with together. And the new friend he finds shares something to make it even better.  So that's how Cy Makes a Friend.


As Cy works through the fear and awkwardness of trying to make friends, the underlying treasure in this book is that it also introduces classical mythology to the very young.  In one strand of Greek mythology, the Cyclopes were forgers who made Zeus' thunderbolt and Poseidon's trident (and you can take that to the beach!).  Cy's dog happens to have three heads, just like good old Cerberus (not to mention Hagrid's Fluffy).  The other mythological creatures, who are small and appealing like Cy, are not introduced by name except in "A Note about Mythological Creatures" at the beginning of the book.  So you and your listeners can talk about them as much or as little as you like.

If you do like them, your Virginia Beach Public Library has many books on Norse, Asian, and other cultures' mythology and creatures as well as the classical Roman and Greek.  They include individual stories as well as collections such as The Gods and Goddesses of Olympus and Odin's Family: Myths of the Vikings.  To really dig in and even become a creator like Cy, the new book Explore Greek Myths! with 25 Great Projects has fun, easy-to-make ships, labyrinths, weathervanes, lyres, and more, along with simple blurbs about many of the characters and stories.

On the other hand, if you are more interested in the friend-making aspect of Cy's story, try Trevor Lai's Piggy, who also has to sort out how to and NOT to make a friend. (Piggy was published just last year, and seems to me a prime candidate to star in more wonderful stories, so I'm going to keep an eye out for him.) For a creative parent's solution to siblings who could be better friends to each other, check out Hug It Out! by Louis Thomas.

Review by Lynn

Thursday, April 20, 2017

At the Water’s Edge By Sara Gruen

At the Water’s Edge visits the time of World War II, as does Lilac Girls, about which I posted yesterday, but Sara Gruen’s novel explores the wartime journey of a young Philadelphia socialite on the home front and then on the edge of Loch Ness in the Scottish highlands, looking for its reputed monster.  Well, that’s what Ellis and Hank are doing—or what they say they are doing, to redeem Ellis in the eyes of the father who has disowned him.  Maddie, Ellis’s wife, has come along for the ride, but the men’s quest and their decidedly upper-crust prejudices begin to wear thin for her as they collide with the values of the people of the Scottish village.  As Maddie, essentially stranded in this backwater by her husband, experiences the effects of the war and forms new friendships, her eyes gradually open to new truths about her life so far and her prospects for the future.  With Maddie as narrator and skillful portrayals of the characters she has grown up with and those she now meets, Gruen makes real the deepening of Maddie’s journey into herself as she gradually discovers that she does have choices she can make—and that she must make.  And the Loch Ness monster is the least of her worries.

I guess I’m on a World War II kick.  I’m currently reading another historical fiction with an otherworldly element, Above the East China Sea by Sarah Bird.  If “East China Sea” brings Okinawa to mind, you’ve probably been stationed there or know of the decisive battle of the Pacific war.  One plotline of Above the East China Sea follows a 21st-century “military brat” (her words) whose life has been shattered after holding together tenuously through one military move after another and finally to Okinawa.  The other thread has to do with a schoolgirl living through the 1945 Battle of Okinawa.  I was there for the very moving 50th anniversary commemorations of the horrendous 3-month battle, but this book reveals disparate views of Okinawans that I was not aware of:  some were committed to the unique Okinawan culture—really a combination of cultures due to the island’s location on key Pacific shipping lanes for centuries—but some fully supported the Emperor of Japan, who in the end sacrificed Okinawa and its people to dig in for a last stand against the allies.  The two storylines converge in a way that appears (so far in my reading) to bring hope to two teen girls feeling very lost. 

If you like the kinds of reading we’ve been talking about, this gives me an opportunity to plug a favorite of mine, the Outlander series of books by Diana Gabaldon.  Many people are now familiar with the Outlander TV series on Starz, available on DVD through Virginia Beach Public Library.  Like the show, the book series starts just after World War II when a British army nurse is suddenly transported through a circle of standing stones in Scotland back to 1743 and the lead-up to a Scottish rising against the British.  Gabaldon combines historical fiction with military history, medical mystery, adventure, romance, and a bit of fantasy thrown in to make it all work.  With eight major books so far, along with innumerable shorter side stories, Outlander takes Claire and her Scottish highlander Jamie through history from Scotland to France to the American colonies.  Naturally, there is much more depth to the novels than can be encapsulated in a TV show or movie.  There are even two Outlandish Companion guides to the series, written by Gabaldon herself!

Review by Lynn