Brood, by Jackie Polzin

Hanging out with chickens brings the fundamentals into focus. Death, birth, grief, loss, and our communal nature comprise theme as well as substance of Jackie Polzin’s meandering narrative.

It was the pairing of miscarriage and poultry that prompted me to peruse Brood. At the outset of this short novel, the unnamed protagonist has been caring for her flock of backyard chickens for four years. Accounts of subzero Minnesota winters, poultry trivia, run-ins with neighbors, friends ignorant of eggs and their ways, and the narrator’s professional house cleaning eventually reveal the miscarriage six years in her past.

I came to chicken keeping in 2009 with purely utilitarian interests. A neighbor proposed a partnership, whereby our family would house the chickens in our existing but uninhabited dog run. Both households would share the labor, expense, and eggs. I readily agreed, but, ambivalent toward animals and allergic to most, I was up front: I was in it only for the eggs. 

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The Blue Castle, by L.M. Montgomery

As a teen I read and re-read the Anne of Green Gables series, puzzled over the brooding Emily of New Moon trilogy, and rejoiced upon discovering Along the Shore and Chronicles of Avonlea–more L.M. Montgomery to be read. When Wonderworks released the definitive three-hour Anne movies in the 1980s, my high school friends and I reveled in Anne teas and Anne sleepovers, swooning over Gilbert and worshiping at the feet of Meghan Follows.

How, in all this Avonlea infatuation, I never stumbled across The Blue Castle is a mystery as deep as Barry’s pond–admittedly shallow, as bodies of water go. Likely my fixation limited my vision to works concerning she of Green Gables. But in the end I came to Montgomery’s 1926 novel (published five years after the last–known–Anne installment) at just the right time. My fifty-first January proved an ideal season for The Blue Castle’s mix of melancholy, mystery, unexpected romance, and reverence for nature in all its seasons.

At twenty-nine, Valancy Stirling still lives with her mother and the aptly named Cousin Stickles. Valancy holds to the unshakable belief that, not only is she unloved by any of her tribe of dour relations (mother included), she has never truly lived.

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A Winter’s Promise, by Christelle Dabos

Two days after Christmas found me in a decided post-holiday slump. Inclement weather had foiled our holiday travel plans (along with those of half of North America), and we were home alone with a stretch of gray, unplanned days before us. Independent sources had recently recommended The Mirror Visitor Quartet to both my daughter and me. Since A Winter’s Promise offered the–well, promising–prospect of light, atmospheric, wintry fantasy, I ventured in.

The opening pages checked all a book-lover’s boxes: A young woman emerges from a wardrobe (well, a mirror in a wardrobe) into an archive housed in a bad-tempered old building. For added enchantment, the heroine, Ophelia, is a museum curator and wears a scarf possessed of its own animating spirit.

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Library Heroes

For millennia the written word has held special significance among those whose faith is centered on holy writ. Some ancient Jewish and Islamic traditions imposed safeguards to prevent the desecration of any piece of writing—sacred or secular—that might bear God’s name.

Christian history is marked by missionaries and others who made literacy and education a priority, on the premise that everyone should have personal access to the written Word of God. Among these, Martin Luther, William Carey, and Jonathan Edwards are familiar names. A less familiar example is the Kyrias family of Albania, active supporters of language development, publishing, and education, particularly among girls.

In contemporary America it can be hard to fathom a culture where the written word is not readily accessible. We read to our children from the day they are born, fill shelves with assorted Bible editions, and ship off excess volumes to thrift stores and little free libraries. The handful of picture books below give elementary-aged children a glimpse of the lengths to which people have gone—and still go—to preserve, procure, and distribute the wealth that is literacy.

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The Silk Road for Young Folks

In slightly belated recognition of translation month (September) and UN Translation Day (Sept. 30), the article linked below appeared on the Story Warren website on September 28, 2022. It features reviews of translated and adapted works for young readers centered around Central Asia and the Silk Road.

Exploring The Silk Road, With Kids (storywarren.com)

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Vinegar Girl, by Anne Tyler

Having heard Anne Tyler’s name for years, reading a selection from her prolific and successful oeuvre seemed overdue. Vinegar Girl, it turns out, was an excellent, not to mention entertaining, place to start.

Despite my research prior to choosing a title, it somehow escaped my notice–or I forgot–that Vinegar Girl is a modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew.” The choice seemed serendipitous, given my reading earlier this year of a modern rewrite of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (read the review of Jane of Austin here).

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The Weight of Ink, by Rachel Kadish

I read Kadish’s work in a year that began with a pandemic and ended with wildfires that shrouded our region in smoke for two weeks. It seemed appropriate that The Weight of Ink reaches its climax in a plague and has its denouement in the Great London fire of 1666. Of course, I didn’t know about the fires forthcoming in either book or reality when I started. I read the book because it was everything I love in a novel—meticulously researched historical fiction, nuanced in its perspectives and masterful in its wordcraft.

And it included a plague—a plague long, long ago and far, far away. What could more timely? Kadish’s epic transported me to Israel, Amsterdam, and London. I traveled through time to the seventeenth century, witnessed the trials and triumphs of unacknowledged genius. It was a journey well worth the $18.99 fare.

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The Neverending Story, by Michael Ende

The movie version of The Neverending Story was first introduced to me in the late 1980s by Anja, the German exchange student who lived with us during my junior year in high school. I didn’t realize at the time–though I should have–that the book behind the movie was originally written in German. And it wasn’t until my South African mom friend gave copies of the book to our mother-daughter book club this past Christmas that I acquainted myself with Ende’s now-classic 1979 work.

Confession: I didn’t love this book, though not for any easily identifiable reason. I didn’t find it objectionable. I simply suspect that, like Geoge MacDonald’s Phantastes, the somewhat meandering and seemingly haphazard nature of the narrative (particularly in part II) didn’t hold my interest.

However, I did love the discussion Ende’s novel engendered in our mother-daughter book club. The layered symbolism, moral dilemmas, and sometimes puzzling plot provide much to ponder, question, and debate. Given that The Neverending Story originated in the land of philosophers and fairytales, its success on these points isn’t too surprising.

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Explorers’ Sketchbooks: The Art of Discovery and Nature, by Huw Lewis-Jones and Kari Herbert

I discovered this book shortly after its publication in 2017. My ninety-year-old mother-in-law had developed fairly advanced dementia. But her lifelong appreciation for books, cartography, history, exploration, and the art of illustration had not failed her. The fortuitous coincidence of all those elements allowed us to ramble through these pages together on multiple occasions with some semblance of former camaraderie.

Arranged alphabetically by the names of the explorers, this visually stunning book represents a wealth of information and artistry, not to mention a herculean task of compilation. As the title indicates, it represents excerpts from the sketchbooks of more than seventy explorers and documenters of the natural world. Some names are familiar—John James Audubon, Meriwether Lewis, Carl Linnaeus, David Livingstone—most much less so. Most are men; a little more than a tenth are women.

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A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles

Among contemporary works of literature, Amor Towles’s A Gentleman in Moscow (2016) represents a rare combination of engaging storyline, appealing characters, master craftsmanship, and meditation on uncommon virtues. Five years after the Bolshevik Revolution, Count Alexander Rostov is sentenced to lifelong house arrest in a luxury hotel. His crime is writing a few lines of verse that the regime takes exception to.

The premise is intriguing though wholly fictional. A Gentleman is not so much a historical novel as a parable of modernism. While the reader waits for the blows of Soviet brutality to fall upon the hero, Towles focuses his attention on subtler evils.

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