December Reading

Fiction Read in December 

Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood
More short stories. I think I’m slowly becoming converted to a fan of the genre. Or maybe it’s that short stories work well for my current attention span. These are typically Atwood: deliciously dark and creepy in places and all with beautiful prose and characters that are impossible to forget.

Speaking from Among the Bones by Alan Bradley
Another installment in the Flavia deLuce mystery series. Looking forward to the next one.

Non-Fiction Read in December 

Doctored by Sandeep Jauhar

A Spy Among Friends by Ben MacIntyre
I have a deep fascination with spies and I think I would read a grocery list written by Ben MacIntyre. In this new book, MacIntyre looks at the deception of Kim Philby. He chooses to focus on Philby’s betrayal from the perspective of several of Philby’s closest friends (including James Jesus Angleton, one of the founders of the CIA) who Philby systematically betrayed over decades. I knew only a tiny bit before about Philby before reading this book and came away completely and utterly intrigued.

Doctored

I had high hopes for Doctored, Sandeep Jauhar’s “memoir-expose” about the American health care system. I was hoping for an insightful look at medicine in America with thoughts about what works and what could be done better. Sadly, I was disappointed.

Jauhar’s memoir is primarily about his experience working as a cardiologist on Long Island. He is shocked by the financial and business practices he sees around him in the other doctors and hospital. He feels pressured to see more patients and make money and realizes that much of the system has become corrupt and focused on making money rather than on truly caring for patients. At the same time, Jauhar is feeling financial pressures at home with the expense of raising a young family in NYC. He finds himself compromising his ideals and then hating himself for it.

I think many readers are going to find Jauhar more than a little whiny and annoying. It’s hard to relate to a physician who is complaining about never having enough money. Jauhar and his wife make many choices that they feel put them in a financial bind but they take a LONG time to accept that it’s their own choices more than the American health care system that is the problem. (They want to live in Manhattan. They insist on sending their kids to a private preschool. Jauhar’s wife, a physician also, chooses not to work in order to care for the kids.) The reader will have figured out 100 pages before they do what the solutions to their crisis are. Jauhar also comes across as a man faced with growing up and not liking it. There is a lot of angst about youthful ideals vs. middle age pragmatism. There are a lot of references to vague spiritual searching. Many of his issues seem to stem as much from familial expectations and pressures (competition in a traditional Indian-American family with an older golden-child brother for example) as with the health care system.

My main disappointment, however, was in what Jauhar left unsaid about being a doctor in America today. He talks a lot about the unsavory practices of private practice physicians (and clearly has a bias towards academics which he views as somehow more pure). Much of what he said wasn’t my experience. However, pediatric medicine is very different than adult medicine so I may just not see what he sees. More interesting to me would have ben an issue he touches on only briefly: what does it mean to be a good doctor.

I think most doctors go to medical school with some idea of wanting to help people and we come out of the training process with some idea of what being a good doctor means. It means healing people, getting the right diagnosis, listening to your patients, caring for them. It means practicing excellent medicine, reading up on current therapies, practicing evidence-based medicine instead of just doing what you’ve always done.

I’ve been in practice for 15 years and I find that it’s so much harder than I thought to figure out how to actually do all those things in real practice. Patients often want things that I think are bad medicine. Antibiotics for colds. Unnecessary lab testing. Referrals for unproved treatments. Do I do it and keep them happy? Does a happy patient equal a good doctor even if the medicine being practiced is questionable? I’m sure doctors through history have struggled with these issues but I feel like today the added pressures of self-diagnosis by Google, doctor rating sites on the Internet, Minute Clinics in pharmacies that will almost always give the medicine the patients want, and insurance companies who are monitoring referral and testing and prescriptions makes it even more difficult to know by what standards we should measure ourselves.

Jauhar talks a bit in his book about factors that cause dissatisfaction in work. I think a large source of dissatisfaction is not knowing how to know if you are doing a good job. And today it’s hard for a doctor to know by whose standards to grade themselves (and if anyone has been trained over time to care about grades and standards it’s a doctor who has been through 20+ years of schooling). Should I care that I am performing well on the insurance company’s annual report? The local hospital’s report card (yes, we get them)? My patient satisfaction level on an Internet site? How closely my practice follows the guidelines of my specialty? I don’t think any of those are good ways. I tend to measure myself by an internal barometer of sorts: Am I satisfied that I did the right thing even if the patient is unhappy? If the patient and I don’t agree on a plan, is there a way to compromise to find a solution? Do my patients respect me even if they don’t always agree with me? Have I truly listened to each person? Have I tried my best to have them walk away feeling somehow healed, even if that doesn’t mean cured?

I think that it would do my profession good to talk about these issues more. Unfortunately, Doctored is not the start of this discussion.

Armchair Cybils

I’m a day late with my Armchair Cybils link-up. A short-lived but nasty stomach bug hit our house this weekend, and although only two of us so far succumbed, we’ve all been a bit sleep-deprived. Added to that were several holiday parties, basketball games, prep for the last week of school before Christmas break and all the other fun craziness of the season.

I have been reading. However, I haven’t been reviewing and posting as much as I had hoped to do. Instead of trying to “catch up” I’m going to link below to the books I have reviewed here and then give a short synopsis for the ones I haven’t reviewed already.

Non-Fiction Elementary and Middle-Grade Books Read:

Anna and Solomon by Elaine Snyder
Story of how the author’s grandparents immigrated to the US from Russia. Probably not a topic that naturally appeals to kids, but would be a great addition to a story about immigration. Illustrations by Harry Bliss are a great accompaniment. 

Elizabeth, Queen of the Seas by Lynne Cox
Told by champion open water long distance swimmer Lynne Cox, this is the story on one particular elephant seal who chose to make its home in the Avon River in Christchurch, New Zealand. Christened Elizabeth by the people of Christchurch, the seal returned to the river despite being relocated multiple times and finally was allowed to stay in the city. Watercolor illustrations by Brian Floca add warmth and kid appeal.

Eye to Eye: How Animals See the World by Steve Jenkins

Gravity by Jason Chin
Simple explanation of what gravity is. I did love the illustrations that show what happens without gravity and think they added appeal even for very young readers who might miss the bigger concept. I might have to reread this one. I had it out briefly from the library and remember being a bit disappointed, but that might be because I really loved Chin’s book about the Galapagos.

Handle with Care: An Unusual Butterfly Journey by Loree Griffin Burns

Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio by Jonah Winter
Well-done, beautifully illustrated biography of Joe DiMaggio.

The Scraps Book by Lois Ehlert

When Lunch Fights Back: Wickedly Clever Animal Defenses by Rebecca Johnson

Fiction Picture Books Read:

Brother Hugo and the Bear by Kate Beebe
I loved this charming story of a monk who cannot return his library book (the letters of St. Augustine) because a bear has eaten it. As penance, he is forced to journey to a nearby monastery to borrow their copy and then to copy the book out by hand, all the while keeping an eye out for the bear who now has developed a taste for delicious words. There is enough detail on the making of the book to go along with a medieval history study but the quirkiness of the story and charm of the illustrations make it fun to read. I also loved that Beebe got the idea from the fragment of a real medieval letter explaining that a book had been eaten by a bear. 

Fancy Nancy and the Wedding of the Century by Jane O’Connor
Another great addition to the Fancy Nancy canon. In case you’re wondering if we like Fancy Nancy here, I’ll just say that I am frequently instructed by a certain 5 year old (who is pretty fancy herself) to bring home every single Fancy Nancy book I can find at the library. 

Lost for Words by Natalie Russell
Tapir’s friends all can write: poems, songs, stories. But he can’t figure out how to express himself until he realizes he doesn’t have to use words but can draw instead. 

Meanwhile Back at the Ranch by Anne Isaacs
Tall-tale about a British widow who inherits $30 million and a ranch in Texas. She moves there and settles into a happy peaceful life of gardening and raising giant tortoises until word gets out that a marriageable woman with a boatload of money has arrived. The ending is easy to see coming but getting there is silly fun. Ruth and I had a lot of giggles reading this one. 

President Taft is Stuck in the Bath by Mac Barnett
Mac Barnett and Chris Van Dusen team up together to create a silly retelling of one of the most ludicrious presidential anecdotes: President Taft getting stuck in his bathtub. It reminded me a lot of the wonderful King Bidgood’s in the Bathtub. If you’re sensitive to your kids giggling over naked butts, don’t get this one. 

Quest by Aaron Becker
As I was writing this, Ruth said, “I LOVE Quest. Can you put the third one on hold?” She’ll have to wait for the third addition to this luminous, creative trilogy but you can tell she is a big fan of these wordless picture books. If you’ve read the Caldecott Honor Book Journey, you know what to expect with this continuation. If you haven’t, get them both out. They might change your mind about wordless picture books. 

Rupert Can Dance by Jules Feiffer
Rupert has a secret: he loves to dance. When his owner Mandy finds out, she is thrilled and starts to give him dancing lessons. Rupert, however, doesn’t want to have lessons, he just wants to dance for fun. Mandy comes up with a great solution to convince/trick him into dancing again. The underlying message here was a good read for me as the parent of a child who really rebels against the idea of being told what to do, even when it’s something he enjoys. 

The Christmas Cat by Maryann MacDonald

Two Speckled Eggs by Jennifer Mann
Sweet book about two girls who are slightly different from all the rest but find friendship together. 

Winter is Coming by Tony Johnston
Lovely, slow, thoughtful story about a girl who observes the seasons changing around her from a favorite quiet place. The illustrations by Jim LaMarche are absolutely gorgeous. 

Other books read:

I Kill the Mockingbird by Paul Acampora

Firefly July
Fantastic anthology of poems compiled by Paul Janeczko and illustrated by the incomporable Melissa Sweet. My link is to Amy’s full review, I say ditto to everything she says. 

Cybils books previously reviewed here at Supratentorial.

After serving as a Cybils judge last year, I realize it’s virtually impossible to realistically talk about predictions or a shortlist having read so few books. But it’s still fun. So here is my list of my top 5 books in the two categories that I have read the most:

Non-Fiction Elementary and Middle-Grade:

Mama Built a Little Nest by Jennifer Ward
The Scraps Book by Lois Ehlert
Elizabeth, Queen of the Seas by Lynne Cox
A Boy and A Jaguar by Alan Rabinowitz
Eye to Eye: How Animals See the World by Steve Jenkins

Fiction Picture Books:

Brother Hugo and the Bear by Kate Beebe
Winter is Coming by Tony Johnston
Fraidyzoo by Thrya Heyder
The Christmas Cat by Maryann MacDonald
President Taft is Stuck in the Bath by Mac Barnett

Stop by Hope is the Word to see what Cybils nominees Amy and others are reading (Amy for one, has been reading a lot of middle grade fiction). And if you’ve been reading Cybils nominees, consider participating!

I Kill the Mockingbird

The kids in Paul Acampora’s I Kill the Mockingbird are the kids that the seventh grade me wished desperately to know. Lucy, Elena and Michael are best friends who also happen to be book nerds. One summer they come up with a plan of “literary terrorism” to get people interested in one of their summer reading books, To Kill the Mockingbird. What starts out as a local campaign spreads nationwide with the help of the Internet and they end up having to figure out how to kill their own creation.

The friends’ plan is about getting people to read great books on the surface but really it’s just as much about helping Lucy deal with her mother’s cancer and grieving the loss of a beloved teacher, Fat Bob, and figuring out how to have one last crazy summer before going off to high school. In the same way, I Kill the Mockingbird is about kids who love books but also about young teens who still have one foot in the camp of childhood but are aware that they are growing up. Like the classic that it pays homage to, it’s really a coming of age novel.

There is so much to like here. Any weakness comes from the need to suspend belief a bit to believe that there are still small towns and communities like the one portrayed here. The kids are all self-confident book lovers who don’t seem to worry at all about things like being cool or fitting in. The parents are all understanding and cool. The town is safe enough that the kids can wander wherever they want on their own, unencumbered by parental oversight, yet wordly enough that it supports an independent bookstore and is close enough by public transportation to many other small towns. There are no real negative repercussions from their campaign. Maybe that’s all nit-picky but it did read as a little idealistic to me. Still, I decided early on to just go with it and enjoy the book, idealism and all.

One thing Acampora does well is to include a religious life for the kids. They all attend a Catholic school, where Lucy’s father is principal. Catholicism is woven through the book along with discussions of faith and mortality and why bad things happen. It’s exceedingly rare to find an adult book that treats religious life as something ordinary. It’s seems that religion is usually either dealt with in a heavy-handed overtly Christian way or it’s dismissed outright. I think it’s even more rare to find a book for middle-grade kids that handles religion in this straight-forward way.

I would definitely recommend this for anyone (kid or adult) who loves books.

More from our Christmas Book Basket

I like to try and include some new to us titles in our Christmas book basket every year. It’s fun to re-read the old ones, but also fun to find some new treasures. As an aside, my kids are cracking me up this year. Their main goal with the book basket is to have the book that always makes me cry (Silver Packages by Cynthia Rylant) be the last book so that I am forced to read it and bawl like a baby on Christmas Eve. So far, they are in luck. It’s still unopened.

David Lucas’s A Letter for Bear is a sweet, beautifully illustrated Christmas story.  Bear is a shy, lonely postman who delivers letters every day to all the other woodland animals but who never gets one himself. Every night he goes home to make soup and sit alone his cave. In the end he discovers that the best way to make friends is to reach out and be a friend. The story is gentle and simple (perhaps a little too simple for any but the very youngest kids). However, the woodcut illustrations are really lovely. I also liked that all the animals are identified on end pages and are Arctic animals instead of being just generic animals.

Peter Reynold’s The Smallest Gift of Christmas also has a simple message at it’s heart but the story is much sillier. Roland comes downstairs on Christmas morning and is disappointed to find that his present is much, much smaller than he hoped for. He wishes for it to be bigger, and magically it is. He wishes again and it is. And again. And again. My kids found this very funny, especially when he wasn’t satisfied with skyscraper sized packages. In the end of course, Roland realizes that the thing he really wants is right back where he started: home and family. I’m not a huge lover of books with a MESSAGE, but the silliness and bright cartoon like illustrations are the spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down. Serendipitously, David has been reading fables about greed in his writing curriculum this week so this was a good book for us to open.

I’m not sure if there is a version of Santa Is Coming to Virginia by Steve Smallman for every state but there is one for a lot of them. The thrill for these books is recognizing the state landmarks on the cover and sprinkled through the illustrations and on hearing familiar places mentioned in the text. I didn’t realize that the story was exactly the same in each book other than the geographical places mentioned when I got this one and the Washington DC one out of the library. The story is a bit thin and the book reads more like a travel brochure than a story. Our kids don’t believe in Santa Claus and never have. Santa books might not be as appreciated here as they would be in a house where a kid is thrilled to read about Santa coming to their very own state.

Maryann MacDonald’s The Christmas Cat is my favorite new title so far this year. Inspired by a Leonardo Da Vinci drawing of La Madonna del Gatto, which showed Mary with an infant Jesus and a cat, MacDonald emphasizes the humanity of Jesus in this book. Like all babies, Jesus cried, MacDonald tells us. The only thing that calms him as a newborn is a kitten that becomes his pet and friend. The book goes on to show the Holy Family’s escape to Egypt (with cat). In emphasizing Jesus’ humanity MacDonald gives a slightly different perspective to the Christmas story than the one we usually hear.

 

Shooting at the Stars

On Christmas Day 1914 during World War I, pockets of soldiers at the front on both sides of the conflict spontaneously laid down their weapons, stopped fighting and celebrated Christmas together. John Hendrix captures the unbelievable true story of the Christmas Truce of 1914 in Shooting at the Stars, a fictionalized account of this almost too good to be true story. Told through a British soldier’s letter home to his mother, the story tells how the soldiers meet in the strip of land known as No Man’s Land in between their trenches.

I thought this was a fascinating and terrible story. Terrible because the enormous amount of loss and death that was WWI seems somehow even more enormous when you consider that the men actually doing the fighting were able to literally meet in the middle to shake hands and sing carols together. I cannot even imagine what it would be like to see a man one day and exchange holiday greetings with him and the next day know that the gun you were firing might kill him.

I’m not sure the kids completely grasped the story or the horror behind the story of brief peace. Hendrix tells the story beautifully and it’s a book I would read to them again when studying WWI, but I’m not sure I would do it as one of our Christmas book basket selections, which is how we read it this year.

Non-Fiction Monday: For the Science Lover

Rebecca L. Johnson’s When Lunch Fights Back: Wickedly Clever Animal Defenses contains everything that makes a great kid’s nonfiction book: fascinating (and slightly weird) facts, great photographic illustrations and solid science to back up the gross and weird. Reminding me of Steve Jenkins’ wonderful What Do You Do When Soemthing Wants to Eat You?, Johnson explores the diverse, amazing and often disgusting ways in which animals defend themselves against predators who are often bigger and stronger. From the hagfish that releases giant clouds of slime that can choke a shark to the mantis shrimp that can deliver a punch (yes! a punch!) at about 50  miles an hours, this book will take you to places you’ve never even dreamed about. I especially liked that Johnson goes beyond the sensationalist gross factor (birds that shoot stinky poop, lizards that shoot blood out of their eyes, baby birds that vomit toxic vomit) to explain the science behind each animal defense. Certain kids will definitely be attracted by the gross and weird but stay for the cool and interesting. Comprehensive endpages include an extensive bibliography as well as other suggested books to read and a listing of websites with videos to see some of the animals in action.

The team of Loree Griffin Burns and Ellen Harasimowicz have created another beautiful book with Handle With Care: An Unusual Butterfly Journey. After a visit to a local museum’s live butterfly display, Burns wondered where the butterflies came from and was surprised to hear that it was Central America. She and Harasimowicz traveled to Costa Rica and documented the work on a butterfly farm to show exactly how these butterflies are cultivated, raised and eventually find their way to science museums worldwide. The vivid photographs could almost tell the story alone. I love that Burns takes what feels at first to be a familiar story (How many kid’s books on the butterfly life cycle are there?) and with a simple change of viewpoint creates something different and fresh.

Both of theses books have been nominated for a Cybils award this year in the Middle and Elementary Non-Fiction Category.

October and November Reading

Fiction Read in October and November:

Acts of God by Ellen Gilchrist (short stories)
Selected Short Stories by William Faulkner
For someone who supposedly doesn’t like short stories very much, I’ve been reading a lot of them this year. My book club decided we wanted to read a classic and Faulkner came up as someone who most of us had always wanted to read but just hadn’t (or hadn’t read much). Serendipitously, Ellen Gilchrist’s new collection, Acts of God, arrived for me at the library. There are a lot of similarities between the two. Both are Southern writers (both from Mississippi) who write primarily about a particular place and time. Both write about ordinary people, sometimes dealing with ordinary circumstances and sometimes with extraordinary ones out their control. Of the two, I related more to Gilchrist’s world but both are beautiful wordsmiths who write finely crafted, dense, complex stories. 

Silkworm by Robert Galbraith
Robert Galbraith is J. K. Rowling’s pseudonym for this series of mystery/detective stories starring Cormoron Strike, a retired military intelligence officer and amputee now working as a  London private investigator. I liked this addition to the series even more than the first one. The plot involves a weird and gory murder (if you have a squeamish stomach this one isn’t for you) but like all good detective stories the real joy comes in getting to know Strike and his world, especially his assistant Robin. A very fun read. 

A Question of Honor by Charles Todd
An Unwilling Accomplice by Charles Todd
Two more additions to another mystery series I’ve enjoyed. This one, about Bess Crawford, a WWI era British nurse, is much more quiet and cerebral than Silkworm but also quite enjoyable. 

Nonfiction Read in October and November:

Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of my Appetites by Kate Christensen
I’ve also read a lot of memoirs this year. Writer Kate Christensen’s memoir promises to be a story of her life told through food that has been important to her. The food angle felt somewhat contrived to me, with mentions of favorite dishes sprinkled in here and there and some random recipes included at the end of each chapter. Christensen has lived a full life, full of hardships (and abusive father, parent’s divorce, poverty, drug abuse) and some amazing opportunities (a stint as an au pair in France, working as a short order cook at a school in New England, graduate school at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop). However, I came away not all that interested or impressed. I think it was the overly self-conscious tone that turned me off. In the end, I didn’t have much desire to learn more about the writer or to read other things she has written. 

Ella Bella Ballerina and the Nutcracker

If you have a little girl (or boy) who loves ballet, you should know about the Ella Bella books by James Mayhew.  Ella Bell Ballerina and the Nutcracker follows the same basic plot as the other books in the series. Ella Bella, a little girl who is lucky enough to have her ballet class meet in a beautiful old theater, is told part of the story of a classic ballet by her teacher, Madame Rosa. Ella Bella then stays behind after class and is transported into the ballet by Madame Rosa’s magical music box. Once in the ballet, she meets the characters and dances with them acting out the rest of the ballet’s story.

For hard core dance enthusiasts, there isn’t a lot of actual ballet in these books. No discussion of steps or ballet terminology. But the books do a lovely job of telling the story of each ballet through the eyes of a girl who is likely about the age of the reader. It’s a sweet way of introducing some of the classic ballets to young readers and would make for a great way to prepare for seeing some of these ballets performed live.