Jun 28, 2011

My First Green Book

by Angela Wilkes
A life-size guide to caring for our environment

Just finished reading this book last night with my six-year old. It's all about environmental issues and things kids can do to help. It goes beyond just recycling and conserving electricity (although those things are mentioned). There are sections about air pollution, acid rain, how nature recycles waste, composting, choosing products wisely, healthy soils, plants that encourage wildlife, how trees improve our air, what's happening to the rainforests (and how much we depend on them), etc. At the end one page explains how to keep a simple diary where kids can record things they observe about the environment, and how to campaign to improve things up in your own neighborhood. There are lots of simple experiments to try illustrating different things about the environment. For example, one you take a piece of fresh celery, and several cut white flowers and put them in a glass of water with red food coloring or dye in it. The plants absorb the dye along with the water and turn pink. This shows kids how pollutants in water get absorbed by and can adversely affect the plant.

The formatting of My First Green Book is large, easy to read and understand. The book is a full 13 inches tall, so the large photographs have plenty of detail. All the experiments and information are explained simply enough for children to understand. We've already done a few of the experiments, one to see how plants respond to polluted water, another to see evidence of contaminants in our air. Right after reading the section on air pollution and seeing pictures of what types of lichens grow on trees, my kid inspected bark on trees in the local park and then ran to me shouting: "we have clean air! we have clean air!" because the lichens were a healthy leafy type. All in all a most excellent book. I recommend it to anyone who wants to encourage their children to care for the environment and learn simple things that actually make a difference.

Rating: 5/5 ........ 48 pages, 1991

Jun 27, 2011

The Hive Detectives

Chronicle of a Honey Bee Catastrophe 
by Loree Griffin Burns

I've been reading quite a bit about bees lately.This book has been on my list since I saw it on A Patchwork of Books, so I looked for it at the library.

The Hive Detectives is about honeybees, their importance to our food industry, and concerns about their rapid decline. It is illustrated with beautiful photographs, which I spent a long time poring over. After reading so much on bees and beekeeping in past novels and books, it was nice to finally see photos of what a honey extractor looks like, for example. The book tells a bit about the work of beekeeping focusing on a hobbyist or backyard beekeeping Mary Duane. It also shows how a large-scale beekeeping operation works, with several chapters about Hackenburg Apiaries who keep three thousand beehives. I always knew that crops need bees but assumed that the farmers simply kept some bees on site to help pollinate. What I didn't know was that large-scale bee operations will truck their beehives around the country and rent them out to farmers during the weeks that they urgently need pollination for their crops. At the end of the various growing seasons, the beehives are brought home and honey collected.

The crux of this book though, is about an alarming phenomenon called Colony Collapse Disorder which was first noted by the men at Hackenburg. They found hundreds of hives suddenly nearly empty of bees, in spite of having plenty of food stores and offspring. They promptly started an investigation to find out what was happening. All across the country bees have been disappearing at an alarming rate. Scientists have looked into diseases, pesticides and other factors trying to figure out what the cause is and stop the decline. There is a lot more information about CCD on the Wikipedia site; so far research is still trying to figure out what causes it.

Mostly I loved reading this book because of how much it taught me about bees and beekeeping. I was actually disappointed when it ended. The Hive Detectives is a juvenile non-fiction book but well-written and not overly simplified; I found it quite intriguing and educational.

Rating: 4/5 ........ 66 pages, 2010

Angela's Ashes

by Frank McCourt

Memoir of a boy growing up in Ireland. Frank McCourt was born in America but his family moved back to Ireland when he was very small. They were extremely poor and most of the time lived on public assistance. Situation not made any better by the fact that their father was an alcoholic; he could rarely keep a job, spent any money he earned in the pubs and when his mother got money from charities or the dole, he first chastised her for begging and then promptly spent that money on drink, too. Altogether a miserable character. So the family was usually hungry, living in awful conditions, the kids frequently sick. The author himself scraped through some frightening illnesses, and he lost several siblings to illness, some as infants. The entire time I was reading I kept thinking of his mother, how her heart must have ached to loose her children. She would have sought out a job herself but the neighbors saw that as shameful, that a woman would have to work when she had an able-bodied husband.

Throughout the story Frank talks about how the Catholic church infused his life; at first it was all mysterious as most priests or his parents refused to explain things to him. Later he figured a few things out, but by then had grow calloused as well. He tells of schools where kids are made fun or of beaten by their teachers, of desperately trying to find a job, of a growing fascination with girls and their mysteries when he hit puberty, and of finally saving up enough money to emigrate to America himself, in search of a better life. The ending kind of fizzled for me, though. I watched him through the pages struggle and struggle and finally get to the place of his dreams simply to carouse at a party right off the boat and declare America a great place. I was kind of expecting more, at that point...

It wasn't until I finished Angela's Ashes that I realized I've actually read it before. I don't know if that speaks well or poor of it, that I had completely forgotten most of the details. I knew I had opened it once a year or so ago, but thought I'd quit a little ways in, as I recalled quite a bit of the beginning, but all the middle felt new to me. Unless I skipped to the end? but I usually don't do that. Either way, I'm glad to say that I enjoyed it much more this time around.

Rating: 3/5 ........ 426 pages, 1996

more opinions at:
Ardent Reader

Jun 17, 2011

The Speckled People

a memoir of a half-Irish childhood
by Hugo Hamilton

One I picked up at a book sale, just because the title intrigued me. The Speckled People is the memoir of a boy growing up in Ireland with mixed heritage. His mother escaped Germany which was falling under Hitler's power, but in spite of the fact that she is adamantly against "the fist people" her neighbors are suspicious of her and her children get called names and executed in games by the other kids for being Nazis. His father is an extremist, full of nationalistic pride for the Irish people and trying to resurrect their native language by teaching it to his children and forbidding them to speak English in the house. This again alienates the children from others around them. For instance, at one point the father insists they only play with children who also speak Irish (Gaelic) so they have to bus to and fro with kids found miles away and none of the imposed friendships last. The story is full of sorrow and resentment; the boy ends up hating his father for all the rules forced upon him, and feeling pain for his mother when he finally learns the full extent of her story and why she fled Germany. In fact, more of the book feels like telling the story of his parents than of his own experience. His mother writes a journal to tell her children what happened to her, and several significant family stories are told again and again, woven into the narrative each time in a slightly different way. All is told from the unclear perspective of the child, with his impressions of moments that float in and out of focus: sitting on the bottom of the pool blowing bubbles at each other, watching a dog at the beach that barks at the ocean, trying to avoid bullies, welcoming new babies into the family, struggling through recurrent illness, riding on the bus... The tone of it all reminded me quite a bit of Call It Sleep, and also the feel of Chaim Potok's novels (though I couldn't really tell you why). At the same time, it all felt a bit too distant to me. I felt like I was getting more a relating of family history, patched together by childhood memories, and never got close to the narrator himself. O well. It was a nice enough read.

Funny, how some books that are otherwise entirely unrelated yet have a connecting theme. Another book I recently read, The Tapestry of Love, had a bit about beekeeping in it, which I found interesting because not too long ago I'd read a few books where beekeeping was the focus. It was intriguing that even in the few pages that discussed bees in Tapestry I learned something new about bees. Here too, in The Speckled People the father takes up beekeeping and again, I learned a few new details. The bees caused tragedy here, though...

Rating: 3/5 ........ 298 pages, 2003

More opinions at:
It's All About Me
16 Book for 16 Days
Still Point

Jun 10, 2011

Ordinary Love and Goodwill

by Jane Smiley

I almost didn't read the part of this book that turned out to be my favorite. I didn't know what I was getting into, with this one. I thought the title was all one piece, and it wasn't until I started reading that I found it's actually two novellas, the first called Ordinary Love and the second, Good Will. I still can't help thinking of the title as one line, though....

Ordinary Love just failed to catch my interest. It's written from the viewpoint of a mother of five grown children; two of her sons are twins. One is returning home from a recent trip to Korea. The others gather and lots of talk happens. Apparently there's quite a bit of discussion between them all about the parents' divorce. I really didn't get far enough to feel that out. I quit after about thirty pages. I just wasn't following what was going on or even which character was talking at one point. Not working for me.

That was going to be the end. But then I glanced at someone's review of the book on Library Thing and noticed it mentioned that Good Will was about a small family trying to run a self-sufficient homestead outside an ordinary suburban town. That sounded interesting to me. So I picked up the book again and read the second half, totally captivated. It's about a couple and their young son, who live on a farm. They grow or gather almost everything they eat, and barter for most belongings, make their own clothing and such. Hardly have twenty bucks between them all at any one time. The husband is good at carpentry and figuring things out, he makes all the furniture, builds the house, creates a fantastic compost system, etc. It's so impressive a writer comes out to interview them to be included in a book she's writing. This writer's presence eclipses the story; she's there at the beginning first learning about them, and at the end they receive the manuscript and shortly after the book to read what she's said about them- at the point when things are no longer the same. And it's not because their efforts failed, the couple were perfectly happy and content with their way of life, even though others viewed it as poverty. But the son, who went to public school and compared his life to other kids', was not as happy. Father and mother both viewed their son's actions from a divergent angle, and they each failed to realized what was going on until it was too late and they had to abandon their farm, because of the son's actions... I can't say more without saying too much. Read the story! It's good! There's a part that reminded me strongly of Steinbeck's The Red Pony, so if you have angst with animals dying in a book, you might not want to...

And if anyone's read Ordinary Love and liked it, tell me why. I might just go back to it if I'm properly convinced...

Rating: 3/5 ........ 218 pages, 1989

Jun 8, 2011

Up From the Blue

by Susan Henderson

Tillie's house holds secrets. From the outside, it appears orderly- just as her precise, meticulous military father wants it- unless you count the door her mother sealed shut with blue paint. Inside things are troubled; her mother struggles with a mental illness which her father refuses to acknowledge. I'm not sure if he was just stubborn about admitting anything was wrong with his family, or just ignorant (story is set in the seventies) about depression in general. But he treats her like crap, berating and yelling and demanding more, when she crumples up and can't function. Of course the kids don't understand what's happening to their mother either; the older boy distances himself and tries to act properly according to his father's rules; Tillie tries to help and protect her mom and lashes out occasionally at school. I felt for the little girl. It was hard to tell how much of her erratic behavior was due to her living situation, how much to her free-thinking independence, and how much to what she suffered unknowingly from her own mother's hands... Up from the Blue is quite a story. Eager page-turning. I nearly cried at the end, but then any scene with a new infant and mother tugs my heart these days.

I really love the title, although I never really figured out what it referred to!

Rating: 3/5 ........ 317 pages, 2010

other (and more thorough) opinions at:
The Zen Leaf
Musings of a Bookish Kitty
Bermudaonion's Weblog

Jun 4, 2011

The Tapestry of Love

by Rosy Thornton

Some time ago I put this book on a TBR list; after seeing it on several blogs (quite a few of which are mentioned below) it looked interesting. And someone let the author know I was interested in reading her book, because she emailed me and offered a copy! That doesn't happen to me too often (more frequently I'm solicited for review copies of books that fit in genres I rarely ever approach- why is that?) so I happily accepted. The Tapestry of Love has been my constant nursing companion this past week as I tend to the baby, and it was quite a delightful read.

It's the story of an older woman whose children are grown and is now on her own, having gone through a rather amicable divorce years past. Catherine is ready to live her dreams so she moves to southern France where she purchases a small farmhouse in a mountainside village. The story is all about how she learns to love her new home. (Although there is a romance later in the story, it's more about her falling in love with a place and a community, I felt). There are quite a few things to get used to- the house doesn't have all modern conveniences, and her phone and electricity lines regularly fail. The neighbors are rather reserved and formal, but turn out to be staunch friends and quite interesting characters themselves. Village life is quiet, the mountain trails offer nature-viewing galore (including glimpses of wild boar) and it is all rather peaceful. Except, of course, life is never that peaceful. Catherine struggles to set up a business doing upholstery and needlework- she finds plenty of customers but has difficulty with the French bureaucracy getting permits and stuff to make her business legit. One of her neighbors is an attractive man who it seems might become a good friend, but when her sister comes to visit things get complicated.... Not only is Catherine navigating the ups and downs of her new life, but her ties to England and the past are constantly there too- her children on the phone discussing their own struggles with careers and relationships, her mother in a home going through the final stages of Alzheimer's. As she becomes closer to her neighbors she gets involved in their small griefs and joys as well, so when in the end she has to make a choice about returning to live in England or staying in France she finds it harder than she first imagined, having started to set down roots in her new place... oh dear am I saying too much now? I'd better just let you read the book!

What I really liked about this novel was that it felt very much like real life- no huge drama but a lot of little choices, tough decisions, growing relationships... It was such a charming, touching book. I haven't read one like it in quite some time. I think I'd like to read more by this author. Any suggestions what I should try next?

Rating: 3/5 ........ 406 pages, 2010

more opinions at:
Read Warbler
Jenny's Books
Shelf Love
Ardent Reader
So Many Books
The Zen Leaf