Friday, May 22, 2015

The Shadow of the Crescent Moon by Fatima Bhutto

The Shadow of the Crescent Moon tells the story of three brothers and their intertwining lives on a particular (and fateful) morning in current day Pakistan.  One brother, the oldest, is a business man who studied abroad in America and dreams of leaving his small hometown.  The middle brother is a doctor at the local hospital, with a wife that is having a nervous breakdown.  The youngest brother is a college student who is very much active in the local underground resistance movement against the Pakistani government.

I particularly liked this novel due to its setting.  The town the story is set in has historically (as far as the novel goes) bred resistance movements towards the government, and its legacy has a profound impact on all of the brothers' lives, not to mention the fact that their father was also a well-known leader in resistance movement.  This helps illustrate the deep divisions not only within the country of Pakistan itself, but in its citizens as well.  What price should one be willing to pay for the sake of progress and modernization, both culturally and practically?  Mix in a love-story, terrorist attacks, drone strikes, and a brutal run-in with the Taliban and you've got a recipe for a page turner of a story.  At its heart, though, this novel is about people, and how their lives are shaped by the forces and events around them.

I thought that the writing was very well done, with only an odd phrase or awkward sentence here or there.  The novel is fairly short, just over 230 pages, but the amount of quality content that is packed into those pages is impressive.  If you're looking for a good way to spend an afternoon or evening then you can't go wrong with The Shadow of the Crescent Moon.-CA

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Thursday, May 21, 2015

Animals Make Us Human by Temple Grandin

Animal scientist and human autism expert Temple Grandin examines animal emotions and behavior in this enlightening, entertaining book.  Her compassion for animals and her fascinating research findings on their primal motivators make this a tremendously worthwhile read.

According to the author, our best guidelines for meeting animals' needs come from their core emotion systems.  She says the key to animal welfare is keeping their positive emotion systems, such as seeking and playing, turned on and their negative systems, such as anger and fear, turned off.  For example, horses are easily frightened by unexpected sights and sounds, so skilled trainers and horse whisperers are successful because they work with the animals' sensory cues to keep them calm and build trust.

Grandin says that cats are often misunderstood because they can resemble autistic children with their expressionless faces and appearance of detachment.  As an autistic adult herself, the author speaks with credibility when she says that people with Asperger's or dyslexia often connect well with animals because their thinking tends to be sensory-based rather than word-based.

Horrified by animal handling methods at stockyards, Grandin began advocating for gentler practices at feedlots and killing plants.  She has been a consultant for both Wendy's and McDonald's, companies that require their suppliers to treat animals humanely.  She discusses the tension between animal rights activists and the livestock industry with a remarkable sensitivity to both sides.

Animals Make Us Human is conveniently divided into chapters devoted to dogs, pigs, cows, etc. and includes others on wildlife and zoo animals.  Readers can easily select portions of the book without reading all of it.  But there are nuggets of wisdom on every page; animal lovers won't want to miss a single one.  -MS

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Thursday, May 14, 2015

Hug Machine by Scott Campbell

The protagonist of this picture book is no ordinary boy. He is the self-proclaimed “Hug Machine.” The Hug Machine spends his days hugging anything and everyone; whether it’s a rock, a tree, a crying baby, or even a post office collection box. No matter who or what he encounters, he is always willing to give out a hug. What about a spiky porcupine? That’s no problem for the Hug Machine. Armed with a helmet and padding, he is up to the challenge. This book even asks the question: “What does a Hug Machine eat to build up his hugging strength?” Why, pizza, of course. Drawn in simple watercolors, this book is adorable, and the protagonist is drawn with great big eyes and extra-long arms to emphasize his hugging skills. 

I received this book for free at a library conference, and when I gave it to my twin 4 year old boys, they were instantly obsessed. It has now become a tradition to read “Hug Machine” first before we read anything else. And, without giving away spoilers, there is a certain page in the book that my boys wait for with bated breath, and when it comes, they squeal with delight. This book includes simple dialogue, so it is perfect for those kiddos who may not be able to sit through a long picture book. It’s also a great book for early readers. I would recommend “Hug Machine” to kids ages Birth-Kindergarten. -LT

Monday, May 11, 2015

The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein by Peter Ackroyd

I have long respected Peter Ackroyd for his thorough and engaging nonfiction works such as London: A Biography and London Under:  The Secret History Beneath the Streets.  In addition to also writing a number of biographies about famous historical Englishmen, this celebrated historian has a number of fictional books under his belt, such as the novel I’m currently reading: The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein.

This is the first fiction book by this author that I’ve picked up and so far I’m not at all disappointed.  The Casebook is presented as a first-person narrative (from Victor’s point of view) and Ackroyd has deftly captured the passion, imagination, and fascination young Victor has with the human machine, beginning with his first arrival in Oxford.  Ackroyd has managed to refrain from injecting his own insights and personal views into the story (a mistake that I think many writers unknowingly make when handling this kind of subject) and does justice to his narrator by deftly presenting the language of the time as Victor would have spoken and written as a Swiss gentleman, while dividing him from English sensibilities.

Ackroyd’s writing style is romantic without being drippy or sentimental, and, in the case of Victor’s experiments, clinically distanced without being graphic or gory.  What transcribes is pure exultation of a brilliant mind on the verge of scientific breakthrough.  

If, like me, you’re a fan of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, this will be an exciting read.  -JW

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Tuesday, May 5, 2015

The Works of Anne Bradstreet (John Harvard Library) by Anne Bradstreet

An early edition of her works 

Anne Bradstreet, the first true English-speaking poet in the American colonies, wrote at a time and in a place where any literary creation was rare and difficult and that of a woman more unusual still - Massachusetts Bay in 1630, shortly after her marriage at sixteen to Simon Bradstreet. For the next forty years she lived in the New England wilderness, raising a family of eight, combating sickness and hardship, and writing poetry. This book has all of Anne Bradstreet's surviving poetry and prose, published with modernized spelling and punctuation.  It reproduces the second edition of "Several Poems," brought out in Boston in 1678, as well as the contents of a manuscript first printed in 1857. 

Poetry is a hit-or-miss sort of thing; no two people react the same way to any given poem. That said, I liked some of Anne Bradstreet's poems, and did not like some others. Her shorter poems appealed to me more than the longer ones, possibly because she got to the point quickly. Some of her poems to her husband, and the 3 successive verses she wrote on the untimely deaths of 3 grandchildren, were quite moving. I do recommend her work; 17th century poetry has its own rewards, and women poets were rare in those times, American women even rarer. Give it a try.  -LP

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