The Round House by Louise Erdrich

Find in catalogWhen my inner author begins to write, I hope I can write at least half as good as Louise Erdrich. The Round House is my third book that I’ve read of Erdrich and won’t be the last. Erdrich packs a punch. She’s able to get so much into a book and makes every word, every image, every event count.

The book starts out: “Small trees had attacked my parents’ house at the foundation. They were just seedlings with one or two rigid, healthy leaves. Nevertheless, the stalky shoots had managed to squeeze through knife cracks in the decorative wall and it was difficult to pry them loose.” Joe, a thirteen-year-old Native American boy, and his father attack the problem; meanwhile, Joe’s mom, is violently attacked and would have been burned to death, if she hadn’t escaped. The foundation of the family is cracked over this real-life crime where it looks like the perpetrator will be walking free, spreading the havoc and preventing the family from returning to the way it used to be. Joe gets the taste of being a grownup and knows that life will never be the same, giving him the motivation and the courage to take matters in his own hands.

Erdrich helps readers handle such a traumatic crime, which is followed by ludicrous and soul-wrenching entanglement of laws, with humor. I’d never heard of a Native American steak sandwich, but I won’t think of bologna in the same way again. And when Joe’s dad attempts to cook potatoes, Erdrich’s clear-cut description makes me want to vomit my own portion like the way Joe’s mom did. “My father beckoned the two of us to sit down. There were potatoes, nearly cooked, way overcooked, disintegrating in an undrained pot. He ceremoniously heaped our shallow bowls. Then we sat looking at the food. We didn’t pray. For the first time, I felt the lack of some ritual. I couldn’t just start eating. My father sensed this and spoke with great emotion, looking at us both. Very little is needed to make a happy life, he said.”

Sherlock Holmes: The Patchwork Devil by Cavan Scott

It’s a good sign when a book can hold my attention for longer than a half an hour. Scott doesn’t waste details in this book; if something is mentioned, it has meaning. The book opens with the world, especially Europe, celebrating the end of World War I, but Sherlock Holmes and James Watson would soon unearths a horrific secret that the Frankenstein family was seizing on the opportunity of the heavy casualties. Perhaps it was the action that kept my attention as there weren’t very many moments when the investigative duo were standing still. I’m not well-read of Sherlock Holmes, but after reading Sherlock Holmes: The Patchwork Devil by Cavan Scott, I’ll be putting Arthur Conon Doyle on my summer reading list.

And a Dark Sacred Night by Julia Glass

Find in catalogI have only read one book by Julia Glass, but I suspect most, if not all, of her books are the kind that could easily be enjoyed a second time. I can relate with Kit, the main character of And The Dark Sacred Night, as he’s trying to figure out where he fits in the world; his wife is convinced that if he could find out who his dad is, he’d have a better idea who he was. I often wonder if my relationship had been extended past the first twelve years, how my life would have been different. When he is with his twins, he wonders what kinds of people they will grow up to be. Glass describes his used-to-be crazy in-love relationship with Sandra, his wife, as one of a dance of “leisurely dance of passion and deliberation.” Soon the book weaves various family relationships when he makes a pilgrimage to find out the identity of his father. He couldn’t have expected to have so many relationships come out of the ashes. Glass is a great story-teller as well as an artist that creates vivid settings and intriguing characters. If you have a long list of books you want to read, I’d put one of her books on the top.

Sam, Bangs & Moonshine by Evaline Ness

Find in catalogI just finished reading a wonderful picture book, Sam, Bangs & Moonshine by Evaline Ness. This 1967 Caldecott winner is about a little girl named Sam and her amazing imagination. Who could blame her since she spent the days alone while her single-father worked as a fisherman. After dutifully cleaning the house, her imagine turns wild. Bangs the cat doesn’t believe her stories, “Even Bangs yawned and shook his head when she said the ragged old rug on the doorstep was a chariot drawn by dragons”. Ness illustrated the book as well as weave a short story that reminds readers that they really need know the differences between imagination, which her dad refers to as moonshine, flummadiddle, and reality. I’m wondering if Evaline Bangs used the word moonshine in reference to one of her ex-husband’s line of work; she was married to Eliot Ness, the Untouchable. It’s one thing to entertain people with stories of her pet baby kangaroo, but Thomas, a young lad who lived “in the tall grand house on the hill,” believed every word that Sam said and came by her house every day. “When the sun made a golden star on the cracked window, Sam knew it was time to expect Thomas.” Was it their socio-economic differences between she and Thomas that caused her to send this boy all over, looking for the baby kangaroo that just happened to step out right before Thomas arrived. Most of the time, the excursions Thomas took, like climbing a tall tree where the owls lived, weren’t threatening. But when Sam told Thomas to Blue Rock, and Sam knew that the day’s early tide would cover the road to Blue Rock, perhaps with the hope that this would keep Thomas from actually getting to Blue Rock. “Living on a small island, near a larger harbor” must have taught Sam about sudden storms, but her flight of fancy doesn’t take into consideration what really could happen when she sends Thomas off chasing a make-believe baby kangaroo that he’s dying to meet. Since this tale has a sharp moral lesson in it, a severe storm came up, causing Sam distress. Not only was Thomas in danger, but her old cat, Bang, was also missing. In lieu of giving up her magical baby kangaroo, her father brought home a gerbil, which looked more like a Kangaroo Rat than a Gerbil. (I ought to know, I did a report on Gerbils in elementary school.) This 35-page well-illustrated book has everything a good read ought to have. Character development. The author makes a point to say that Thomas not only lives on a hill in a grand house, but “Thomas had two cows in the barn, twenty-five sheep, a bicycle with a basket, and a jungle-gym on the lawn.” There’s drama with suspense and a good dose of moral fiber to boot. Great read for young and old.

Ruby by Cynthia Bond

Find in catalogThis is a hard book to read. Not for the language; which  is rich and full and doesn’t fail in its desire to bring to mind a given scene in meticulous detail and imagery. Not for the weaving of the stories of the intertwined lives of the inhabitants of the small east Texas town of Liberty. Not for the poverty of means, but for the inability to look beyond one’s own existence to that of others, mired in unexamined history and tradition. The willingness to inflict unspeakable cruelty on folk, especially the very young, who are so terribly vulnerable. For those who manage to endure the journey there is a sense of returning rightness and realization of the goodness in the world that is possible.

It was worth it.

For all the tea in China by Sarah Rose

Find in catalogChina had the best tea; India grew opium. The British empire engaged in the commerce of both but wanted more. So England used trading ports ceded to it after the first Opium War to smuggle tea plants out of China to be grown in India, using newly devised “terrariums” as conveyances. The growth of this tea industry led to improvements in shipping (tea clippers then steamships through the Suez Canal); the discovery of how the Chinese could fire its porcelins at high temps that could hold boiling water; the boiling water used for tea (but not for coffee)could kill cholera that spread easily in crowded urban settings; the sugar that came from the Queens holdings in the Caribbean could be used to sweeten and add calories to the tea consumed by workers, who previously drank beer on their breaks. This and its mild stimulant effect was an aid to the efficiency and safety of the worker. And so one thing leads to another in a most unexpected way. The historical narrative draws the reader in and sustains interest through out the book. A most satisfying adventure.

Heaven is For Real: a little boy’s astounding story of his trip to heaven and back by Todd Burpo

This was a great read — encouraging, fun and real.

Reviewed by Susan

Iron Lake: a Cork O’Connor mystery by William Kent Krueger

This is the first of a series featuring ex-Sheriff “Cork” O’Connor, set in a very small town in rural Minnesota near the border with Canada. The brutal murder of the town’s influential Judge leads Cork, called upon by the mother of a youth who disappearance coincides with the death of the Judge, into a series of adventures in the frozen north. The cast is enriched by the local Ojibwe Indian tribe, with whom Cork shares a bloodline, as he simultaneously juggles the investigation and his own personal challenges involving the on-again off-again relationships with his wife and children, from whom he has separated. An absorbing read; briskly paced with a cast of interesting characters. Makes me look forward to further adventures with this character.

Reviewed by Susan

Out of Eden: an odyssey of ecological invasion by Alan Burdick

A year after the tsunami in Japan debris is washing up on the shores of the west coast. Why should we be concerned?

Alan Burdick is a science writer who writes for the general audience. This book is about the unintended consequences of accidentally introduced organisms. He starts with a brown tree snake which inadvertantly was introduced in the island of Guam by hopping a ride on a plane. Since it has no natural enemies in Guam, it proceeds to decimate the bird population, who heretofore had no natural enemies. The plunging numbers of birds allows populations of insects and smaller creatures upon which they fed to suddenly explode, creating problems all down the line. Organisms arriving on ocean flotsom can bear troublesome consequences. Fascinating read and very topical.

Reviewed by Susan

Mockingbird: a portrait of Harper Lee by Charles J. Shields

Really a fascinating read on the life of the shy and unconventional lady who was awarded the Pulitizer Prize for her first and only novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. After deciding to not follow in the footsteps of her father and sister in a law career; this “tomboy” left her small hometown in Alabama for the big city of New York in the 1940’s while still in her early twenties. She wanted to be a writer and did it her way. Of equal interest to me was the portrait of the rural south which gave her life and was inextricably woven into her book; as well as descriptions of the artists’ life in New York in a time of exciting creativity. I would highly recommend this enjoyable read.

Reviewed by Susan