Monthly Archives: January 2012

The Firefly Letters (Margarita Engle) – Review

The firefly letters : a suffragette's journey to CubaThe Firefly Letters by Margarita Engle
Age: 8-12 years old
Genre: Poetry
Source: Library
Publisher: Henry Holt & Co., 2010
ISBN: 9780805090826 / 151 pages
Find this book at your local library 

Frederika Brenner’s visit to Cuba in the 19th Century is chronicled in this touching children’s book. Written entirely in verse, each chapter alternatives point of view from four different people. Fredericka, the foreign visitor. Cecilia, the slave girl. Elena, the plantation owner’s daughter. Beni, Cecilia’s husband and father of her yet unborn child. Brenner is Sweden’s first female novelist and one of the first woman’s rights activists. This book is based on her journal and sketchbook from her visit to Cuba.

Each chapter touches on a number of elements regarding slavery and women’s rights. Told from the various perspectives, the book sheds new meanings and understandings in how change is a ripple effect between people. It cannot be forced, but is observed and repeated.

although a quick read, it is by no means an easy read. Engle’s poetry still gets the message across about the horrors, terrors and hypocrisies that encompassed the practice of slavery. The blind-eye by the magistrates, the dollar amount to free a person from slavery, forced marriages (for slaves and plantation daughters as well). There is so much contained in this little book, its sort of incredible how Engle fit in so much with so few words.

Frederika and I
feel like heroines in a story,
following people around
buying captive fireflies and setting them free.
With the Swedish lady
kneeling beside us in church,
I beging to wonder how much my wife
will have changed
by spending so much time
in the company of the stranger
from the land of the North Star.

Literacy Love Sundays – Shop at your local bookstore

If you really are opposed to borrowing from the library, at least help your local economy and shop at your local indie bookstore.

The Sweet Life in Paris (David Lebovitz) – Review

The sweet life in Paris : delicious adventures in the world's most glorious--and perplexing--cityThe Sweet Life in Paris by David Lebovitz
Age: Adult
Genre: Memoir / Food
Source: My copy
Publisher: Broadway Books, 2009
ISBN: 9780767928892 / 282 pages
Find this book at your local library

After working for nearly 20 years as a pastry chef for Berkeley’s famed Chez Panisse & cookbook author, David Lebovitz decided it time to hang up his apron in the US and head off to the culinary capital of the world, Paris.

In regards to expats in Paris memoirs, this one was not one of my favorites. I found Lebovitz’ tone to be snobby many times throughout the book. I don’t think he could have left the US fast enough, his disdain for this country growing each day he spent in Paris. Luckily, the chapters were short and more than half of each chapter is devoted to various recipes concocted by Lebovitz. Although I did appreciate and enjoy the chapter about his experiences at the grocery store. The visual of him swinging his cart around as a moat against line-cutters was hilarious.

Maybe I’ve read too many memoirs of lives in Paris, but there wasn’t much in this book made it different from other memoirs. It seems like anybody who goes to France ends up with the same frustrations of: dog poop, rude vendors, yummy food, an insane bureaucratic infrastructure, crazy bus drivers, and a much easier medical procedure/insurance system than the US. 

The recipes are really the saving grace. The recipes range from desserts, to meals and snacks. There are even a few pages at the end of the book devoted to US sources of French foodstuff as well as a lengthy list of notable restaurants and chocolatiers in Paris. Each entry includes the relevant contact information along with a sentence summarizing the contents of the location. A nifty guide to have on hand when wandering the streets of Paris. It’s hard to figure out where to start food-wise in that city, so any starter point is always a necessity.

A funny bit of trivia. The building on the back cover of this book is the same building on the front cover of French Milk.


I’d Tell You I Love You, But Then I’d Have to Kill You (Ally Carter) – Review

I'd tell you I love you, but then I'd have to kill youI’d Tell You I Love You, But Then I’d Have To Kill You by Ally Carter
Age: 12-16
Genre: Fiction / Spy-School / Chick-lit
Source: Library
Publisher: Hyperion Paperbacks
ISBN: 9781423100041 / 284 pages
Find this book at your local library 

Cameron Morgan is not your typical teenager. She attends the Gallagher Academy, a secret school for child geniuses with spy and covert-ops training as part of the daily routine. The girls speak 14 languages fluently and can even kill a man with an uncooked piece of pasta. During a class exercise in town (Roseville, VA), Cameron (aka Chameleon) is seen by a very cute and normal guy. Although she can speak 14 language, can she act like a normal teenage girl?

I finished Carter’s Heist Society books (Heist Society & Uncommon Criminals) last year, and I really enjoyed both. I had high hopes for this one, because in theory is sounds awesome. In the end, it’s an amusing, quick, fluff read. There were a lot of staid character types (the nerdy heroine, the book smart friend, boy-smart friend, and the muscle-friend). There isn’t much depth given to any of the characters, except Cameron, but even that was in shallow water. Carter was on-key with the portrayal of teens and their crushes on boys and feeling clueless about boys. I love Cam as the narrator. She’s equal parts inquisitive, anxious, confused, and confident when it comes to dealing with boys, juggling school and friends.

Parts of the book reminded me of Harry Potter (secretive boarding school, a headmistress that’s dangerous and yet also Cameron’s mother, deceased parents, etc). I think any kind of secret-life-of-awesome theme is a go for teens and tweens. Still, the entire concept of Gallagher School sounds amazing and nothing like this existed when I was a teen. I would have devoured the series in high school.

This is Carter’s first book, so I guess allowances have to be made. After all, Heist Society is an amazingly fun read. I did notice that a lot of the a character styles in Gallagher Girls did get recycled and upgraded in Heist Society.

I’m curious to see how the next few books turn out. I like the characters and hopefully we’ll learn more about them and see some character development.

In Cheap We Trust (Lauren Weber) – Review

In cheap we trust : the story of a misunderstood American virtueIn Cheap We Trust: The Story of a Misunderstood American Virtue by Lauren Weber
Age: Adult
Genre: Sociology / money / consumerism
Source: Library
Publisher: Little, Brown & Co, 2009
ISBN: 9780316030281 / 310 pages
Find this book at your local library

In this book, author Lauren Weber provides an interesting and in-depth look at the social history of frugality in America dating back to the founding fathers (namely Benjamin Franklin).

The chapters dealt with the American response, necessity and dependence of consumerism through various eras of our history. There is a huge list of titles at the end, both in resources and in the chapter-by-chapter bibliography, for readers who want to learn more. This isn’t a book of tips on how to be frugal. Its most a book about the philosophy behind frugality. Its a great resource for people already living simply and wanting to feel more empowered in their decisions.

Overall I liked the book and found myself questioning my spending habits during the week or so I spent reading this book. I agreed with her on many points. There were only a couple of (rather glaring) elements that I didn’t like about the book.

The Bad:
The chapter regarding stereotypes of Jewish and Chinese immigrants seemed out-of-place and took away from the chronological flow of the book. It felt forced into the book when I think the concept of immigrants and frugality could have been interwoven throughout the entire text rather than jammed into the middle.

The chapter on freegans on contemporary anti-consumerist mentalities was interesting, although I would have preferred to learn more about people actually dealing with poverty rather than those that take on the poverty mentality just to make a statement or feel at peace with the inner conflict of having too much money in their bank accounts.

Liesl & Po (Lauren Oliver) – Review

Liesl & PoLiesl & Po (Lauren Oliver)
Age: 8-12
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Library copy
Publisher: Harper Collins, 2011
ISBN: 978006201451 / 307 pages
Find this book at your local library 

In the city of Dirge, the sun hasn’t shone in over 1,700 days. Liesl, a young girl & newly turned orphan, is locked away in the attic by her evil stepmother. Will, also an orphan and a make-shift indentured servant to the city’s alchemist, visits Liesl’s house nearly every night for a glimpse of her through the attic window. After having mistaken a box of ashes (Liesl’s father) with a box of the most powerful magic in the world, Will is forced to leave Dirge to escape the wrath of the alchemist and the wicked Lady Premiere. On the way, he encounters Liesl and Po (a friendly spirit from the Other World) who are also escaping from Liesl’s stepmother. The trio embark on an incredible journal to restore Liesl’s father’s ashes to its rightful place and escape from the clutches of evil that dominate their worlds. 

My summary doesn’t really convey the wonder and magic held in the pages of this book. In the middle of reading Liesl & Po, I questioned my husband on why I can’t stand to read adult fantasy or sci-fi (unless it’s penned by Neil Gaiman), but I devour children’s fantasy books like cookies. He said it’s because children’s fantasy books are wonderous, whereas adult fantasy is filled with politics. In my opinion, most adult fantasy books try to hard to create “another world” and there is nothing wonderous about those worlds.

This book, for all intents and purposes, is wonderous. It is Charles Dickens meets Lewis Carroll. It is penned by well-known YA author Lauren Oliver. This book was written as a form of therapy for the author after a close friend of hers passed away. The elements of facing death, pulling yourself out of the shadows and moving on are very strong in this book. They are told in a way that young children can easily read and relate too. It’s not preachy and it’s not over the top. The bad guys (the alchemist and Lady Premiere) are really, really bad, like Count Olaf bad. The good guys are well-meaning if a little bit goofy (Mo). 

The other element I like about this is that it doesn’t talk down to its readers. The audience base is 8-12, and that is very accurate. Although the story is seemingly simple, Oliver’s writing is full of meanings, metaphors, and beautiful descriptions of sadness, eternity, death and friendship. If this was my own copy I would have most of the book either underlined or re-written in a quote journal.

People could push and pull at you, and poke you, and probe as deep as they could go. They could even tear you apart, bit by bit. But at the heart and root and soul of you, something would remain untouched.

I think this is a standalone book, but I wish it could be part of a series. I really fell for the characters. Will (the Oliver Twist of the story), and Liesl (the Alice in Wonderland + Cinderella) make for an interesting duo. Po & Bundle are vague and fuzzy in the book, as they are meant to be residing in the Other Side where everything is vague and fuzzy.

I also have to make a note of Kei Acedera’s illustrations in this book. The pencil sketches accurately reflect the darkness and gray shadows that are cast over the city of Dirge. The book trailer is absolutely beautiful, if you get a chance to watch it.

Library Love Sundays: Libraries in Media Short Film

Check out this cute video of library snippets from various TV shows and movies including:

  • Seinfeld
  • Sesame Street
  • Disney’s Beauty and the Beast
  • The Golden Girls
  • No Man of Her Own
  • The Shawshank Redemption
  • Philadelphia Story
  • Philadelphia
  • Harry and the Hendersons
  • Party Girl
  • Ghostbusters
  • Clean Shaven
  • Phineas and Ferb
  • The Music Man
  • Mr. Bean
  • Shadow of a Doubt
  • The Breakfast Club
  • Only Two Can Play
  • Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay
  • Star Trek: The Animated Series
  • Twisted Nerve
  • The Man Who Never Was
  • Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
  • JAG
  • The FBI Story
  • On the Wings of Desire
  • Se7en
  • Harry Potter
  • With Honors
  • All the President’s Men
  • Strike Up the Band.

Paris My Sweet (Amy Thomas) – Review

Paris, My Sweet: A Year in the City of Light…Paris My Sweet: A Year in the City of Light (And Dark Chocolate) by Amy Thomas
Age: Adult
Genre: Memoir / Paris / Food
Source: Publisher via LibraryThing Early Reviewer
Publisher: Source Books, 2012
ISBN: 9781402264115 / 280 pages
Publication Date: 2/1/2012
Find this book at your local library

Working as a journalist in New York City, Amy Thomas is given a job offer dreams are made of. A year to work on a marketing campaign for Louis Vuitton in Paris, France. As a self-proclaimed Francophile, Thomas only slightly hesitates before accepting a position that takes her across the ocean. Despite her wanderlust with the city of light, Thomas’ love affair with Paris isn’t 100% as sweet as promised.

I think it was this paragraph that first drew me into this book:

…built a mini-library so I’d never be far from Paris. I had books about cats in Paris, dogs in Paris, expats in Paris; Parisian interiors, Parisian gardens, and Parisian cuisine, organized by neighborhood; bistros of Paris, patisseries of Paris, and shopping in Paris.

I think I’m about a few books shy of mirroring her collection of books on Paris in my own little California apartment. Much of Thomas’ love for Paris is driven by her sweet-tooth, namely for chocolates. Although I’m not really a sweets type of girl, I did admire her ardent determination to explore and sample from nearly every single patisserie in both Paris and New York. This book is chock-full of cafes and bakeries in both New York and Paris. It’s definitely a wonderful resource for anyone traveling to either of those two cities with the intent of gorging on sweets.

I’m more of a pastry girl, I’ll take a croissant or danish over a chocolate cake any day. I still remember wandering the Rue Cler, going to a different bakery every morning until I found one right on the corner of Rue Saint Dominique and Blvd du Tour-Maubourg  that had the best apricot croissants. That’s the fun of Paris. There is good food, everywhere. Not to mention the Rue Cler had one of the best open markets in the city. That’s where I ate my first macaron. I’ve been searching endlessly for bakeries in the Bay Area that sell macarons. They are very few and far between and nowhere near as good as the ones in Paris. The best that I’ve found come from Le Boulange Bakery, and Masse’s Pastries.  If anyone has any suggestions, I’m all ears.

What I really liked about Amy’s memoir is that it provided a very new perspective to Paris. As a single girl in her 30s, Thomas didn’t move to Paris because of love, or marriage. She moved there for work, and her experiences of trying to fit in were more interesting as she had to figure everything out on her own. From disastrous dates, to a complicated work-environment, Thomas shows us that living in Paris isn’t always as romantic as we think. There are ups and downs, and soon she finds herself in a cultural limbo, not quite a Parisian, but no longer a typical American either.

Most chapters alternated between Thomas’ life in Paris and New York. Most chapters focused mainly on various comfort foods that Thomas relied on to get herself through the tough times in both cities. There are a number of paragraphs describing foods so rich and sweet that I thought I might develop second-hand cavities from her descriptions. My only complaint was that Thomas made several mentions of living in San Francisco for 7 years, but never once mentioned or listed any bakeries or cafes of note. Living so close to San Francisco, I would have loved to have gotten her recommendations for places nearby.

I can happily say that Thomas does actually have recommendations of bakeries in San Francisco, New York and Paris on her two blogs, God I Love Paris and Sweet Freak. I’m also happy to note that she still regularly updates both blogs. Nothing bugs me more than when a blogger abandons their blog after snagging a book deal.


The Language of Flowers (Vanessa Diffenbaugh) – Review

The language of flowers : a novelThe Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh
Age: Adult
Genre: Fiction
Source: Library Copy
Publisher: Ballantine Books, 2011
ISBN: 0345525543 / 318 pages
Find this book at your local library

Shuffled around various foster homes since birth, Victoria Jones has developed a heavy shell preventing her from forming any close bonds. 18 and emancipated from a group home in San Francisco, Victoria puts her knowledge of the language of flowers to use by working under the table with a local florist in an attempt to stabilize her constantly shifting life. She then finds love, but runs away from any type of affection because she feels she doesn’t deserve it.

The book alternates between Victoria’s adulthood at age 18, and her childhood at age 10. Although we learn about the various abuse Victoria suffered in the different foster homes, she never whines or complains, just accepts it. It is clear why she made the decisions that she did over the years, and why she has so much trouble letting her guard down. Being constantly let down by nearly every person in her life, she learned to only rely on herself. It is because of this past that she makes some very wrong decisions in her present life. I still found myself hoping that she would just realize that the people around her care and would help her if she let them.

I found Victoria to be a very likable character despite the walls she had built around herself. I did find it odd that for all the negative treatment she received as a child, there was nothing but warmth when she went out on her own at age 18. The people she encountered; Renata and Grant, were very quick to be understanding and sympathetic to her needs.  I also felt that some parts of the novel fell into place much too easily. Although the ending wasn’t the typical happily ever after, it was close enough. There are a number of heartbreaking scenes in the book, especially in regards to Victoria’s experiences with motherhood. It was frustrating, but Diffenbaugh’s writing added multiple yet subtle layers of complexity to the anxiety and battle within Victoria.

This book is Diffenbaugh’s first novel and I am immensely impressed. It was carefully crafted and you could really see the research that she put into this book, mostly in regards to the flowers. There is even a glossary in the back of the book that lists the flowers and their meanings.

Don’t Worry About It

I came across this very sweet and sentimental post at Lists of Note about a list F. Scott Fitzgerald made to his daughter Scottie in a letter in 1933.

Despite his own struggles with alcoholism, his writing talent shines even in a letter to his daughter. In a way, this list reminds of Polonius’ speech to his son, in Hamlet, “neither a borrower nor a lender be…”

I think these are good rules of thumb to live by. I’m really glad I came across post, because I didn’t even know a book of Fitzgerald’s letters even existed. I really need to get my hands on a copy.

In 1933, renowned author F. Scott Fitzgerald ended a letter to his 11-year-old daughter, Scottie, with a list of things to worry about, not worry about, and simply think about. It read as follows.

(Source: F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Life in Letters; Image: F. Scott Fitzgerald with his daughter, Scottie, in 1924.)

Things to worry about:

Worry about courage
Worry about cleanliness
Worry about efficiency
Worry about horsemanship

Things not to worry about:

Don’t worry about popular opinion
Don’t worry about dolls
Don’t worry about the past
Don’t worry about the future
Don’t worry about growing up
Don’t worry about anybody getting ahead of you
Don’t worry about triumph
Don’t worry about failure unless it comes through your own fault
Don’t worry about mosquitoes
Don’t worry about flies
Don’t worry about insects in general
Don’t worry about parents
Don’t worry about boys
Don’t worry about disappointments
Don’t worry about pleasures
Don’t worry about satisfactions

Things to think about:

What am I really aiming at?
How good am I really in comparison to my contemporaries in regard to:

(a) Scholarship
(b) Do I really understand about people and am I able to get along with them?
(c) Am I trying to make my body a useful instrument or am I neglecting it?

With dearest love,