Monthly Archives: March 2012

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

Swamplandia!Swamplandia! by Karen Russell
Age: Adult
Genre: Fiction
Source: Bookstore
Publisher: Vintage Books, 2011
ISBN: 9780307276681 / 397 pages
Find this book at your local library

Following the tragic death of Ava’s mother, Hilola Bigtree – gator-wrestling extraordinaire, The Bigtree family’s amusement park Swamplandia finds itself burdened and drowning in massive amounts of debt. Each of the Bigtree family members, Chief (the dad) Kiwi (eldest son), Ossie (middle child) and Ava (youngest child) deal with the death and loss of both mother, wife and livelihood in their own ways. The Chief goes to mainland Florida to raise funds, Kiwi goes to mainland Florida to raise funds and go to school, although neither knows of each other’s whereabouts. Ossie and Ava remain alone on the island, but Ossie is convinced she can communicate with the dead, and is soon lost in a romance with the deceased Louis Thanksgiving and subsequently runs away from home, leaving Ava to keep up appearances and try to sort through the mess that is her home.

Overall, I liked the book, but I felt that the book was about 50-75 pages too long and could have been shortened in many areas. It was a quiet book, not much action, but plenty of thoughtful moments, scenes and dialogue. Russell is a very gifted writer, and I love that despite the dark overtones of the book, she managed to infuse some very realistic humor and wit into the characters. None of the kids were wise beyond their years (I hate it when authors do that). The kids were struggling to figure out their situation just as much as their dad trying to keep their heads afloat. Each character had to go on their trek to experience life away from the amusement park in order to grow, and learn that in the end, family is the most important asset.

The book is told through 2 perspectives, Ava in the first person, and Kiwi in the 3rd person. I’m not sure why the author chose to switch the POV, but the decision left Ava in a more favorable light because we were able to get inside her head and understand her character and decisions a little bit more. Although I still don’t understand why or how she was naive enough to trust the Bird Man so quickly upon meeting him. It bugged me when I first read it, and what happened between them later on only confirmed my resistance to that decision. Kiwi is an incredibly complex character and I really wish I could have gotten into his overly smart and erudite head. His book smarts clash strongly on the mainland, where people talk in slang and make crude jokes as a normal part of conversation. Kiwi is outcast a number of ways, despite his best efforts to blend in. Ossie felt like a throwaway character, although her storyline is the driving force of Ava’s storyline.

This is Russell’s first novel. She’s previously written short stories, one collection features a short story about Ava. Although I haven’t read it, I suspect that this short story was the inspiration for the novel Swamplandia! You can find this short story of Ava in St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (John Boyne) Tween-Teen Tuesday

The boy in the striped pajamas : a fableThe Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne
Age: 6th-9th grade
Genre: Historical FIction
Random House, 2006
ISBN: 9780385751896 / 216 pages
Find this book at your local library

Bruno returns to his home in Berlin one day to find the maid packing up all of his clothes. After a brief query, he finds out that his family is relocating because of his father’s promotion in the military. Living in Poland, in a desolate house in a desolate land, Bruno wanders aimlessly around the area, until he meets a young boy sitting on the other side of a barbed wire fence, wearing striped pajamas just like the rest of the people on that side of the fence. Soon Bruno comes to realize that his world isn’t so neatly black and white as he had hoped.

The book takes on a unique perspective of the Holocaust and Auschwitz. Bruno’s father is the Commandant, the lead figure in the brutality that was carried out at the largest and most notorious concentration camp during World War 2. I think Boyne did a good job of telling the story through Bruno’s naive 9-year-old eyes. Young and confused, Bruno doesn’t understand what is going on around him, even though every one else is fully aware of their situation.

At times, I found Bruno’s naiveté hard to handle. It felt more like pure ignorance and denial than naiveté. He clearly wasn’t sheltered from the situation, given that his bedroom window looks out onto the concentration camp, and the numerous scenes of violence he is witness to with his family present. His father is in the S.S. and the Commandant of Auschwitz. I couldn’t believe that Bruno had no idea of what was going on around him. Especially after a year of chatting with Shmuel about their past lives and current situations, I would have hoped that Bruno would grow up and realize what is going on, and especially how his father is involved. Or at the very least, stop referring to Auschwitz as “Out-With” and the Furor as “The Fury.” The friendship between Bruno and Shmuel also felt a bit stunted, and I think it could have been explored and expanded much more. The book itself felt about 75 pages too short. I would have liked to know more about Shmuel and his story, and I think having alternating voices between the two boys would have been a really effective vehicle to discuss how two young boys can be on such opposite ends of the spectrum of the mass hatred that was the Holocaust.

Although this book is a good introduction to the Holocaust, there is a slight disconnect between its target audience and its narrator. Older teens who know about the Holocaust might not appreciate Bruno’s childlike demeanor, and the younger kids who can relate to Bruno don’t have the background knowledge to appreciate the book’s potential.  There are also a lot of historical elements and propaganda that the author seemed to set aside in order to propel his story, but again, I think those omissions can lead to good classroom discussion of what life was really like for children during the Holocaust and how real life actually differed from the book.

Love, Rosie by Cecila Ahern – Review

Love, RosieLove, Rosie by Cecila Ahern (aka Where The Rainbow Ends or Rosie Dunne)
Age: Adult
Genre: Fiction / Chick-lit
Source: Bookstore
Publisher: Hyperion, 2005
ISBN: 0786890762 / 447 pages
Find this book at your local library

Rosie Dunne and Alex Stewart have been best friends since the were 7-years-old. When Alex is 17, his family relocates from Dublin, Ireland to Boston, MA in the United States. Although the two best friends keep in touch, they develop more-than-friends feelings for each other. What gets in the way? Life, circumstance, missed opportunities and miscommunication. Told through a series of correspondence in various forms, we see their relationship change over the years, wondering if these two will ever get together.

This is now my 4th Cecila Ahern book. I first read PS I Love You, then A Place Called Here followed by The Book of Tomorrow. Each of her books has been entertaining, well written and filled with wonderfully complex characters and strong female lead characters. Love, Rosie was no different. Rosie Dunne is an  exceptionally smart and witty girl who drinks a bit too much one night and ends up getting pregnant immediately having graduated high school. While this initially prevents her from moving to Boston to start a new life in Alex, baby Katie does set Rosie down a different path in her life.

The entire book is a short and quick read because it is written entirely in correspondence form: letters, birthday cards, e-mails, IMs, chat room discussion, and notes passed back and forth in class. I love that Ahern was able to infuse each of the characters with their own voice, and personality without ever formally introducing the character. So much of our daily lives are discussed over the Internet, that it makes sense to write a book replicating this. It was frustrating seeing so many factors get between Rosie and Alex. The book spans their lives from age of 7 to the age of 50. In that time frame, we see Alex excel in his career as a surgeon & marry the wrong women. We see Rosie jump from job to job, raise a daughter and deal with the tragic death of her father, and divorce. I found Rosie interesting, because her heart’s desire has been hotels; working in them, staying in them, being a part of the hospitality scene. Time and time again, we see life get in the way of her dreams and goals, but despite those obstacles, Rosie manages to persevere and keep going. She is a great example of frustration and determination.

Despite the chick-lit moniker, this book is intelligent, well-written, entertaining and a smooth and quick read.

Literacy Love Sundays – Celebrity Libraries

I promise I will have reviews posted before the end of the month. To prove it, here is a list of the three books I have recently finished reading.

  1. Swamplandia by Karen Russell
  2. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne
  3. We’ll Always Have Paris: Stories by Ray Bradbury
  4. Love Rosie, Cecila Ahern

Today’s Literacy Love goes to celebrity libraries:

  • Keith Richards (said he’d be a librarian if he wasn’t a rock star)

  • Neil Gaiman (this man wins at everything he does)


  • Diane Keaton (I love the flooring better than the shelving…)

  • Mark Twain (can you just imagine getting lost in a good book in this room?)

Weekend Cooking Author Talk with Donia Bijan

On Thursday, I was very lucky to be able to see Donia Bijan at the Redwood City Public Library. I missed her book tour last fall when Maman’s Homesick Pie was first released. I was glad to get another chance.

Maman’s Homesick Pie is part memoir, part Persian/French cookbook and partly an ode to her ever supportive and loving mother. Since there are so few memoirs of Armenians who have left Iran for California, I try to grab as many Persian memoirs in the field as I can.

Last night was a special treat, because Donia wasn’t there to talk about her book. She was there to discuss the Persian New Year of Norouz and explain how it is celebrated. She went over the Haft-seen (the table display of seven items that begin with the letter S), the big picnic held on the 13th day of the new year, and of course the meals. 

Donia discussed stories of her family, her childhood, and her mother, touching lightly upon the topics in the book, but mostly discussing new stories. The good news is that she is currently working on her next book, but the sad news is that I didn’t get a chance to ask her if it was another memoir or if it would be a cookbook, because I’d love to have either. Her recipes are the same ones that my mom makes, but are also the ones that I can never replicate because the instructions just don’t carry over well. I can also happily say that Donia provided all of my favorite Persian cookies as a gift for the audience. I believe she made the cookies herself. =) Food + Books = Awesome.

If you weren’t able to go last night, there are still 3 upcoming events in the Bay Area:
Saturday April 7th, 2012, Noon
Mt. View, CA

Sunday May 6th, 2012, 3pm
701 Laurel Street, Menlo Park, CA

Sunday May 20th, 2012, 2pm
San Mateo Library
55 W. 3rd Avenue / San Mateo, CA 

Weekend Cooking – Forks Over Knives

Forks Over Knives PosterI recently watched a documentary called Forks Over Knives, about the diets of Americans versus Asian countries. The  main premise of the documentary is that by altering our diet from meat-based to plant-based, we can not only lose weight, but also decrease the number of medications, prevent disease and cancers, improve our health without medical intervention.

I found this documentary to be very insightful, particularly in regards to how modern medicine and doctors neglect to consider food and eating habits as a potential source of illness and cure for various symptoms. There is a lot of scientific evidence and interviews with doctors from various fields in the documentary to provide substance and validity to the facts present. There are also a series of interviews with individuals who have reverses heart disease and ailments with dietary alterations. The part of the documentary that stuck out to me was the section about dairy. The higher the calcium consumption, the higher the chances for osteoperosis. What I also liked was that this documentary didn’t use any fear-mongering to get its point across. I hate when documentaries do that, it takes away from the message. This documentary was balanced, although I wish they would discuss how exercise helped increase the health of the people interviewed, and I also wish they discussed the monetary aspect of poor nutrition v. healthy nutrition. I mean, if you really want to change the mind of the American public, you have to consider the wallet.

Although my husband and I have already drastically changed our diet from Kraft Mac & Cheese to properly prepared meals, we are in the infant stages of a new chapter in our foodie lives. Over the past month or so, we’ve been dipping our toes into the Vegan/Vegetarian pool. I’ve been incorporating more tofu into our meals. We eat a meat-based dinner 3-4 times a week, and its usually just baked chicken breast with a side of brown rice and steamed broccoli. Its been a real challenge trying to find vegetarian recipes that work for us and our schedule. You’d think cutting out meat would make cooking easier, but that’s not the case with us. Most vegan recipes are stir-fry dishes, which isn’t all that healthy since you’re basically deep-frying tofu. Pasta dishes are boring and we  don’t have the time to sit down to make stews or curries. Still, we order the vegetarian dish when we eat out, and try to do what we can at home. I haven’t noticed any drastic changes in our lives as a result, but it’s probably too early to tell.

Although I started us on the vegetarian path because I had read one too many articles about livestock being mistreated, Forks Over Knives helped me reaffirm my desire to cut meat out of my diet for reasons other than the dubious treatment of chickens, pigs and cows. Fans of Michael Pollen with appreciate this documentary and I hope will feel inspired to make simple diet changes as a result.

If you’ve read my rambles this far then congratulations! You get a recipe for my favorite tofu stir-fry recipe from Eating Well

Pineapple Tofu Stir-Fry Recipe


  • 1 8-ounce can pineapple chunks or tidbits, 3 tablespoons juice reserved
  • 5 teaspoons rice vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon reduced-sodium soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon ketchup
  • 2 teaspoons brown sugar
  • 7 ounces extra-firm, water-packed tofu, drained, rinsed and cut into 1/2-inch cubes (See Tip for Two)
  • 1 teaspoon cornstarch
  • 3 teaspoons canola oil, divided
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic
  • 2 teaspoons minced ginger
  • 1 large bell pepper, cut into 1/2-by-2-inch strips


  1. Whisk the reserved 3 tablespoons pineapple juice, vinegar, soy sauce, ketchup and sugar in a small bowl until smooth. Place tofu in a medium bowl; toss with 2 tablespoons of the sauce. Let marinate for 5 minutes. Add cornstarch to the remaining sauce and whisk until smooth.
  2. Heat 2 teaspoons oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Transfer the tofu to the skillet using a slotted spoon. Whisk any remaining marinade into the bowl of sauce. Cook the tofu, stirring every 1 to 2 minutes, until golden brown, 7 to 9 minutes total. Transfer the tofu to a plate.
  3. Add the remaining 1 teaspoon oil to the skillet and heat over medium heat. Add garlic and ginger and cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add bell pepper and cook, stirring often, until just tender, 2 to 3 minutes. Pour in the sauce and cook, stirring, until thickened, about 30 seconds. Add the tofu and pineapple chunks (or tidbits) and cook, stirring gently, until heated through, about 2 minutes more.

My Family For The War (Anne Voorhoeve) Tween-Teen Tuesday Reviews

My family for the warMy Family for the War by Anne Voorhoeve 
Translated by Tammi Reichel
Age: High School
Genre: Historical Fiction
Source: Penguin Books, 2012 – ARC
402 pages
Find this book at your local library

Franziska Mangold is only 10 years old in 1938 in Germany when the first anti-Jew rumblings begin to spread through the country. While many families manage to evacuate and relocate to new countries, the Mangolds are one of the last leave. When Ziska’s father is taken into custody, Ziska’s mother does the only thing she can for her child. Ziska is put on a kindertransport, a train taking children from Germany to London to stay with adoptive parents. Once Ziska arrives in London, she finds a new family and a new life. When its time to reunite with her family before the war, Ziska must decide which family she wants to be a part of.

I thought this book provided a very unique look to World War 2 and the Holocaust. Although the book spans 7 years, I never really felt that Ziska aged or changed in that time span. She was 10 when we met her, and still sounded and acted like her 10-year-old self at age 17, or she acted like a 17-year-old when she was 10. I can’t decide. The other characters were decently developed, although Ziska’s adoptive father Matthew felt like an empty-filler type of character, as did the entire Gary storyline, although I could appreciate what he added to the story.

Most of the story is based on Ziska and her intent desire to be a part of something, either a family or a culture. She didn’t get along with her parents, (her mother), she was born a Jew to parents that converted to Protestantism, making her outcast with both the Jewish community, as well as the Germans. Moving to London allowed Ziska a chance to start over and find a place for herself in the ever evolving Europe. In London, Ziska developed a new-found appreciate for her Jewish roots, much to the dismay of her mother. Ziska’s transformation over time only further wedged the gap between mother and daughter.

The major qualm I had with this book was the author’s excessive use of “!” It was everywhere! Even when it didn’t need to be! It really threw off my pace and chain of thought when reading! I did read the ARC of this book, so I’m hoping that at least half of the “!” were removed before the final print.

Overall it is a good supplemental read during WW2 studies in history classes. I’d recommend this book for 6th grade and up. There isn’t anything overly graphic with the violence, or overly mushy with the underlying love story between Ziska and Walter.

Bringing Up Bebe (Pamela Druckerman)

Bringing up bébé : one American mother discovers the wisdom of French parentingBringing up bébé: One American mother discovers the wisdom of French parenting by Pamela Druckerman
Age: Adult
Genre: Nonfiction / Parenting
Source: Library
Publisher: Penguin 2012
ISBN: 9781594203336 / 284 pages
Find this book at your local library

After moving to Paris with her British husband, American Pamela Druckerman has a baby in France, and soon begins to notice the sometimes subtle and not so subtle differences between French and American parenting practices and techniques. The end comparison? The French are yet again better than Americans.

What I’ve learned after finishing the book:

  1. French women go back to work full-time after maternity leave
  2. French women don’t breast feed because it ruins the figure
  3. Government subsidized child-care is a way of life
  4. French women lose all the baby weight with/in 3 months
  5. French women wait 5 minutes before attending to their crying child (The Pause)
  6. French lexicon allows for wiggle room in reactions to different outbursts/situations by kids
  7. French kids eat what their parents eat, no options. veggies and 3 course meals right from the start
  8. French parents don’t praise every action of their kids, they let them learn to distract and entertain themselves, learn patience & frustration.
  9. Creativity is stifled in schools, education is regimented, praise is rarely doled out.
  10. French parents trust their kids to help around the house and be capable of responsibilities (Setting the table, tying their shoes, cleaning their room).
  11. Bedtime means “stay in your room, do whatever you want, but stay in your room because its adult time now”
  12. Frenchmen/dads don’t and aren’t expected to help out around the house or with raising the kids. It’s up to the moms to work/raise the kids/stay sexy at the same time.
  13. French parents don’t feel guilty for putting their adult needs first. The child is not the center of their lives.
  14. French parents give kids boundaries, but the kids have complete freedom within those boundaries (sounds contradictory, but it makes sense. See #11 Bedtime)

The majority of the anecdotal comparisons are between Parisian moms and New York mothers. I think I can safely say that women in Paris are not an accurate representation of France just as women in New York are most certainly not a representation of the rest of the United States, particularly my little nook in the Bay Area in California. It also took me a long time to warm up to the book due to Druckerman’s clear bias against the US. It made me cringe reading how terribly she portrayed American parents. I can go on the record and say that I know a number of non-French parents who implement many of the “French Methods” Druckerman discusses in the book, so it’s not all that uniquely European.

Despite her nah-nah-nah-de-nah-nah tone of voice, I was really intrigued by the historical aspects of the book, particularly the development of the creche. I did agree with Druckerman on a number of points she made throughout the book about certain traits to instill in children (manners, patience, learning firsthand about frustration and failure) as well as about parents micro-managing their kids. I work in a library, so I’ve had parents come in ready to complete their child’s homework assignment for them, or dissuade them from reading certain books because they didn’t approve of the content level. As a children’s librarian, I see all forms of parents and filial relationships. I see parents that are involved, and parents that don’t care. Parents that let their kids do cartwheels in the library and parents who make sure their child says please and thank you when asking me for help finding a book.

What Druckerman also neglects to consider is the fact that America is made up of more than a dozen different culture and traditions, each family group trying to instill their own sense of values and morals to their child. Just by default, America can’t be as unified as the French with internal knowledge of one set of traditions. There are just too many with which to compete.

All in all, I think this book brought up a lot of good points, but I’m not a parent so I can’t really implement anything, except for trying a new stance at being authoritative with kids I interact with at the library. I’ve already used Druckerman’s chapter of being firm but gentle when speaking to toddlers who won’t let go of the storytime bear, and its worked with shocking success.

Weekend Cooking – Madeleines

Although I’ve gotten better are moderating my cookbook purchases and making sure they match my criteria of use…a few keep buzzing around my radar and I know I’ll have to purchase if for no other reason, then for the images of the food and baked goods they represent.

Case in point:

This isn’t due until October. Its dreadful to have to wait so long. At least Chronicle Books has one of the yummy Madeleine recipes posted on their blog. The Honey-Almond Madeleine, which I have taken upon myself to bake this weekend. Voila! Avec une tasse de café ou une tasse de thé, il est parfait pour un bon matin.

I only had a mini madeleine mold, so they sort of turned out looking like tater tots, but they still taste yummy!

Hungry v Hunger Games Trailers

One makes me crave pizza and the other makes me want to re-read The Hunger Games before the movie is released. ONLY 2 WEEKS LEFT!!!!

Hungry Games – Parody Trailer


The Hunger Games – Actual Trailer

The Hunger Games