Palacio, R.J. Wonder. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012.

Reason read: I know what you’re thinking. This is a book inspired by a Natalie Merchant song and I haven’t read it until now. How come? I don’t know. I can’t answer that except to say I knew it wasn’t written by Natalie and it wasn’t about Natalie. And then there is that list of 5,000 other books I promised myself I would read…So. Why now? Two things. Wonder is mentioned in Natalie’s video memoir and…curiosity got the better of me.

The back story to Wonder as I understand it is this: “R.J. Palacio” was leaving an ice cream shop with her daughter when they passed a special needs child. Palacio reportedly steered her daughter away from the other child to avoid an embarrassing situation. Maybe she was sure her child would blurt out something inappropriate. Her obvious avoidance ended up being more of an embarrassment to everyone. Subsequently, after hearing Natalie Merchant’s song of the same name was prompted to write Wonder. Which is why you find the song quoted in several different places.

Wonder is written from the point of view of ten year old August Pullman, a boy born with severe facial deformities. Auggie as he is known to his parents and older sister, was home schooled for health reasons through fourth grade. Now as a fifth grader he is about to enter Beecher Prep. Auggie is used to people staring at him but a school of over 500 kids is a whole new world and we all know how cruel kids can be. How August navigates through the triumphs and tribulations will Break Your Heart (to quote another Natalie tune).

Book trivia: Other characters tell their sides of the “Auggie story” including Olivia (Auggie’s old sister), Summer (Auggie’s true friend) and Justin (Olivia’s boyfriend). It’s interesting to have their perspective; what it’s like to have a special needs brother, what it’s like to always be the strong one, what it’s like to be that good friend. Etc. Etc.

Author fact: R.J. Palacio admits that is not her real name.

Which Side Are You On?

Lyon, George Ella. Which Side Are You On: the story of a song. Texas: Cinco Puntos Press, 2011.

Reason read: curiosity piqued after it was mentioned in an Early Review book by the same name.

I first heard the protest song Which Side Are You On? from singer-songwriter Natalie Merchant back in 2000 when she toured the U.S. singing folk songs. Her tour was unique given the fact she wasn’t supporting an album (that came later), the songs were all but forgotten British and American folk tunes, and audiences were treated to a history lesson with almost every song. Florence Reese’s “Which Side Are You On?” became one of my favorite.

Of course, no one knows Ms. Reese’s true story and her lyrics have changed over time, but George Ella Lyon’s book (with illustrations by Christopher Cardinale) is entertaining and informative for children and adults alike. I especially liked the author note and bibliography.

Shots on the Bridge

Greene, Ronnie. Shots on the Bridge: Police Violence and Cover-Up in the Wake of Katrina. Boston: Beacon Press, 2015.

Reason read: early review book for LibraryThing. Confessional – I chose this book because of Natalie Merchant’s song, “Go Down Moses” which was inspired by the events on the Danziger bridge. The fact that Natalie heard about the incident while living in Spain at the time blows my mind.

Ronnie Greene wants to send a strong message. Before he even gets to the events surrounding Hurricane Katrina he wants to make sure you understand this: historically, New Orleans has been a city of crooked cops. He outlines other incidents of police brutality and corruption that went on before September 4th, 2005. In his prologue he names Kenneth Bowen (who beat a second degree murder charge), Michael Hunter (suspended twice for leniency when investigating fellow officers), Len Davis (protected drug dealers), Antoinette Frank (helped murder people and then responded to her own crime)…the list goes on. Greene wants the reader to know these people are not above falsifying reports and planting evidence and inventing witnesses and looking the other way. Interestingly enough, he tells some of these same stories in greater detail at the end of the book as well.
On the flip side, Greene wants the reader to visualize the victims on the Danziger bridge as harmless folks. Ronald C. Madison was a mentally challenged man who couldn’t hurt a fly. He hadn’t evacuated New Orleans because he didn’t want to leave his dachshunds; the evacuation site wouldn’t take pets. His brother stayed behind to look after him. Teenager James Brissette was still in New Orleans because his mom had no plans to leave the city and his daddy had left without him. Cousin Jose Holmes Jr. was on the bridge because there were too many people already in the van used to evacuate. These people had already endured devastating hardships even before Hurricane Katrina. Ronald’s parents had lost a child to SIDS and another to a car accident. Sister Barbara had leukemia and Loretta had polio. Ronald wasn’t the only one mentally challenged. His brother Raymond had issues as well. James Brissette had lost a brother to a brain aneurysm and sister Andrea had cerebral palsy. Greene further humanizes the victims by telling the reader what their favorite television shows were and stresses that guns were not allowed in their households.
While the chapters are slightly misaligned (there is some repetition), Shots on the Bridge has the ability to motivate engaged thinking and encourage conversation. My roommate and I shared thoughts on a variety of topics surrounding police corruption and the events of Hurricane Katrina as a result of this book. We discussed the police being shielded by not only the natural disaster of flooding, but the human tragedy of looting and violence. The combination resulted in a city in utter chaos and devastation. It was easy for New Orleans police to hide behind the events before and after Katrina.

Author fact: Greene is an investigative reporter for the Associated Press.

Book trivia: There are no photographs. They will be inserted, along with the epilogue, before the sale date of August 18th, 2015. Just in time for the 10th anniversary of the devastating hurricane.

Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Bauby, Jean-Dominique. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997.

My father died of a massive stroke. When I first opened Bauby’s book I thought I knew what the life of a stroke survivor would be about. I was wrong.

Jean-Dominique Bauby was 43 years old when he was the victim of a rare kind of stroke that occurs in the brain stem. While he survives the event he is basically a prisoner in his own body. His body was completely paralyzed to the point where he could only move one eyelid. From this meager movement he learned to communicate with others and, amazingly, write this memoir. The title of the book comes from Bauby’s description of his condition. While his body felt as weighted down as a diving bell sinking in the sea, his mind was as free as a butterfly floating on the breeze.
There is a sense of stoic realism in Bauby’s tone and while it is impossible to believe, there is also a touch of humor in Bauby’s heartbreaking story. When he talks of everyone gathering for physical therapy and those same patients being uncomfortable with his plight. He describes their eyes skidding away from him as “…feeling the sudden need to study the ceiling smoke detector. The “tourist” must be very worried about fire” (p 33).

Other quotes that grabbed me: “She would take a vacation from life for five minutes or several hours” (p 67) and “I can weep discreetly. People think my eye is watering” (p 78).

As an aside, Bauby’s hospital room was #119. Go listen to Natalie Merchant’s “Verdi Cries.” The opening lyric is “The man in 119 takes his tea all alone.” I wonder what Natalie would have thought about this man in 119?

Reason read: There is a day in August when you are supposed to acknowledge guilt. I can’t remember where I learned this but I am reading The Diving Bell and the Butterfly because it definitely makes me feel guilty.

Author fact: Jean-Dominique Bauby died just two short days after the French publication of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Did he have any idea how many people he would touch with his memoir?

Book trivia: While The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is short, less than 150 pages, it is huge on emotion. It has also been made into a movie. Now, there’s a tear jerker!

BookLust Twist: from More Book Lust in the chapter called “Other People’s Shoes” (p 181).

January ’13 was…

When I look back on January 2013 I have a sense of relief. All things considered this month was better than the last. In the grand scheme of things January treated me kind. No major meltdowns. No minor catastrophes to speak of. I started training for Just ‘Cause in the quiet way. Four to five miles a day and I didn’t stress about the numbers. If I didn’t make five or even four I didn’t have a hissy fit or beat myself or moi up. I cut me & myself some slack; gave us a break. I know that as the months wear on this won’t always be the case, but for now it was nice to go easy on me, myself & moi. The running was a different matter. Just as relaxed a schedule but not so easy going on. The run is a little over six weeks away and I’ve done next to nil in order to train. New Guinea has been awesome in that I’m working on speed intervals on level five. Let me repeat that. Level five. Nothing to write home about. I used to operate at level nine. Enough said. On with the books! I am pretty proud of the list.

  • Lives of the Painters, Architects and Sculptors by Giorgio Vasari ~ in honor of National Art Month way back in October. This finally completes the series!
  • Ancient Athens on 5 Drachmas a Day by Philip Matyszak ~ in honor of Female Domination Day in Greece.
  • Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray ~ in honor of January being the first month I read something from the first chapter of a Lust book. I admit I didn’t finish this one.
  • Of Human Bondage by William Somerset Maugham ~ in honor of Maugham’s birth month. I also didn’t finish this one.
  • Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet by Eleanor Cameron ~ Happy new year. Read something to make me happy.
  • Idle Days in Patagonia by W. H. Hudson ~ in honor of January being the best time to visit Patagonia.
  • The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll ~ in honor of Lewis birth and death month.
  • Rabbit Hill by Robert Lawson ~ in honor of the month all Creatures Great and Small aired.
  • Tatiana by Dorothy Jones ~ in honor of January being the month Alaska became a state.

On audio I listened to:

  • Final Solution by Michael Chabon ~ in honor of January being Adopt a Rescued Bird month.
  • No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith ~ in honor of Female Mystery Month
  • City of Thieves by David Benioff ~ last minute add-on. This was addicting!

For the Early Review program with LibraryThing:

  • Gold Coast Madam by Rose Laws (started in Dec)
  • Her by Christa Parravani

For Fun:

  • Leave Your Sleep the poetry book for children by Natalie Merchant

Leave Your Sleep

Merchant, Natalie. Leave Your Sleep: a Collection of Classic Children’s Poetry. New York: Frances Foster Books, 2012.

I will admit I am biased when it comes to anything Natalie Merchant puts her stamp on. Over the years Ms. Merchant has proven time and time again that she is a humanitarian and an educator. She just happens to have a beautiful voice to go with that caring heart. And having all said that, that is why I bought three copies of Leave Your Sleep. I thought it was appropriate to send one to my public library. I took the chance because there is no way of knowing if they bought it for themselves (no online catalog) but I doubt they did. I also bought a copy for my sister’s family. I don’t know if they will listen to it more than once so I have asked them to pass it along to their public library when they are finished. Do you see a pattern?
Then, of course, I bought my own copy. I will not be donating mine to any local library, though!

Leave Your Sleep is comprised of nineteen poems set to music and, in the book version, accompanied by the wonderful  illustrations of Barbara McClintock. Having the illustrations in front of me banishes my own imaginings but at the same time expands my visions, if that makes sense. For example, take The Sleepy Giant by Charles Edward Carryl. When I first heard Natalie’s musical interpretation in 2008 my mind saw an ancient old man for a giant who was decidedly, thanks to an accordion and somber drums, very very creepy. In the book version of Leave Your Sleep the 372 year old giant is a portly Victorian woman looking a bit like Winston Churchill. Not as creepy as my own imagination scared me. On the other hand the village in Vain and Careless by Robert Graves far exceeded the pictures in my head. The poem came alive in ways it hadn’t before seeing it on the printed page.

The continuing magic is how the book is arranged. Thoughtful consideration was given to every aspect from layout to packaging. Ms. Merchant’s introduction personalizes the project and gives the poems a resonating warmth. I am guessing she thoroughly collaborated on the illustrations because the girl in Equestrienne by Rachel Field looks a lot like Natalie in her video for the song Kind and Generous.

My favorite poem in the entire collection (cd and book) remains ee cummings’s Maggie and Milly and Molly and May. It’s my childhood played out before me.

A Child’s Garden of Verses

Stevenson, Robert Louis Stevenson. A Child’s Garden of Verses. Boulder: Shambhala, 1979.

A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson is one of those books that remained as a constant in my house growing up. Somehow, side by side with unlikely titles such as Fear of Flying by Erica Jong and The World According to Garp by John Irving there A Child’s Garden of Verses sat. It had a permanent place on the shelf and never moved. As a child (I was ten when my 1979 edition was published) it was the illustrations by Charles Robinson that really captured my imagination. Simple illustrations like the title one for “Pirate Story” or more complicated ones like the one for “Garden Days.” I don’t know how I resisted the urge to fill the black and white line drawings with color.
When Natalie Merchant chose “The Land of Nod” as a poem to set to music for her newest album, Leave Your Sleep, it was if the simple verse took flight. Suddenly the poem spread glorious wings and soared with great majesty. It became lush and alive. It made me wish she had taken the entire collection of poems from A Child’s Garden of Verses and set them to music.
Like Natalie’sLeave Your Sleep, A Child’s Garden of Verses is the epitome of poetry for and about children. The imagination of a child grows wild and free among the pages. Hopes and fears are expressed as only children can. The sense of wonder and innocence resonates as reminders to all adults about how the world once was.

Point of amusement: just as I was drawn to the illustrations of Charles Robinson so were the publishers of A Child’s Garden of Verses. The back cover, usually reserved for praise for the author or an abstract about the text, sings the praises of illustrator Charles Robinson and ignore Robert Louis Stevenson completely.

Author Fact opinion: Stevenson and wife Fanny had one of the most romantic courtships I have ever read.

BookLust Twist: From More Book Lust in the introduction (pix). Nancy Pearl is confessing herself to be a “readaholic” and remembering the stories read to her as a young child.