With “The Invisible Alphabet,” author and illustrator Joshua David Stein and Ron Barrett have created a really unusual and thoughtful picture book that is perfect for engaging children’s creativity and thinking-outside-the box skills. Even the cover, with the word “invisible” barely seen because it’s white-on-white but in shiny print gives a clue to the brilliant art inside. The black ink with white paper and just a hint of orange is the theme throughout the book. That orange provides the only actual color in the illustrations.
“Anxious People” by Fredrik Backman is about us. It’s about every person who has ever doubted themselves, worried about not being able to do something, fretted about making a mistake, or looked at others with either awe or disdain. It’s a book in which all readers will be able to find themselves – for better or worse. But it’s also a book that every reader will feel better for having read.
With “Anxious People,” Backman gives us permission to be imperfect. The second paragraph in the story tells us:
“This story is about a lot of things, but mostly about idiots. So it needs saying from the outset that it’s always very easy to declare that other people are idiots, but only if you forget how idiotically difficult being human is. Especially if you have other people you’re trying to be a reasonably good human being for.”
He goes on to say that “there’s such an unbelievable amount that we’re all supposed to be able to cope with these days.” To me, as a teacher back in the classroom teaching via a computer screen to children at home, this book gives me permission to accept the fact that I really don’t know what I’m doing. None of us do. All of us teachers are muddling through the best we can, even though we are facing students who turn off their cameras to leave the room, to browse on their computers, to play; shy students who turn off their cameras and won’t talk, so we don’t even know if they are there, on the other side of the screen, listening and learning. We can’t do really enjoyable things like reading picture books to them or giving them a hug or just sitting on a rug and talking. We deal with having to repeat sentences when a child can’t hear us through the computer, or having to show multiple times how to access a web page or assignment. It’s frustrating and we are helpless — and after reading this story about people who try their best against all kinds of odds, I feel better. Really better.
In this story, there are many characters, but there is only one very significant bridge. It’s a bridge that plays an important part in the story because of one person who jumped from it many years ago and one person who did not. There is also an extremely inept bank robber and the bank robber’s hostages.
We learn a lot about the hostages and two of the police officers who are trying to find the bank robber and solve the mystery of where the robber went after the hostages were released. We learn about the wife of one of the police officers, who also happens to be the mother of the other police officer. The father and son are very different, but alike in perhaps the most important sense. They both loved this woman fiercely, and they miss her every day. And Backman performs his literary magic of combining life and birth and death into a story that’s poignant and bittersweet and melancholy and beautiful — and about life.
The many other characters are all very important, and we get to know — and like — them all because Backman imbues each character, no matter how unlikable he or she might seem at first glance, with human qualities and human frailties. The story weaves around and around, from the characters to the bridge and into parts of the past that made the characters who they are as they are held hostage by the unsuccessful bank robber.
Backman shares what he believes is the most important thing in life (as I see it). We must love and cherish those who are close to us, our families and our friends. He also seems to believe that we must help others whenever possible. And he also asserts, in no uncertain terms, that most of us go through life not knowing what we are doing, but doing the best we can. He writes, “We don’t have a plan, we just do our best to get through the day, because there’ll be another one coming along tomorrow.” We worry about raising our children and do it pretending that we know how to do it. That is how we get through a good part of life — by pretending that we know what we are doing. Surprisingly enough, it often works.
And tomorrow I will go back into my classroom, sign onto my Zoom class meeting, and pretend that I know how to teach 4th grade dual language on a computer to lovely children who deserve the best education but who are only getting the best that I can provide. And I fear it’s not enough, as do most of the other teachers struggling along in this pandemic. As do many, many others who are also struggling along in this strange, anxiety-provoking time.
And at the end of each and every day, I actually do what Backman suggests at the end of the story. He says,
“But when you get home this evening, when this day is over and the night takes us, allow yourself a deep breath.
Because we made it through this day as well. There’ll be another one along tomorrow.”
Buy “Anxious People.” Read it. You will love it, and perhaps more importantly, you will feel better. You are not alone.
Did I mention that the writing is beautiful? Touching? Incredibly thoughtful?
“Fallout,” Lesley M.M. Blume’s non-fiction description of John Hersey and his essay, “Hiroshima,” is an all-too-vivid and, I’m quite sure, all-too-accurate account of how “Hiroshima” was created; of the dangers Hersey courageously faced because he dared to write and then publish the essay; of the roadblocks Hersey and his editors and publisher encountered because of the semi-forbidden subject matter; and, above all, of the horrors generated by war in general and the use of the first atomic bomb in particular.
The title of Blume’s work, “Fallout,” is itself a word of several relevant meanings: the fallout following the explosion over Hiroshima refers, in part, to the radioactive poisoning suffered by much of the city’s population and the resulting additions — deliberately hidden — to the original death-count caused by the bomb. The first estimate was 42,000. The count that was available to Hersey was 100,000. The count most often estimated today is about 280,000. Two hundred eighty-thousand dead innocent civilians. The entire U.S. government and military establishments, Truman to MacArthur to the government PR squads, perpetrated an expansive and complex cover-up in order to hide the horrors of Hiroshima. They implied that the Hiroshima event was “just” a big, impressive bomb invention that forced the Japanese to surrender and, in the process, demonstrated that America was inarguably the most powerful country in the world.
Blume concisely re-tells the stories of the six survivors whom Hersey chose to exemplify the actual devastation of the bomb and the effects of its aftermath. Hersey realized that numbers like 42,000 do not even begin to tell the story. The war-weary public was numb to the effects of numbers on their psyches. He also realized that in some cases a picture is not worth a thousand words. A mysterious mushroom cloud communicates nothing about the terror of a nuclear attack.
But, he knew, a detailed description of eyes hanging from their sockets; skin, like ill-fitting gloves, peeling off hands; and bodies and bones of loved ones forming ugly blackened masses lying all over the ground would affect readers in ways that death numbers and pictures of the bomb could never accomplish. And his words did work effectively to make the public aware of the very real and potentially very personal effects of the attack — personal because Hersey brought the sheer horror of the bomb directly to the minds, hearts, and homes of the American people. He accomplished his stated purpose: to warn every person that each of us is a victim; that the world would now be a boiling cauldron of nuclear power and waste; and that what happened to those six people might well happen to us if we don’t stop the spread of the madness of nuclear armaments. The world was now in a new and different kind of ever-present mortal danger, every single day a threat to our very existence.
Blume’s work, like Hersey’s, is a testament to the power of fine journalism. She brilliantly recreates Hersey’s fragile position as the ultimate whistleblower, as well as his earth-shaking reporting. After “Hiroshima,” he was loved and appreciated by thousands of people. But he was also despised by hundreds of the world’s powerful figures and by many Americans who refused to see their nation in a new and unflattering light. He had divulged difficult truths. He had destroyed the cover-up. He had dented the glorious reputation of post-war America. He had exposed his country’s callous disregard for the lives of civilians — guinea pigs — human beings just like us.
And, ironically, he had become the enemy of both Cold War foes. Many American officials despised him and his essay because he had damaged our post-war image as the “good guys.” He had made the Japanese people the victims and had turned the spotlight away from the unforgivable tortures inflicted on American military men by the Japanese “animals.” He had given the Soviet Union even greater incentive to catch up in the nuclear arms race. And on the other side, the Soviet power structure felt that he had intended to make the USSR look comparatively weak in the eyes of the world; that he was simply a disgustingly effective purveyor of American propaganda; and that he was proclaiming, in effect, “Russia, here’s what we will do to you if you dare to challenge us.”
Finally, Blume makes a brief but powerful plea at the end of her book. She urges us all to demonstrate once and for all that we have learned the lessons of Hiroshima and “Hiroshima,” to heed the uncomfortable truths of journalistic truth-tellers, to accept and act on the reality that the world since Hiroshima is teetering on the edge of self-destruction, and to understand that the time for ending the madness is now. Time is short.
Review by Jack Kramer. First published on Bookreporter.com.
“Until I Find You” by Rea Frey is a story filled with darkness and loss. There’s a lot of loss going on from main character Rebecca Gray’s point of view. In fact, one of the losses is her sight. She has a degenerative disease and can only see shadows, and she knows her sight will get worse and worse. To make matters even darker, Rebecca is a widow. Her husband died when she was newly pregnant, her mother shortly after that, and her grief at losing her husband, her mother, her sight, and the life she envisioned is quite overwhelming.
It’s fascinating to learn how Rebecca manages life with a baby. She diapers him, changes and bathes him, feeds him, and takes him for walks in Elmhurst, the suburb of Chicago where she grew up. She lives in the house she grew up in and is able to function there perfectly; she also navigates her way to the nearby park and friends’ houses. Her strength and her determination not to let her blindness hamper her become a stumbling block when she ventures out determined to not rely on anyone else. At times, we want to shake her and tell her that it’s permissible to let others help; that people who are sighted rely on others, and she certainly can, as well.
The story is told from alternating perspectives, that of Rebecca — labeled “Bec” and told in first person narrative — and that of Crystal, one of Bec’s new friends, told in third person narrative. Crystal and Bec met at a grief group and became friends. They live within a few blocks of each other in Elmhurst. Both Bec and Crystal are very unhappy. Both are widows, both have a child, and both are suffering severely. Bec is the center of the story, and her grief is compounded by all her other losses. Her life seems very dark at the start of the story. She imagines that someone has been watching her inside her home. She finds her front door unlocked when she is sure that she had locked it. She finds the baby’s playpen moved from the room she kept it in to another room. As readers, we believe her, but we also wonder if she is a completely reliable narrator. Is her emotional state causing her to imagine things?
The one bright spot is that an old boyfriend, Jake, who she believes is the love of her life, is back from out of state. He texts her and wants to meet. He knows that she is widowed, and when they meet, she realizes that she’s still in love with him. But when her baby disappears and is replaced with another infant, will he believe her? He’s a Chicago detective, so he could be the perfect person to help her find out what happened to Jackson.
Bec knows her baby. She knows what Jackson smells like, feels like. She knows every inch of him because while she can’t see him, she feels him, she touches him. She knows the patch of eczema behind one ear and the notch on his collarbone. The baby in the crib in her house is not the quiet placid Jackson who never cries.
But what do you do when no one believes you — her friends, most of whom have never really held Jackson or spent a lot of time with him, the police who were called to her home when she thought someone had been inside, and maybe even Jake. Bec knows she’s on her own, and she knows unequivocally that the baby isn’t hers — even if no one else believes her.
The story takes off at this point, and while we don’t know quite what to believe, we know that Crystal’s life, too, is far from perfect. Crystal’s narrative is vague, and there are omissions. Her ten-year-old daughter Savi is a talented cello player, and Bec, who was a symphony cellist, gives her lessons. But Savi is unhappy because she knows her mother is unhappy. While she has fun with the nanny, a young woman named Pam, we get the feeling that Pam isn’t what she appears to be, and that she’s hiding something.
The mystery of where Jackson is, how Bec will figure it out, and who her friends really are intensifies as the hours and days pass. There are many clues and many red herrings, and while we know Crystal’s story is also important because she’s the other narrator, we don’t know her role in the story.
While the beginning was a bit slow, the action and emotions really pick up once the baby is gone, and in fact, I stayed up late to finish the book and find out how it all ended. Frey has written a story that will chill readers but will make us think about living with a visual or hearing impairment. How do we remake our lives if we lose our sight? And the fact that Bec has also lost every single person in her family is perhaps the worst loss.
It’s not all dark, though. Frey provides a very satisfactory ending with a hopeful tone for Bec’s future. Light at the end is welcome, indeed.
Please note: This review is based on the advance reader’s copy provided by St. Martin’s Griffin, the publisher, for review purposes.
With COVID-19, many families have adopted needy shelter pets. But there are still many, many animals in shelters across the country who are in need of a loving home. These three picture books will not only share why it’s rewarding to rescue a pet but also share how to train your new dog or cat, thanks to National Geographic Kids’ two training books for kids. Continue reading
In “Death Rattle,” Alex Gilly takes us to Southern California. It’s not Hollywood and stars, though. It’s undocumented immigrants and a suspicious murder at a detention center that causes Nick Finn and his wife Mona, a human-rights lawyer, to investigate. When Mona gets threats, she knows she’s on the right track.
People around the investigation begin dying. When Carmen, the young woman whom Finn rescued from a sinking boat, is bitten repeatedly by a snake in a detention center and not given appropriate medical care, she dies. Mona is determined to get justice for Carmen, who was also brutally tortured by someone in the drug cartel before she escaped Mexico.
The main characters, married couple Nick and Mona, are people we like because they are real people with foibles and backstories. Their determination to do the right thing is stirring, especially when many just want to ignore the plight of the undocumented. While there are twists at the end, to many mystery readers, the twist is easy to foresee. The foreshadowing is a bit heavy handed at times, but the overall plot is thrilling, and readers will want to know exactly how it all ends up.
Although this is the second book in the series, and I didn’t read the first one, that didn’t handicap me at all. It works fine as a stand alone novel, and I would like to read future novels in this series.
Please note: This review is based on the advance reader’s copy provided by the publisher, Forge, for review purposes.
In the adorable picture book “I Found a Kitty!” by Troy Cummings, there’s a new cat in town, and he needs a home. And Arfy, the pooch who charmed everyone in “Can I Be Your Dog?” is determined to help. The sweet kitty can’t live with Arfy and his friend who delivers the mail because she’s allergic to cats, but surely someone wants a many-talented, sweet, playful kitty for their very own?
Cleverly, before we even get to the title page, there’s a little narration by Arfy about how he found his new friend, the kitty. After the title page, as in Arfy’s own book, there are letters he writes to neighbors asking if they want a kitty of their own. Cummings brilliantly combines visuals with plays on words to make each letter that Arfy crafts match the visually revealing prospective home.
For example, the first prospective home is the residence of a music teacher. Even my four-year-old grandson recognized that the house looks like a piano with the treble clef symbol in both front windows. Even the mailbox has a musical motif. The letter introduces Scamper and shares that “He also likes to sing! I know he would make beautiful music with your students.” The response from the music teacher is negative, but also peppered with clever musical play on words — some that only an adult will get. “I was hoping for more harmony in my household. But with Scamper here, I can hardly find a single measure of rest.“
With each house, Scamper gamely delivers Arfy’s letter. But each time there is something that doesn’t work out. Three babies and a cat don’t make for gentle petting, and a cat who plays with mice instead of eating them won’t help a mechanic with a rodent problem. Even the cat-loving neighbor, whose house looks like a cat, seems to appreciate inanimate cats more than the real, moving, sometimes-clumsy ones.
Finally, Scamper sends Arfy a message. He really wants a home where he can do all the things that each house offered. He wants to get cuddled, play, get brushed, sing. And yet again, Cummings’ ending brought this reviewer (and lover of my three black cats) to tears with the all-too-clever, all-too-touching twist at the end.
As Cummings shares on the endpaper at the end of the book, there are many ways to help homeless kittens and puppies (and grown-up dog and cats). Donate to your local rescue. Get to know them and how the money is used. Adopt a pet instead of buying one. At the shelter, meet all the cats and dogs before you pick one to adopt. Some might be shy or scared at the shelter. A dog or cat missing a leg or even an eye will be a fabulous pet with lots of love to share. And don’t overlook the senior pets. They have years to show their gratitude to you for giving them a second chance!
If you don’t have Arfy’s book, buy it along with “I Found a Kitty!” and your classroom or library or bookshelf will be better for it. And your children will love them. Guaranteed.
Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by the publisher, Random House, for review purposes.
“One Hundred Dogs & Counting” by Cara Sue Achterberg is her book about the second part of the title, “One Woman, Ten Thousand Miles, and a Journey into the Heart of Shelters and Rescues.” In this book that will wring your heart, we learn about her selfless determination to foster, and thus rescue, as many shelter dogs as she can.
Achterberg makes no bones about the work that goes into fostering. She doesn’t play it safe like I do, only fostering adult dogs who will be quickly housebroken and are usually past the chewing and destructive stage. Her description of the work and cleaning involved in caring for litters of puppies has convinced me that adult fosters are definitely the way to go!
But Achterberg doesn’t shirk from hard work and from heartache. When you rescue, you know both. She passionately describes loving the foster dogs and then letting them go to permanent families. She knows that it’s easy to be what’s called a “foster failure” and adopt the foster dog you’ve fallen in love with, but then she wouldn’t be able to take in tens of dogs every year and save them. This one woman has saved over a hundred dogs in a short time by fostering them and then getting them adopted. Then repeat.
But the more dogs she saved, the more she thought about how the problem of unwanted and abandoned dogs doesn’t seem to be getting any better. And so she took trips to rural shelters to see what their problems were and what they thought needed to be done to solve the overpopulation problem which then leads to the problem of too many unwanted dogs. She describes her travels in detail. There are brutal descriptions of horrible shelters where caring people struggle to save as many dogs as they can in spite of almost insurmountable obstacles. There are also shelters where those in charge spend their own money to feed and care for the dogs. It’s a huge spectrum.
This is a book that will make you cry. It’s horribly depressing to realize that so many wonderful dogs and cats (and other animals) are discarded like trash when uncaring, heartless owners decide they don’t want them anymore. But those on animal rescue sites and Facebook pages dedicated to saving animals already know that. We see the despair deep in a senior dog’s eyes when its owner hands over its leash and walks away, away saying, “It’s too old so I don’t want it.” It will also make your heart sing as you recognize that there are many, many dedicated people who work tirelessly to save as many animals as possible.
It’s a book for those who already rescue. In Cara’s story, we recognize our own struggles with the mess, the baby gates, the dogs who have behavior issues. We know about the feeling of loss when the dog leaves – no matter how loving the adoptive home. And we all say to the adopters that if they ever don’t want “our” dog, we will take the dog back.
This is also a book for those who don’t know about rescue. Who might read this and learn how desperately foster homes are needed, and might just decide to try and foster a dog or cat. After reading about the work involved in fostering puppies, I can’t say she’s done a great job promoting that particular job! But also, it’s an important step in educating people on the importance of helping. Reach out to local rescues and see what they need. Usually they are the ones pulling from other public shelters in all areas of the country where dogs and cats are routinely killed for space.
No one wants to kill animals. But when shelters get overwhelmed, unless there are rescues willing to take the animals, there is no where for them to go. And unless there are fosters willing to help house and love the animals, the rescues can’t do it all. There are wonderful projects and things that shelters have done to get the community involved. Because once animal-loving people understand what is happening in their community, they often want to help. And sometimes it’s just as simple as asking for help, asking for dog walkers, building walking paths and inviting the community to come walk — with a shelter dog.
Please, read the book. Get involved. Foster a dog or cat. Or donate to your local rescue. Offer to help transport animals to their final destination. It’s a commitment of a few hours, but with a huge reward. Visit Who Will Let the Dogs Out for more information.
And when you are finished reading the book? Pass it on to someone who might benefit from reading it. Someone else who might help. (Pegasus Books)
A few of this reviewer’s rescues. Two black cats from the streets. One dog rescued from China (I flew her here) and the other from the Redland area of Florida by the Redland Rockpit Quarry Project, a group that feeds the homeless and abandoned dogs in that area each and every day. They do their best to find rescues for the dogs and cats.
Hank Phillippi Ryan is the master of mystery and deception. Her novels are filled with people who are not quite who they appear to be, and “The First to Lie,” as we are warned in the very title, is no different. The story is about a pharmaceutical company that will stoop as low as possible to push their drug that often helps women become pregnant. The problem? One of the side effects is sterility, meaning that women who were promised a baby ended up with a future that meant they would never be able to have a baby of their own.
In “The Night Swim,” Megan Goldin explores the male domination that exists to this day in rural America. Especially the male dominance that white, wealthy men feel endowed with, along with the usual arrogance that comes from those who feel entitled. They feel entitled to special treatment from the authorities, special treatment from shops, special treatment from their friends who may not be as entitled as they are, and special treatment from girls who, in their view, really have no right to say no to their advances.
For those who want their fiction to start with a huge hook — a first sentence that grabs you by the throat and won’t let you go — “Musical Chairs” by Amy Poeppel is not the book for you. Rather, this charming story begins like a lovely overture, with an introduction that gets you used to the rhythm and feeling of the piece, and slowly, you become entranced and rapt in the characters and plot of this beautifully composed novel.
Sometimes a powerful and emotionally rich book like “Brave Like That” by Lindsey Stoddard comes along that I wish everyone would read. A thoughtful book that could change the world – really. And in this book, the lessons Cyrus, the main character, learns are ones that he recognizes could change the world.
“Brave Like That” is a difficult book to review. There’s so much packed into this treasure of a story that it’s difficult to include all the messages and themes. Cyrus is the son of a firefighter, and his Dad was a star football player in their small town. Since he’s been a little kid, everyone thought he’d follow in his dad’s footsteps. Cyrus was adopted by his dad after being left at the fire station when he was an infant. On the night of his eleventh birthday, celebrated at the fire station, a stray dog shows up, and Cyrus is convinced that fate expects him to keep the dog, just as his father kept him. But Cyrus’s father has other ideas.