Shelf Life Blog

Alchemy and Meggy Swann by Karen Cushman

Meggy Swann can swear with the best of them: “ye toads and vipers,” “gleeking goat’s bladder,” “swag-bellied maggot,” and “bloviating windbag” are some of her favorites. If these sound like strange epithets, mayhap you are not from the late 16th century like 13-year-old Meggy, the heroine of Alchemy and Meggy Swann by Karen Cushman.

Meggy was born with legs that “did not sit right in her hips,” and, as a result, has to use two walking sticks to move around with an “awkward swinging gait.” Meggy calls it “wabbling,” a lighthearted nickname for a condition that has brought her ridicule from her rural village, for she lives during a time when a physical handicap is seen as a punishment for a sinful nature. As a result, Meggy has developed a tough hide and a large lexicon of threats.

Moosewood Restaurant: Cooking for Health

I’m a fan of the Moosewood Collective and own a lot of their cookbooks. Last year, I was given another entry to their line, Cooking for Health. I was pleased to see their fresh and easy philosophy of the 1970s had been updated for modern tastes. Never heard of Moosewood? Not everyone has, yet they were named one of 13 most influential restaurants of the 20th century by Bon Appétit magazine, and our own Sammy T’s seems to have drawn on them for vegetarian inspiration. 

Moosewood Restaurant began in 1973 in Ithaca, New York, back when vegetarianism was a new idea for most Americans. It was a popular place, and soon enough their dishes were gathered into a bestselling book. The listings in the first editions of the original Moosewood Cookbook drew a lot on established recipes that happened to be vegetarian and were adapted to be prepared easily with nothing fancier than a blender.

The Passage by Justin Cronin

I loved Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Dark Shadows on TV when I was a kid, Anne’s Rice’s rock’n’roll vampires, and I even discussed what team I would join in the ‘tween Twilight Saga. I also devour vampire novels with “punny” titles such as Undead and Unappreciated by Mary-Janice Davidson, but I put The Passage on request at the library because of an article I read in Time Magazine that stated that vampires are scary again, and I do love a character that bites.

Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine

This is Week 12 of a 12-Week series of blog posts reviewing new young adult books. To see all of the reviews, click here.

In Kathryn Erskine's "Mockingbird," Caitlin’s world is black and white, and she likes it that way, whether it’s her view of life or her meticulous monotone drawings. Since The Day Our Life Fell Apart when her brother Devon was killed in a school shooting, she and her widowed father keep to simple routines. This is important to kids like Caitlin, a fifth grader with Asperger’s Syndrome. Clear boundaries make it easier to cope, especially when she’s trying hard to follow her counselor’s advice to Look At The Person and Mind Your Manners. 

As I followed Caitlin through her days at school – meeting with the school counselor when she has a TRM (Tantrum Rage Meltdown), trying dutifully to make friends even though she prefers to be a “team of one” – I began to see the world as Caitlin does. She may be socially inept and literal-minded, but she also has a startling gift for humor and truth-telling. 
 

War by Sebastian Junger

This is not the kind of book I normally read, but I'm glad I did. War by Sebastian Junger describes Junger's time embedded with the U.S. Army's Second Platoon, Battle Company during 2007 and 2008 while deployed in the Korengal Valley of Afghanistan, a small area seeing the heaviest fighting in the entire country.

My only experience with military/war literature is Jarhead, so it remains a little hard for me to see past all the jargon regarding weapons and combat maneuvers. Junger begins the story fast and furious, which left me feeling a little disoriented just as I can only imagine combat would seem to soldiers. Soon enough, though, a more cohesive picture emerges as he begins to fill in the gaps with background information about the area and our movements there and personal details about some of the soldiers. Junger uses humor and candor to describe the restlessness, tension and boredom that comes in times when attacks are less frequent, and the resulting pranks, hijinks and an odd kind of loving violence amongst the soldiers.

Bridget's Beret by Tom Lichtenheld

If you’ve ever had a lucky rock, special stuffed animal, or favorite hat that you felt gave you extra powers or that certain edge you need to be successful, then you will understand Bridget’s attachment to her jaunty French beret in Tom Lichtenheld’s new picture book, Bridget’s Beret. Bridget is an artist, and everyone in her family and neighborhood enjoys her talent. When she is drawing, she is truly “in the zone” – she won’t even stop for an ice cream cone. She doesn’t need fancy art supplies and is happiest painting outdoors on a simple table. She just requires one thing: her big, black beret that gave her that “certain je ne sais qoi.”

Flight from Monticello: Thomas Jefferson at War

If your early education taught you something about Thomas Jefferson, it likely included facts on his part in authoring the Declaration of Independence, the Louisiana Purchase, and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. Jefferson was an ideas man—a deep thinker. Well-educated in the classics at the College of William and Mary, he stayed out of the usual undergrad troubles by keeping at his studies and socializing with the professors while classmates spent their time drinking, gambling, and racing their horses through the streets. As historian Michael Kranish relates in Flight from Monticello, he made plenty of friends, but they were from the same landed gentry class as himself.

He first encountered an upstart farmer named Patrick Henry at a friend’s dinner party. Jefferson was not impressed by his dress, candid manners or frank speech, which drew a crowd of admirers. Not so much the classical scholar, Patrick Henry was already a practicing attorney while Jefferson was still in school.  While Jefferson carried on learned conversations with his professors, Henry was winning cases—not with references to Greek and Roman scholars but by spelling out the plain merits of the case and the rules of law. Jefferson found his courtroom arguments crude but admired his ability to turn a phrase and set a crowd on fire.

Rick Bayless’ Mexican Everyday

I love the rich, warm flavors of Mexican food, but trying to create anything more than a simple, kid-pleasing taco or Sundays at Moosewood’s tortilla casserole (a family favorite) has left me uncertain as to how to begin.

The Daughters by Joanna Philbin

This is Week 11 of a 12-Week series of blog posts reviewing new young adult books. Check back each Monday for a new review.

Imagine that your mom is a world-famous supermodel or actress, like Angelina Jolie - constantly surrounded (and hounded) by the paparazzi. What would your life be like? How would your parent’s fame shape your own childhood, teenage years, and adult hood? This is the premise of The Daughters by Joanna Philbin, a new young adult novel that explores growing up in the shadow of fame, and it how alters (and in many respects doesn’t change) the trials and tribulations of the teenage years.
 
The Daughters follows the life of Lizzie Summers, daughter of a famous supermodel, and Lizzie’s two best friends, Carina and Hudon, daughters of a billionaire media mogul and pop star, respectively. In many respects they are just like many 14 year-olds, trying to navigate through high school academics, crushes on boys, and changing relationships with their parents. But in other ways, their parent’s fame is almost like another character to explore in the book, drawing constantly unwanted attention. 

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho, is one of those simple, spiritual tales that captures modern-day imaginations and becomes a best-seller. As I read it on the beach, I felt the brush of Jonathan Livingston Seagull’s wings—or perhaps those were the wings of the laughing gull trying to steal my son’s peanut butter sandwich.

In this extended fable, the teenage shepherd Santiago has chosen his free and lonely life over a more respectable one that would have bound him tightly to his community and family. Content as he is with the wisdom he gained while wandering the Spanish hills, he is nonetheless being drawn to change his path. The dark-eyed daughter of a prosperous merchant awaits his marriage proposal, but Santiago’s prophetic dream in an abandoned and ruined church leads him further away from his homeland than he ever imagined.