Shelf Life Blog

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.

Cosmic by Frank Cottrell Boyce

You know how, once in a great while, you finish a book and it was so good that you want to start reading it all over again? That’s what happened to me with Frank Cottrell Boyce’s “Cosmic.”

As the book opens, Liam Digby is explaining that he’s not really on a school trip, as he told his parents. Instead, he’s lost in outer space aboard the rocket ship Infinite Possibility and he’s “all right…ish.” How did he get there?
 
Liam is a twelve-year-old kid who’s so tall that he’s easily mistaken for an adult, as he discovers when he and his classmate Florida wander around town together after school. Stopping by a car dealership, Liam is approached by the salesman, who assumes Florida is his daughter. Soon enough Liam finds himself invited to take a flashy Porsche for a test drive. To his relief, his taxi-driving father brings this unnerving experience to an end before Liam has to actually put the car in gear.  

WWW: Wake by Robert Sawyer

For science fiction aficionados, the premise of WWW: Wake by Robert J. Sawyer initially sounds, well, perhaps a bit contrived (even beyond the normal contrivances of science fiction).  But keep reading: the protagonist, Caitlin Dector, is a young blind millennial who has never known a world without the Internet, a world she can navigate with ease through the use of assistive technologies.  Caitlin becomes the subject of an experimental procedure to restore sight.  However, when her vision is "switched on" she does not see the physical world, but an abstract representation of the World Wide Web.  While exploring her strange new ability, she discovers a growing intelligence emerging from within the Web . . .   see what I mean?  My first thought after hearing this description was, "That sounds like the plot of a bad 90s Outer Limits episode."  After cracking the book open however, I found WWW: Wake tells a fascinating story, blending the best of both science fiction and hard science as well as cyberculture, blind culture, information theory, epidemiology, world politics, family dynamics, pedagogical theory, teenage culture, and probably a few other things I'm not thinking of.  All of that in one book.  And it's really, really good. 

A Painted House by John Grisham

Rural 1950s Arkansas is the setting for John Grisham’s Southern thriller, A Painted House. It’s the beginning of a summer full of sweltering days, acres of cotton to pick, dangerous desire, and deadly secrets to keep. 

This season--at its start the same as every other--finds the Chandler family on the road in their dusty pick-up looking for migrant workers to hire. Young Lucas is certain from what he has observed in his short life that once the season’s work is done, his family will go back to its quiet ways, sitting through another winter, readying for another spring planting with Grandpa, “Pappy” Chandler, heading the household.
 
Lucas’ family has worked the land for generations, and this summer’s batches of migrant help—Mexicans and hill people--will work alongside them to bring in the crop before the weather destroys their chance to make a little profit on the farm or at least get further out of debt. Lucas expects the workers to come stay for a few months, do their assigned work, and then go their way—never leaving a lasting impression on his family and their way of life.

Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl

This is Week 10 of a 12-Week series of blog posts reviewing new young adult books. Check back each Monday for a new review.

Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl is a page-turning story of star-crossed teenage love with a Southern gothic twist and a side of magic.

In the town of Gatlin, South Carolina, everyone knows everybody's business and nothing exciting ever happens, unless you count the annual re-enactment of a local Civil War battle. Unbeknownst to the residents of Gatlin (at least most residents) beneath the thick Southern accents and Spanish moss lurks a whole other magical world, one of hidden underground libraries, voodoo and deadly family curses.

Lena Duchannes and Ethan Wate bridge the gap between these two worlds - two worlds that were never meant to meet.

Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold

"Now we see in a glass dimly, but then face to face."

Long before C.S. Lewis created the land of Narnia and wrote his many books exploring Christian faith, he was fascinated with Greek mythology. Till We Have Faces is Lewis’ reworked story of the Cupid and Psyche myth, which has come down to us in modern times as Beauty and the Beast. It was a story he began as an undergraduate and was to become his favorite work when he completed it years later.

Here Come the ABCs by They Might Be Giants

It's almost impossible to find a CD that all the kids in our family car - ages 11, 9, 6, and 4 - will listen to. I know, however, that the kids will always be entranced by one of They Might Be Giants' (TMBG) kids CDs.  TMBG provides a great alternative for kids who are searching for something to listen to besides Radio Disney, Kidz Bop, and Hannah Montanna. Their album "Here Come the ABCs" may sound like it's only geared toward the pre-school set, but the songs are lyrically sophisticated and really catchy.

One of our favorite songs, "E Eats Everything" is a hilarious trip through the alphabet via letters with various food issues. "A" hardly has an appetite, "D" is disinterested in anything you've got, "F" is far too fussy and only eats with fancy wine, and H burns his food horribly. The song goes through the alphabet until we get to the letter z, where there's a big surprise. A song like this works on so many different levels - the older kids appreciate the humor of poor "I" always doomed to inhale H's smoke, while the younger ones are thrilled to repeat the refrain "E eats Everything." Other favorite songs are "Alphabet of Nations," "Clap Your Hands," and "Flying V." Check it out today!