All the Way to Timbuktu

“Certainly, travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.” – Miriam Beard

Nina Sovich is a brave woman.  Not only does she travel alone in Africa, but she also travels alone in Africa while four months pregnant.  Though she is (mostly) happily married and living with her French husband in Paris, she is frustrated with her life, and so she takes off on her own to discover what she’s made of and what is really important to her.  She relies on the kindness of strangers in Western Sahara, Mauritania, Mali and Niger, while learning life lessons that she wouldn’t have gotten, had she stayed at home.  

Sovich’s journey through the Sahara and her simultaneous journey inward are detailed in To the Moon and Timbuktu.  In the beginning, she is an American in Paris, stuck in a stressful job at a news bureau and unable to come to terms with the strict social rules of the Parisians.  When she has a mini-breakdown in the supermarket, because she can’t find bread crumbs, she recognizes that it is time to do something.  Having spent years in foreign countries, she decides to take a trip to Africa, using Mary Kingsley, a Victorian female solo traveler, as her inspiration.  Sovich puts it best:  “The bitter sweetness of travel fills me up and makes me feel whole.”  

While in Africa, her mettle is tested and she is challenged both physically and mentally, but the experience teaches her that she is stronger than she realized.  She meets people who have very little and yet still find happiness in their lives, and she sees how lucky she is to have so many options of her own.  She reconciles her wandering soul with the banal, day-to-day life that almost haunts her.  Through travel, she discovers that she can be a mother, a wife and an adventurer.  

If one of your New Year’s resolutions is to travel more, this book will convince you to start booking those flights!


So Near And Yet So Far . . .

Literary Orange is fast approaching. So I have started to read through some of the amazing authors that are going to be attending this year.  This is going to be the first in a series of reviews I will write, all leading up to the big event in April 2014.  So among the many books written by the authors going to be there, the first I am reviewing is called The Distance Between Us, by Reyna Grande.  It is a memoir of her experiences and struggles as her family is torn apart and reconstituted in a life long journey from Mexico to the United States.
"El Otro Lado," the other side, is the way Reyna Grande and many people in Mexico view America, this faraway of land of opportunity to some, but shredder of families to many others.  Before she is old enough to remember her father, he leaves his family to make money in this other land that to Reyna is just on the other side of the mountains in which she lives.  All she has is a picture of him; and he becomes known to her as the man behind the glass.  Later her mother leaves to join her father to support him in making money there, stranding their children with one set of grandparents and then another when things get slightly out of control. 

Eventually, when Reyna’s mother returns she is not the same woman she was when she left.  "El Otro Lado" has scarred her irreparably, not able to handle taking care of the kids who remind her too much of the man who she believes betrayed her.  And when Reyna’s father finally arrives to look in on his children, he is shocked at the state of his children.  Upon seeing this he invites his children to make the dangerous trek with him, back to "El Otro Lado," back to where he sees a land of opportunity.  But the missing dad that was gone for so long cannot possibly live up to the imagined father that lived for so long behind that glass.  This father has demons of his own that he needs to face.

Well written and insightful, Reyna Grande’s description of her life in The Distance Between Us, is a description of the distance that can exist in many families, real or imagined.  She describes her life in heart breaking detail the lamentations that are created when families are torn apart by distance for dreams that may or may not be lived out.  But despite this distance there are bonds that can never be broken.  There are deep seeded connections that tie them to the past, bridge the gap that exists between loved ones, and lead the Grande’s into the tumultuous yet opportunistic future.  And through all of this, Reyna’s father’s dream, a land of opportunity where advancement is possible beyond anyone’s wildest imaginations, is ultimately able to be lived out through his daughter Reyna.

Reyna Grande’s book The Distance Between Us is a beautiful story of the human spirit.  There is tragedy, and yet there is real warmth to it all.  It reminds me that even in the worst of situations, there is always room to dream big, and to see the beauty in others, despite all of their faults.


Literary Sisters

Sisters share a special bond that is a mixture of love, envy, competition and support.  This bond has been explored in numerous novels, notable examples being Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and of course Beverly Cleary’s Beezus and Ramona.  Typically, the older sister is the more upstanding of the two, while the younger sister is often portrayed as a rebellious upstart.

Two novels that feature sisters in tumultuous relationships have recently been published. Both are rather off-beat, and both are very, very good.

Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld is about twin sisters who have “senses” a psychic ability to predict events before they happen. Vi embraces this gift and works as a medium, living an eccentric life, while Kate has chosen to hide her gift, and has settled down as a suburban wife and mother of two.  I was skeptical at first about this premise, but the paranormal aspect is downplayed and the book turns out to be a richly emotional story about family obligation and acceptance. Vi and Kate’s relationship is complex and they are often at odds with each other, but deep down there is this loving bond that holds them together.  Written in a breezily witty style, Sisterland is funny, serious, thought-provoking and very enjoyable.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is the latest book by Karen Joy Fowler (author of The Jane Austen Book Club).  Rosemary and Fern are sisters separated at an early age under mysterious circumstances, and Rosemary has never truly recovered emotionally.  As she narrates the events, Rosemary starts in the middle of the story as a troubled college student trying to understand her traumatic past.  Through flashbacks and investigative work, Rosemary slowly makes sense of her life, and the reader slowly comes to realize Fern is not the sister we expected her to be.  In fact, Fern is a chimpanzee.  Rosemary’s father was an eccentric psychologist who raised her and Fern together as sisters as part of a research study.  This is an intriguing book about an unusual sister-like relationship.

Admittedly, psychic and chimpanzee characters make for off-beat reading.  Be adventurous and give these books a try.  Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.


PLAYING for Early Literacy

Early literacy is what children know about reading and writing before they actually learn to read and write. Literacy is like growing; it happens slowly over time.

Here is some good news: you do not need to be a drill master to help your children get ready to read – you can play with them!  Playing is how children learn about many things, including language. Pretending helps children think symbolically and develop narrative skills.

Some books are so much fun that reading them counts as play time.  A good example is From Head to Toe by Eric Carle. A variety of animals repeat a pattern, each changing the motion required: “I am a penguin and I turn my head.  Can you do it?” The child answers, “I can do it!” Young listeners won’t be able to resist joining in.

Another title that invites participation is Jump, Frog, Jump!  by Robert Kalan.  This long-time favorite features an intrepid amphibian who escapes from a series of threatening predators when readers repeat the titular refrain, the louder the better.

Stories are even more fun when you encourage dramatic play with puppets or stuffed animals.  Try acting out well-known stories like the Little Red Hen or the Three Billy Goats Gruff.  Make your home a learning zone by having inexpensive props at hand, such as empty food containers and sock puppets.

The Gunniwolf by Wilhelmina Harper is always dramatic to act out.  (This was the first story I learned to read at a library storytime, in 1976 – I’m dating myself!)  A little girl gathering flowers goes too deep into the jungle and must sing the Gunniwolf to sleep in order to escape from him.  There’s a striking difference between the girl’s little footsteps (pit-pat, pit-pat) and the Gunniwolf’s hot pursuit (hunker-cha, hunker-cha, hunker-cha).

Encourage your children to imagine their own stories. Sometimes they can work their way through a fear or problem.

For more books that encourage movement and invite participation, try the “Getting Ready to Read at OC Public Libraries” Booklists (link above).

This is the fifth in a series of Book Talk articles about books that help parents get their children ready to read by engaging in interactive everyday activities. These recommendations are based on “Every Child Ready to Read®@Your Library®,” which is a program of the Association for Library Service to Children and the Public Library Association, divisions of the American Library Association. For more information about early literacy, go to


Infinity and Me

In Infinity and Me, Kate Hosford, delivers an elegant picture book, with an informative and fascinating storyline.  It is the story of inquisitive, wide-eyed, and charming eight-year-old Uma, who is the proud owner of a new pair of red shoes.

So excited is Uma about her new shoes, she can’t seem to fall asleep, and instead wanders outside to look up at the starry night sky. Looking up at the very, very, big sky, Uma feels very, very small. This juxtaposition between the tiny – Uma and her new red shoes – and the vast - the sky at night, starts Uma wondering, and sends her on a quest to understand the concept of infinity, and how it relates to her. Uma starts asking questions of the people around her, and searching for different explanations and examples that will help her understand this complex concept.

Using amusing comparisons, similes and engaging dialogue that children can relate to, the author addresses a complex, abstract mathematical concept, and successfully breaks it down into individual concrete and understandable pieces. The story includes profound and zany questions and answers that will peak the reader’s interest.  For example, Hosford describes the infinity symbol as a figure eight in the shape of a racetrack that “fell down and took a nap,” an explanation that both intrigues and delights.

Hosford’s perfectly  blends learning and fun, and rescues the charm of the story by including tender and intimate touches, like the unconditional love of Uma’s grandma, and showing the two snuggling up next to each other, and contemplating the night sky at the story’s end.

The story’s thoughtful conversations about infinity may be a little abstract for younger children, but would be a great discussion topic for children beginning middle-school. The book’s whimsical illustrations give the story a sense of timeless wonder, and pair well with the storyline.  This is a book that children will reread, as they grow older and are able to grasp the more profound ideas included in the book.


Where the Peacocks Sing by Alison Sing See

Have you ever dreamed of living the exotic life style of a young beautiful single journalist living in Hong Kong?  The author, Alison Sing See, is living this very life when the book begins. She decides she is looking for something more.  She finds it in a relationship with a fellow journalist, Ajay.  Ajay comes with an intriguing extra bonus; his family has a 100 year old, 100 room palace in India called Mokimpur.  Alison falls in love with both Ajay and the idea of his family’s palace at the same time.
The novel is a journey the author takes as she gradually looks behind both the façade of her previous life of glamour and her potential new life with Ajay. She has to look behind the façade of the 100 room palace to see the reality of its current condition as well as its storied history.  Will she be able to thrive as a wife with her Indian in-laws and their very different ways of dealing with newcomers in the family? She also has to balance  her journalist career, marriage into an Indian family, and her own Chinese family in Los Angeles.  How will Alison and Ajay deal with the challenges of all the cultures they represent?  This lively account of her  journey is highly recommended.


Holiday Reads

The holiday season is here! As a librarian I’m frequently asked to recommend holiday reads. I get asked a lot by members of book clubs looking for seasonal titles to suggest to their groups. I also get inquiries from people who are looking for something festive to read whether it is something light, something informative or something funny. Hopefully this list includes something for everyone. These are all titles I personally have enjoyed as well as titles my library’s book club has enjoyed. I’m sure I left off some great holiday reads so be sure and leave a comment with some of your favorite reads.

A Redbird Christmas

By: Fannie Flagg 

 A sweet and uplifting story set in Lost River, an almost mythical town not found on any map, whose charming residents include a redbird named Jack. This light seasonal read contains love, redemption and even a little bit of magic.
A Secret Gift: How One Man’s Kindness – and a Trove of Letters – Revealed the Hidden History of the Great Depression 
By: Ted Gup

This isn’t necessarily a Christmas book but it is the perfect book to read during the holiday season. This is a great recommendation for a December book club meeting or for anyone who just wants to read a smart and thought provoking book that highlights the good in people. This non-fiction work chronicles the author’s quest to discover the meaning behind some letters and family documents he has discovered. As Gup begins to read the letters and trace their meanings he finds first-hand information about the numerous families struggling to get by during the Great Depression but he also learns about his own family history.

The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits
By: Les Standiford

We all know Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, but this book explains the story behind the beloved story. Les Standiford takes the reader on a historical journey which takes us from the first printing of a Christmas card to the length’s Dickens had to go through to publish A Christmas Carol. Not only will this book enlighten the reader about the history of Christmas but it will also unveil a lot about Charles Dickens. Try reading this book and A Christmas Carol in tandem!

The Gift of the Magi
By: O. Henry
This is my all-time favorite Christmas story. The Gift of the Magi is a short story which can be found in many of O. Henry’s short story collections or as a stand-alone text. This is the story of a silly young couple who are willing to sacrifice their greatest treasure for the one they love. This ironic and yet sentimental story is a great book to read aloud. This story is short enough to enjoy in one sitting and those who haven’t yet read this great story are in for a treat! 

A Christmas Memory
By: Truman Capote

This largely autobiographical short story features the main character “Buddy” and his unnamed eccentric friend. Wrapped up in a special world all their own, the two bake and deliver fruitcakes and create their own version of the perfect Christmas. The book is written in a way to inspire nostalgia for a less commercial Christmas. The book has a twinge of sadness as the reader is led to believe this will be Buddy and his friend’s last Christmas together. All these components come together in a way that creates a classic holiday tale that readers will want to read again and again.

Holidays on Ice

By: David Sedaris

Fans of David Sedaris will appreciate this holiday themed collection of short stories. Witty and funny and totally different from the typical Christmas stories this is book is a refreshing take on the seasonal read.


The Idiot Girl’s Christmas
By: Laurie Notaro

I’ve been a fan of Laurie Notaro for a long time. Ever since her first book The Idiot Girls’ Action-Adventure Club, I have looked forward to Notaro’s humor and delightful cynicism. This holiday themed book is just as funny and ridiculous as her other books and fans of the author will be sure to enjoy this book. Even if you haven’t read any of Notaro’s other books you might enjoy her unique take on the joy, stress, and discomfort brought on by the holidays.

A Christmas Carol
By: Charles Dickens

This classic story has inspired numerous screen, stage and print performances. This story which takes place mostly on Christmas Eve chronicles Ebenezer Scrooge’s transformation. Nearly everyone has seen this story in one form or another, but it is always fun to read the original.


Little Women
By: Louisa May Alcott

Not necessarily a Christmas story but this beloved novel is one I’ve seen on numerous book club Christmas reading lists. Perhaps the themes of love and family present in the book, along with some Christmas scenes, lend to this book being appreciated during the holidays.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas
By: Dr. Seuss

This is a children’s book; however, I think this tale is one that can be appreciated by everyone from the very young to the very old. This classic Christmas book takes place in Who-ville and tells the story of the mean and nasty Grinch who hates Christmas and is determined to ruin Christmas for everyone. This book is perfect to read-aloud and the film version will be appreciated as well. 


Harvard Square by Andre Aciman

Have you ever been overcome by memories of a more vivid time in your life?  The author, Andre Aciman, while taking his son for an interview at Harvard College, is overcome by a wave of nostalgia for his own Harvard experience.  He is suddenly a young immigrant from Egypt  studying for his PhD in 17th Century literature and feeling very isolated in America.
His life changes one day when he overhears a conversation that erupts into the café where he is studying.  In rapid- fire style the speaker takes on all manner of topics:  men, women, rich, poor , American jumbo- sized breakfasts and huge steak dinners and all-you-can-eat salads, perennial tans, and one-size fits all, poly-reinforced clothes.  He is Kalij, a fellow North African who drives  a cab and  whose opinions  are like spat-out bullet shells dealing with capitalism, communism, liberals, conservatives, all countries and religions but with particular emphasis on his conflicted relationship with American values and consumer culture.  He is also facing possible deportation from this country he has such a love-hate relationship with.
What to do with such a friend?  The author decides to just go with the friendship and enjoy the ride.  As it turns out, both Andre and Kalij need each other and the intense summer relationship forms their unforgettable bond.  The book vividly takes us on an unforgettable ride. 


How to Change a Habit

We’re now just a few weeks away from New Year’s Day, when many of us make resolutions to change some aspect of our lives. This is the perfect time to read The Power of Habit by Pulitzer prize-winner Charles Duhigg!  It’s a fascinating look at how habits form and how to alter them.  I discovered this work through my book club last month, and am so glad that we read it.  I found it absorbing, highly informative and even compulsively readable – excellent anecdotes -- in many instances.  Duhigg breaks his subject into three parts: the habits of 1) individuals, 2) organizations and 3) societies.

In his discussion of the habits of individuals, Duhigg explains the “habit loop”. According to Duhigg, the habit loop begins with a “cue” or a trigger which causes the brain to initiate a “routine”, which is some pre-established behavior, emotion or mental state.  Performing the routine leads to a “reward” which is often a sense of well-being. In this first section of his book, Duhigg includes the example of a man who has lost much of his memory but still has the ability to form new habits.  He also examines how former NFL coach Tony Dungy integrated an understanding of habit formation into his players’ training, turning a losing team into Super Bowl champions.

Describing the role that habits play in organizations, Duhigg explains that when former U.S. Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill became CEO of the struggling Alcoa, he encouraged the creation of a “keystone” habit among workers, which then initiated that company’s dramatic turnaround.  A keystone habit is one that tends to encourage other positive habits.  Duhigg also provides thought-provoking examples of how companies such as Starbucks and Target use an understanding of habits in their employee training and marketing.  In his discussion of the habits of societies, Duhigg provides insight into the role that habits played in the success of the Civil Rights Movement’s Montgomery Bus Boycott and the rise in popularity of Saddleback Church of Orange County.  Duhigg closes his book with a short guide for readers on changing our own habits.

I found The Power of Habit to be a great example of the most engaging nonfiction.  It is clearly written, reinforces its key points in multiple ways and provides anecdotes which connect the reader to the topic of habit formation.  From my own personal experience I know that it would be a great choice for any adult book club, as any reader can relate to and talk about how habits affect their own life, family, social circle and/or workplace.  I think that some teen readers would also find this book intriguing, and of course a good grounding for later success.  Overall I think that anyone who is seeking to make changes in their life will find The Power of Habit to be very helpful.


Who in the World is Sandra Bullock?

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
by Jonathon Foer

When the movie Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close gained a good share of attention it went on my list of movies to see, although I have to admit it was mainly to see what Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock were up to in an interesting plot about a boy who lost his Dad in the events of the New York City tragedy  of 9/11.  But it wasn't on my reading list until visiting my Oakland daughter who loaned me her spare Kindle loaded with something she thought I'd like to read next. Like it I did!  And I must say I was was inspired by BH's mighty list of book-movie tie-ins.

The book opens with a photograph of a key and there begins the story. It is a first person account beginning with nine-year-old Oskar Schell who is precocious beyond his years both intellectually and emotionally, so it seems like a narrative by a much older person. Oskar considers himself to be an inventor, and his hero who he writes to several times is Stephen Hawking. He would like to meet Mr. Hawking and perhaps be his apprentice. Oskar has self prescribed to try to heal his grief and trauma by undertaking a quest to understand the last hours of his father's life and everything that he can can find to know about his father. When he finds a key in an envelope in a vase in his father's closet along with the single name Black he sets out to singlehandedly contact every person in New York that he can find with the last name of Black.

The rest of the characters in the book, Oskar's family both past and present, are also interspersed in their stories, told in the first person as well. Their histories, going back to the World War II events in Dresden, Germany are eloquent and complex. The Blacks that Oskar meets, such as the forty-eight year old single woman, Abby Black, who he finds both comforting and attractive (he asks her for a kiss), and another Mr. Black who decides to help Oscar on his long list of searches, lend their own interest.

Jonathon Foer amazed me with this novel, so rich both in psychological insights and luring into a web of what ever happened here and how will it turn out. The photographs throughout lend a perfect glimpse into Oskar's thoughts. His narrative is often achingly poetic, such as when he described sinking into his grief as having "heavy boots." This would make a good book-club choice as there are more than thirty copies available for request as well as non-print versions on cd, ebook, and dvd.

As a recommendation for older teen readers, this will be with reservation as there are a couple of brief sexual scenes involving the history of Oskar's ancestors, such as his grandfather painting his first love Anna in the nude. But these scenes are earthy and realistic, and in no way designed just to be erotic.   There is also some very graphic playground talk with Oskar and his playground friends. This book is intended for an adult audience as it does not feature teen characters, but I do believe it would be a good choice for any teen with the freedom to choose to choose among the older teen collection, which has few limitations as to adult content. The journey of Oskar, although a nine-year old, would not be far from their experience at all.