Posts Tagged ‘Sharon S.’s Picks’

Best New Books of 2014: Sharon S’s Picks

December 12, 2014

It is said that “Truth is stranger than fiction,” and to me it is just as interesting. I read fiction and nonfiction for the same reasons: to be entertained, instructed, and inspired. Here are my favorite new books for this year:

Pastor Needs a BooPastor Needs a Boo by Michele Andrea Bowen
A former FBI agent as well as a dedicated pastor, Denzelle Flowers of New Jerusalem Church in Durham got burned on the romance scene when his wife left him for a richer man. When the perfect Proverbs 31 woman shows up in his life he’s not ready to admit it, even though everyone else sees that she’s the one for him. Meanwhile, Pastor Denzelle decides to run for bishop, and has to pack both his gun and his Bible as major corruption sweeps through their denomination.

What Makes Olga Run?What Makes Olga Run? by Bruce Grierson
What makes a 93-year-old woman participate in track events worldwide, and set records that compare (in her age category) with those of the best athletes in the world? Well, she loves doing it, and her ability to do it stretches our stereotypes about aging. She is not alone—there are other “super seniors” like her around the world. Bruce Grierson leads us through a fascinating investigation of what keeps them going strong. See my full review.

William Shakespeare's Star WarsWilliam Shakespeare’s Star Wars: Verily, a New Hope by Ian Doescher
Hang on to your lightsabers! Doescher cleverly conflates famous lines from Shakespeare with famous scenes from Star Wars, making for a blend of comedy and drama worthy of the Bard himself. What I like best is getting to see into the minds of the characters through the asides and soliloquys. The series is continued in The Empire Striketh Back and The Jedi Doth Return. My family and I have been reading it aloud to each other (my husband plays the role of Chewbacca, and my 12-year-old son plays R2D2). See my full review.

Life is a WheelLife is a Wheel: Love, Death, Etc., and a Bike Ride Across America by Bruce Weber
The death of his parents and other major changes shook Weber up and gave him a lot to think about concerning life, love, and death. It didn’t help matters that he had spent the last three years of his middle-aged life writing obituaries for The New York Times. He decided to do something to prove to himself that he was still alive and kicking — bike across America! I love books like this, where someone decides to do something semi-crazy, and I can go along for the ride without the expense or the sore leg muscles! Based on the daily blogs he sent back to the newspaper, this book is a very entertaining and interesting read.

The Owl Who Liked Sitting on CaesarThe Owl Who Liked Sitting on Caesar by Martin Windrow
One reason I like to read is to experience vicariously things I may never experience myself, or at least not in the same way. I love owls, and Martin Windrow gives me a window into what they are really like, close-up and personal. Mumbles is a charming little tawny owl who is nevertheless no pushover! I loved reading about her daily life, and her and Martin’s close relationship of many years. See my full review.

Paper To Petal by Rebecca Thuss

November 14, 2014

This book is one of those truly gorgeous craft books that are fun to browse through. Best of all, these realistic-looking flowers are easy to make—all you need is crepe paper, scissors, florist’s tape, and floral wire. I used yellow crepe paper streamers from the drugstore, but you can go to a craft store and get a rainbow of colors and different thicknesses of paper. The nice thing about crepe paper is that it stretches, so you can use this propensity to your advantage in shaping the petals—for example, forming the cup-shaped bottom of a tulip petal.  Thuss then adds whimsical centers, like pom-poms or buttons, or just twist bits of crepe paper to form realistic-looking stamens.

The book is organized into five chapters: Flowers, Materials, Skills, How-Tos, and Templates. The first chapter is filled with lush photographs of 75 different projects that make you eager to get started. The instructional pages are also illustrated with photographs and easy-to-follow text. For example, there is a page called “Anatomy of a Paper Flower” which helps you understand the terminology, and another very helpful page called “Building a Basic Flower in Layers—An Overview.”

Because of these easy-to-use features, I could jump around and attempt the projects that interested me. They are coded by difficulty level, so I went for the easiest and was very pleased by the results. I stuck a couple of them in a display at the library where I work, and several people asked me how I made them. I was delighted to tell them it only took about ten minutes, and to recommend this book!

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What Makes Olga Run? by Bruce Grierson

October 3, 2014

What Makes Olga Run?Olga Kotelko is a 93-year-old Canadian track star, part of an elite group that scientists call “super-seniors”—people in their 80s and 90s, even 100s, who are setting world records that compare favorably (in their age categories) with the best athletes in the world. At World Master’s competitions, Olga competes in 11 track events, including high jump, hammer throw, and the 100-meter sprint.

How is it that Olga is breaking records at an age when most people are breaking hips? This is what Grierson, Olga, and the scientists who study her want to find out. Much as we would like to find a “magic bullet” of youthfulness, it appears to be a combination of many factors, physical and psychological, that work together.

Raised on the bitterly cold and windy plains of Saskatchewan, Olga grew up with ten siblings on a farm where everyone carried heavy loads and walked long distances. However, Olga did not start systematic training until the age of 70. Scientists think that starting her intensive training late in life may have been to her advantage. Many young athletes pick up bad habits and over-train, both of which may cause them to burn out early. Olga refuses to do anything she does not feel comfortable doing. “I don’t have to prove anything,” she says.

On the other hand, she may have something to prove psychologically if not physically. Olga survived 10 years of an abusive marriage, being told by her husband that she was worthless and incompetent. It was clear to Grierson as he watched Olga beaming from the winner’s podium that she was enjoying being told by the applause of thousands how capable and inspiring she is.

Olga may be tough, but she is also loving. She is known for speaking kind words to her competitors and even slowing down a wee bit to let someone who is “a nice person” pass her on the track. She has strong community and church ties, and she lives in the basement apartment of her daughter’s home, always near family. She balances her go-getter attitude with being kind to herself. For example, when she travels she sometimes asks for a wheelchair at the airport. “Why not save my energy for the meet?” she says.

Far from being a dry, scientific treatise on aging, this book is the portrait of a lovable lady drawn by a man who clearly admires her spunk. What is her secret? Is it the organic vegetables from her garden, or is it a skeleton so strengthened by exercise that falling down a flight of stairs at age 93 broke not a single bone? Perhaps more than anything, what keeps Olga moving is doing what she loves to do.

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The Owl Who Liked Sitting on Caesar: Living with a Tawny Owl by Martin Windrow

September 19, 2014

Owls have always fascinated me. On the rare occasions when I have seen one, I was mesmerized. My husband, a wetland biologist who roams the woods for both work and pleasure, once brought me an owl feather. It was incredibly soft, an adaptation that helps owls to fly silently, catching their prey unawares without any flapping sounds that might warn their prey.

Martin Windrow’s pet owl, Mumble, was reared for him from a hatchling, and they met when she was one month old. She appeared to be “wearing a one-piece knitted jumpsuit of pale grey fluff with brown stitching.” She jumped up onto his shoulder and nestled against his cheek “like a big, warm dandelion head” and said “Kweep!” very softly. Martin fell head over heels in love.

Over the fifteen years they lived together, Martin kept detailed journal entries about Mumble’s growth, appearance and behavior. The drawings and photographs in the book demonstrate Mumble’s favorite poses—fluffed up after her bath (Mumble adored to splash in the sink full of soapy water while Martin washed dishes), lying on her stomach with wings spread while sunbathing, pouncing on imaginary mice between the sofa cushions, and sitting contentedly on her various perches, including the bust of Germanicus Caesar.

Windrow lets us in on all the secrets of owl life—from the “disgusting bits” like bringing up pellets to a detailed description of Mumble’s preening sessions, which can take as long as an hour. Because of their long, flexible necks (which are usually hidden in their downy feathers), owls can turn their heads around 270 degrees. This makes their preening look rather like a contortionist’s act! The grooming ended with a fluff-out and a shake, followed by “a last prim, Victorian little shrug to settle the edges of her furled wings” and a final shuffle of her feet.

Windrow’s dry, witty style is perfectly suited to describing his dignified little friend. She was fascinated with his beard and loved to preen it, combing her beak through it. One night while Martin was stretched out on the sofa reading, she landed suddenly between his book and his face, half smothering him in feathers and provoking him to cry out in surprise. As Martin says, “She apparently construed the resultant burst of warm air up her petticoats as a physical liberty, because she bent forward and carefully bit me on the bridge of my nose.”

Reading Windrow’s delightful book is the next best thing to cuddling with a real, live owl of your own.

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F. Scott Fitzgerald by Ruth Prigozy

August 20, 2014

F. Scott FitzgeraldPrigozy’s slim biography, filled with beautiful photographs of Fitzgerald and the people and places important to him, depicts a young man who was obsessed with attaining a romantic image of glamour and wealth. He grew up in Minneapolis in a Catholic family which had some wealth from the grocery store business of his mother’s Irish immigrant family. However, tales of the poor but genteel Southern heritage of his father’s family haunted young Scott, as though something beautiful and glamorous was lurking just out of his reach. His father’s failure in business and his shame at being supported by his wife’s family contributed to Scott’s own fear of failure.

Scott attended Princeton, but left without graduating and joined the army. While stationed in Montgomery, Alabama, he met Zelda Sayre at a dance at the country club. Scott went open-eyed into the relationship with this volatile and wildly popular belle, as he later explained in a letter to a friend:

. . . I fell in love with her courage, her sincerity and her flaming self-respect . . . I love her and that’s the beginning and end of everything. You’re still a catholic but Zelda’s the only God I have left now.

Scott was desperate to convince Zelda to marry him, but she refused on the grounds of his limited financial prospects. Following a two-year courtship, they finally married in 1920, just one week after the publication of Scott’s first novel, This Side of Paradise.

From then on, Fitzgerald’s life reeled from the mad drunken parties that Zelda enjoyed, to occasional sober periods when he wrote stories and novels to recoup some of the money they spent so lavishly. Despite the success of his writings, financial and emotional difficulties continued to plague him. Beginning in 1930, Zelda was in and out of mental institutions, while Scott struggled to pay for their daughter Scottie’s expensive schooling and Zelda’s hospitalizations.

Throughout Fitzgerald’s short life—he died of a heart attack at age 44—he always seemed to be reaching for something that eluded him, perhaps because it was impossible to attain. He wanted the moment of fulfillment to last forever. The peak of his life, the only time he seemed to have grasped this golden dream, was just after the publication of his first novel, when Zelda finally agreed to marry him. One of his short stories describes a time “when the fulfilled future and the wistful past were mingled in a single gorgeous moment.” This quest for what Prigozy calls “the mythology of success” is at the heart of Fitzgerald’s life and work.

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Lost Horizon by James Hilton

May 22, 2014

lostcover.phpThis classic story, which was published in 1933 and brought the world the land of Shangri-La, centers around an Englishman named Conway, a veteran of The Great War.  Conway has always done his duty, quietly and without fuss, which has earned him the name of a hero.  However, when he examines himself truthfully, Conway must admit to himself that his mind and heart are not in the work of war, but in the service of his internal life.  His outward calm comes from this sense of detachment from the horrors around him.

When a small plane carrying himself, a fellow officer, and two civilians (a missionary and an American businessman) is hijacked by an armed stranger, Conway rises to his accustomed role of being calm and rational and taking care of the others.  The plane crashes on the windswept plain of Tibet, the pilot dies, and the passengers would have died as well had not a caravan from a nearby lamasery escorted them to its pavilions in the mountains.

There they find a place of rare beauty and peace, hidden among the lofty peaks.  Even more amazing, all the accoutrements of the contemplative life await them—physical comforts, music, art, books, and stimulating conversation with their guide, a mysterious Chinese man of indeterminate age.  Slowly, Chang initiates Conway into the ways of Shangri-La, and eventually he is honored by being called into the presence of the High Lama himself.

During his conversations with the High Lama, Conway learns the secrets of Shangri-La—how it came to exist, what its purpose is, and the role he and his companions are expected to play.  Now he must come to terms with this new information.  His companions have varying degrees of the same knowledge and a variety of responses, positive and negative.  Conway must decide not only what is best for himself, but for them as well.

The suspense and mystery of this book held me enthralled.  It is an exciting tale, but it also raises many interesting philosophical questions.  What is our purpose in the world?  What constitutes the good life?  What is our responsibility toward others?  Conway’s struggle becomes our own, and for me his resolution sparked as many questions as answers.

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The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa

May 16, 2014

houseookcover.phpIn a small town on the Inland Sea of Japan, a housekeeper who works for the Akebono Housekeeping Agency receives a new assignment.  She will keep house and cook meals every afternoon for a professor who sustained brain damage in an automobile accident.  As the professor’s sister-in-law informs her, the professor has only eighty minutes of short-term memory at a time.

It takes the housekeeper some time to get used to the professor’s odd ways, but after a while she begins to enjoy the ritual by which he greets her every afternoon, asking her questions about herself as if he has just met her.  His clothing is studded with notes to help him remember, so the housekeeper attaches a new note with a whimsical drawing of herself.  Each day when she comes, she points to the drawing.

Their relationship really begins to develop when the professor meets her 10-year-old son.  He has a flat top to his head, so the professor calls him Root, for the square root sign. Everything the professor remembers is somehow connected to mathematics, because that is what he has taught, lived, and breathed his whole life.  With the infinite patience of one who has no appointments to keep, the professor helps Root and his mom understand math in a way they never have before, and they too start to see the beauty of numbers all around them.

Math becomes a means of comfort and communication for them all.  Root has someone to talk with about his beloved baseball statistics. The professor, harried by details he cannot remember, takes refuge in the permanent, ordered world of math. The housekeeper gains a new understanding of the world and of her own intelligence by learning about logarithms, Mersenne primes, and Fermat’s Last Theorem.

This is the bare bones of the plot, but the story is so much more than that.  The Housekeeper and the Professor is a quiet, gently humorous book about love, belonging, and friendship, about the rewards of patience and small acts of kindness, gratitude, and remembrance.  As such, I will remember it for a long time.

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Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void, by Mary Roach

May 6, 2014

marsbookcover.phpEver wondered what it would be like to live in outer space?  Or on another planet?  With boundless curiosity and a sense of humor, Mary Roach takes us into the esoteric world of scientists who ponder how our earth-evolved bodies and minds can survive in such a foreign environment.

One of the biggest problems is reduced gravity. This makes everyday routines into big problems. The titles of the chapters give you some idea–the one on bathing in space is called “Houston, We Have a Fungus.”  How do you clean yourself when the shower droplets do not run down, but just float away? How dirty can a person stand to be?  A Mars mission might take more than a year, and the physical (and mental) effects of that many dead skin cells are thoroughly explored by Roach.

The physical problems of life in space are numerous, but what of the mental challenges of people crowded together in a small space for months?  The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency tests the patience of their wannabe astronauts by requiring them to fold 1000 origami paper cranes over several days.  Apparently, what is considered to be the “right stuff” has changed! Nowadays, astronauts’ missions are planned down to the smallest detail, and the right stuff largely consists of being able to take orders and persevere in them.

Roach takes us through it all, from the crash tests on cadavers, to the studies of motion sickness, to the test subjects who volunteer to lie in bed for a year.  Nothing concerning space travel escapes her notice or her interest, and her audience cannot help being infected by her enthusiasm.  As one reviewer put it, “This is a book for people who have silently dreamed of being astronauts themselves.”  It clearly takes a lot of patience (and a sense of humor) to be a real one!


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Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being by Martin E. P. Seligman

April 17, 2014

Flourish by Martin E.P. SeligmanLongtime psychologist Martin Seligman argues that there is more to mental health than the absence of mental illness. He is a proponent of a movement he calls “positive psychology,” which proposes a five-fold view of well-being
represented by the acronym PERMA: Positive Emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishment. A rigorous scientist, Seligman packs his book with statistics and results from numerous experiments, showing that positive psychology really does make a difference in our life fulfillment.

For example, he makes the point that most of us have heard of PTSD—post-traumatic stress disorder—but we need a better understanding of post-traumatic growth. Without a working knowledge of how to grow stronger through life’s adversity, we are apt to fear that every downturn in our mood is the beginning of depression or some other mental syndrome.

This book is the story of the positive psychology movement and how it is gaining ground in schools, universities, corporations, and the military. It is also filled with practical exercises for individuals to use, such as WWW: “What Went Well.” At the end of the day, think of three things that went well, and analyze how your personal strengths contributed to them going well. I tried this, and it really does help me to notice and build on the things in my life that are successful.

Seligman makes the point that some of the most accomplished people in history have had to struggle with depression and have come out stronger for it. Life is a balance. None of us are happy all the time, but well-being is more than happiness; it also encompasses growth, along with a positive sense of achievement and purpose in life. This book provides an excellent road map to point us in the right direction.

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William Shakespeare’s Star Wars: Verily, A New Hope by Ian Doescher

April 1, 2014

William Shakespeare's Star Wars: Verily A New HopeI was sure this book was a spoof, but I was delightfully surprised to find that Ian Doescher’s play is a serious work of art. While recasting the original story in Shakespearean style, Doescher has retained both the humor and the pathos of the famous film.

This is a marriage of true minds because both Lucas and Shakespeare draw upon motifs deeply rooted in our culture. Luke is the idealistic young hero who benefits from the wisdom of the sage, yet must find his own way. The sparring couple, Han and Leia, call to mind Kate and Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew and Benedict and Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing. Like Shakespeare’s plays, Star Wars also has fierce hand-to-hand combat, noble sacrifice, mistaken identity, and cold-hearted villainy.

As to the poetry, I thought it would sound ridiculously stilted to tell a sci-fi story in Elizabethan cadences, but surprisingly it does not. In fact, recasting Star Wars as a Shakespearean drama added a new level of meaning for me. The asides and soliloquies that Doescher adds flesh out the emotions and thought processes that are only hinted at in the movie. Take, for example, this soliloquy from Luke when he discovers the smoldering bodies of his aunt and uncle on Tatooine and tries to adjust his mind to his new destiny:

. . . Forward marches Fate, not the reverse.
So while I cannot wish for them to live,
I can my life commit unto their peace.
Thus shall I undertake to do them proud
And take whate’er adventure comes my way.
‘Tis now my burden, so I’ll wear it well,
And to the great Rebellion give my life.
A Jedi shall I be, in all things brave—
And thus shall they be honor’d in their grave.

As in the movie and in Shakespeare, this high drama is balanced by plenty of buffoonery and trading of colorful insults, as when C3PO expostulates with R2-D2: “Be not thou technical with me, / Or else thine input valve may swift receive / A hearty helping of my golden foot.” Sometimes the humor originates in well-known Shakespearean lines recast by Doescher, as when Luke and Han examine the instrument panel of the Milennium Falcon:

LUKE: . . . What light through yonder flashing sensor breaks?
HAN: It marks the loss of yon deflector shield.
I bid thee, peace! Now sit and thou take heed,
For all’s prepared to jump unto lightspeed.

For those who love both Star Wars and the Bard, this play is a treat. Prithee, read it now, and thou shalt yearn / For The Empire Striketh Back and The Jedi Doth Return!

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