April 30, 2013

Sea Glass by Anita Shreve

Have you ever collected sea glass?  Beautiful little pieces of color with the edges dulled from the waves and movement of the water?  Well, that's the title of this book and I'm sure it's supposed to have more meaning than just being the pretty bits that Honora picks up on the beach.  But guessing at that meaning is a task; as the author could have just liked the hobby or maybe she was trying to say something more about how people are shaped by the situations around them and their environment.  Whatever it may be, it's a nice theme.

Honora has recently married a typewriter salesman (Sexton) and they've settled into life in a house on the beach.  They are just the caretakers, and have set to work restoring the place, but then the opportunity comes to buy it and they decide to.  Shortly thereafter, the stock market crashes and their world comes falling apart as well.  When he loses his job as a salesman, Sexton takes a job at the local textile mill and becomes swept up in a plot for a strike, and he drags Honora in with him.

Honora is probably the best character in this book, which is a good thing since she is the main one.  I liked her hobby of collecting sea glass, but that was about the only way I connected with her.  She was a strong character, but something with her didn't resonate with me.  Maybe it's because she allowed her stronger willed husband to control her (with only little spats of independence).  Her husband I didn't like at all.  He was untruthful, oily, and there wasn't anything written about him that would make me like him any better.  I think he was supposed to be the bad guy of sorts.  Honora's friends Vivian was also pretty interesting and I think the women are the more developed characters in this book.  A few of the others, like the boy Alphonse and a couple of the strike leaders could have been very interesting characters, but I don't think they were developed enough.

I actually found the plot a little dull.  It started out reading like a romance because of the marriage but then got into the intrigue of the strike and the Great Depression and everything that was happening so it was almost as if the book was confused to what it should be.  Had it just been a romance I couldn't have really faulted it for being slow moving, but since it was supposed to be more than that, I don't think it should have drug on the way that it did.  I guess I just expect less from romances and expected more from this book since it is a solid work of historical fiction.  The writing is beautiful though.  Shreve has a way with words and you can definitely see the detail, especially when she is talking about the sea glass and Honora's love for it.

I liked the writing but didn't enjoy the story.  If you're already a fan of Shreve's work and style you may appreciate the book more than I did.  But for me, this was just an average read.

Sea Glass
Copyright 2002
376 pages

April 29, 2013

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll

I've never read any of the Alice In Wonderland books before.  I saw the movie, a long long time ago, and so it was faint in my memory.  Of which I'm glad, because this was almost like experiencing Alice anew and with the two stories in one book (Alice's Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking Glass) I got a whole bunch of wordplay, nonsense and riddles.

Alice, bored while sitting with her sister, notices a strange white rabbit and follows him through a hole where she soon finds herself surrounded by strange creatures and even stranger habits.  As she explores this world, everything is topsy turvy and Alice is the sole source of reason (and at times even she is just a little bit off).  Everyone has a riddle and a poem and Alice enjoys her explorations, even if she doesn't understand everything that is happening.  In Through the Looking Glass, Alice visits just as strange of a world as she steps through her mirror and into a giant Chess game where her only wish is to become a Queen.

Alice is an interesting little girl.  She takes everything that happens to her pretty easy and I can see why the introduction by Tan Lin in this edition says that she is becoming an adult without realizing it and that is why she is a source of reason.  It makes sense given her reactions and personality.  Everyone she meets has something to say, even if it isn't understandable and they are all quite zany.  I enjoyed the Cheshire Cat the most and he has some of the more quotable lines in the book.  But I did not enjoy the Mock Turtle, I found him dull and was glad when that particular part of the story ended.  But the majority of the character were endearing and unforgettable.

This is a pretty wild trip and it can go off on several tangents.  But the use of language is interesting and I like how the riddles are sometimes puns and that word choices are often misinterpreted on purpose.  It was very similar to "The Phantom Tollbooth" in its use of words sometimes, which is also a book I enjoy very much.  And you're constantly on the move with Alice, so excepting the scene with the Mock Turtle, you don't get bored in these books.  And really, I do think they should be read together, so I'm glad my edition combined the two.  I wasn't quite ready to stop reading about Alice's adventures after "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" so I read them both in one sitting.  I know this is a book geared towards kids, but I think adults can get a lot out of it too, and it may even be too tough for younger children or middle school aged children.  Although they can take it at face value for the fun characters.

I definitely see why this book is so popular and will have several of the verses stuck in my head for days.  But that's not a bad thing, and it puts a smile on my face.  A very nice classic book and with some editions (mine included) some beautiful illustrations are included just to further immerse you in Alice's world.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking Glass
Copyright 1865 & 1871
286 pages

Hearts on Fire by Jill Iscol and Peter W. Cookson Jr.

**This review is part of the Amazon Vine Program**

I love the idea of this book but wasn't as fond of the execution. Any book about people out there doing good is sure to draw me in, and it doesn't take much to keep me hooked, but this one I had some trouble with.

Hearts on Fire takes the stories of fourteen different people (three are combined into one story) and tells what they are doing to change the world. It ranges from working in the medical field, helping provide education in the prison system, to many other acts of charity and volunteerism and organizations that the people interviewed are either in or have founded. It starts with an overview of what the person is doing, and then allows the person to tell you what their inspiration is in their own words.

I didn't really feel connected to any of the people in this book. They are all doing amazing things but it was kind of lost in translation. Some of the people weren't native speakers of English so their narratives were rambling and hard to see the real person in them. Still, they are all doing wonderful things and are very inspirational in that they want to help people. It was the total theme across the book and all of these people must be wonderful and caring to do what they do. I'm sure it was tough to just pick out the few that were in this book with all the other people doing amazing things in the world.

The format of the book is what made it tough. As said before, the visionaries parts, in their own words, were rambling and hard to follow and at times I was confused as to what they were actually doing to help people. If it weren't for the short introduction at the beginning of each chapter I would have been completely lost. The introductions were extremely well written and a pleasure to read. And each chapter was so short. This is a brief book to begin with, but I would have loved to learn more about each charity and each person and more on their goal in general. I did appreciate the links to the different charities and sites related to the person's goals at the end of each chapter. It was a way to do more research and I learned about some charities I'd never even heard of before. And there were plenty of nice pictures so you could see the people they were talking about and maps of the different regions they worked in.

This was an interesting book and it had a lot of good points, but I wish it was more reader friendly. It could do a lot more for the causes if it were a more engaging book. But for those that love to read about people making a difference, it will still be a good read.

Hearts on Fire
Copyright 2012
137 pages

April 28, 2013

The Longest Trip Home by John Grogan

Author of Marley & Me, John Grogan, has a way with words.  So when the dog is gone from the story and the memoir is just about him, I was curious to see how the story would end up.  Well, that and my grandma included this book in a pile she gave back to me, and I read just about anything that comes into my hands.

Grogan was brought up in a very Catholic household.  In fact, his parents were about the most devout Catholics I'd ever read about.  But he didn't take to the faith, even from an early age, and his childhood is filled with exploits that are very much rebellious and not in keeping with his parents beliefs.  As he grows up, his parent's religion continues to elude them and become a source of contention between them.  Even after he marries his relationship with his parents permeates everything. 

Grogan is a very undecided man, and he shows his weaknesses in nearly every chapter of this book.  I don't think he's very fair to his wife when it comes to big decisions, but she sticks by him anyway.  So there must be something redeeming about him, although you wouldn't really see it from this book unless it's the dedication to his parents.  But then again we generally don't always paint positive pictures of ourselves and since he wrote this, it shouldn't be surprising that he isn't the greatest person ever.  His parents, I have to say I couldn't have handled their religious fervor.  They didn't have boundaries from what Grogan described.  We only get a few glimpses at his siblings, and I think it would have been interesting to hear more about their lives and how they differed or paralleled from Grogans.

This book is mainly about Grogan's relationship with his father and his stepping away from Catholicism.  Now, I don't know much about Catholicism despite having gone to a Catholic school for a year (and threatening to purposely flunk out if my parents sent me a second year) but my thoughts really do mirror what Grogan thinks about the religion.  He definitely takes a step back and looks hard at some of the beliefs of the faith and whether or not they fit into his life.  But to please his parents, he does still practice a lot of the religion when it comes to baptism and other things for his kids.  And the whole second half of the book is dedicated to that and the time he spends with his father while he's sick.  I actually enjoyed the first half of the book better as we hear about Grogan's exploits as a child.  It was interesting and engaging but then we get to his adult life and it was boring.  It drug on and on and was very repetitive.  Yes, it is a memoir, but like with any life, some things are more interesting than others.  I should note that there is cussing, sexual fantasies, and other things in this book that might surprise someone just thinking it's about a man's journey through his faith.  It's not squeaky clean.

This is an ok book.  Grogan's writing is eloquent and he does have a sense of humor.  But I think it would have been better if he had just stuck to his childhood.

The Longest Trip Home
Copyright 2008
334 pages

Chicken Soup for the Dog Lover's Soul by Jack Canfield, Mark Victor Hansen, Marty Becker, Carol Kline and Amy Shojai

I don't have a dog, but I like dogs.  They just require a lot of time, effort, which I don't really have an abundance of.  So I enjoy dogs through reading about them and this book was chock full of dog stories.

Like the other Chicken Soup books, this one was filled with little stories that were meant to inspire and create warm fuzzy feelings for you.  The stories ranged from dogs as rescuers, letting go of a dog, adopting dogs, and a whole lot more.  The dogs as rescuers was the most interesting because a lot were dogs that taught themselves how to help sick owners or alert them to danger.  It just shows how intelligent they can really be sometimes.  About the only story I didn't enjoy was the one where it described a dog going after a bunch of bicyclists.  The only thing that stopped the dog was quick thinking by one of the bicycle riders, but for some reason the story was presented as trying to be cute, instead of as a dog not properly supervised that almost hurt some people.

Dogs can be characters, but I didn't really get the goofiness I associate with dogs from this book.  In fact, none of them had a huge personality, despite their owners describing them and having lived with them.  The sense of the animals themselves just wasn't there, despite their stories being told.  I think the humans in the book came across more strongly.  Their love for the dogs and how they related to the dogs.  That seemed to be the bigger focus here.

The short stories were easy to read and you could read this over several nights or in one sitting because of the format.  I enjoyed most of the stories about the dogs and there were a few truly remarkable ones in there.  While some were just so-so and had more to do about the person than the dog, there weren't too many of that type.  And although this is a Christian publication, there wasn't much about religion in it, just a lot about dogs.

Not a bad read for people who like dogs.  There's a little bit of something in here for every type of dog lover.

Chicken Soup for the Dog Lover's Soul
Copyright 2005
398 pages

April 25, 2013

A 5th Portion of Chicken Soup for the Soul by Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen

Too much of a good thing can make it bad. And as with five servings of real chicken soup, a 5th book of "general" Chicken Soup for the Soul makes you more queasy than cured. Like all of the Chicken Soup for the Soul books, this one contains a 101 short stories that are meant to inspire.

In this 5th portion, the chapters are titled, "On Love", "On Parents and Parenting", "On Teaching and Learning", "On Death and Dying", "A Matter of Perspective", "Overcoming Obstacles", and "Eclectic Wisdom". There was a lot of variety in the stories as you can see from the chapter titles, but none really stood out. There were even a few I couldn't really see why they were included as there was nothing inspiring about them (like the story of a mom who paddled her daughter at the beach and then marveled how easily kids forgive). It was just kind of rambling without a true sense of purpose to the story.

I didn't find any of the people in the stories especially endearing. Because the stories are so short you don't really expect to get a connection, but even just reading about them I didn't get the usual tears or smiles that I get with some of the other books. I think I got more meaning from the stories that had pets in them, at least they're cute and furry. Or maybe I'm just feeling anti-social and heartless tonight, who knows.

As I said before, there aren't any stand out stories in this book. I just got done reading it and while I remember what happens in a good many of them, none of them really did anything for me. I think they were just trying to get another book out and didn't pay as much attention to the quality of the stories this time around. And some of them even seemed familiar to some of the other books, especially the one that goes around naming famous people and their failures before they were famous. They have a rendition of that in every book. But at least it was a quick read and easily read in one sitting.

I think that most people will be content to stop at the first or second book in this series (of the general ones at least) rather than go on this far. Only a few really die-hard fans of the series could appreciate this book.

A 5th Portion of Chicken Soup for the Soul
Copyright 1998
367 pages

April 24, 2013

Chicken Soup for the Cat Lover's Soul by Jack Canfield, Mark Victor Hansen, Marty Becker, Carol Kline and Amy Shojai

I'm a cat person.  I currently have two of my own and could only wish for more.  So, on this streak of Chicken Soup books that I've been reading lately, it only seemed appropriate to read the Cat Lover's Soul book.

Chicken Soup for the Cat Lover's Soul is filled with the normal short stories of the Chicken Soup series.  They are broken down into different chapters titled, "On Love", "Celebrating the Bond", "A Furry RX", "Cat-Egorically Wonderful", "Cats as Teachers", "Farewell, My Love", "Rescue Me!", and "One of the Family."  Each of these chapters has several short stories relating to the themes and of course, they are all about cats.  There are stories of adopting special cats, cats alerting their owners to danger or illness, and many other things.  I especially liked the story "The Call of the Lobster" about a cat who talks to a special toy, because one of my mom's cats does the same thing with a fuzzy ball she carries around.  I knew she was strange, but at least she's not alone in her strangeness.  There were other stories I didn't like though, like the one about a lady who rescued a cat with FIV and then after treating it at the vet let it roam with her other cats (yes FIV can be contained and treated, but it can be infectious and it seemed an unnecessary risk to her other cats).

I'm of the opinion that all cats are pretty wonderful.  It's the owners that I sometimes don't care for.  There are a lot of people out there that are just cruel to animals (including a story in this book where four teenage boys are practicing target shooting on a cat) and it hurts to read about people like that.  Granted, there are just as many if not more wonderful people in this book who adopt cats and take care of them, so it does have that redeeming quality to it.  But really, it's the cats that make this book worthwhile and it showcases them.

I will admit that there were quite a few stories in here that made me laugh or cry.  The cat getting its head stuck in the garbage disposer (it was rescued successfully) made me giggle.  But, despite there being a specific chapter for cat death "Farewell, My Love", kitty death was rampant through this book.  I'm fairly convinced that the people at Chicken Soup aren't happy unless there's a death of a person, animal, plant, whatever, every ten pages or so in their books.  Not sure what's so inspiring about that, but they've sold a lot of books so it much be working.  I just wish there was more life than death in these books, especially this one since I appreciate my kitties being alive and don't want to think about their eventual deaths right now.  Still, they had a lot of good stories in this book.

Overall this is one of the better Chicken Soup books.  As a cat lover, I did enjoy it and read it in one sitting.

Chicken Soup for the Cat Lover's Soul
Copyright 2005
378 pages

April 21, 2013

The Queen of the Damned by Anne Rice

This book is the third in Anne Rice's vampire series, which began with Interview With A Vampire.  As the third book, it's probably best if you read in order, but I must admit, I haven't read the 2nd book and I got along ok in this one, although I was awfully glad to have read the first book for the background information.

Lestat's singing has awakened the first vampire of them all, Akasha.  In a time of turmoil, the vampires are all out of sorts, trying to survive and wanting to keep their secrets hidden from the human race.  But Lestat bringing to the open has changed everything and with Akasha on the loose, the times are dangerous for both vampires and humans, as she has an interesting sense in who should survive in this world.  Only a small group of vampires, old ones and Lestat's friends seek to stand against her.  And another ancient power to match Akasha's is roaming the earth.

I can't say I really cared for any of the characters in this book.  We were supposed to care for Jesse.  She had such a major role in the book but I thought she kind of fizzled out and didn't really matter towards the end.  Armand, he too took a back seat and Louis only had small roles through the whole thing.  Lestat was predominant, but he was never really a character I liked anyway.  Maharet was probably the best character.  She had the history and depth to be interesting and good intentions, which is more than you can say for a lot of the characters in the book.

The biggest problem was that this book was too long.  It wandered around aimlessly and had so many scenes that didn't really mean anything.  An example would be a young biker vampire who we got to see for a few pages.  While her story was sad, it didn't really add anything.  And a lot of the book was just the telling of history, so it went back and forth between modern times and when the vampires originated.  That was actually the only part I enjoyed as I liked hearing how Rice's vampires came to be.  But all the filler around it just bored me even if Akasha was on a rampage.  There is a lot of violence in this book, and strange relationships between the vampires.  If you've read Rice before you probably know all this though, but new readers probably would be surprised at some of the things she puts in her pages.  I just think this book was trying to be too many things at once.

I didn't enjoy it nearly as much as the first, but I'm curious to see what happens to all of the characters so I'll probably read some of the other books.  But this one, I just didn't quite see the appeal.

The Queen of the Damned
Copyright 1988
491 pages

April 19, 2013

Chicken Soup for the Gardener's Soul by Jack Canfield, Mark Victor Hansen, Cynthia Brian, Cindy Buck, Marion Owen, Pat Stone and Carol Sturgulewski

I live in a third story apartment with no porch or yard.  I miss gardening.  I've had a few gardens, but nothing like the garden of my dreams, so I thought with this book I would live vicariously.  And I did, a little bit.

Chicken Soup for the Gardener's Soul explores the love of planting and growing things, whether it be food, flowers or trees.  Just the act of getting in the dirt and making something come alive can be very satisfying.  This book explored many different topics about gardening from The Joy of Gardening, Blossoming Friendships, Love in Bloom, Making a Difference, Little Sprouts, The Seasons of Life, Overcoming Obstacles, The Family Tree & Potpourri.  One of my favorite stories was about a little girl and her birthday party, where instead of cake, everyone enjoyed home canned soup, and noone thought of her as being poor.  All the stories were very nice, and I did notice quite a few were about roses (which I don't particularly care for aside from their cooking uses), but luckily, just as many were about vegetable and fruit growing.  And there was even a story about lilacs, my favorite.

Gardener's are a special sort, and like to share.  And there area  lot of stories about people sharing the wealth of their gardens in this book.  But as much as we read about the Gardener's here, I never really got a sense of depth about any of them.  The stories were just too short to really explore the person who inspired them.  There are a wide variety of peple represented in this book; couples, single people, older people, children, etc.  I'd say there is probably a story for everyone.

As with there not being much depth of people, I also didn't feel that there was much depth of story in this book either.  Like the flowers, they were pretty to look at, but you're forever at a distance and don't get to experience them up close or get in the dirt and plant them.  It's almost like seeing a picture of a flower, nice, but leaves you wanting more.  This is a quick read though.  You can take one story at a time or read it all in one sitting.

I enjoyed this book but it didn't lessen my desire for a garden.  Guess it's time to go live vicariously at the greenhouses.

Chicken Soup for the Gardener's Soul
Copyright 2000
352 pages

April 18, 2013

Chicken Soup for the Couple's Soul by Jack Canfield, Mark Victor Hansen, Mark and Chrissy Donnelly and Barbara De Angelis

I am currently not considered part of a couple. But I once was, so I feel qualified to review this book. Chicken Soup for the Couple's Soul is all about relationships. Filled with short stories, it is meant to inspire and move you.

This book was filled with short stories over a variety of topics involving couples. These topics include: Love & Intimacy, Finding True Love, On Commitment, Understanding Each Other, Overcoming Obstacles, On Family, The Flame That Still Burns, & Eternal Love. Strangely enough though, the majority of these stories seemed to involve someone dying. I get that it's a true test to watch a loved one die. But it's depressing, and not uplifting in the least. There were stories in here that didn't involve dying of course, but a lot of them involved children. I never really got a sense of the true celebration of being a "couple" from this book. Now I'm not going to say a couple of these didn't make me cry, because a few did.

There was a lot of dedication in this book. But a couple of the stories just made me raise an eyebrow because of the people in them. I had to wonder if they were true because human nature makes it hard to find so many dedicated people. Now granted they weeded out some of the bad, so it's a possibility that all the people in here were good people and their relationships were true. Like with most short stories though, you're just starting to feel attached to the people when the story is over already.

I've already told you about my problems with the types of stories included in this book. As I said, there is just too much dying and not enough joy. I'm not inspired by death even if it does show the dedication and heart of the other spouse. It just makes me sad for them. And this one was also a rather religious book (it is a Christian publication) but it made it seem as if Christian relationships held together longer, and statistically that isn't the case. It just wasn't as approachable in that regard as some of the other Chicken Soup books are.

Two and a half stars for this one. It just wasn't the warm fuzzy type of book a book about couples should be. But if you're a die hard Chicken Soup for the Soul fan, you may enjoy it.

Chicken Soup for the Couple's Soul
Copyright 1999
350 pages

April 17, 2013

The Sea Horse Trade by Sasscer Hill

*This book was received as a Free Advanced Review copy*

The Sea Horse Trade is the gritty, hard-hitting third book in the Nikki Latrelle Racing series. As a third book, it's probably best to read the other two first, but I think if you're willing to sacrifice a bit of background story, this book could probably be read as a stand-alone.

Nikki has barely settled in near the racetrack in Florida when she witnesses a murder at the bus stop. The young girl, dressed provocatively for her age, is shot after being dumped from a van. To further add problems, Nikki is also dealing with a suspicous new horse owner and his temperamental horses and has a friend flying in who's searching for her daughter that she had given up at birth. Like usual, Nikki is further embroiled in all the mystery and intrigue despite just wanting to be with the horses.

Nikki is a very strong character. Really, she's what pushes this series along, which is a good thing considering the series is named after her. But she's such a pleasure to read about as she seems so realistic. Like you can imagine that somewhere out there, there is a Nikki Latrelle on the racetrack. Her friends are a little more suspect. They seem to love to cause trouble for her and I was actually curious that there were quite a few that didn't show up from the second book, although a few had a mention or two. Carla was the prominent friend here and she was a focused character that had a lot of determination and a little less sense. The only character I really didn't like was the psychic. She seemed unnecessary and it could have been just as good a book without her. She just added an element that didn't flow as nicely with the rest of the book.

I described this book as gritty, and it is. A murder is described in the first few pages and the rest deals with drugs, sex trafficking and a myriad of other disturbing topics. And what really makes it scary is that all of it could probably happen in real life. Except maybe the thing with the psychic, I'm still undecided on that one. And as I said before, the scenes involving her detract from the book rather than add to it. But if you ignore the psychic there's a good story here. I actually couldn't put the book down and even though I started it late at night, I went ahead and read it in one sitting. Hill just has a way of writing that grips you and keeps you wanting to know what happens next. And even though this book didn't have as much about horses in it as the last, there was still a lot of detail only someone with the racetrack would be familiar with, and it drew you in like you were part of that world. And since you feel for Nikki, you have to see how her story ends up. And this one had an ending that was quite the shocker.

I have no big complaints about the series from what I've read. I like the characters and the books always keep me hooked. This is a series to look for.

Racing From Death
Copyright 2013

Chicken Soup for the Traveler's Soul by Jack Canfield, Mark Victor Hansen and Steve Zikman

This particular book in the Chicken Soup for the Soul series is one of the better ones in my opinion. But maybe that's the wanderlust in me speaking. All I know is, I enjoyed a good portion of the stories in this book for the Traveler's Soul.

The Chicken Soup for the Soul series is known for short, inspiring stories. This one is no different, although it mostly goes over travel. But not travel in the usual sense of the word. We have a trip to the moon included in this book in addition to trips out of country. I especially liked the stories about the Peace Corps, and there were a couple in this book. I was glad to see they included that as part of their travel stories. But there were a few stories I didn't enjoy. It seemed a big portion of these were about small trips made by dying people or as part of a wish program for dying children. Yes, it is technically travel, but do they have to include stories that will make you cry in every one of these books? Just a light-hearted one in full once in awhile would be nice.

Because this involves travel, it talks about meeting people all over the world and what can be shared even if you don't speak the same language. There were stories where the people spent hours together even though they didn't understand each other. They didn't have to, because the feelings were there. And that's a beautiful thing. It seems that every traveling soul shares a common theme of wanting to meet different people. Because that's part of the whole traveling experience. And these stories showed that.

The short story format is a good one. You can read a story a night or sit down with the book for one read straight through. The enjoyment doesn't lessen either way. I do feel that this is one of their shorter collections though, which surprised me, because with the whole world as a topic, you wouldn't think there'd be a lack of stories. And surprisingly, this one had quite a few stories based on religion. Now I realize this is a Christian publication, but with the world having some many religions, I was surprised that these were so dominant in the book.

As said before though, I think this is one of the better Chicken Soup books. It inspires a love of travel and a want to see new things.

Chicken Soup for the Traveler's Soul
Copyright 2002
356 pages

April 16, 2013

Chicken Soup for the College Soul by Jack Canfield, Mark Victor Hansen, Kimberly Kirberger and Dan Clark

Once, a long long time ago, I went to college.  And now I'm thinking about going back.  So it seemed fitting that I read this book.  Having somehow collected an unbelievable amount of Chicken Soup for the Soul books, I'm pretty convinced there is one for every subject, and this one just happens to be for the "College Soul".  Although I'm not sure what college these people went to, because their experiences sure weren't like mine.

The Chicken Soup for the Soul series deals in inspiring, heartwarming, and sometimes sad stories about human perseverance and kindness.  They are short stories, just enough to read a couple a night or sit down and read the whole book in one sitting because it does read fast.  This particular book is supposed to be about college, and there are a lot of college stories here detailing feeling overwhelmed at starting, dorm rooms, roommates, grades, and other such things you would associate.  There's the requisite story about drugs being bad and to avoid them on campus and stories of parents pride at seeing their kids go off to get their education.  And then there's just some random stories that have nothing to do with college at all, like the one of the mother explaining the meaning of sex to a little girl in a waiting room.  That one puzzled me.  But there were a few stories I liked, mainly the ones saying that if you try hard enough you can achieve anything, because I do believe that is true.

The majority of the stories in this particular edition of Chicken Soup are positive.  The people are mostly kind and want the best for each other or they impart valuable lessons to the reader and the protagonist.  But I couldn't really feel connected to any of them.  Sorority girls, class presidents, etc., they were all people that wouldn't even deign to talk to me during school let alone be something I had any reasonable hope of achieving.  And maybe that makes me a little bitter but I wish there had been more stories about the people who did what they could and got out of there straight into career.  More stories about people who went back after figuring out what life had in store for them.  Sure there were a few, but it just wasn't enough for me.

This is a Christian publication but religion didn't play much of a role in this one.  It mainly just focused on the different educational institutions and their students.  I do think it presented an unrealistic view of college.  A lot of times people are so busy working and the college classes are so big that close friends can't be made in the college classroom.  And roommates never seem to get along as well as they do in this book.  But I'm sure they were just trying to provide a positive outlook to a future college student so they wouldn't go screaming in terror at the thought of any negative aspects of their future.  It's meant to be sappy.  And I do wish they had stuck to just college stories.  There were a lot in here that I didn't understand why they were a part of the book, they just didn't fit.

Only an ok book.  I don't think it will prepare anyone for college, but for a few it may give them something to reminisce over.  And for another few, it may even be inspiring.

Chicken Soup for the College Soul
Copyright 1999
337 pages

April 15, 2013

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurty

Never saw the show and I was never really a fan of Westerns in general.  But I was told this was an American classic, so I had to check it out for myself.  And I'm very glad I did.  This book just has a way of drawing you in.

Gus and Call run a small horse trading operation on the border of Mexico in Texas.  But after a friend of theirs stops by and tells of the wonders of Montana, they decide to take a herd of cattle up North and establish a ranch there.  But it's a long hard drive with many hardships.  They have to watch out for Indians, outlaws, weather, and ornery critters at every step of the way.  And then there's the personal drama with fights, love and hatred, which can sometimes be a greater hardship than the physical things.

Gus is a great character.  He's kind, jovial and just the type of guy you'd like to be around.  He's really the glue that holds the whole story together.  Call on the other hand, is just the complete opposite.  And I wasn't really interested in him or his story.  He was too dour for my tastes but I guess he had to be the solid one while Gus was off having a good time.  The women in the book, Lorena and Carla, were interesting characters.  It was nice to see that they had independent streaks and could take care of themselves for the most part.  Although Lorena's personality changed a bit on me.  There were plenty of other characters of course and too many good ones to mention them all by name.  They all worked together and you could really see the saga of this cattle drive through them.

This really was a saga.  For a book it was exactly like following a tv series that you enjoy.  You were always wanting to know what happened next and even at over nine hundred pages, it was hard to put down.  I wouldn't quite call it a soap opera, but there was a lot of drama.  The characters were always doing something you didn't want them to and yelling at the book didn't keep them from doing it.  I have to admit it was a very slow start and about fifty pages in I kept thinking, "why am I reading this?".  But I'm glad I stuck with it as I felt completely different by the end of the book.  I'm not in the habit of holding on to books anymore, but this one will earn a permanent position on my shelf.

It should be warned though that this is a Western and all it entails.  Cussing, violence, murder, rape, death scenes, and everything else you could imagine is in it.  McMurtry doesn't curb the description and the details to make the book tamer.  It really is Western wildness.  And like a good many Westerns, it doesn't look favorably upon minority races, although there were a few strong minority characters in the book.  Reader, you have been warned.

A very good book and one I can envision myself going back and reading again and again.  I'm eager to see the others in the series as well.

Lonesome Dove
Copyright 1985
945 pages

April 12, 2013

Vagrant Viking by Peter Freuchen

If I only accomplish a third of what Peter Freuchen accomplished in his lifetime I shall be very happy. Except for the self-amputation of part of his own foot. I'll leave that well enough alone. Freuchen led an incredibly exciting life and this book is one that is hard to put down.

Vagrant Viking is Freuchen's autobiography. Born in Denmark, he was a disturbing child that performed many hijinks. As he grew up, he realized University was not for him and instead joined an expedition to Greenland and the arctic. Here he would stay many years running a trading post and marrying, but Greenland wasn't the last of his travels and he also went to Siberia and to Hollywood to make movies. During World War II he was part of the resistance and was arrested several times by the Gestapo. And those are only some of his stories.

If this book was only about Freuchen it would still be remarkable. He did so much with his life and made an impact on so many people. While I think he was a little socio-pathic as a youth, he grew out of that and helped a lot of people. Most of the people he mentions in this book are spoken of fondly. He obviously loved his first wife, Navarana, and missed her deeply when she died. His second wife, Magda, was more distant and based on his descriptions I'm not sure what he saw in her. She certainly didn't have any redeeming qualities that I could see. His third wife, Dagmar, also didn't play much of a role in the book, but at least seemed a stronger person than Magda. People you knew he definitely didn't like were Hitler's regime. As part of the underground movement, he made a lot of trouble for the Gestapo in Denmark.

Freuchen goes on a lot of adventures in this book. Some of them good, some of them bad, and he comes close to dying a few times. But that doesn't stop him. I like the way he added such detail to his books. You get the full effect of the taste of rotting seal or the fear of hiding from the Germans. Freuchen gets his emotions across very well. And while some of these descriptions might not be for everyone (the aforementioned seal), I hazard a guess that everyone will find something they like in this book. Just the section on Hollywood and his experiences making movies was exciting. I now want to find his Eskimo movie and watch it as he does actually act in it.

A fantastic life and I'm glad he shared it with us. Between this book and the Book of the Eskimos I read from him, I'm very much now a fan.

Vagrant Viking
Copyright 1953
414 pages

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass is best known as an orator and an abolitionist.  A former slave, he knew first hand the suffering that not owning yourself can be.  I've been told many times that this auto-biography is one that should be read, so, when presented with the chance to listen to it on audiobook, I did.  The narrator had a calm, steady voice and it was quickly captivating.

This autobiography covers from childhood until ten years after Douglass gained his freedom.  He describes thte time he spent with different slave owners, his treatment while working for different people, and a little about what he did once he escaped.  A big part of this book was about his desire to read and how he taught himself to do so.

Douglass encounters a lot of people in his life and unsurprisingly many were cruel and harsh.  What did surprise me was that he did say some of the slave owners were decent in their treatment of him.  I couldn't ever imagine calling a slave owner decent and it shows that Douglass was definitely a bigger person than me.  To be so mild after having been a slave is astonishing.  He also describes the people that slavery made cruel, like the woman who started to teach him to read only to become the biggest opponent of slaves learning to read.  I do confess that there were so many people he mentioned, it was hard to keep track of them sometimes.

Douglass has a remarkable way with words and this autobiography is as interesting as it is sad.  But I wish there was more of it!  With the amount of detail that he put into describing how he learned to read and the beatings he got (which are sections of the book not for the faint of heart), I wish he had put just as much detail into other things, like his marriage and his speeches after slavery.  I realize he wrote several other books, but since this one covered his time right out of slavery, I expected there to be more description of that eventful time in his life.  It would have provided a big contrast to his time spent as a slave.  Even so, I did find the book extremely informative and it was definitely more than what I learned in school.    And I'm glad for having read such a personal account of slavery.  It is a reminder that such evil shouldn't be permitted in the world.

A great man and one can see why he was so influential.  His autobiography was quick, but moving.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas
Read by Jonathan Reese

Book of the Eskimos by Peter Freuchen

The man amputated part of his own foot. Oh, and he lived in the arctic among the Inuit for a good portion of his life. And for the sake of clarity, I'm going to use the term "Eskimo" as that is what this book uses since it was written in the first half of the twentieth century. This book is Freuchen's look at the life of the Eskimos and their culture.

Peter Freuchen, author of this book, worked on ships at an early age and it took him to Greenland and other places in the arctic where he ran a trading post. He eventually married a local woman and was one of the only European men at the time to be so immersed into the Eskimo culture and accepted. He tells of the first few years and the hunts he went on, meeting his wife, and then he goes into the culture, stories, songs, and other lore of the Eskimo people. He finishes with a short history of the colonization of Greenland by Erik the Red and what it is like in the modern day (which at the time this book was written was the 1950's).

Freuchen meets a very wide array of people. And because the culture is so different, it makes them all the more exotic. It should be noted that at the time Freuchen stayed with them, there was very little outside influence and so a good many practices that we would be horrified with today, were still practiced. But more on that later. Most of the people he met were very kind and giving. Only a few tried to take advantage of him and that is merely a reflection on people as a whole and universal in culture. I found it interesting how meat and other things were considered communal property and how defacing themselves or insulting themselves was a common practice.

There are many customs practiced by the Eskimo that people at this time couldn't relate to. Cannibalism, abuse, murder of children (to keep them from starving to death), and other things are greatly described in this book. These were practices born out of need and I can't even fathom a society struggling so much as to resort to those things. They led very difficult lives. But there was a lot of good and harmony too. A lot of time and effort went into this book and Freuchen is nonjudgmental. He seems to show very little bias and that impressed me. And his writing was clear and modern sounding. If I didn't know better I would have said that this book was written recently by the language. He was approachable without being boring, although he did have a few spots that lagged.

A very interesting book and one that while old, isn't outdated. You'll learn about a very hardy group of people with a culture rich in detail.

Book of the Eskimos
Copyright 1961
441 pages

April 06, 2013

Pandora's Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal by Melanie Warner

Ok, so if you're picking up this book it's probably because you agree with what it's saying already. Personally I don't mind that, because I am one of those people who agrees with what the book is about. And in this case, Pandora's Lunchbox takes a look at processed food in the American diet. And it is kind of scary.

There are thousands of additives that can be found in our food anymore. Ranging from things that help flavor, to dough conditioners, to texture enhancers, a simple piece of breaded chicken is no longer so simple. Or sometimes it's not even chicken. The author takes a look at how these additives are made, what they go into, and who the people are that develop them. She also researches historically to see who first invented this way of transforming our food, and even some safe food pioneers that helped get the FDA on its feet in the beginning.

While Warner doesn't come outright and say any of these people are evil, she isn't sugar coating what they are doing either. All the food scientist she meets it would seem she asks the hard question of why we even do this sort of thing to our food. But she does take the time to note the extensive education and research that goes into developing these additives, and gives them their dues there. These are not stupid people researching food flavorings or stabilizers. And she also meets with people on the other side, although not as extensively. Towards the end she relates the story of a family who went off of processed food and how it improved their health.

There was a lot of research done for this book and I appreciate the many attempts at interviewing people at the companies that make the processed food, even if they didn't always respond. At least she tried. And some of what she found what quite alarming. I don't want to give it away, but the guacamole story she had was VERY interesting. And I will make my own guacamole from now on probably. None of what she covers in this book is anything new, we all know that fresh foods are infinitely better for us than a frozen pizza, but some of what she finds is surprising. Like the use of additives in the organic and natural markets. I definitely learned a lot that I didn't already know in this book and as I sit looking at my soda that I'm drinking, it makes me feel bad about what I'm eating. Which is probably why my grandmother tells me to stop reading these kinds of books because she's frustrated with the foods I won't eat. Really, my only complaint about this book would be that it rambles at times. There were a few times where I became disinterested and found myself hurrying through to get to the next interesting fact.

I'm going to keep doing what I'm doing. Buying whole foods and cooking them, but I will start trying to quit soda again, even if I will miss the caffeine. And I'll pay more attention to the natural products I buy too. A very good book for those people that are interested in what goes into their food.

Pandora's Lunchbox
Copyright 2013
249 pages

April 05, 2013

Donuts: An American Passion by John Edge

Take some dough, fry it, and then douse it in sugar. You now have the donut (doughnut). A favorite breakfast (or anytime) treat of many, the donut can actually be found in many cultures all over the world and by different names. But the concept is the same. Sweet fried dough. And this book is part of a series on American food by Edge. But you don't have to read them in any particular order.

"Donuts" is what you'd expect. It's a book about donuts. There's some history, mentions of different types of donuts by culture or country, and some explorations of famous donut shops. Edge also includes a few recipes for certain types of donuts.

Edge visits a lot of different donut shops, but they seem to mostly be centered on the West Coast. There is a vast majority of shops in Seattle and California, and quite a few in Hawaii too, which for the purpose of this book I'm going to consider "west coast" instead of the island that it is. Sure we do get down to New Orleans for some beignets, but the east coast only has a few mentions, and the south is dominated by Krispy Kreme. Now, granted, Krispy Kreme is popular and what started the doughnut revolution, so it does have its place in this book. All of the donut shop owners though don't really offer a whole lot about themselves or their products. Or at least Edge doesn't write about them very much. He does make note that they were mostly secretive, but I would have though there would be more than there actually is in this book.

In fact, most of this particular book is about the different donuts Edge tries at all these places. When compared to the other books I've read in this series, it just isn't as impressive on giving the whole picture of the food. It does the travelogue thing, but the history and lore of the food just isn't very prominent in this book. This was actually the first book of his that I had trouble keeping my attention on. I kept wandering off to more interesting things. And considering its not that long of a book, that was surprising to me. But I made my way through it and learned a little more about the donut. Although he tantalized with mentioning things like Ny-Quil donuts but never actually saying what they were.

I'd give this book two and a half stars. There was some interesting information contained within it, but largely it didn't have enough interesting things to make it an excellent food book.

Copyright 2006
174 pages

April 04, 2013

Chicken Soup for the Woman's Soul by Jack Canfield, Mark Victor Hansen, Jennifer Read Hawthorne and Marci Shimoff

I'm a woman, so this book applies to me right? Or at least that's what I thought. However, I think the authors of this book have a very narrow sight on what it means to be a woman. But more on that later. This book is one of the very many versions of the Chicken Soup for the Soul books out there. These books are known for their uplifting short stories that are meant to inspire, make you feel good, or just make you cry.

Chicken Soup for the Woman's Soul takes stories about women and fills a number of places with them. The chapters range from being about Overcoming Obstacles, Motherhood, Marriage, Attitude, and Love. There are stories about mother's doing whatever they can for their children, to becoming a mom for the first time, to finding the love of your life and marrying him. Far and few between however, are stories about women who stay single and don't have children. There are a few, but barely any. The majority of the stories focus on motherhood and marriage. One of those few that was not however, was about a woman pilot, and that actually was an inspiring story. But then there was one of the first stories in the book, about a man who was inspired by his wife to take his mom out to dinner and other activities, but kept calling it dating his mother, which was kind of creepy (the story may have been innocent but continual references to dating your mother just doesn't sit right).

Since these are short stories we don't really get a sense of all the people. After all, you're seeing them through biased eyes without a lot of description. Everyone seems to be glowing. And mothers and married women are especially revered (are you sensing a theme here). But there are a lot of good people mentioned in these books. People who do good for other people. And there's even a few that are inspiring.

So obviously my main complaints with this book are its representation of women. I'm not saying that it's wrong to have a section on marriage or on motherhood, but I think equal status (and a devoted chapter) should be given to the single career-oriented and the non-mothers. They do a lot of good in the world too. And there's already plenty of Chicken Soup for the Mother's Soul books. It's almost like they're saying women who don't follow those choices in life aren't quite women. And that's heartbreaking. This is a Christian based publication, but this one didn't have too many stories that were preachy, which was nice. It was approachable in that way at least.

Not my favorite of the Chicken Soup books. Maybe I'm a little biased, but I just wish this book had been for ALL women.

Chicken Soup for the Women's Soul
Copyright 1996
328 pages

April 03, 2013

Picture Maker by Penina Keen Spinka

I've seen this book considered prehistoric fiction by a lot of people. And I even confused it for that at first myself. But this actually takes place somewhere around the 1300's to 1400's so it's not as far back as you would think. So while it may share some similarities with that genre, this book really shouldn't be compared to the Earth's Children Series or the Gear's prehistoric fiction.

Picture Maker is an important daughter in her tribe. Because of her tribe's equality of women, she has grown up being independent, even hunting, which is unusual for a good many of the other tribes she encounters. So when she is kidnapped, and forced to become a slave for an Algonquin man who degradingly calls her Mohawk (not her people's name for their tribe), it's a whole new world for her. But she longs for escape, and if escape is possible, there are a great many journeys in front of her.

It's hard to talk about all the characters in this book without giving too much of the plot away. The safest person to talk about, as a result, is Picture Maker herself. She's a wise woman for not having seen too many years. Even as a girl she carries herself well and makes good decisions. But she does have a lot of misfortune happen to her. It seems like she's always running up against a wall, but she never gives up. And that's what's admirable about her character. And of course not all the other characters are bad guys. She encounters good and bad everywhere she goes and that's what makes humans human. So the book was very realistic in that regard.

I kept expecting the plot to leap years at a time. But it never really did until the end. And I liked that we had the continual story of Picture Maker. Nothing was left out that way. I do have to say that her name, Picture Maker, and the significance attached to it led to a dead end. Nothing was ever really done with it. But she has an exciting tale and while parts of it are a little implausible, it was still fun to read. I do have to warn that there are several topics that could be potentially offensive to people. Cannibalism, rape, violence, and an un-popular view of Christianity are in this book. I thought everything made the story more realistic, but others may not think that way.

An interesting book and it covers a time and place that I hadn't thought much about before. I'd be interested in reading the sequel to this book.

Picture Maker
Copyright 2002
464 pages

April 02, 2013

If You Ask Me by Betty White

Betty White is one of my heroes.  There is just something about this woman that makes you smile and be inspired all at once.  So when I found her audiobook I of course had to give it a try.  And while I may have missed out on the pictures the physical book contains, that's ok, the audiobook is narrated by Betty herself.  And that's pretty special.

This memoir of sorts is really snippets of Betty's life.  She talks about her latest projects, animals she has loved, and other things.  She spends a little time on each so you get an overview of her life and the people she's been around, but nothing in-depth.  There are stories from the time she met Koko the Gorilla to that of her dog Pontiac.  She also shares about working with the cast of Hot In Cleveland and even a little bit about the Golden Girls.

Since Betty is narrating you get her sense of everyone from the book.  I don't think she's met a person she hasn't liked.  She had a kind word to say about everyone she mentions in this book, even if she disagreed with them on subjects.  But the animals are where she really came alive.  They are a big part of this book and it's no wonder that Betty is very active for supporting the well-being of animals.  As kind as she was describing the humans in this book, the animals took it to a whole other level.

I liked hearing about Betty's life.  She's a remarkable woman and the fact that she wrote this at age 89, she has a lot of stories to tell and a lot of wisdom to share.  But I do wish it had been a little more in depth.  At times it felt disjointed because she rushed from subject to subject without a clear transition.  I would just be getting into a story when it would become another.  But even so she's very good at telling her stories and all of them were interesting.  That's why you wanted more!  There was no objectionable content either, this is a memoir for anyone. 

A very nice book by Betty White.  I plan on checking some of her other books out and can only hope that she continues acting and writing, as she is very talented at both.

If You Ask Me
Copyright 2011

April 01, 2013

A 3rd Serving of Chicken Soup for the Soul by Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen

Usually when you get into the third of anything, things start to wane a little bit. And that's true with this book. Although you don't have to read the Chicken Soup books in any particular order, this is considered the third book.

Chicken Soup for the Soul books are filled with stories that are meant to inspire and bring a tear or a smile to your day, depending on the section you are in. There are stories about coping with death, overcoming obstacles and a myriad of other themes that follow the same line of thinking. Some, like "Appointment with Love" are about relationships made over long distances and to never lose sight that it's what's on the inside that counts and not the outside. Others, like "The Flower In Her Hair" teach you not to judge someone without knowing the whole story.

Since these are short stories you aren't in with characters/people for the long haul. But there is a relatively diverse group of people that these stories are written about. Children, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, you get the picture. And I can't say that any of them really had a story that resonated with me. There were none that I related to and thought, wow, their life is like mine. Sure they were all nice people (you wouldn't make it into one of these books if you weren't), but there was just something lackluster about this group.

Or maybe it was just the stories themselves that were lackluster. I'm used to them being nicey-nice. That's part of the appeal of this book. With all the violence and everything else out there this is one of those books where you just read and breathe. But aside from duplicating some of the stories in other editions of Chicken Soup (or rather they probably duplicated this one) there were also problems with the stories themselves in that they just weren't as interesting as the ones in the first book. There were a lot of religion-heavy stories in this one too, and although this is a Christian publication, they usually don't force feed it as much as they do in this one.

Just an average collection of stories. If you're a die-hard fan of the Chicken Soup books you may enjoy it, but at this stage in the game, it may just be better to branch out into the theme books of Chicken Soup.

A 3rd Serving of Chicken Soup for the Soul
Copyright 1996
331 pages