The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Marta McDowell

Guest blog post by Laura

The seeds of my relatively new hobbies: gardening, landscaping with native plants, and what my friends call “pioneer” cooking, may have been planted long ago by my favorite childhood books. I would disappear into the Little House in the Big Woods or Little House on the Prairie both by Laura Ingalls Wilder for hours at a time. I also spent time with the Island of the Blue Dolphins, a fictional account of the true story of a Native American woman’s story of survival while stranded alone on an island, by Scott O’Dell.

In The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder, McDowell aptly describes the various places Pa Ingalls’ wanderlust took his young family. They lived in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Kansas, and South Dakota. Some locations were still Indian Territory at the time the young Ingalls family built homesteads. Finally, Laura and her husband Almanzo settled permanently in Missouri.

I was absolutely amazed at the speed in which forest and prairie were decimated and towns emerged. Laura and Almanzo traveled from South Dakota to Missouri by covered wagon in 1894 and she went to visit her cosmopolitan daughter in San Francisco by train in 1915 and by Buick 1925! McDowell includes a section on Visiting Wilder Gardens and Growing a Wilder Garden for those interested in road-tripping or attracting pollinators.

It was fun to see the Moline Wagon Company and John Deere mentioned. I learned I have planted some of the native plants Laura found on the landscapes of her youth. Some of the herbal remedies she used were familiar, but most were new to me. I also enjoyed seeing the names of familiar seed catalogs that regularly show up in my mailbox over a hundred years after Laura may have ordered from them: Stark Bros. & Gurney.

I was happy to get a second look, this time through mature eyes, at the literary heroine of my childhood. She was a remarkable, intelligent woman, and her daughter was an amazing character in her bold independence for a woman of her time. Laura clearly passed along the pioneer spirit to her.

This is my favorite passage from the book and sums up her view of the world: “Laura didn’t curtain its windows so she could see the changing pictures of the world outside. Depending on the time of day, the season of the year, and the weather, the scenes framed in the glass panes shifted, but were a constant draw. She appreciated ‘the forest trees in the wood lot, the little brook that wanders through the pasture, the hills and valleys, and the level fields of the farm lands.’ Living close to nature was a fundamental thing. Along with love and duty, work and rest, nature was a key ingredient in her formula for happy life.”

My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent

Coming-of-age stories usually prove hit or miss with me. I’ve noticed that the ones where the main character has an idyllic childhood that transitions over to a smooth adult life, with some pretty obvious life quirks along the way, do not engage me at all. I need my coming-of-age stories to have some serious life issues, entertaining if not slightly off the wall relationships, and some sort of crisis that forces the main character to really examine their life thus far. (As you can probably tell, I’ve read my fair share of coming-of-age tales.) As a result, I’m usually hesitant when I come across an adult fiction book with a young person as the main character. My latest read, My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent, is a coming-of-age story that I discovered was listed on multiple book lists. Because of the press surrounding this book, I decided to give it a go.

I’ll admit that when I first started this book, I was skeptical: skeptical of the main characters, skeptical of the press it received, and skeptical that I would actually like this book. I’m glad I decided to stick with this book through to the end because I finally understood all the hype. My Absolute Darling was much better that I thought it would be.

My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent tells the story of fourteen year old Turtle Alveston. Turtle is the living embodiment of the term survivor. Living off the beaten path in the woods along the northern California coast, Turtle has the run of the wilderness for miles. She knows the creeks, woods, rocky islands, and tide pools like the back of her hand. Throw her into the wild and she can do literally anything. This is all due to the intense training done by her father, Martin.

Turtle’s mother died when she was young, leaving Turtle to grow up at the hands of her father, Martin, with some help from her grandfather. Martin is slightly crazy, holds deep and somewhat fanatic beliefs on a variety of subjects, and is tortured by events from his past. Raising Turtle to be a survivalist in a cabin out in the middle of nowhere, Martin tries to do his best, but it quickly becomes clear that the life the two are living is not safe and they cannot go on the way they have been for very much longer.

Turtle may have absolute command of the outside physical world, but her personal world is in utter chaos. Dealing with middle school is torturous: the other kids don’t understand her and while her teachers are trying to help her, Turtle knows she can’t let them get too close otherwise they will realize her truth. Outside of school, Turtle’s life is limited to her father, their cabin, and to the woods, whenever she is able to sneak away from her father to enjoy it.

A chance encounter with a high-school boy named Jacob completely changes Turtle’s life. Jacob and his friends are care free, live in big clean houses, and think Turtle is amazing. The fact that she knows so much about the wild and can clearly handle herself blows them all away. Turtle enjoys their company and finally has her first healthy relationship in years. Hanging out with Jacob and his friends gives Turtle her first real friendships and the fact that Jacob is pretty cute gives Turtle her first teenage crush. This new group of friends is exactly what Turtle needs to finally realize the truth behind Martin’s actions and to see that the way Martin behaves towards her, and towards others, is not healthy. She can’t live like that anymore. With her newfound courage and the survival skills her father has instilled in her since birth, Turtle starts to think that she can escape from her father. Turtle must learn to trust herself and believe she is willing to do whatever it takes to escape.

I really enjoyed this book even though I didn’t understand all the press and awards it was receiving until almost the very end of the book. If you’re thinking of giving up on this book, don’t! Promise me you’ll stick through to the end! Let me know what you think if you decide to give it a go. I hope you’ll be just as pleasantly surprised as I was.


This book is also available in the following formats:

Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach

Guest post by Laura

I am interested in health in general and digestion in particular but was expecting a somewhat dry tour of the digestive system when I checked Gulp by Mary Roach out. After all, the alimentary canal is the route along which food passes through the body from entry to exit. How exciting can details about the esophagus, stomach, and intestines be, right? Wrong!

The author has a sharp wit and sense of humor that isn’t afraid to tackle taboos. She explores the scientific study of various digestive mechanisms from ancient to modern times. One of these ongoing science experiments was between Alexis St. Martin who was accidentally shot in the stomach with a musket and William Beaumont who would conduct experiments using the open hole left after the wound healed. Rather than reading like a school science textbook documenting the methods and findings, she goes into the human aspect of the drama of the sometimes strained relationship between the two men along with the scientific details biology geeks will eat up. Pun absolutely intended.

From the probable origins of the fire-breathing dragon legend to competitive eaters, this book has facts and stories that both entertain and inform. I usually read or listen to audiobooks during my lunch hour and it takes a lot to make me queasy but I have to admit I had to turn it off once because of the content. Overall, this was a gratifying romp through the alimentary canal with some fun, grossness, and enlightenment along the way.

The Lying Game by Ruth Ware

Ruth Ware is quickly becoming one of my go-to, will-never-disappoint authors. I know I will enjoy whatever she writes because her books always pull me in and wrap me up in their suspenseful psychological messes. Bonus: the narrator for both of her books that I listened to was thoroughly engaging.

The Lying Game tells the twisted, complicated story of four young girls who met at Salten, a boarding school near the cliffs of the English Channel. Fatima, Thea, Isabel, and Kate helped each other navigate the murky waters of this boarding school during their teenage years. Their friendship was so strong that no matter what happened, they each knew that the other three girls would have their back. These girls became inseparable and solidified their reputations as untouchable and the ‘bad girls’ with the invention of the lying game. The lying game may have started out harmless, but quickly grew out of control as the girls’ abilities to keep their lies and truths straight deteriorated. The number one rule of the lying game: don’t lie to the other players. That rule became more and more difficult to follow the longer the game went on, something that had the possibility to destroy all of their lives.

After leaving abruptly in the middle of the school year, all four friends find themselves thrust back into the regular world without a clue what to do. Fatima, Thea, Kate, and Isabel have woven a complicated, messy relationship that none of them can escape.  Each will still drop whatever they are doing to come to the rescue of the other, even though many years have passed.

One morning in June, the four friends’ lives begin to unravel. Human remains are discovered near Salten by a woman walking her dog next to a tidal estuary. The discovery of the body shocks this peaceful town out of its idyllic reverie. Fatima, Thea, and Isabel soon find themselves thrust back into Salten life when they receive a distressing text from Kate saying that she needs them. Arriving back into town, the four’s shared past bursts to the surface and their realities come crashing down.  A shared secret has the ability to destroy their current lives as well as drastically change their pasts.


This book is also available in the following formats:

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

I had read Celests Ng’s first book, Everything I Never Told You, when it first came out and it captivated me. The story of a family torn apart by the disappearance and death of the middle child, Lydia, captures the rifts and examines the ways that family members struggle to try to understand each other. When I saw that Ng was coming out with another book entitled Little Fires Everywhere, I knew I needed to read it because Ng has the ability to craft domestic fiction that is both engaging and realistic that I simply can’t put down.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng tells the story of the residents of Shaker Heights. Shaker Heights is a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, that prides itself in its ability to plan. This progressive suburb has rules for everything: the colors of the houses, the layouts of the roads, the types of houses, the schools, etc. Every little thing is laid out, even the jobs and lives that residents are expected to lead.

This highly structured, yet surprisingly calm and tranquil, community is normal to the residents that live there, especially longtime resident Elena Richardson. Leaving for college, coming back with a husband, raising four children, and working at the local paper are all things that were expected from Elena. The order and sense of community are both major appeals for Elena in Shaker Heights. She believes that the rules are there for a reason and lives her life making sure everyone around her follows the rules.

Elena’s sense of security is shaken when Mia Warren and her teenage daughter Pearl move into town. Mia is a single mother who makes a living as an artist. She and Pearl move around every couple months, but Mia promises Pearl that Shaker Heights is the place they will stay forever. Arriving in town, Mia rents a house from the Richardsons and soon both families become tangled together. All four Richardson children find Mia and Pearl to be mysterious and are quickly drawn to the pair. The closer the two families become, the more questions come to the surface.

Mia’s arrival in Shaker Heights begins to unsettle the delicate balance of rules and order that the community relies on to survive. To start, Mia has an untraditional job, a very mysterious part, and a disregard for the standard of living that Elena holds dear. Mia keeps part of her past hidden for good reason and some of the Richardson family members take it upon themselves to figure out why.

Mia’s disruption of the status quo comes to a head when Mia and Elena find themselves at opposite sides of a custody battle that’s splattered all over the news. An old family friend of Elena’s is trying to adopt a Chinese-American baby. Mia finds herself championing the biological mother, while Elena is firmly on the side of the adoptive parents. Elena is determined to do anything for her friend, even if that means digging into Mia’s past to discover her secrets and motives. Little does she know that her obsession will quickly unravel her life and the lives of everyone around her in abrupt and unforeseen ways.


This book is also available in the following formats:

Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve

guest post by Teague Shosh

There is no shortage of post-apocolyptic books to read these days and looking at the books I’ve read over the past several years it is clear that I have an obsession a healthy interest in all things dealing with our planet earth in the future.  There is something so captivating about a story describing the collapse of earth as we know it and the subsequent reconstruction of a new society rising from the chaos—all from the safety of my twenty-first century life.

My brother recently asked if I had read the book Mortal Engines that Peter Jackson has based his next movie on and suggested I check out the trailer.  I usually try to avoid seeing even a smidgeon of a movie based on a book until I have read it, so I grabbed a copy of Mortal Engines by Phillip Reeve and dug in.

Mortal Engines is the first in a four part series, The Hungry City Chronicles.  It is a post-apocalyptic steam punk novel that takes place hundreds of years after the Sixty Minute War destroyed earth and made the land an unstable place to live.  Cities are now giant machines run by steam, rolling on wheels, and searching for increasingly scarce resources to survive.  These Traction Cities rule most of the earth, except for the Dead Continent (North America) and pockets of resistance can be found in The Anti-Traction League who wish to stop the movement of cities and slow the consumption of earth’s remaining resources.  Technology is almost non-existent and scavengers hunt for relics from the past to build on their knowledge of robotics, mechanization, and computers.

Mortal Engines begins on the city of London as fifteen year-old orphan and aspiring Historian Tom Natsworthy witnesses an attack on a prominent citizen and suddenly finds himself tossed into the Outland.  Tom struggles to make his way back to London with the help of Hester, who is also alone, but angry and seeking revenge.  The two unlikely friends embark on an adventure that uncovers a secret plot by London that changes everything Tom thought he knew about his city and the world.

Although the book was originally published over fifteen years ago, the idea of cities on wheels battling for survival was new to me and I thoroughly enjoyed seeing Reeve’s innovative take on this genre.  After reading the descriptions of traction cities, with level after level stretching to the sky reflecting the increasing wealth of its citizens the higher you go, it is easy to see why Peter Jackson decided to turn the book into a movie.   I watched the trailer when I finished the book and it is clear that Mortal Engines is going to provide a beautiful visual experience when it comes to theaters at the end of this year.  Before then, you should read this entertaining book to find out more about Tom, Hester, and a host of other colorful characters surviving on a very different sort of earth than the one we live on today.

 

The Sun and her Flowers by Rupi Kaur

The Sun and her Flowers, a 2017 Top Fiction and Literature book of poetry as well as a New York Times Bestseller, is the second brilliant poetry book by Rupi Kaur.

Kaur’s Poignant second book is another incredible work helping all of us relate to our human condition and the common thread binding us between each other…..this thread of humanity, raw emotion, depression, tears, joy, love and life in all of it’s glorious and dark forms.  Excerpt from the book:

“this is the recipe of life

said my mother

as she held me in her arms as i wept

think of those flowers you plant

in the garden each year

they will teach you

that people too

must wilt

fall

root

rise

in order to bloom”

Life is hard. We all do our best. Be kind, do your best. Go to your local library and check out this book.

Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer

guest post by Laura

An expert storyteller, Kimmerer recounts her journey of learning to embrace the science of biology from the viewpoint of two different cultures, Potawatomi and mainstream American culture in Braiding Sweetgrass. From the Potawatomi creation story to the cautionary tale of the greed of the monster, Windigo, she weaves her way through the wisdom of various indigenous cultures juxtaposed with current stories of endangered species and environmental destruction.

Kimmerer makes a case for listening to the wisdom of peoples who had learned over millennia how to live in a reciprocal manner, taking in restrained amounts and giving back to the Earth. One example of this is the three sisters. What looked like a messy garden to the new settlers to the Americas was a strategic planting method of corn as support, beans as nitrogen fixers, and shade/weed prevention from the squash.

This beautiful tome is difficult to read at times when she talks about the mistreatment of the peoples of the First Nations as well as the destruction of once-thriving ecosystems. Kimmerer is no pessimist despite the many sad tales she recounts. She gives anecdotal and even research evidence from one of her graduate students that humans and nature not only can co-exist harmoniously, in some cases nature thrives only when humans tend to it.

The main audience for this book may be environmentalists but this is also the story of the author raising two daughters as a single mom. Those who enjoy indigenous history and folklore will also enjoy the tales. She finds neighbors who become friends, gardens, and fights a humorous losing battle in reclaiming a backyard pond from nature.

Online Reading Challenge Mid-Month Check-In

Hello Fellow Readers!

How is your first month of the 2018 Online Reading Challenge going? Have you found any great new titles? Let us know in the comments!

I’ve already finished my choice for this month – My Lady Jane a collabrative effort by three young adult authors – Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton and Jodi Meadows and it was so very excellent. If you’re a stickler for historical accuracy then you need to take a pass, but if you delight in witty, clever dialogue and description, are willing to let go of cold, hard, boring facts and able to accept a bit of magical realism well then, you’re in for a treat.

According to the cold, hard, boring facts, Lady Jane Grey was the great granddaughter of Henry VII. When her cousin, King Edward VI became ill, he wrote his will naming Jane as his successor instead of his half-sister Mary. Edward choose Jane because she was Protestant and would continue the reformations he and his father had instituted while Mary was Catholic and wanted to return the country to Catholicism by any means (thus the “Bloody Mary” nickname). And indeed, at Edward’s death, Jane (reluctantly) became Queen. She only lasted nine days though as Mary was able to raise an army and the Privy Council abandoned Jane. At first Jane’s life was spared but later Mary had her executed, fearing continuing support for her. And thus ends a brief reign (and life, she was only 15 or 16 when she died).

Never fear Gentle Readers! The authors of My Lady Jane have a far different ending in store for you! There are many twists and turns, but, surprisingly, the story follows the basic outline of Jane’s life – her early childhood, her relationship with Edward, her forced marriage, Edward’s terminal illness and writing of a new will to make Jane queen, her studious nature and reluctance to become queen, the Privy Council’s betrayal, Mary’s brutal claim to the throne. It’s all there, but now with lots of humor, interesting back stories and motivations, cultural and historical barriers and some sly references to the Bard himself, who may or may not have been William Shakespeare. I don’t remember having read a book that I was smiling or laughing or making unladylike snorting noises the entire time I was reading it and yet there is real tension about the outcome. This is a tough book to put down both for sheer enjoyment and for the urgency to find out what’s going to happen!

The sad part is that the book ends, the happy news is that these same three authors have collaborated again and are coming out with another title, My Plain Jane, in June of this year, which will be about Jane Eyre herself. Perhaps they’re creating a series reimagining the lives of famous Janes? Could Jane Austen be next? One can only hope.

A Column of Fire by Ken Follett

guest post by Laura

Ken Follett’s Kingsbridge series readers have patience. He released the Pillars of the Earth in 1989, World Without End in 2010, and A Column of Fire in 2017. They’re not sequels in the traditional manner. They take place in the same location hundreds of years apart and have some loosely, genealogically connected characters.

I was excited to see A Column of Fire came out in the fall of 2017. There’s quite a long waiting list to read it, so you may have time to catch up on the previous two if you’re a fan of historical fiction after you’ve gotten on the list. Just as in the previous two novels, this is a sweeping tale of romance with plenty of intrigue and this one even includes a few pirates. In contrast to the other books, A Column of Fire expands into international politics and crosses borders, reflecting the importance of interstate commerce and increased modes and routes of global travel.

It was fun to discover who the real historical figures and who the fictional characters were at the end, although one could guess. If you’re well-versed in European history during the 1500s, you will be spoiled. I had only a general knowledge so I was in suspense much of the time. Like his other novels, he includes the major historical occurrences of the time, focusing on the religious turmoil between Catholics and Protestants.

I grew somewhat tired of the predictability of the fates of some of his fictional characters. There is definitely a pattern in his writing. Real life isn’t so just and predictable and I felt cheated that he thought I wouldn’t be satisfied with a divergence from his typical ending. I’m guessing most of his loyal fans may not agree with me on that, however. Overall, I enjoyed the book and am happy I was able to read all three over the span of a couple of decades.