Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Septys

This is a powerful little book. 15-year-old Lina lives with her loving family in Lithuania in the volatile political climate of 1941. Unfortunately for her country, Stalin's regime is looking to take over the Baltic states, at least if Hitler doesn't prevent it, and the Germans seem to be taking over countries, too. And Lina's father is suspected of rebellion against the Stalinists, both for his gatherings of intellectual friends and the fact that his brother’s family seems to have left Lithuania behind. As a result, their whole family is rounded up for deportation. Lina, with her mother and younger brother, is sent to labor on a potato & beet farm collective in Siberia. Lina fights for her life, vowing that if she survives she will honor her family, and the thousands like hers, by using her artistic talents to document their story whenever she can. Lina comes of age in a situation of scrabbling to survive, to maintain memories of better times, and to establish a community of support among their fellow deportees.

This heart-rending novel really illuminates an episode of history that I knew very little about. Author Ruta Septys penned this award-winning debut novel with inspiration from her own extended family's history in Lithuania. This is a crossover book, equally appealing to teens and adults.  -Dee Ann

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Wednesday, January 11, 2017

One Child by Mei Fong


After more than 30 years, China recently ended its infamous one-child policy.  Implemented in order to curb population growth and improve the country's economic future, the controversial project had unintended consequences that will affect the Chinese for decades to come.

With far fewer young adults entering the workforce now, the aging population depends heavily on its youth to support the elderly.  The skewed generational numbers and China's cultural imperative for adult children to care for their elders have put immense pressure on 20- and 30-somethings.  They lack siblings to help out as they start their own careers and families, and have more difficulty dating and marrying due to a serious shortage of Chinese females.

Males far outnumber females now and the reasons are disturbing.  In a country with a historical preference for boys, girl babies were often abandoned, adopted out, or aborted so that parents could try again for a boy.

Author Mei Fong traveled extensively in China, interviewing those affected by the policy in myriad ways.  She documents ruthless government enforcement of the one-child limit.  In some provinces, forced late-term abortions were not uncommon, and an unregulated adoption industry contributed to tragic instances of baby-selling for profit.

Fong's crisp, concise writing, thorough research, and powerful material make this book well worth reading.  It asks important questions about social engineering and government control over people's private lives.   -Margie

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Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Wolf, No Wolf (Gabriel Du Pre #3) by Peter Bowen

Goodreads summary:  Du Pre remembers when you could send animal skins to Sears Roebuck and get merchandise in return. Now the wolves are gone from the mountains, and outsiders want them back. The trouble is, a tussle over wildlife is getting people killed.

First, two activists die by a sniper's rifle. Then four more lives are snuffed out as a brutal winter storm barrels down on a carnival of Feds, reporters, and protestors. Du Pre knows one of his own people must be behind the bloodletting, and that in this rugged land, you don't quit hunting until you're dead.

My review:  This is another fun addition to Bowen's series of Eastern Montana mysteries.  Gabriel Du Pré, the sleuth, is Métis fiddle player and brand inspector on the high plains, who gets called in to help the county sheriff solve problems.  The problem this time is people who are cutting fences and killing cattle, who are themselves killed by somebody.  Gabriel and his friends, including the new sheriff, have to solve the murders while rescuing hapless visitors who venture out in the worst winter storm in years and get stuck in the howling blizzard, among other problems.  


Bowen has a feel for the land and a sense of humor that come through in his books.  His characters are entertaining.  In this book, the clash between city folk and country folk is central to the problem and its solving.  I enjoyed it quite a lot.  If you like snarky dialogue, different points of view, and a good convoluted problem with no clear solutions, you'll like this book.  -Lynne

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Friday, January 6, 2017

Mr. Mercedes and Finders Keepers by Stephen King


To be honest, in spite of being a long-time fan of Stephen King, I had been putting off reading this trilogy about retired police detective Bill Hodges.  Though King has successfully navigated the hard-boiled thriller in the past in novels like Blaze or the more nostalgic Joyland, I prefer his straight-up horror stories and his dark fantasy to these more realistic fictions, and I tend to avoid the serial killer sub-genre when looking for a suspenseful read.  That said, I must now admit that I should not have waited.  These are two of his best stories--which is saying a lot!  

Mr. Mercedes introduces the reader to Hodges, a depressed and lonely retiree who keeps his father's pistol close at hand while watching too much daytime TV.  His monotonous existence soon changes, however, when he receives a letter from the Mercedes Killer, a mass murderer whom he failed to catch.  Mr. Mercedes wants to play with Hodges' head, but the detective soon turns the tables, using clues in the letter to track him down and picking up an unlikely group of allies to help.  The book alternates chapters between the killer and Hodges as the plot pulls them closer together. 

The following book, Finders Keepers, maintains this structure, though in this novel Hodges and his crew don't show up until the second half, and the story also moves forward and backward in time, beginning with the 1978 murder of reclusive author John Rothstein (who seems to have been partially modeled on J.D. Salinger).  Rothstein wrote a trilogy of books which became cultural touchstones, and then retired to a farm in New England where he continued to fill notebooks full of writing which he never published.  The murderer, Morris Bellamy, might have been in the author's house for his money, but since he is a frustrated fan who blames Rothstein for making his iconic character sell out, what he really wants is those notebooks.   After the murder, Morris hides the books but is arrested for another crime.  Parallel to this story, the reader learns the tale of Pete Saubers, a modern-day teenager who discovers Morris' treasure trove.  This set up allows  King to ponder one of his favorite topics;  the ways in which stories can affect the lives of both readers and writers, for good and ill.  These underlying currents add depth to the book, making it linger in the mind long after the plot's many exciting twists and turns have been navigated. 

I have not yet picked up the third book in the trilogy, End of Watch, but I am looking forward to its promise of an even more intense confrontation between Hodges and the Mercedes Killer.  (No spoilers, please! :-)  )       -Barb

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Friday, December 30, 2016

How to Love by Thich Nhat Hanh

If the upcoming New Year has put you in a reflective mood, a browse through the Billings Public Library non-fiction section may offer enlightenment. Whether in the 150s shelves of psychology, the 240s of Christian practice, or the 610s of health, our collection holds many hundreds of self-help books. In the 294s -- Eastern religions -- some of my favorites are by Pema Chodron or Thich Nhat Hanh. A good pre-Valentine’s book is How to Love, a collection of meditations and epigrams about love by the 90-year-old Zen monk Nhat Hanh, who Dr. Martin Luther King nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize back in the 60s.

Nhat Hanh knows we are good beings at heart. He suggests we practice compassion by becoming more aware yet less self-involved: more in the moment and meditative, so we recognize dance moves without needing to pass judgment on them. “Everyone knows that peace has to begin with oneself, but not many people know how to do it.”

He reminds us that superficial relationships are not about the other person at all; they are only attempts to avoid our own suffering. This monk is good at epigrams. True love finally makes the other person more free, he points out. Nhat Hahn says “We have to walk in a way that we only print peace and serenity on the Earth. Walk as if you are kissing the Earth with your feet.” Only when we take gracious care of ourselves can we begin to care for others.

I get some peace from this old man’s comments. He recently distilled some of his prayers into calligraphy; the result is in our 745 shelves among religious paintings. --Jon

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Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Pocket Change: Pitching In for a Better World by Michelle Mulder


Kids are the answer to every question, because they create our future: not “more” kids, but more thoughtful kids, who take responsibilities for their communities. This book for tweens (ages 8 to 14 or so) explains how children naturally choose to care for the people and places they know.

There is great satisfaction in making your own product, as any preschooler or teenager will tell you. Mulder writes “Did you know that [not many years ago] buying a loaf of bread could start terrible rumors?” Something was wrong at home if a person purchased bread instead of making her own. Mulder traces how all of our ancestors were hunter-gatherers until the recent inventions of agriculture and money made our families begin to depend on earning and buying. Now, she points out, every pound of product we buy pumps 40 pounds of trash into our environment, mostly in other countries where items are made more cheaply and we don’t recognize the pollution.

This is common sense to students who recognize that all our actions have consequences. Mulder shows how some kids and adults have stepped away from being consumers, learned to freecycle, to grow and borrow for each other, to buy less, and to create Human Libraries (a great concept - where people of varied ages and backgrounds share their expertise). She shares examples of kids’ microlending, sweat equity, and activism successes.

Newer children’s non-fiction like this has glossaries, references and resources in the back, so inspired readers can find out more. --Jon

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Tuesday, December 13, 2016

The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken: A Search for Food and Family by Laura Schenone

As the holidays approach, it seems only appropriate to review a book about the quest to connect with family over the table. Laura Schenone is a James Beard Award-winning food writer from an Italian background, where hand-made ravioli were a traditional accompaniment to a Christmas meal. As time passed, and family ties became looser, she longed to rediscover her family, and looked for her great-grandmother’s recipe for those ravioli. Schenone was shocked to find that the recipe as passed down included cream cheese, an ingredient she was certain wasn’t authentic to their Ligurian forebears. From there she embarked on a quest to trace the original recipe from Genoa.

With that, she started looking into her family’s background, connecting with distant cousins and great-aunts. Here she found the consistent use of cream cheese in the filling, but also a number of relatives who cherished the cooking tools of her great-grandmother Adalgiza Schenone: one had her ravioli cutter, another the rolling pin she had used for her pasta, another an antique ravioli press. An even better discovery were the stories of those great-grandparents, the unlikely love story of Salvatore and Adalgiza, their struggles in both Italy and America, and the family they created together.

Schenone became obsessed with ravioli, traveling to Genoa and rural Liguria to learn the art from the masters, and explore the ingredients of her heritage. She explores the immigrant experience through the means of food, and her descriptions of the varieties of ravioli and its fillings are enticing. Read the book on a full stomach, or you will be dying for a plate of pasta. Happily, Schenone includes the recipes she discusses in the text, so for the culinary-inclined reader, it is possible to make the attempt to eat her words!  -Dee Ann

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