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Jen Jen  


See You in the Cosmos

Jack Cheng

We encourage book groups to occasionally read and discuss children’s books. See You in the Cosmos by Jack Cheng is a middle grade novel about an11-year old kid named Alex who loves space, Carl Sagan, and rockets. Alex wants to launch a recording he's making on his iPod into space like Carl Sagan did in 1977 when he launched his Golden Record on the Voyager Spacecraft. Alex and his dog, named Carl Sagan, end up on a journey to participate in a rocket launch. Never mind that this would completely panic the mother of an 11-year old. Along the way, Alex meets a number of people. Like many middle grade novels, the adult reader is much more aware of the protagonist’s surroundings than the protagonist is. This book is filled with heart and heartbreak, pain and hope, and contains so much that you’ll want to discuss with your book group. As a bonus, if you have a middle schooler in your life, it’s a great book to pass along once you’ve read it.


The Second Mrs. Hockaday
Susan Rivers

This book is historical fiction set in post Civil War America, from 1865 to the end of the 1800s. Our protagonist is Placidia or Dia, a 17 year old married off to a much older man named Gryffth Hockaday, a widower and Confederate soldier. When Gryffth comes home from the war, he learns that while he was away, Dia birthed a child and buried it on the farm. The narrative of the story is told through letters between Dia and her cousin, Mildred; legal documents; Dia’s journal entries, which are written on the backside of illustrations in a Dickens book because she does not have loose paper to record her thoughts; and letters between Dia’s son and Mildred after Dia’s death. The pacing in this book is exquisite. If you have book group members that are primarily looking for a good story—check! Looking to learn something? Check! Looking for a well-crafted book? Check! Looking for good writing? Check! Interested in complex characters? Check! This book should lead to great discussion.


The Hearts of Men
Nickolas Butler

You may have read Butler’s first novel, Shotgun Lovesongs. Like that book, Hearts of Men is an exploration of boys coming of age as well as their adult lives. We follow the life of Nelson, who was 13 years old in 1962. Every year, he attends Boy Scout camp. Nelson is bright and kind, but of course that doesn’t mean much to other teen boys and he’s a bit of a social outcast. Nelson is nicknamed Bugler for his job as camp bugler. In 1962, Nelson and another boy, Jonathan, who is much more popular, form a friendship. When he comes of age, Nelson is sent to Vietnam, which has a lasting effect on him. Eventually, Nelson becomes a well-respected Scoutmaster and Jonathan becomes an obnoxious, wealthy drinker and businessman who isn’t very good at marriage. The story continues throughout Nelson’s adult life into his senior years. We see the evolution of a boy who was downtrodden but filled with integrity rise while the seemingly golden boy, Jonathan, falls. This is a book about coming of age, what it means to stay true to what is right and how bravery isn’t always housed in the most glamorous human beings. I like Butler’s writing because his stories are so complete—they take the long view. This is another book I read by listening to the audio book on


The Glass Eye: A Memoir
Jeannie Vanasco

This is a memoir like none I’ve ever read before. Jeannie was born when her mother was 42 and her father was 62. As you might guess, this was her dad’s second marriage. His first marriage also produced children, including a daughter named—Jeanne. Sound confusing or dumb? The first Jeanne died in a car accident at the age of 16. Was the second Jeanne named for the first? Sort of. Did it affect her childhood? Absolutely. But Jeannie, the author of this memoir, was not raised as a replacement Jean. She was loved and cherished by her parents. Her dad was retired by the time she was born and did a great deal of her rearing. At some point, Dad has surgery in which a diseased eye is removed and replaced with a glass eye. The glass eye becomes a metaphor for the author throughout her experiences. One of the things I love about this book is the writer is so unashamedly attached to her parents. She grieves her dad’s death for years and years and years. She also is diagnosed as bipolar and separating out mania from grief becomes complicated.

The other thing I love about this book is the reader feels like an advisor to the book of which she or he is reading while reading it—the author will talk about her construction and intent and struggles of writing the book. I would not hand this book over to every book group, but I think a group that is interested in exploring issues of older parents, grief, mental illness, and has an interest in writers will eat this up.

    book   Umami
Laia Jufresa, Sophie Hughes

Do you remember the sitcom Seinfeld? It was the show about nothing. And it was wildly successful. It was known as a show about nothing because the writers were able to plop the characters anywhere, it didn’t have to be an exotic place, and have them talk about minutiae in a way that was entertaining. One especially famous episode was spent in a diner in which cutting and eating Snickers bars with knife and fork became a fad. Viewers were engaged because they were attached to the characters. The characters were incredibly well drawn and it really didn’t matter to fans if there was any plot. Why am I talking about all this? Nothing much really happens in Umami, a novel written in Spanish and translated into English. Things have happened in the past, but right now not a whole lot is happening. So why read it? The characters. Umami is a word in Spanish that can best be translated as delicious. It is specific to food and means something much more special than delicious but it’s the closest we have. Umami is also the name of a house. The setting for this book is a five-plex in Mexico and each house is named for a different taste sensation: Sour, Salty, Umami, Sweet, and Bitter. Four of these houses are occupied by families and one of them is being used as a music studio by the musical couple living in one of the houses. The narrative rotates between the different occupants, and their histories. This book is about community and neighbors and place and history and the richness of life. There is no mystery to unravel, but there is a cast of characters to meet and love. It would be an easy and fun way to involve food for a book group discussion by having book group members bring something to eat which is salty or sweet or bitter or sour or best of all, umami.

Sally Sally  



A Piece of the World
Christina Baker Kline

Did you read Orphan Train? It was about a part of our history which isn’t well known, and was very popular in the Midwest, where many Orphan Train riders found families and homes. In her latest book, A Piece of the World, Kline again enters a little known part of our history, bringing it vividly to life.

One of the most famous American paintings of the last century was “Christina’s World” by Andrew Wyeth. Christina Baker Kline enters the world of the painting and gives voice to Christina Olson, its subject. Olson reveals herself as a woman who lived her whole life in the house in which she’d been born, a woman with a degenerative disease, a lover of poetry and the natural world, a hard and inventive worker, a person who experienced many disappointments but who remained fiercely independent and stubborn. Indeed, although Olson’s life seems very small, through the lenses Wyeth and Kline bring to it, it transcends limitations. The plot of the book is fairly thin, but the characterization of Christina is rich and full.

This is a book which will have great appeal to book groups. Despite all that that she reveals about herself, Olson remains an enigmatic figure. Speculation about that and exploration of the limitations placed on her by her family, the time in which she lived, and her health, will provide many topics for discussion. And groups will surely want to explore the parallels between Olson and her favorite poet, Emily Dickinson.



The City Baker’s Guide to Country Living
Louise Miller

Thirty-two year old Olivia Rawlings is a pastry chef of some renown, working at an exclusive Boston club. For the celebration of the club’s 150th birthday, she was asked to make Baked Alaska. It was a memorable dessert. Olivia not only lit the meringue on the dessert on fire—she started the club itself on fire!
When Olivia decided it was prudent to leave town for a while, she went to Guthrie, Vermont, where her college roommate lived. Before long, Livvy was working as the pastry chef at the Sugar Maple Inn outside Guthrie. Gradually, she realized that she’d been hired to help the Inn’s owner, the formidable Margaret, reclaim the Inn’s string of blue ribbons at the county fair contest for apple pie.

As Livvy settles into small town life, she meets residents of the town—Margaret’s arch enemy, Jane White; Chef Al of the Sugar Maple Inn; Tom, who delivers supplies to the Inn and invited Livvy to join his fiddling group; Margaret’s best friend Dottie and her family; and Bonnie, Livvy’s predecessor as pastry chef at the Sugar Maple Inn.

Before long, she’s fiddling with Tom’s group, fixing up a sugar shack for a home, and falling for Dottie’s son, Martin.

How can you not love a heroine whose hair colors include Electric Amethyst and Electric Lava, who has a tattoo of a spatula on her back side, and who says Judy Blume filled in the gaps for her single parent dad? Will Livvy and Margaret win a blue ribbon at the fair? Will Livvy find a place and lasting happiness in Vermont? Put up your feet and spend a few hours in Guthrie Vermont to find out. Oh, and there’s a recipe for Blue Ribbon Apple Pie at the end of the book! It sounds mighty yummy!


Do Not Find Me
Kathleen Novak

Meggie left her husband and their two sons in the Twin Cities when she went to the Iron Range to care for her dying father, known as Gigi. She stayed on after his death to settle his estate. As she went through her father’s possessions, she found a well worn note hidden in the back of a dresser drawer. The note simply said, “Do not find me.” It was unsigned, and of course she was consumed with curiousity.

The book alternates between chapters about Meggie’s life and Gigi’s. We learn that she is unhappily married and, the longer she stays in her father’s home, the more she questions the choices she has made, thinks about her options, and asks questions of herself. The sections of the book about Gigi reveal information Meggie doesn’t know about her dad. She knew he lived in Manhattan for a time as a young man, but doesn’t know about his tumultuous love affair with the enigmatic Corinne and the ways in which this experience shaped his life.
Although part of the novel in set in New York, it’s heart is in Minnesota. There are references to Bob Dylan, to the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald, and to Gigi’s love of fishing. This love is really a metaphor for his life, and “the cycle of water to ice to water” defines him.

Gigi always urged Meggie to “pay attention.” After his death, she pays attention to his life and her own in ways she never had before.

Although the book is slender, it’s a haunting exploration of love, loss, secrets, and silences. It’s beautifully written and sure to provoke reflection and conversation.


Ginny Moon
Benjamin Ludwig

Ginny Moon is a novel narrated by Ginny, a 14 year old girl with autism. Five years before the book opens, Ginny had been forcibly removed from the home of her abusive mother by the police. Afterwards, she apparently bounced around in the system, being placed in two different “Forever Homes” in three years. She was adopted by a third couple two years before the beginning of the book. Ginny, however, has unfinished business with her past. She insists she left her Baby Doll behind at her biological mother’s apartment, hidden under her bed. Her teachers, therapist, and new “Forever Parents” are in turn frustrated, infuriated, and perplexed by Ginny.

Because she takes everything literally and lacks both interpersonal skills and logical thought processes, the “secret plans” Ginny develops to retrieve her Baby Doll are both inappropriate and ineffective, as well as potentially dangerous. The novel opens with Ginny secretly contacting Gloria, her biological mother, and revealing her new address. When Gloria tries to kidnap Ginny, the police and courts quickly become involved, monitoring Ginny constantly. After her “Forever Mother” gets pregnant, Ginny’s already-fragile relationship with her disintegrates, and her “Forever Parents” begin the process of placing Ginny at St. Genevieve’s Home for Girls.

Gradually, surprising truths about the Baby Doll emerge, changing everyone’s opinion of Ginny’s actions. Because Ginny is the narrator of the book, we see how she protects herself from a confusing world. For example, one of her coping techniques is to go deep into her brain, closing her mouth so no one can see the ideas in her head.

Much of the book was both heartbreaking and humorous, and I was glad I listened to it as an audio book because the reader’s voice was perfect for Ginny. The quality of that voice carried me through the difficult parts of the book, assured that the girl with that perky quality would be all right. The book affected me on many levels, and I highly recommend it.


Leopard at the Door
Jennifer McVeigh

This book is a novel set in Kenya. Rachel was the child of an English mother and father who settled in that country and established a farm there. Rachel spent a happy childhood in Kenya, feeling both safe in her home and secure in the love of her parents. All that changed in one day. That day, she saw a government official kill a striking worker in her uncle’s meatpacking plant—and her mother died in an automobile accident. Rachel was sent to live with her grandparents in England after her mother’s death, and never told anyone about the violence she’d witnessed. She regarded her time in England as an exile. After graduating from boarding school in 1952 she returned to Kenya, despite her father’s wish that she not do so.

Instead of the home she remembered and had dreamed about, Rachel discovered that a woman named Sarah had taken her beloved mother’s place and Sarah’s son, Harold, was living in Rachel’s room. This was only the first of the changes which Rachel gradually discovered, and which leave her unsettled. Rachel remembers her mother as warm and generous. Sarah is rigid, suspicious, and racist. It was a time of fear and terror in Kenya. 1952 was the beginning of the Mau Mau Uprising.

Rachel tries to understand the political circumstances that have altered Kenya, tries to make the farm her home again, and tries to re-establish a relationship with her father. She also tries to hang on to her memories of her mother.
There’s a great deal of tension in the book. Can Rachel accept her father’s new family? Can she find ways to be in relationship with the black Kenyans on the farm? Will the man she saw murder the striker as a child become a threat to her? Will the blacks on the farm join the Mau Mau? All of this is set against Rachel’s growing attraction to Michael, her former tutor and her father’s employee, and the danger of their forbidden relationship.

The book offers a springboard to a consideration of colonialization and its costs. And, of course, an opportunity to consider the racism in our own country.
The leopard at the door is a symbol of danger, and there’s plenty of danger in this book.


Linda LeGarde Grover

I have a number of my beloved grandmother’s hankies. Someday, I’m going to make a quilt with them, but for now they they’re in a basket in my sewing room. I thought of my grandmother and her hankies as I read Linda LeGarde Grover’s lovely book Onigamiising. One chapter is titled, “What’s a Hanky For?”
The book is a collection of essays which have appeared in a weekly newspaper, the Duluth Budgeteer, Onigamiising is the Ojibwe name for the place where Duluth is located, and Grover’s essays weave together the family stories, tribal stories, and traditional teachings of her life as a Native woman in Duluth.
The essays are organized by the seasons of the year, as is Ojibwe life. The essays are short—think newspaper feature column—and at first glance, deceptively simple. As you move through the seasons, you become of aware of recurring themes, and the values of traditional Ojibwe life which they have grown out of. The value of family, cherishing children and the elderly, shared meals, celebration of life events, tradition, ceremony, appreciating the rugged beauty and weather of Duluth.

Linda’s essential kindness shines through as well as clarity in sharing her culture. She does so in ways which allow readers to find points of connection to their own lives and culture. What’s a hanky for? Noses, hands, faces. Spills. Milk money. Decoration. Gifts. Memories. And someday, for a quilt.

Onigamiising has been shortlisted for a Minnesota Book Award in the category of Memoir and Creative Non-fiction.




Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka and Their New Skates
Maj Lindman

As a child, I looked forward to trips to the Roseville Public Library. It was a small brick building with a wooden floor and a cozy children's corner. Often, I would return home with a story about the adventures of Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka, three young Swedish sisters who were close in age to my own two sisters and me. I could imagine us living out their adventures. One of our favorites was Flicka, Ricka, Dicka and Their New Skates. As a teacher, I have read this book many times to my classes over the years. The story and illustrations continue to appeal to children and capture their imaginations. Maj Lindman has also written a series of books about Snip, Snap, and Snurr, three Swedish brothers. If there's a young child in your life, I recommend that you take a look at the large selection of Maj Lindman books at Beagle and Wolf.


The Worst Hard Time
Timothy Egan

The Worst Hard Time
is a history of the Dust Bowl years in the United States. Egan tells the story of the events, of both human and environmental origins, that caused the dust storms of the 1930s. The areas hit the hardest by the "black blizzards" were the panhandles of Oklahoma and Texas as well as parts of New Mexico, Colorado, and Kansas. At times, cities as far east as Washington D.C. and New York City experienced dust storms. Egan's story is about the land, but also about people. Primarily, Egan tells the stories of those who chose to stay in the areas most impacted by the Dust Bowl. We learn of their courage and determination in the face of great personal hardship and devastating losses. I found the Worst Hard Time to be very readable and informative.





The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017
Edited by Charles Yu

Of course this is not a single story, but a tasting from 19 different authors on a variety of topics. So there’s no cover with a spaceship or unicorn to give you a hint but merely a collage of colors. Now theoretically, these stories are supposed to be either Sci-Fi or Fantasy. My feeling is that they tend to be more Fantasy but it’s not always clear-cut. Some of the stories reminded me of the old Twilight Zone where you don’t have to be on a future planet but right here now, and everything is normal until a fuzzy monster crawls out on the wing of your airplane. There are some interesting twists. For example, Yoachim does a story on interplanetary medicine that turns out to be a multiple choice maze to the ending. There’s another story where a fellow put in stasis on a deep space mission awakes somewhere along the way and basically cannot move. He is barely being kept alive by his spacesuit and can only converse with the ship’s computer. Sci-fi? I don’t know, I’ve been in some work cubicles like this.

This was an interesting read in that I HAD to read some Fantasy in trying to sort out the preferred Sci-Fi. It gave me some leads for new authors (and maybe some Fantasy authors who aren’t all about unicorns.) If you are into either Sci-Fi or Fantasy you should take a look at this book of collected works. It may just broaden your horizons.





bookBartender's Tale
Ivan Doig

Rusty and his dad, Tom Harry, manage just fine without the wife and mother who left shortly after Rusty was born. Tom runs a popular bar in a small town in Montana. All this changes when Franzine arrives with her mother, claiming to be Tom's daughter. Her black hair is the same as Rusty and Tom's. A story filled with humor and mystery follow. The author, Ivan Doig, died in 2015. He was a prolific writer of life in the west, but he also had universal appeal. Book clubs especially liked his best seller, Whistling Season, which was also my favorite. Try Ivan Doig. You won't be disappointed.


Rosemary, The Hidden Kennedy Daughter
Kate Clifford Larson

Joe and Rose Kennedy's beautiful daughter Rosemary traveled the world with her family and was presented as a debutante to the Queen of England. She developed slowly as a child and soon the family realized she was intellectually disabled. She was sent away to a number of different schools in hopes for a cure. In those days secrecy was top priority, especially when her brothers entered politics. Years later the Kennedy siblings began to understand what had happened to Rosemary, which inspired them to urge the government to recognize the plight of the mentally challenged and ultimately transformed many lives. This story makes history come alive and I believe it's an important book for all to read.



Hidden Figures
Margot Lee Shetterly

Before Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, a group of dedicated female mathematicians using slide rules, pencils and adding machines calculated the numbers that would launch rockets and astronauts into space. They were known as human computers. This is the story of a group of exceptionally talented African American women. They not only battled segregation at home but in the work place as well. A major motion picture has been made about these women and the amazing contributions they made to the United States.



The Girl Who Drank the Moon
Kelly Barnhill
This book is pure magic. That word, magic, makes Luna's eyes glaze over, but she's so full of magic that it bursts out all over. An ancient bog monster, origami birds that fly, a tiny Simply Enormous Dragon, and a town where babies are sacrificed are among the wonders in this beautiful new world. I found this book an excellent antidote to today's news. I sent it to my adult daughter in New York and can't wait to hear what she thinks of it.


By the Light of the Moon
Dean Koonz

How's this for the start of a novel? A man is gagged and taped to a chair in a motel room. His autistic brother is working a puzzle and doesn't notice anything going on. A third man is injecting the bound brother with "stuff" and warning him that killers will try to take him out, and says that the pyschotropic injection acts differently with each person. Then in another room in the motel he injects a stand up comedian whose only friend is her pet jade plant. And the novel goes on like this...



The Moon and Sixpence
W. Somerset Maugham

This novel is inspired by (or loosely based on?) the life of the painter Paul Gauguin. Was Gauguin really as mean as Strickland, the painter in Maugham's novel? It has me wanting to learn more about Gauguin. It's very timely at this point in our country when we're confronting the base actions of men who have contributed wonderfully in the arts (and other fields). Can we separate the art from the artist? Should we?



The Song of Hartgrove Hall

Natasha Solomons

The Song of Hartgrove Hall satisfies a number of itches I’ve been having recently. You see, I’ve been spending much too much time on my computer, watching old films, the news (depressing to say the least), and several ‘how to’ video clips (safe watching now that it’s deep winter, and not much can be done outside). I’ve been feeling an urge for something meaty, that only a good book can satisfy. Solomon’s characters are people one can easily identify with, people meeting life’s challenges with varying degrees of success and understanding. Through the novel Hartgrove Hall, a family estate in rural England, provides the warp over which a family weaves the changes of their lives in post WWII England. Some failures and disappointments, but also resilient adaptations to the changes around them. If you have a soft spot for English country house novels, you might take a look at this one. Not the glitz and glam of Downton Abbey, but nearer the quiet lives of a latter day Cranford.





Rachel, this month’s guest reviewer




The Dental Diet: The Surprising Link Between Your Teeth, Real Food, and Life-Changing Natural Health
Dr. Steven Lin

"Your mouth is the gateway to your entire body" is the first sentence of this book, which goes on to explore the relationship between your dental health and how it directly impacts and reflects the health of the rest of your body. He includes an appalling statistic "rotten teeth are so common that we consider them normal. . .according to the World Health Organization, tooth decay affects 60 to 90 percent of school-age children living in industrialized countries.” The author briefly discusses the work of Weston A. Price, a dentist who traveled the world in the 1930s studying indigenous societies and researching how subsequent industrialization negatively impacted people’s mouths. Dr. Lin does an excellent job outlining ways to optimize your oral health, including long-term nutritional changes and breathing exercises. I am really excited to try some of the recipes he has included. For example: Nut Bread, Fennel and Leek Hot Pot, Nut Fudge Chocolate Brownies, Clam-Cauliflower Chowder, and Turmeric Chicken!


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