Book Review: Runaround by Helen Hemphill

July 31, 2009


Sassy is only 11 but she can’t wait to grow up and be noticed by boys. Especially since her older sister Lula seems to attract the kind of attention Sassy wants. She figures if she can convince the best-looking boy in town, Boon Chisolm, to be her boyfriend she will be one up on Lula.

Runaround by Helen Hemphill is a small book that crams in many storylines—in a good way. Set in a tobacco-growing area sometime around the first Surgeon General’s warning against smoking and the beginning of food stamps for the needy, Runaround touches on the plight of farmers of the era and the needy of all time. It harkens back to the days of lazy summers and having a country store down the road kids could walk to and buy groceries on credit.

Sassy and Lula are motherless, and they are cared for by Miss Dallas, a woman who has never had children and who is reluctant to answer Sassy’s questions about love and romance. So Sassy gleans most of her ideas of romance from reading True Confessions magazine, something her Daddy doesn’t approve of. Each chapter of Runaround opens with a quote from what appears to be True Confessions articles, and it’s easy to see how Sassy could get mixed up about love and romance if that’s what she thinks of as the norm.

If I have any reservations about Runaround, it’s that it brings up many issues that it doesn’t address in-depth enough. There are issues of class, sisters hurting and supporting each other, family secrets, and difficulties with family communication. And I thought Sassy’s tantrums were more appropriate for a toddler than an 11-year-old who should be able to control her anger and actions a bit more than she does. But those issues should give mother-daughter book clubs a lot to talk about. I recommend Runaround for book clubs with girls aged ten to thirteen.

Too Hot to Read?

July 30, 2009

Believe it or not it’s been too hot to read for the last few days in my home in Portland, Oregon. How is that possible? Combine 100+ temperatures with no air conditioning and a hot breeze and you’ll know that it’s hard to perch in one spot for very long. It was hot to sit on my fabric-covered couches even with a fan blowing on me, and outside was worse, even in the shade. I’m thankful that our heat wave is supposed to break after today, just in time for the weekend. Maybe I’ll have to schedule a little extra time to read in the hammock, where there may be a cool breeze blowing by then.

Most of the summer in Portland we don’t need air conditioning. Which is a far cry from summers where I grew up in Brusly, Louisiana. Portlanders are amateurs at surviving summer weather compared to Louisianians. But I like that my summers now don’t usually require air conditioning. I love having windows open and letting fresh air in for months at a time. I’ll also take eating outside versus eating indoors any day. My dining table and the area around it rarely needs cleaning when all our meals are outside where we can hose everything off.

But when the heat interferes with reading, it’s gone too far. I’ll welcome the thunderstorms predicted here for next week.

Book Review: Operation Redwood by S. Terrell French

July 29, 2009

Operation Redwood

Twelve-year-old Julian Carter-Li has no idea that adventure will soon find him. All he knows is that his mother is on a grant-paid trip to China that should enhance her career as a photographer, while she’s gone he has to stay with his mean-spirited aunt and uncle since no one else is available to take care of him, and he may have to spend his entire summer shuttling from one undesirable camp after another.

He is resigned to his fate until he inadvertently reads an email intended for his uncle that launches a relationship with a girl named Robin who lives on a farm in California’s redwood country. Before he knows it, Julian is working against his uncle’s company to save a grove of old-growth redwood trees from the saw, and he’s taking extreme-for-him measures to get the attention of anyone who may have the power to save the trees. All while learning about farm life and personal responsibility.

Operation Redwood by S. Terrell French combines eco-adventure with common childhood fantasies: to live in a tree house far above the rest of the world and to make grown-ups pay attention to what a kid has to say. While there’s no doubt the story take a pro-environment stance, it’s not preachy in getting a message across. Instead we see Julian, Robin and their friends Danny and Ariel learn how they can make a difference to something they feel is very important. And though the ending may have a touch of the stuff of fairy tales, I found Operation Redwood a delightful and fun adventure to read. I recommend it for mother-daughter book clubs with girls nine to twelve.

Facebook and Sisterly Relationships

July 28, 2009

My daughter Catherine signed up for a Facebook account yesterday. She was one of the last hold outs among her friends, and I’m glad she’s not so obsessed with spending time on the computer that she hasn’t felt the need until now. So what changed her mind? Not all of her friends, who have been trying to convince her for months. Not even her mom, who thought she would have fun with it. No, it was the looming departure of her sister for college. It seems she was swayed by her friend Franny, who said that she commnicates with her brother through Facebook since he left for college a year ago.

Since Catherine first learned to crawl and began taking toys away from Madeleine all those years ago they’ve had plenty of ups and downs as sisters. I think it’s rare to find siblings without conflict at all, and some siblings have to travel farther than others to become friends as adults. So I’m taking this as a sign of a step in the right direction.

Are You Reading a Hot Dog or Foie Gras?

July 24, 2009

Last week my daughter Madeleine and I headed down to the University of Oregon for her orientation. I’m still not truly believing she’ll be leaving home this fall, but I’m sure I’m not the only mom in denial. In fact, the university caters to us parents about to send our kids into the world, even offering a talk called “Teaching Your Ducklings to Fly.” (It’s also a pretty cute play on words since the U of O mascot is a duck.)

I was very impressed with a seminar for parents only called The Art of Reading. While our children were signing up for fall classes, (parents aren’t even allowed in the room with them) a group of about 15 moms and dads gathered in the library to talk with an English professor about rediscovering how to read for meaning.

I was there with Karen and Janelle, two other moms in my mother-daughter book club, and we happily soaked up some new thoughts on reading. One thought in particular stood out from the day:

Choosing a book and choosing what to eat can be a lot alike. Sometimes you are hungry and you just want to eat a hot dog to fill you up. You don’t need anything fancy, because any food will do at the moment. Those tend to be what I think of as books that you can easily pick up and put down without losing the main thread of the story. They’re usually fun, maybe even a guilty pleasure. Some titles I have read recently in that category include Lipstick Apology by Jennifer Jabaley and Runaround by Helen Hemphill. (Reviews to come soon.)

Other times, you’re more in the mood for a four-course gourmet meal. I just finished a book like that called Stone’s Fall by Iain Pears. It was nearly six hundred pages and I savored every page until the very satisfying ending. I’m also finishing up reading Empire by Gore Vidal to Madeleine. History-nerds that we are, we have looked forward to reading it every day, but savored it as we went along. We can’t wait to start reading Vidal’s follow up story, Hollywood. Soon I expect to read The Book Thief to Catherine, another book to linger over and appreciate.

I like applying the food analogy to books, because it helps me enjoy whatever I’m reading for the hunger it satisfies at the moment.

Reading Through the Summer Blahs

July 22, 2009

We’ve made it half-way through the girls’ summer vacation, and I can tell that lethargy is setting in.   Not just with the girls, who seem to be harder to wake up every morning, but also with me.  Just responding to emails seems to be quite an accomplishment, and I have to work hard to even look at my to do list. It’s even harder to finish the tasks I set aside for myself each day.

But it is summer after all, so I’m giving myself permission to read more every day and treating that like an accomplishment. I also read to Madeleine every day, and I’m very aware of the fleeting time I have left to do that with her. She starts college at the end of September, so what time I do have with her is precious. Even at her age it’s still a great way to broach subjects that we wouldn’t normally bring up in everyday conversation.

I have not been reading to Catherine yet, but I’d like to start soon. I think she’s ready for The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, and I can’t wait to share it with her. We have all of August to read before we start on our next book club book, which is North of Beautiful by Justina Chen Headley.

There’s still so much of summer to look forward to.


Book Review: Torched by April Henry

July 10, 2009


Ellie is used to her parents having groups of friends over to smoke marijuana and get stoned. She often feels more like the parent than the child, cooking dinner  for the people who drop in and cleaning up when they leave. Otherwise she spends her time trying to do well in school. But when the FBI raids her home and arrests her parents for growing marijuana in their basement, she can’t go back to living life as she knew it.

The FBI most wants to find out about the activities of the Mother Earth Defenders, (MED) a radical environmental group that her parents were meeting with. The FBI will let her parents go, but only if she agrees to infiltrate MED and pass along information about any violent actions the group plans to take. Against her wishes, Ellie agrees to help.

But as she gets more involved with the group, and she begins to fall for Coyote, one of its members, she begins to see why they are so passionate about their cause. Torn between wanting to help her parents, her growing love for Coyote and her concern for the environment, Ellie must walk a fine line and lie to everyone she cares about.  How can she see it through without losing everyone she cares about as well?

Torched by April Henry will keep you turning pages as you follow Ellie from fire-bombing a Hummer dealership, to tree sitting and more. Her conflicted Conscience brings up great things to talk about in a mother-daughter book club. Among other things it encourages the reader to ask: How far would you go to support a cause you thought was vitally important? What would you do if you could help someone you loved, even if it was dangerous? While you may expect to have a happily-ever-after ending, Henry keeps you guessing at the outcome right to the last page.

This book is especially interesting for me since it takes place in my hometown of Portland, Oregon. It was fun to read about references to places I know. I even read a story about a group of environmental activitist who were tree sitting to save a plot of old-growth forest in my local newspaper this morning. The story could have come right from the pages of Torched.

I’ve also met Henry a few times and was happy to finally get one of her books on my list to review. Since reading Torched, I headed to the library to pick up a copy of another of her books for young adults, Shock Point. It’s now part of my summer reading stack and I can’t wait to start reading it. The review on Shock Point will be out later this summer.

Book Review: The Color of Earth by Kim Dong Hwa

July 1, 2009

Color of Earth

The Color of Earth is the first in a trilogy of graphic novels about a young girl named Ehwa and her widowed mother who owns a tavern in a small Korean village. The story takes place in a time before that country was geographically split by war.

Author Kim Dong Hwa creates beautiful images that work with the narrative to tell this story of two generations of women. While the story may seem simple as it follows Ehwa from young girl to young adult, it is filled with rich symbolism that you will want to savor as you read. Flowers symbolize many things in the story, and the characters are often associating flowers with someone they love. Also, you get the sense that young Ehwa is beginning to bloom just as the flowers do.

As Ehwa grows, she is confused by the changes in her body, and the information she gets from friends about those changes only confuses her more. Mother and daughter don’t talk about the changes before they occur, but Ehwa does turn to her mother to answer the questions she has. The narrative provides an interesting way to bring up topics like boys having wet dreams and girls starting their periods. The words are simple, but combined with the images they are powerful. While this book is targeted to a young adult audience and these concepts won’t be new to most readers, it can be a jumping off point for further discussion.

I recommend The Color of Earth for mother-daughter book clubs with girls who are 13 or older. In addition to talking about maturing bodies, other points to discuss include first love, Buddhist monks, and life in a small village.