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Chandra's Blog


Entries in reviews (7)


MONDAY MUSING--Christmas books

Over the past few years, I have started a collection of books that get packed away with our Christmas decorations. They come out of the ornament trunk in early December bearing the scent of pine and beeswax from the candles that are nestled beside them. As my boys set up the G scale train that is also a Christmas-only treat, I put these special books out in a basket by our fireplace. We read them for several weeks and before the newness or magic of them is gone, they get packed away again on the 26th of December.

Here are the Hoffspring cozied up for a story, and some favorites from our fireside basket: 

Jan Brett's Christmas Treasury--this classic, weighty collection with it's gorgeous colors is a decoration all in itself. Between the covers are a smattering of stories that you may know from other times of year, like "The Mitten" and "The Hat". But there are some special holiday favorites, like "Trouble with Trolls", about Treeva and her dog Tuffi who encounter rascally but dim trolls as they try to scale Mount Baldy. When Treeva has outwitted the trolls the final time, when she sighs,  "Okay, I'll hold the dog," and zooms down the mountain on her painted skis, my kids always collapse into laughter. "Christmas Trolls" features the same girl and a new set of naughty, bickering trolls.

The collections has Brett's trademark rich illustrations and corner details on classics like "The Night Before Christmas" and "12 Days of Christmas." 


The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey--My aunt introduced us to this gorgeously illustrated story of a widow and widower in Pioneer times when Christmas could carry with it the sadness of those lost, "Because those were the days before hospitals and medicines and skilled doctors." It is a love story with hauntingly realistic illustrations that highlights the innocence of children, and the possibility of miracles. Every time I read this, I am awed by both the simplicity and complexity of this tale, the weaving of objects and symbolism. It reaches each of my children on a different level.

The Christ Child by Maud and Miska Petersham-- We grew up on this version of the Christmas story, illustrated by Maud and Miska Petersham and adapted from various parts of the Bible. The illustrations are so nostalgic and touching--the animals couldn't look more benevolent, and Mary and Joseph are as radiant as Herod is sinister. 


Pippin The Christmas Pig by Jean Little -- I picked this up at a book fair the year that we had our own little Piper, who sometimes goes by nicknames like Pippa, Pippi and even Pippin. It is an odd tale of a little pig who wants to know the true meaning of Christmas and is shunned from the barn by the boastful animals as one who has nothing to offer. Pippin the pig is leaving her barn in shame and sadness when she encounters what my sister and I interpret as a woman and baby girl fleeing a domestic violence situation in the middle of a snowstorm. Pippin leads them back to her barn and gives them shelter, the animals own little nativity. It gets more bizarre when the farmer and his wife discover this woman under the donkey's blanket and the baby girl asleep in their hay manger, and the story ends without us ever knowing what happens for any of the humans in the story. Because of this, I would have long ago donated this book to the thrift barn if it weren't for a snip of dialogue between Noddy, the curmudgeonly donkey and innocent little Pippin as she is ordering all the animals to help the woman and baby who stumble into the barn on the wings of a blizzard:

"But that's not a special baby," Noddy protested.

"Of course she is," said Pippin. "All babies are special."

Noddy gazed into the small, sleeping face.

"You are right," he said. "I'd forgotten."

Somehow, it is hard for me to read this aloud without choking up. All babies are special indeed. 


My latest addition to our Christmas basket is an out of print story by Leon Garfield: Fair's Fair. I remember hearing my Uncle Dean read this story aloud to his children as we lolled in the bunk beds in the Catskill mountains one Christmas, haunted by his deep baritone and the story of a huge black dog who seeks out starving, homeless orphans in the the middle of a blinding snowstorm and leads them to a mansion the week before Christmas. It took some digging to find a battered, retired library copy of the book, but it has quickly become one of my kids' favorites. A big black dog? Rescued orphans, a blizzard and a mansion? How could it not be? 


Question: I would love to hear what holiday or Christmas stories your family cherishes? 










Favorites on Friday -- Books so good you stay up late to finish them

It is the odd book that I can linger over, that I don't have to stay up late to inhale. It was a long few days and lots of Nutella and green tea recovering from the all-nighters that were Markus Zusak's The Book Thief and Leah Stewart's Husband and Wife.

My most recent late-night read was a slim, spare, exquisitely-rendered memoir called Half a Life by Darin Strauss, which I received as part of being one of the authors featured with Darin at Atlantic City's NAIBA conference. It was 11pm when I picked it up off the bedside table pile, intrigued by the unique, half-jacket presentation of the cover. I didn't intend to read it all in one sitting; it was just something to keep me awake until my husband got home from his hockey game since we hadn't seen each other in a few days.


It begins, "Half my life ago, I killed a girl." It ended two hours later with me shaken, touched, and grateful for this author's honest, raw laying bare of the details of grief and guilt. Following a no-fault car accident a month before graduation in which he was behind the wheel when a schoolmate on a bicycle was killed, Strauss shares the human ways everyone reacts, the perception and reality of performance, the half-a-life struggle to understand how he really felt about it all. 


Memoir isn't one of my favorite genres--I recently finished Martha Beck's Leaving the Saints, her tell-some memoir about leaving the Mormon church and finding her own faith, and was moved enough to dig around for what I imagined was the 'more to the story'. It was astounding to me to read that she and her husband had both discovered they were gay and that their marriage ended during the time frame she talks about in the memoir, yet none of it was included. Understandably, that is likely 'another book' as she says in one interview, but I also think, how does a writer choose what to share when writing a memoir with a specific angle? What are the events that shape a person; how can anything be left out? I appreciated how Strauss addressed this by touching briefly on all the parts of his life that also happened during the half of his life that he was struggling to come to terms with Celine's death, but acknowledging that they are not part of this story. It is believable and authentic that a teenager can accidentally kill a girl, and still go on to become a ski bum in Colorado and lose his virginity and experience other life events.  


This is worth reading, not only because the story is both moving and moves quickly, but also because of the lyrical and spare way in which Strauss handles the craft of writing. 


QUESTION: So I want to know, what was the most recent book that kept you up late at night? 


Final CHOSEN give-away for 2010!

Books make a great holiday present, especially one you have read and loved, even better if it is personalized and signed.

So here it is:



Send me the link to the review and you automatically win one of five free, signed and personalized hardcover copies of the novel.


First five entries win. Go! 




Interview with Leah Stewart

Leah Stewart, author of Husband and Wife conducted an interesting co-interview on CHOSEN  and Susanna Daniel's Stiltsville.

I am excited to pick up Stiltsville and I am hoping to read The Myth of You and Me, Leah's earlier novel about the loss of a female friendship on my way to DC next week. 





"Would You Like to Take a Look at My Dinosaur Book?"

There is a story in my family's folklore about my oldest brother's first day of school—the lone time my mild-mannered, child-loving father wanted to smash some six-year-old skull. My brother was a slightly geeky type, a skinny-necked proficient reader from the age of two who stepped on to the playground that September morning with an encyclopedia about dinosaurs he had memorized tucked under his arm. My father watched anxiously as my brother approached clusters of children and asked, with a hopeful lilt to his voice, if they would like to take a look at his dinosaur book?

The story goes that the kids were not mean, just preoccupied with monkey bars and chucking sand, but my brother's requests went ignored. This stirred a zealous rage in my father, even as he talks about it now, the angst of a parent as their child ventures out into the world to lukewarm reception. In his words, "I wanted to grab those kids by their little chicken necks and pin them up against the bricks and hiss that they'd look at his damn dinosaur book, and they'd better like it, understand?" 

 I experienced something similar when my younger sister was on the outside of a bitchy, sixth-grade classroom clique-fest--a crazed hunger to prowl the town by moonlight and sniff out these mean-spirited girls, eviscerate them slowly with all a mother bear's fury. 


In our family, we call these Mattress Moments, based on the horse race in Siena called the Palio, where riders and horses are protected from their treacherous turns in dashes around the town's plaza by the residents' mattresses. That is how I show love--protecting my darlings from life's sharp corners and painful falls, taking it all in my super-absorbent springs.


At the end of August, another of my children heads out into the world, only this time it's my paper and ink baby, my newborn novel. I'm experiencing spasms of that same anxious protectiveness. But for what? This is not my oldest son who speaks differently or my middle boy who hides his insecurities behind fists and teeth or my baby girl with her withering Ice Queen stare. This is a book, a story, and although the characters have aspects of real life models who are dear to me, they are their own imaginary entities. My characters won't scour the one-star reviews at Amazon to find out exactly what makes them unsympathetic, unlovable or clichéd.


Am I afraid for myself, then, the ego of the artist? I don't think so. I have a pretty healthy self-esteem, a confidence in my ability as a storyteller and I am proud of this novel. But nobody likes to be misunderstood.

Pre-publication, I have received beautiful jacket blurbs from respected writers, a fabulous Kirkus review, and then one day this July I tripped out of the starting gate with a mediocre one from Publisher’s Weekly. Worse, a writer has no choice about whether or not these editorial reviews run on the pages of major booksellers. You can see this review here.

 I reeled for a week, memorized the monologue on the critic from Ratatouille, until I remembered my oldest son and a playground incident this spring. He is a very small eight-year-old, so short we have to cuff the hems of his little brother's size six pants. He was born with a medical condition which may or may not have anything to do with his height. One lunch hour on the playground, Hayden was called a 'midget'. I took it hard. Driving home, I told him not to worry, that we could talk to the specialists at our annual appointment in June, assured him that the window was still open for us to consider supplements of Human Growth Hormone and--


"Mom?" he interrupted me. "I like the size I am. I fit perfectly inside the hockey net when I'm in goal. It's not my problem if someone wants to make themselves feel better by calling names." 


Of course he is right. When a critic calls my beloved characters 'weakly realized’, or my debut novel an ‘inexpert exercise’, it is not my problem. Not every book is for everyone—I’ll confess that my boys and I have tried three times to get swept up in the Harry Potter hype without success. 


Never mind the naysayers. I’ll just steer my baby over towards the swings, where the kids seem a little friendlier, more open-minded, and see if there’s someone over there who might want to take a look at my book.