Unlike my luckier friends and colleagues, I’ve had no opportunity to indulge in travel this summer. Consequently, I’ve been feeling pretty burned out lately, weary of the Missouri heat and humidity, and more than a little envious of people’s vacation photos and stories on Facebook. Then, last week I read my way through a handful of books by illustrator and writer Lucy Knisley and found myself transported.

French Milk

This charming graphic novel, peppered with actual photographs, details Knisley and her mother’s sojourn in Paris. Using their rented apartment as a home base, the duo indulge in leisurely sight-seeing, tasty French food and vintage flea-market shopping. Imagine six weeks of celebrating New Year’s Eve with fireworks at the Eiffel Tower, stopping to enjoy buskers as you stroll the streets of Paris, exploring the exquisite grounds of Versailles or taking in priceless works of art in the city’s many museums.

Food plays a starring role in this French adventure. Mother and daughter linger in cafes for meals of French onion soup, oysters and wine, or throw together simple yet tasty repasts of croissants, cheese and pickles. Knisley becomes obsessed with decadent hot chocolate and can’t seem to stop drinking the rich, creamy French milk – hence the book’s title. When their time in Paris comes to an end, she loads up on good mustard and condensed milk, both sold in tubes, and cans of foie gras to tote home. (As someone who hoards Kinder Bueno candy bars when she travels overseas, I get it.)

But “French Milk” is about much more than getting to know a foreign city. It’s about the relationship between mother and daughter, as well as the uncertainty Knisley faces as she nears the end of her college career and must officially enter adulthood.

An Age of License: A Travelogue

“Some trips are more than distance traveled in miles,” Knisley writes on the first page of “An Age of License.” “Sometimes travel can show us how our life is … or give us a glimpse of how it can be …”

Reeling from a break-up, Knisley fortuitously finds opportunities to travel – a comics convention in Norway; a side trip to Sweden to visit a new lover; a stopover in Berlin to congratulate newlywed friends; and a return to France to see her vacationing mother.

As she hopscotches across Europe, Knisley maintains a leisurely, spontaneous pace, truly exploring her surroundings, from local French wineries to relics from Cold War Berlin. “An Age of License” is a joyful experience as Knisley luxuriates in the freedom that travel, youth and her unattached status bring.

Curious about the title? In France, the author encounters an American who claims that “the French have a saying for the time when people are young and experimenting with their lives and careers. They call it: l’age license. As in: License to experience, mess up, license to fail, license to do … whatever, before you’re settled.”

Displacement: A Travelogue

Although “Displacement” is a travelogue like “An Age of License,” it’s a much more poignant one. The book depicts a trip that Knisley takes with her aging grandparents, when she accompanies them on a Caribbean cruise as their caregiver. The journey becomes an exercise in patience and compassion, as well as in coming to terms with her elders’ mortality.

The cruise is no vacation for Knisley, as she deals with everything from her grandmother’s dementia to her grandfather’s incontinence, and all the resulting complications. She dispenses medications, seeks out lost items, and spends nights laundering her grandfather’s pants. There is little time for shore excursions or walks on the beach.

Interspersed with the daily travel diary are excerpts from a memoir that Knisley’s grandfather, a World War II veteran, wrote about his war-time experiences. Every night she reads further, seeing her now-frail grandfather in a new light. The contrast between his older and younger self is bittersweet.

On a side note, the sometimes unpleasant realities of cruise vacation that Knisley highlights are spot-on: goofy entertainment, rude passengers, the constant cleaning and sanitizing to avoid the spread of norovirus, a gastro-intestinal illness. As a veteran passenger, I can admit that, while fun, cruises do have elements of the absurd.

So if you haven’t been able to travel this summer, don’t despair. Journeys – of a sort – await you at the Joplin Public Library.

el chapoAuthor/Illustrator Cece Bell has penned a delightful semi-autobiographical graphic novel about her experiences growing up with hearing loss.  After losing her hearing as a result of a childhood illness, Cece has to learn to adjust to living in a non-hearing world.

Cece soon learns about having ear molds made and ends up with wires coming out of her ears!  Being able to hear again only mildly makes up for how different she looks compared to other children her age.  She worries about going to school and the reaction of her classmates, not realizing she will have more indignity to come in the form of the enormous, “Phonic Ear,” which must be worn under her clothes.

Having the Phonic Ear does help Cece hear everything in school which in turn helps her concentrate and improves her grades.  Suddenly school is easy for Cece.  She also learns the Phonic Ear is powerful enough to hear the bathroom habits of her teachers!

As Cece progresses through grade school, she learns to be choosy in making friends and also that her hearing loss doesn’t need to dictate her friendships.  She finds a best friend in a neighbor who treats her like she’s “normal,” meaning her friend refrains from stereotypical behaviors including speaking loudly, slowly, or using exaggerated sign language, despite knowing about Cece’s hearing aids.

When a very cute boy named Mike moves in next door, Cece is awe-struck.  Her reaction is very typically portrayed for a young girl her age, helping the reader understand she truly is just another child who happens to have lost her hearing.

One day, Cece decides to trust Mike with the knowledge she can hear their teacher everywhere she is in the building.  Mike is fascinated with the power of the Sonic Ear and decides to put the device to good use.  When the teacher leaves the room, Cece listens for the class while they engage in all the things children do when the teacher is out of the room, without and of the consequences.  Cece is suddenly the class hero.

The author’s notes provide insight into the world of non-hearing individuals and communicate some of the differences among individuals with hearing loss.  This book handles the subject matter in a fresh way, making for an enjoyable reading experience.

I’ve been reading through the series “Home Repair is Homicide” by Sarah Graves. The series is about a former money manager, Jacobia Tiptree, who moves to Eastport Maine to rehabilitate an old house. If you like murder mysteries with good characters I recommend it.

The series has been around awhile which is good in that I can read it at my pace but bad for a review of new library material. So I headed to the library’s new book shelf. As I scanned for an interesting title Louisiana Saves the Library by Emily Beck Cogburn caught my eye.

LouisianaI picked it up because it sounds like it belongs in the children’s department plus it has library in the title. After reading the cover I decided it wasn’t in the wrong place and might be a fun read.

Louisiana Richardson is a divorced mother of preschoolers Max and Zoe. Before the divorce she was a stay at home mom with a PhD who wrote articles on the history of public libraries. With an ex-husband who pays child support on his schedule writing articles wouldn’t pay the rent.

Her job search resulted in an offer from Louisiana A&M to be a professor in their library science department. Finding a friend in fellow professor Sylvia has helped, but a year later the culture and climate shock of the move from Iowa has not completely worn off. And now her job is in jeopardy. The state has cut funding for the university by 20% and the library science program is one that may be eliminated.

When the program is cut Louisiana, who is using the nickname Louise after one too many incredulous reactions to her full name, is in a panic. Sylvia however has come up with a solution to their joblessness. The Alligator Bayou Parish Library is in desperate need of two librarians.

Even though it will be less pay it seems like a godsend but Louise is less than thrilled. She visited this library while doing research for a book on the history of Louisiana public libraries. The collection was old and ugly and the library almost empty at a time when it should have been busy with moms and kids.

She can’t imagine working daily in such a depressing place. But with no unemployment benefits for public employees, the ex-husband who still can’t send child support in a timely manner and academic jobs unavailable for at least 6 months, Alligator Bayou is it.

It doesn’t take long for Louise and Sylvia to settle in and begin making changes. Despite the reluctance of the library director hours are extended into the evening.  Programs for teens are added as well as a book club and cooking classes for adults.  The weekly Zumba class is a big hit and new materials are getting on the shelf faster and checking out.

But not everyone is happy with the changes. Library Director Foley wants his old library back and the most powerful member of the police jury, Mrs. Gunderson, thinks libraries are obsolete. She sees no need to waste funds on a library when everyone has the internet.

The police jury, similar to our county commissioners, approves funds for the library. They also must approve placing a levy increase for the library on the ballot. When Mrs. Gunderson’s influence puts both things in jeopardy the future of the library, along with Louise and Sylvia’s jobs, is on the line.

When the situation goes from bad to worse Louise and Sylvia need help. It will take all of Alligator Bayou if the library is to be saved.

This is a light entertaining read with a little humor, family drama, and a hunky strawberry farmer thrown in the mix. If you are looking for a great piece of literature that will pass the test of time, I’d skip this title. However if you love libraries and stories with good characters I recommend you give it a try.

Every four years, when the presidentialout race rolls around, folks say “If (fill in the blank) wins, I’m moving to Canada!” Or maybe Bolivia, or “anywhere but here.” With that in mind, we recently ordered the latest edition of Getting Out: your guide to leaving America. For many reasons, I’m not going anywhere, but I thought it would be interesting to have a look and indeed, it was. After some introductory info about how the book came about and who it’s intended for, the meat and potatoes appear. First a section on different sorts of visas as well as gaining foreign citizenship (which is usually pretty difficult unless you marry a native or have oodles of money). After that, different methods of supporting yourself overseas, including the Peace Corps (if you don’t mind going wherever they send you) and other volunteer organizations, retirement, working for the U.S. government, entrepreneurship, etc.

The next section is the largest and, to me, the most interesting.  Lots and lots of info on different countries, including which ones speak English, which ones are least/most expensive, how corrupt the governments and police are generally, who has good/bad infrastructure including roads and internet, where crime is high or low, etc. Interspersed all along the way are bits of info from expatriates who have relocated to lots of different places. Some of them are really eye-opening, but mostly they boil down to “remember it’s not the U.S. and you’ll be happier.” Some people really like their new homes, whether temporary or permanent, while others put up with various issues simply to live where it’s cheaper or more aligned with their worldview or because their spouse is native and they accompanied them home.

After the general information on statistics and culture, we finally come to the country by country list of places you might consider and a short list of places not to consider (Somalia, Chad, Haiti, Sudan and a few other notable places best avoided). For each of the sixty countries listed, there’s an info box about climate, form of government, population, currency, major languages and religious groups, ethnic groups and a comparative cost of living. That’s followed by a overview of “living there” including a bit more on governance, quality of infrastructure and internet, healthcare cost and quality, how likely it is that you might be able to work there, the tax situation, and a bit about crime, whether or not you can buy real estate, and whether abortion is permitted as well as gun control and marijuana laws. Something I found a bit troubling in spots is the snippet on “Women’s Issues.” While it’s certainly worth knowing if you might be taking yourself (or your wife or daughter) to someplace rife with sexual harassment, I think that stating “Domestic violence is a problem in Aboriginal communities” in Australia seems to imply that the European descended folks are all peaceable and well-behaved.  The section on “Moving There” goes a bit more deeply into who can/can’t take up residence in the country. Sadly, just about anywhere I would consider going won’t take me unless I win a sweepstakes or lottery (and I’d need to anyway in order to afford the cost of living in those places).

By the way, if you’re interested in high-tailing it out of the country to avoid the long arm of the law, there’s a list of countries with no extradition treaty with the U.S. The book concludes with a section on web resources for up-to-date and more in-depth information for those who are more than merely curious about becoming an expat. At any rate, whether merely curious or itching to get overseas, you’ll find plenty to inform yourself with here.

I’m not really mubwwbch of a mystery reader. Unicorns? Spaceships? Talking dogs? I’m game. But whodunnits have never really appealed to me. However, when I saw Burn What Will Burn, I have to admit, the title hooked me. The short summary I read made it seem even more interesting: a poet finds a dead body and puts his own life in danger.

Set in fictional Doker, Arkansas, Burn What Will Burn is a story about what it’s like to be an outsider. Bob Reynolds is a poet with a lot of problems. First, people in his life tend to drown. Second, he has some sort of unnamed anxiety disorder. And third, he’s an outsider in a very small town.  When he finds a dead body in the creek behind his Arkansas home, his life begins to unravel very quickly.

When Bob pulls the body out of the creek and calls the High Sheriff Sam Baxter, he doesn’t realize that he’s stepping into a decades old web of lust, lies, and family secrets. No one in town trusts Bob or even really wants him around. When the High Sheriff wants to blame someone for the mysterious death, who better than Bob Reynolds? He’s a poet, which is weird enough in the small town of Doker, but he’s also just plain weird. He has a crush on the local “mechanic” Tammy Fay that borders on obsession, but she only wants to use Reynolds as a pawn in this small town conspiracy.

The story hinges on Bob Reynolds trying to get out of the hole he’s found himself in while surrounded by an angry preacher, a drug dealing felon, a corrupt sheriff, a mentally challenged boy, and Tammy Fay, a woman with an agenda of her own and no interest in returning Reynolds’ affection. Many of the characters McKenzie writes about are eerily similar to people I’ve encountered. However, sometimes they seem more like a roll call for small town stereotypes.

Honestly, I didn’t enjoy this book. Bob Reynolds is the narrator, and his internal monologue gets flowery at times. I also just didn’t like him, which makes reading a whole book through his perspective a little tedious. Often, Reynolds does things for reasons that not even he seems to understand. The plot seems to be unimportant even to Reynolds, who bounces from event to event without a clear plan of action.

I couldn’t decide if I wanted Reynolds to go through a flashback or two to explain his weirdness. On one hand, it would answer a lot of questions I had about the unseemly narrator. On the other hand, I think Bob Reynolds would have lost a lot of his intrigue if we knew his whole backstory. I had trouble connecting to a narrator who spends zero time thinking about anything other than the exact present moment he’s in. But maybe that’s part of the brilliance of this character: his lack of forethought is exactly what gets him into trouble.

At only 212 pages, Burn What Will Burn is a quick read, though probably better suited to folks who like mystery stories. It’s an interesting character study of small town living, but it’s not going on my Top Ten Favorite Books list.

Imagine you are 13 years old. You are female. You are illiterate. You live in post-Taliban Afghanistan. You are little better than a slave in your own household, being treated cruelly by your father’s second wife, and your own mother is dead. Oh, and by the way, you have a cleft palate, and you are nicknamed “Donkey-face” by the area bullies, and sometimes even by your own half-brothers.

“Words in the Dust” by Trent Reedy, a former American soldier in Afghanistan, introduces us to Zulaihka, a 13-year-old Afghan girl and her family. Some of the events in this book are based on actual things that happened to Reedy during his deployment to Afghanistan. His author’s note at the end recounts the details true to his experience.

Zulaihka does as much as she can to keep her disfigurement hidden by her chador, a head covering which she can pull across and cover her mouth, but she is still mistreated and scorned by others.

One day while she is out on an errand for her stepmother, she is seen by American soldiers who are in her town. They later offer her surgery for her disfigurement. She is thrilled at the prospect of being normal, but her hopes are dashed when the American helicopter isn’t able to take her to Kandahar for the surgery.

Another day, again while running errands, but this time ending up being chased by the police (you’ll have to read it to find out why the police are after her), Zulaihka meets Meena, the village seamstress who had to give up being a university professor under the reign of the Taliban.

Meena knew Zulaihka’s mother, and knew her mother loved ancient Afghan poetry. With patience and care she awakens Zulaihka’s desire to learn and begins to teach Zulaihka to read and love the poetry as her mother had.

In order to learn to read, Zulaihka practices writing in the dirt — thus, the title of the book, “Words in the Dust.”

Dreams are coming true for Zulaihka’s family. Her father and older brother begin to work for the Americans as they work to rebuild the country. Their economic position is improving.

Her 15-year-old sister is to be married, the first step in fulfilling her dream of being a beloved wife and mother. She is marrying a much older man as his third wife. Still, Zeynab, her sister, believes in “happily ever after.”

Zulaihka eventually does get her surgery, and returns to her home, only to find the town bullies still refer to her as “Donkey-face.” Tragedy engulfs the family, and Zulaihka and her family struggle to carry on.

Meena offers Zulaihka a ray of hope, offering her an opportunity to travel to Herat to live with a respected Afghan woman, receive a full education and eventually go to university. But can Zulaihka receive permission from her traditional Afghan father?

You will have to read this children’s/young adult crossover book to find out how the story ends. Reedy includes a glossary, pronunciation guide and suggestions for further reading. With all that is going on in this area of the world, this book gives a good glimpse into the daily lives of Afghans as well as the struggle it can be for young women there to learn and to make a difference.

After reading the book, I wholeheartedly agree with a comment by Katherine Paterson, noted children’s author, who wrote the introduction to the book. “He (Reedy) has given me an Afghan friend for whom I care so deeply I cannot read a news report without wondering how what has occurred to affecting her life.”

“Words in the Dust” is available in both print and ebook versions at Joplin Public Library.

Advertisements searching for those who wish to become Witch-fighting Princesses and Dragon-slaying Knights at Pennyroyal Academy have been spread far and wide. The war with Witches and Dragons has so consumed the current royal-blood population that Pennyroyal is now willing to accept anyone, even those born “common.”

For a young girl who does not remember her own name, the journey to Pennyroyal is not an easy one.  After fighting her way through an enchanted forest where the trees try to kill her (especially the Beech trees), she finds herself in a witches cottage.  When the witch returns with the handsome Remington in tow, the girl discovers the courage to rescue the boy and herself from being made into candy.

Once safe, she and Remington discover they are headed in the same direction, Pennyroyal Academy.  Remington is the object of much attention from the other Pennyroyal Princess candidates, whereas the girl attracts an entirely different kind of attention, possibly because she is clad only in spiderwebs.

The girl enlists at Pennyroyal but is promptly shunted to the infirmary for a course of medicine designed to restore memories of her name and the name of her mother.  However, she insists she is not under a spell.  She has reasons for not wanting to share her history, such as being raised by Dragons.  Until she can recall her true name, the girl is dubbed, “Cadet Eleven,” by the staff of Pennyroyal, which her newly found friends quickly change to Evie.

The Fairy Drillsergeant in charge of Evie’s training is tough, though tiny.  She warns the girls in her charge there is very little chance they will make it through their training to attempt the culminating Helpless Maiden challenge, the only way to gain an invitation back for Year Two of the Academy.

Complicating matters is Malora, another Princess Cadet who does not seem to have any of the virtues of a true Pennyroyal Princess: Courage, Kindness, Compassion, and Discipline.  Her animosity toward Evie escalates as the story and the relationship between Evie and Remington progresses.

This middle-grade story is an enchanting mix of fairytales reimagined and message that love is the only thing that can truly conquer evil.  The story is thankfully not telegraphed and there are quite a few twists and plot turns along the way, keeping things lively.

If you like fairytales and magic, add Mark Twain Award nominee, “Pennyroyal Academy,” to your summer reading list.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 71 other followers