Book Reviews

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Forgotten Founding Father cover image

The Founding Fathers of the United States had a vision of how the government should work for the new country. Another American felt the same way regarding the English language.

The Forgotten Founding Father: Noah Webster's Obsession and the Creation of an American Culture by Joshua Kendall examines the life of Noah Webster, a man who became obsessed with words. Webster came from Connecticut attending schools including Yale College in that colony. He started his career as an educator and writer. He contributed to the field of education by producing a grammar book, a reader, and a speller. Many American schoolchildren learned their spelling from this blue-backed book.

Webster’s main object with the speller focused on getting Americans to adapt their version of the English language to make it their own. “Webster’s speller also gave rise to America’s first national pastime, the spelling bee,” Kindall writes.

Winter Solstice

From time immemorial, humans have eased the encroaching darkness of winter with gatherings and celebrations involving light, food, and sacred rituals. Holidays and traditions vary from culture to culture, but often these traditions involve recipes, crafts, and decorations for the home.

Christmas is my tradition, and I particularly love the decorated trees and lights, and gatherings with family and friends. But sometimes I need ideas for how to spice up my Yuletide celebrations so it’s not the same box of ornaments, turkey recipe, and tinsel every year.

The Kansas City Public Library (and its consortium libraries) have a wide selection of books to help you come up with ideas to enhance your celebrations in a variety of traditions. Here are a few titles to give you some practical suggestions for unique ways to celebrate the holidays:

Christmas

Yule: A Celebration of Light and Warmth by Dorothy Morrison presents a wonderful potpourri of holiday lore from around the world and throughout history, along with fun crafts, delicious recipes, and a calendar of celebrations for every day in December.

Sarah's Key cover

As French police force their way into her family’s Paris apartment, a frightened 10-year-old Sarah desperately locks her little brother, Michel, in the secret bedroom cupboard and shoves the key deep into her pocket. 

Calming her scared sibling by promising to let him out when it was finally safe, Sarah has no idea that nothing will ever be safe again.

Part historical fiction and part family drama, Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay is a compelling novel that tells two emotional stories.  The first is the story of Sarah, a young Jewish girl in Occupied France who is arrested with her family on July 16, 1942, in the Velodrome d’Hiver roundup, an event which eventually led to the extermination of thousands of French Jewish men, women and children at Auschwitz.

The second story takes place 60 years later and centers around Julia Jarmond, an American journalist who lives with her French husband and daughter in Paris. Julia is asked to write an article about the Velodrome d’Hiver incident and learns that she is much closer to the story than she ever realized.

Little Women book cover Penguin

Your classics reviewer got to this book in a rather roundabout way. I made the decision to review this title after I had bought my Nook this past January. But first, I had watched two film productions of Little Women (one with Katherine Hepburn, the other with June Allyson as Jo) on TCM.

My wife was puzzled as to why I was watching not just one, but two versions of Little Women. I pointed out my fondness for remakes and explained that to appreciate (or hate) the remake, you have to see the original. She shook her head in dismay and left to watch a different Christmas movie (I think it was Die Hard) elsewhere in the house.

And then, when I got my Nook, I noticed that it had three titles already loaded, one of which was Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. I figured it was fate, and you can’t fight fate, and so it became my December book this year. Another reason for reading: the book starts as the March women get ready for their first Christmas without Mr. March, making it a suitable holiday title.

Buddha in the Attic Julie Otsuka

With simple sentences that say so much and read almost poetically, Julie Otsuka in The Buddha in the Attic delivers an emotional novel about Japanese picture brides who came to the United States in the early 1900s. 

They numbered in the thousands; each had her own story. Otsuka skillfully and with great economy of words tells the collective story of this group of women while at the same time giving voice to the individual. The novel starts with their boat ride to America and ends as they are bused to World War II internment camps.   

We hear about the hardships, the disappointments, the moments of kindness, the bouts of sickness, and the struggles with marriage. We read that the first English word they learned was “water” and how they raised children in a multicultural environment. We are told about the Caucasian women who employed them as maids and taught them about American culture. We learn how the Japanese woman learned to survive in a non-sensitive, white American culture. 

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