Scattered Summer Notes….

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It’s summer, and all attempts at a regular routine have been forgotten.  My reading is scattered – in a good way. In an interview with the New York Times Book Review, Geoff Dwyer said that his favorite short story is “The Gardener” by Rudyard Kipling.  Two hours later, I was on the deck reading Kipling’s story about a mother searching for her son’s grave after WWI.

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On Monday, although the plan was to begin reading Emma Straub’s new novel, Modern Lovers, I read Terry Tempest Williams’ essay about Acadia National Park.  The essay is part of her new collection, The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks.  Later this summer, we are visiting Acadia for the first time so I was an easy target for her beautiful new book. “Acadia is another breathing space,” Williams writes. “Perhaps that is what parks are – breathing spaces for a society that increasingly holds its breath.”  A memorable sentence that elegantly captures the anxiety many of us feel as we try to comprehend Orlando, Brexit, and Trump…

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Yesterday I continued my scattershot reading, but my distraction may be helpful to those of you with children who have a summer reading list.  I read the short middle grade novel, Moxy Maxwell Does Not Love Stuart Little by Peggy Gifford.  It was published in 2008, and I remember reading it then, but for some reason, I took Inly’s copy before it was packed in a moving box and read it again. This is literally the perfect novel for every kid who has a tendency to procrastinate.

Nine-year-old Moxy is supposed to read Stuart Little during the summer before fourth grade, but it’s the day before school starts and she hasn’t even started it.  She’s busy “cleaning” her room and making plans for a peach orchard.  Basically anything besides reading Stuart Little!  The chapters are short and funny and Moxy is great – add this one to your summer library list!

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles….

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My transportation-based reading plans trended the same way.  During a flight to and from Ohio, I read Stephanie Danler’s bestseller Sweetbitter.  It was not the book I had tucked in my travel bag. I started Sweetbitter in the Boston airport bookstore – drawn to it by the hype around Danler’s debut novel.  After reading five pages standing in the store (carrying other books in my tote bag), I walked to the cash register and didn’t stop reading until the plane landed and I was back in the land of Buckeyes!

Referred to in many reviews as a cross between Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential and Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City, Sweetbitter is a riveting and smart book. It’s the story of Tess, a young woman who arrives in New York and almost immediately starts working in an upscale restaurant.  It’s a coming-of-age novel with memorable scenes of life behind the kitchen door, lots of cocaine snorted behind bathroom doors, and a young woman who is pulled along by all of it.

I will never eat at a “fancy restaurant” again without thinking of Sweetbitter – not sure if that’s good or bad.  As much as I appreciated how Danler brings the reader hurtling along with Tess, I felt vaguely depressed while reading it. I kept wanting to go to the restaurant and get her out!  She was making bad decisions on every page.  I understand that I’m bringing my judgement to her situation – and that Tess is young and learning and we all make bad decisions.  That being said, it made me uneasy to witness her journey.

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I was also in New York for a few days, and the train ride was perfect for catching up on my stack of unread New Yorker magazines.  So many good articles – and cartoons – that stack up during the school year!

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Of course, we found time to visit McNally Jackson, our favorite bookstore in New York (traveling by an uber-mobile to complete the transport trio).

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The store’s window display pays tribute to people who tackle a “big” book over the summer.  My thoughts went immediately to a friend who just finished reading The Brothers Karamazov – an impressive feat.

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Next up: Hour of the Bees by Lindsay Eager.  It’s the first middle grade novel I’m reading with a group of kids at Buttonwood Books and Toys this summer. Eager’s novel takes place in New Mexico, a state I know and love.  I plan to bring a few souvenirs along so we can channel a southwestern mood. Chips and salsa will help!

Finally, I saw a picture of this new novel today:

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It looks like this one, doesn’t it?

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I’ll end this reading round-up with two pictures from the end of the school year.  As I looked at these pics today, I recalled a conversation I overheard a few days ago at Barnes and Noble. A boy, who was about 10 or 11, was consulting his summer reading list.  His mother reminded him to choose carefully because he had to write a summary of each chapter!  Ugh. And we wonder why kids don’t want to read.  Of course, work like that is often necessary (but not always) during the school year, but in the summer?  Why not give kids a list of books they might enjoy reading and encourage them to read. That’s it. No summaries. No assignments. Just read.

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A Trip to Ohio….

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I returned home last night from four wonderful days in the Buckeye State, two in Columbus and two in Dayton, my hometown.  I enjoyed being with my family, eating at Marion’s Pizza, buying Flyer Gear at the University of Dayton Bookstore, but our visit to Carillon Park, a museum spread over 65 acres that tells the story of Dayton’s history with special attention paid to its many inventors, was especially eye-opening.

Although everyone who grows up in Dayton knows the story of the Wright Brothers, I did not realize until Monday that I grew up in the early 1900s version of Silicon Valley! It was this barn that made me think about the connection:

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It’s a replica of the barn that stood behind Edward Deeds’ home in Dayton.  Deeds is hardly a household name, but he was the president of the National Cash Register Company and an engineer whose work led to advancing automotive technology. He also worked with the Wright Brothers and was involved in aircraft production during WWI.

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The sign in front of the barn reads: “In the original barn, from 1908 to 1912, a group of young engineers and inventors headed by Deeds and Charles Kettering developed the modern electric automobile ignition, starter, and lighting systems. Nicknamed ‘the barn gang,’ the group became the nucleus of the Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company.”

Sixty-seven years later, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak worked in a garage rather than a barn, but there are obvious parallels.

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Of course, we also saw the Wright Flyer that Orville flew in 1905.  After reading David McCullough’s book about the famous brothers, I appreciated seeing the plane more.

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We also visited The Book Loft in German Village, a neighborhood in Columbus. The independent bookstore is known for its 32 rooms of books and, although I didn’t get to all of them, I found Room 32!

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And then, of course, there’s the plane ride – two hours each way of uninterrupted reading time.  I know devices have airplane modes, but I’m pretending they don’t!

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Although there are many new books I plan to read this summer, my first summer book was not even on my list – A Long and Happy Life by Reynolds Price.  Price, who died in 2011, was a well known and respected southern writer and Biblical scholar who, among other things, co-wrote the song, Copperline, with James Taylor. A Long and Happy Life, his first novel, was published in 1962.

Price’s novel about Rosacoke Mustian, a young woman in rural North Carolina, was the first “literary novel” I read as a young woman – and at the beginning of each summer, I state my intention to read it again.  Finally…I delivered on my self-assigned summer reading!  As a teenage reader, my book choices were unsophisticated.  My reading diet included lots of Harlequin romances because my grandmother had stacks of them.  Although I read books I was assigned in school, I didn’t really seek out “good books” until an embarrassingly late age.

Something or someone led me to the troubled romance of Rosacoke Mustian and Wesley Beavers.  Reading it now, I see so many things that would have gone right past me as a twenty-year-old.  The language is evocative and poetic – and I was a late-blooming reader.

Reading Price’s novel after thirty years of reading and teaching and studying, is a richer experience – but the first time was more meaningful. A Long and Happy Life was my gateway book. Rosacoke led me to all the other books. I literally did not look back – except for reading maybe one or two Harlequin romances with my grandmother!

Gators, Princesses, and a Painting….

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I timed my (nearly daily) trip to Buttonwood Books and Toys perfectly yesterday – just in time to see Brian Lies, the author of the popular series of picture books about bats who do all kinds of things like go to baseball games, visit the library, and go to the beach…

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Brian was at Buttonwood to talk about his new book which is a departure from creatures of the night. This story is about creatures of the swamp.

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Gator Dad is about a dad who “squeezes the day” with his three young alligators. They go to the park, play on a seesaw, eat pancakes, and end the day with an alligator squeeze.  A perfect Father’s Day story, Gator Dad captures the joy of a day out.

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We only have one week of school left, but Brian kindly signed a book to the kids at Inly, and I will “squeeze” enough time to read one more story!

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As a school librarian, I am always on the lookout for princess books. There are lots of young readers who enjoy a good princess story and who can blame them!  But I also try to keep Inly’s library a marketing-free zone which means there are no Disney princess books. When I read about The Seven Princesses by Smiljana Coh, I was hopeful – and it did not disappoint. The best part of Coh’s book is that it’s more than a sweetly illustrated book with wide eyed princesses.  It’s also a story about family. Like all siblings, these seven young girls have their moments.  Each of them has a unique interest and they generally enjoy being together.

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But “one day, they had the biggest fight in the entire history of princess fighting.”  The next few pages aren’t as rosy – either literally or figuratively.  The girls separate and build individual towers – they are lonely.  Ultimately, through the magic of an old picture, they reconnect and all is well in the kingdom.  Not a unique story, of course, but that doesn’t matter. The pictures are fun and sparkly in the best princess way – and there’s always room for a reminder how much stronger and happier we are together.

One of the best parts of summer is that I get to choose things to read from my toppling, piled-too-high stack of new books. I look longingly at the pile all school year long while I’m reading To Kill a Mockingbird and The Giver and The Outsiders for the fourth or eighth time each, and then one morning I wake up and realize I can read anything I want. I don’t quite hear bells ringing, but something close!

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The first “adult book” I read was The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith. I finished it two days ago, and I’m still thinking about the story, the characters, and what a perfect first summer book it was.  Moving between three different times and places, the story centers on a painting by a 17th century Dutch artist. By the 1950s, the painting belongs to a wealthy New Yorker, Martin de Groot, who at the beginning of the novel is hosting a charity event.  After everyone has gone home, he realizes his painting has been replaced by a forgery.

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos could accurately be called a mystery, but the mystery is about more than the painting. It’s also about the mystery of what motivates us and the choices we make.  It’s also just a really good story. As a friend said, each section could be its own novel that you would want to read!

Next up: a book to review for School Library Journal. Back to the toppling stack soon…

 

 

Canal-Side Reading….

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While many of my colleagues and students spent their vacations near a pool or beach, my husband and I travelled to Amsterdam last week where we walked along the canals. My friends were definitely warmer. Amsterdam felt like late November rather than early spring, but the views and art museums more than compensated!

Later this week, I will post lots of book-related pictures from our trip. Today, though, I will tell you what I read during two very long flights and evenings while recovering from “museum legs,” which Urban Dictionary defines as “the aching legs one develops after a prolonged period of slow walking interspersed with standing still, especially when going round a museum or some other attraction where visitors are forced to be constantly on their feet.”

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The Last Boy at St. Edith’s by Lee Gjertsen Malone

Jeremy is the last boy at St. Edith’s, a private school in Massachusetts that, after a brief attempt to become coed, has gone back to being an all-girls school. There are 475 girls – and Jeremy, whose mother works at the school where he and his sisters get free tuition. Jeremy knows his mother can’t afford the tuition at another school and St. Edith’s is much better than the local public school, but that doesn’t make it any easier for him. Jeremy’s only option is a misguided attempt to get expelled and to that end, he enlists the help of his best friend, Claudia. The two of them embark on a series of pranks that are not as harmless as Jeremy hopes. Along the way, Jeremy learns a lot about himself, his friendships, and the value of attending St. Edith’s.  Malone’s book will be on Inly’s summer reading list – and I will begin recommending it to kids tomorrow!

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Night at the Fiestas by Kirstin Valdez Quade

When we were in Santa Fe last year, we visited Collected Works, a wonderful independent bookstore. There was a display of a new book of short stories by Kirstin Valdez Quade, the author of Night at the Fiestas – and a notice that Quade would be speaking in the store the next night. We missed her reading, but I made a mental note of the book and when it was named one of the New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2015, I added it to my list. The ten stories all take place in New Mexico and each include razor sharp observations of the way cultures collide in a place where many people seek transformation.  The title story is the one that had the greatest effect on me.  Frances, the teenage protagonist, is taking the bus to Santa Fe for the annual fiesta. Like many young people on the brink of adulthood, Frances is seeking excitement and the promise of something beyond her life in small town Raton. Something does happen, but it’s not what she expects and the final scene made my heart ache for her.

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Gorsky by Vesna Goldsworthy

Gorsky was my “beach book” for this vacation – and the perfect choice.  It’s a retelling of The Great Gatsby that takes place in 21st century London and Gatsby is now a Russian gazillionaire!  There are so many parallels with The Great Gatsby that reading Goldsworthy’s novel is like a game to see how many references you can catch.  One of my favorites is that the object of Gorsky’s desire is a woman named Natalia – but her daughter’s name is Daisy!  Such fun….

Pictures of bookstores in Amsterdam coming soon…..

Bettyville by George Hodgman

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Nearly a year ago, I began hearing about a book called Bettyville by George Hodgman. I read the glowing reviews, added it to my list, and even bought the book. Yet, like emails that drop below my screen view, I never got to it.

Although there are other books I should be reading, I picked Bettyville up a few days ago and then barely put it down until reaching the last page. Hodgman’s memoir of the time he spent caring for his elderly mother made me laugh out loud and feel overwhelmed by sadness in equal measure.

George Hodgman, a writer and editor living in New York City, returns to Paris, Missouri and witnesses the decline of a woman he loves and a town that has been changed by drugs and Walmart.  “This is not a locale whose residents are waiting desperately for the latest version of the iPhone,” Hodgman writes. “This is a place where the Second Coming would be much preferred to tomorrow’s sunrise, the world of the Store, the Big Cup, the carbohydrate, and the cinnamon roll – a region of old families, now faded, living in trailer homes, divorcing and having illegitimate children. But there is also kindness, such kindness…”

Hodgman writes honestly about the frustration of caring for an aging parent – and the complicated relationship between mother and son – but most of all he is a good man devoted to caring for his mother with love and respect.  There are some very funny stories (including one about mini Snicker bars) and poignant memories of the loneliness Hodgman felt as a young gay man growing up in a small town.

On a completely different note, we were in Amherst, Massachusetts over the weekend. Because of the subzero temperatures, we were looking for things to do that did not involve being outdoors and decided to visit the Mead Art Museum at Amherst College which is a gem – a perfect small museum that we will definitely visit again.

One of my favorites was this painting of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, the author of Gift From the Sea and the wife of Charles Lindbergh. The artist, Robert Brackman, painted this in 1938 – only six years after the Lindbergh’s baby was kidnapped….

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We also noticed that a Good Samaritan thoughtfully put a scarf around Robert Frost’s neck. It was a cold day, even for someone who appreciated “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”

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New Year Notes…

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Happy 2016!  I hope everyone had a wonderful holiday season which included lots of time to read. As always, my reading plans and the reality did not align, but that’s okay.  I enjoyed time with friends and family, spent lots of time catching up on New Yorker articles that were in my “to read” pile, and received some wonderful new books that are on the nightstand ready for 2016!  Here are a few disconnected notes from the past few weeks….

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I read a powerful and moving new young adult novel called All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely. Told from the points of view of two teenage boys – one white and one black – it’s a story that echoes today’s headlines. Rashad, the black teenager, is brutally beaten by a white police officer, an act witnessed by Quinn, a white classmate who grapples with what he has seen and how to respond. The day after I finished reading it, the novel was featured on NPR’s Weekend Edition. Here’s a link to the story:

http://www.npr.org/2016/01/02/461754097/authors-of-all-american-boys-talk-about-how-book-has-sparked-race-discussion

My favorite Christmas gift was a Playmobil version of Vermeer’s The Milkmaid. My husband, knowing how much I love the painting, ordered this plastic version from the Rijkmuseum in Amsterdam. I snapped all of the pieces together and put it next to my postcard of the painting. Here it is:

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We were in New York City for a couple of days and, during a walking tour of Greenwich Village, we learned about the Minetta Tavern which opened in 1937 and was a regular destination for writers including Ernest Hemingway and E.E. Cummings.

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If you are already planning your 2016 reading, here are a few books to consider:

First place in my “anticipation” list is My Name is Lucy Barton, the new novel by Elizabeth Strout the author of Olive Kitteridge and The Burgess Boys.

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In February, two books have caught my eye: The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel (author of Life of Pi) and The Lives of Elves by Muriel Barbery (the author of The Elegance of the Hedgehog).

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March releases include a novel that’s generating lots of buzz already – and a cover blurb by Amy Poehler: The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney. The story of siblings and an inheritance that, not surprisingly, raises long-simmering issues.

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Louise Erdrich’s new novel, LaRose, will be out in May. The crime at the center of this story is a hunter who mistakenly shoots his five-year-old neighbor.

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And my summer book may be Modern Lovers by Emma Straub. Straub’s book, The Vacationers, was the perfect summer read two years ago so I’m banking on this one.

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Summer is a long way off!  Until then, it’s reading with warm blankets and a cup of chai…

 

 

 

Simmons Center for the Study of Children’s Literature: Summer Institute

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Unknown-1This summer has not gone as planned, to put it mildly. After the adventure I’ve had over the past three weeks, my advice to you is this: check for ticks. For such tiny parasites, they can certainly cause havoc.

One of the things I was most looking forward to this summer was the Summer Institute at Simmons, a three-day conference featuring the authors of books for children and young adults, master’s seminars, opportunities to talk with teachers and librarians, and to reconnect with other graduates of the Simmons Masters in Children’s Literature program.  So, while my unwelcome visitor caused me to miss most of the conference, I did participate on Saturday and it was so worthwhile.  Among Saturday’s speakers were:

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Kwame Alexander – the 2015 Newbery winner for his novel in verse, The Crossover

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Rita Williams-Garcia – the author of many young adult novels and the award-winning middle grade trilogy: One Crazy Summer, P.S. Be Eleven, and Gone Crazy in Alabama

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A Panel of Illustrators, including Shadra Strickland, David Hyde-Costello, and Hyewon Yum

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Emily Jenkins – author of Toys Go Out, That New Animal and Five Creatures — and as young adult author E. Lockhart, the author of The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks and We Were Liars.

Although all of the speakers were interesting and inspiring, it was Emily Jenkins’s presentation that I found especially moving. She was a generous speaker – warm and honest. At the end of her talk, I felt like gathering all of the books she’s written (as both Jenkins and Lockhart) and re-reading every one of them!

Jenkins had a peripatetic childhood – living on several communes with her mother, visiting her father in New York City, and her grandmother on Martha’s Vineyard.  Books, she said, were her stability. She loved Pippi Longstocking because she “created a home for herself.” She was a fan of The Boxcar Children because of their “fantasy of self sufficiency.”  She also talked about the importance of a 1978 book called Getting Organized by Stephanie Winston. (I just checked – you can buy a used copy on Amazon). Winston’s book belonged to her grandmother and it was about making a home, a topic that resonated with Jenkins. Although, as she pointed out, a young girl was not the target audience for this book, she read Getting Organized over and over until Winston’s book was part of the experience of visiting her grandmother.

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It brought me back to my grandmother’s house in Kettering, Ohio. She had a cabinet of paperback romances, and I pretty much made my way through the entire shelf – several times. My favorite was a book called Sally’s True Love – an Amish romance. (yes, it’s embarrassing now) Years later, thanks to a web specializing in romance novels, I found a copy and bought it. Just looking at it reminds me of sitting on the floor in front of that cabinet reading one romance after another. I wouldn’t have been interested in those books in any other setting, but sitting there felt like home.

Jenkins also talked about the importance of children owning books, not to the exclusion of visiting the library, but in addition. Owning books makes them “part of your internal picture of home,” she said. “You share your life with them.”  And my favorite line of the whole day was Jenkins’s definition of home as “the place where she keeps her books.”

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I’m a little behind on my reading this summer (due to the previously mentioned varmint), and there are so many books I should be reading, but last night when I was selecting my next book to read, I decided to read exactly what I want to read with no feelings of guilt. I’m reading Re Jane by Patricia Park. I first heard about Parks’ novel, an updated version of Jane Eyre, from Maureen Corrigan on Fresh Air (http://www.npr.org/2015/06/02/411457923/four-books-that-deliver-unexpected-and-delightful-surprises-this-summer).

That was in early June. Since then, I’ve read several glowing reviews, and yesterday, author Jean Kwok talked about it on NPR’s Weekend Edition.  That sealed the deal. I’m on Chapter Four and it’s wonderful. The other books can wait.