Review of “Coloring Animal Mandalas” by Wendy Piersall

I feel fortunate to have a family totally unlike me, not only for their sakes, but because I am constantly exposed to new things about which I never would have known. Take, for instance, mandalas. One of my sisters and her daughter are very into coloring mandalas.

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A mandala (Sanskrit for circle) is a symbol in Hinduism and Buddhism that represents the universe. Mandalas are employed for meditation, by focusing one’s total attention on the mandala (as opposed to say, one’s to-do list of chores).

Swiss pyschoanalyst Carl Jung believed the unconscious could be revealed through art, and used it in his treatment of patients. He noticed that both he and they often resorted to circle drawings. He decided the mandala actually represented “the Self, the wholeness of the personality, which if all goes well is harmonious.”

Today many believe that creating (or by extension, coloring) mandalas helps stabilize, integrate, and re-order one’s inner life.

Using animals to form the mandala adds the idea of animal totems to the mix. Animal totems are also symbols used to establish a personal or spiritual identity.

Coloring Animal Mandalas is a collection of creative representations of the animal kingdom as mandalas. These very intricate designs will look pretty amazing when colored. In fact, I can understand how working on these pictures could be hypnotic and distract one from the usual quotidian concerns. Many people, both children and adults, swear by coloring mandalas as a means of relaxation.

The book is printed on one-sided pages, so there will be no danger of your getting distracted by images or bleed-throughs from the other side. You can also then remove finished pages and hang them up.

The author has a website from which you can download some sample pages of mandalas and other images to color.

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Evaluation: This would make a great gift item! It’s unusual, fun, and possibly will enhance the quality of life of the recipient.

Published by Ulysses Press, 2014

Kid Lit Review of “Guacamole: A Cooking Poem” by Jorge Argueta

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This is a bilingual recipe/celebration of the joy of cooking, food, and family. Simple guidelines to making guacamole are given in both Spanish and English. Cooking is shown to be a playful and fun way to contribute to the household.

Tengo ganas de bailar
y voy bailando con mi traste
de florecitas rojas y hojas verdes como corazones.

***

I feel like dancing,
so I dance with my dish,
with its little red floors and heart-shaped green leaves.”

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The verses are simple and repetitive, which aids in the bilingual transition. Because the recipe only requires four ingredients and not a lot of complex processing, it will be easy for kids to create their own guacamole. Margarita Sada’s bright, colorful illustrations add whimsy and imagination by including miniature children sliding down avocado halves and being washed in the sink along with the cilantro! Adults, meanwhile, will get a good idea of why guacamole is known as “sensuous.”

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At the end of the story, the guacamole is all ready to share:

Guacamole, que rico guacamole
verde tan verde
y tan puro como el amor.

Yummy guacamole,
so greeny green,
as pure as love.”

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Evaluation: I love bilingual books; they help immensely with verb tense and usage, and give you a sense of the sound and poetry of other languages. The fun, imaginative pictures and actual recipe are a bonus! I would have liked the addition of a pronunciation guide.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Groundwood Books, 2012

Review of “How to Fall” by Jane Casey

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Jane Casey is best known for her likable police procedural series set in London featuring Irish Detective Constable Maeve Kerrigan. With this book, Casey begins a YA series about sixteen-year-old Jess Tennant, a girl from London who goes with her single mom to spend the summer in the small wealthy seaside town of Port Sentinel, where her mom grew up. There, Jess meets her mom’s family for the first time, including her mom’s twin sister Tilly. Jess creates somewhat of a sensation in Port Sentinel, because she looks like the spitting image of her cousin Freya, who died a year ago in an apparent suicide after falling off of a cliff. But from the beginning, Jess picks up vibes that Freya didn’t fall without help, and that her peers know what happened but aren’t telling. Jess is determined to find out.

Jess, a British version of Veronica Mars, is fearless, impulsive, and abrasively forthright – reputedly nothing like her fanciful, artistic doppelgänger Freya. Jess makes a lot of insta-Friends, mostly because of those curious about the way she looks, and she also gets an insta-maybe-boyfriend with Will Henderson, the next-door neighbor on whom Freya had a crush. Will thought of Freya more like a sister, but he is intrigued by the very different-from-Freya Jess. Will is a little too perfect, but then again, so is Rob, who is Maeve’s boyfriend in Casey’s adult series.

Evaluation: This is a good start to a series, although I was not as taken with it as I am with Casey’s adult police procedurals. It feels to me like Jane Casey is trying to get her “YA legs” with this book. But I liked it enough though to want to see where she takes the series next.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Corgi Childrens, an imprint of Random House Children’s Publishers, 2013

Review of “The Mathematician’s Shiva” by Stuart Rojstaczer

This story is narrated by Alexander (“Sasha”) Karnokovitch, whose famous mathematics-prodigy mother died when Sasha was 51. It is now ten years later, and he is recalling the circus created by her death. Rachela Karnokovitch was a Polish Russian Jew who had studied under the great Russian mathematician Kolmogorov. [Kolmogorov is famous for many advances in mathematical theory, including some related to random processes and the effects of turbulence.]

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It had been rumored that Sasha’s mother, under the initial direction of Kolmogorov and later on her own, had done some breakthrough work on the famous Navier-Stokes equation, which describes the motion of fluid substances. [In real life, one million dollars was offered in 2000 to anyone who could prove that in three dimensions solutions always exist, or that if they do exist, then they do not contain any "singularity" (smoothness). Such solutions would give terrific insights into the phenomenon of chaotic flow. To date, this has not been accomplished, although in January, 2014, a Kazakh mathematician claimed he had done it. Mathematicians have not yet been able to substantiate his proof.*]

[*If you wonder why the "proof" cannot be proven, consider the case of the alleged proof of the Kepler Conjecture. University of Pittsburgh Mathematician Thomas Hales claimed to have solved it. But as the New Scientist reported, "the proof was a 300-page monster that took 12 reviewers four years to check for errors. Even when their results were published in the journal Annals of Mathematics in 2005, the reviewers could say only that they were '99 per cent certain' the proof was correct." In 2003, Hales started his own project to get his proof into a format so a computer could verify it. This August, after 11 years, the team working on the computer version announced they had finally been successful.]

Back to the story, a large group** of top mathematicians descend on Madison, Wisconsin to attend the “shiva” or seven-day-long ceremony held by Jews in honor of the loss of a loved one.

[**A humorous article on the Scientific American blog examined possible candidates for collective nouns referring to mathematicians, including one that would be most appropriate for this story: “a proof of mathematicians.”]

Their agenda was not only to honor Rachela Karnokovitch, but to root through her papers if possible, and see if the desired solution to Navier-Stokes was among them. And in fact, during the seven days of the shiva, the mathematicians congregate at Rachela’s house during the day, and work on solving the equation in the evenings.

As the shiva continues, we go back in time, occasionally hearing the voice of Rachela herself as Sasha reads through the memoir she recently sent him. We also get to know Sasha’s family, and some of the mathematicians gathered there. And at the end, we learn what really happened with Rachela and the Navier-Stokes equation.

Discussion: I got the impression that the author wanted to share thoughts about things he was passionate about, but I didn’t think they all came together into a very satisfying story. He wants us to know what Jewish intellectuals had to endure under Stalin, and he wants us to experience what the Polish-Russian-Jewish immigrant community in America is like. He also wants to share his impressions of mathematicians as a group, and his thoughts about the very big difference between “numbers” and “mathematics.” All of this is not uninteresting, and yet I don’t think the plot he devised transcended the anecdotal level. I didn’t feel like I got to know what drove these characters, and even when provided with a hint to their interior lives (as with the case of Rachela), I only felt partially illuminated. Moreover, I felt the final word from Rachela on what drove her to do the things she did sort of contradicted her behavior that preceded it.

Evaluation: I liked this book but didn’t love it. To me, it seemed like the author didn’t go into enough depth about the human aspects of his characters.

Note: You do not have to understand either math, Russian, Polish, or Yiddish to read this book – translations are provided for all when necessary.

Rating: 3/5

Published by Penguin Books, 2014

Review of “Wildlife” by Fiona Wood

This is yet another amazing Australian Young Adult book that knocks you over with its honesty and emotional impact.

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The story is told from the point of view of two sixteen year old girls in Fitzroy, Australia. One is Louisa (“Lou”), who is trying to come to grips with the accidental death of her boyfriend Fred; and the other is Sibylla (“Sib”), who must confront a slew of social pressures that include sexuality. They are thrown together as two of six bunkmates at a school nine-week wilderness experience.

Lou wants to keep mostly to herself, but it’s not an environment conducive to privacy. She makes a connection with Sib’s oldest friend, a brilliant and reclusive (possibly Asperger’s) boy named Michael. Among the things about which they bond are bewilderment and frustration over Sib’s loyalty to her nasty best friend Holly, and Sib’s infatuation with Ben Capaldi, the school’s golden boy.

The entry of Ben into Sib’s life presents a number of new dilemmas for her. One, he is in the “popular” group, and that group has an edge of cruelty that is not really part of who Sib is. (But who is she, she wonders? She has always been someone who just “goes along”… Things happen around her and she just reacts, rather than stand up for her beliefs. Is insensitivity to others the price for being with Ben?)

Then there is the issue of sex, which seems to accompany a relationship with someone in the popular group. Sib has not yet had sex, but it looms large in her life:

…at sixteen, whether you have, or have not, had sex can sometimes feel like the Great Divide. It’s not like friends who used to be close are gone, it’s just that they’ve migrated to another country.”

Sib is “dead keen to cross ‘sex’ off [her] to-do list.”

She is fully aware of the risks and precautions involved. Her mother is a doctor who runs a Sexually Transmitted Infections Clinic in Fitzroy. Sib has memorized all of the “fun facts for teenagers” regularly promulgated by her mother, an excellent list which Sib runs through when thinking about what her mother would say about her having sex.

Lou’s agonies are of a more tortured nature. She is “dead keen” as well, you might say, but in her case it is to honor Fred’s memory. She misses him terribly, and worries that even taking an interest in the people around her would be like “cheating” on him. Why should she feel any happiness out of living if he is dead? She reflects:

I love you by remembering you. If I don’t think of you every time there’s something important, then doesn’t that mean you are no longer important to me? And how can I let that happen when you were so very much the important one to me?”

But she also understands, although it hurts her to do so:

And if I don’t keep you always in my mind, won’t memory walk away? Or stave thin? Don’t memories need maintenance? The trouble is that keeping it alive, giving it all that energy, will, determination, stops me from being alive in the present.”

Although Michael is rejected or ignored by most of the other kids, Lou thinks he is a lovely person – kind and thoughtful. He is, however, as besotted with Sybilla as Sybilla is with Ben. Nevertheless, he does so much to help Lou. At one point, he introduces her to the snow gum trees:

They have to survive such harsh conditions, such extremes of weather, bits of them die. And they are able to grow new wood around the old dead wood. That’s how they get to be such strange and beautiful shapes. They are hardier and more complicated than, say, the messmate or peppermint eucalypts farther down the mountain, which are protected by a softer climate.”

Lou is caring and smart too. She has affection for Michael, and is concerned about Sib, wanting to “save” her from the detrimental influence of her new crowd. She doesn’t feel free to speak, however, until the actions of some mean and vicious kids create a crisis. Lou exhorts Sib:

The only person you should be is yourself. You can’t control perception. All you can control is how you treat someone else.”

Sib is forced to try and figure out at last who she wants to be.

Discussion: There are so many aspects to this story that deserve mention, but the most significant is the treatment of sexuality. The author takes us through the gamut of attitudes toward it, especially the differences between how the boys and the girls think about it, and how, within those groups, those with good self-esteem differ from those without it. The author also puts into relief the heteronormative assumptions so characteristic of the majority.

The absolute best message of the book to me, however, is a somewhat spoilery one, so if you want to avoid it, skip to the Evaluation.

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DISCUSSION WITH SPOILERS: SKIP TO EVALUATION TO AVOID:

I was rather surprised that Sib ended up having sex with Ben, although given her physical attraction to him combined with her susceptibility to social pressure, I should not have been. But I loved her reaction to her first experience. After having sex for the first time she thinks:
 

Orgasm – huh – sooo much easier on your own. Who knew? How do people even coordinate it with all that distracting – sex – going on?”

 
I also loved that after she had gotten this landmark experience out of the way, she doesn’t feel the need or desire to repeat it until she is ready to do so; until there is a better prologue and build-up, which she and Ben have not had. It’s an important step she takes in asserting her own preferences apart from social pressures.

END OF SPOILERS.

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Evaluation: This is a moving and memorable story. The two issues it explores in depth – grief and sexuality – are handled expertly and with keen insight. As for the sexuality, I’d say it is about the best YA book I’ve seen for presenting the pros and cons of premarital sex with intelligence, understanding, and without didacticism. This book has won a number of well-deserved awards, including Book of the Year (Older Readers), Children’s Book Council of Australia.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published in the U.S. in 2014 by Poppy, an imprint of Little Brown and Company, a division of Hachette Book Group.

Review of “The Girl With All The Gifts” by M.R. Carey

The Girl with All the Gifts is a post-apocalyptic zombie novel that distinguishes itself with a big twist uncommon to any zombie stories I have previously seen.

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Much of the story is told from the perspective of Melanie, a ten-year-old girl who lives in a cell in an army barrack outside of what was formerly London. Every day she is strapped into a wheelchair and taken to a school, which she attends along with other similarly-restrained children. But Melanie is smarter than any of the other kids, and she also has a crush on one of her teachers, Miss Justineau, who is the only one who treats Melanie with compassion. Miss Justineau often reads to the children from books about Greek gods and goddesses, and Melanie’s favorite is about Pandora, “the girl with all the gifts.”

According to legend, Pandora was the first human woman created by the gods, as a punishment to humanity for Promentheus’s theft of the secret of fire. Pandora has all kinds of wonderful qualities, but she is curious, and can’t resist opening a box she isn’t supposed to open, which releases terrible evils out onto the Earth. One can assume Pandora’s tale is allegorical for the apocalypse that has destroyed most of the human race and created the “hungries” (as zombies are called), as well as the subsequent developments in the book.

Pandora by John William Waterhouse, 1896

Pandora by John William Waterhouse, 1896

Shortly into the story, the army compound where Melanie lives is breached by “junkers” (“survivalist arseholes”) who live off the land and take their chances. They have managed to organize; devise a way to protect themselves; and herd a band of “hungries” to use as bioweapons in their quest to capture the weapons and supplies of the base. Melanie, Miss Justineau, the base scientist Caroline Caldwell (a Nazi-like evil woman), and a young private, Kieran Gallagher, escape in a broken-down Humvee led by Sergeant Eddie Parks, who has become the default leader of the base and now of the escaping group.

They need to find refuge in a city with shelter and supplies, somehow making it through hoards of hungries, bands of junkers, and last but not least, by surviving the worst instincts of each other. All the characters reveal their strengths and weaknesses in the process, leading to an ending that is unexpected and impressively creative.

Discussion: Carey’s zombies are distinctive in two big ways. One, unfortunately, I cannot reveal. But the second reason is that the author actually accounts for their origin and nature in a scientifically plausible way. This certainly made reading a book about zombies more palatable for me, and added interest and realism to the usual zombie plotlines.

I also appreciated that the story is more character than action driven. All of the characters are fleshed-out (so to speak) except for Dr. Caldwell, who could have used a bit more nuance. As usual (and perhaps gratifyingly), it seems harder for authors to add nuance to evil.

The author includes occasional musings on what constitutes a “monster,” and whether one actually has to be a “zombie” to qualify. Gallagher, for instance, “…knows all about monsters, because he comes from a family in which monsters predominate.” In fact, one quite often has cause to wonder in this book who the real “monsters” are. This was a nice touch.

Evaluation: Zombie books are not my cup of tea, but this book is very well-done.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Orbit, an imprint of Little, Brown Book Group, a member of the Hachette Book Group, 2014

Review of “The Future for Curious People” by Gregory Sherl

The 2013 movie “About Time,” tells the story of a young man who uses his ability to travel back to the recent past in order to change what already happened. This book is similar to the movie in a way, except these protagonists have the ability to see potential futures – traveling forward, rather than back – so that they can make changes now if they so desire. Both stories conclude with a new appreciation for, and commitment to the “now,” but not necessarily by choice.

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The Future For Curious People is centered around the idea of centers for “romantic envisioning.” This new popular business allows paying customers to investigate possible futures with particular potential partners. Evelyn Shriner, a 25-year-old librarian, checks out what her future would be like with her boyfriend of two years, Adrian, and decides it is sub-par, so she breaks up with him.

Meanwhile, Godfrey Burkes is pressured by his girlfriend Madge to see the very same envisionist, and there he runs into Evelyn. Godfrey is not only somewhat appalled by the future he sees with Madge, but can’t stop thinking about Evelyn. Nor can Evelyn stop thinking about Godfrey.

Through a convoluted process that you know is inevitable, Godfrey makes his way to Evelyn, with enough obstacles in the path to make Odysseus’s trip to get to Penelope almost seem easier. Along the way, both of them think a lot about love and what it means, and whether or not they want to take the leap of faith required when one can’t know for certain that the future will hold a “happy ending.”

Evaluation: The author’s quirky writing style and ideas about love remind me of author Lydia Netzer in a (good) way. There is a subtle humor and sweetness that underlies the sometimes scathing social commentary, making this ultimately a “meta” love story about love itself.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Algonquin Books, a division of Workman Publishing, 2014

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