Sunday, April 4, 2010

Mrs. Lieutenant

Numerous stories are available about the Vietnam War, especially with the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. We hear heroic stories about the fallen and the survivors. But there were other American faces who were deeply entrenched in the affairs overseas, whose stories are rarely told. Phyllis Zimbler Miller tells us about the devoted wives of those soldiers in her novel Mrs. Lieutenant.

Told from the points-of-view of four women, Miller touches on the courage, fear, heartbreak, and inequality of men and women during the Vietnam conflict. Sharon Gold is a Jewish woman from the North, who is opposed to the War, yet fell in love with and married an ROTC officer. Kim Benton is a Southern Baptist from North Carolina who lost most of her family at a young age, and relies on her insanely jealous husband Jim for love and support. Donna Lautenberg is a Puerto Rican army brat who married a white man. Wendy Johnson is a black woman who grew up in the South, where her doctor dad and devoted mother tried to shield her from the racism so pronounced down there.

Under normal circumstances, the odds are low that these four women coming together as friends during this time period. But they have a couple of fundamental things in common. Each is a misfit of sorts within the society at Fort Knox. And they are bound by intense love for their husbands, and fears of them being sent to Vietnam.

The four women learn how to take on their new roles as Army wives by following rules set forth within a book called, "Mrs. Lieutenant." They share a few of their hopes and dreams, but each one is hiding a secret. Truth comes to light as they get to know one another and learn how to relinquish their former prejudices and ideas.

The almost 500 pages pass by quickly as you delve into the lives of these four women and their husbands. It takes a while to keep each woman straight, especially when so many other characters make brief appearances throughout the story. But each character comes to life in Miller's storytelling, almost as if these were women she really knew once upon a time. Phyllis Zimbler Miller was also once a "Mrs. Lieutenant," and presumably drew upon those experiences to tell her story. The book is dedicated to the wives of AOB 21 during the same timeframe as the book. Sharon Gold, the first character to whom we are introduced, even talks about keeping a diary of her experiences at Fort Knox to later write about them.

You become concerned for each woman and feel her pain as she must come to terms with different decisions made by her husband. You reflect on your own opinions of war, whether it is Vietnam, WWII, or today, as especially the men demonstrate different ideas of the time. You also reflect upon the friends in your own life and all of your preconceived notions and stereotypes.

Mrs. Lieutenant is going to appeal to women more than men. But it allows women a different way to try to relate to the Vietnam War, and introduces it to them in a way that is perhaps more palatable than other war novels. It's also soft enough to teach teenagers and young adults about the era. While I enjoy reading war novels, I did appreciate how this one told the story from a completely different point-of-view.

Purchase Mrs. Lieutenant: A Sharon Gold Novel

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Face to Face: Children of the AIDS Crisis in Africa

AIDS continues to be a global epidemic, particularly in Africa. According to the foreward of the book Face to Face: Children of the AIDS Crisis in Africa, 22 million people living in the sub-Saharan African have HIV. 12 million children who live here have lost one or both parents to the epidemic. And they rarely get the help that they need.

Photographer Karen Ande stumbled upon the issue of children being affected by AIDS when she was already in Kenya on assignment. She quickly became involved in raising awareness and money to help the young children, visiting nonprofit organizations in the Bay area and grassroots organizations in Africa. Reaching out to friend and former roommate Ruthann Richter, a medical writer, she hoped to expand her reach. The result was this collaboration.

Ande and Richter spent time meeting people around Kenya, taking pictures and getting to know them. Each one shares his or her story about the virus, and how it has affected them. Focus is placed on the places that specifically help children, such as Mama Darlene Children's Centre, and Saidia Children's Home.

You can't help but be emotionally moved as you read the stories of these beautiful people who have loved and lost so much. Yet, they carry on day to day. I was particularly moved by stories, such as the young boy named Kevin. He was rescued by a man he called "Daddy", after his mother was murdered. Daddy gave Kevin a green jacket. Daddy also passed away, from AIDS. Kevin couldn't be persuaded to take the coat off for weeks, as he hoped wearing it would bring Daddy back. Accompanying this story is the somber, angry face of the young boy wearing the coat, followed by the smile of a boy who is adjusting to his new life.

The innocence shown on the faces of these children compel you to want to reach out and hug them, and do whatever it takes to help them. The happiness and joy captured as they settle into their new lives makes you grateful for every gift that you have. But you also have to wonder how, when faced with such tragedy and misery, they can still seem so happy. Many people who "have it all" cannot express such true joy. The creators wish to create emotions within the readers, and in this they have truly succeeded.

At the end of the book, contact information for each organization profiled throughout the book is provided. Also included are other organizations who can provide help. It is the hope of Ande and Richter that people will be moved to do something to help.

Find more information by visiting their website at

Purchase Face to Face: Children of the AIDS Crisis in Africa

Monday, February 8, 2010

The Great Little Book of Fun Things You Probably Don't Know About Ireland!

Ireland is one of those countries that people love, and we're not sure why. Robert Sullivan strives to feed our hunger for the Emerald Isle in his collection of trivia called The Great Little Book of Fun Things You Probably Don't Know About Ireland!

The collection is a smorgasbord of information from every aspect of Irish culture imaginable. Find out about their Irish traditions both new and old. Read about some crazy stories from Irish history. Learn the meaning of baby names for boys and girls. And of course, a whole chapter each is dedicated to those favorite Irish sayings and proverbs. Understand "Craic" and Celtic knots.

One of the oddest traditions I saw was a variation on the American tradition of spanking the birthday boy. In Ireland, the birthday boy (or girl) is lifted by his (her) ankles, and the head is bounced on the floor the same number of times as years of age, plus one extra for good luck.

You have seen images of the Irish throwing their waste water into the streets, in movies such as Angela's Ashes, right? The Irish continue to not take care of their aquatic systems, making a fair share of the water undrinkable. So heads up if you ever travel - prepare to buy some water!

Many Americans can boast Irish heritage, including possibly 40% of all Presidents, and of course, Tom Cruise, who is supposedly going to buy the family farm there. (He supposedly bought a plot of land for Katie in my hometown of Toledo, near her parents, so why not partake in his own heritage?)

A whole chapter is devoted to the Irish Christmas. And of course, there are all of the fun and weird traditions about marriage, divorce, drinking, and sobriety.

The book is perfect for those of us who take pleasure in learning as much trivia as possible. It could turn into a fun party conversation, or help you land a role on Jeopardy!

The book is a great deal of fun to read and to share. It's not meant to be a read-through book - unless you are that hungry for information. But it makes a great coffee table book, or even a fun bathroom read!

Purchase The Great Little Book of Fun Things You Probably Don't Know About Ireland: Unusual facts, quotes, news items, proverbs and more about the Irish world, old and new

A review copy of this book was provided by the author. The opinions expressed above are completely honest and my own.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Teaching the Story: Fiction Writing in Grades 4-8

Title: Teaching the Story: Fiction Writing in Grades 4-8

Author: Carol Baldwin

Publisher:  Maupin House

ISBN: 978-1-934338-35-3

Carol Baldwin's book Teaching the Story: Fiction Writing in Grades 4-8 is a beneficial asset to the upper elementary/middle school language teacher's collection. It provides a series of mini-lessons that can supplement the teacher's writing curriculum, in an easy-to-follow format that also incorporates technology into the lessons.

Within the first chapter, students learn how to brainstorm ideas and to outline their story. Important topics include deciding upon a genre, how to write in a detailed active voice, and how to do background research. Though it is possible for a teacher to change the order of lessons, and possibly even skip a few, these all should be taught, as they are the foundation of writing a story.

Next comes a section on creating a believable character. Lessons here reflect upon creating the character's personality, likes and dislikes, and even naming him/her, though use of questionnaires. A few of these points could be combined, if the teacher is short on time.

Setting and mood are essential to any plot. Teaching the Story spends the third chapter teaching children how to utilize the senses when describing a scene, to show the reader the story, as opposed to simply telling it. The abstract discussions in this section could also be served by real-life practice. For example, a recommendation is to take photographs of a scene to describe. The teacher could also bring in objects, or if possible take a short excursion outside of the classroom, to realistically use the senses to describe a scene.

When creating a conflict, the writer must create a believable problem that the character is capable of solving. This section provides more graphic organizers designed to allow the young author to outline her story. She is required to think out each situation, step-by-step.

Baldwin then takes the teacher through teaching how to write out the first draft. Children must collect all of the data thus collected, and assemble these building blocks into the structure of the story.  They also learn how to keep the story within a reasonable length. The length of time required on this part of the book is going to depend on each individual class. Some children will be able to simply whip right through it, while others may suffer from a bit of writer's block.

Once that first draft has been written, it is time to edit and correct any mistakes found within the story. Now is the time to focus on spelling, grammar, and punctuation mistakes.

In order for children to be effective writers, they will need to learn all of these building blocks. Some are going to find the process tedious. As a young writer, I often had this problem. Nevertheless, the lessons contained within are very beneficial. When possible, the teacher should streamline the process for the children who seem to grasp the concepts, and provide extra help and extra exercises for those who require them. The goal is to not deter children from wanting to write.

It is also refreshing to see such a detailed book on the art of fictional writing for kids. Because nonfiction writing is the trend throughout one's school career, creative writing is often overlooked. Many of the mini lessons taught within this book could also be used by older writers who wish to refresh their writing style.

Accompanying the book is a CD of overheads and printouts that are used to supplement the lessons. This eliminates the need to photocopy the graphic organizers within the book. They are also designed to be used with Smart Boards, keeping in line with the modern technology being used in classrooms all over.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A Walk for Sunshine

A Walk for Sunshine: A 2,160 mile expedition for charity on the Appalachian Trail by Jeff Alt is a unique kind of adventure story. When Jeff Alt set out on his expedition, it was not for any selfish purpose of self-discovery. He wanted to take something that he loved, and use it to help someone he loved. He chose to make his journey, raising money for the Sunshine Children's Home outside Toledo, OH. His brother, Aaron, was born with cerebral palsy and mental retardation, and lives at the Sunshine Children's Home. This fundraiser was a great way to say thank you, and he was able to provide money for purchasing communication devices and other equipment that improves the residents' way of life. This story holds a special place in my heart, as I am originally from the Toledo, OH area, and know the Sunshine Children's Home quite well.

The 36 chapters contained within the book break up the journey into entertaining little blurbs about life on the trail. You feel like you are right there with Jeff as he makes his way through every kind of weather imaginable. He shivers through sub-zero temperatures, then swelters in temps above 100 degrees. He gets saturated in rainfall that lasts for fifteen days, then has endless sunshine allowing him to truly view the natural beauty of the trail.

Maps precede each chapter, charting Jeff's progress along the way. He shares his problem solving techniques, and strategies designed to make his hike as successful as possible. Two of these include having packages regularly sent to him along the way, and meeting up with friends and family for a day or two of joined hiking.

Along the way, Jeff encounters a range of characters that vary in temperament almost as much as the weather. Even the briefest encounter allowed for a lifelong memory and learning experience. He learns from people and animals, even having some of each as bed mates. He also discovers a new sense of power and courage that had been hibernating until this point.

Adding to the story are tips about both cerebral palsy and hiking. One appendix provides information from the United Cerebral Palsy organization, while another goes into more detail about the Sunshine Children's Home. He also shares an epilogue about life lessons learned from the trail, as well as checklists for going hiking with or without family.

A review copy of this book was provided via my association with BookPleasures.

Purchase A Walk for Sunshine: A 2,160 Mile Expedition for Charity on the Appalachian Trail, 3rd Edition

What Happy Working Mothers Know

What Happy Working Mothers Know: How New Findings in Posilktive Psychology Can Lead to a Healthy and Happy Work/Life Balance is a self-help book for mommies that is based upon scientific research. Authors Cathy L. Greenberg, Ph.D. and Barrett S. Avigdor, J.D. have compiled workplace statistics with stories from successful, happy mothers. Stories are about real people in real situations, with real solutions to their real-life problems. Some contributors are unknown working moms, such as Yolanda. Others are more widely recognized such as First Lady Michelle Obama and Benita Fitzgerald Mosley, the first U.S. African- American to win Olympic gold in the 100-meter hurdles.

Happiness isn't about smiling all of the time and laughing out loud. It is about finding a sense of peace and joy in one's own life. How one achieves these will depend on the individual. Some mothers base it on personal success in the home and wokrplace. Others may view it as flexibility or being a role model. However it is defined, it is about a positive attitude in life.

Women need to be happy in order to be healthy. Unhappiness leads to stress, which leads to several health issues. Also, an unhappy mother leads to an unhappy family. Mom is the one who sets the tone for everyone else. Those who worry about the impact of the mother working outside the home can have their fears put to rest. It isn't the fact that Mom is working that influences the children - it's how she feels while doing it.

The authors have created an easy-to-read format with numerous bits of information. Everything is divided by subtitles, lines, lists, or boxes, to separate each type of information. Research statistics are bulleted. These smaller blurbs are much easier to read, especially for the busy mommy for whom this book is intended. Read explanations of various facets of happiness, followed by a real-life example from a mother. Be inspired by interspersed quotes. Then take the small self-coaching breaks. These are exercises designed to help Mom really think about what she wants out of life.

Also included are physical exercises that allow for meditation and relaxation. Complete with a list of good food choices, the authors strive to help Mom become a happier, better person from the inside out. 

A review copy was provided via my association with BookPleasures.

Purchase What Happy Working Mothers Know: How New Findings in Positive Psychology Can Lead to a Healthy and Happy Work/Life Balance

Saturday, January 2, 2010

10 Things I Hate About Christianity

The title alone is especially eye-catching:  10 Things I Hate About Christianity: Working Through the Frustrations of Faith. Also appealing was the headline of the PRWeb article that introduced me to this work by Jason T. Berggren: "Ex-pastor And Punk-rocker Challenges The President's Position On Healthcare Reform As A Moral Imperative".What kind of wisdom can an ex-pastor and ex-punker have about Christianity?

Let me start by clarifying that Jason is, in fact, a Christian, even though he is an ex-pastor and ex-punk rocker. He is just willing to acknowledge some of the flaws that exist within the Christian structure, with which many Christians can identify. Ten chapters cover the ten biggest areas of malcontent amongst Christians at any stage:  Faith, Prayer, The Bible, Sin, Rules, Love, Hell, Answers, Church, and Christians. Most Christian writers like to tell YOU what is wrong with YOU and how YOU need to change yourself. Here, Jason implies that the fault lies not totally in the self, but in human nature. Because humans are in charge of Christianity here on Earth, and humans are fallible, it is logical that Christianity has problems, as well.

Jason uses real-life examples to back up any of his opinions, which makes him very easy to read and understand. He delivers his message in a way that isn't preachy, which is very appealing to those of us who are not fans of being told what to do on a regular basis. He bares his soul in many areas, such as addressing questioning God after his first child died. When he asks his questions, you often find yourself pondering your own conflicts and questions, as well.

The books is a very easy read. In fact, I read most of it in one day. (And yes, I read fast, but for a book to hold my attention that long, and to inspire me to finish it in one day, says a lot.) I recommend reading it with a journal by your side, so that you can take notes on your own thoughts and observations as you read Jason's. You can't help but to be inspired to question your own faith, and writing your thoughts is the best way to reflect on them. I would like to reread this book at a time when I can really reflect on the message, and perhaps attack some of my own issues.

Purchase 10 Things I Hate About Christianity: Working Through the Frustrations of Faith

After reading the book, be sure to also check out Jason T. Berggren's blog or follow him on Twitter @jasonberggren.

I received a copy of the book directly from the author, for the purposes of reviewing on my blog.