What’s That Book? Cotton in My Sack by Lois Lenski

whats-that-book

cotton-in-my-sack
Title
: Cotton in My Sack

Author and illustrator: Lois Lenski

Genre: Children’s Literature

Rating:  *****

What’s it about?  Realistic fiction about young Joanda Hutley and her sharecropper family, cotton pickers in Arkansas during the late 1940s.  The Hutleys endure many ups and downs and live from payday to payday, often squandering their money in town every Saturday, and leaving little for groceries and coal to heat their house.  Tractor accidents, illness, stolen cotton and other problems keep the Hutleys locked in place, until Uncle Shine Morse shows them how they must pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.

Despite their hardships, Joanda and her family work together and are a cheerful and loving group, which makes it a remarkably charming story.  Neighbors look out for each other and even the boss man’s wife turns out to be nice, making the story both a dose of reality and an example of the goodness in people.

Lenski is both the author and the illustrator of Cotton in My Sack and her unique illustrations show the family during the good and the bad, adding much to the story’s realism.

cotton-in-my-sack-pic
How did you hear about it? 
I first read it when I was a young girl.

Closing comment:  Cotton in My Sack is one of my favorite girlhood books.  Reading it again makes me understand how my reading tastes have developed, as I have always loved stories about large families and their struggles.  It reminds me now of a combination of the Little House on the Prairie books by Laura Ingalls Wilder and also a little bit of The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck.  I like how the author doesn’t gloss over the hard times but also shows the family’s resilience and optimism.

Lois Lenski wrote and illustrated many regional children’s books, and she won a Newbery Medal in 1946 for Strawberry Girl.  She wrote Cotton in My Sack at the request of children in Arkansas, who had read, Strawberry Girl and wanted her to write a book about them.

Contributor:  Ginette


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What’s That Book? The Most Dangerous Place on Earth by Lindsey Lee Johnson

whats-that-book

the-most-dangerous-place-on-earth

Title: The Most Dangerous Place on Earth

Author:  Lindsey Lee Johnson

Genre: Adult Literary Fiction

Rating:  ****

What’s it about?  Debut novel (2017) about privileged high schoolers from a wealthy suburb of San Francisco.  The story centers around eight high school kids and a new English teacher who tries to connect with them.

It has been three years since the suicide of their eighth grade classmate, Tristan Bloch, and while they have moved on, each is saddled by complex feelings of guilt.  Abigail is a super achiever, Ryan a heartthrob baseball player.  Emma is driven to dance, Nick is an unscrupulous moneymaker, and Elisabeth is a stunning beauty.  Dave must meet his parents’ expectations and Damon has landed in rehab.  And the biggest burden of grief falls on Callie, who reinvents and loses herself in a numbing transformation.

While these may sound like typical advantaged and spoiled teenagers, Johnson does a terrific job developing her characters and defining their painful adolescence, showing that money cannot fix feelings, families or relationships.  Johnson also points to the superficial and damaging effects of social media and its often destructive role in friendships.  She gives the reader a sometimes shocking look into the secret lives of teenagers.

As the friends move through their junior and senior years, a series of dangerous developments threatens to break some and free others, with an imperfect but satisfying finish.

The story is loaded with excellent imagery, one of Johnson’s strongest points, adding that extra layer of quality writing that I love to see.

How did you hear about it?  I saw an online book review and wanted to read it.  I enjoy reading about high school kids because of all the changes they face in a compressed period of time.

Closing comments:  I like books about groups of friends and how their relationships change over time.  The Most Dangerous Place on Earth is an excellent story about seeming stereotypes with unique, realistic and modern problems.  Johnson also gives her characters the universal teenage challenge of both fitting in and being comfortable in their own skin.  It reminds me of the 1985 movie, St. Elmo’s Fire (even though those friends are recent college grads) and one of my favorite books, The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer.

Contributor:  Ginette


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What’s That Book? Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua

Whats That Book

battlehymn
Title
:  Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

Author:  Amy Chua

Genre: Memoir

Rating:  **

What’s it about?  Amy Chua describes the strict disciplined methods she used to shape her two daughters into accomplished Chinese-American musicians and students.  Persistent criticism, narrow-minded outbursts and manipulative tactics were the norm in this toxic family environment.  A rebellious younger daughter pushes back, forcing Chua to double down on her methods. Includes many insulting stereotypes of other parenting styles, declaring her altered version of the Chinese method superior.

How did you hear about it?  A book club selection

Closing comments:  This book received a great deal of attention when it was first published in 2011.  While Chua fully admits to making mistakes along the way, she clearly believes her method is the best and shows little respect for other cultures.

A 2014 article from The Guardian, “The truth about the Tiger Mother’s family” takes a closer look at Chua a few years later.

She and her husband, Jed Rubenfeld are law professors at Yale and have since co-written a new book (2014), The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America, a look at why certain groups in America do better than others (check it out here).

Contributor:  Ginette


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What’s That Book? Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

Whats That Book

Brooklyn Toibin
Title
: Brooklyn

Author:  Colm Toibin

Genre: Historical Fiction

Rating:  *****

What’s it about?  Set in both Ireland and Brooklyn in the early 1950s, Toibin’s novel tells the endearing and compelling story of Ellis, a young woman who must ultimately choose between her home country and her new life in America.  Smart and capable, Ellis leaves her beloved home to find work in Brooklyn.  After coping with a horrific voyage across the ocean and paralyzing homesickness, Ellis soon begins to excel at her job and in her college classes.  She falls in love and slowly her new country becomes her home.  When family tragedy strikes, Ellis is forced to choose between her old life in Ireland and her new life in Brooklyn.  This is a lovely story with interesting, believable characters and lavish descriptions that contrast Ellis’ small Irish hometown and 1950s New York City.

Brooklyn DVD
After your read the book, be sure to check out the movie adaptation which received many film awards and garnered three Oscar nominations including Best Motion Picture of the Year.  The settings are stunning, the acting is superb (Saoirse Ronan was nominated for Best Actress) and the screenplay is wonderfully true to the book.

How did you hear about it?  A friend over the holidays watched the movie and recommended it to me.  I decided to read the book first, then watch the DVD.

Closing comment:  This is the rare but wonderful instance when a movie is as enjoyable as the book on which it is based.

Contributor:  Susan


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What’s That Book? A Widow’s Story by Joyce Carol Oates

Whats That Book

widow's story

TitleA Widow’s Story

Author:  Joyce Carol Oates

Genre: Memoir

Rating:  ****

What’s it about?  Joyce Carol Oates recounts the early months after her husband’s death in which she falls into a deep depression and withdraws from her friends and colleagues.  She talks about a basilisk, “the mythical reptile with a lethal gaze,” that haunts her with the temptation of suicide, a time that is clouded with grief and a childlike inability to complete the most basic tasks. She admits to keeping a cache of sleeping pills, tranquilizers and pain killers and finds comfort in knowing there is a way out.

How did you hear about it?  I’ve read several books and short stories by Oates and was interested in learning more about the woman behind the fiction.

Closing comment:  Oates reveals many personal thoughts about her experience and includes harsh criticism of the people who reached out to her.  It’s shocking to think about a prominent author, professor and speaker thinking this way.  But the most surprising to me is her willingness to reveal this weak and defeated self to the reader.

Contributor:  Ginette


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What’s That Book? The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota

Whats That Book
The Year of the Runaways

TitleThe Year of the Runaways

Author:   Sunjeev Sahota

Genre:   Contemporary Fiction

Rating:  ****

What’s it about?  The book focuses on the stories of three very different young men who emigrated from India to England in search of better lives and end up living together for a time in Northern England. The book explores their daily lives in India, including their various reasons for leaving, and their daily lives in England, where they endure hardships but some acts of kindness as well, including their interactions with others in the immigrant community.

How did you hear about it?  I read a review of the book in the New York Times and it sounded interesting.

Closing comment: In this time of what seems to be worldwide anti-immigrant sentiment this book shows immigrants as individuals who, despite serious setbacks, persist in their quest for a better life.

Contributor:  Fran Lippa


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What’s That Book? We the Eaters by Ellen Gustafson

Whats That Book

We the Eaters 2Title: We the Eaters  

Author: Ellen Gustafson

Genre: Non-fiction

Rating: ***

What’s it about?  The book goes into all the ways the food industry is destroying not only nutrition and people’s general health but also its impacts politically. There was a lot of great information about ways “we the eaters” can change the world by fighting against the big companies such as Monsanto and Cargill and buy more organic and whole foods. A lot of what the author is saying makes sense, but only in a vacuum. In the real world, it’s mostly just an unrealistic expectation of consumers. Nearly no one has time for (or even wants to) go out of their way to buy organic, grass-fed beef for their burger every single time. Nor do they care if their eggs were from free-range chickens or if their cheese was produced locally.

This isn’t to say supporting local farmers is bad…of course it’s great. And I’m not saying people who do care about that stuff are wrong. I’m glad those people exist, and I commend them. But on a consistent basis, the plan the author lays out is essentially impossible to accomplish due to economics. Small farmers are being beat out by big farmers because of economies of scale and the bottom line. Subsidies for crops such as corn are certainly a big factor too (which I disagree with), but not the main reason.

She provides many anecdotes that are eye-opening and interesting, but not all are logical. For example, she talks about how people overeat sugar because it blocks the signal in our brain that we’ve had enough. She then suggests people never overeat healthy food such as broccoli because “When we eat healthy food, we tend to eat enough and stop.” Or…maybe because no one is going to be eating three pounds of broccoli for a meal because that’s just a ridiculous amount of food, in general, to ingest. There’s only about 50 calories in a serving of broccoli, so unless you’re eating seven servings of broccoli in one meal, you’re definitely not going to feel full from it, but it has nothing to do with your brain telling you it’s full.

broccoli pic
Does your brain signal when you’ve had enough? Photo: Pixabay

Also, the idea that Gatorade and other sports drinks are “designed for adults who are elite athletes” is a ridiculous statement. You certainly don’t have to be an elite athlete to be drinking Gatorade. Sure, it has a lot of sugar, and drinking a lot of water is best, but these drinks aren’t inherently dangerous to consume for people who aren’t running a 5K every week.

How did you hear about it?  I received it for free while at Lehigh University from someone at Rodale.

Closing comment:  It would be wrong for me to say this book is bad, because it clearly isn’t. I actually enjoyed reading it for the author’s perspective, but her rigid thinking just isn’t going to fly with most people, and the lack of stress on the economics of the situation makes me skeptical of its feasibility.

Contributor: Austin Vitelli update picAustin Vitelli.  Austin is a rising senior at Lehigh University with a major in Journalism and a minor in Economics. He is a writer and managing editor for Lehigh’s student-run newspaper, The Brown and White. Check out his website at austinvitelli.com.


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