Visual Thinking

 Visual Thinking by Temple Grandin

Temple Grandin, professor, author, animal behaviourist, and designer of industrial equipment, was non-verbal at three years old and just learning to read at eight. Her doctor recommended she be placed in an institution but her mother chose to send her to private school instead, where her intelligence was recognized, her abilities encouraged, and lessons were tailored to her learning style. She went on to earn a bachelor's degree in psychology, followed by a masters and then a doctorate in animal science. 

She's had a highly successfull carreer as an industrial designer, has written several books, and travels and speaks to audiences on the topics of animal behaviour and autism. She is currently a professor of animal sciences at Colorado State University and acts as a consultant to the livestock industry. Spending her life advocating for people on the autism spectrum and for the humane treatment of animals, in 2010 she was named one of the Time magaizine's 100 Most Influential People in the world. A movie based on her life won a Golden Globe for actress Clair Danes who played the role of Ms. Grandin.

In this book she looks at how people think and learn in different ways. What she wants us to understand is that people whose brains work the way hers does, i.e. visual thinkers, are not disabled. And she's not only talking about people on the spectrum. Many people with abilities not encouraged in our educational systems, if nurtured and given opportunities, will go on to fill essential roles in our world. For too long students who struggle with math have been held back and not given the chance to excel in their own strengths, and this affects not only the students, but all all of us. Every kind of intelligence will be needed to build a better future. Ms. Grandin shares story after story of disasters that might have been avoided had there been visual thinkers as well as linear thinkers on the design teams of the equipment involved. That emphasizes, with a sense of urgency, the importance of hearing what she has to say.

If you are a teacher, a parent, or think you may be a visual learner yourself, this book will give you good insight into how the visual mind works and how essential it is that we not neglect them, for all our sakes.      

Changes At Fairace

 Changes at Fairacre by Miss Read

I have only two books left to read in this series and dread coming to the end. I already miss this little country village and the homey folks who live there, even when those folks are stubborn or unreasonable. They are so much a part of the fabric of village life that it couldn't be Fairacre without them. 

This time around Miss Read grapples with the death of a dear old friend, the possibility of unprecedented low attendance closing her school forever, and a destructive storm that brings the chimney crashing down through the roof of the school house. 

In this eighteenth book in the series, Fairacre is beginning to change. Larger towns offer more jobs with better pay, and over time the village has lost residents, services, and shops. Miss Read, herself, moves away from Fairacre, though her position as school mistress keeps her in the thick of things and the usual cast of characters continue to play a large part in her life.

I want to read the final two right away, but also never read them at all so things will stop changing. How is it possible to become this attached to a place that isn't even real? 


Flight of Dreams

 Flight of Dreams by Ariel Lawhon

A riveting Hindenberg story, well-researched and plotted and filled with characters you anxiously hope will survive this ill-fated flight.

The plot is fictional but the characters are named for actual passengers and crew on the flight and some of their personal details are factual. The author took the bones of a real event, constructed a plot and fleshed out characters to give us one possible scenario of how the disaster could have unfolded. No official reason for the explosion was ever given and this story is pure speculation, but it is very well done.

The inner workings of the airship are described - in just enough detail - so we can see what held it all together behind the elegant surroundings the passengers experienced. At 16 stories high and 804 ft long, it was the largest aircraft ever built. I was surprised to learn it been in service for a year - for some reason I'd always thought its last flight was its first - before the fatal flight that destroyed it and ended the era of zepplins for good. 

Another thing I learned - and this is why I like historical fiction - is that zepplins were a key component of Hitler's air force and, had the Hindenberg not gone down, might have given Germany the edge in the battle for the skies.  
The main characters, whose points of view we get in alternating sections, are The Navigator, The Stewardess, The Cabin Boy, The Journalist, and The American.

The Navigator, Max, is intelligent, good at his job, and sweet on the Stewardess. He quite by accident discovers a secret she'd intended to keep hidden, and is alarmed to find that the gun he'd been issued as an officer of the crew is missing.

The Stewardess, Emilie, has the distiction of being the first female flight steward ever hired. Grieving the loss of her husband and hesitant to care that deeply again, she has allowed herself to flirt with Max, but no more. Besides, she has a secret, and and the hidden documents in her cabin could get her into serious trouble at work and with the German government.

The Cabin Boy, Werner, 14, has a crush on a pretty passenger, knowing in three days they'll be landing and he'll never see her again. The youngest member of the crew, he wants to prove himself a man to gain the respect of the others. He gets  into a number of precarious situations when he is blackmailed into doing favours for people who want to know what he knows. 

The Journalist, Gertrud, and her husband, Leohnard, are going to America for a book tour at the insistance of the Nazi government. Forced to leave their infant son at home as a guarantee of their return, she worries that after a three month separation he may not remember her. Gertrud's keen observational skills tell her some things are not quite what they seem aboard the airship, and her insatiable curiosity leads her into situations even she couldn't have imagined. 

The American grieves the loss of his brother and is intent on two things: getting revenge on the man aboard this aircraft who is responsible for his brother's death, and making sure Hitler's fleet of zeppelins is stopped from becoming the most powerful airforce in the world. 

As you begin to feel a connection with the characters, the tension ratches up. You know that 35 of the 97 people on board will die. That's a historical fact that won't change just because you know these people now and want them to live their lives. And in case the question of who dies is not enough to make you hold your breath, each chapter heading tells you how much time is left till the explosion. About halfway in, it becomes a real page-turner. I tried to wrench myself away to get some sleep - on the page that said "7:03 pm - twenty-two minutes until the explosion" - but sleep was wishful thinking at that point and I ended up back in the living room reading again. 

Now, having finished, I wish I hadn't read it so quickly. You know that feeling of closing a book and feeling the loss of the world created between the covers? I miss this one. It's a well-written enlightening story, inevitably sad in the end but immensely entertaining in the reading.

The Bookwoman of Troublesome Creek

 The Bookwoman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson

In the 1930s the Kentucky Pack Horse Library Project hired people to deliver books and magazines to the remote hill-people of that state. In this tale of historical fiction, Cussy Mary Carter, 16, is one of those pack horse librarians, riding her mule through trails fraught with danger from animals and people, to bring the joy and power of the written word to people living in desperate poverty. She was welcomed, or at least tolerated, by her patrons who were happy to get the books, but ostracized by  others because she looked different. Her skin was blue.

The blue people of Kentucky actually existed, though when I bought the book I thought that was fiction, too. There's information online if you'd like to learn more about them. In the 1960s the cause of blue skin was identified as methemoglobinemia, easier to pronounce if you read it as met-hemoglobin-emia. An enzyme deficiency turned the blood brown and the skin blue, but once it was known to be a medical issue a treatment was developed to turn the skin back to it's natural colour in mere minutes if they took the daily medication.

Troublesome Creek is also an actual place, and not - as in my ignorance I thought likely - made up to create a good book title. An online description says this "The creek, which runs through Knott County, was so named because of its nearly impassable game trail. Even experienced hunters could not weave their way through the valley, as large trees, creeping vines, and misshapen stones guarded the pathways of the creek."

As "a blue", Cussy Mary is treated as different, inferior, and dangerous - a devil people were afraid to even touch. Her father is worried that when he's gone there'll be on one to protect her, so he sets out to find a man willing to court her. Soon he marries her off to one who turns out to be ignorant and abusive, but fortunately (oh did I write that out loud...) he dies on their wedding night. That's not a spoiler because it happens early in the story.

Cussy Mary returns to her father's house and her job as a bookwoman among the hill people. She meets a man who doesn't care about her different colour and that friendship develops throughout the rest of the story, though to me they don't spend enough time getting to know one another to call it a romantic relationship. 

The main themes of the story are the expansion of minds and lives through access to books, the harsh realities of poverty, and the terrible injustices of prejucide. The romance thread weaves through it but is thin.  

Life is brutal for many of the characters - destitution, children dying of starvation, suffering and deaths from lack of medical care -  but there are enough moments of tenderness and natural beauty written into the narrative to relieve the harshness of it. I think she strikes a good balance between the two.  

I had no knowledge of the blue people, or the terrible conditions in which they and others in the mountains lived, and I'm glad I read it for that, but the interesting history wasn't quite enough to make this a great read for me. I found parts of the dialogue - and even a few circumstances in the plot -  unconvincing. It had nothing to do with their Southern accents or colloquialisms, or with Cussy Mary being blue or a bookwoman, just something in the writing that didn't seem quite realistic at times. That will not be a popular opinion, as I haven't found a single reviewer who agrees with me, and it could be my reading of it has been too shallow. This was an audio book, which I seldom find I get as much from as from reading, but for me the history lesson was better than the story.

I bought the sequel, The Bookwoman's Daughter, at the same time as this one and will listen to it next, though to be honest it's more because I already have it on my Kobo than from any keen interest in knowing how the story progresses.

The Bookwoman's Daughter

I listened to a bit more than a third of this and quit. No real plot, too many irrelevant details and a lot of dialogue that only filled up space. Nowhere near as interesting as the first one.

Before We Were Yours

 Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate

This story is told in two timelines:

The first is set in the 1930s, where Rill Foss, 12 yrs old, and her 4 younger siblings Camellia, Fern, Lark, and Gambion, live with little money but much contentment aboard their parents shantyboat on the Mississippi river.

The other timeline is present day, where Avery Stafford, lawyer, moves home from New York to help her father, the State Senator, after he is diagnosed with cancer. She is engaged to a man considered by all to be the perfect match for the daughter of a Senator and with whom she's been friends since childhood, but who is now away much of the time working on his own career.

The Foss family on the Mississippi are poor, but more than content with each other and the natural world around them. The Stafford family are wealthy and well-known, but have secrets of which even they aren't aware.

When Rill's mother needs medical help during labor, her father rushes her to the hospital leaving the children alone on the boat. They are quickly scooped up and taken to the Tennessee Children's Home Society Orphanage, surely one of the most evil instituations ever to have existed. Some of the children are given to families looking to adopt, with no records kept so they can never be found again. Others live in cruel conditions under the direction of Georgia Tann, so vile a human being that it's hard to accept her as real, but you have to because both she and the orphanage actually existed. The Foss family is fictional, but their story  is based on those of people who suffered such things in reality.   

Back in the present day, Avery's grandmother, Judy's, fading memory causes her to mistake Avery for someone named Fern, leaving Avery curious as to who Fern might be. When Trent Turner, a real-estate agent on Edisto Island, calls asking that Judy come pick up an envelope he was instructed to deliver into her hands only, Avery tries to convince him to let her pick it up on Judy's behalf. But Trent says no, he promised his grandfather he would give it to Judy, and Judy only. Frustrated, Avery travels to the Isand where, with persistence, she finally talks him into giving the envelope to her. Confused and concerned by its contents, they begin to put together the pieces of the puzzle. 

Eventually the two timelines come together and there's a satisfying conclusion for everybody. Well, maybe less so for one character, but you'll be as happy about that as about the ones that work out well.

A good story in both timelines that perhaps comes together a little too perfectly at the end, but by then I was more than ready for good things to happen so I didn't really mind. Descriptions of life on the river and Edisto Island create a strong sense of place, the characters are credible and on the whole relatable, and the plot moves along at a good pace. Each section in alternating timelines ends with a bit of a cliffhanger that kept me reading longer than I should have. With effective tension building, a solid plot, good dialogue, and things to learn about river culture and Tennessee history, this one is a good read worth recommending.     

The Right to Write

 The Right to Write by Julia Cameron

The author believes that to be a writer you have only to write, not publish or make money from what you write. Writing should be done for the process, she says, and not the product, and then she tells you how to get started and how to keep going when you get stuck. 

After reading this and doing several of the excercises she suggests, I find myself happily able to write more freely, less contrained by shoulds and shouldn'ts, and enjoying it more than I ever did. The 43 (short) chapters with a very practical exercise at the end of each one, will help you silence your "inner censor" and write simply for the joy of it, no longer worrying if it's "good enough". I feel a confidence I didn't have before, and am not embarrassed to say yes, I write, and even yes, I write poetry, and no, I've never been published. I came away from this book feeling relieved, and with exactly what the title promised - knowing I have the right to write, that I am, in fact, a writer, even if I'm the only one ever to read my writing. Writing really is for everyone, not just the famous few.

Here are just a few of the ideas she presents:

  • Writing without trying to make it good.
  • Writing what you're thinking about instead of thinking about what to write. 
  • Writing to figure things out, to find out what you really do think.
  • Using your life expereiences as creative fuel
And there is much more that that. I can't recommend this book strongly enough for anyone who loves to write but struggles with doubt. It's enormously encouraging and full of practical, right now, help. My applause and gratitude to Julia Cameron for this book and the help it has been to me. 

Cloud Cuckoo Land

  Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr

It felt a little disjointed in the beginning with three different timelines, sets of characters, and settings, but soon hints of a connection between them started to pop up, a connection that developed at just the right pace until it became one story - the story of an ancient book that affected all the lives in all the timelines.   

Timeline One: The Lakeport Public Library, 2020. 

Zeno, an elderly war veteran, is upstairs helping a group of 5 children enact a play about Aethon, a boy who set out to find a magical world of peace and beauty. Zeno has spent years translating the story into English from the original Greek.

Seymour, a teenager obsessed with making people understand that we are destroying the planet and must change our ways right now, is on the first floor. He has a bomb in his backpack.

Timeline Two: Constantinople, 1400s

Oemir, a young boy living in the mountains of Bulgaria, is forced to join an army intent on invading the great city of Contantinople, an army with a powerful new weapon never seen or even imagined before. 

Anna, 8, and her sister live and work inside the city walls, stitching robes for the rich and powerful. At night, Anna sneaks into the city's abandoned buildings looking for manuscripts she might sell to pay her sister's medical expenses. But she can hear the forces amassing outside the walls and knows that time is running out.      

Timeline Three: The Argos, Mission Year 65 

Konstance lives with her family in a completely self sustaining spacecraft overseen by an AI named Sybil, who, programmed with all earth's knowledge, has the answer to any problem that arises. Earth is in ruins and they are on their way to a new planet, one so far away they will never see it themselves but hope their future generations will. Konstance spends much of her time in the ship's virtual library, trying to discover how Aethon's story is connected to her own, until the one problem arises that Sybil can't solve.   

This is a layered, beautifully written story with details and descriptions that bring each part of it to vibrant life. Relatable characters reach out from the page to make an emotional connection. You fear for them when things are precarious, feel relieved when they come safely through and are sad when they don't. 

The further into it I got, the more I didn't want to put it down. As the tension rose toward the end I simply couldn't leave it and stayed up till 1:45 am to finish. It was worth every yawn the next day. 

With good writing, three intriguing plots, and authentic characters, this is everything you want a story to be. I thought it was amazing.


 Borne by Jeff VanderMeer

What a fantastic, mind-bending story this is. I don't know whether to call it science fiction, fantasy, fairy tale, a combination of all three, or something new entirely. Around page 30 I wondered if it might be too weird and wasn't sure I liked it enough to continue. I tried a bit more, and the next time I remembered that thought I was on page six hundred and something. I was mesmerized. (It isn't actually that long - small e-reader pages). 

It begins with Rachel, a scavenger living in the ruins of a city destroyed by climate change, finding an unusual thing in an unusual place. Are you ready for this? She's combing through the thick golden hair of a gigantic flying bear called Mord. Mord is bio-tech, possibly human at one time, serveral stories tall and given to flying over the city killing and destroying at will. Rachel waits till he's asleep and quietly picks through the odds and ends of debris he picks up in his destructive rages through town. She finds usable things to take back to Wick, her partner/lover, a drug dealer who makes tiny beetles that placed in the ear, can help you forget bad memories or imagine good ones. And if you think that's weird, hang on. 

On this particular day of scavenging, Rachel finds something unlike anything she's seen before. She describes it like this:

"a hybrid of sea anemone and squid: a sleek vase with rippling colours that strayed from purple toward deep blues and sea greens. Four vertical ridges slid up the sides of its warm and pulsating skin. The texture was as smooth as waterworn stone, if a bit rubbery. It smelled of beach reeds on a lazy summer afternoons and, beneath the sea salt, of passionflowers. Much later, I realized it would have smelled different to someone else, might even have appeared in a different form."

Not sure if it's plant, animal, or something else, she takes it home to nurture as if it were a child. Wick is not enthusiastic - the city is a dangerous place, no living thing should be trusted, especially an unknown thing - and when it begins to grow, and walk, and talk he wants it gone. But Rachel by then has adopted it, even feels love toward it, and can't let it go. 

In the background of all this is The Company, the bio-tech people responsible for unleashing Mord on the stricken city. Other results of their experiments roam the streets creating havoc for the few remaining humans trying to survive there. 

There's far more to the story than what I've covered. More articulate reviewers have done a better job of explaining it:

As I read over what I've written it sounds totally ridiculous, but it's not. It's incredible. The characters and the setting are so real you are there with them. You feel their vulnerability, their fear, an eerieness that keeps you on the edge of your seat. Even the "thing", which she calls Borne, is relatable. It's cute when it's small and later admirable in it's protection of Rachel, even when you begin to understand its true nature.    

This is a dystopian, bio-tech bad dream, sweet and terrifying and unlike anything I've ever read. Well written. Unimaginably imaginative. Amazing.