When in French : Love in a Second Language by Lauren Collins

An American woman marries a Frenchman and lives happily ever after – but first, it helpswhen-in-french to learn French.

Lauren is living abroad for the first time in London when she meets Olivier.  She’s fine with dating him and Olivier, after years of study and exposure, speaks English well, although their differing approaches to the language make for some headbutting.  It’s when they marry and Olivier is transferred to Geneva, Switzerland that Lauren realizes two things:  A long distance marriage won’t work, and if she moves with him to Geneva, it’s inevitable that she learns to speak French.

Along her journey to be a competent Francophone, Lauren has plenty of time to muse on the complexities of language itself and how speaking (and living) in a different tongue than her own will change her perceptions.

So Lauren meets her in-laws (who turn out to be fabulous people, actually), struggles through French classes, and meets lots of other people who are outsiders like her.  She also comes to terms with her limitations.

When in French alternates between family narrative and explorations of human speech and culture.  The family and personal situations are funny, as when the author describes her early failures with summer camp or recounts her fears of culture clash when her parents come to visit her French in-laws.  Her ponderings on other things tend to get heady, but these sections are still worth reading.

(William Hicks, Information Services)


The Big Tiny : A Built-It-Myself Memoir by Dee Williams

big tinySimplifying daily life is a varied journey.  For some, it’s whittling down possessions, so, as it’s said, they stop possessing us.  For others, it’s moving to the country, where things are at a slower pace.  And yet for others, it’s house size – the McMansions and their sheer magnitude don’t cut it anymore.

Enter the tiny house movement, where folks willing to pare down to the bare essentials are building houses the size of tool sheds.

Enter Dee Williams, who took the tiny house path years ago and became a big advocate for the lifestyle.

Dee had a very active life.  As she entered her forties, a serious heart condition got her to slow down and think about her reality – namely that of paying a mortgage on a big house that wound up defining her existence, with the constant repairs and expenses.

Dee met Jay Shafer, an early mover and shaker of the tiny house movement, and was hooked on the possibilities of building her own little castle.

Dee wasn’t afraid of power tools and wasn’t daunted (too much) by the prospect of her modified existence.  She was fortunate to have a great circle of friends, and some happenstance encounters with strangers who were happy to help her along her 84 square foot journey.  It also helped knowing people who didn’t mind Dee parking her little house in their yard when it was finished.

The Big Tiny is funny, boisterous, and unflinching.  Dee lets you know that she isn’t perfect, and that building a tiny house wasn’t a couple-of-weekends jaunt.

Dee is still active – check out padtinyhouses.com (Portland Alternative Dwellings).  She also makes an appearance in the documentary Small is Beautiful, which is streamable via Netflix.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama

Obama’s eloquent, thoughtful memoir begins with his youth in Hawaii and Indonesia and51LCJdzcSNL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_ continues with stories about his job as a community organizer in Chicago’s African-American neighborhoods and about his visit in 1988 to relatives in Kenya.

A major focus of this book is Obama’s relationship with his Kenyan father, whom he knew only from conversations with his mother, his maternal grandparents, and his Kenyan relatives and from a one-month visit when Barack was ten years old.  From his father, the young Barack learned much about what he wanted to be like – and also about what he did not want to become.

Obama’s life story has been quite different from the biographies of other U.S. presidents, and, whatever your political views, I think you’ll find it fascinating!

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)

Eruption : the untold story of Mount St. Helens by Steve Olson

EruptionWhen visiting the Pacific Northwest three years ago, one of the most unsettling sites I saw while driving down Highway 5 was a rather large mountain in the distance with a chunk off the top.  It took a minute to recognize it as Mount St. Helens, the aftermath of the big catastrophic event which took place thirty-three years previously.

Eruption covers the terrifying time when this mountain blew up on May 18, 1980.  57 deaths were accounted for, and it could have have been worse, as the eruption came on a Sunday morning and not during a workweek, when logging operations in the area would have been occurring.  The lava and ash flows destroyed vast stretches of forest; the mud flow made it all the way to Highway 5.

Up to the time of Mount St. Helens eruption, it seemed inconceivable that the contiguous United States would have a real live volcano.  Earthquakes?  Sure.  Tornadoes and other weather happenings?  Of course.  Volcanoes?  Leave those to more exotic locales – until 1980.  Of course, after it happened, the local populace certainly became more aware of the geologic uncertainties of the Cascade Range and the Pacific Coast region in general.

The author also delves extensively into the historical background of the area surrounding Mount St. Helens, when the logging industry ran full tilt, specifically the Weyerhaeuser company and their role in the local economy.  At one time, the company owned a significant part of the woodlands closest to the mountain, and were logging it up until the time of the eruption.

The book is a detailed but fascinating story of this area of the Pacific Northwest, and gives the reader plenty of room for thought for the possibilities of natural catastrophes and how we can better act on them when they happen.

(William Hicks, Information Services)



Wesley the Owl : The Remarkable Love Story of an Owl and His Girl by Stacy O’Brien

Stacy, a young biologist, brought home a baby barn owl with an injured wing, since he wesley the owlcould not survive in the wild.  Little Wesley became strongly attached to Stacy, who quickly became devoted to her pet.

Recent scientific research is disproving the traditional idea that birds are stupid, and the story of Wesley confirms these new discoveries.  Wesley’s ability to communicate with Stacy was amazing.  She described his walking behind her, apparently telling her about the events of his day by making the sounds that accompanied his various activities, such as eating mice.  When he came to a place in the house where someone he disliked had been, he’d hiss!

Since Stacy’s education and work with other owls gave her a far greater understanding of Wesley than the usual pet owner would have, readers will learn a lot about these intelligent, affectionate birds.  One interesting fact is that barn owls are so well adapted to eating mice that they don’t require any other food or liquid; if fed meat without the bones and other parts of the mice, they will not flourish.  Another is that barn owls, which mate for life, usually die soon after the death of the mate.

If the thought of a barn owl “hugging” his owner with his wings and the opportunity to learn more about these fascinating creatures appeal to you, then read this book!

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)

The Road to Little Dribbling by Bill Bryson

road to little dribblingIf you are a fan of Bill Bryson’s and read Notes from a Small Island years ago, you’ll know he has a bemused affection for his adopted Great Britain.  The Road to Little Dribbling is a sequel of sorts to Notes…, except that Bryson has a more determined destination to cover, but… if you know his writing style, you’ll know that diversion will play a major part in his explorations.

Great Britain comes deliciously alive with Bryson’s observations, which are funny and snarky, and very opinionated.  He will quite willingly poke fun at or say something scathing about places or people he encounters, and then just as quickly make a jab at himself for his own shortcomings.

Even though Bryson casts a critical eye on practically everything, there’s still much that he expounds on about his adopted homeland – everyday customs, the scenery, etc. – that will make the most jaded of readers want to eventually visit Great Britain.

So go visit Bognor Regis and find out a previous monarch’s disdain for the place.  Go see some coastal villages on the North Sea and have a history lesson of Britain’s fishing industry, Bryson-style.  Have a pint or two (or more) at whichever pub is available.  And finally, set foot on Cape Wrath at the extreme north of the island and pray you have a rain jacket and some proper boots.

I have been to the British Isles twice, and now want to go back – and I don’t even like rain.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

The Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House by Kate Andersen Brower

residenceIf you liked the movie “The Butler,” this book will probably fascinate you.  It is the story of the many people, including butlers, maids, and chefs, who’ve worked in the White House during the last fifty years.  Brower’s book, based on interviews with many of these employees and with members of the presidents’ families, shares these staffers’ observations of the Kennedys, Johnsons, Nixons, Reagans, Fords, Carters, Clintons, Bushes, and Obamas.

Discretion is such an important part of a White House staffer’s job that Kennedy’s philandering, well known to White House workers, remained a secret from the public for years after his death.  However, retired staff members feel freer to reminisce.  The book includes information about the Kennedy assassination, Lyndon Johnson’s incessant demands for a hotter, more forceful shower, Nixon’s resignation, the Monica Lewinsky scandal, staffers’ fleeing the White House on 9/11, fearing that it might be the terrorists’ next target, the Obamas dancing to Mary J. Blige’s songs on their first night in the White House, and many other significant, humorous, or heartwarming anecdotes.

One fact that surprised me is that staffers protect presidents from possible poisoning by destroying gifts of food.  When Gorbachev sent fine caviar for the president, a staff member refused to throw it away and took it home, declaring that he would gladly risk death to enjoy this special treat!

While all staff members have enjoyed a unique opportunity to see the intimate lives of presidential families, working in the White House sometimes leads to a close friendship with a president.  Especially, the elder President Bush and Barbara Bush treated the staff like members of their family.

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)