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Continuing on my quest to find books for my soon to be nine-year old niece, I read Karen Harrington's Sure Signs of Crazy last week. While I enjoyed the book a lot and recommend it for the over ten crowd, I think I'm going to hold off my girl until she's a wee bit older.

Protagonist Sarah is 12 and new in town. She and her father move around a lot as Sarah's mother was the object of a notorious trial and is now committed to a mental hospital. Her father was also tried but found innocent; he still struggles a decade later to cope and while a loving father, definitely self-medicates with alcohol.

In the course of one summer, Sarah fulfills an English assignment by writing letters to Atticus Finch, crushes on the college boy across the street (we've all been there) and builds up her courage to challenge the family secrets. She's smart and funny and determined which makes for a great protagonist. Most interestingly though, considering her family drama, Sarah is also very easy to identify with and I'm sure many young readers will like her a lot.

For my purposes though, I think the alcohol and the reasons behind her mother's trial, are just too much for my particular nine-year old. At least a year, maybe two and she will be ready. I'll be keeping Sure Signs of Crazy for the future.

We don't really hear much about Superfund sites anymore but they haven't gone away. From last month's National Geographic Magazine:

Money remains a constant problem. The Superfund program once had two pillars: rules that held past polluters liable for cleanup and a "Superfund"--financed by taxes on crude oil and chemicals--that gave the EPA the resources to clean up sites when it could not extract payment from the responsible parties. Congress let those taxes expire in 1995; the program is now funded by taxes collected from all Americans. It's low on staff. The Superfund itself is nearly empty.

Superfund sites have entered a mostly benign but lingering state, dwarfed in the public's eye by issues like climate change, says William Suk, who has directed the National Institutes of Health's Superfund Research Program since its inception in the 1980s. "It's not happening in my backyard, therefore it must be OK," is how Suk sees the prevailing attitude. "Everything must be just fine--there's no more Love Canals."

Check out the full photo gallery here.

[Post pic by Fritz Hoffman via Nat Geo: "The municipal water supply in Hastings was contaminated by landfills--and by the FAR-MAR-CO grain elevator. Fumigants sprayed to control rodents and insects leached into the ground. The city closed some wells, but cleaning the groundwater will take decades."]

Courtesy my mother, (who always pays attention when you write notes in a catalog* with the words "I WANT THIS!!!!"), I received The Secret Rooms by Catherine Bailey for Christmas. This incredibly compelling book follows Bailey's search for truth while engaged in a relatively innocuous WWI research project at the Belvoir Estate in England. Stymied in her plans to find out about the war's devastation on the men in the nearby villages (many of whom lost their lives), she can not help but wonder why the estate's meticulous records should have such a deep hole during the war period. So Bailey digs a little deeper and finds other holes, all of them tied to the 9th Duke of Rutland (Belvoir is one of Rutland's holdings) who died in 1940 and apparently, until his final moments, was feverishly working to hide something in "secret rooms" beneath the castle.

This book has literally everything you would want in an epic family drama plus some serious upstairs/downstairs social commentary.

Bailey is a careful researcher--she methodically moves through the existing records at the estate and then sets out to other archive collections to find information to fill the Belvoir gaps. What she finds is a story of family strife and conflict that includes everything from parental neglect to attempts to sway military decisions during WWI. There's also a lot here about dukes in general and how one becomes a duke and what happens to a duke's holdings when he dies. That kind of thing was candy for me--I never get tired of trying to figure out how the royal thing works in England.

As an aside, the 9th Duke's sister, Diana, married Duff Cooper after WWI and they were quite the famous couple in their day. (Although he cheated on her with basically everyone if wikipedia is to be believed. How on earth do these men find the time for all this messing around?)

For all the dramarama in The Secret Rooms, it is surprisingly not all that gossipy. Mostly, I found it shocking how the Duke's family chose to live. For all their wealth and social status these were deeply unhappy people who seemed more intent upon inflicting pain on each other than anything else.

Which makes for fascinating reading, of course!

[Post pic of Belvoir Castle taken in 2011 via Creative Commons.]

*Bas Blue catalog - a great collection of carefully selected books and bookish gifts that I heartily recommend!