Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Roundup of Picture Books

We've read a few fun picture books in the last week or so:

The Girl and the Elephant, by Nicole de Cock, begins, "This is the girl. She often goes to the zoo. She goes to see the animals, wishing there were no bars between them." The plain words and simple but beautiful illustrations tell the tale of a girl who becomes friends with an elephant at the zoo, and then follows the elephant back to Africa. It is a lovely book with a fantastical story. My seven-year-old daughter was charmed.

Clarabella's Teeth, by An Vrombaut, is the tale of a crocodile who has so many teeth that it takes her all day to brush them. By the time Clarabella is done brushing, her friends are done playing and going to bed. Don't worry, there is a solution. My four-year-old son found the bright colored pictures and humorous tale very entertaining.

Chato's Kitchen, by Gary Soto and illustrated by Susan Guevara, is the story of a cat who invites his new neighbors, a family of mice, over "for dinner." Unfortunately for the cat, he ends up eating a vegetarian meal. Fortunately, he has made a wonderful feast of salsa, fajitas, enchiladas, and other items that taste just fine without mouse meat. It's a cute story with a Latino theme, and it includes a glossary of the Spanish words used if you are not familiar with them. My kids enjoyed the story, but didn't ask to hear it again.

Super-Completely and Totally the Messiest by Judith Viorst is a story told by a girl convinced that she has the messiest little sister in the world. Many examples are given, complete with detailed illustrations of the chaos that young Sophie leaves wherever she goes. Luckily Sophie's family seems to appreciate that she is a good kid who just happens to leave a trail behind her wherever she goes. Both my kids liked this book, but it seemed to particularly appeal to my daughter, whose room tends to look like a post-Katrina photo of New Orleans.

All these books were plucked, seemingly at random, off the library shelves in about two minutes. I'm often surprised at how many good books my children find this way. None of these books are ones that I would run out and buy, but they certainly were worth reading and borrowing for a few weeks. Our weekly trip to the library has been a great part of this summer.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

The End of Harry Potter

Ah, the last book. I'm sad that it is over. However, I read the book so quickly, in order to find out what happened, that I am already prepared to read it again. Next time I read, I will savor all the little details.

I'm curious about J.K. Rowling's next creation. I hope she will write again, even if it is a completely different world and characters. Of course it is unlikely that anything else will satisfy the Harry Potter fans, but that shouldn't stop her from trying.

For those who loved Harry Potter, I have the following recommendations:

The Chronicles of Narnia, by C.S. Lewis (my favorites are "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader" and "The Silver Chair," although "The Magician's Nephew" is pretty great too.)

The Dark is Rising series by Susan Cooper (loved these as a kid, except for the very end of the very last book)

His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman (loved the first two books as an adult, the last not so much. The first book, "The Golden Compass," is being made into a movie.)

"The Princess and the Goblin" by George McDonald (a childhood favorite - I should pick up a copy and read it to my daughter.)

"The Wolves of Willoughby Chase" (and the rest of the Wolves Chronicles) by Joan Aiken - not so much magic, but lots of Gothic drama and adventure. For older children or adults, "Midnight is a Place" is an amazing book.

"Half Magic" by Edgar Eager. My then six-year-old daughter loved this one.

"The Enchanted Castle" by E. Nesbit. I loved this author when I was a kid, and read loads of her books. However, my daughter found this book too slow when I tried to read it to her (at age six), and we quit after 30 or so pages. It is probably better for an older child or a faster reader.

And don't forget all the Oz books by L. Frank Baum or the Fairy books ("The Red Fairy Book," "The Blue Fairy Book" etc.) by Andrew Lang, or the Doctor Doolittle books by Hugh Lofting.

Since some of these are OLD books, I will try reading some to my very modern children and let you know how it goes. Personally, I always loved reading books written a hundred years before I was born, but then again I was an odd little child. Thankfully Harry Potter has made it fashionable for adults to read books written for children, so I can re-live my childhood without dragging my poor kids into it.

Usborne Farmyard Tales

My son is a train fanatic, and he will read almost anything about trains. However, as the parent who has to read stories over and over and over again, I am a bit more discriminating.
One series of books that I can happily read to the children is the Usborne Farmyard Tales train books. They are by Heather Amery, with adorable pictures by Stephen Cartwright. The books we own are "The Old Steam Train," "Rusty's Train Ride," and "Dolly and the Train." There is another called "Woolly Stops the Train" which I don't believe we have (but there are so many books in this house, who really knows?)
There is not a lot of plot in these 16-page picture books. For example: kids go on a field trip; the steam engine stops working; Dolly the horse pulls the carriage back to the station. However, the illustrations are not only cute, but there is a little yellow duck on each page for young readers to discover. A map of the countryside is on the endpapers so you can locate the events of each story, and there is a duck on the map too.
These are sweet, simple books for young children. I would recommend them for ages 2-6. There are other stories that don't involve trains, but we have not read any of them. They are probably equally cute and entertaining for children.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Little House in the Big Woods

While I grew up reading the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, they are not books that I kept and re-read over and over. So I was surprised by the number of whippings referred to in "Little House in the Big Woods". I suspect my memory of the books has been overlaid by vague memories of Melissa Gilbert and Michael Landon in the "prairies" of Southern California on the TV show. Surely Michael Landon didn't whip little girls, even if they slapped their sisters! Or maybe I've just forgotten that too..

Despite the whippings (which seem quite exotic to a child raised on "time outs" and the occasional empty threat of all her toys being taken away) my daughter loved this book. She was fascinated by the details of this family's way of life. The book describes everything from how the family stored food for the winter to what games the children played and how the wheat was harvested. We were both impressed by how hard people had to work in those days. We were astonished by the idea of children who are five or six years old who go to store for the first time in their entire lives. And, of course, I couldn't resist pointing out how grateful the children were when they received new red mittens and one piece of peppermint candy each for Christmas. Well, Laura also got a rag doll - but she was in rapture about receiving one homemade toy. I will leave you to imagine how impressed my modern child was about this little lecture on gratitude.

Personally, I'm feeling a great deal of gratitude that I'm not Laura's mom, working hard from sunrise to sunset and then mending socks by firelight after the sun goes down. Not to mention sleeping on a bed stuffed with straw in the same room as my children. However did Baby Carrie get conceived? Anyway, this book is great for anyone who wants to appreciate the joys of modern life, or wants to get a little nostalgic for the good old days when the women were strong, the men played a mean fiddle, and the children grew up to be world-famous authors.


Who was the biggest newsmaker in the U.S. in 1938? Roosevelt? Hitler? No, it was a racehorse named Seabiscuit. Laura Hillenbrand wrote "Seabiscuit: An American Legend" to show modern readers why Seabiscuit captured the imagination of Americans during the Great Depression.
Yeah, I know, everybody else read this years ago, or at least saw the movie. For some reason I never read it back when it was being hyped.

I was never a horse-crazy girl and have never been to a horse race in my life. I've never even watched the Kentucky Derby on TV, or drank a mint julep. All I know about horse racing comes from reading Dick Francis mysteries, and those are mostly about English hurdling races, which seems to be a rather different sport.

Despite my previous lack of knowledge, I found "Seabiscuit" fascinating. The book gives you a lot of background about horse racing in the 1930's, Seabiscuit, his owner, his trainer, and his jockeys. However, all the information is presented in a way that reads more like a novel than nonfiction, and from me that is a compliment. Sometimes (okay, often) I get bogged down in nonfiction and never even finish the book. But I stayed up late reading Seabiscuit, just to find out what would happen to everyone. This was a great read.

(By the way, I counted my Dick Francis books last week and discovered I had 27 books. Twenty-seven! Surely I had all of them -- but no, according to http://www.fantasticfiction.co.uk/, Mr. Francis has written 41 best-selling novels. So I guess I can learn more about horse racing while I wait for Ms. Hillenbrand to write another book.)

Monday, June 18, 2007


Do you ever read a book that seems to be written just for your child? I don't mean a personalized book with your kid's name and birthday in it. I mean a storybook with a character just like your child, who reacts exactly the way your child would. And if the book is also illustrated in a style that your child loves, it seems like it is meant for your child.

I feel this way about "Dahlia", by Barbara McClintock. I blogged a few days ago about "Adele & Simon" a wonderful book by this author. On the back cover it mentioned that her previous book, Dahlia, had won several awards, so we checked it out of the library.

Dahlia appears to take place in the late 19th century. The illustrations reminded me of the pictures from my old Louisa May Alcott favorites. Charlotte is found at the beginning of the book with dirt all over her pinafore, making mud pies with her teddy bear, Bruno. She is less than thrilled to be called indoors to receive a package from her aunt. Inside is a doll, a prim-faced, frilly-dressed doll. Charlotte does not want a doll, and tells the doll that there will be no staying indoors and having tea parties. This doll, soon dubbed Dahlia, will have to learn to dig in the dirt and climb trees. But what will happen when Charlotte's aunt sees the doll after her outdoor adventures?

My daughter is not a tomboy. Her favorite colors are pink and purple, and she went through a loooong princess phase. However, she is the kind of girl who would wear a pink floral twirly dress to climb trees and dig for worms. She has some dolls, but is fairly uninterested in changing their outfits. Instead, they tend to spend a lot of time tied to jump ropes and being lowered over the banisters. Her dolls go on adventures with her, just as Dahlia goes with Charlotte. But she feels affection for them. When her doll, Sally, broke one of her china legs, I ended up sculpting a new one out of clay so Sally could be "healed". I don't want to give away too much of the plot, but let's just say that Dahlia also needs some TLC at one point in the story, and Charlotte is ready to provide it.

Even if your daughter (or son) isn't like Charlotte, I think they will enjoy this story about a child full of curiosity, compassion, and spunk. Be warned, however, that any child looking at Charlotte's bedroom full of bird's nests, shells, mushrooms, insects, plants and snakes may soon be begging to make their own room look the same. We were already well on our way, but we still need to add some bird's nests.

Chaos on my library book shelf

I have a shelf in my kitchen where I store my library books. I noticed that I have a rather odd collection this week:

Stalin: A Biography

Generation T: 108 Ways to Transform a T-shirt

You Are Your Choices: 50 Ways to Live the Good Life

Life on Planet Rock: From Guns N' Roses to Nirvana, A Backstage Journey Through Rock's Most Debauched Decade

Now guess which book I've already read? Yup, Generation T. If you can count looking at pictures and muttering, "maybe if I was 25 years old and lived in Williamsburg Brooklyn and wanted a shirt to wear clubbing..." as reading. My favorite part? Directions on making your own wedding dress out of seven large t-shirts.

I've read a few pages each of Planet Rock and You Are Your Choices, but so far they aren't doing much for me. I just picked up Stalin, so I haven't had a chance to dive into that 700+ page tome yet. I may need to sit on a beach with a mojito to get in the mood for that one.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

The Thirteenth Tale

I loved "The Thirteenth Tale" by Diane Setterfield, which I read for my book group. I probably shouldn't be surprised that I liked it, because I am the person who suggested it to the group. It is a Gothic tale about a strange, mysterious family. It involves a manor house, twins, faithful servants, abandoned children, old book dealers, fires, and other wonderful, spooky things.
Personally, all you have to do is set a story in a dark, mysterious house on a moor and I'm there. "The Moonstone", "The Woman in White", "Jane Eyre", anything by Daphne du Maurier ("Rebecca") or Phyllis A. Whitney - it's all good. But everyone else in the book club who read it loved it too, so I can safely recommend it to almost everyone. It is a well-written story that pulls you in.
It starts with a young woman who has written some rather obscure literary biographies. She receives a letter from a old woman who is one of the world's most popular authors. The author says that she has been lying about her past for years in interviews, but she is ready to tell the truth at last. She is willing to have only one person write her authorized biography.
Off goes the young woman to the mysterious manor house in the middle of the moor. There is a cryptic servant, protective of her mistress. There is the author herself, elderly and ill, but seemingly ready to tell her true life story. But is it really the truth? How does she convince the young woman to stay and hear her story?
I refuse to give any more of the plot away. Read the book yourself! I must admit the final ending was a tiny bit disappointing, but I think this is mostly because the journey was so enjoyable that it would be hard to end it in a way that would truly be satisfying and make the reader happy to come to the end.
We discussed this book in book club, and then we talked about a lot of other things. I can't tell you about that, because what happens in book club, stays in book club. If I told you, I'd have to kill you, etc. etc. Let's just say it was a lively discussion!

The Tail of Emily Windsnap

My daughter's 7th birthday party had a mermaid theme, so not surprisingly she received several books about mermaids, fairies, and unicorns. "The Tail of Emily Windsnap" by Liz Kessler was one of the books that we enjoyed reading. I have to confess that after strictly telling my daughter, "Only one chapter per night!" I would sneak a peek at the first page or two of the next chapter when she wasn't looking. Hey, if she wants to cheat too, she's just going to have to learn to read!
Emily Windsnap is a 7th grader with a secret. When she is immersed in water, her legs turn into a tail and she turns into a mermaid. She just discovered this, because her mother has a phobia about water and just gave in to years of requests for swimming lessons. And yet, despite her mother's water phobia, they live on a boat. In a marina. Obviously, there is more going on than Emily can understand, at least at the beginning of the book.
Despite my daughter's love of mermaids, I worried for a few chapters that this book was too mature for her. What does a first grader know about the social cliques of 7th graders? How can she understand the angst of a child who has never met her father? But she liked the book and never seemed bored by the parts that I thought might go over her head. It amazes me sometimes, the gap between the level of books she can read, and the level of books she can understand. No wonder she hates trying to read. If her choice is spending 20 minutes stumbling through "Hop on Pop" or 20 minutes listening to her mom reading "Emily Windsnap", should I be surprised that she would rather just listen?
Anyway, Emily eventually discovers all kinds of interesting things about herself and her parents. She makes a friend and has several opportunities to be brave, creative and persistent. Despite seeming aimed at slightly older readers, there was nothing in this book that I found inappropriate for a 7-year-old. Emily sneaks out at night and tries to write a fake note to her school, but the story has enough fantasy that I doubt my daughter will be emulating Emily anytime soon. All in all, a fun read for all 16 nights. Recommended for all lovers of mermaids.

Adele & Simon

I bought "Adele & Simon" by Barbara McClintock for my daughter as a Christmas present, after seeing a good review in the New York Times. Sometimes I do well with gift books, other times I fail miserably. This book was a big hit.
Adele & Simon is a charming picture book about a brother and sister in Paris. Adele picks up her little brother at school, and he has his hat, gloves, scarf, sweater, coat, knapsack, books, crayons, and a drawing of a cat. In each two-page spread that follows, Simon loses one of his belongings. Don't worry, there is a happy ending when everything shows up again.
The pictures are what really make this book wonderful, and worth reading over and over. You have to search each detailed page to find the missing item, and there are lots of other things to find. For example, when Simon loses his books in the park, there is a line of little schoolgirls with hats who look suspiciously like Madeline and her fellow students (and why not, they live in Paris too!). The illustrations have the old-fashioned look of Kate Greenaway, who I loved as a child.
After the story, McClintock gives a description of the Paris location of each illustration, complete with historical information. We haven't read that part yet -- maybe when my daughter is a bit older she'll be interested. What she does love is the book's endpapers, which are a map of Paris with each scene from the book marked so you can follow Adele and Simon's journey.
At our house, stories about older sisters and little brothers are generally a hit (hello, Max and Ruby!) but I think many children ages 4-9 would love this book as much as we do.

Monday, June 4, 2007

The Strife is O'er, The Battle is Won...

...but instead of singing "Hallelujah" I'm thinking, "Eh, is that it?"
Previously I blogged about Sara Douglass's fantasy series, The Wayfarer Redemption. At that point I was reading the first trilogy, about an epic battle between good and evil, shaped by prophecy, and acted out by larger-than-life characters. It was a bit predictable, but still an interesting read.
I might not have picked up more books by this author, but since Paul had already bought them, I kept reading. The second trilogy begins in a quite promising way. Forty years after the epic battles of the first trilogy, the land is now ruled by the children of the characters in the first series. Instead of prophecy, the issues are about sibling rivalry, taxes, and competition for power. The archetypal heroes of the first trilogy turned out to be pretty mediocre parents after the battles were over, leaving their children ill-equipped to deal with the continual stresses of governance.
I was pleased by the direction the new series was taking. I had high hopes for it being a very different kind of story than the last series. But, guess what? All that prophecy in the first series was really just intended to set things up for the next series. Before long, demons are scourging the earth and everyone has forgotten about tax policy. The details have changed, but really this series didn't seem much different than the last.
And the ending? Well, apparently Sara Douglass is also a fan of the Narnia books, since her ending seems cribbed from The Last Battle (by C.S. Lewis). Except, I never really liked the ending of that book either. So I was also disappointed by the ending of this series. I enjoyed it while I was reading it, but when it was over I just wondered why I had spent so many hours with it. Not bad books, but certainly something I would never re-read. I'd give them a B-.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

I'm Either in my Midlife Crisis or Just Cranky

I recently read "Midlife Crisis at 30: How the Stakes Have Changed for a New Generation -- and What to Do About It" by Lia Macko and Kerry Rubin. My friends reading this post might wonder if I'm trying to fool someone into thinking I am still 30 myself. Now, when I got the call from my high school classmate to invite me to our 20th reunion this summer, I wondered how she ever made it through math (because that CAN'T be 20 years ago -- can it?) but I have to admit that I am well past 30 myself.

So what made me read this book? Because I am at a place in my life where I sometimes question the choices I have made and wonder where I am going from here. Because I have another year until my youngest child starts kindergarten, and I sometimes feel like that is a deadline for me to get back to work and do "grown-up" things with my life. Because I wonder why I spent so much money and effort on graduate school, then only used that degree for three years. Because sometimes I feel like I'm not very good at my current job (housewife & stay-at-home mom) and wonder if I should quit, or at least cut back on my hours. This is my "mid-life crisis".

Sure, these are the complaints of an over privileged person. Lots of people would love to be in my shoes, having so many choices. But this book points out that having seemingly unlimited choices is one of the reasons that many well-educated and successful women are anxious, questioning, and even unhappy. As thirty-ish women grew up, we were the first generation to be told, as a group, that we could do anything and everything. We could bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, and seduce our man (hopefully not while holding that pan of sizzling lard). And when we can't meet our high expectations, we blame ourselves.

The authors want to help women realize that their problems and situations are not individual, but actually common to their generation. The first part of this book features vignettes of women in their late twenties and early thirties. Some women wonder why they are thirty and still don't have a job with a high enough salary to pay off their student loans. Others have a great career, but worry that it will be destroyed if they take time to have children. Others identify so much with their jobs that they have no social life outside of work, and wonder if they will ever get married. Thirty is a difficult age for many women.

So what's the solution? The second part of the book consists of interviews with women well over 30, mostly baby boomers, talking about the difficulties they faced and how they addressed them. They are meant to be mentors for the younger generation. These women talk about the risks they took, the mistakes they made, and how they dealt with sexism, work/family balance, parenting, not being a parent, being fired, and changing careers. All these mentors have had successes, and provide reassuring stories about how they weathered the storms.

One flaw of the book is that these "mentors" are all conventionally successful: high-level executives, published authors, even a three-star general. There are very few examples of women who left the workforce completely, as I have done for the last four years. And yet I found it reassuring to read so many stories of women who faced many difficulties in their thirties, but can now look back years later and be proud of what they have made of their lives. There's hope still that someday I too will figure out who I want to be when I grow up.

And we can all start working on getting other women in this world into the envious position of wondering how they can do it all, rather than knowing they have no choices at all. But that is another book.

Thanks to Jennifer for lending me her book!

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Clean Sweep Your Own Home

I love the TV show Clean Sweep. First of all, the homes on this show are REALLY messy. They make my house seem neat and tidy in comparison. I may have piles of stuff on my desk, but at least I don't sleep on my sofa because my bed is covered with laundry. At least I don't have dozens of boxes of my children's outgrown clothes. At least my bedroom closet isn't full of boxes of stuff that I rushed through the house picking up before company came over. No, wait a minute, I actually do have those boxes. But not nearly as many as the people on the show have in their closets!

But I don't just watch the show to see how much worse other people have it. I also like the way they address the mess and the clutter. Instead of focusing on throwing things out, they take all of the homeowners' belongings out of two rooms of their home, and put them on the lawn. There the homeowners can focus on what they want to keep, not on what they need to sell or throw out. When the homeowners wail and gnash their teeth, claiming they absolutely need all of these belongings, Peter Walsh steps in.

Peter Walsh is Clean Sweep's Organizer. He is the person who convinces the homeowner that his Beanie Baby collection is not going to put his kids through college, and needs to go. He gives a woman who has been separated for eight years permission to throw out her ex-husband's jackets. When someone says they can't get rid of an item because it was a gift, he calls the person who gave it to them and asks if it is okay for the item to be sold. He is gentle when people get emotional, but very firm, and the homeowners generally feel great in the end about getting rid of two-thirds of their belongings. So of course I watch and think, "I need Peter to come to my house!"

Well, I was hoping that Peter Walsh's book, "It's All Too Much: An Easy Plan for Living a Richer Life with Less Stuff" would take his place. There is a lot of good stuff in this book. It explains why clutter is bad, some reasons why we hang on to things that we shouldn't, and then gives tips on how to clear the stuff out. The book is clearly written and has some funny anecdotes. For someone who needs this information, it could be a very helpful book.

Unfortunately, as a regular viewer of the show, I'd already heard most of the information found in this book. Other tips sounded much like things I'd heard from Flylady and other organizational and decluttering gurus. And this just reminded me that I spend more time reading about decluttering than actually doing it.

I don't need any more information. I know HOW to clean up my house - I just need to DO it on a regular basis. Or else I need to convince the entire Clean Sweep crew to come out to my house. If a team of people pull all my belongings out into the yard, I guess I would have to start sorting and tossing. And who knows what interesting things I might find in those boxes in the closet!

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Bad Dog Max!

Max is a very, very bad dog. She eats socks, steals food off the table, and digs up the neighbors' yard. Her family even has to move the mailbox because the mail carrier won't come in the yard anymore.
Luckily Max's vet is a fan of the Dog Whisperer. She explains that Max doesn't mean to be bad -- she just needs lots of exercise and play time. At the end of the book, Max is still getting in trouble sometimes, but the family loves her anyway, and thinks she is a Good Dog.
My kids and I love Max, even at the beginning of the book when she is being so naughty, because she is pictured as such an adorable bundle of energy. The kids like using the pictures to figure out what the text leaves out. For example, the story says the cat, Monroe, thinks Max is a bad dog. Looking at the picture of Max ignoring her own bowl and eating out of the one labeled "Monroe", you understand why.
This is a fun book to read aloud, especially for dog lovers. I'd say it is best for ages 3-8. "Bad Dog Max" is by Marina Windsor, with pictures by Steve Haskamp.

Two Guys, Two Life Stories

I've read two memoirs recently, "The Tender Bar" by J.R. Moehringer and "Never Have Your Dog Stuffed" by Alan Alda. These men have lived very different lives and have written two very different memoirs.
Moehringer grew up mostly in Long Island. "The Tender Bar" is a story about growing up poor, raised by a single mom and an assortment of local barflies. This may sound like a tough life that he might portray as either humorous or terrible. Instead, although there is both humor and sadness, he really does approach his story in a sweet, tender way. You see the great affection he holds for his family (well, some of his family), the men at the bar who he feels raised him to be a man, and the bookstore owners who he feels educated him. It is a very well written story. The "characters" are interesting and seem very true to life. They must be pretty close, as only a couple of ex-girlfriends asked him not to use their real names. The last part of the book, about the effect of 9/11 on the town, feels a bit like an add-on as he had already moved away at that point in his life. However, as a bedroom community, it was one of the towns hit very hard by the destruction of the World Trade Center, and 9/11 had a huge impact. I can see why it was important for the author to include that in his book. All in all, this was a very good memoir that I enjoyed very much and would recommend to anyone who likes memoirs. Thanks to Janet for recommending it!

I've enjoyed Alda's work on M*A*S*H* and on Scientific American Frontiers. I heard him discussing his memoir on the radio, so I read it with high expectations. I have to say, if I hadn't read it soon after reading "The Tender Bar", I probably would have liked it better. It contains a lot of humorous anecdotes about Alda's life, and is not a typical celebrity memoir that is more about name-dropping than about the subject. However, it sometimes reads like a string of stories that he has told and retold for years. I got the feeling that he has been dining out on these anecdotes for a long, long time. There are some more serious chapters about his mentally ill mother and his sometimes troubled relationship with his father, but most of the book is light and humorous.
It was an easy book to pick up and read for a little while, then put down again. It didn't really hold together as a complete book, or as an overall picture of Alda's life. I felt like he was just sharing bits and pieces that he had been asked about in interviews throughout the years. It isn't a bad memoir, and for a celebrity memoir it is actually pretty candid, but it isn't a great book either. But if you are a fan of Alda, it may be worth a trip to the library.
If I had to give grades, I think "The Tender Bar" would get an A-, and "Never Have Your Dog Stuffed" gets a B-.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

How to Find a Good Book

If you love to read, and care what you read, you have to find good books. But how do you find books that you will enjoy? There are a few different strategies that I use:

At the library, skim the new books area. Look at all the sections. Even if you don't usually read non-fiction, or mysteries, you may find something intriguing that you would never have found otherwise.

Read newspaper and magazine book reviews. Keep a list of books that sound interesting. Your list can be on paper, or start a wish list on Amazon. I have a public wish list for things I hope people will buy for me, and a private wish list for books that I want to read. I'll get a majority of them from the library, but it seems easier to keep a list on Amazon rather than typing things into a document or locating a scrap of paper.

NoveList is a great database that is available through libraries. I can access it from home through my local public library's website. NoveList offers annotated book lists on topics ranging from "Asian-American Literature" to "Beach Reads." My favorite NoveList feature is "Author Read-Alikes." If you like one of the 200 or so popular authors in this list, click on his or her name. You will get a list of books by other authors, with brief descriptions, and the reason they think you will like this other book. The suggestions can include both contemporary and older books. You can create a NoveList account and keep labeled lists of the books you are interested in.
I've used NoveList when I travel. For example, I typed in "New Orleans" as a keyword, and got a large list of novels that take place in New Orleans. I read several before my trip, and I felt like that gave me an idea of the history and mood of the city before I got there. Since I generally prefer fiction to non-fiction, this is more fun for me than reading travel guides and history books.

If you like reading older books, "BookLust: Recommended Reading for Every Mood, Moment, and Reason" has a lot of great suggestions. Author Nancy Pearl is a librarian and book reviewer who has years of experience with steering people towards books they will enjoy. Her categories range from humorous takes on academia to Latin American literature. I found several new authors that I had never read before and was glad to discover.

Want to find all the books an author has written, or want to read a series in the correct order? The best-organized site I have found on the internet is www.fantasticfiction.co.uk. Search by author or by book title. When you search by author, you get a list of all that person's works arranged chronologically or by series. You often also get a brief biography, a list of awards, and sometimes you even get a list of books that author recommends that are written by others.

And of course, you must ask absolutely everyone what they are reading. Sometimes a random conversation with a stranger will point you towards a book that you never would have picked up, but absolutely love.

Please leave comments with other suggestions for finding books that you enjoy!

Fantasy Epics

How many times have you read "Lord of the Rings"? If your answer is, "Read? I thought they were movies" then you can skip this review right now and move to another one. The books I'm discussing today are for people who already like books about swords and magic and epic battles between good and evil. They are entertaining reads, but not great enough to convince someone new to the genre to start reading fantasy.

I'm in the middle of two different fantasy series right now. The first is the Fionavar Tapestry, by Guy Gavriel Kay. Last year I read his books "Sailing to Sarantium" and "Lord of Emperors" which take place in a fantasy world based on the Byzantium empire. This gave the books an original and interesting setting, since so many fantasy books are based on medieval Europe and its folklore.
After enjoying those books, I decided to go back and read Kay's earlier books. "The Summer Tree" is the first book of the the Fionavar Tapestry trilogy. Five college students meet a mysterious stranger who pulls them into another world which seems very similar to...Lord of the Rings! Not surprising, since Kay helped edit Tolkien's The Silmarillion, but at times it seemed less like an homage than a copy. Dwarves, wizards, an evil enemy trapped in a mountain, even elf-like creatures who do not age, but sail across the sea to an unknown destination...haven't I read all of this before?
However, I kept reading and found enough of interest to keep me going. I liked the second book, "The Wandering Fire," better than the first book, despite the addition of King Arthur. No, not an imitation of King Arthur, the man himself. But there is plenty of war, magic, sacrifices, and sex to keep the reader interested. I'm looking forward to reading the last book, "The Darkest Road." Unfortunately the library has the first two books, but not the last book in the trilogy. Huh? Guess I'll be heading to the bookstore.

The other series I'm reading started with "The Wayfarer Redemption," by Sara Douglas. Paul started me on this one. Now I've read the first two books and am waiting impatiently for him to finish the third one. These books, unlike Kay's, are big, fat fantasy novels. So far, the plot and characters are propelling me through. It helps that the books focus on a small enough group of characters that I can keep track of them. I remember loving Robert Jordan's "Wheel of Time" series when it first came out, but after a few 700-page books I started forgetting who some of the dozens of characters were. Then came the fifth or sixth book, which had 700 pages of nothing really happening, and I gave up on that series. I'm hoping Ms. Douglass can wrap her story up while I still care. Even after just two books, I'm starting to get slightly irritated by the constant foreshadowing of The Prophecy. But apparently I'm a sucker for a long, highly detailed description of a battle between good and evil, so I'll keep reading. But the good guys had better get this battle won in the next 700 pages!

Con Ed

"Con Ed" by Matthew Klein, is the story of a hustler. Kip knows all the cons and has tried most of them. At one point he was even rich. But now he's working at a dry cleaners after spending some time in prison. He is trying to live an honest, lawful life, but a mysterious woman tries to pull him into a big con job. Kip refuses, until his son shows up. His son owes a lot of money to a Russian mob boss, and can't pay it back. But Kip doesn't have the money either -- not unless he pulls off the biggest con of his life.
"In a con, everyone takes part in a play. And everyone knows it is a play, except for one man. The thing you want to make sure is that the man is not you..."
Of course, Kip will try and pull off the big con. And I spent the rest of the book trying to figure out who was in on the real con, and who was a traitor working for the other side. Granted, I never figure out mysteries before the end of the book, so it other readers might catch on faster than I did. But even if you figure out the con, it is a very funny book. It's dark humor, with a lead character a bit like Sam Spade crossed with Tony Soprano. If you liked the movies "Inside Job" or "House of Games", give this a try.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

PETA Would Burn This Book

If you've read my previous posts, you know that I like old-fashioned children's stories, not modern versions that have been sweetened up and had all the scary, non-PC parts taken out. "Pierre Bear" is a tale so non-PC that it has been removed from the modern reprints of Richard Scarry books. Luckily my mother-in-law kept the copy she used to read to my husband, because "Pierre Bear" was his favorite story. Over 30 years later, she can still recite the first few pages, starting with, "In a windswept cabin, away up North, lived brave Pierre Bear."

Pierre Bear is a trapper in the north woods, who lives alone. One day he brings his skins into the trading post, and tells the lady bear he meets at the store that he is lonely. The next day she marries him. Pierre is happy because she cooks for him, and when he played his guitar she "giggled and clapped." Then they have a baby bear. Pierre and his little boy go seal hunting together, then Mrs. Pierre sews warm coats out of the seal furs for the whole Bear family. They live happily ever after, clubbing dozens of baby seals every spring...

Okay, I made up that last part. Pierre and little Pierre actually shoot the biggest seal they can find with their adorable matching father/son shotguns. But really, the only way to make this story more offensive to feminists and animal rights activists would be to club some baby seals. Interestingly, this story was written by Patricia Scarry, not Richard, which makes the line about Mrs. Pierre giggling and clapping even funnier to me. I love this story mostly because it is such a story of its own era, that would not be written today.

"Pierre Bear" can be found in "Richard Scarry's Best Story Book Ever" -- the third printing, copyright 1968. The newer versions leave out Pierre Bear, but do include other classic tales such as, "Is this the House of Mistress Mouse" and "A Castle in Denmark" which helps children learn important household rules such as, "Don't let down the drawbridge to strangers."

Why your kid won't get a perfect SAT verbal score, you lazy bum

I took a little break from blogging so I could do what I actually like to do - READ. Reading is fun, easy, and interesting. Writing is hard. But I love to share what I've read, and I hate getting halfway through a book before realizing that I've already read it, so I'm back to the blog.
But what's this about SAT scores, you wonder? My kids are years and years away from college worries, but I am already getting a little anxious about their academic progress, or lack thereof. I noticed a book at the library which claimed to explain how to make every child an avid reader, and who doesn't want their kid to be an avid reader? Or at least who in the self-selected group of people who scan the new books section at the library?
"The Read-Aloud Handbook" by Jim Trelease starts with the story of Christopher, who scored a perfect 36 on the ACT, one of only 58 students out of 400,000 to do so. He did not take any prep courses - but his parents read to him for 30 minutes a day, year after year, even after he was able to read for himself. The book is full of anecdotes about parents who read to their children and end up with valedictorians and scholarship winners and Pulitzer-prize winners. (No mention is made of whether Ted Kaczynski or John Hinkley Jr. were read to by their parents.) According to this book, children are home for many more hours than they are in school, so it is up to the parents to prepare their kids for reading, enforce reading at home if necessary, and to read to their children to encourage a love of reading.
How is this going to help me? My kids have a house full of books and other reading material (we get three newspapers a day, for Pete's sake) and heaven knows my husband and I model lots of reading behavior. I read to my kids every day, although I admit I didn't start until each was about a year old, instead of starting in the womb as the book recommends. So how did I end up with a daughter who hates to read? Did I just not read enough? Erin's mom read her seven books after breakfast and nine after lunch - now Erin is brilliant! It must be because Erin's mother cares enough to do everything right, unlike the pathetic mom that my poor daughter is stuck with. Three papers a day, and all I'm reading to her is the "Garfield" cartoon and one lousy chapter at bedtime.
It sounds like I hated this book, but once I got past the really, really annoying anecdotes, there were actually some useful ideas.
I will try to read to my kids for a longer time each day. In choosing books, I'll keep in mind that kids can understand material at a higher level than they could read for themselves. And I want to require my daughter to do some reading of her own every day. I tend not to make her read because she dislikes it. My excuse is that I'm already making her practice piano and spelling, so why make her even more miserable? But this book reminds me that improving her reading skills through practice is the best way to help her enjoy reading in the long run. And if we can improve her reading, maybe the rest of her academic work will become easier and more enjoyable.
Now I'm not sure I'll follow all of the advice in this book, for example to keep reading to your kids through middle school and high school. There is a wonderful photo of the author sitting at the kitchen table, reading aloud to his then seventh-grade son while his son washes the dishes. Oddly, the teenager doesn't look like he wants to kill his dad. I'll let you know in 6-9 years if my kids are still letting me read to them in seventh grade! Of course, if they still aren't reading themselves I guess I will have no choice...

Sunday, March 11, 2007

How to Find a Lost Love

No, this is not going to be an advertisement for one of those services that helps you find that guy you thought was cute in 9th grade. This is about true love - the love you feel for a really great book.
Now, sometimes you can remember the face of that cute kid from 9th grade math class, but you can't actually remember his name. Books can be like that too. That is one of the reasons I am writing this blog - as premature senility creeps in and I lose my memory, it helps me to keep track of my reading. But what about the books I loved as a child? Sometimes I can remember the plot or a character, but have no memory of the title of the book or the author.
So, somehow I stumbled upon the Loganberry Books website. They have a section called "Stump the Bookseller." For a fee of $2, you send in a note with all the information you remember about your favorite, forgotten childhood book. Then you wait, to see if somebody can identify your book from the measly clues you provide.
Well, I quickly signed into Paypal and sent in my clues - "Three generations of a family, maybe in Pennsylvania. First generation builds log cabin, makes soap. Second generation sees stagecoach go by. Kids ride on steam train, boy gets cinder in eye." Sadly, these were all the specifics I could remember.
I waited about a week to check back in - and found that two people had identified my book, days earlier! So I ordered my book, received it, and sure enough it is the exact book that I remember. As I flipped through the pages, every illustration made me say, "Yes! I remember this! And that! And oh yeah that one too!" It takes place in Indiana, not Pennsylvania, but the boy does get a cinder in his eye. There are plenty of other events in the book, so I have no idea why the cinder is what I remembered.
The cute boy from math class is probably an alcoholic with anger management issues and an ulcer, but this book is still the same book that I loved back in elementary school. It's not great literature, but it is somewhat similar to the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, in that it shows you what life was like for families living long ago. It is full of details about how they made their own soap, and what everyone wore and ate at a wedding, and of course the famous steam train ride.
I'm having a great time reuniting with my old love. Who is this long-lost darling? It is "Smiling Hill Farm" by Miriam E. Mason, copyright 1937. Many thanks to the helpful readers who brought us back together. May we never part again!

Peter and the Starcatchers

Have you ever wondered why Peter Pan never grows up? Or why Captain Hook hates him? Where did that giant crocodile come from? And why are the mermaids jealous of Wendy?
We were able to answer those questions by reading "Peter and the Starcatchers" by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson. We just finished it, all 79 chapters. We've read about two chapters per night, so we've been working on this for quite a while. My six-year-old daughter loved it. She said her favorite part was when (*SPOILER ALERT!*) the good guys finally beat the bad guys. She found this book endlessly exciting, often wailing that we couldn't stop reading with the heroes in peril. However, when almost every chapter ends with a cliff hanger, you never get to stop at a boring place.
For me, the book had a lot of drama and humor, as you would expect from this combination of authors. It was fun to see the plot twist around to set everything up for the original "Peter Pan" story (this is a good time to admit that I've never actually read "Peter Pan", but I am well acquainted with the Disney movie.) Some of the humor went over my daughter's head, for example when a pirate ship puts up its special, high-speed sails referred to as "the ladies" and the illustration shows sails that resemble an enormous corset with huge bosoms.
In general, this book is probably more appropriate for older children than six years olds. The children in the story are frequently in mortal danger, threatened with whips, swords, and the aforementioned giant crocodile. A pirate asks for his cabin boy and is reminded that he made the boy walk the plank. There is a lot of talk about children and other people being beaten or killed. I thought this would be disturbing to my daughter, but she seemed to completely trust that the "good guys" would all be fine at the end of the book. But for some younger children, I think this book could be very scary.
For me, the most irritating part of this book was also a part of the movie "Peter Pan" that always bothered me. Why are all the female characters competing with each other for Peter's attention? I found the "humorous" comments about female jealousy to be annoying, not funny. But, as I said, this female jealousy theme is in the "Peter Pan" movie also, so maybe Barry and Pearson were just duplicating that part of the story.
So, anyway, I had some issues with this book, but my daughter did not. She thought it was great fun and very exciting. For kids who love action and adventure on the high seas, this could be a great read.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Signs in Our World

Two nights in a row, my son has asked me to read "Signs in Our World" by DK Publishing. Notice that there is no author. It is not that kind of book.
My son opens this book and points to a color photograph of a street sign and says, "What this sign say, mommy?" and I say, "No U-turn" or "Truck Route" or "Kangaroo Crossing." If I try to point to signs, my hand is gently brushed away and my son says, "No, I do that." There is a strict protocol for reading this kind of book. He points, I name.
Reading this kind of book bores me silly. I have no chance for dramatic reading or funny accents, because nothing happens and there are no characters. Because I am bored, my mind wanders to thoughts like, "Why does my son like this boring book? Is this a sign of Asperger's syndrome? But if he had that, wouldn't he be smarter?" and of course these are not helpful thoughts to have so soon before my own bedtime. I don't need to lie back and fret more than I would anyway.
But of course the reason I let the kids pick their own bedtime stories is so they can pick the books they are interested in. Sometimes those aren't the same ones that I am interested in, because my kids are not me. And I don't want them to be me, or just like me. I just want them to learn to read so they can get through these boring books without me.

Monday, March 5, 2007

It's So Amazing!

Recently, my six-year-old daughter has been asking a lot of questions about where babies come from, and the old "from mommies' tummies" line wasn't cutting it anymore. Based on referrals from two good sources (Asha Dornfest at Parenthacks http://www.parenthacks.com/ and Marjorie Ingall at The Jewish Daily Forward http://www.forward.com/articles/learning-the-facts-of-life/) I ordered "It's So Amazing! A Book About Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies, and Families" by Robie H. Harris and Michael Emberley.
Well, this book answers every question my daughter had and a few she hadn't thought of yet. This really is a soup-to-nuts book that covers everything: anatomy, puberty, sexual intercourse, fetal development, "not okay touches", adoption, birth control, masturbation, and AIDS. I have to admit, I skipped over the last two topics because I was a little overwhelmed over the amount of information we covered in a short time. My daughter, on the other hand, took it all in stride. The book is for ages seven and up, but it seemed like it would be at the right level for any early elementary student.
The cute, cartoon-style illustrations show everything from the anatomy differences between males and females of various ages to a syringe shooting a sterilized egg into the uterus after artificial insemination. And Emberley makes that look cute! My three-year-old son is endlessly fascinated by the illustrations of the sperm speeding through the vas deferens, but I'm not sure he has any idea what the book is actually about. His time will come soon enough!
I would consider myself a pretty open, non-repressed person, so I was surprised that it was difficult to talk about reproduction with my kids before we got this book. I wasn't sure how much information my kids needed to know. I wanted my daughter to have honest information, but I didn't want a vagina monologue at the dinner table. This book really helped me. It provides enough information to answer a young child's questions, and presents it in a cheerful, matter-of-fact way.
Like I said, I did skip a few sections, but I'll go back and cover those soon. And this book will make it a lot easier. I'm hoping that by starting the conversation now, my kids will feel comfortable talking to me about all of these topics as they grow older.
The same team has written a book for ages 4 and up called, "It's Not the Stork" and a book for ages 10 and up called, "It's Perfectly Normal." I'm eagerly waiting for their adult books, "It's Not Hot in Here -- You're Having a Hot Flash" and "It's Perfectly Normal to Need Viagra at Your Age."

Sunday, March 4, 2007

All Aboard!

Tonight's bedtime story was "All Aboard!" by James Stevenson. This is a comic-book style story with panels and dialogue balloons, but the artwork has a loose, watercolor look using muted colors, not superhero brights. The story takes place in 1939, as Hubie and his family take a train to New York City to see the World's Fair. Hubie accidentally gets on the wrong train, then falls off that train, gets lost in a sandstorm, and has lots of wild adventures before finally meeting back up with his family at the World's Fair. Hubie and his family are mice, a friendly train conductor is a pig, and Miss Betty Beagle, the famous aviatrix, is of course a beagle. This is a fun, exciting story, made even better for my audience by the TRAINS.
Tonight I noticed for the first time that there are two more Hubie stories, so I've ordered "The Stowaway" from the library. I'll probably be blogging about it soon!
Also coming soon will be a full report on "Peter and the Starcatchers," as we have only a couple more chapters to go.
I have no books to report on myself, because between window shopping on Etsy, baking brownies and graham crackers, and reading the Sunday New York Times, I just haven't gotten much (other) reading done.

Saturday, March 3, 2007

The Story of the Three Little Pigs

My son chose this classic tale by Joseph Jacobs for his bedtime story - and this is definitely a classic version, not a sweetly modernized and non-violent version where the three little pigs end up making friends with the wolf.
On the title page, the mother pig (referred to as "an old sow" in the book) is shown throwing up her hands because her cupboard is bare. As the story begins, she sends her little pigs out to seek their fortunes as she cannot keep them. The first two little pigs make their houses out of straw and furze, and are promptly eaten by the wolf. The wolf, of course, cannot blow down the third little pig's brick house, so instead he tries to lure the pig out by offering to show him fields of turnips and apple trees. The pig is more clever than the wolf, and outwits him at every turn. When at last the wolf comes down the chimney, the little pigs boils and eats him. The final illustration shows a satisfied pig with a big round tummy, ready to live happy ever after. It's a lovely picture, complete with crackling fire, steaming mug, quilt, and houseplant. All the illustrations, by Lorinda Bryan Cauley, are pretty and rather old-fashioned looking.
I personally love the classic fairy tales, complete with gory punishments for the bad guys. I would hate to read a version where the pigs convinced the wolf to be their friend. What kind of a weird lesson does that teach kids? Next they'd be telling me that our gecko should make friends with the crickets we toss in her cage every week, instead of eating them. I prefer that we continue to enjoy watching her snap those crickets up with grace and speed.
There is a fun, updated version of the three little pigs story that we liked, called "The Three Little Rigs" by David Gordon. Instead of pigs, there are little trucks sent off to build their own garages, where they are threatened by the mean magnet, the cruel cutter, and the wrecking ball. And no, they don't learn to be friends - the bad guys end up in the melting pot. Good riddance!

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Larry's Party

"Larry's Party," by Carol Shields, is about the life of a guy named Larry. Larry seems to think he has a pretty ordinary life, but as you get to know the various characters and hear all the anecdotes, it adds up to a very rich and interesting life. Larry's parents immigrate to Canada (for a reason which is so awful and yet so funny that I wouldn't dream of spoiling it for you) and raise him and his sister in lower-middle-class neighborhood. His mother orders a brochure from the community college about "Furnace Repair" but by accident receives one about "Floral Arts" instead. So Larry gets a degree in Floral Arts. As Larry sees it, much of his life involves stumbling into various places and relationships without really intending to go in that direction. Larry literally stumbles through a maze on his honeymoon, and develops an obsession with mazes that turns into a career.
There is a lot of humor in this book (how seriously can you take a book with a chapter titled, "Larry's Penis"?) but the characters and situations seem very real. Larry has a tendency to look at his life and think, "how the heck did I end up here, doing this?" which I have often wondered about myself. But the pieces of Larry 's life really do fit together in a fascinating way. I liked this book a lot.

Bill and Pete Go Down the Nile

My son doesn't just like trains. He also likes crocodiles. On a recent trip to the library, he picked out "Bill and Pete Go Down the Nile" by Tomie dePaola. Now I know dePaola is a famous author who has written and illustrated tons of books, but somehow we haven't read many. However, this book is so fun that we will look for more.
Bill is the crocodile and Pete is his friend and his toothbrush (remember those birds that clean the crocodile's teeth?). They go to school and learn all about their neighborhood, the Nile river. The class is thrilled to go on a field trip to see mummies, pyramids, and the Sphinx (which Bill calls the "Stinks" until Pete corrects him). Then Bill and Pete get to catch a Bad Guy who is trying to steal from the museum. It is simple, charming little story. My kids love how the little crocodiles all say, "OOOOOO" as they see each famous site. The illustrations are adorable - the page showing all the little crocodiles in a line climbing up the side of a pyramid makes me laugh every time I see it.
This book has been a particular hit at our house because while my son likes the crocodiles, my daughter is crazy about ancient Egypt. But I think most kids age 3-7 or so would enjoy it. It is cute, funny, and beautifully illustrated. And I've just discovered on www.tomie.com that there are other Bill and Pete books! Off to the library we go...

Possibly the best train books ever

I can't tell you how many times, over the last year, I have read stories from "The Little Red Train Storybook: Four Fabulous Adventures" by Benedict Blathwayt. I picked it up in the Bargain Books section of Borders for my son, the train fanatic. Cost per read, it may have been the best bargain I have ever gotten.
The Little Red Train is a small steam engine that, unlike Thomas the Tank Engine, does not have a face and is never cheeky. The most human thing this engine ever does is sigh, using its whistle. This engine is too busy pulling passengers and freight through the English countryside to worry about dragons and ghosts and all the other issues Thomas has.
And what a countryside! In the author's bio, it says he loves pictures that you can 'go for a walk in' and he must love his own illustrations. They are so charming, and so detailed that you can find new sights even after reading a story many times. We just recently noticed that in the story "Little Red Train to the Rescue," various animals climb on the train as it stops in different places, and then you can find them scattered across the illustration of the train's final destination.
The text is readable and enjoyable for both kids and parents. Several of the stories include repetitive elements so kids can chime in with their parents after a few readings. My son will read almost any book about trains, but even my six-year-old daughter likes the Little Red Train stories and will complain if we start while she is still brushing her teeth. Her favorite is "Green Light for the Little Red Train" in which the little red train is accidentally sent through the Channel tunnel and drives through France, Spain, Italy, and several Scandinavian countries before arriving home. Because the pictures are so detailed, my son can happily sit and "read" the stories to himself if I am busy.
I would highly recommend these stories for any kids age 3-8, and to any parent who is a little tired of all the engines on the island of Sodor and needs some new train reading material.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

"The Party, After You Left"

I took the kids to school, then spent the day sick in bed. I was so happy that I had picked up "The Party, After You Left" at the library yesterday, because I needed something to cheer me up. It is a book of cartoons by Roz Chast, who publishes many of her cartoons in the New Yorker magazine.
Chast's cartoons range across subjects from gravestones (at Mom's Mortuary, one reads, "He Moved to Florida and BOOM: Five Minutes Later He Was Dead" and another, "She Was Never the Same after that Crackpot Diet" - only works if you read with a New Yawk accent), to magazines ("Schadenfreude Monthly" is my favorite), to families (in "Dream Parents" the smiling dad says, "You're going out with Johnny? Oooh, I saw his name in the Police Log! He's FAMOUS!")
Of course, these may not sound funny at all since you aren't seeing the cartoon. But trust me, they are very funny in person. Assuming that your sense of humor is similar to mine and that of other people who flip through the New Yorker and read all the cartoons before even starting any articles.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Not worth the late fees...

Last weekend, Paul and I planned to actually go to a movie theater and see a movie, in a real live movie theater. This was at least a monthly experience before we had kids, but now is more of a semiannual event. There wasn't anything that we were excited about seeing, we just wanted the movie experience.
We were going to drop the kids off at the hourly daycare center and catch "Ghost Rider" (the only movie we could agree on.) But we kept getting distracted and missing movie times, so we finally decided to just rent a movie to watch after the kids went to bed. This then led to one of those annoying cell phone conversations as I walked down the aisle reading movie titles as Paul said, "no, no, no, no way, no," and then finally "yes" to "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest."
Now, I've always had a soft spot for both goofy action movies and pirates, and I enjoyed the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, despite the lame ending. But the second movie was such a letdown. There were some clever sequences, but everything went on for far too long. And it may be hard for a writer to choose between different sequences, but how many shots did we need of people rolling around the jungle in various big round things?
The movie was so long and repetitive that both Paul and I fell asleep before it was over. And then we never seemed to find time to sit and watch the rest of it together. So we ended up paying $7 in late fees by the time we got around to it. And this movie was certainly not worth the over $10 we paid to watch it. Maybe I need to get a Netflix account, or maybe I should just stick to reading...

Monday, February 19, 2007

Good Books I've Read This Year

My favorite so far is "The Keep" by Jennifer Egan. A story about two cousins renovating a mysterious European castle turns our to be a story written by a prisoner in a prison writing class, then turns into something else. I often find stories within stories to be annoying and pointless. In this case, the author pulls it off so skillfully that it adds mystery and really pulls you along. I am also annoyed by stories that either leave you hanging or over-explain everything. Egan finds just the right balance for my taste. A wonderful read. I remember liking "Look at Me" by Egan, but "The Keep" is even better.

I ordered "Arthur and George" by Julian Barnes from the library, and when it finally arrived I couldn't remember anything about it. I started reading, gradually realizing that something about Arthur (referred to only by his first name) seemed familiar - and suddenly realized that he is an actual historic person. So is George, although I hadn't heard of him before, and all the incidents in the book are based on fact. I found the story fascinating. If you want to read it the way I did, don't read the back cover or flap, as it will give away who the characters really are. The story involves crimes, courts, families, love, and racial prejudice. Parts of the story are hard to put down - I stayed up too late reading this one.

"Poison Study" by Maria Snyder begins with a young woman about to be executed for murder. Instead, she is offered a job as a food taster for a political leader. It is a romantic adventure in a fantasy setting complete with magic, swords, and evil aristocrats. Will the pretty, plucky heroine defeat said evil aristocrat with the help of her brave friends? Well, of course, but it is fun to see how it happens. The second book is "Magic Study". Not quite as good, but still a fun read.

"His Majesty's Dragon" by Naomi Novik is another fun read, "Eragon" meets "Master and Commander". It takes place during the Napoleonic wars, with the exception that in this world, units of dragons from France and Britain fight in the air above the naval fleets. A naval officer captures a dragon egg from a French ship and accidentally bonds with the newborn dragon. This requires him to leave the navy and join the very different environment of the dragon corps. Imagine Captain Wentworth from Jane Austen's "Persuasion" transported to the world of Anne McCaffrey's "Dragonriders of Pern" and you'll get a taste of this book. I've also read the sequel "Throne of Jade" and am saving the next installment for a trip in March. This is perfect airplane reading - light but compelling.

"St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves"

This is a book of short stories by Karen Russell. Now, with a title like that, I expected the stories to be a little bit odd. But when I read the first story, about two girls alone at the Swamplandia Gator Theme Park, I just didn't get into it. It was too strange and uncomfortable and what was going on, anyway? So I put the book down for a while. The next story, however, caught my interest. It's about two brothers searching for their sister, or the ghost of their sister, or the body of their sister. There's some wonderful details, like their toothless grandmother who subsists on banana-based soft foods, and is referred to as Granana.
All the stories include elements that are supernatural, mythical, or at least bizarre. Some of the stories incorporate these elements in a way that succeeded in drawing me into a different sort of world. My favorite was narrated by a boy whose family goes west in a wagon train - a familiar story, except that his father is a minotaur who pulls their wagon. All the stories are about children or teenagers, finding their way. The stories set up interesting situations and characters, but in some of the stories not much happens, and there is rarely a resolution.
I didn't love this book, but it was unusual and interesting. And memorable - I think I'll remember some of the stories for a long time.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

House Envy

I'm looking through "Inside the Not So Big House: Discovering the Details that Bring a Home to Life" by Sarah Susanka and Marc Vassallo. I think that I would gladly trade my so big house for any of these little jewels (well, maybe not the 650 square foot condo.) Frankly, with at least one house at 4000 square feet, Susanka is stressing the detailing and thoughtful design of these homes more than their compactness and efficiency. The styles range from modernist ranch to arts and crafts bungalow to a houseboat, but all feature beautiful wood and are carefully crafted with unusual and useful features. It's like the love child of Metropolitan Home and Pottery Barn, but without the sales pitch (except for the pitch to use an architect if you want your house to look as great as these).
This book makes me want to sell my house and build one from scratch. Or at least do some remodeling. If any of these houses had basements full of ugly wallpaper and scratchy rough cedar paneling, they did not get them featured in this book.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

What We Are Reading

I'm re-reading "Too Close to the Falls" by Catherine Gildiner for my Book Club meeting this month. I got the book from my mother-in-law, lent it to my friend Jamie, and she loved it so much she suggested that we all read it.
It is a memoir about a girl growing up in upstate New York, near Niagra Falls, in the 1950's. When she is four, her mother asks her pediatrician what to do with her overly-active and irrepressible child. The doctor recommends that her daughter burn off her excess energy with hard manual labor, and so Catherine starts working full-time in her father's drug store before she starts kindergarten.
The chapters of the book describe various adventures and quirky experiences. She delivers drugs all over the county, has a deep personal relationship with people she sees on television, battles authority figures, and tries to fit herself into a world where girls are supposed to be quiet, sit still, and obey their elders. The chapters jump around a bit. They are arranged by theme and are not chronological. It reads like a series of short stories, which makes it easy to pick up and put down. It's a very enjoyable book.

One of my son's favorite books currently is "Firefighter Frank" by Monica Wellington. It is a picture book about firefighters' routines between and during fires. The pictures are stylized and cartoony while still being realistic enough for a fan of firefighting equipment and trucks. The story is simple but written clearly and in a way that is a pleasure to read. We've liked this one a lot and will be sad to return it to the library (after two renewals.)

My daughter and I are working our way through "Peter and the Starcatchers" by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, illustrated by Greg Call. It is a prequel to Peter Pan. This book is fun and exciting enough that I am tempted to read ahead while she is a school (but so far I have resisted.) It may not be appropriate for some young children as it revels in the gory cruelty of pirates and the Dickensian horrors of being an orphan. As various things are revealed in this book, my daughter likes to speculate on how they will relate to Peter Pan (we haven't read that book, just seen the Disney movie many, many times.)