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.)