Tuesday, July 31, 2007
Find yourself a book that suits you - set sliders on scales such as funny/serious, safe/disturbing, short/long. So if you're like me and you want a very funny book that is also somewhat disturbing and fairly violent, and not too long... whichbook lets you ask for it! and then delivers suggestions! Fucken jenius! How many times does some lady say, "Ohh, I just want something fun but sad for the beach," and I go, "Uhhhhhhh..."
It's hard to describe. Here's a screenshot:
Each of those scales on the left has a slider you can set. So far, I've tried lots of combinations and never stumped it. And, being British, Whichbook offers choices that are slightly off the beaten path for U.S. readers, increasing the chance that you'll find something you've never heard of.
Whichbook apparently also interfaces with the British library system, so when you find a book that suits you, you can hit a button marked "Borrow it." Dag jab it, that is some swanky tech.
(So what's the bad news you ask? There is none - "Good news, bad news" is the title of a book by David Wolstoncroft that I'm going to read based on Whichbook's suggestion and posted review.)
Sunday, July 29, 2007
I would argue that you cannot be a parent of small children, and thus an ancillary consumer of the culture aimed at them, without becoming something of a connoisseur of animation, old and new.
I can't stand the crappy pre-Pixar Disney movie animation of, for example, The Rescuers or Fox and Hound. The way Mowgli's feet don't appear to make contact with the ground in Jungle Book makes me crazy. And spectacularly uneven films such as Bedknobs and Broomsticks, with the inventive undersea scenes balanced by the relatively mediocre jungle soccer match, just leave me shaking my head.
Now that animation is once again held to a higher standard, I feel like the phenomenal art geeks that make movies such as The Incredibles and Ratatouille throw in super-stylized credit sequences that are entirely superfluous but totally appreciated by the grownups who have sat through these movies for the sake of a couple hours' peace.
Yesterday's brief look at Too Many Cooks, illustrated by Nate Wragg, the Pixar guy who did the end credits for Ratatouille, led to a short exploration of the world of vintage cartoons and animation. Interesting stuff.
I know a lot about "comic book artists" like Peter Kuper and Charles Burns, the Pander Brothers, etc., but the cutie little hepcat illustrations like the ones that adorned my mom's late-1950's cookbooks and jazz albums never registered as art to me. You put them all together, though, as Amid Amidi, the author of book and blog Cartoon Modern, has, and by god you've got an oeuvre!
I remember these images and cartoons from my childhood, but I kind of can't remember where. Logos on Milton Bradley board games? Cartoon shorts on PBS? In any case, they absolutely stick out in my memory. Even as an idiot child, they somehow felt to me smarter, more avant garde... they were the Ernie Kovacs to the Flintstones' Milton Berle. Nowadays, I tend to snap up books featuring them when I spot them at Salvation Army or Goodwill. And at the drive-in movie theater, the intermission shorts are ALL "Brush-a brush-a brush-a / Try the new Ipana," so much so that they have again become trite.
As I scroll through Amidi's blog, I am not too surprised to learn that Mr. Magoo is "modern". The colors in 101 Dalmatians are. That owl from our niece's hand-me-down "Disney Sing-along Songs". Tom & Jerry, Scooby Doo, and the Flintstones are basically not.
Here's to more Bullwinkle, less Hunchback.
Saturday, July 28, 2007
Don't squeal unless it's a big deal by Jeanie Franz Ransom, illustrated by Jackie Urbanovic.
Snatched this one up right quick. "It's 'Stop Snitchin'' for K-3!" I cried. But I didn't get to read it right off the bat... Token Boy Librarian did, however, and reports that it's not so much Stop Snitchin' as it is "I don't care about your damn problems". And so it is - the kids in Mrs. McNeal's class are running to her every second complaining about each other... and Mrs. McNeal explains patiently to each one that she is not going to get in the middle of yet another marker squabble or he-said/she-said tail-pulling episode. Thank god my children don't have tails.
Being Caribou: Five months on foot with a caribou herd, by Karsten Heuer.
Given this title, and the labor of love that it implies (not to mention the dissertation and the grant funding), this book would have to be pretty crappy not to get the thumbs up. It is not. Crappy, I mean. Beautiful pictures of a less-than-thoroughly-documented part of the world, and a comprehensive look at the life of a caribou herd.
Dino Pets by Lynn Plourde, illustrated by Gideon Kendall.
Sweet. Good. Well-illustrated. Silly. Informative (back page lists facts about each animal featured). My kids will like it.
Too Many Cooks, rhymes by Margaret McNamara, pictures by Nate Wragg.
Much better than your usual movie tie-in, this counting and cooking book features the rats of Ratatouille, done in the style of the movie's credits, reminiscent of 1950's jazz albums and novelty handkerchiefs. Personally, I thought the credits were the best part of that movie. Liberal use of terms such as "aioli" and "roux" might slow down any reading of this book aloud, but it does have a glossary. I'm a big fan of cooking books for kids - Pretend Soup and Revolting Recipes both get a lot of play in our house.
Penguin, by Polly Dunbar.
Oh, YES! It's simple, yet not predictable. Illustrations that go "ping"! I'm not going to spoil it for you except to say Trust Penguin. Love it, and 3 other grownups in the workroom have laughed out loud reading it too.
Número Uno, by Alex Dorros and Arthur Dorros, illustrated by Susan Guevara.
Meh. Overlong moral lesson about how both strength and intelligence are valuable, and arguing is not. Useful for all the Spanish words, and the colors are nice.
Heat Wave, written by Eileen Spinelli, illustrated by Betsy Lewin.
Whoa, strong team! Betsy Lewin is the art half of Click Clack Moo, and Eileen Spinelli, in addition to being Mrs. Jerry Spinelli, wrote In Our Backyard Garden and many other fine books. The illustrations of the various strategies the townspeople employ to beat the heat are clear and expressive, and I especially like the last few pages. As everyone sleeps through the hottest night, under the "silvery moonlight," they all dream of rain. The language and the pictures really pull that off.
Alligator Boy, by Cynthia Rylant and Diane Goode.
You can't go wrong by starting your book with a picture of the American Museum of Natural History. This book, along with Emily Jenkins' equally great Daffodil, Crocodile, explores the joy and freedom of stepping into another's skin for a while. There are a lot of books that preach, "Be Yourself," but these two give a kid the freedom to Be a Reptile sometimes as well. Nice.
Five Nice Mice, presented by Chisato Tashiro.
Love the illustrations, love the mice making their own instruments... the message about interspecial harmony, ehhh.
A Porc in New York, by Catherine Stock.
You may have to be a New Yorker, or former New Yorker, to love this book, in which Farmer Monmouton's animals fly from France to the Big Apple for a super-touristy vaycay (MoMA, Bloomingdales, Circle Line, etc. At least they don't take a carriage ride, that would be weird.). But you don't have to be a New Yorker to at least LIKE it, with its detailed, witty illustrations and good-natured sense of adventure.
"The Trouble with Dogs..." said Dad, by Bob Graham.
The family has one big lazy lay-around dog, and one small jumpy troublesome dog. They get some discipline for the little dog, then realize they liked him better as a troublemaker. Oh, but it's cute! Kids will love Dave (the jumpy dog), much as they love David Shannon's Fergus (and for that matter, David Shannon's David).
Hair for Mama, by Kelly A. Tinkham, illustrated by Amy June Bates.
I am going to hell. I saw this book, with a picture of a aspirational-looking little boy on the cover, and asked the room at large, "What do you think's gonna happen here? He's saving up all his pocket money to buy mama a new weave?" Oh, yeah. Going to hell. Mama has CANCER, and the chemotherapy has made her bald, and little boy gets all his hair shaved off so that he can give it to Mama and holy crap where do we keep that damn Kleenex? Add this one to your stock of Difficult Themes books.
Piglet and Papa, by Margaret Wild, illustrated by Stephen Michael King.
Yet another farm-animal bedtime story about how much we love our children. I'm getting sleepy myself.
Yes we can! by Sam McBratney, illustrated by Charles Fuge.
Nobody likes to be laughed at, in this little story about animal friends who each are good at something. Sooo sleepy.
Has anyone seen my Emily Greene? by Norma Fox Mazer, illustrated by Christine Davenier.
For very little kids who can't get enough of playing hide and seek with mom and/or dad. Did you get tired of that game? I did. Verrry tired.
My Dog Lyle, by Jennifer P. Goldfinger.
Lyle looks like an ordinary dog, but in fact he is an excuse to collect a dozen evocative adjectives. Kind of a fun book.
Rough, Tough Charley, by Verla Kay, illustrated by Adam Gustavson.
Interesting. A true story in verse, the biography of Charley Parkhurst, a stagecoach driver in Wyoming who was discovered to be a woman upon his death. I wonder about this book: is K-3 a little young for trying to explain cross-dressing and gender inequality?
Dadblamed Union Army Cow by Susan Fletcher, illustrated by Kimberly Bulcken Root.
Now here is a true story that seems a little more appropriate for a K-3 audience. Apparently, a cow traveled with a regiment of Indiana Volunteers during the Civil War, providing the soldiers with milk. The author has used the cow as a window on the various experiences of a Civil War soldier, employing enough colorful vernacular and funny animal stuff ("Dadblamed cow said, 'Moo.'") to make it a fun book about a serious subject. An author's note provides additional information about the cow.
Little Neighbors on Sunnyside Street by Jessica Spanyol.
This book reminds me of Richard Scarry. Remember how much fun it was to pore over the detailed drawings in Busy Busy Town or Cars and Trucks and Things That Go? God, we must have read Cars and Trucks and Things That Go to Big Man One Hundred Million times. That goddamn pig family... anyway. Nowadays his books seem pretty horrific - it's always the primates that are the miscreants, and every female wears an apron - so it's nice that Jessica Spanyol has provided this rich, full, funny alternative. It's the bugs driving their little cars that put me in mind of it.
Walter the Farting Dog: Banned from the Beach by William Kotzwinkle, Glenn Murray, and Elizabeth Gundy.
Glad I have a chance to weigh in on Walter. I am not against Walter. Some kids think Walter is THE SHIT. But not many. The fact is, the art in the Walter books is so ugly that most kids I know really recoil from it. The message, that no matter how disgusting you are (and let's face it, there are few beings more disgusting than a farting dog), you may have a good heart and perform heroic deeds... just gets more and more predictable as the series progresses. And apart from genius lines like, "Walter farted," these books are not even all that funny.
Haym Salomon: American Patriot by Susan Goldman Rubin, illustrated by David Slonim.
Well it's about time we had a juvenile biography of "the financier of the American Revolution." He was apparently a fairly important guy, even though "financier" doesn't quite have the dash of "general" or "spy." This book is well-researched and engaging, with cartoony illustrations that really enhance the story.
Thursday, July 26, 2007
Boy 1 got Boy 2 in the face with a shovelful of mud (yes, that shovel up above, and thank god it's plastic). I am almost 100% sure by accident.
Ergo, Monday morning was spent at the doc in the box, and the rest of Monday was spent trying to subtly ascertain whether or not the child was seeing double. Very hard to get that kind of information out of a four-year-old.
that's gonna leave a mark
Scrounged every free minute to read Harry Potter before someone spoiled it for me.
Ergo children went without socks and I went commando for two days (v. behind on laundry).
Saw a rat traveling from the compost to the veg garden.
Ergo pest control guy ($200, he did an ant-go-'way spell too) and new, sealed, composter ($275).
photo by Big Man
Pruned the shrubs.
Ergo 12 nathanfillion insect bites. On the up side, I totally avoided the thorns of the wild rose bush that I have failed to kill every year since we moved here. Last year I cut that fucker off six inches below the soil, and it STILL came back.
Bought a minivan. Gonna miss that Subaru (Subaru means 'unite'!) but hey! no more fighting over whose phone gets the charger!
Almost forgot: Cat (or cats) expressed her displeasure at the ant treatment by pissing on the playroom bed. That always puts the cherry on top of any week.
Wednesday, July 25, 2007
My husband does not. He approaches loading the dishwasher like it's some kind of art project, mixing up plates and glasses and bowls, paying no attention to useful scraps of manufacturer advice like "top rack only".
If I try to add something to the dishwasher after he has been in there, I often end up rearranging what he's done to make it more space-efficient. I try try TRY not to complain about this. It's not his fault I'm a rigid modernist and fail to cherish his more Impressionist spirit. Also, he would be perfectly within his rights to say, "You don't like the way I do it? Well then I'll leave it for you to do. Every time."
But the other night, as I moved greasy bowls into a more logical arrangement, I suggested, "You know, I wouldn't be doing this if the dishwasher wasn't basically full already. You should go ahead and run it when it's this full, and that way I won't get all naggy on you about the retarded way you sling dishes into here."
I was nicer than that, and he took my advice with good grace. But as he passed into the dining room, Big Man, who is five, looked up from his coloring and, sounding like Desmond Tutu, said, "Dad? You should just do it her way."
Monday, July 23, 2007
Here are two things you can do when the CSA gives you red cabbage:
Strip off the outside leaves of the head of cabbage, chop em up coarsely (swear while you're doing it, how's that for coarse). Put the chopped cabbage in a heatproof nonreactive bowl or saucepan and pour boiling water over to cover. Let sit until cool. Discard the cabbage and keep the lovely purple water.
Your purple cabbage water is a homemade pH tester! Bases turn it varying shades of blue, green, and even yellow... acids turn it pink to magenta.
Some substances we tried - dish soap, baking soda, juice, milk, coffee, oil, bug spray, lime juice, tomato pulp, dirt, and chalk.
Chop and core the rest of the cabbage. Saute half an onion (chopped) in a large pan until it's sweet, then add the cabbage. Add some thyme or celery seeds if you like. Cook, tossing and stirring, until the cabbage is redder and softer, but not until it is limp.
Add 1/2 cup of cider vinegar to the hot pan, slap a cover on that baby, and remove from the heat. The vinegar steam will finish cooking the cabbage and the whole thing will come out unbelievably sweet.
Friday, July 20, 2007
Get a plastic tub of whole peeled garlic cloves. Keep it in the fridge, use the garlic. Live in peace. After a couple of weeks, that garlic is going to get a little bendy and a couple cloves will start to grow a little white fur. Throw the furry cloves in the compost, and put the rest in a small saucepan. Cover with olive oil. Turn flame to low. You're looking for a bare simmer, which you're going to let go for an hour or even two.
Let cool, transfer the garlic to a clean jar and pour in enough of the oil to cover. Will keep basically indefinitely in the fridge.
Spread it on toast. Mash it up and use it in dips, marinades, mashed potatoes. Use it in sandwiches. Live, as I said, in peace.
Thursday, July 19, 2007
And speaking of people embarrassing themselves right out in the open (this would be me now), what's with only the authors whose work I don't totally rave about coming to my blog? I don't write many bad reviews, and now I think I'm going to write even fewer... I feel like a big jerk because first Michael Buckley, and now Howard Whitehouse have left comments on my less-than-glowing reviews of their books. Snif. Thanks for not being pissed at me, guys.
Also? "Plotte" is French Canadian slang for cooter. I knew that, I didn't have to look it up.
Wednesday, July 18, 2007
I have now read seven novels starring 11-to-14-year-old orphans, or almost-orphans, or apparent orphans, in one month. Seven. It's not like I went looking for them either - believe me, you can't spit at the children's section without hitting an orphan. An orphan that in short order will find an extraordinary surrogate family - or his/her own long-lost family - in the bosom (or bowels) of which he/she will discover his/her true abilities or powers and face grave danger and adult-level responsibilities.
Quick reviews anon:
A Drowned Maiden's Hair by local hero and librarian Laura Amy Schlitz. Maud Flynn, 11, is a true orphan adopted by old ladies for nefarious purposes. I liked it, though I have good friends whose opinion I respect who didn't. Thumbs up from me.
The Fairy Tale Detectives by the extremely good-humored Michael Buckley. Apparent orphans (parents kidnapped) Sabrina, 11, and her sister Daphne, 7, are adopted by their eccentric granny, who involves them in her detective work among the fairy tale inhabitants of a small Hudson Valley town. Reviewed earlier, and thanks to Mr. Buckley's intervention, we're now listening to the second book in The Sisters Grimm series, The Unusual Suspects. It's Sabrina's anger that makes me uncomfortable with these books, I've decided. However, veteran narrator L.J. Ganser really seems to be hitting his stride with this second book, making it a more enjoyable ride.
Victory by Susan Cooper. 11-year-old Sam is estranged from his parents and living in London with his uncle when he is kidnapped by a press gang and brought aboard the HMS Victory to serve in the Royal Navy under Admiral Nelson. Reviewed earlier.
The Somebodies by N.E. Bode. Fern, 12, was switched at birth, later to find out she's really a member of a family hip-deep in magic (mother dead, father inept). I jumped into this series at the third book, sometimes a good strategy when you just want to find out whether a series is worth recommending. It's a funny book, grist for the voracious fantasy reader, but not particularly memorable. Thumbs in the middle.
Airborn by Kenneth Oppel. Our Matt Cruse, 14, has a mother, but lives and works aboard ship. His real family is the crew and officers, and it is there that his abilities shine. Reviewed earlier. Turns out Klaus, not Charlie, is going to play Matt in the movie.
The Faceless Fiend by Howard Whitehouse. Fourteen-year-old Emmaline has parents, but they sent her to boarding school - same thing, really. In The Faceless Fiend, Emmaline lives among a surrogate family consisting of extremely eccentric characters, in whose company her innate abilities are allowed to blossom as she faces danger. This is the forthcoming sequel to The Strictest School in the World, and I'm finding it kind of tedious so far, but I'm only halfway through.
The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan. Percy Jackson, 11, is not an orphan at the beginning of the book, and by the end of the book he's not an orphan again, and his father wasn't dead all along, but merely a characteristically-aloof Greek god, but Percy belongs in this group. Always in trouble at a succession of boarding schools, Percy is dyslexic and has ADHD, both of which turn out to be hereditary traits of his real family: the Olympian gods and their half-mortal progeny. Which he learns once he joins them at their special camp on Long Island. He has to come to grips with his unanticipated abilities and save the world from cosmic war, but that's barely over par for the course on which these orphan heroes play.
This book was predictable and formulaic, and yet! I liked it so much that when I saw the sequel at Target yesterday, I seriously considered buying it so that I could start reading it right away, even though I knew I could pick it up at work today. Is it the snappy dialogue that saves it? The mythic characters? Percy's relative lack of resentment given the upheavals in his life? Or is it just... exciting? I wish I could say for sure, because liking this book makes me feel pretty sheepish about dissing The Sisters Grimm. Thumbs up.
That Rowling chick has a lot to answer for. Sixty flazillion books sold. Kids crawling all over the library as if it holds something special just for them. Jim Dale's Grammy. And now, dozens of orphaned and abandoned pre-teen book characters.
But don't worry about them: I can just see them ripping free of their bindings, pooling their staggering reserves of grit, pluck, self-reliance, and magical paraphernalia, and confronting her at her manse in Scotland, demanding their parents back. Or maybe insisting that she adopt them.
Then, in addition to half a billion pounds, she'll have her own good-looking bad-ass superhero army - The League of Extraordinary Teenagers.
You know, that is not a bad idea. In ten years, they could go up against Angelina Jolie's gorgeous global brood.
Monday, July 16, 2007
Sigh. You know what? I think I'm too sensitive.
Pause to let my mother stop laughing. Careful, ma, you don't want to gag on your coffee.
No, really. I read Jeff Kinney's well-regarded, heavily-cartooned Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and I wanted to like it. I did like the cartoons - Kinney has a nice clear style and good composition. And I laughed out loud in a couple places. But - well, let's set this up:
The titular Wimpy Kid, Greg Heffley, is a middle-school lightweight. By his own reckoning, he's the 52nd or 53rd most popular kid this year. His life is full of the usual middle school misery - an older brother who plays tricks on him, a baby brother he sometimes has to tend, and a dorky best friend, Rowley, who has yet to get his middle-school groove on. The kind of guy a lot of kids can probably identify with.
And like a lot of kids, Greg always tries to find the easy way around the obstacles that face him. Unfortunately, the solutions he come up with frequently involve trying to copy the success of others, exploiting younger or less-popular kids, and crapping all over poor Rowley. Ick.
Now, granted, I'm a mother of boys, and it would break my heart to see my children exhibit the unremitting lack of consideration that mars Greg's every action. But the book isn't written for moms. If I were an eleven-year-old boy, would Greg's selfish schemes be real knee-slappers? Just because this character's behavior makes me uncomfortable, does that mean I wouldn't recommend the book? Besides, Greg redeems himself - very slightly, and almost by accident - in the end. Hm.
This is what's going to happen: I will recommend this book to the kid whose reading level has progressed beyond Captain Underpants but whose interest level has largely not - to the kid who likes the funny above all else, and probably to the kid who draws in his notebooks without cease. Can't write more: I've got my thumb stuck in a bottle of India Ink.
I was thinking about these illustrations later: the loopy jaws, the gaping mouths, and it occurred to me that Diary of a Wimpy Kid bears more than a stylistic resemblance to Peter Bagge's Hate. Greg Heffley could easily be a pre-teen Buddy Bradley - amoral and basically lazy - and Jeff Kinney's readers one could easily imagine growing up to be Hate readers. Worse things could happen to a kid, I'm here to tell you.
I'm not completely rescinding my distaste for this book, mind you. When older kids read Hate, they understand that Buddy's life sucks because Buddy is by and large a dickhead. I think that Greg's younger audience needs to have that spelled out a little, and this book doesn't ever explicitly do that (although I really love the mom - her eyes are blank behind her glasses, but her body language more than expresses her disgust for her son's actions. Maybe that's what made me think of Pete Bagge the most - her character, plus the baby brother calling Greg "Bubby," that should have tipped me right off).
To sum up: I still don't like Greg, but I'll read the sequel and I'll buy it for Big Man's school library. And if anyone is looking for me, I'll be hip-deep in the guest room closet, reliving my twenties with Buddy Bradley, Hopey & Maggie, the Post Bros, Julie Doucet, Roberta Gregory, and assorted other miscreants.
Saturday, July 14, 2007
The other morning, when our friends Nature Girl and Small Batch were being dropped off for their all-day playdate, my boys were ecstatic. Jumping up and down, chattering about all the things they were going to play with - the mulch pile, the pirate ship, the stump, etc. - they couldn't wait for the other moms, my friends Amy and Molly, to leave, practically pushing them out the door. After Amy and Molly had said their final goodbyes to their daughters and were heading out, Big Man could contain himself no longer.
"Come on, ladies!" he called to Nature Girl and Small Batch. "We're going to have a rockin' good time!"
I told him to knock it off, and reminded him that 'Stop' is a magic word, and asked him to apologize to his friends. As I went back to folding laundry, it occurred to me that sooner or later, every little girl comes to the conclusion that boys are obnoxious.
Nature Girl and her parents stayed for dinner that night. After dinner, the grownups were hanging out on the deck eating watermelon and throwing the rinds at Big Man and Nature Girl, who were playing in the yard below. Mr Four was up on the deck with us, puttering randomly. At one point, as I saw him climb onto the lower deck rail and hang his head and arms over the top rail, I asked him curiously, "Hey, what are you doing?"
"Nothing," he replied absently, dropping a plastic plant pot over the rail and watching it fall.
All four adults burst out laughing, and I leaned over the rail to see 4 pots below us in the yard.
Until I had kids of my own, I would NEVER have made generalizations about personality or behavior based on gender. I'm still not comfortable doing it, and besides, as I always say, all generalizations are bunk. ha ha.
But. When Molly and Amy came to get their daughters at the end of the day, one of them asked me, "So, now that you've spent the day with girls, you're really happy you have boys, right?" I thought about it. I have PLENTY of reasons to be happy I have boys: fairy princess obsession, hot pants, and menstruation are just some of the things that occur more frequently in the lives of girls than in the lives of boys. But after lunch, when I came around to clear up the dishes and trash, I found that two of the girls had already done it. Six year old girls. Without being asked.
I was dumbstruck. Had my sons done that, I would have checked them all over to make sure someone hadn't replaced them with little Stepford robots. Never gonna happen.
However: this morning, Big Man finished his breakfast, asked to be excused, took his plate to the kitchen, went upstairs and got dressed, then came down and asked if he could go outside and play. Just like that.
So, you know. Obnoxious. Enthusiastic. Inconsiderate. Speculative. Grunting and noncommittal. Polite and friendly. Boys.
Friday, July 13, 2007
So great: the sorted books project, via bookshelves of doom. Look at the titles on your shelf a different way. I am thinking that there's got to be some way to sort Motherless Brooklyn, Disease and History, No Mercy, and Bob's yearbook from Holy Name High School into a narrative, or at least a joke, but really, I should be vacuuming.
The Fairy-Tale Detectives (The Sisters Grimm, Book 1) by Michael Buckley. Ages 5-12.
Dag frag it. I checked out the cassette version of this book thinking that I wasn't that interested in reading what looked like another fractured fairy tale series, and that I could listen to a couple of chapters and then turn it back in. With its Snicket-y illustrations and big honkin' web site, its obvious echoes of Shrek and Hoodwinked, I just had a feeling that it would turn out to be a hack effort.
I was right. There's nothing new here. There are orphan sisters, the older one disaffected and suspicious, the younger one affectionate and trusting. There is the girls' long-lost family provenance, which gives them access to special tools but which is also a responsibility and a source of danger. Bla bla, disbelief, lack of trust, internal conflict, bla bla, peril to family results in epiphany for distrustful older sister, bla bla, action ensues, most of which is resolved by the use of mechanical plot devices. Devices such as a magic carpet, which will take you anywhere, very fast. Memory erasing dust. Pixies. Excalibur, which will kill anything, even a 200-foot giant, at a scratch.
God those devices make me nuts. Remember how X-Men got terrible as soon as Jean Grey became totally all-powerful? At that point you have to work in all kinds of plot contrivances to disable Jean Grey so that she can't just resolve every situation by turning the bad guy's molecules into wasabi peas and sending them to Saturn.
Same thing has to happen here, and it's lazy writing. The kids need to leave a house without using the door? Voilà! Here are Dorothy's ruby slippers - just click your heels together 3 times and they will take you anywhere you want to go. But... if the slippers can take you anywhere, can they take the children to their parents (who are OF COURSE not dead but only captured by mysterious enemies)? Sure they can - so let's go! We'll get the family reunited and be done with this series right away. But! Awww, the kid dropped a shoe on the run through the forest when the giant was chasing them. Too bad. And by the way why were we running through the forest when she could have just clicked her heels together and gotten out of harm's way? Oh for god's sake. I forget. All that dancing around to make the plot fit the rules makes me weary.
So it appears that I don't like the book. Happens. But why am I so sour about it? Why don't I just return it as planned and move on?
Well, as it happens... my kids love it. LOVE it. Can't wait to climb in the car to go to camp so they can hear more of the story. Are very disappointed if they have to ride in the Civic, which doesn't have a tape player. Their slightly-older friend Fairy Girl, who rides with us in the mornings, has only heard parts of the story, but is as mesmerized as they are.
Kids at the library as old as 12 are seeking it out. I have little choice but to recommend it to readers who have already finished every other fantasy series I can think of, and then those kids come back for more. Dag frag it. Thumbs in my ears.
Thursday, July 12, 2007
I am taking a quick break. I can take this quick break because we have 3 extra kids at the house today, giving us a grand total of 5! Sounds like a nightmare, no? But it's one of the things they don't tell you... 5 is easier than 2. They have entertained themselves all day and all I had to do was set up the Slip 'n' Slide and make a few sandwiches.
So what am I taking a break from if they're so easy? Well heck, life does go on, you know. I could be folding laundry. Weeding the garden. Marinating the fish. Sampling pretend ice cream made from the most violent shades Play-Doh has on offer. On the whole, I'd rather be doing...
...a book review! And not just any book review, a review of one of the most consistently beloved new books in recent years. Does anyone hate Jeanne Birdsall's debut novel Penderwicks? Let me look.... mmm, nope. All positive reviews, although Harold Bloom hasn't weighed in on it. The book won the National Book Award for Christ's sake. People use words like "gentle," "nostalgic," "innocent," and "not obnoxious," when they review it, and "not obnoxious," them's strong words in children's lit.
And here I am, jumping on the clover-scented hayride of praise. I read Penderwicks on vacation and I will say it was the perfect book to read at a rented beach house. It manages to have an interesting plot without resorting to magic or tragedy, and it manages to draw memorable, distinct characters without having to assign them glaring eccentricities or broad accents.
The cover kind of says it all: done in butter yellow and two misty shades of blue, it depicts the four Penderwick sisters, a dog and two bunnies in old-fashioned silhouette, all scampering across meadow-y turf. This book is as clean and uncomplicated and delicious as a strawberry you picked yourself, and if that simile makes you nauseous, well, you're not the only one.
But suck it up and recommend this book to anyone, boy or girl, who seems to be looking for a book that is merely a book, happy and drenched in summer sunlight. I would have passed it immediately on to Stretch, my seven-year-old niece, if it hadn't been a library book and she lives in Ohio. Thumbs up.
(Also: appeals to a broad age range. Audio version should be excellent for family car trips.)
Wednesday, July 11, 2007
I. The other day I was morosely poking around under the giant leaves of the huge cucurbita vines that have taken over the vegetable garden and are now on the march across the yard, trying not to stab myself on the prickly stems and hoping to discern what type of useless fleshy masses they are likely to produce (squash, which nobody but me will eat; gourds, which nobody but the squirrels can eat; or pumpkins, which can at least be carved into amusing faces), and a beam of sunlight shone down on this, a pumpkin (I am pretty sure) already the size of a basketball.
There is definitely something macho about your garden producing something this big.
II. A couple of weeks ago, when we came home from vacation, I raced around the back to check on the tomatoes. For a Baltimorean, there really is no point to gardening if you are not going to grow tomatoes. The most grizzled old men in town will discuss varieties and methods and share ripening tips like they were on public television, and then their wives will smugly gripe about having more tomatoes than they know what to do with come August. It's kind of cute.
I have had little luck in this yard with my tomatoes - one year the chickens ate all but the Romas, and last year the vegetable garden just wasn't getting enough sun - but this year I bought good little plants from a good company and planted them near to where the chickens used to be, in a spot that gets almost all the sun there is.
Before we left on vacation we had a few good-sized green ping-pong balls on the plants, but when we came back?
I had my first tomato sandwich of the year today: a sliced Big Beef tomato on white bread with mayonnaise and salt, and I ate it standing over the sink gazing blankly at the back yard, just like every Baltimore summer since I was old enough to make my own sandwiches.
III. I was using a Sharpie to make out a grocery list this morning (honey, children's vitamins, white bread) when the kids started talking about tattoos.
"Hey, You guys want Sharpie tattoos?" You don't have to ask this twice in our house - they were all over the idea.
"Ok, I'll give you Sharpie tattoos." Mr. Four asked for a star, so I gave him your classic tattoo-museum star.
"[Big Man]? What will you have?" And he pointed at the band around my forearm, and said "I want one of those."
I drew one of the stylized Bronze Age seashells from my arm on his shoulder, and I don't know who was prouder, me or him.
They spent real money on filming in actual European cities, and they kept showing The Saint's deus ex machina little gizmos, but, in marked contrast to more recent action-adventure movies, there was very little in the way of exposition. If it weren't for the architecture, you would be hard-pressed to figure out whether the action was taking place in Moscow or Oxford or friggin' Berkeley for that matter.
Not like a James Bond film. (This is not a random segue, and not an indication that when I'm not thinking of anything else pressing, I'm probably thinking of James Bond, which, ok, is more or less true, but this is not one of those times. You got a loner guy in great locations with techie gizmos and a pretty girl - I am not the only one who's going to think Bond here, am I right? And besides, the original Saint in the TV series was Roger Moore, which is how he got the Bond job.)
There's exposition in a Bond film. When you watch Bond, somebody tells you, usually very authoritatively, where Bond is off to. "James, you're to go to Tokyo." "The ship is anchored in Malta." "You don't want to go to Crab Key, boss!" And when there's a gizmo, there's usually an explanation, a demonstration, and some loving close-ups.
"Perhaps because he was an Englishman, there was a round of handshaking"
Recently our friend Tim (who is married to The Talented Cousin Rachel, so I guess that makes him The Equally-Talented-But-In-Different-Ways Cousin Tim) spotted my stack of vintage Ian Fleming paperbacks in the upstairs hall. Coming back down to the dinner table, he said, "You know, you have a couple of James Bonds that I've never read. Could I borrow your copies of Casino Royale and Doctor No?"
I took a breath. I felt terrible. I knew right off the bat I was not going to let those books out of my house, and I couldn't think of a way to refuse him without sounding like a jerk and a freak. So I said something about how they're very old and very fragile, and Talented Cousin Rachel backed me up, and I sounded like a jerk and also a freak.
I mean, for Christ's sake, I'm a librarian. Lending books is what I do! So I went on the bookfinder and bought near-cheap copies of the two books, sight unseen. Whatever, they were like $3 apiece and they're very hard to find in used bookstores. I got mine in Cleveland in the late 1980's, and I might have stolen them from ex-boyfriend Lance.
Casino Royale arrived in the mail yesterday. Hmmph. I am a nice cousin, I hope, but I am sorely tempted by the situation I find myself in.
This is the cover of my copy of Casino Royale, printed sometime between 1964 and 1967:
And this is the cover of the copy that I bought for Tim:
Oh, man! Those colors! That hair! That - what is that? Body paint? And it's tighter and less brittle (the book, you dirty-minded geek!). It's a later edition, published concurrent with the 1967 Peter Sellers / David Niven movie.
I'm going to keep my own, of course. Most of the rest of my Bonds are from the same fifty-cent Signet paperback edition and I like the continuity. Here's the Doctor No:
But I have a 1980's edition of For Your Eyes Only. Roger Moore (cough, splutter) was by then playing Bond in the movies, so the Bond on the cover looks like he's modeling that sportcoat for a department store catalog.
I scanned all my old Fleming paperbacks, they're on Flickr.
"When it's quiet if you're lucky you can hear the aristocracy whining" - Jazz Butcher
I recently read most of The Man Who Saved Britain by Simon Winder (worth a look for the cover alone). Subtitled "A Personal Journey into the Disturbing World of James Bond," it covers the political and economic landscape of Britain during Fleming's lifetime, profiles the absolutely repellent Ian Fleming in some depth, and by and large confirmed most of what I'd always thought about Bond.
The misogyny; the fetishistic treatment of food, liquor and cigarettes; the unbelievable luck that factors into Bond's professional successes... it's all attributable to lazy writing, upper-class British entitlement coupled with the post-war British inferiority complex and sense of loss, plus private-school sadism and a serious latent gay thing thrown in.
However, I suspect that nobody can adequately explain how Fleming comes up with his random imagery and tortured syntax. Unless you want to blame it all on the gin.
I have a copy of Fleming's travelogue Thrilling Cities , and the guy comes off as this unbelievably prissy tight-fisted snob. He tells would-be playboys how to work the angles at gambling, getting a taxi, and ordering a steak. But he hates New York, and the book is fun for that alone. You know it's sour grapes.
There's one James Bond book that I don't have and can't seem to lay my hands on. The great English writer Kingsley Amis, author of Lucky Jim and winner of the Booker prize for The Old Devils, who also produced a Bond novel of his own, wrote The Book of Bond, or: Every Man his Own 007. Given Amis's wit and self-awareness, his avowed consumption of manly garbage like the Flashman books coupled with his evident erudition, I am betting this book embraces and ridicules Bond in equal measure. I'll have myself a copy someday, and if it doesn't live up to my expectations, well maybe I'll have to write a version of my own.
"Of all the doom-fraught graffiti a woman can write upon a wall, those are the most insidious, the most deadly."
Upon reflection, I am wondering about The Equally-Talented-But-In-Different-Ways Cousin Tim's request. Our Tim is something of a sly little Chinese-speaking law-school cousin-in-law, and he has a wicked sense of humor. There is every possibility that he knew I wouldn't lend those books to anyone short of Daniel Craig, and that he asked me just to get a kick out of watching me squirm.
If that's the case, Tim, my friend, you must remember: Revenge is not hard to fathom for a man who believes in nothing. Cue theme.
Tuesday, July 10, 2007
At www.lowes.com, your search will be corrected to "compost" and you will be offered bags of compost to buy.
Appalling. I only checked Home Depot because composters are back-ordered at the only "green" garden store in town, and the manufacturer of the model I want has had to double their factory run due to unprecedented demand.
Safeway has figured out that people want organic milk, Saturn has figured out that people want electric cars, but the biggest garden suppliers in the country don't sell composters.
Sunday, July 08, 2007
"May I help you?"
"Yes. Is this signal no longer in use at the library?" he asked, laying a finger crosswise to his lips.
"I beg your pardon?"
"Is this no longer a signal that you use?" he repeats insistently, doing it again. While glaring at me.
"Oh!" I smiled merrily, as if he were just being clever, "No, we don't do that anymore."
I should have pointed out our special Quiet Area, but he was already steaming out the door. I kept smiling. You play passive-aggressive with me and I guarantee you will walk away unsatisfied. I am a librarian.
Now, here's someone who really shouldn't play...
Librarians? Aren’t they supposed to be bespectacled women with a love of classic books and a perpetual annoyance with talkative patrons — the ultimate humorless shushers?That's from the New York Times. TODAY. Granted, it was in the Style section, but come on - who thinks that anymore?
Here's who thinks it, or at least she thinks that people think it: her name is Kara Jesella, co-author of How Sassy Changed My Life, and she was so blown away by meeting young librarians with cute haircuts that she entitled her article "A Hipper Crowd of Shushers." Jesus save me. (Actually, Jesus save her. Do you know how many librarians have blogs?)
In the first place, "hipper shushers"? I don't want to be a "hipper shusher," that's grotesque - not to mention the fact that it's making my spell check scream bloody murder. So does that mean that I have to get my tattoos removed? Or am I ineligible because I'm over 40?
Now, I will concede that a little revision of the librarian image is probably not a bad thing, but it's just so damn trite (not to mention shallow, naive and patronizing) to portray a batch of tattooed, vintage-clad twenty-somethings as New and Improved. If someone wrote the same article about, say, teachers, indicating that the profession is changing because some college grads with eyebrow piercings have joined it, you wouldn't know whether to laugh or cry. And, as is the case with every fresh crop of teachers, a certain percentage of every year's library school harvest will be creative and dedicated, and a certain percentage will be in it for the job security and the reasonable hours.
Oh and besides, all twenty-eight-year-olds go for drinks and are on MySpace - it's just news when librarians do it?
And furthermore, the librarian image has been cranking right along, thanks to new cutting-edge facilities, political activism, and, of course, The Society for Librarians* Who Say Motherfucker. We don't need the New York Times to tell us we're cool.
Alliance Library System's Second Life branch. Dude, we're all virtual an' shit!
I went to library school in NYC, at Pratt Institute. The majority of my classmates had jobs, and some, like me, had jobs in libraries. Some of them were straight out of undergrad, and a few, bless their hearts, would warble, "I've always wanted to be a librarian because I really love books." Most of us already knew that it's pretty much not about the books, and we knew that those Gentle Reader types would either sack up and learn to raise their voices, or they could take jobs as serials librarians.
What impresses me about librarians are the things that these youngsters are discovering as soon as they are yoked into the team at the reference desk. You take your average 40-, 50-, or 60-year-old librarian, and she can answer 95 out 100 totally random questions fired at her during a shift, including complicated legal and financial stuff. She's going to use Internet sources better than your average teenager. She believes in your privacy. She will satisfy your request for a book that can tell you whether or not you are possessed by a demon, and not bat an eye. She's the most ethical, equitable creature you'll find. She raised her kids and never lost her professional chops. She keeps her cool even when her patron is losing his shit.
And even when her patron is a shit.
Saturday, July 07, 2007
Not the End of the World by Geraldine McCaughrean. Age 11-17. Geraldine McCaughrean is one prolific and well-rounded person. She writes adaptations of classical literature for children (Gilgamesh. Odyssey. Cyrano. etc.). She won the contest to write the sequel to Peter Pan. She writes reg'lar old adventure novels. And she wrote Not the End of the World, a "realistic" retelling of the story of Noah and his family, complete with onboard predation, physical and psychological brutality, manure, and moldy grain.
Yeah man, it's a wild premise. Our main narrator is Noah's daughter Timna, who gradually begins to question her father's version of what's going on and why; but most of the other humans and some of the animals on the ark weigh in with their points of view as well. I think it could be an important book for a kid who is learning to discern alternate perspectives, who is beginning to, you know, question the dominant paradigm.
Certainly I've never spent much time parsing the story of the Flood - I'm a big wintry atheist and think it's all horseshit. So Ms. McCaughrean's thoughtful and thoroughly imagined book took me somewhere I've never been.
I would press this book into the hands of every potentially open-minded kid I came across - if I weren't worried about the parents. You can call me a coward but I would really run it by the parents first. I would hate it if a hypothetical Devorah and Lilit weren't allowed back at the the library because some godless propagandist librarian (that's me!) suggested a book that gave their parents hives. Thumbs up, by the way.
Victory by Susan Cooper. Age 9-15. When I was a kid, I read Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising series at least once a year starting in 5th grade. There's a movie on the way, a movie that apparently shits all over the plot and characters, which is a damn shame, because they're wonderful. My imagination developed like a print in a darkroom because of those books.
Now, I clearly remember that it was 5th grade when I first read The Dark is Rising, because I did a book report on it for Mrs. Milloff's class. Mrs. Milloff was really large and really very short, and kind of grey and hairy to boot, plus she had a fierce New York accent. She would have easily fit in at Hogwarts. Maybe that's where she's teaching now. I liked her, and oh sure, she was unforgettable.
So it was with some surprise that I spotted Victory by Susan Cooper on the New Books shelf. I mean, 5th grade was 30 years ago I am shocked to realize. It's the same Susan Cooper, I checked. But this book is not about semi-mystical peril in the Welsh countryside, it's about Admiral Nelson. Ugh you say. Certainly Ugh I said. Naval history, god, I think only my father reads it, and I'm pretty sure he reads it so that he'll have at least one subject that he is sure to know more about than anyone within earshot.
But I read it out of loyalty to Susan Cooper, and it turned out to be a real page-turner. It's told by alternating narrators: Sam, a young crewmember on board Victory, Admiral Nelson's ship; and Molly, a lonely 21st century girl recently transplanted to Connecticut from her home in England. The descriptions are vivid and believable and the action is quick and exciting. As with many novels based on actual events, the book has to go to some manufactured lengths to inject suspense towards the end, but that is a very minor issue that most kid readers will not resent. And that cover, well, it's handsome, but a bit cryptic for my younger patrons.
Victory takes pride of place on my list of historical fiction to recommend to young readers who either like historical fiction or are required to read some for school. Thumbs up.
Ages 9-15. I like adventure novels: I love a plot that gallops right along, I like clearly-drawn characters with intelligible voices, and I do like wondering how it's all going to end up. Plus I like science. So I really enjoyed Airborn, a book set in a steampunk past full of airships and ladies in big Victorian skirts. Skybreaker, the sequel, I liked just a little bit less. There's more romance and jealousy and class consciousness in the second, though the setting is more spectacular and the plot a bit less contrived.
These books have pirates and fighting, sumptuous period details and witty repartee. When they make the movie, I fully expect the kid who played Charlie in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to play our hero, Matt Cruse, the cabin boy who consistently saves the day.
I recommend these books to young people who seem to like Harry Potter more for the adventure than for the magic; who have enjoyed Anthony Horowitz's Alex Ryder series or Jeanne DuPrau's Ember books. Thumbs up. Even Bob enjoyed Airborn, and my husband, let's put it this way, generally The Economist is his leisure reading.
I am often loath to share pictures of my garden, especially the early spring garden, even though at that point I am absurdly excited about the little plants coming up and I want to tell total strangers on the street, "The peas germinated!"
See, it's my soil. It's my compost, to be specific. Our compost looks like a front yard in the Ozarks. Look at all that crap in there! Even before we realized that we could empty the vacuum cleaner canister into the composter, and hence began introducing rubber bands, Lego, Barbie shoes, and milk carton rings into our garden soil, we were kind of lazy about chopping up the big stuff that went into it, so we have big pieces of corncobs, the occasional half onion, and watermelon rinds in our "finished" compost. Not to mention pistachio shells and olive pits, which, you know, ARE biodegradable, but not, one might say, anytime soon.
So it's always a minor relief when things start filling in a little.
... and by "filling in a little" I mean that not only did I not plant some of these things, I don't even know what some of them are.
It's the compost to blame again. I'm guessing the remains of the Jack O'Lantern went into the composter, and also some deadheaded zinnia blossoms, and who knows what else. At least it isn't gourds this year. The gourd year was a nightmare. I didn't pull them right off the bat because I thought they might be squash, and before I knew it they'd taken over the entire yard.
A little more orderly is the bed up near where the chickens used to be, that I loaded up with wee tomato plants in early May.
It has also filled in well, mostly with things I expected. I'm finally going to get some tomatos this summer looks like, but maybe I should have given all this stuff a little more room.
Thursday, July 05, 2007
Here are some of my inventions: I invented the best breakfast of all time (leftover rice, whole milk plain yogurt, and Bedekar's mixed Indian pickle). I invented the best way to put children to sleep (sing as many verses of "I Will" as you can remember over and over again until they pass out in pure bliss). I invented the autobiographical book review. I invented orange and hot pink together, but that kind of got ruined by Isaac Mizrahi.
So - are you ready for my new invention? Oh, it's mine, I checked. Nobody invented it before I did. It's a new phrase: "do-meth-tic disturbance". Yeah? Huh? Like it? You like it. You will totally be using it the next time you have to call the cops because you're pretty sure the skinny, scabby, limp-haired girl across the street is about to get killed by her skinny, foul-mouthed, scary hyper boyfriend.
And I'm sharing it with you because I live in a nice neighborhood now, and I hardly ever have to do that anymore.
You know what? Açai juice? Vile.
Plus? I drank the disgusting stuff thinking all that antioxidant power would flood the cells of my body with amino acid goodness, leaving no room for the badness of too much Yuengling's lager yesterday. And? Yeah no.
Maybe it was the steady beer drinking, but it seems to me that the 4th of July was pretty darn ok this year. I have a complicated relationship with my country, and sometimes Independence Day makes me feel kind of itchy, but this year... you know? It was ok.
We always go to my parents' house. Their town, the town I grew up in, celebrates July 4th big, with a good-sized small-town parade (the Governor shows up) and a world-class fireworks display. My folks live within easy walking distance of both of these events, so the whole family comes for a picnic, and they walk up to the parade even though it's usually hot and boring and nobody stays for the whole thing, and in the evening we walk down to the fireworks at the high school.
So, this year it was not disgustingly hot, and the parade moved along at a good pace, and Big Man and Mr Four had curbside seats, and we stayed for the whole thing. The crowd, I would say, was not as blindingly patriotic as it often gets. In past years I've had complete strangers ask "Where's your red white and blue?" at that parade. I really hate that. What are you going to say? "As a liberal I feel uncomfortable demonstrating patriotism"? "I'm not a joiner"? "Makes me look like a chump"? This year I wore my anti-Patriot Act T-shirt (blue, at least), and got a receptive response when I explained what it meant.
As the parade ended, a big exciting storm descended, which disrupted the day's program pretty nicely, with everyone crowding into the kitchen or playing croquet in the rain.
Because of the rain (which took out power to some of the neighborhood, which was also kind of interesting), the fireworks were postponed, so at dusk, we took a walk around the block with the kids. I've never seen more people setting off their own fireworks in my life. What with the mist from the storm's aftermath and all the smoke from the fireworks drifting around, it was a very surreal stroll through my childhood landscape.