posts tagged with 'books'

winter solstice reading

For our solstice party, and for our family reading in general, I went looking in the library for a good topical picture book. You know, there are tons of books about Christmas—you can read about Christmas from every possible perspective—but not so much the winter solstice. Last year we read The Winter Solstice, by Ellen Jackson, which is a fine book... but not a story particularly. Nor is it particularly poetic, which seems like a shame given the poetry natural to the season. But this year, when I checked in with Ms. Elaine at the Children's desk she was delighted to offer me a brand new book, which hadn't even made it to the shelves yet: The Shortest Day.

It's by Susan Cooper, the author of the "Dark Is Rising" series, and illustrated by Carson Ellis, and it's fantastic. Cooper's poetry doesn't come from careful word choice but from connecting with the power of the season, which is just what I was looking for a ceremonial read-aloud. And Ellis's watercolor illustrations are a great mix of down-to-earth realism and mythic fantasy—they made me think of a modern children's book version of William Blake. (She's also the author of a pair of picture books that I recommend highly: Du Iz Tak? and Home.)

Of course, I'd love it if some other good writers stepped up to tackle solstice stories. I mean, the magic! As it is, though, the people who care enough aren't very good writers and don't have access to real editors—there's a self-published book about the eight quarter and cross-quarter days at the library, but it's cringeingly awful. But at least now there's one winter solstice book. Maybe I'll buy it for next year.

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from the "gooey" section

A couple weeks ago I picked up a cookbook at the library, Chewy Gooey Crispy Crunchy Melt-In-Your-Mouth Cookies by Alice Medrich, thinking I'd get some inspiration for holiday treats. The only problem with the book is that, while it's designed like a glossy coffee-table book, there are only pictures for every fourth or fifth recipe! How does the author expect me to bake something that I haven't already seen in mouthwatering full-page illustration? Yesterday we tried it out for the first time, making "Rocky Road bars" (pictured on page 213) and they were delicious. So good, in fact, that after we left the last five with our friends who gave us dinner yesterday I had to make some more for dessert this evening. They came out even better the second time!

a chocolate marshmallow bar on a plate

yummy

The recipe is super simple: just a graham cracker crust (with sugar added), topped with chocolate chips, marshmallows, and nuts. You hardly need a recipe for that! And yet, I never thought of it myself despite always wishing I could get marshmallows in cookies somehow. The key, I think, is baking the crust for 10 minutes at 350° and then adding the other stuff before baking for 10-12 more minutes at 375°. I don't know if I'll get to any of the other recipes in the book before I have to return it—we've got a little bit going on this time of year—but it's already changed our lives. Rocky Road bars are a keeper!

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breakfast standards

I like to think we do pretty well for breakfasts around here. I've heard friends say that even cereal is too much trouble for them in the morning, so they limit themselves to a breakfast bar on the way out the door. None of that for us! Still, I come to understand that I still have improvements to make.

In our book club we're reading the fantastic Gone-Away Lake, by Elizabeth Enright. I've read it lots of times before but I'm always glad for another go. Her sequel, Return to Gone-Away, isn't quite as good, but it's still plenty compelling enough for me to give it another run-through this weekend. And on page 29 I read the the following words:

Aunt Hilda's breakfasts were famous: varied and original, not just the ordinary plodding through of cereal and eggs and toast.

Eggs and toast ordinary?! Here I thought I was doing pretty well to get a hot breakfast with scrambled or fried eggs on the table four or five mornings a week. I do agree with her on the cereal though—at least so far as cereal by itself is concerned. So what would she have extraordinary cooks prepare? Here's Aunt Hilda's breakfast that day: "fresh orange juice, hot buckwheat cakes with butter and apple jelly, and bacon." Sounds good to me. Does anyone have a good recipe for buckwheat cakes? How about a suggestion for getting the kids to try them?

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waiting for the contagion to run its course

At the library today, Harvey picked up the first volume in Rick Riordan's Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard series. It follows on the heels of the five books in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series and the five books of the Heroes of Olympus series, all of which run three- to four-hundred pages, and all of which Harvey has read. It's not that I don't approve of the stories—I'm actually kind of excited to see what Riordan's take on Norse mythology will be, since we studied the Norse stories last year—but I can't help but think about all the other good fiction out there that Harvey isn't getting a chance to read. Oh well, even if Riordan keeps churning out the stories—and I have no reason to expect he'd ever stop!—Harvey can read a lot faster than the dude can write. So we're due for an opening in Harvey's reading schedule in the next couple weeks. Any suggestions for what he might like next?

Anna Hibiscus

We like lots of books. There are now four readers in our house, and together we plow through a lot of written material. But obviously, some books are more favorite than others. As Zion is working his way though short chapter books, we've rediscovered some old favorites. Just like Harvey, he enjoyed Dory Fantasmagory, and read all four. We also rediscovered another series we've enjoyed, Anna Hibiscus—and even better, we found that there are now twice as many books in the series than last time we looked!

In the US it's hard to find books about other cultures that aren't completely othering—like, "look at how people live in other places!" So we really appreciate the exceptions. Anna Hibiscus is a girl living with her big family in Lagos, Nigeria. Her dad is Nigerian and her mom is originally from Canada, so while she—and her mom—feel completely Nigerian, she also has a little bit of a different perspective about her family and her city than her many cousins (the books' author, Atinuke, is similarly a child of mixed cultures). That gives the non-Nigerian reader a great perspective on life in Lagos or the village. Even better, in the third book Anna Hibiscus travels by herself to Canada to visit her grandmother, giving American readers a rare look at North American culture as strange and other!

Besides that, the books are wonderful in lots of other ways. The communal life Anna Hibiscus and her extended family share sounds amazing and overwhelming. Anna's unique perspective sometimes clashes with her family's traditional values, and both sides end up learning something. And Anna Hibiscus's kindness should be an example to everyone. As of now there are eight chapter books and a couple of picture books in the series... you should read all of them.

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fantasy reading in our house

Harvey is currently plowing through the Harry Potter series. He's about a third of the way through the last book right now, so I have some hopes of speaking to him again at some point tomorrow evening. This is his second run at the series; he started reading it the first time after a friend recommended it to him last year, but got stalled out in the middle of book four. This time he came to it on his own, and he's going strong to the end. You can read of my mixed feelings about the books here and here and here; given that, I think I've done a fair job of not being too scathing about the stories. Actually, as we talk about them I'm surprised by how much I remember!

Still, I continue to assert (privately) that better books exist. Like Dial-A-Ghost, which I picked up at the library books sale this past weekend. You could make an argument that Eva Ibbotson did what J.K. Rowling did first, and better (she seems to have been a very good person for not minding particularly much when Rowling made the big time). Certainly, her books have more humor and liveliness. It's natural to wonder why Rowling's work gained such wide popularity and cultural dominance while Ibbotson's, though successful enough, didn't. I don't think it's only the publishing juggernaut that lined up behind Harry Potter; it seems to me that Rowling pioneered a certain sort of authorial focus that leaves her books empty of everything but plot and one-dimensional characters acting out their roles like the guys in a sitcom. That's a satisfying combination. Maybe I'll pick up The Prisoner of Azkaban again and see what I'm missing.

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can I be intellectual?

I started yesterday to relive my undergraduate glories by rereading that seminal volume of my youth, E.P. Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class. Actually, to be honest I'm not sure if I ever read it cover-to-cover before, but I certainly read from it. It's good stuff. Here's a quote that I thought could be applicable to today:

But so great has been the reaction in our own time against Whig or Marxist interpretations of history, that some scholars had propagated a ridiculous reversal of historical roles: the persecuted are seen as forerunners of oppression, and the oppressors as victims of persecution.

White male fragility, anyone?

It's a bit of a challenging read at this point in my life: anything more rarefied than my usual fare of middle grade fiction can be hard to follow while the children are shouting and/or climbing on me. Still, I'm pushing on. As an intellectual history, the book assumes a great deal of knowledge on the part of the reader about what actually happened around the various developments in working class consciousness; I remember some of what Thompson is talking about. It makes me want to also read some more concrete history of the period to refresh my memory. In my free time.

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a little bit off the grid

I'm reading a book called The Unsettlers, by Mark Sundeen. It's all about folks who chose to forgo most of the advantages of modern, industrial, capitalist existence, because they realize that those things are destroying any hope we have for survival as a species. In their view. Which I can't help but think has something to it. So I was very proud of myself on Sunday when I managed to travel everywhere I had to go—to church and back, to the playground, to friends' house for dinner; about 25 miles in all—by bicycle. And it was a hot day too!

Then yesterday morning our power went out unexpectedly in the middle of the morning. Unexpectedly—need I say it? I suppose one never expects a power outage, not in the 21st century United States. But in this case it was more unexpected than usual, coming as it did on a clear, calm, day. I suppose when a car hits a power pole, the electricity doesn't stand a chance regardless of weather. We figured it wouldn't be that much of a big deal; I just wouldn't be able to vacuum. Or do laundry... Never mind, we were going to the pond anyway. And the power came back on in time for me to make Lijah's chicken nuggets in the toaster oven (and not worry about letting the cold out of the freezer as I retrieved them). Ok, so I have a while to go before I'm ready to call myself real alternative...

often barefoot, sometimes balanaced

One of the many books I took on our camping trip was Balanced and Barefoot, by Angela J. Hanscom. Super appropriate, since camping is all about the ways which, per the subtitle, "unrestricted outdoor play makes for strong, confident, and capable children." Among many other worthwhile points, the author notes that "going barefoot in nature helps develop normal gait patterns, balance, and tolerance of touch in the feet, all of which provide a strong foundation for confident and fluid movement." Check.

three boys barefoot atop a mountain

they're doing it

That is to say, they had plenty of time barefoot in nature—like they do. I actually made the two who were doing their own walking put on shoes to start both hikes, but both times they quickly decided they were too hot, and the footwear became cargo. The book suggests that outdoor play builds core strength and endurance; I don't know about the former, but over the two days of hiking we covered about six and a half miles, with something like 1800 feet of elevation gain. (Now that's a vacation!) Zion actually did more like six and a quarter miles—Leah carried him a couple times, for encouragement—but either way it was an impressive effort.

Since we've been back, they've dived right back into playing with their friends in the neighborhood. Lots of that play is outside—none of us parents wants a gang of eight kids filling up the house for long (of course, video games, pokemon cards, and play sets all exert a powerful indoor pull...). I do wonder, though, if the outdoor play that's happening on Beacon Street fulfills all the requirements Hanscom would look for in proper therapeutic play. For one thing, I think it might involve a few too many plastic weapons.

One of the things she talks about in the book is how using natural materials in play spurs kids' imagination and social-emotional development. Store-bought toys, the argument goes, have specific and limited modes of play—a toy car is a car and it's only supposed to drive one direction. To say nothing of a Batman Batcave play set. The problem is all those toys exist, and they exist in the houses of our lovely neighbors (and, yes, in our house too). How can sticks and pinecones ever hope to compete? There's a question of space, too; our woodsy play area is pretty small, here on our suburban lot. Most of the kids are old enough now they should be playing in the town forest less than a quarter mile away, but they aren't allowed to on their own.

I don't know what to do about it. Certainly, I have no worries our boys aren't spending enough time outside, and in nature. But I think they need more time to play in the woods. On my adult schedule, we do hikes—which they love!—but the limited play times available in hiking pauses isn't enough to start to develop complex interpersonal games. Although, now that I think about it... the last time we went to Fawn Lake on a summer camp outing the rocks above the pond turned into a spaceship and a pirate ship and I don't know what else during the half-hour post-lunch play time. We're going there again today, and play time will definitely be on the schedule. Maybe we're doing alright after all.

Harvey's feet, dipped in the spring

how beautiful are the feet...

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two recent YA fantasy titles

Thanks to the success of Harry Potter—and then Percy Jackson—there are lots of bad fantasy novels for younger readers out there. But there are also some good ones, even in the vein of "unlikely young person finds in themself surprising magical talent". Like The Evil Wizard Smallbone, by Delia Sherman, which I enjoyed for myself a couple months ago and am now reading to the boys.

In this book, set in the present day, a 12-year-old boy names Nick runs away from his abusive uncle only to wind up pretty much imprisoned in an establishment called "Evil Wizard Books." The proprietor is the eponymous evil wizard, who takes Nick in as his apprentice (read: kitchen scullion and farm hand) after Nick tells him he doesn't know how to read. Of course, Nick was lying about that—like he does about lots of things—and as soon as he has his feet under him again he's hard at work learning as much magic as he can behind Smallbone's back.

There are lots of ways this book plays on fairy tale tropes—some of them quite explicitly—but it stands out because of the convincing characterization. Smallbone is an evil wizard by trade and crotchety old Mainer besides, but besides that he's not a bad guy—as long as you put aside the time he turns Nick into a spider. And Nick is just as grumpy, plus stubborn and cursed with a lack of fore-thought. They make a good pair. Then there's the perfect Maine village where things are starting to go wrong, and another evil wizard, this one a naturally magical shapeshifter with a gang of were-coyotes. It all sounds like a bit much, but it comes together into a wonderful story—one of the best and most convincing tales of what it would be like to learn magic I can remember.

Kate Milford's The Left Handed Fate isn't as good. Set in a sort of steampunk version of 1812, it's about a young privateer named Lucy and her scientist friend Max who are trying to assemble the pieces of a mysterious ancient device—weapon?—in order to bring an end to the seemingly endless wars against Napoleon. There's some interesting world-building: "philosophical iron" that moves on its own, a mad-house that you need a passport to enter, fantastically skilled confectioners and weavers, jacquard loom cards containing programing information from a civilization older than the Egyptians... But it's all just a little too much.

The first part of the book takes place on shipboard—the Left Handed Fate being the main characters' privateering schooner—and it's clear right away that the author owes a huge debt to Patrick O'Brian. Then, after some battles and tragedy, they reach the port of Nagspeak, where their famous vessel can be hidden in the half-floating Flotilla district while they search the byways and "hacker's markets" of the town for the piece of the device that's eluding them. There's a lot going on, and most of the time the ornamentation overwhelms the plotting, and the characterization, and... everything else.

Worse, despite the lovely originality of some specific settings and scenes, the book as a whole feels vaguely derivative. For anyone who's read the Aubrey-Maturin series, the echoes of it in this book are overwhelming—and early scene with a dropped watch and sweet oil is obvious it feels like a deliberate call-out. I like—love!—O'Brian's stories (though we hated that movie) but I don't need someone else doing his writing. Especially since, unlike O'Brian, Milford lets the 19th century mask slip a few too many times. Besides the O'Brian influence, I couldn't help also noticing a heavy debt to Joan Aiken—besides the alt-historical fiction setting, this book shares with many of hers a feeling of strange darkness around the edges. It's not only the ominousness of the scenery (and literal darkness lots of the time too) in the story, but also the sense that nothing beyond the characters' experience really exists: like it's all being called into being for them as it's needed. Which isn't always a bad thing: most Joan Aiken books are delightful. But it's more of a flaw in a book that's notable mostly for it's world-building. (Also Left-Handed Fate picks up like it's in the middle of an existing story, just like Black Hearts in Battersea, which also felt to me like a deliberate call-out; but I'm probably overthinking there.)

Of course, The Evil Wizard Smallbone also has nothing but gray haze beyond the boundaries of the action. But the action—and the setting and characterization—is so concise you don't mind, or even notice, the lack. The Left-Handed Fate tries to do too much; The Evil Wizard Smallbone tries less but does it perfectly. Read them both if you have time; if you want just one, well, you know what I'd suggest!

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