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Shadow of the Valley: 02/22/09
Here it is the last few hours of February and I am only just now starting the February issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Unfortunately for me it starts with another of the shadow stories by Fred Chappell. His shadow world, shadow steeling stories just don't do it for me so I went into reading "Shadow of the Valley" feeling unenthusiastic by the prospect.
Previous stories in the same world I've read are "Dance of the Shadows" and "The Diamond Shadow". The first one had works of art made from shadows or shadows as works of art. The second had a diamond with a magically dark shadow. This time, it's lettuce. That's right, lettuce. Magical and valuable lettuce but it grows in a land plagued by shadow stealing things. Oh no! Call Rapunzel and Jack. They'll get it sorted out lickedy split. Oh wait, that's a different and much better story.
There's really not much more to say except about a quest to pick lettuce in the dark to avoid the shadow stealers. Stuff happens and it's just not my kind of fantasy.
Ulysses: Episode 1 - Telemachus: Ed, Edd 'n' Eddy: 02/28/09
I had so much fun with Don Quixote de La Mancha that I've decided to continue working through my to be read pile of door stoppers in the same fashion. Next on the list is a book I started ten years ago and put aside when my husband and I made the long move from southern California to northern California. New jobs and then new kids further got in the way of my commitment to reading Ulysses by James Joyce. Now the jobs are old and the kids are getting older and I have no more excuses!
Ulysses was serialized in The Little Review from 1918 to 1920 in eighteen episodes. The book as the title implies draws heavily from The Odyssey. The book though is set in Dublin and was inspired from ideas he had while writing The Dubliners. In terms of length it's about as long and as complex as Don Quixote and both books share a love of puns, parodies and allusions.
There are tons of resources available to help one get a conventional and well rounded understanding of this long and controversial novel. I don't plan to add to that. Instead, I will see where the book takes me and draw comparisons as inspiration hits. I will make one post for each episode with a summery review at the end.
So the first episode opens at the morning at a converted Martello tower as Buck Mulligan, Stephen Dedalus (first seen in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man) and Haines are getting ready for the day. They talk about their mothers and gossip about stuff and swear and have breakfast:
From the start of breakfast the men mostly discuss their breakfast in increasing gross out terms. The conversation is silly, immature and hard to follow for its apparent randomness. I couldn't help but think of three pre-teens who at first seem interchangeable but do in fact have very separate personalities: Ed, Edd 'n' Eddy. Although none of Joyce's characters say "Buttered toast!" it would have fit perfectly if one of them had.
Where the Eds have their cul du sac, these three blokes have their tower. The entire first chapter as random as it first appears all takes place in and around the tower. Just as the cartoon has a limited cast and a fixed location, the first episode has only four characters plus a few who are mentioned but don't actually appear. Both trios are troubled by their parents but they are never seen to give their side of the story. Of course in Ulysses Stephen's mother is dead and the Eds's parents are all alive but forever off screen. Finally there is the rivalry between the three.
Eddy is the self declared leader of the group but Edd but it's been implied a few times that Edd (Double D) could take charge if he wanted to. The first episode ends with Stephen storming off in a huff calling Buck an usurper (23). Stephen's stomp through town though will the be impetus for the novel to move to the hero, Harold Bloom at the end of the third episode.
Next Saturday I'll discuss Episode Two: Nestor. If you want to read along, Ulysses is available online at Read Print. For more information about the novel, check out these wikipedia articles: Ulysses (novel), Telemachus, Stephen Dedalus, and Ed, Edd n Eddy. Also check out the Eds' website.
Legs Talk: 02/27/09
Legs Talk is described on the book's website as the perfect gift for a "leg man" and the perfect "get-over-him" gift. The book exists somewhere in the realm of graphic novel for leg fetishists to a very silly book of photographic portraits.
In black and white photographs of legs and feet the story unfolds. It begins starkly with white text on black: "In the beginning there were legs." The legs have gone shopping. They are shown wearing fufu shoes and are next to a pair of boutique shopping bags. From there she meets (off page) the legs man.
For the most part, the legs man is never seen. There are hints at who he is by how the legs are dressed and posed and the props too. The few photos of the legs man are clearly a woman dressed for the role. One can either see it as Legs dressed as her counterpart or as a separate character portrayed by the same model.
If one takes the text literally, the it's a case of girl meets boy. Boy and girl have a few good times together before boy turns out to be really creepy. Girl dumps boy. Boy tries to weasel back into girl's life and girl almost lets him.
Legs Talk is 112 pages long, most of which are photographs. The text takes up maybe a dozen pages. It's funny and disturbing at the same time. It can easily be read in about ten minutes but it's one of those odd books that has stuck in the back of my mind.
The Gift of the Deer: 02/26/09
In the 1960s, Helen and Adrian Hoover shared their Minnesota cabin yard with a family of whitetail deer. The first to arrive was a starving young buck whom they named Peter. After Peter there came Mama, Pig, Brother, Starface, Little Buck, Pretty and Fuzzy. These four years are the basis of The Gift of the Deer.
These deer were not pets but the Hoovers did what they could to make a safe environment for them, free from hunters and with enough available food to last the long, harsh winters. While Helen journaled about their experiences, her husband sketched them. His sketches are included throughout the book along with a family tree.
The Gift of the Deer details the challenges of living in rural, wooded areas, especially during the long winters. There is much discussion of the planning needed to survive with enough fuel for cooking and heating and enough food for those times when the roads are impassible.
I enjoyed the first year (Peter's year) most but after a while the observations became more of the same. As the book continued I found myself skimming more and reading less. I kept reading mostly for the Adrian Hoover's illustrations.
American Rifle: 02/25/09
I've been having bad luck with some of the review copies I've been sent recently. First there were the scrambled pages in Emily Waits for Her Family and now there is the toner bomb in the first third of American Rifle. Both were books I had been looking forward to reading. Unfortunately in the early history of the rifle, about one page in every eight was nearly completely black.
Despite the black pages, I enjoyed Alexander Rose's history of America as seen through the development of the rifle. Rose approaches the rifle with detachment, focusing on the technology and the cultural shifts that caused and were caused by the rifle. The book goes beyond just listing facts and dates and connects the dots in ways that made me rethink my country's history.
When Boston Won the World Series: 02/24/09
Bob Ryan's fascinating history of the first World Series (in it's modern form) happened to be published the year that Boston would finally break their cursed streak and win the World Series. His book came out about six months before that historic and fun to watch win. The book covers the events that lead to the creation of the World Series.
Way back then, the team wasn't called the Red Sox. They were just the Boston team for the American League. The book though isn't about the team beyond them being the winning team and for the author being a writer for the Boston Globe. Mostly it's about the game, the business and the fans.
As Caveman points out in his well written and funny review the book has some typos but it's still an interesting and good bedtime read. I also read it a chapter or two before bed over the course of about a week. What the book mostly shows is how little baseball has changed. Fans are still fans, business is still business and sports writers are still sports writers. For a better baseball themed rundown on the book, go check out Caveman's list.
What made this book stand out for me were all the photographs and newspaper clippings included along with Ryan's analysis of events. I think I spent as much time enjoying looking at the pictures and reading the old articles as I did with reading the book. As with almost any sports book it helps to have a basic understanding of the game. If you like baseball you will probably like this book.
The Cry of Justice: 02/23/09
The Cry of Justice by Jason Pratt is the first book of an epic fantasy trilogy that traces events in the aftermath of a huge international war. The novel has an ensemble cast of main characters: Gaekwar, Othon, Dagon, Pooralay, and Bornas with Commander Portunista trying to keep this group of refugees together.
The novel is ambitious and emotionally charged. There are hints of a well thought out world and a good understanding of the war that comes before the book. There are cultures and languages but none of these things really come into focus the way they should.
Likewise Portunista and her crew should be vibrant characters but the dust jacket has to provide a cheat sheet listening their roles and personalities. Epic fiction comes with a large cast, it's part of the genre. The best examples of the form, for example, The Lord of the Rings, will have dozens of characters all taking their part in the adventure and they will all contribute in memorable ways. I don't need a list of characters in Tolkien's books, but I found myself constantly flipping back to keep track of the different characters in Cry of Justice.
Breaking up the core story are lengthy journal entries by a character named Seifas. While his insights are often interesting, the text is printed in about a nine point type face. It's hard on the eyes and slows down the pacing of the book. I hope in the future books these entries will be curtailed.
I think there is potential for this trilogy but the first book in the series doesn't hit the mark.
How appropriate for the last story in the 2009 issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction to have a passing reference to Don Quixote when I've just written my final review of the book. The blurb before the story describes it thus: "it is fantastical but it is not strictly speaking, fantasy." Whether it is fantasy or just fantastical depends on how far one's imagination takes goes with the open-ended ending.
"Changling" follows the growing friendship between Gavin Knight (the Don Quixote of this story), Amanita (who is more active a character than Dulcinea) and a parrot named Sancho. Amanita introduces herself as a changeling and much of the story hinges on whether she is a changeling or just a foundling.
Like the best of FS&F's stories, this one is character driven. Gavin's experience moving into his new job and his new home is tempered by his growing friendship with Amanita. When he first sees her, he describes her as ugly but he can't quite decide why she's ugly. As the friendship grows, mostly through her persistence and her off-beat charm, she becomes more beautiful to him.
The story ends at the big reveal with Gavin and Amanita (or Mary) about to meet her birth mother. As the ending is left with the door about to open, one must decide: will they see a faerie mother or someone more mundane? Me, I saw a faerie.
Don Quixote: Sancho's Big Score: 02/21/09
I know I promised two more posts from my reading of Don Quixote but I was so close to finishing it just made more sense to read all the way to end. Had I only read fifty pages, I would be writing about Scooby-Doo and the post would have been called "Scooby-Doo Meets Don Quixote." Seeing though that section in context with the ending, I feel Bender's Big Score makes a more apt comparison.
Before the novel begins to wind down, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza have one final adventure to Barcelona. Along the way they meet just about ever famous (real and fictional) character of their times. These numerous meetings remind me of the many heads in jars that play important roles in the Futurama world. In Bender's Big Score the head museum is the introduction of Fry's rival an arch enemy: Lars.
Although Lars is treated as a comedic foil for Fry while the main plot of the take over of Earth unfolds, his identity ends up being one of the most important details to the film. Likewise, Quixote's many sparing matches against other knights errant disguise the greatest threat to Quixote's well being and his ultimate downfall. As Don Quixote de la Mancha isn't science fiction, and Bender's Big Score is, the solutions behind these hidden identities are very different. Nonetheless, thematically they are similar in how they drive the plot.
In previous posts I have assigned the roles of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza to the characters in whatever film or television show I'm discussing. For Futurama as a whole, Don Quixote is clearly Fry who has taken on an entirely different life (though very simi liar in ways to his past one) in the future . His somewhat-loyal companion and Sancho Panza equivalent is clearly Bender. Bender starts off the series as a suicidal robot and through his friendship with Fry has become a God, a pharaoh, a famous actor, a famous athlete, a famous chef and so forth.
Don Quixote ends not with Sr. Quixana dying alone as Miles says in "Disarmed and Dangerous" but with his friends and family at his bedside. He dies relatively happy and fulfilled for the time spent adventuring. Of course for Futurama to continue it's plans of three more movies after Bender's Big Score, they couldn't very well kill of Fry. How then can he live and still be Don Quixote? That's where Lars comes in and science fiction takes over. Fry becomes both the Knight of the Mirrors and Don Quixote, playing out both sides of the final act through a temporal paradox.
In re-reading Don Quixote slowly and blogging about the process, I have come to appreciate the novel's continuing influence. Cervantes's novel manages to capture a wide range of literary tropes that are still being used today. Since beginning the process of blogging about Don Quixote last November, I have started to see Don Quixote and Sancho Panza in all sorts of unexpected places.
Read all of my posts on the book:
Don't Let the Pigeon Do an Interview: 02/21/09
I don't normally conduct interviews. I'm terrible at thinking up questions. I'm more a read the book and write my ideas kind of gal than an interviewer. Anyway, while trying to decide which character to interview, a little bird flapped down onto my patio railing.
Pigeon: Did somebody say interview?
Me: Oh -- I'm not even sure I'm doing this week's Weekly Geeks.
Pigeon: OOOOH. Pick me!
Me: Well, I don't know--
Pigeon: Oh come on. I'll answer all your questions. PLEASE!
Me: OK. So what's your favorite food?
Pigeon: That's easy. HOT DOGS!
Me: How did you get here? I thought you lived back east.
Pigeon: I drove a bus. But don't tell. OK? I'm not supposed to.
Me (looking out of the window nervously): Where'd you park it?
Pigeon: Um? Park it?
Me (cringing as I hear a fire truck drive by): Does Mo know you're here?
Pigeon: Sssssh. Don't tell him!
Me: Thank you for stopping by. I think I'll just skip the interview assignment.
Pigeon: BUT YOU SAID I COULD HAVE AN INTERVIEW! YOU PROMISED!
Too Tall Alice: 02/20/09
Alice in Too Tall Alice by Barbara Worton is "four inches taller than the other eight-year-old girls at the Cherry Tree School." She's the girl who has to stand in the back with the boys during picture day and all she wants it to be like all the other girls.
Alice of course gets her wish and not by eating a cake, drinking a magic potion or eating the right parts of a mushroom as her Wonderland counterpart does. For this Alice, the wish comes true during rainstorm when she wakes up in a land of Amazons. For the first time in her life, she's the short one.
The message of Too Tall Alice is to enjoy yourself, whatever size or shape you are. Alice gets a chance to see her potential to be whatever or whomever she wants to be. It's a nice sentiment but it leaves me wanting more. Too Tall Alice has some cute moments but the message of self acceptance drowns out many of the chances at subtle humor.
I read Too Tall Alice because my mother was the tallest kid in her classes and she shared her stories with me. I didn't end up as tall and have to admit to sometimes being jealous of the five inches she has on me. Then I married into a family where I'm just about average height, although my husband, his brother and their father are the tallest by far.
The Savage: 02/19/09
The Savage is a graphic novel written by David Almond and illustrated by Dave McKean. McKean is best known for his collaborations with Neil Gaiman (Sandman, Coraline, The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish and The Wolves in the Walls. David Almond has written Skellig, The Fire-Eaters, and Clay among others. Both Almond and McKean are new to me.
The Savage starts off a bit like any of a number of British boy coming of age novels. I was most reminded of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole 13 3/4 by Sue Townsend, The Crew by Bali Rai, Black Swan Green by David Mitchell and Winter of the Birds by Helen Cresswell. Like Winter of the Birds, events depicted in the story within the the story begin to blend with reality.
What sets The Savage apart from the novels I've mentioned are the graphic novel elements. These chapters are excerpts from Blue's story which he writes in response to the sudden death of his father from a heart attack and the bullying he faces from a bloke named Hopper. Blue writes and illustrates the story first on encouragement from Miss Molloy, his school counselor and later from his mother and sister Jess. The Savage is a wild boy who lives in a cave under the ruins of a chapel in Burgess Woods. He is the personification of Blue's pent up emotions but he becomes more than that over the course of the novel.
Despite being told on the very first page of the Savage's transformation from fiction to fact, when it does happen at the climax of the book, it comes as an emotional shock. For me the shock stemmed from how otherwise happy Blue was becoming. The process of writing the stories was working for him and his mother and sister were reading them too and enjoying them. The coming to life quip in the first chapter seemed metaphorical, as Blue was coming to life by rising above his depression and anger. Except it wasn't. The Savage does cross into Blue's world in an unexpected and wonderful way.
Rapunzel's Revenge: 02/18/09
January and earlier this month I had the fun task of reading the finalists for the Graphic Novels category of the Cybils. I'm relatively new to the genre so it was thrilling to get this chance to experience the best the genre has to offer for 2008. The winner for the Elementary/Middle Grade category is Rapunzel's Revenge by Shannon Hale, Nathan Hale and Dean Hale.
Rapunzel is one of those characters we all grow up on. She's one of the Brothers Grimm best known characters. I though have never seen her dressed like a cow girl and brandishing her hair like a weapon or gallivanting through something recognizably Utah (but not Utah). Nor have I ever seen anyone ask the question I've always wanted answered: "why was she locked in the tower?"
Rapunzel's Revenge starts with the why, quickly answers it and then goes happily on its own tangent that blends the wild west with fantasy and fairy tale elements. Rapunzel hooks up with a chap named Jack and they set out to get revenge (and rescue Rapunzel's mother).
I loved this graphic novel and I hope the three Hales collaborate again. I would love to revisit Rapunzel's world. The novel isn't set up as a continuing series but there's enough wiggle room to add further adventures. The world building is thorough enough to easily carry another story or two. My husband has also read Rapunzel's Revenge and he loved it too. My son likes the illustrations but so far we haven't read the book together. I'm sure we will someday.
On a side note, I love learning unexpected things from books. From Rapunzel's Revenge I learned that rapunzel is an alternate name for a type of lettuce called corn salad (Valerianella locusta). That tidbit of information forms the keystone for the plot. It was a little throw away detail that blossoms here and makes Rapunzel's Revenge stand apart from all of the other versions of the fairy tale I've read.
Q is for Quarry: 02/17/09
Quarry (noun): 1) one that is sought or pursued : prey; 2) an open excavation usually for obtaining building stone, slate, or limestone; 3) a rich source; 4) a diamond shaped pane of glass. Quarry (verb); to delve in or as if in a quarry (to query). Source: Merriam Webster online.
Q is for Quarry by Sue Grafton is a bit of a departure for the Kinsey Millhone series. The book was inspired by an actual cold case, one mentioned during a dinner party. The idea, though not immediately set upon, stuck in Sue Grafton's mind and eventually led to her working with the detectives investigating the case. As she is a writer of mystery novels, she takes some artistic license with the case, simplifying some details and ultimately allowing Kinsey to help in the closing the case.
To help with the case, the book has four photographs of the forensic reconstruction of Jane Doe done in September 2001. There is also a page dedicated to the case on Sue Grafton's website.
All of the details of the real cold case contribute to making Q is for Quarry feel more like a police procedural and less like a gum shoe mystery. Kinsey for the most part (except for some derring-do near the end) is along for the ride, doing the heavy lifting for the ailing detectives who are in charge of the case. Since so much of the case has happened in the past (nearly eighteen years earlier in the book, since it's 1987 in Kinsey's world) and since so much of it is being handled by the police, there is extra time for Kinsey's personal life and the lives of her immediate friends. I've never been a fan of this aspect of the series (or for most mystery series) and I skipped most of it to stay focused on the interesting bits.
Before reading the novel, I also listened to it as an audio book. I much preferred it as an audio book. I'm not much of an audio book reader with the exception being Grafton's Alphabet series. Kinsey's chit-chatty recounting of events lends itself perfectly to the audio format.
The Pigeon Wants a Puppy 02/16/09
In fall 2007, Mo Willems ran a contest for children to name the newest Pigeon book. The resulting book is The Pigeon Wants a Puppy. So from hot dogs to dogs.
In this book the Pigeon teaches the important lesson of "be careful what you wish for." Usually the pigeon books focus on him not getting what he wants. Not this time. The pigeon wants a puppy and the pigeon gets a puppy.
Now just stop for a moment and think about this because the Pigeon certainly didn't. The Pigeon is well, pigeon sized. The puppy is puppy sized. See the problem? Mo Willems did and outlines the results in hilarious illustrations.
On a personal note, the Pigeon's reaction to the puppy reminds me of Harriet and Wally dog. Wally is my in-law's Bouvier des Flanders. Bouviers are honking big dogs. Harriet is two. She's roughly three feet tall. The dog is about a foot and a half taller than she is. She is as overwhelmed with him as the Pigeon is with his wish come true.
"Don't let the cat out of the bag!" is the phrase I kept repeating to myself as I read Marc Laidlaw's 1996 story "Catamount". "Catamount" also was the introduction of Gorlen Vizenfirthe. He recently reappeared in the August 2008 story, "Childrun".
Laidlaw's stories seem to walk a fine line between the serious and the goofy. Rather, the plot is goofy and Gorlen seems aware of the absurdity of his situation, but everything is presented in the serious trappings of a quest.
Gorlen's task seems simple enough: take a carefully wrapped sack up the mountain to the Wizard Dog. The hike up he hill ends up being no easy task. His way is blocked by cats strange, pissy cats.
Like in "Childrun" Gorlen manages to sort everything out. The ending here isn't as heroic but it's just as satisfying. "Catamount" basically amounts to a shaggy dog story with some cats thrown in to make it interesting. I liked it in context to "Childrun" but the latter is my favorite of the two.
An Elvish Sword of Great Antiquity: 02/14/09
Remember Zork I: The Great Underground Empire? Jim Aikin does and it has inspired him a number of times in his short story writing. His latest story in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction is called "An Elvish Sword of Great Antiquity."
The story takes place in turn of the last century England. An unnamed protagonist is invited to a dinner party at Portnoy James's house. The talk of the dinner is the spotlessness of Elves and the undesirability of half-breeds. As a sign of power and pride, Mr. James shows off his Elvish sword, a spoil of war perhaps. Everyone except the narrator touches the sword and marvels at its beauty and age. They also treat it like a play thing.
Of course things go horribly wrong and if the narrator is to be believed, it was the sword that did it. The narrator's identity is wrapped up in the sword's behavior and possibly his innocence or guilt depending on how reliable a narrator one thinks he is.
The only other Jim Aikin short story I've read is "Run, Run," a modern day fantasy involving unicorns in the United States. Of the two stories, I much preferred "An Elvish Sword of Great Antiquity." I guess that's my inner geek coming through.
Don Quixote: Divide and Conquer: 02/14/09
Teen Titans fans will recognize this week's Don Quixote post title as the name of the first episode of the series that ran from 2003-2006. In it, Robin and Cyborg have a falling out and Cyborg quits the team for a while. Basically that's what happens in chapters 47-53 (pages 600-650) in Don Quixote de La Mancha.
Don Quixote spends most of his time during Sancho Panza's absence moping at the Duchess's estate. Panza is now Don Sancho, governor of a small island. It's revealed that he can speak and read Latin and is actually well suited to his new role.
Like Sancho Panza, Cyborg probably can do well by himself. He's older that the other members and probably has more real world experience. The few times he has gone out on his own he has be successful. Yet, he always comes back to the Titans. Panza by the end of chapter 53 gives up his new life and hits the road again on his little dapple donkey.
The only thing of interest that happens to Don Quixote is that he's attacked by a cat and has his nose and face scratched and his reputation bruised. Robin has his own run in with a cat in the form of Beast Boy who chastises him for chasing away Cyborg.
The central theme of this section of the book is drudgery of responsibility. So far the two men have been tromping around La Mancha pretending to be men of importance and stature. Now through the Duchess, they are. Quixote is in the court of the Duchess and Sancho Panza is a governor of an island. Being there on his own he is faced with all the work of keeping the island and its inhabitants happy. He has to weigh in on disputes of love, disputes of land and things too monotonous to list.
Of course with the estate and the title comes wealth and statue of the sort he could never imagine. In fact when officials are sent to fetch the Panza family to take them to the new estate, the wife and daughter can't believe the message and go more to box Sancho's ears than expecting to live in a fine new home.
By the end of chapter 53, Panza decides to give up his new appointment. The open road is calling to him. He misses the wacky adventures with Don Quixote despite six hundred pages of wishing for the good life. Now of course he realizes that he was actually living the good life. Likewise, Cyborg returns to the Titans to complete the team and save Robin just in the nick of time.
Stay tuned for the last two posts on Don Quixote.
Owl Babies 02/13/09
Last night I wrote about Harriet's favorite book, Mama Cat Has Three Kittens and tonight it's Sean's turn. His favorite book from the time he was Harriet's age has been Owl Babies by Martin Waddell.
Like Mama Cat, the Owl Mama has three off spring. Here three are Sarah, Percy and Bill. Bill is like Boris in that he's the odd one out. Where Mama Cat Has Three Kittens is about a parent teaching her children, Owl Babies asks if those lessons have been learned.
Sarah, Percy and Bill wake up one night to find their mother gone. Sarah and Percy work together to keep Bill (who is written as the youngest of the family) from getting too scared. All the while they are clearly worried about their mother.
Structurally Owl Babies and Mama Cat Has Three Kittens are nearly identical. Both use repetition of words and actions to build on their central themes. For Owl Babies, it's the growing dread of what happens if Mama never returns.
Happily though, the Mama does return and she seems bemused by her owlets fears. Her response echoes many times when something that has seemed common place to me has been full of unknown and therefore frightening to my children.
Mama Cat Has Three Kittens 02/12/09
Mama Cat Has Three Kittens is on Harriet and my short list of favorite children's books. The book is a near perfect combination of repetition, adorable illustrations and humor. Best of all (from Harriet's perspective) it's about cats.
Mama cat, as the title explains, has three kittens: Fluffy, Skinny and Boris. While Mama cat is teaching Fluffy and Skinny how to do necessary cat things, Boris is off doing his own thing (napping). Until near the end, each pair of pages ends with "Boris naps." Harriet loves saying that line on each page, usually while giggling and falling over.
Denise Fleming like Eric Carle uses paper craft for her illustrations. She wrote and illustrated Mama Cat Has Three Kittens. I really like her style. The colors are bright and the cats are cute but still recognizably cats.
Llamas in Pajamas: 02/11/09
Sean introduced me to Llamas in Pajamas by Teddy Slater and illustrated by Jennifer Kindert. It was a popular book at his kindergarten. It is a going to bed story but not a serene one like Goodnight Moon. Llamas in Pajamas captures the spirit and chaos of trying to put young children to bed.
Mama Llama has four children all to put to bed at the same time. We recently started putting Sean and Harriet to bed together because Harriet won't stay in bed until her brother is in his bed. Sometimes the two kids are impossible to get into bed. They stall; they giggle; they play; they run around. They do everything except brush their teeth and go to bed. Mama Llama's children are the same way.
Llamas in Pajamas shows an especially crazy night. Besides the usual night time mayhem, the children actually get out of bed and start playing again. Harriet delights in the little llamas sneaking back to the living room to play and watch TV. I think she'd love to do that herself if we'd let her. Sean, now that he's older and more concerned with manners and rules wants to know why Mama Llama isn't putting her children on time out for their bad behavior.
I Choose You: 02/10/09
Most of the children's books I review on this blog belong to my children. Before either child was born, I was a Pokémon fan. I started with the cartoons that were shown on the KidsWB and from there moved onto the games. When my son was about two and a half he discovered the Pokémon cartoons at daycare. Now Harriet is also into Pokémon.With both children enjoying the series and games we have started to collect the old chapter books that first came out when the cartoon was imported.
The first in the series is I Choose You. All of the early books are written / adapted by Tracey West. All together she's written more than thirty books. I like her Pokémon books because she's a fan too and manages to fill in the blanks that are sometimes there in an episode, movie or story arc.
I Choose You traces how Ash and Pikachu first started working together. It's basically the initial story arc of Pikachu and Ash's friendship where it's put to the ultimate test in episode 37, "Pikachu's Good-bye." As the focus is only on Ash and Pikachu, a lot of the other adventures in the first season are set aside for other future books in the series.
I like that these books aren't just novelizations of each and every episode. By drawing elements from so many episodes, West is able to show how both characters grow as their friendship develops. In the television series this friendship is pushed aside for the most part after about the third episode to make room for Ash's quest to get into the Pokéleague. It's all about his battling for badges, getting lost and thwarting Team Rocket along the way.
All the books in the series have stills from the episodes and movies. In this one they are grayscale and the whole thing is printed on newsprint. Later books in the series are printed on nicer paper and have full color shots. I am as much a fan of Tracey West's Pokémon books as my children are and I've been reading them on and off since before they were born.
Hurry Down Sunshine: 02/09/09
"On July 5, 1996, my daughter was struck mad." Thus begins Hurry Down Sunshine, Michael Greenberg's memoir of his daughter's diagnosis of bipolar disorder. One would expect this memoir then to focus on Sally, her diagnosis, treatment and perhaps some extra information about current research. It sort of does but not to the degree I had expected or wanted.
Instead Greenberg focuses on himself and his messed up relationship with his older brother who also has psychiatric problems. So much of the book seems to be about "why me" that I didn't feel enough of a loving connection between a father and daughter or between two brothers.
Hurry Down Sunshine has a few references to James Joyce's Ulysses. Structurally the two share a few similarities: long rambling sentences and no chapter breaks. That's where the similarities end. After the first fifty pages of Ulysses, even though I've struggled with them, I want to read more. After fifty pages of Hurry Down Sunshine, I didn't struggle with the passages but I didn't want to read more.
Interestingly, Sally, the daughter, has a quote in the book that sums up the flaws in the book succinctly: "'Poor, poor Father. Trying to get back your lost genius.'" (p. 31) In other words, Greenberg is trying too hard to write a meaningful memoir. By using all the flowery prose he loses the personal connection and therefore credibility.
I'm not questioning the hardship the Greenbergs must have gone through with Sally's initial breakdown or the on going difficulties that might still exist. The book though didn't make me feel anything that they might have felt. It didn't teach me anything new about the disease or the treatment of it. For these reasons the memoir doesn't work for me.
The Guardian: 02/08/09
One of my favorite horror films is The Sentinel and the book though flawed was also an enjoyable read for me. The Guardian, the sequel falls short of the first book in a number of ways.
A well written horror novel jumps into the plot either by setting the creepy tone or with some actual horrific event. The Guardian instead has a lengthy prologue spanning about fifteen years with characters whose relationship to the remainder of the novel doesn't become obvious until the book is almost over. This sort of exposition works best cinematically and perhaps coming off the production of The Sentinel Konvitz had that in mind. Unfortunately his opening scenes are confusing. In my notes I have a complaint about the many "false starts" to the novel.
Horror series and their box office franchise cousins often rely on reworking a set of motifs and plot devices to link all the books or films together into a larger oeuvre. Fans of a series especially will expect certain key elements in any novel or film claiming to be part of the series. The Guardian goes beyond the peppering of familiar elements and tries instead to retell the entire story but with the genders reversed. Apparently the sentinel switches from nun to priest everything there's a hand-off.
Next there's the Vatican. Dan Brown isn't the first by any means to drag the Vatican into the plot. I suppose if there's a gate that's keeping Hell shut they'd be interested but frankly the lengthy scenes of the brave priests felt tacked on. Their scenes are clearly there to raise the feeling of terror but they just didn't work for me.
The ultimate sour note for me though is the truth behind Faye and Ben Burdett's identities. The Sentinel of course has the two randy lesbians who try to corrupt the innocent (and frigid! Alison) so that she can't become the next guardian of the gate. So homophobia isn't anything new to the series but here it is taken too far. A husband and wife and their adopted son become the target of Chazen and his legions from Hell just because the wife is transgendered.
So the moral of the story is: if there is a scary priest or nun who is blind, deaf and paralyzed living on the top floor of the apartment building you plan to rent and you are either a) the opposite sex of said priest or nun or b) gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered, then run for the hills and find a better apartment somewhere else! Also avoid apartment buildings owned the the local diocese as these might be poorly disguised hell mouths.
The Boy Who Sang for Others: 02/07/09
Here it is February and I'm still working my way through the January issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. I'm taking the issue slow knowing that after the March issue the magazine is going bimonthly.
"The Boy Who Sang for Others" by Michael Meddor is a tale of possession. It's tone is similar to "Rising Waters" (the classic reprint for this issue) and it's written in a mountain dialect. As I'm not a fan of dialect and the repeated misuse of "were" got old really quickly.
Things only get interesting this very short story in the last page and a half. The boy struck dumb by a horse hoof to the head begins to sing in church except that it's not his voice. He sings in the voices of the long dead. That is why he needs to be exorcised.
Grandma manages to give an interesting explanation of events in the last paragraph but it didn't seem worth the effort of reading the entire story just for a quip from her at the end. At least the story is short.
Don Quixote: Try to Remember: 02/07/09
Chapters 35 through 46 continue the adventure of Don Quixote after he travels into the cave and comes back up with tales of fantastic things. At first his new found respect and patronage from the Duchess seems like a dream come true. Now as the initial euphoria wears off, Sancho and Don Quixote begin to realize that things aren't as they seem.
While Don Quixote has to deal with the fact that the Duchess has plans for him and possibly unethical ones, Sancho Panza begins to live his dream of fame and fortune. The combination of events of Quixote's rise from the cave and him falling prey to an elaborate plot and Sancho Panza becoming lord and master of a small island brought to mind an episode of Magnum PI's second season called "Try to Remember."
"Try to Remember" opens with paramedics and fire fighters pulling an unconscious Magnum from the wrecked Ferrari which is lying smashed at the bottom of a cliff. Like Don Quixote dreaming of a fantastic adventure during his time in the cave (where he was lowered and later raised up by Sancho Panza and a crew of locals), Magnum is dreaming of a battle in Vietnam. Mixed together with that are images of a well to do man and woman and a fancy dinner. The woman, Wendy Gilbert is the Duchess and her wealth and her case for Magnum are just as phony as the Duchess in Don Quixote is.
Now every Don Quixote needs a Sancho Panza. You can't have one without the other. If Thomas Magnum is Quixote for this episode, then Jonathan Quayle Higgins III is Sancho Panza. Physically the two fit the bill (more or less). Magnum is tall and mustachioed. Higgins is short and round and in the position of being a servant (though not to Magnum). As of Season two, Higgins was still official the majordomo to the never seen but often heard Robin Masters. Later in the series with the death of Masters's voice (Orson Welles) the premise changed to Higgins really being Robin Masters.
Higgins's odd status as both a servant and master of the estate blends well with Sancho Panza's rising status as the novel progresses. Also, like Higgins and his on again - off again memoir and the possibility that he's also writing adventure romances on the side blends well with the continuing dropped hints that Sancho Panza might be the one supplying the oft mentioned but never seen Cid Hamete. Just as much as I believe the change in premise of Higgins being Robin Masters, I believe that Sancho Panza is Cid Hamete.
"Try to Remember" being an hour long mystery (or about forty-five minutes when the commercials are taken out), Magnum gets to bottom of the Gilberts' rouse and comes away with his mind and memory intact. For Don Quixote, he still has yet to escape from the Duchess's grasp.
I have 166 pages left to go in Don Quixote, meaning three more posts for me to write. Starting in March I will put aside Don Quixote and start on Ulysses.
Fright Night Flight: 02/06/09
I've mentioned before that my children love monsters, especially those associated with Halloween. Both will happily wear Halloween shirts year round if given the chance. With that passion for monsters, ghosts, witches and other things that go bump in the night, we have collected quite a number of Halloween books. Fright Night Flight by Laura Krauss Melmed is our latest addition to the collection.
Laura Melmed's cumulative rhyming scheme and Henry Cole's colorful illustrations bring this story of a witch and her friends riding a broomstick to a Halloween part to life. Her broomstick is no ordinary one; it's jet fueled and it's long enough to fit all of a witch's friends.
The story includes a trip to Egypt to pick up a mummy, a trip to a haunted house, a trip to a castle to pick up a vampire and a few other creepy places. My kids like seeing how crowded the broom gets and they are reminded of the Backyardigans episode "Scared of You." An added bonus from Harriet's point of view is the witch's cat who doesn't take kindly to having all these other montsers sharing the broomstick.
The Elephant Who Liked to Smash Small Cars: 02/05/09
Jean Merrill may be best known for The Pushcart War (1964) but I know her through The Elephant Who Liked to Smash Small Cars (1967). This book about an elephant and his thing about smashing small cars is one my husband grew up with. It's really a strange book but oddly entertaining.
The story is simple and absurd. An elephant in some unnamed town terrorizes the highway by smashing all the small cars that drive by. When a car dealership opens up in his territory, the elephant gleefully smashes all the inventory. The dealer, not about to be chased away by this elephant gets his revenge. In the end the elephant learns his lesson but doesn't lose his love of smashing cars.
The illustrations by Ronni Solbert (who illustrated most of Merrill's books) are minimalist, lacking in the bells and whistles so common in illustrations for children's books. They are none the less effective and well suited for this bizarre story.
The elephant also has a theme song. The sheet music is included in the book on page seven. It's called "The Smashing Song." My kids love to sing it.
My husband grew up with this book. His family's copy has fallen apart from so much reading and he wanted to get a copy for our children. The process of finding a copy and then one that we could afford took about six years of on and off searching the various used book sellers on the internet. While the rest of Merrill's books seem to be still in print, The Elephant Who Liked to Smash Small Cars isn't. Instead it seems to be in some sort of publishing limbo. It's currently listed with a "new" price of $5.99 but it's not actually in print. The 1967 copies fetch a handsome price from $52 and up. The current most expensive copy is $200 but I've seen it offered for as high as $400. A year or so ago I found someone who didn't know the going rate for this book and I snatched it up for about $20 (including shipping).
It's a cute book and the four of us enjoy it but I personally wouldn't pay what most people sell it for.
Does a Kangaroo Have a Mother, Too? 02/04/09
Does a Kangaroo Have a Mother, Too? by Eric Carle features twelve animals all illustrated in Carle's signature painted tissue paper style. The book teaches about animals and families through the repetition of a question: "Does a _____ have a mother, too?" The answer is of course, always yes.
For the parents who read the book aloud, it's thankfully short with the question only asked twelve times. It's a bit mind numbing to ask the same question again and again and it lacks the drama of the very similar Have You Seen My Cat? (also by Eric Carle).
Kids, though, seem to love the repetition in this book. My two will shout "Yes" at the appropriate time. When we have extra time before bed we will discuss the different types of animals in the book. As the book relies so heavily on repetition it's also easy for them to memorize. This allows Harriet to "read" the book to herself if I'm reading a chapter book to her brother.
Books by Eric Carle reviewed here: (Click on a title to read reviews).
Birdsongs by Betty Franco and illustrated by Steve Jenkins is a delightful children's book that's takes a typical counting book and mixes with with some basic ornithology along with the story of an approaching storm.
Each page marks the passage of time with a new bird and a new bird song. There are crows, chickadees, morning doves, sea gulls and a humming bird among others. Harriet loves the way different birdsongs are counted all the way down to the single humming bird zzzt. She likes the make the different birdsongs and point out the birds.
Sean meanwhile likes Steve Jenkins's illustrations. Jenkins builds each illustration with carefully cut and layered bits of paper. These collages have a nice sense of texture and depth.
Birdsongs is a perfect bedtime story. It's soothing and rhythmic and easy to read. It keeps the attention of both my two-year-old and my six-year-old which is crucial for our nightly routine.
Abramo's Gift: 02/02/09
Abramo's Gift by Donald Greco is the story of a friendship between two immigrant families, one Italian and one Irish. All of this takes place in Youngstown Ohio at the turn of the last century. Abramo, the hero of the novel, faces racism in his new home and carries with him the demons of his past: a civil war and the deaths of his wife and daughter.
Abramo's Gift is what I would call a situational drama. Abramo Cardone's tragic life, his work at the Irish owned steel mill and the way in which he meets Molly are all there to keep the emotional tension tightly wound.
Throughout all of this drama and tragedy, Abramo is a likeable chap. He keeps his temper. He's quick and willing to learn English. He wants to make his uncle proud and do good for his friends. If anything he's too good and too perfect. In other words, he's a Marty Stu.
Hugh, Abramo's Irish-American counterpart, caught my attention more so than Abramo. He's not as perfect as Abramo. He's skeptical and prone to moments of prejudice. He's also aware of his weaknesses and is willing to push himself to move past his problems. Much of Abramo's good luck in his new home comes from Hugh's good will.
The novel is a good start with an interesting historical setting and context but it could have been more. There are very few surprises in the novel. It follows a pretty standard script from start to finish. For what it is, it's perfectly adequate. It just could and should have better.
100 Years of California Cooking: 02/01/09
About a month ago I got an email from Randal who runs the Practically Edible site, an online food encyclopedia. It was a request for the recipe on page 49 of 100 Years of California Cooking for Green Goddess Dressing.
100 Years of California Cooking is a compilation of recipes published in the Oakland Tribune. They were "compiled and tested for the ... readers" by Martha Lee, the newspaper's Home Economics Editor. The book is 96 pages long and full of recipes I remember eating during family get-togethers in the 1970s and 1980s.
California Cooking seems to have drifted away from the flavors and combinations of foods in this volume. Except for Christmas dinner, I can't think of any other time I would eat a gelatine mould, and certainly not one involving either ham or tuna!
There are two exceptions where the book is actually current: the dressings and the desserts. There is a peanut butter cookie recipe very close to one I use on a regular basis on page 89. My mother still sometimes makes Refrigerator Cookies like those on page 87 and of you add chocolate chips to the Dream Bars on page 86, you'll get Magic Cookie Bars.
All of the recipes that sound interesting to me I have similar enough ones in my grandmother's old cook book and in my old Betty Crocker cook book.