Friday, March 27, 2009

reading with the junior bibliotonics

Much of what I read on a daily basis is children’s books, and yet I rarely, if ever, write about them. So I’d like to make this a regular feature, where I comment on what the boys are reading and on what I’m reading to them.

For the record, they both are nutters for comic books. I was completely prepared for this and have no need to fight the urge. Mr. Bibliotonic has a comic book collection that we joke will pay for their college tuition,* so I feel as if the boys may be somewhat genetically predisposed to reading in this colorful format. Also, a few years ago at a Talking Volumes event, I listened to Michael Chabon talk about what his kids read, and comic books were, not surprisingly, sanctioned in his household. As a family, we make biweekly trips to Uncle Sven’s Comic Shoppe, which is as close to a neighborhood bookstore as we have.

In addition to comic books, the boys are drawn to books that are part of a series. I know that series breed familiarity, which is comforting. It’s just that, as the adult doing the reading aloud, I find this tendency to be so limiting. I secretly hope that each son will take the responsibility to read series books on his own so that I may get to all the books in which I am interested. I know that is such a selfish thing to say, but I feel the clock ticking. It is an honor and a priviledge to read aloud to my sons, but it won’t be long before they decide that they don't want to read to any longer—and I’ll still only be a quarter way through Tunnels.

So what are the boys reading?

Son Number One, who is nine-and-a-half years old, is currently smitten with Warriors, and I’m reading this series about cats aloud to him. The cats lived in the wild, in four separate clans. The focus is primarily on Fireheart, a former “kittypet” who now makes his home in the forest with Thunder Clan. Fireheart is smart and fiercely loyal to his clan, even though he sometimes crosses paths with his sister Princess, a house pet. Also, his best friend, Graystripe, has a mate in a rival clan, which can only spell trouble. I’ve learned a lot about cat behavior, such as sharing tongues and predilections for fresh kill. Ultimately the books are about survival. Surprisingly, the books I have read have been really well written. Somewhere near the middle of book 3, I found myself very invested in Fireheart and in what happens next. We’re on book four of six. There are spin-off series, which I cannot see myself reading, 'cuz I’m not joking when I say that Tunnels beckons. On his own, SNO has started the first book in the Guardians of Ga’hoole series, which is much like Warriors, except that it’s about owls.

Second Son, who is just about to turn seven, is an emerging reader, excited to tackle almost anything on his own, even if it takes an hour to read one page. This is rewarding for him and for me. I have been reading aloud Deltora Quest, a fantasy series in which Lief and Barda set out from Del, to save Deltora from the evil Shadow Lord. The series has eight books. In each of the first seven, Lief collects one of the seven gems that belong in the Belt of Deltora, which, once reassembled, will serve to conquer the Shadow Lord. The final book describes the return journey to Deltora. Second Son and I recently finished book five, Dread Mountain, which had a very satisfying ending to make up for the lackluster bulk of the novel. With only three books—each weighing in at about 125 pages—left to read, Second Son doesn’t seem as excited about books six through eight as he was about books two through four. I feel like I have a lot invested…no pressure, though. This series also has a couple of multi-book spin-offs, god forbid.

During the DQ interlude, I am helping Second Son to fix his Secret Agent Jack Stalwart addiction. This is a series featuring a nine-year-old who is an operative for a super-secret organization that fights evil around the world. At the same time, Jack is looking for his brother, Max, also an agent, who is allegedly at boarding school, which is merely a cover. Max is actually missing in the field—kind of a twisted premise for the series’ target audience. Simple and short, these chapter books are utterly formulaic so I’m unable to distinguish one plot from another. Each book is set in a different country, but it’s a rather gratuitous gesture, as all the info about geography, peoples, and culture is superficial at best. In my opinion, the series stinks, but young master Second Son finds it very satisfying. So who am I to judge?

*In truth, the collection may pay for a semester of college tuition. But that’s something, considering that a year at Carleton currently costs more than I earned last year. A little depressing.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

souvenirs from a childhood of reading

Last weekend we entertained some friends, and after a dinner that included killing two bottles of port—each was less than a quarter full—the junior set inquired about my legendary* Nancy Drew collection. Darling M (nearly 11) and Z (8) wanted to know how many ND books I had (I overestimated and said 20 or so, but actually it's 12**), and which I had read (why, all of them, thirty years ago). Seeing, then, that an expedition through our very scary, very full garage was in order, we suited up in coats and shoes, equipped ourselves with stick and brooms (I think something mammalian and larger than a mouse currently makes its home there), and trekked upstairs.

Standing amid a wasteland of bicycles, M wondered, "Where do you think It is?" Z applied her keen sleuthing skills and, pointing across the width of the stall, said "Would It say 'Nancy Drew' on It?" Sure enough, there It was, screamingly obvious. The Box, labeled "Nancy Drew mysteries," sat on a coated-wire shelf, minding its own business. Our angle for obtaining The Box was awkward, but we tugged and pulled and knocked over a few bikes (sorry, John, I may have nicked the can take the repair out of my next paycheck). Finally, The Box landed with a thud on the garage floor. Nancy Drews and a handful of Trixie Beldens, nestled amid the most motley assortment of teenage romances, Judy Blume's Forever, The Summer of My German Soldier, Frank Herbert's Children of Dune, and Plato's Republic. The nostalgic was palpable: I was looking at the sum total of books I owned through 1986.

The Box, which is huge in size, felt insubstantial, damp from living in inhospitable environments for the past twenty years. I know my books deserve better, and I vow to remedy the situation as best I can. Bless John, who cracked a copy of Isaac Asimov's Foundation, sniffed, and declared, "Smells like a book.***"

*Legendary in so much that I have a few ND's from my childhood in the 70s.
**Now 13, as M came into #8, Nancy's Mysterious Letter, and having no interesting in reading it, gave me her copy.
***i.e., not like mold or mildew

Monday, March 23, 2009

where did I leave off

I was on such a roll, getting into a good blogging groove when illness struck our family. My six-year-old had one of those 24-hour viruses where the main symptoms are a high fever, muscle aches, and joint pains. Win was a pitiful wreck, and, for two days, I held him close…close enough to catch his bug and have it mutate into something approximating the bubonic plague. For at least a day, I lay on the couch with a headache too fierce to focus on the printed page—which, in my opinion, is the biggest insult. After the fever broke, I felt, amazingly, not better, though I was eventually able to read.

Here we are on a cold, drizzly day in March—the counterpoint to gorgeously sunny and warm spring days—and I am getting my groove back.

I gave up on faithfully reporting on the Tournament of Books. The early-round upsets were exciting, to be sure. The commentary was uninspiring. But, now that I’m feeling better, I have a little more energy to get caught up and will more closely follow the final rounds.

While on my sick bed, I read Little Bee by Chris Cleave, and I think I really liked it. My friend Caryl and I have had many conversations about the novel and the author. While my initial reaction was that story is an important one, I felt it was told in a manipulative way. The reader knows from the flap copy that “something” is going to happen in the story and that it’s probably sensational and that the story hinges on it so the reader needs to keep it a secret. I find that coyness so annoying. And the plot turns really go off like A bombs, with big explosions and lingering effects. As Caryl and I talk, I’ll find myself coming around to really liking the book. There’s certainly a lot to talk about, and I will write more later. My monthly roundup is due soon. Yikes! Are we already at the end of the month?

I went right from Little Bee to Neil Gaiman’s Newbery Award-winning, Hugo Award-nominated The Graveyard Book, which I adore. I know I will read this again. The characters are fantastic, the premise is a Gothic twist on a classic story, and the writing is flawless.

I’m in the middle of a few books that I’d like to finish reading by month’s end so as to really clear the decks for the piles and piles of things I’ve purchased and picked up from the library recently. I’m looking at you Little House on the Prairie, which I started reading back in October after seeing the musical adaptation at The Guthrie, as well as Cold Comfort Farm. Both are 41 for 41 titles, and I'd love to make some progress on that list as my reading year is nearly half done. It would feel so good to put these gems back on the shelf rather than risking their loss in any of the tall piles that populate my house.

It feels good to be back. I'm off to the coffeehouse, where, this morning, I left the library's copy of The Graveyard Book. Thank you Nice Person, who turned the book into the lost-and-found!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

ToB: round one, match three

Oh, if only I could trust my intellect over my gut. Today’s match presented another upset, with Mark Sarvas’ Harry, Revised trouncing the Booker Prizer winner, White Tiger. But a well-measured verdict was rendered. Jonah Lehrer did a respectable job as judge. My faith in the Tournament is restored.

Match four pits Unaccustomed Earth, Jhumpa Lahiri’s critically acclaimed story collection, against City of Refuge, a novel of New Orleans by Tom Piazza, who is also no slouch. The judge is Mary Roach, author of Stiff and Bonk. I’m not going to hazard a guess as to how Roach will vote, but I’m rooting for Unaccustomed Earth.


In my humble opinion, Ezra Jack Keats is a god among men—and children’s book illustrators. When I found out that I was pregnant with my first child, the first children’s book I bought for my baby’s library was Snowy Day. It’s pretty much perfection. Even though my boys have mostly outgrown picture books, it's still our go-to comfort book.

Here’s the Writers' Almanac entry:
It's the birthday of the children's author and illustrator Ezra Jack Keats, (books by this author) born in Brooklyn in 1916. After high school, he worked as a muralist for the Works Progress Administration, part of FDR's New Deal federal programming. He did illustrations for comic strips, for book jackets, and finally he started writing and illustrating his own books. He won a Caldecott Medal for The Snowy Day (1962), which was considered a breakthrough book because the main character was an inner-city black boy named Peter, but his race was incidental to the plot of the book. Peter was just a kid like other kids, who played in the snowdrifts outside his apartment building, took a bath at the end of the day, and was sad when he discovered that the snowball he put in his pocket had melted.
And, fun trivia about the author—for example, he was the first designer of greeting cards from UNICEF—can be found here.

For as long as I live, I will look for footprints in the snow that go this way and that way.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

ToB: round one, match two

So far, two matches in, I have been incredibly underwhelmed by the judges’ commentary. My feelings about Brockman not having read 2666 were correct. Kate Schlegel’s notes today were so weak, I might conclude that she flipped a coin. I know that I may be overreacting a touch—this isn’t a prestigious literary award. Based on previous Tournaments, I think the decisions rendered should be entertaining in some way, and so far, they just are not.

Granted, Netherland and A Partisan’s Daughter were pretty equally matched, and neither was without problems. So perhaps it was a coin toss. If Kate Schlegel doesn’t want to be a judge next year, I’m happy to take her place.

In match three, two debut novels square off. White Tiger, the 2008 Booker Prize winner, meets Harry, Revised, written by a popular blogger and previous ToB judge. Tough call. Despite feeling like White Tiger is a no-brainer, judge Jonah Lehrer, author of How We Decide and Proust Was a Neuroscientist, just may buck literary convention for a fresh choice. Again, it’s anyone’s guess. I predict White Tiger.

Monday, March 09, 2009

on my radar: Zoe Heller

Zoe Heller's latest book, The Believers, was recently released and catapulted immediately onto my TBR list. I found these things compelling:

~ My friend Daniel mentioned it on his blog, Boswell and Books.
~ Michiko Kakutani reviewed in the New York Times and while the review isn't a rave, it still made the book appealing.
~ Heller is this week's guest blogger at Powell's. She's incredibly likeable.

Tournament of Books: round one, match one

In the first match of The Morning News’ Tournament of Books, Fae Myenne Ng’s Steer Toward Rock faced Roberto Bolano’s 2666. The judge, Brockman, used a risky basketball analogy to critique each novel on his way to selecting a winner. Though I can’t be sure—and I wouldn’t want you to quote me on it—I don’t think Brockman read 2666 in its entirety. From round one, it seems a forgone conclusion that Bolano’s mighty 900-page giant will stomp its way to victory.

Round one, match two—Netherland v. A Partisan’s Daughter—is a little tricksier to predict. The books seem to be similar in literary scope. Netherland enjoyed strong word of mouth this past fall, was a NYT Best 10 Books of 2008, and recently won the 2009 PEN/Faulkner award. The novel is set in post-9/11 NYC and has a focus on cricket and an unusual friendship. Some believe it was dissed by not being nominated for a National Book Award or a National Book Critics’ Circle award. A Partisan’s Daughter is “an oddball love story” set in 1970s London. It was written by Louis de Bernieres, who wrote the wildly popular Corelli’s Mandolin. I listened to Netherland and found it enjoyable, but I don’t see it going far in this year’s Tournament.

Kate Schlegel, TMN’s managing editor, is the judge for round one, match two. She has served as a judge in the previous four Tournaments and is fairly straightforward in her commentary. I predict she’ll choose Netherland.

Sunday, March 08, 2009


The 2009 Tournament of Books, hosted by The Morning News and sponsored by Powell's Books, kicks off tomorrow. Roberto Bolano's massive 2666 faces off against Fae Myenne Ng's Steer Toward Rock. The judge is Brockman, the head writer for Powell's Books' Book News blog. As this appears to be Brockman's first time judging in the ToB, he doesn't have a track record. Also, I couldn't find any of his Staff Picks on the Powell's site. Yet, I predict Brockman will vote for 2666.

february statistics

Quick, before March is done, here are my February '09 reading statistics.

books read: 3

Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks (E. Lockhart)
This young adult novel is a contender in the 2009 Tournament of Books, which is how it landed on my radar. Frankie Landau-Banks is a legacy at a fancy boarding school. She’s blossomed into a swan over the summer and, starting her sophomore year, has caught the eye of a senior boy, Matthew Livingston. Matthew is the head of a secret society, the Loyal Order of the Basset Hounds, which Frankie discovers after following him one evening. Despising Matthew deceptions, and inspired by what she is learning in a class that explores the roots of social and political protest, Frankie decides to engage in her own form of street theater. The novel was quick to read, full of chest-thumping girl power. In the first round of the ToB, Frankie Landau-Banks faces Peter Matthiessen’s National Book Award-winning masterwork, Shadow Country.

Death and Judgment (Donna Leon)
This is the fourth mystery in the series featuring Commissario Brunetti, who unravels a prostitution ring with the most unlikely of leaders. For my money, this episode had a slow but dramatic start and, sadly, little of the luscious descriptions of food and Venice that are such a draw. But, to date, the ending has left the strongest impression. I’m looking forward to number five, Acqua Alta, which I’ve started twice before and which features a return of the opera star from Death at La Fenice.

House (Michael Ruhlman)
I am a huge fan of Ruhlman, especially Soul of a Chef and The Reach of a Chef, but he’s also a wicked blogger. In House, Ruhlman writes about buying and restoring a 100-year-old home in Cleveland, his hometown. It’s a frank and inspiring memoir, as well as a love letter to Cleveland. Beyond that Ruhlman explores the structure of a house and what makes a house a home. Here’s the author’s lovely, evocative prose, before the renovation begins:
I descended the stairs slowly, held the banister as I hit the landing. I could imagine the tread of girls my daughter’s age on these stairs. I continued to the main hallway. I would stroll this way through the quiet house over the next several days, trying to imagine what had happened here—it was such an old house—and also what might happen.
books heard: 2

Netherland (Joseph O’Neill)
Netherland has been on my TBR list since it was published in 2008. It received strong reviews and was a New York Times Notable. The unabridged audio gave me an opportunity to “read” the book in time for the 2009 Tournament of Books, in which Netherland is a contender. The novel follows Hans van den Broek, a Dutch banker living in the Chelsea Hotel after his British wife, following 9/11, hightails it back to London with their son. In navigating his new life, Hans makes the acquaintance of Chuck Ramkissoon, a Gatsby-esque schemer, and falls into the cricket subculture. It was a quiet novel, perfectly enjoyed in audio form.

Me Talk Pretty One Day (David Sedaris)
It’s all well and good to read any of Sedaris’s bestselling essay collections—and it’s quite another to listen to him on audio. His voice is so distinctive that you will hear it in your head as you read his essays, but I believe you will laugh a little harder and more often if you hear him perform. Me Talk Pretty One Day kicks off with an essay about the speech therapy he endured as a child to correct his lisp but the bulk of this collection is about moving to France and the oddities of culture and language. And the pieces are outrageously funny and smart. I wanted to hang on every word so that I could repeat passages back to friends later, but my memory sucks.

books bought: 5
The self-imposed ban on buying books is officially off. It was an unrealistic expectation, which I knew from the moment I committed the pledge to cyberspace. For awhile, I deluded myself into believing it was possible to hold my consumer tendancies in check. Later, I rationalized buying one book a month, so that I may continue to support independent booksellers. Then an unfortunate mental state presented itself. Only retail therapy would do. The first place I turned was the bookstore. You can see how slippery the slope is.

Fiction on a Stick (edited by Daniel Slager)
This anthology had a lot of local buzz when it was released, but these six-question interviews with some of the authors placed it more squarely on my radar.

A Place of My Own (Michael Pollan)
Before Pollan became a household name with Omnivore’s Dilemma, he wrote a memoir about building a writing studio. On the heels of Michael Ruhlman’s House, this book falls neatly in line with my interest in architecture.

no one belongs here more than you (Miranda July)
Total impulse purchase based on a desire to read more short fiction.

Oranges (John McPhee)
I have intended to read McPhee for a very long time. Following a visit from my mother-in-law and her husband, who can fit a McPhee book into almost any conversation, I ran across this mostly botanical microhistory at Sixth Chamber. Kismet.

The Borrowers (Mary Norton)
Also at Sixth Chamber, I found this classic children’s novel of tiny people who live in the walls of bigger people’s homes. I had been looking for something with a little more substance to read aloud to the boys, and this book from my childhood seems a good choice. To this day, I love found objects and often try to imagine what the Borrowers would do with an empty shotgun shell.

books abandoned: 2
Discovery of France

Monday, March 02, 2009


When I was a kid, my family had a few Dr. Seuss books—Yertle the Turtle and If I Ran the Circus—but I’m not sure where these came from and I certainly don’t remember either of my parents reading them aloud. There’s so much I don’t know but I’m fairly sure of this: Dr. Seuss meant for his books to be read aloud. And really, is there any literature more fun to read aloud than his?

My Dr. Seuss love is directly attributed to my children, especially Winston, who is nearly 7 and who could forsake all other books for an exclusive reading diet of all things Seussian.

Please don’t ask me to pick a favorite Seuss book. I thrill to most of his books for the illustrations—crazy characters, vivid colors—as well as the rhymes. But Fox in Socks provides the greatest tongue twisters I’ve ever known. My goal is always to read it through without stumbling—and, it can be done.

In addition to a stunningly prolific career as a children’s book author, Dr. Seuss, (a.k.a. Theodore Geisel) illustrated ad campaigns. Read more about his illustrious career here.