Friday, February 29, 2008

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

One of the reasons I love to read is because it takes me outside of my home, outside of my very small universe and plunks me down somewhere I would never get to without a book to take me there. It's not a perfect place because it's colored by the author's perception, but it's still different from anything I would see with my own eyes.

Sherman Alexie successfully transported me to the Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington. He introduced me to Arnold Spirit, Jr. and gave me a good dose of what his life is like. "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian" is told from Arnold/Junior's point of view. He's fourteen and has a myriad of medical problems, not to mention he's goofy looking and poor. He talks and acts like a typical 14 year-old boy, so that might be a turn off. I almost put the book down and walked away, but I felt like the book had something I needed to read in it. Arnold/Junior (his white friends call him Arnold, his Indian friends call him Junior) decides to get off the reservation and go to the white school 22 miles away. He doesn't want to end up like his sister, living in the basement and going nowhere in her life, or his father who's drunk most of the time, or his best friend, Rowdy, who's so full of anger he lashes out at everybody but him. This book sounds incredibly depressing, doesn't it? But it is unbelievably funny. Hilarious. Arnold/Junior glaringly sees his life and his misfortunes, but he still makes you crack up about it. He's the kind of kid you would want as your friend, no matter how weird looking and goofy he was.

You can tell that Sherman Alexie soaked this story with his own experiences and when I read the blurb about his life, you can tell he knows these things first-hand. It makes what happens even more sad knowing they are accurate, but at the same time, again I feel like I have a better view of a part of the world I would never see otherwise. Mr. Alexie is more known for his poetry, short stories and even films, so I'll have to add him to my list of to-reads. I would recommend you the same.

On a funny side-note, I found a video clip of Sherman Alexie's acceptance speech when he won the National Book Award. It looked more like a Nerdy Homely Author Convention! Is that what we have to expect if we meet an author? The presenters of the award looked like they just walked out of the archives of a library, all squinty-eyed and bookish. I remember the first time I saw a picture of Garrison Keillor I about fainted. Surely this could not be the same man whose voice came out of the radio! Some faces are meant for radio and novels, that's for sure.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Poetry Buzz

I read in Honey for Child's Heart that you should read poetry to children so they can hear how beautiful language can be and get a taste for it. Does Shel Silverstein count? Because we sure read a lot of his poems. Since then, I've tried to make poetry a staple of our literary diet and my kids really enjoy it. We read other stuff but most of it is preposterously silly. Here's what we've sampled and what we're addicted to.

Shel Silverstein is probably our favorite at our house. "Falling Up", and "The Light in the Attic" are the collections we have and read out of regularly. The girls have memorized a few too, though they wouldn't be the ones I'd want them reciting to people. For example:
We gave you a chance
To water the plants.
We didn't mean that way--
Now zip up your pants.

Heh heh, it probably didn't help that I roared with laughter after reading it. Oops. The only other author that I have warped my children with is a collection of poems by Roald Dahl of "James and the Giant Peach" and "The BFG" fame. The book is called "Revolting Rhymes" and its his twist on fairy tales. Here's an excerpt from Goldilocks and the Three Bears:

This famous wicked little tale
Should never have been put on sale.
It is a mystery to me
Why loving parents cannot see
That this is actually a book
About a brazen little crook.
Had I the chance I wouldn't fail
To clap young Goldilocks in jail.

The poem ends with Baby Bear eating Goldilocks. There are some funnier, and some gorier, poems in the book. I got it knowing that my children love Dahl's bizarre sense of humor and it is in full form in the book.

Recently, we discovered Jack Prelutsky, the nation's first Children's Poet Laureate. His poetry is so fun and enticing to my children that once we start reading, nobody wants to stop. "Just one more!" is what they beg every time and I have a hard time saying no. Here's one sample:

The cuckoo in our cuckoo clock
was wedded to an octopus,
she laid a single wooden egg,
and hatched a cuckoocloctopus.

Prelutsky has lots of poetry collections and my second daughter got "The New Kid on the Block" for her birthday. That same day, her older sister stole it and read almost the entire book in her bed. We've gotten other Prelutsky books from the library, including "In Aunt Giraffe's Green Garden" which has poems about major cities in it. We were so excited to see our home in his book and the place where I grew up. They were both so perfectly accurate too. Not all his poems are silly but those that are not are beautiful to read.

A beautiful and not silly poetry book is "Hailstones and Halibut Bones" by Mary O'Neill. It's poems about colors and it is amazing to watch my children listen to the poems. They kind of stare off in the distance and sit very quietly. I'll read one then pause while they absorb it. It's fun to watch their brains wrap themselves around the words.

Lastly, in a fit of trying to be a literary type, I bought Henry Wordsworth Longfellow's collection of poems called "The Children's Own Longfellow." I was congratulating myself, thinking of what a good mother I was to enrich my children with some of the world's greatest literature. The first poem we read was "The Wreck of the Hesperus" which ends with the ship crashing against the rocky shore, killing everybody aboard. My children cried for twenty minutes. I tried again with "Paul Revere's Ride" which was received better, but required me to explain the Revolutionary War--not a easy task with children who have no frame of reference. We've decided to put that book back on the shelf for a little while.

Now my next goal is to find some poetry for me to read and enjoy. I don't want anything that makes me completely depressed or is graphic and gory. Does that exist? I think I'll go do some cruising on the interweb and figure out what is worth reading. Until then, I have Henry, Shel and Jack to keep me entertained.

Saturday, February 23, 2008


I gorged myself on mental junk food today. It wasn't all that tasty and it certainly had no nutritional value. I kind of hate myself after indulging and want to go read something hearty to make up for it. Do you ever do this? Toss the junk food metaphor aside and examine your own reading habits. I was hoping that "Beastly" by Alex Finn would be a wonderful re-creation of the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale, but nope. Mediocre at best. Did I stop reading? Did I put it down and move on to more worthy fodder? Nope. I have the same problem with Cheetos. I literally cannot stop eating them. My fingers will be stained orange, my tongue raw and my jaw sore from chomping and yet I keep shoving the little orange buggers in. Where is my self-control? Where is my will-power?
Just put the crappy book down, Jenny. Just set it down and walk away.
But I'm boooored. I have nothing to dooooo.
Not true! You have an office that needs reorganizing! You have a basement full of junk to clean out!
I don't want to do that stuff. I want to do something fun.
I don't have anything fun for you to do today. Go be productive.
Aaah, man!

Sorry you had to witness that. My inner child was acting up and when I have a perfectly lovely day with no demands on my time, sometimes it takes over and I read "Beastly" books and let my children play in the backyard all day without my supervision. They were probably digging holes to China and I'll fall into my pockmarked yard in the spring when I finally venture out to do some yard work. All for a book that was contrived and completely forgettable.

I'm going on a book diet tomorrow. Or Monday. Only Newberry or Pulitzer winners. Fifteen minutes of memorizing new vocabulary first thing in the morning. Join a Great Books club. Yup. On Monday. Or a week from Monday, if the new John Grisham comes up on my holds list.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

I give up. I'm going to Botswana.

I gave it a good try, I really did. I started out with it on CD and really enjoyed hearing Janeane Garofalo do voices for pretentious politicians and jaded Gen Y-ers. But then the president's salty language got too much for younger listeners that might be hovering nearby so I had to switch to the hard copy and it lost me. "Boomsday" by Christopher Buckley is political satire at it's best and good hilarious fun to boot. But I couldn't finish. It was too fun to listen to, but it just couldn't reel me in when I had to sit down and read it. Oh well. There's more books out there.

On to the next one! "Whatever You Do, Don't Run" by Peter Allison are true tales from a Botswana safari guide and absolutely delightful to read. Yes, I have a bit of a love for Botswana right now, but besides that I still would have loved reading this book. Peter Allison was an Australian teenager who went to Africa for a year to have some fun and see some big animals and never wanted to leave. He learned how to become a safari guide and eventually worked his way up to become a true animal conservationist and an expert at what he did. But you sure can't tell that could ever happen by what he gets into along the way. I've decided that he is either humble or honest because he comes across as reckless and slightly stupid. Actually, I take that back. He doesn't set up a pretense of having these great adventures because of his courageous exploration of the African wildlife. He has full disclosure that some of the things that happen only occur because he wasn't careful or made a stupid mistake.

His stories about the tourists he has to deal with are hilarious and frustrating. His stories about the animals are awe-inspiring, terrifying and vastly entertaining. You can just picture him sitting around with his buddies, swapping some of these stories, trying to one-up each other's adventures. I'm so glad he remembered enough detail to make such a fun book out of it. The best part is that you can tell that he really truly loves Botswana, the animals and the wildlife there. Africa probably needs more people like him.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Picture Books Worth Reading

Since I'm stuck in a book rut at the moment (I'm determined to finish a book I started, but it's taking forever), I'll highlight some of our favorite pictures books at our house. Ones that get read over and over again and whose virtues are many.

"Ivan the Terrier" by Peter Catalanotto is actually one that we checked out from the library. Ivan--the terrier, of course--keeps interrupting the story with his antics and crazed barking. The girls thought it was hilarious and loved seeing him chase the three bears out of their house and eat the gingerbread boy. It'll be sad to see this one go back to the library, but perhaps it'll show up on the amazon wish list I have for them.

"Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus" by Mo Willems is one of our most favorite books. We have read it over and over again. There's all the Pigeon spin-off books, but they don't have the magic of the first one. Mo Willems is a genius and all of his books are wonderful. If you seriously are hearing of this book for the first time here, what is wrong with you? Are you un-American or something?

"Eric Carle's Treasure of Classic Stories for Children" which is Aesop fables, Hans Christian Andersen and Brothers Grimm tales that have been retooled by Eric Carle. We love anything Carle and once contemplated making a road trip to his museum in Massachusetts with my friend, Christina and her kids. He's that awesome. But this book is even more than illustrations. It is more like art and my kids love it. Plus, Aesop's fables are kind of bizarre and fun to read.

Speaking of beautiful artwork and fairy tales, we also love Paul O. Zelinsky's books. We have "Hansel and Gretel" and it's beautiful. It has an almost Renaissance feel to the illustrations. He's a Caldecott Medal winner and that's no surprise once you see his books. He's illustrated a bunch of books, so you should check out his website to see what there is to enjoy.

Usbourne publishes amazing books, but I'm still cursing them under my breath since they only way you can get them locally is to go through a distributor, like buying Pampered Chef or Avon. You can order their books online or through Scholastic book clubs, though, so I forgive them in part. One of my favorites are the "That's Not My Teddy" board books. They are touchy-feely books, which my babies always respond the most to and these ones are super cute. My baby is getting, "That's Not My Dinosaur" and "That's Not My Teddy" for her first birthday. There are several versions and you can find them in Spanish too.

For those of you with boys who are getting bored reading this blog, some of our favorite books are about dinosaurs, trucks and trains. Not bad for a family of girls, I gotta say. We love "How Do Dinosaur's Say Goodnight?" by Jane Yolen and illustrated by Mark Teague. Also, "Big Truck and Little Truck" by Jan Carr and illustrated by Ivan Bates. The girls also love anything with Thomas the Tank Engine, but I get sick of reading them.

Wow, there are so many more books I can write about, but I'll have to save that for later. I haven't even started on chapter books, or easy readers. I could write blogs full about children's music too, but maybe I'll save that for somewhere else. If I went through my bookshelves, I could probably write entries for days on my favorite picture books. I have somewhat of an addiction to children's books for which my husband might end up sending me to rehab. "Hello, my name is Jenny and I'm addicted to buying children's books. I haven't purchased anything from my daughter's Scholastic book club in three months and I haven't joined Children's Book of the Month Club in two years. I had a relapse last spring at a sidewalk sale at a local bookstore. My Amazon wish list is reaching enormous proportions and I might need a sponsor to help me winnow it down." I've promised my husband that I'm going to focus my attentions on chapter books now that my picture book shelves are bowed from the weight. We live in an area with a good library district now so I can't justify buying so many books anymore, but darn it if it isn't so much fun!

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

So what if I got tagged?

I'm the world's worst about being tagged. You know, the cute thing people do on their blogs where they answer questions about themselves and then "tag" other people to do the same thing. In general, I ignore being tagged. I was the kid on the playground that would stand perfectly still during the game and dare anyone to tag me, since they knew that doing so would end the game. I wouldn't chase, I wouldn't tag. I guess I'm anti-establishment that way. Or weird. So when my friend, Heidi, tagged me, my first thought was, "Oh Heidi, now we won't be friends any more because you didn't know how weird I was and how I delete cute forwards without reading them and ignore people when they tag me and this will make you re-examine our friendship and wonder if it's really worth it." So sad.
But I succombed. Her tag is about books. And this being a biblioblog, if you will humor me while I invent my own words, I figured I ought to do it once in my life. Once, people. Spread the word.

1. Pick up the nearest book (one of at least 123 pages).
2. Open the page to 123.
3. Find the 5th sentence.
4. Post the next 3 sentences.
5. Tag 5 people.

I'm actually going to do my own version of this, so again, the defiant aspect of my personality is appeased. Here are five books with their respective three sentences strung together randomly to make it more entertaining.

"Speak out and call things by their right names; don't sit there winking and blinking, and talking to me in hints, as if you warn't the very first that thought about the robbery. What d'ye mean?"
"Hush, Bill hush!" said the Jew, who had, in vain, attempted to stop this burst of indignation; "somebody will hear us, my dear -- somebody will hear us!"
Mostly it was an excuse to touch him. To prove to herself that he was hers, that she could touch him when she liked, and it was all right. Even with God, since they were legally married now.
Then gassy and bloaty and burpy and floaty
He lifts off the ground, while his folks hang on to the Human Balloon
And he scoops them right up off the grass, and as they sail away
They all cheer Hip-Hooray and pray he don't run out of gas.
"Now what is it you want to interview me about?" Beezus seemed unable to say anything, and Ramona could understand how it might be hard to ask someone wearing a polyester pant suit questions about building a log cabin. Someone had to say something so Ramona spoke up.
"She said I was the worst-behaved girl she ever saw and that my parents ought to be ashamed of the way they had brought me up. She says she won't stay and I'm sure I don't care. But father and mother do."
"Why didn't you tell them it was my fault?" demanded Anne.

Yes, why didn't you tell them? Sheesh, I hate when books are so vague. So there, I've now completed my tagging obligation. But you can't make me tag anybody else. I love you, Heidi, really I do.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Pure Drivel

I wish I had something witty and profound to say about this book, but I don't. There simply wasn't enough to comment on, though it was definitely a fun read. A good book to pass an hour to so with. This said I have to admit that I love Steve Martin. Not everybody does, but I do. I love his post-"I'm a craaaaazy guy" humor and when he sits down to write a book, I think he is in his true element. I've read his other books, "The Pleasure of My Company" and "Shop Girl" and thought that both were gems. He has a beautiful way of depicting people's journeys and emotional development. But "Pure Drivel" is an earlier book and much different than his later books. I can't seem to find a way to describe them. Prose? Short stories? Essays? Actually, it is just drivel. You might even say it's pure drivel. Where have I heard that before?

Friday, February 1, 2008

I Wish I Were Kinsey Millhone

Sue Grafton writes the perfect private investigator crime novels. Her character, Kinsey Millhone, is tough, intelligent, sneaky, has a damaged past and a slightly skewed moral compass, yet has strong feelings about right and wrong. That said, Kinsey kicks bad-guy butt! I'm wouldn't want to mess with her, and yet, there are people who still do. Man, hasn't her reputation gotten around yet?

"T is for Trespass" is another edition of Kinsey's detective adventures and it is just as delightful as the previous alphabetical novels. Nay, dare I say, it was even better? The books are like her reports that Kinsey writes as she wraps up a case, all told in the first person and with her comments and thoughts as she describes what happened. In "Trespass", Grafton changes her style just a bit by adding chapters from the villain's point of view. Oh goodness, is she a nasty villain too. A identity-stealing, elder-abusing sociopath of grand proportions. What is even scarier is that people like this exist in the world.

One of the unique aspects of the Kinsey Millhone books is that Ms. Grafton wrote them starting in the 80's and hasn't sped up Kinsey's timeline to keep up with us right now. So even though "Trespass" is book number twenty in this series, it's still in the 80's for Kinsey. She doesn't have a cell phone or computer and she has to drive everywhere to get information. Look up things at the courthouse. On paper. Talk to people face to face. I know, it seems so foreign to me too. One part that made me laugh out loud in the book was when Kinsey is interviewing a witness who builds computer systems for companies. She asks out of curiosity how much it would cost to get her going on one and he tells her ten thousand dollars. He promises that in a few decades, they'll run the world and ten-year-olds will be savvy on them. She laughs it off. Ah, Kinsey, how little you know.

Kinsey is such a fun character to read about because Ms. Grafton doesn't show us exactly who she is up front. We get to discover her bit by bit, just like you would a crochety neighbor or secretive friend. Out of all her books, the first one is my least favorite. I can't remember why, but I do remember that I had to talk myself into reading the second book (they are in alphabetical order: A is for Alibi, B is for Burglar, etc. I don't know what that really has to do with the character or why Grafton did this, but it makes it easy to figure out which books you haven't read yet) and being happy I did. I have a fascination with sneakiness and villains. Snap, I just had an epiphany that explains my five-year-old's behavior! She inherited my sneaky-evil gene! Shoot! I didn't know that could be passed down! Now I'll understand it when she reads "Harriet the Spy", memorizes Ursula the Sea Witch's song, hides in the closet to scare her sisters and develops an evil cackle. It does explain why she loves Ramona and hates Beezus...

What was I writing about? Let's see, uh, yes. Kinsey's cool. And she drives a Volkswagon Bug. Well, she used to, anyway. Now she drives a Mustang for "Trespass", but I kind of miss the Bug. In conclusion, read the book, but cover your eyes when she fights the bad guy's son at the end. Shudder.