Monday, March 31, 2008

It's Hip To Be Square

Huey Lewis hit it on the nose, as did Mel Bartholomew, author and inventor of Square Foot Gardening. Mr. Bartholomew was formerly a civil engineer, specializing in efficiency. After he retired, he decided to do some volunteering in the community by starting up a community garden. After the abysmal disaster that turned out to be, he decided to rethink how we traditionally have gardened and see if he could do it better. His first book was published in 1981, followed by a weekly PBS show, teaching the method in schools, and then he formed a non-profit organization. He did another brief stint on t.v., then looked at the twenty years of square foot gardening and re-wrote his book and changed some of his methods to make it even better. His book that was put out in 2006, "All New Square Foot Gardening" is even better than the early 80s version. I read them both. And I watched a video he put out after he published his book in 2006. I'm a nerd.

In my defense, it is a really cool way to garden. His revolutionary ideas use 80% less space than a typical row garden, hardly have any weeds and don't require you to till your ground. You can make portable gardens and have them close to your house, if you have the sun for it. You make a 4'x4' box out of untreated wood that you can either put on the ground, or drill holes in a sheet of plywood and put on the bottom to make it portable. You fill the box with 8 square feet of "Mel's Mix" which equal thirds of compost, peat moss and vermiculite. He also says that if you have a hard time finding peat moss or vermiculite you can garden in just compost. You don't use any fertilizers, so this is completely organic way to garden. There's much more to this, but you'll have to read the book. You grow large, climbing or spreading plants vertically. You can grow crops year-round. You can feed the world with this method!

Okay, so probably not feed the whole world, but not for Mel's lack of trying. His newer book comes across a bit self-congratulatory, as he writes about how incredibly awesome his method is. It's littered with people's testimonials, but the book is nothing compared to his website. When I read some reviews on Amazon about his book, that was the chief complaint. Well, shoot, if that's the only bad part of it, it's still worth reading. People also complained about the difficulty of finding vermiculite, but I found two garden centers where I live that carry it, so I don't know what the big deal is. Plus, he says it's ideal, not necessary, so quit your whining, reviewers. Sheesh.

I didn't think I would end up writing about any of the gardening books I read because most of them were completely intimidating. I felt like I needed a degree in horticulture in order to successfully garden. Most of my gardens start out as elaborate drawings on graph paper and end up as overgrown frustrating weed patches. This book gave me hope that it's possible to have an easy, beautiful, bountiful garden. I'll let you know how that works out for me.

Now if it could just quit snowing.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Something Rising (Light and Swift)

On occasion I'll encounter a book that leaves me altered. I put it down after reading and feel some kind of chemistry within me to be permanently changed. After having finished my third book by Haven Kimmel, I'm starting to think that her books will always do that to me. If you've never read, "A Girl Named Zippy" then you should put that on your to-do list immediately. Once you've accomplished that very worthwhile goal, read the book that comes after, "She Got Up Off the Couch". Then, start working on her fiction and we can talk.

Kimmel grew up in rural Indiana and her books are completely infused with everything she knows as a native. As a midwesterner, but having grown up in Kansas, we consider some place as far east as Indiana to be in the Midwest merely in theory. Sort of pseudo-midwesterners, but something about how she describes people and places speaks to me. Maybe anyone from any part of the country feels that connection with what she writes simply because she does it so well. Her towns are poor places, with the rich gentry living in homes that aren't falling apart, owning car dealerships or drug stores. The truly poor are filthy, ignorant and have families that barely fit that characterization. I've seen that kind of poverty, experienced that kind of ignorance up close and personal and it's amazing to me that its essentially the same no matter where you live.

Kimmel creates these completely lovable characters, glaring flaws and all. The book I just put down was "Something Rising (Light and Swift)" and was about a tough woman's life. She plays pool for money and gets into fights and bouts of road rage. Her history is bleak and depressing with a father not worth the effort to hate, a mother who is emotionally distant, a sister who is mentally unstable, and the main character Cassie holding everything together. She has an uncanny talent for pool, an innate understanding of physics that she channels through a cue.
Kimmel is very upfront about why her characters have so many problems. She lays it all out on the line oftentimes in paragraphs that span a few pages as Cassie's mother unloads exactly what went wrong where. That's a refreshing way to approach, as opposed to most books that wait until the end to tell you why everybody's so screwed up.

This is not a depressing book. It can be frustrating, watching people not functioning, not parenting, not living real lives, but it's not depressing. It's beautiful. Kimmel's writing style gets the credit for that. I'm hooked now, so off I go to find another Kimmel gem.

Thursday, March 20, 2008


For some boggling reason, I found myself bookless over the weekend. My oldest daughter and I were sick and miserable, but she was a bit less miserable than me because she at least had "Because of Winn-Dixie" by Kate DiCamillo to read and I had nothing. If I wasn't feeling sorry for myself enough then not having anything to read made me spiral into the dark well of self-pity. I'm not a pleasant sick person.

Whenever I find myself in this position of being without book and the library is closed, there's nothing from my holds list waiting for me or what I did check out from the library was a dud, I go to the same place. I stand in my home library and scan titles of my books, trying to remember which ones I had read the fewest number of times and could stand to read again. This is why people shouldn't buy books, I tell myself. You read them once or twice and then don't particularly want to read them again. Children's books are meant to be read at least 400 times and most likely all in the first week of purchasing it. But adult books, nope. Well, with the exception of truly great books that stand the test of time. I've read Jane Eyre every few years and never get tired of it. Ender's Game is another standby. Mostly I own the books I do because they have personal meaning to me, not because I think I'll read them over and over again. Also, I hope that someday my daughters will read them and then come talk to me about what they read. For the most part, books are meant to be checked out from libraries, loved and returned. I'm perfectly content with that. Unless I'm bookless. Then I wish I was a buyer of any book that comes my way. Then I'd have something to read when I'm sick, by golly!

On that fateful day this last weekend, as I stood there, tissue in hand and head full of goo, I opted for "Enchantment" by Orson Scott Card. This book is possibly his best storytelling. Beautiful, layered, captivating and suspenseful it's got all the best of Card's writing abilities. One of the most amazing aspects of a Card book is the dialog. The conversations people have in his books are so real, it feels like you are eavesdropping. My guess is because he started out as a playwright, he knows how to move a story along through dialog. At any rate, it was worth another read. I think I've only read it twice, so that's better than most everything else on the shelves.

Oh wait, there's my husband's collection of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time books. Bleh. Once is more than enough for those books. They suck you in and leave you a shell of a person while you attempt to navigate it's 5,000 characters and plot lines. Of course I read every new one as it comes out, but I curse Jordan's name while I do it. Those books I will not re-read. Absolutely not. Not under any circumstances. Unless I find myself sick and stuck bookless again, but I'd have to read everything else on my shelves first.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Call Me Bruce

I made the mistake of going to a bookstore yesterday. My daughter had birthday money from her great-grandma to spend on a book. There aren't any book stores in my town, so I drove 15 miles to go to this really amazing store that isn't a major chain like Borders or Barnes & Noble. I like bookstores that have a little personality to them, and this store in particular is pretty awesome. Plus, I love a good deal and this store is chock full of them.

In general, I avoid bookstores. I prefer to do my book shopping online because it keeps me from impulse buying and I get books cheaper that way. Don't those sound like really good reasons? Hey, thanks! The truth is that I turn into Bruce the Shark in bookstores. You know Bruce, from Finding Nemo? He's full of saintly restraint, chanting "Fish are friends, not food!" when he's around Marlin and Dory, but just a little drop of blood in the water turns him into the instinct-driven eating machine that he really is. Bookstores are the little drop of blood in the water. When we pulled up to the store, my little Jiminy Cricket conscience was gently reminding me that I was only getting books for a friend's daughter's birthday and for my daughter's birthday money. I walked into the store, inhaled the delightful aroma of bookbinding, newsprint and muffins and turned into Bruce. Luckily, my children were there and walked straight to the children's section, so at least I wouldn't abandon them while I pawed my way through the bargain tables. My girls found a table their size to park at and scooped up stacks of books to leaf through. I set the baby down by the board books and let her take every single one of them off the shelves. Everyone was settled and happy so I dove in. First the non-fiction children's books, then the crafts and drawing books, and then the picture books. Ah, pictures books. How I love them. My stack kept getting bigger and bigger and every time I would find one I thought my daughter would like, I added it to the stack. We never even made it to the chapter books and classics section, which is probably a good thing, since I do need to pay my bills and eat.

We were supposed to leave in 20 minutes so we weren't late for the friend's birthday, but it's a little known fact that bookstores exist in a parallel dimension where time speeds up on the outside. I swear we were only there a few minutes, but my watch said we'd been there an hour when we left. Oops. We found two books for the friend, one for my daughter and one that I couldn't resist. Not bad for being a bookstore Bruce! All of the pictures books were labeled as bargains and at $5 a piece for hardbacks, it was totally true. Now if I can stop daydreaming about going back, we'll be in good shape.

For our friend, we got two Iza Trapani books. She takes nursery rhymes and fleshes them out into story books. We have "The Eensy Weensy Spider" at our house and my oldest daughter and I used to have it memorized, we read it so many times. The ones we got for our friend were "I'm a Little Teapot" and "Mary Had a Little Lamb" and she was appropriately delighted to receive them.

For my daughter, we got "Do You Doodle?" by Nikalas Catlow which is a very cool kind of coloring book. It has sketchings in it that are half-finished and the child finishes the drawing and then colors it. For instance, one page had a wolf huffing and puffing and she had to finish what he was puffing at. I love it because it requires that she use her imagination, which coloring books don't do, but it's things she probably wouldn't draw on her own, had I given her a blank piece of paper. So far, she has logged an hour or so at her little table drawing like mad.

The last book for no one in particular other than I couldn't resist it is called, "The Boy, the Bear, the Baron and the Bard" by Gregory Rogers. There are no words, just pictures of a boy's adventure when he goes to retrieve the ball he accidently kicked through the window of an deserted theater in London. He explores the theater, jumps through the curtain of the stage, is magically transported through time and lands on The Bard. You know, THE Bard. And then it gets really good. I remember checking this out from the library once for my kids and the illustrations are wonderful and delightfully Elizabethan. Plus, it's fun to make up your own words to a book for a change.

Now that I've made full disclosure of my purchases, I feel better. I've come clean. Not that I bought all that much, but I used to be able to go into bookstores and just sample the hot chocolate. Bruce has left my system and maybe I can keep him on a short leash from now on.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Enticed by Candy

I know my last post was filled with noble endeavors to read intellectually stimulating literature and self-help enrichment books and I said farewell for a few weeks, like I was going off to boot camp or something. I did read some gardening books and started my study of 20th century music, but I unfortunately have this really great thing called e-mail. My library will send me a little message letting me know when I have a book from my holds list waiting for me. Deeply entrenched into the genius of Arnold Schoenberg, I checked my e-mail and there was a love note from the library, "Your copy of 'The Candy Shop War' by Brandon Mull is waiting for you at the library. You have a week to pick it up." Sorry, Arnie, but you're simply not more enticing than Brandon. I dropped him like a hot rock and raced to the library.

I could practically walk to my library, it's so close, but I'm paranoid that somehow my held books will disappear before I can retrieve them. I feel compelled to get them well before my week is up, just to make sure. Of course my book was there, untouched. I dove in once I got home and just finished last night. If you've read my adoration of the Fablehaven books, you'll understand why I was so excited to read "The Candy Shop War" by the same author. It did not disappoint. On a side note, I got the first and second Fablehaven books for my husband to read. They sat in my library bag for a few days, collecting dust and my irritation. I kept hinting to him that I had gotten those books for him to read, specifically for him and he should read them because I got them for him. I couldn't stand that they were just sitting there being not read. I was almost at the point where I was going to read a page and then send it telepathically to my husband's brain when he finally picked the first one up and started reading. I chuckled to myself as he ignored everything around him and didn't blink for two hours straight. I chuckled to myself while he stayed up late reading and finished both in a few days. I kept asking him, "What part are you at? What do you think of Seth? How do you like it so far? Huh huh huh?" He would wave me away like a pesky mosquito and I would grin with delight. I love to infect someone with a new book.

Back to "The Candy Shop War." It was awesome. Tons of action, great characters, suspense and fun all wrapped up tidily into one book. A book always gets more points from me if it's all-encompassed, not stretched over many volumes. Brandon Mull's books sometimes start out feeling kid-ish, like you've picked out a book for your tween by mistake, but Candy Shop had me hooked at the very start. It's about a group of fifth-graders would get involved with the owner of a new candy shop in their town. She lets them try out some amazing candy that has superhero-esque effects and the kids soon become willing to do her tasks to get more of the amazing candy. Pretty soon they start to realize they are over their heads and need to find a way to fight against her instead of work for her. I'm not much of a candy eater, but if it made me jump up three stories high, I would be willing to give it a try. Super fun read.

So is Fablehaven, in case that hasn't come across yet. Now I must get back to Schoenberg, Britten, Gershwin and the like. Must. not. check. e-mail.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

The Blog Drought Ahead

I've had trouble finding something worth blogging about lately. I've discovered some real duds and read something pretty good, but nothing that would even merit spending very much time writing about it.

"Betwixt" by Tara Bray Smith was full of underage drinking, drug use, sexuality, fairies, and sprites and that was just in the first few pages. I didn't make it past page 50. Dull and elicit. Not a good combination.

"Gods Behaving Badly" by Marie Phillips was clever, funny and had lovable characters. It was also full of despicable gods that you could barely read about without being completely disgusted. It takes the concept that the Greek gods are alive and well living in a townhouse in London, but their powers are weak and they barely get by on what they can earn walking dogs (Artemis), running a night club (Dionysis), being a phone sex operator (Aphrodite), and attempting to get on television (Apollo). These gods are vain, self-absorbed, raunchy and crass. Basically, just like you learned about them from any school lessons you had about Greek mythology. The human characters in the book are wonderfully flawed and easy to read about. You are rooting for them the entire book, especially our hero, the mousy and timid Neil. But the ending is a bit too Disney-esque (hard to think of this book having that connotation considering how sexually repulsive some of the characters are) and the gross-out factor too high. Frankly, there's just way too much good stuff out there to waste on this book. It's not bad, just not good enough.

If you've never read the Spiderwick Chronicles written by Holly Black and illustrated by Tony DiTerlizzi, I'd recommend those. I read them a few years ago, loved them and when the movie came out, convinced my hubby to take me to it. The movie was great fun too and a intense ride just like the books were. The illustrations in the books are almost enough to make it worth reading on their own.

What I have waiting for me right now is an amazing book about 20th century music, "The Rest is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century" by Alex Ross. I don't expect that anyone will be as interested in that as I am, but I might just blog about it anyway. It's a hefty read, so it'll be a while before I finish it. I also have a stack of gardening books for my region, and if you don't live where I do, I can't imagine you would want to read my thoughts on it. I'm preparing you for the drought ahead as I plow my way through some of these books I want to read. I might write a few posts on other random book-related topics that are floating around in my brain, or I might not. Depends on my laziness factor.

Happy reading and I hope you have better luck with books than I have had lately! Go read "A Girl Named Zippy" by Haven Kimmel or something.