Tuesday, May 27, 2008


It's probably completely bizarre, but I like to watch the Food Network while I run on the treadmill. Think of it as having something good to run for, I guess. Also, there's not much else on that time of day when you don't have many channel options to pick from. Plus, if I'm lucky, I'll hit a Rachael Ray rerun. You know, "30 Minute Meals with Rachael Ray" the awesome show that is actually fun to watch and doesn't leave you feeling like you'll never enter your kitchen again out of pure intimidation.

I've become slightly addicted to her show. I love that it's in real time, so it's actually possible to cook that same meal in thirty minutes. Hence the title. I love that Rachael Ray seems to be having so much fun at what she's doing. I love that they are meals like I might actually cook. On that note, I decided to check out some of her many cookbooks to see if I might start cooking as she. She has a lot of cookbooks, but I just got three. "Rachael Ray 30-Minute Meals Get Togethers" "Rachael Ray 365:No Repeats" and "Classic Rachael Ray 30-Minute Meals". I eagerly dove into these books, excited about what I'd find. A really good cookbook will read almost like a novel for me. These did not. I skimmed and even after a few minutes, I set them aside. Not that the recipes weren't good, it's just the shear volume. It was kind of overwhelming. Also, there were hardly any pictures. I get way more excited about a recipe when I can see what the final product looks like. Another downside is that some of her favorite ingredients are ones that I'm unlikely to use very often, like prosciutto and veal. The recipes look really, really yummy. But I'm probably not going to make them on a day-to-day basis. They just tend to be a bit more decadent than I have time or funds for. The book I should have gotten was her "Get Real" cookbook. That looks more like my pace.

I love trying new recipes. I love learning new techniques and expanding our food repertoire. But I'll have more time for it when my kids are bigger. When that day comes, Rachael will be my go-to gal. For now, I think I'll get some of her episodes on DVD from the library and enjoy those instead. Maybe it'll motivate me to run more often.

Friday, May 23, 2008

I'm Just a Geek Too

I love Star Trek. I'm not ashamed of it. I fall in the category of The Next Generation lovers. I don't much like the original Star Trek and I've never gotten into the spin-offs from TNG. I'm sure they have their redeeming values, but I'm just not interested. Give me Jean-Luc Picard and William Riker any day, baby. I love the story lines, the characters and all things Trekkie. I remember watching it with my dad when I was a young girl after I'd had cleaned up after a hard day's play. In fact, I don't think I knew there was an original Star Trek until years after I had been watching TNG. By they way, that's what the cool people call it: TNG. Only acronyms here.

I never had strong feelings about Wesley Crusher. I had more of a little-girl crush on Riker than on Wesley. I secretly wanted to be Deanna Troi and I really liked Geordi LaForge. His visor was just cool. As far as I knew, Wil Wheaton--who played Wesley--had disappeared into obscurity after the end of TNG. That's pretty much what happened, but not because he wanted to disappear. I read somewhere on the internet that he had gotten quite a following from his website and blog, so I decided to check it out. I didn't see much that interested me from the website, but I did notice he had written some books. Out of curiosity, I checked out "Just A Geek." Well, one thing Wheaton definitely can be described as is geeky. I have a geeky husband, so I can recognize true geekiness when I see it. Love of technology, all things computer, gets excited about new advances in such fields, reads lots of fantasy and sci-fi, etc. I love my handsome geek. Anyway, Wil Wheaton is a geek, according to the attributes listed.

In this book, he writes about the creation of his website and his transformation from frustrated actor to writer and blogger. It was a long road and Wheaton describes it painfully and honestly. Seriously, why do people become actors? The rejection, the frustration, the critical evaluation of your looks and talents on a constant basis all seems like so destructive of the human spirit. And yet, people go after it over and over again. Reading his book, I couldn't help but keep wanting to grab him, give him a good shake and maybe a slap across the face and tell him to get a real job and move on. But he loved acting. He didn't want to give it up. I can understand passion about something, so I'll forgive his stubbornness.

Wheaton is really honest about his mistakes and failings. He's also honest about who ticked him off or screwed him over during and after TNG. He doesn't hold anything back in his writing, which makes you sympathize with him, but it also shows how immature he can be. He loves his wife and stepkids, but acts really self-involved at times. I guess he's just a person, really.

I think the best thing he ever did was start writing. He's funny and clever, scorchingly honest and can assemble his words pretty well. Other than his perverse love for the "f" word, I thoroughly enjoyed reading what he had to write. Partly because of all his fun inside info on TNG cast members, but I'm geeky like that.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Slightly Demented Picture Books

Ever since I read this post about Slightly Demented Picture Books, I've been on a mission to find them. My preliminary research began with the books from the post, so those are the ones I'll share with you. Of course, you could just read the post in its entirety yourself, but then I'd have nothing to write about and I haven't finished "Just a Geek" by Wil Wheaton yet. Plus, you're dying to read what I think, right? Right? Hello? Is this thing on?

You're probably wondering what a Slightly Demented Picture Book (or SDPB) is, so I'll summarize by saying that it's a book that kids love and makes some adults uncomfortable. The books focused on in the post link above deal with the food chain. Here's the truth. Animals eat other animals, and yet, we don't want to see that in our children's books. I remember the first time I told my daughter that the chicken we eat is the same as the chicken that clucks and lays eggs. I thought for sure she'd be horrified but her response was, "Oh. Can I have some more?" When I checked out the books from the post, I wondered what my kids would think of them and, in general, they loved them. Some more than others. But they weren't upset or damaged, like some parents assume will happen. The books were funny and clever and some we read over and over again before returning them to the library.

Honestly, it's kind of liberating to read a book that isn't super cuddly and lovely or has counting in it. I hate counting books. I know it's important for a child's development, but I am so sick of those books. There are roughly 5,000,000,000 books that deal with counting to ten in some cutesy way and if I never read another one again, I'll be happy. Almost as bad are the books where the child finds all sorts of ways to avoid going to sleep and the mom and dad are so patient and put up with the child roaming the house, begging for more water or something. Never once do they show the mom saying, "That's enough! Stay in your bed! I don't care if you lay there with your eyes open all night, you're not coming downstairs again!" Nooo, they read more stories, have more glasses of water, find more ways to soothe them to sleep. Bleh.

What was I writing about. Reading previous paragraphs... Ah yes! SDPBs. Here are what I think of our recent reads.

This book about a giant squid was so popular with my girls that I read it four times one night before refusing to read it another time. Then my three-year-old read it to herself another couple times, since by now she had it memorized. Funny, funny book. It reminded me of a girl I knew growing up who had to be the "biggest" thing around no matter what. Truly hilarious.

Achilles the crocodile decides he's sick of bananas and would like to try eating a child. His parents do their best to discourage him of it, but he's determined to try. What ensues when he meets up with the child is so funny, but you honestly think something scary is going to happen. Loved it.

My kids seemed slightly stunned with what happened in "Ugly Fish", but once they understood how the book ends, they thought it was great. I think I like "I'm the Biggest Thing in the Ocean" better, but "Ugly Fish" does have an interesting view of bullying. I don't think my kids picked up on it, but it was still funny for them.

The first time I read "Tadpole's Promise" to my five-year-old, she laughed so hard I thought she was going to hurt herself. I read all of these books first to make sure nothing was too weird or out there for them. I thought this one was funny, but I honestly thought it might be sad for my kids. When she burst out laughing, I knew it was a winner. Tadpole and Caterpillar meet and fall in love. Caterpillar makes Tadpole promise to never change but, alas, he does. When she sees his new arms and legs, she says that he broke his promise and leaves him, brokenhearted. Of course, she changes too, but the ending was totally unpredictable. Super funny.

"Wolves" was not so much funny as suspenseful, waiting for the poor little bunny to figure out what wolves eat exactly. But it was funny to read the alternate ending where the bunny and wolf become best friends. There's not a whole lot to this book, but the illustrations are cool.

For other SDPBs that don't have to do with the food chain, there's some winners. I don't know if anybody else read "The Stupids" by James Marshall when they were in elementary school, but I always thought they were funny, being all backwards and weird and stuff. I checked out "The Stupids Die" for my SDPB experiment and the kids loved it so much, I got the rest of the books from the library. In my opinion, "The Stupids Die" is by far the funniest. My seven-year-old talked about the kids' report cards for days afterward ("They flunked everything! Even lunch!") and I read it multiple times. Stupid has become almost a bad word, like fat or ugly. But sometimes it's just accurate.

I didn't know that binky translated well, but apparently it's the same in Swedish and English. "Benny and the Binky" was so relevant to my kids who tend to get a new sibling every couple of years and have to cope with no longer being the baby. Benny decides to steal his new baby brother's binky and takes off with it, only to have it stolen by some touch soccer-playing pigs. The best part is when a dog comes to his rescue. My favorite picture is the one of the cover of Benny running like the wind.

I love Chris Van Allsburg because his illustrations always make me feel like I'm in an IMAX theater. "The Sweetest Fig" was just a little too much for my kids. They didn't get it, but if they did and I just couldn't tell, they didn't care for it too much. It's about a dentist who's strict and bordering on cruel to his little dog and when he gets some magic figs that makes your dreams come true, the dog is able to exact his revenge. Kind of dark, but I still liked it.

The one book I truly did not like was "When Owen's Mom Breathed Fire". I felt like this was supposed to be read to children whose mothers are bipolar. Very weird and I didn't even read it to my kids. Owen's mom gets stressed out and turns into a dragon. She forgets how to be a mom and Owen has to be the adult. Upsetting and frightening for kids to read. Or maybe I'm reading too much into it.

A lullaby that I've sung to my children many times is "Hush, Little Baby" and "Hush, Little Dragon" is the version the mommy dragon sings to her baby as she tries to get him some tasty villagers to eat before bedtime. I sang it like a lullaby and I think that softened it a bit. Not that it was scary or harsh, but it's hard to imagine a dragon battling a knight when it's being sung to the tune of a lullaby. I got a kick out of sweetly crooning about a queen being chomped on by a baby dragon.

I was looking through the comments on the post listed above and found oodles of SDPBs to explore. I have my work cut out for me but somehow, I'll suffer through.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

I have stewed for days on what to write about this book. Mark Haddon's "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time" has the very unique literary device of being written from the first-person perspective of an autistic 15-year-old boy. Christopher lives in Swindon, which is near London, with his father and pet rat, Toby. He goes to a "special needs" school, has a photographic memory, is exceptionally talented at math and is unable to tell lies. He hates crowds, cannot interpret human behavior, doesn't tolerate being touched (even by his parents), hates the colors yellow and brown, and tends to groan loudly when upset or overwhelmed by noise.

One night, Christopher discovers the neighbor's dog with a pitch fork through it. Nobody seems interested in finding out who did it, but to Christopher it's murder and it needs to be figured out. He starts doing some detecting and starts to unravel a bigger mystery than just the dog. Christopher loves Sherlock Holmes and uses some of his techniques to figure out the mystery.

I've searched my brain trying to figure out how to describe this book that doesn't sound insensitive. "Fascinating" seems so wrong to say when there are so many people who live with autism everyday. My entertainment is their reality. Something I kept wondering while I read the book is whether Christopher really had autism. I don't know much, but I thought that autism makes it really hard to communicate and Christopher communicates very well. Lots of what goes on in the book points to Aspergers syndrome, but he does have lots of autistic tendencies too. Autism is a pretty broad spectrum, so he probably falls on there somewhere. Not once in the book does he say what his condition is, just talks about his habits, his sensitivities, etc. The reader is left to figure it out.

The most interesting aspect of the book is the way it's told from Christopher's perspective. How he copes, what's going on in his mind, things like that. I suspect that many parents of children like him wished they had that same access to their child's thoughts. He talks about how he cannot filter out information. If he's in a room full of people, he notices every single detail about everything and it's overwhelming to him. That's why he screams or groans, to drown out the stimulus. I don't know if all kids like him are self-aware enough to know that's why they get upset, but Haddon has enough experience with autistic individuals that he understands how and why.

It's a good read. Very interesting, a good mystery and pretty suspenseful when Christopher decides to take off for London on his own. There's a smattering of profanity, but instead of being graphic, you feel like Christopher is recording exactly what he hears. He can't help but remember it perfectly and that's how it was said. Read it with the intent of understanding autism a little more than you did before.

Monday, May 12, 2008

The Penderwicks

There seems to be a fairly large supply of sisters in literature. The Ingalls sisters, the Bronte sisters, the Bennett sisters, the March sisters and now the Penderwick sisters. There are probably more than those, but that's all my sun-muddled brain can come up with at the moment. I've been reading out on my deck and I need to do this with a pair of sunglasses because it's going to make me blind one of these days. White pages, bright sun, no good.

Anyhoo, back to sisters. "The Penderwicks: a summer tale of four sisters, two rabbits and a very interesting boy" by Jeanne Birdsall is a good contribution to the literary pack of sisters. It's the tale of Rosalind, Skye, Jane and Batty who go to a cottage in the New England mountains for three weeks one summer and the adventures they have there. Their father is a widower and botany professor who often speaks in Latin. He fits the absent-minded professor role perfectly. Rosalind is the standard oldest sister who worries about everything and always follows the rules. Skye has no patience and is hot-tempered and obsessed with math. Jane talks like something out of a 19th century romance novel, which is a bit surprising for a ten-year-old. Batty is four, very shy and loves animals. Each sister is very different from the others in personality and temperment, which is pretty much how siblings end up. They have these acronyms that they use for protocol, such as MOPS (Meeting of Penderwick Sisters) for serious discussion of problems at hand or OAP (Oldest Available Penderwick) for who has to take charge or apologize, if necessary.

This is a pretty fun portrayal of sisters and a somewhat accurate description of large families. They tease, point out each other's flaws, defend each other, and Rosalind often acts as a mother figure to these motherless children. The cottage they stay at is on the grounds of a mansion owned by a shrewish woman who thinks the Penderwicks to be common and doesn't want her son to spend time with them. The book kept reminding me of "Little Women" until I realized that I have never read "Little Women." Despite my efforts, I have not yet read every Great Classic. There are too many vampire books out there that need read. Back to my point. Even though the book is set in a nebulous contemporary setting, it feels very old-fashioned. The father uses a computer for research, the girls play soccer on the lawn, but it's not very important to the plot of the book. The girls' relationships with each other and their new friend are the best parts.

There's a sequel that I just got from the library, so it's in my stack to read soon. I think these books will probably be worthy of an addition to my personal library. I can see each of my children identifying with a sister or being frustrated with others. I have hopes that these turn out to be enjoyable one after another.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Across the Pond -- Some Short Reads

A little book I came across made my day this week. "The Uncommon Reader" by Alan Bennett is about the Queen of England. Not a former queen in a different century, but about the current queen. This is a work of fiction, but it was an absolutely charming bit of fiction. The Queen is out on the grounds with her corgies one day when they run away and over to a mobile library that parks there on occasion. To be polite, she borrows a book while making the patrons there extremely uncomfortable with her very presence. She's used to people being paralyzed with fear, so she takes in all in stride, but is impressed by the composure of a young man there who works in the kitchens of the palace. She borrows the book, finds it dry and when she returns it later, decides to make that her last book choice from the library. But this same young man convinces her otherwise and she picks something more worthwhile. She then discovers the pleasure of reading for fun. The Queen is one who does her duty first and foremost with sacrificing all personal indulgences. But reading has her hooked. She makes that young man be her personal assistant with his sole job being to provide her with books and to read them along with her. Her entire staff is baffled by her sudden change in habits and mannerisms and the Queen herself discovers how reading has changed who she is. At eighty years old, she figures it's better late than never.

I loved this book because of the person the Queen evolves into from reading. I can completely relate to getting so caught up in a book that very little otherwise gets done. I can relate to hunting down people to talk with about a recent read. But I cannot relate to being a monarch. Queen Elizabeth finds that reading makes her more sensitive to the people who surround her, but also isolates her. She keeps trying to bring up reading and books to everyone she encounters, including the President of France and various other world leaders, but she's usually met with puzzled looks. She has no use for fantasy (pity) and when she comes across someone who excited says they are reading Harry Potter, her reply is "Oh yes, well, one is saving that for a rainy day." One of the best parts is when she's reading while in a parade and when she gets out of the carriage, she sticks the book under the cushion. When her personal security finds it, they assume it's a bomb and tell her that they exploded it. Her wrath from this just goes to show how it can help to be Queen when somebody ticks you off.

A totally charming book. A short read, but worth an afternoon. On a completely different note, I got an audiobook by Stephen Colbert to listen to as I did housework. Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report (both with a silent "t") wrote "I am America (and so can you!)" with the sole purpose of offending every living person on the planet. It's satire, of course, but with how blind some people can be to what satire is, you have to wonder how many people he ticks off on regular basis. It's actually sounds like a fun job to have. I usually tick people off without any monetary benefit, so getting paid to do it has more appeal. Those of you who already watch The Colbert Report appreciate his humor, but it's new to me and I thought it was really well done. Not something I'd want to listen to every day, but a little bit of fun. It was an audiobook, so there were sections I skipped for the sake of smaller bystanders. He covers sports, politics, education, dating, and gender, but the best parts are when he gets "regular" Americans to do the "Stephen Speaks For Me" segments. Hilarious.

One book charming, one book slightly warped. I can whole-heartedly recommend the first for all readers, but Colbert is more of an acquired taste. Pick your continent and go for it.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Traveling Around the World From My Sofa

The thing about books about world travel is that it makes me slightly depressed to read them. I end up moping around for a few days and nagging my husband about how I never get to go anywhere. He then nags me about getting a passport so he could take me somewhere if he wanted to and I complain about not having a reason to get a passport since we're never going to go anywhere anyway. It's a ridiculous cycle, but I keep reading the books in the hopes that I will quit grumping and get a passport and someone will watch my children and we'll do some exploring. I'll let you know when that happens.

If you think that former paragraph is whiney and grumpy, it's nothing compared to Eric Weiner's book, "The Geography of Bliss". Weiner is a former correspondent for NPR and has lived all around the world. He is also a self-proclaimed neurotic grump and hypochondriac. In his lifelong search for happiness, he decided to research where the happiest place on earth is. It's not Disneyland, so don't bother saying it. First, he met up with the scientific expert on measurable happiness and looked over the database that held statistics on the happiest and unhappiest places on earth. Second, he traveled to the happiest (Switzerland) and unhappiest (Moldova) countries on the planet to see what made them so happy or unhappy. What he learned was very interesting in that each culture's perception of happiness was different and how they achieved their happiness was varying. But what made them unhappy was pretty much the same. Third, Weiner adopted some cultures' techniques for being happy, learned a lot about his own unhappiness in the process and tried out a few tools to up his happiness quotient. I have to say I did too, though I'd still like to do some travel to make sure it's not a lack of foreign experiences that contribute to my grumpiness.

The second book I read was Mo Willems' "You Can Never Find a Rickshaw When It Monsoons: The World On One Cartoon a Day" and it was world travel from a different perspective. Weiner tended to pamper himself as he traveled, in the name of science and trying to find the formula for happiness, while Willems' adventures after college had nothing to do with pampering or even bathing. He spent a year traveling around the world with his own two feet or on the cheapest transportation possible and drew a cartoon every single day. He writes in the introduction that while looking at the cartoons later to put them together for publishing, he often wondered why he picked the event he did for that day instead of something bigger or more significant. But oftentimes, the smaller events were more poignant. Or hilarious. Reading this book made me wonder how much of the world a tourist sees, since most of the time they never get out of their rental car or tour bus and sample the people up close. Willems did just that and he now has the memories drawn in pencil to remind him of it.

Someday I will see Bhutan or Costa Rica. It won't stop me from being happy in the mean time, despite the United States' fairly low ranking on the happiest countries list. I won't obsess about it, but I just might go get my passport, in case an opportunity comes up that I wouldn't want to miss. And find some more books to read that will transport me there, at least metaphysically.