Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Used World

I love Haven Kimmel's writings. I wish I could crawl into her brain and eavesdrop on what goes on in there. Her writing is so poignant, hilarious, and perfectly formed that the writer part of me (shrunken and malformed) wishes it could just die and be reincarnated as Haven Kimmel. Wait, can you do that? Does it work that way? I guess my being a complete non-believer might hamper my ability to get reincarnated into my author of choice. To make it even better, now Kimmel blogs. What she writes on her blogs are painfully funny. I got a stitch in my side reading it. I wish I could describe my upbringing so mockingly and yet lovingly. Mock and love all at once. Brilliant.

Kimmel has written a trilogy of sorts, but not in the typical fantasy-esque trilogies. The three books all take place in roughly the same fictional county in Indiana, featuring just a few repeating characters. The Used World is the final installment of that trilogy. She brings back Pastor Amos Townsend, intelligent spiritual leader with a bent for philosophy and troubled souls. I loved Amos in The Solace of Leaving Early and was happy to see his reappearance in The Used World. He's so good at healing people that I was glad that he was there for Claudia, a very tall and lonely woman who is often gawked at because of her height and mistaken for a man. The other characters are Hazel Hunnicut, owner of the antique store, The Used World Emporium, and Rebekah, a young woman ostracized by her Pentacostal family for having abandoned her faith. The three women all work at Hazel's store and find themselves leaning on each other while going through their respective personal traumas.

Hazel is bossy, nosy and pushy. She drags Claudia out to a meth house to retrieve a baby boy she knows is there. The druggie mother died a few days before and Hazel wants Claudia to rescue and raise the baby. Of course, Claudia doesn't know that's Hazel's intent until she is hauled out to the den of drugs and witnesses the neglected baby in a high chair. That part of the book nearly made me lose it. My mommy brain couldn't handle imagining a neglected baby so I half-read that part, hoping it would end out okay. I decided right then if the baby boy didn't end up happy and healthy, I would never read Haven Kimmel again. Harsh, but I'm too close to that to separate fiction from reality. Plus, I don't want to have nightmares. Spoiler: the baby turns out just fine. Hazel's history is told in flashbacks and you learn how much history she has with the people of this small town.

Claudia ends up raising this baby and housing Rebekah, who's ex-boyfriend slash man-child abandons her after getting her pregnant. She, of course, is completely ostracized from her family at this point and openly reviled by her father. Her ex is an idiot who's been pampered by his parents and never held any responsibility and barely makes effort towards his impregnanted ex-girlfriend. Rebekah is also directionless and afraid of new situations and you have to wonder what she was thinking of hooking up with this guy. But she's also full of fun and life and a lot less straight-laced than her religious community would have prefered. She also brings much joy to Claudia's life.

These characters are really rich. They are many layered creatures whose layers are slowly peeled away for the reader and each other during the situations they find themselves in. There is also a tense mystery that is revealed along the way about Hazel's upbringing, the connection she has with the trio of men that sit on couches in the front of her store and also with Rebekah's father. You think you know who Hazel is at the beginning of the book, but you find she is much more.

Kimmel's language is full of spiritual metaphor and has almost a lyrical feel that makes it seem more like poetry than prose. I find myself re-reading passages to try and understand all the meaning to it. Makes me wish I took more English classes in college, dangit! Even so, I never could have written anything nearly as good. I'll just have to be satisfied with reading it, and that is still a pretty sweet deal.

On a side note, if you still haven't read Haven Kimmel's other books, A Girl Named Zippy or the sequel She Got Up Off The Couch, you have homework to do. Get going.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Goodreads, anyone?

For months I've been collecting invites to (a book sharing website) and finally sat down to look at it today. It's been very time intensive to try to set up, and I know I've barely scratched the surface. (I've only added books to my list as I've looked over others' lists, because there's no way I can remember all the books I've read.) I like the idea of keeping a running list of books I'd like to read, since I've never been organized enough to do it on my own. I also like seeing what other friends thought of them using a simple rating system.

But I'm curious about two things. First, who else here has signed up for goodreads? And second, is this one of those sites that seems like a good idea in theory but is too involved for people to really use on a regular basis? I just noticed that a lot of the friends that I was looking at today haven't accessed it in months. So I'm curious what everyone else's experiences with it are. Please share!

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Angry Housewives Eating Bon Bons

Angry Housewives Eating Bon Bons, by Lorna Landvik, was recommended to me several years ago, but in spite of the catchy title, I wasn't that interested in reading about angry housewives (though the bon bons sounded tempting). When I finally sat down to read it last week, I was delighted to find that my expectations were unfounded, and instead of being a book about women trying to escape marriage and family, it actually celebrated both. And better yet, it's done within the context of a book club, and who doesn't love a good book club?! Angry Housewives follows five women over the course of thirty years who find support (and even redemption in one instance) through the friendships formed in their neighborhood book club. Each chapter focuses on a different woman and they are all so well drawn that you can't help but love them all, even when they drive you crazy. In other words, they're normal people!

Now, before I get too much further, I do have to add this disclaimer. There is a smattering of bad language and sex talk. The language is pretty mild at the beginning, but as they move into the 80's and 90's, there is more and more frequent use of the f-word. The sex talk is more prevalent, but it's not particularly sensual. In fact, some of it is downright disturbing. But it's still such that it's definitely for an adult audience and there are even a lot of my adult friends whom I wouldn't recommend it to.

Having said that, let's explore the aspects that made it delightful.

False expectation #1: The housewives are angry because their husbands are jerks.

I fully expected to find the men in this book to be flat characters who were full of chauvenism and other unforgiveable flaws. Instead, most of the men were actually very loveable and supportive of their wives. There are a couple of exceptions (one of whom coins the phrase that consitutes this book's tongue-in-cheek title), but even those characters are more complicated and believable than I expected. Granted, the men get little coverage since the story isn't about them, but overall they are good husbands and fathers and their wives appreciate them.

False expectation #2: The housewives are angry because they are tied down with marriage and children.

Landvik realistically portrays some of the frustration inherent in raising children, but she doesn't dwell on it. Instead of trying to escape, these women find their greatest joys in life from their families. While that includes some heartache (one woman struggles with a gay son, another's daughter spends a period of time estranged from her), it is clear that nothing else in life is more important and more fulfilling than these relationships. As their children grow, most of them pursue careers outside the home, but even that is portrayed more as a sidenote to their real work (that of raising families).

False expectation #3: Trying to follow five characters over the course of 30 years means someone or something is going to get left out.

Landvik's characters were surprisingly well developed. She alternates each chapter focusing on a different woman's life, and is able to stay consistent enough in their narratives to keep them believable. While there are some basic differences that define them (one is a mature widow who was never able to have children, another is a social activist, still another is a quiet victim of abuse who struggles standing up for herself, etc), she resists sticking with stereotypes and instead rounds out her characters with other unexpected traits that deepen their hold on the reader. Spanning 30 years does add some challenges. I felt like the problems they faced (some of which were very serious) were at times wrapped up a little too easily because we needed to hurry on to the next stage. But the passage of time was also one of the things that made the book so interesting. It was imbued with flavor from different periods in our social history, and the impact they had on the developing characters ranged from the superficial to the profound.

While I will probably not read this book again due to some of the more adult material, it was still a worthwhile read. Especially as a young mother, it helped freshen my perspective that these days that can sometimes feel long will soon become years that pass all too quickly.

Monday, July 28, 2008

A Whole Pile of Picture Books

It's probably getting redundant and highly unoriginal to praise Mo Willems' Elephant and Piggie books, but dang they're cute! He's put quite a few out, but the ones that we have read are "I Am Invited to a Party!" and "Today I Will Fly!" and both are fabulous. These books are labeled as early or emergent readers. Simple text for beginning readers and yet, these books are so much better than that description sounds. Something Willems excels at is his sense of humor and fun that permeates every book he writes. When I checked "I Am Invited to a Party!" from the library, I didn't expect much. I mean, we're talking very simple text easy enough for my not-yet-kindergartener to be able to read. How funny or complex can it be? Oh my, was I surprised and tickled pink. Mo Willems' drawings tell half the story themselves with wry facial expressions on Elephant and Piggie in "Today I Will Fly!" that cracked me up. Check out these books and be happy you did.

Speaking of cracking up, "Imogene's Antlers" by David Small was very funny and charming. Imogene wakes up one morning with a full set of antlers. Small also illustrates this book and it was so entertaining to see how Imogene copes with having antlers that are bigger than she is. And her mother fainting away every other page was hilarious. Not unlike what my reaction might be if my child woke up looking like an elk. My kids loved this book best of all the lot we got that week at the library. I've also decided that David Small is one of my newest favorite illustrators.

I don't know about you, but the word "whatever" has become one of those words that make my skin crawl. It's the epitome of apathy. "Whatever" by William Bee is about a little boy who says "whatever" about everything. Let's just say he gets what he deserves. Heaven help my kids if they ever start uttering the word.

The concept behind "Danny's Drawing Book" by Sue Heap is really cool. Danny and his friend Ettie go to the zoo. Danny draws a funny story about the animals he sees and when he draws in himself and Ettie, the book becomes Danny's drawing book. When the story is done, you flip and page and pop! you're back to Danny's world. You have to read it to see it.

Graphic novels and books are all the rage these days. Everybody is writing them. This is not quite in that style, but has the feel of it. I don't have boys, but I think I can relate to "A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever" by Marla Frazee. Most often, friends have fun because of being together, not because of the activities planned for them. I had to explain some of the visual jokes to my kids, but for the most part, it was a cute and fun read.

The title of this book caught my eye and since I know my kids so well, I grabbed it. "Badness for Beginners" by Ian Whybrow and Tony Ross is about the Wolf Family, namely Mom and Dad, Little and Baby. Baby also goes by Smellybreff since he is the stinkiest. How to wolves become so Big and Bad, you might wonder? Because their parents teach them, of course. Mom and Dad Wolf take their boys on an outing and teaching them how to be truly rotten at the same time. Smellybreff has a gift for the awful, but Little has to work at it. He keeps saying "thank you" and picking up after himself. A real disappointment to his parents, you see. My kids loved it.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

A good book is a dangerous thing

How dangerous, you ask? Dangerous enough to cause me, the queen of productivity, to neglect all but my most vital duties during the day. Dangerous enough to keep me up reading into the late hours of the night, sacrificing sleep (that most rare and precious resource for a young mother). But more importantly, it's wonderfully dangerous because it expands my view of the world and my place in it. It allows me to live vicariously through people both more and less fortunate than I am, to value experiences that are different than my own, and to increase in understanding and appreciation for humanity. Ultimately, I come to see my own life through fresh eyes, and develop a keener ability to distinguish the truly important from the noise of the insignificant.

As a child, reading was my favorite pastime, and it was common for me to spend more recesses in the library than out on the playground. In college, my reading-intensive Humanities major broadened my appreciation for good literature. But because I spent so much time reading for school, my recreational reading ceased altogether except for the summer months I spent out of school. After I graduated, marriage added a new element of reading enjoyment as my husband and I read together, each taking turns reading aloud to the other. (The only thing better than reading a good book is being able to share that experience with the person you love!) Now, as a mother of four little ones, reading is a guilty pleasure; an indulgence that I have a hard time justifying in my busy life. But a year or so ago, that started to change. A friend was encouraging me to join her book club, and in our conversations I had a revelation. I need to read -- not only for my sake, but for my family's sake as well. I inherited my love of books from parents who patronized the library almost as often as the grocery store (and with a large family that's saying something!), but how did I expect to pass that love on to my children if I didn't continue the tradition myself?

I did join my friend's book club. It's been a wonderful way to branch out beyond things I would have picked for myself. And as I learned in college, a good book discussion increases that book's potency. As a character expressed in a recent read, the magic of a book club is that "in hearing so many opinions about the same book, your own opinion expand[s], as if you'[ve] read the book several times instead of just once." In that same spirit of expansion, Jenny has invited me to contribute to her biblioblog. I'm excited to have yet another excuse to read, and look forward to adding to the conversation. (So thanks for the invite, Jenny!) There is power in sharing our opinions and reading experiences with each other, so I hope that all who read this blog will join the magic!

Because We Need More Opinions In This Blog, Dontcha Know

I'd like to introduce a contributor who is going to be joining the Red Hot Eyebrows family (me). Caren is a fellow reader and writer who, apparently, thinks it would be cool to spout off on her opinions on this blog along with my own semi-rational viewpoints. If you've read any of our on-going comments on some of the latest posts, you'll see that she has a lot to say about books. I'll let her introduce herself, but for now I'll give you a teaser. She speaks Hebrew. Her name starts with a "C" which also stands for cool. Our husbands are brothers so, you know, we both have good taste.

We've got some fun plans ahead, so keep an eye out.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

An Apology to Mary Roach

Dear Ms. Roach,
Recently, I checked out from my local library a copy of your book, "Stiff: the curious lives of human cadavers" that was published in 2003. I have always loved your column in the Reader's Digest and thought your books might be equally witty and good for a laugh, even though the topic wouldn't ordinarily lend itself to humor.

So here's the deal. I checked out your book along with "The Host" by Stephenie Meyer, "Mistborn" by Brandon Sanderson, "Austenland" by Shannon Hale, and "The Bread Baker's Apprentice" by Peter Reinhart. I mean, come on. You don't really have much to offer to compete with the likes of them. I mean, I love bread. I actually would pick to read about making artisan bread than about cadavers. Can you blame me? Peter Reinhart isn't as funny as you, but at least I can eat what he's writing about. Your book not so much.

I did read about half of it, but that's only because I had to chaperone a church dance and got stuck in the coat check room. In July. Needless to say, I had some time on my hands and I took your book with me, but only because my husband absconded with "Mistborn." It was funny and very interesting. Who knew what all was done after someone donated their body to science! I'm sure glad there are people who are willing to do that for humanity's benefit, even if it is totally gross and I hope I never have to witness it personally.

The book was due on Tuesday and since my library wouldn't let me renew it because somebody else has requested it, I'm taking it back only half-read. Hope you understand. I might try another one of your books later, when there isn't something more interesting and compelling in my book pile.

An admiring reader,
Jenny of the Red Hot Eyebrows

Sunday, July 20, 2008


In an effort to repent of my smart-alecky remark about people who won't read sci-fi or fantasy, I decided to write about my deep and abiding love of Jane Austen books. I didn't read any Jane Austen until I had college roommates who wouldn't stop talking about Mr. Darcy. Talking or swooning, depending on the mood. I got sick of it and decided they must all be crazy people speaking some weird language. A few years ago, before the big film version of Pride and Prejudice came out, I decided it was about time I read me some Austen. Oh my. It was lovely. Now I knew what the crazy roommates were swooning about. So funny! So beautiful! Such characters!

I've stopped mocking those who love Mr. Darcy. I can see why they do. I can see why people read Jane Austen's books over and over again, why they keep making movies of the books, why there are books written about people who read Jane Austen's books. Wow, circular. I still haven't seen the pure versions of film adaptations of the books. I know, I'm not a true fan until I've seen Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy. I'll get to it, I promise.

Speaking of true fans, I read "Austenland" by Shannon Hale this last week. Shannon Hale who wrote the Newberry Honor winning "Princess Academy" and the very good "The Goose Girl". I had so many different people suggest I read this book that I can't even remember who all they are, therefore nobody gets any credit. I'm no respector of persons that way. It's about 33-year-old graphic artist Jane, who is obsessed with Mr. Darcy. Specifically, Colin Firth's version of Mr. Darcy. She's had a bad string of relationships, outlined in summary at the beginning of each chapter, and the only man for her is Mr. Darcy/Colin Firth. Her great-aunt, on her death, wills her a trip to an exclusive Austen-esque resort in England, where women can go make-believe they live in that time in total cultural absorption. Any violation of the rules can get you sent packing, like having a cell phone in your possession or violating codes of conduct from that time period. Jane goes thinking that it'll finally put her obsession to rest after completely purging it from her system and then she can successfully swear off men forever. Yeah, right.

Yes, it's a romantic tale. She does meet several yummy specimens while there. It's also pretty funny and I think relatable. Who hasn't been in love with some unattainable version of the opposite sex? I have to admit, I had a little thing for Leonardo DiCaprio's Romeo in the film version of "Romeo and Juliet" many years back. I'm not proud of it, but it happened. I got over it after "Titanic" was so abyssmal.

All in all, a very fun read and since there's lots of Jane Austen fans out there, I think it will be found in book clubs everywhere. Let the swooning commence!

Monday, July 14, 2008

The Host

After reading "The Host" by Stephenie Meyer, I have hope that the "Twilight" series might not actually end up making my brain explode from pure frustration and malice. The synopsis is that a species of alien invades Earth, takes over human bodies and makes them their own. The aliens cannot live outside of host bodies and they see the human race as perfect for the picking. After all, they're so violent and unstable, they're bound to kill each other off within a few decades anyway. These aliens, calling themselves "souls", are inherently peaceful, non-confrontational, law-abiding citizens. Everything is done for the common good. They don't see what they've done as murder, just furthering their own population on a very nice planet. There are a few stray humans here and there that fight against the occupation, but that's what they have Seekers for, to capture the humans and pacify them by inserting a soul.

The story is told from the viewpoint of a soul having been put inside the body of a 20-ish year old woman who's been running from the aliens for years. What the soul, called Wanderer, experiences is Melanie, the human, having no desire to have her body snatched and fighting back with her mind. Melanie is making Wanderer think she's going to have to switch bodies and in her desperation to take control, decides to do just that. Discard this body and get a new one. But Melanie has other plans. She wants Wanderer to find her younger brother and the love of her life, who she hopes are still on the run. Through a series of vague instructions Melanie remembers her uncle giving her, she convinces Wanderer to go in the Arizona desert and look for them.

Okay, here are the things Stephenie Meyer is good at in her books:
1. Lots of action.
2. Compelling the reader to keep reading.
3. Impossible love-triangles.
4. Fits of overdramatic self-sacrificing in her lead characters.
5. Hot guys.
6. Moments of ridiculousness.
7. Cool creatures.

"The Host" contains all these, but Meyer gets points from me because:
1. It's not a series.
2. The impossible love-triangle is actually resolved sensibly.
3. I don't hate her main characters.
4. The overdramatic self-sacrificing moment is at least believable from the character.
5. I couldn't put it down.
6. The aliens are very cool.

If Meyer can write more books like "The Host", and less like "Twilight", I'll be glad to read more of them. I am getting more excited to read the last book in the series because of "The Host", but since Bella is so flawed and impossible to like, I'm not getting my hopes up too high. And honestly, in future books she has to drop the love triangle story line. Move on, woman.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

King George: What Was His Problem?

I know I'm a week late for a Independence Day-themed post, but what the heck. I found this title a few months back and put it in the back of my mind thinking I would get it for my oldest daughter to have a fun way to teach her about the American Revolution. "King George: What Was His Problem?" by Steve Sheinkin is a book that tells you all the good stuff that textbooks leave out. Sheinkin used to be a textbook writer and over the years, he accumulated piles of interesting facts that the textbook companies had no interest in putting in their books. It was a very fun read, but of no interest to my daughter. Oh well.

Most of what I remembered about the Revolution before reading this book included who was the general (George Washington), when the Declaration of Independence was signed (7/4/1776), and who won (Americans). Everything else was pretty fuzzy. After reading this book, I can tell you where the key battles were (Boston, Bunker Hill and Yorktown), who was the British general thought of as losing the war (Cornwallis) who was the coolest spy (James Armistead) and what happened to that nasty traitor, Benedict Arnold (became a British general, wandered about for a while, died in NYC). I know a bunch more but you should just read the book.

At only 150 pages, this was an easy read, but very informative. He writes in a storytelling style, making all the history much easier to absorb. There's pen drawings of the main players and my favorite was one of a German baroness. She looks so sassy and overfed.

I just read somewhere that Sheinkin wrote another book similar to this about the Civil War called "Two Miserable Presidents." It's going on the to-read list.

Monday, July 7, 2008

A Book for Wimps

After reading seven billion pages worth of Libba Bray's trilogy this last couple of weeks, I decided it was time for a break. By the way, the second book was action-packed and exciting, but the third was 400 pages too long, frustrating, had a disappointing ending, didn't make much sense and I hated what she did with the characters. Wasn't worth a whole post to say that.

The break I chose took me about an hour to read. Jeff Kinney's "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" was hilarious. It's geared towards the tween crowd and when my seven-year-old saw it in the library book pile, her interest was peaked. I told her I had to read it first to check on the language and content and she nearly hounded me to death until I finished it. It was a long hour. The book checked out and now she's happily reading it.

"Diary" is the story in cartoons and journal entries of Greg, a wimpy kid. He's not only wimpy in size and strength, but in his friendships and decisions. He always picks the wimpy way out of situations, often to the detriment of his only friend, Rowley. He's not much for working hard or taking responsibility and he sure has zero patience for his little brother, Manny. Greg is funny and has a total middle-school-age-boy view of the world. One of my favorite parts was the skanky, nasty cheese that has been sitting on the basketball court pavement for eons. Anybody who dares to touch the cheese then become a pariah, having now contracted The Cheese Touch. I swear, that brought me straight back to sixth grade. It was awesome.

I started to get on Greg's side, thinking his parents were a bit hard on him and that he didn't get the credit he deserved. Really he didn't deserve much credit because he's such a wimp about things, but it was written in such a funny way, I was willing to let it slide. If you're in the mood for some juvenile fun, give it a read. Or give it to a 10-year-old nephew and watch him giggle.