Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey

Most of you have either never read or have no recollection of when I wrote about The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart over a year ago. Take a minute, go read what I wrote. Then what I write now will make much more sense.

Oh my holy cow! I thought the first book was awesome but this one took the cake! I compared the first book to Lemony Snicket, but the second book leaves the comparisons behind and strikes out on its own. Stewart took this likable and heroic group of kids and showed that they had more depth and charisma than before. The quartet of brilliant children, Reynie, Kate, Sticky and Constance are forced on a journey across the ocean in search of their beloved Mr. Benedict who has been abducted by the evil Mr. Curtain. They have riddles and puzzles to solve along the way, which makes my brain hum with pleasure, and dastardly fiends to avoid. I especially loved the Ten Men, but you've probably figured out by now that I love a good villain. The Ten Men are dressed as dashing business men, but their briefcases carry deadly weapons of their trade. Ooh, they're nasty and I loved it. Kate is even more reckless and amazing as she thinks fast on her feet and makes use of her trusty bucket. Reynie re-examines what he thinks of people he once thought were trustworthy, Sticky becomes less frightened of the world around him, and Constance is more than her crabby exterior shows.

I seriously hope that Stewart either has more in store for these kids or tries his hand at more books. I can't get enough!

Monday, October 27, 2008

Cooking with Kids

Thanks to my friend, Christina, I'm completely devoted to Family Fun magazine. I started subscribing to it back when my oldest child was too little to enjoy any of the crafty/cooking/game ideas in the magazine. Now that my kids are big and perfect for the articles in there, I find that I can retrieve some of what I've read over the many years of subscribing and not feel completely inept. I use the website on a regular basis and read the magazine cover to cover when it comes. I have a standing present from my husband to re-subscribe it for me so I don't even have to worry about it. You complete me, Family Fun.

A couple of years ago, the magazine came out with their latest cookbook, Family Fun's Cooking with Kids. Christina and I speculated together on if we thought it might be the same as the Let's Cook section and one of my most favorite things to read in the whole magazine. I've been cutting out that section and putting it in a binder for years. It shows parents how to teach their kids to cook different foods, and we're not talking about hot dogs and macaroni or English muffin pizzas. Some of the recipes they've had since I've been a subscriber have been apple pie, carrot cake, omelets, turkey pot pie, bagels, pineapple upside-down cake, potato pierogi, brownies, chili and foccacia bread. They have step by step instructions and pictures with suggestions for what the kids can do themselves. I love this because most of the time I need that much detail to try a new recipe and knowing that I can teach it to my kids while I cook is a big incentive to try something new. I find that it is approachable enough for my almost-four-year-old to help out and interesting enough for my older kids.

I put the cookbook on my Amazon wishlist and promptly forgot about it. Fast forward a few years and I found myself staring at it on the discount book rack at Borders when I was hunting for something entirely different. At $8, I couldn't resist and bought it with barely opening it. I knew it would be a winner and you know what? It was. It doesn't have the detailed instructions for every recipe, but it does have it for some. So far we've tried the black bean soup (delicious and even my pickiest eater loves it) and the lemon squares (oh my!) and my five-year-old pulls it out and reads it like a novel. She's dying to try out every recipe in the dessert section, but she's five so that's no surprise.

I'm proud of myself for having gotten it for such a deal, but I still would have been happy paying full price and gotten use out of it for the last few years. Now, if you'll excuse me, the Thanksgiving issue is waiting for me and I'm positive there are ideas that involve pumpkins.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Co-review: Odd Thomas

Halloween is just around the corner, and in keeping with that spirit of the spine-tinglingly macabre, our co-review for this month is Dean Koontz's Odd Thomas. This is a hair-raising story of ghosts and demons, with the added treat of including characters of such goodness and compassion that make it more than just a dark tale of sordid evil. But before we get into specifics, just remember that in these co-reviews we don't hold back. So if you haven't read it and want to avoid spoilers, read no further!

Odd Thomas is aptly named. He has an unusual ability to see ghosts and therefore acts as an advocate for the dead -- including taking on the dangerous work of trying to bring their murderers to justice. He doesn't enjoy it particularly, but he sees it as his duty. Think Sixth Sense all grown up. Odd also sees shadowy demons that he calls bodachs for lack of a better word, and which seem to indicate a pending disaster. Only a handful of people know of his special gift -- Terri (his boss and mother figure), Chief Porter (the local police chief), Little Ozzie (a morbidly obese fiction writer), and Stormy (his one true love and destiny).

Most of Odd Thomas's plot takes place in about two days. When a stranger comes to town who attracts an unusual amount of attention from the bodachs, Odd takes notice and begins to uncover a plot of mass murder and destruction. Since it's planned to take place the following day, Odd has very little time to try to figure out the details and stop it from happening. Things only get more complicated when his main suspect ends up dead in Odd's own apartment, his police chief friend is shot, and he is forced to face his own personal demons (namely, his psychotic mother) all while trying to figure out how to spare countless innocent lives from an unknown horror. There are many tense, scary moments that keep the pages turning, but also enough humanity and gentle moments to invite the reader's compassion for Odd and the people he loves.

Caren: There are so many things that I loved about this book that it's hard to know where to begin. First, I absolutely loved Odd Thomas! He is so quirky yet completely sincere and guileless. I don't know that I've ever met a character quite like him. He's very intelligent, but has no ambition in life because his sanity is so tenuous he has to keep everything else in his life as simple as possible. His wardrobe consists entirely of jeans and plain white t-shirts. He lives in a simple studio apartment and works as a short-order cook. And other than his hope to marry Stormy and a casual interest in selling tires someday, he is perfectly at peace with his simple life. But this doesn't make him less interesting. Instead, it's one of the many things that makes him so delightful and unexpected.

Jenny: I thought how amazing it was that he grew up with completely screwed up parents, had this supernatural gift that prevented him from living a normal life, and yet, was a compassionate and selfless person. I cannot imagine going through what he had and be the person that he is. Talk about strength of character! Stormy was the perfect match for him because of her personal traumas and also her goodness despite it, which made the ending all the more heart-breaking.

I love that Odd surrounds himself with good people. His landlord, his friends, his co-workers, his family-figures, his girlfriend. If you're going to see dead people who can't talk and tell you what to do, you might as well have a force of good behind you.

I have to say I could have done without all the Satanism in the bad guys. That gave me the serious heebie jeebies. I understand that it solidifies how completely evil they were, but I didn't particularly enjoy reading about it. One thing I did appreciate is that the book wasn't graphic. I mean, you had your share of violence since what Odd encounters is rife with it, but not like what it could have been. Another was how chaste his relationship with Stormy was. It made you love Odd even more, that he respected her and also racked up some points for Koontz in my book. Not everybody has to sleep together to be in love.

Caren: Yeah, the Satanism stuff was way messed up and I found myself wondering how Koontz could stand researching that kind of stuff! I couldn't read the book at night by myself or I'd get too freaked out! (Daylight and noisy kids made for a much less creepy environment.) I don't like horror movies or graphic violence, so this was about my limit. But one thing I liked was that Koontz would build up these tense, scary scenes and then diffuse them before they got to be too much to handle. And I liked that he interspersed them with calmer, more hopeful scenes of the good things in Odd's life.

I loved the chaste aspect of his and Stormy's relationship too, and it broke my heart that she died at the end. I read back through those final chapters and he threw in little clues that it was her ghost at the end, but I didn't pick up on them the first time. What especially kills me is knowing that Koontz has written several more books about Odd Thomas so he's going to have to keep living without her! Which brings up the the beginning of the book he mentions that he would only allow it to be published after he's dead, so does that mean he'll die at the end of Koontz's series? I'm not entirely sure how I feel about that.

Jenny: Oh my gosh, I totally didn't read this book at night too! I did it once and then just laid there in the dark, thinking and being creeped out. Bad, bad book to read by yourself at night.

I didn't pick up on Stormy being dead until they were knocking on the door. I was so relieved that she wasn't hurt in the shooting that my heart was light during the reunion section. When the knocking on the door happened, I felt like I'd been punched in the stomach. I forgot about how in the beginning of the book he mentions that the book is only to be published after his death so now I'm bummed even more. I've debated about whether to read any more of the books, but that might burn my bridge right there. I like Odd too much! I don't think I can stand to watch him suffer any more! No Stormy, saving dead people and bringing about justice while being paralyzed in his own progression and having a probable death at the end of the series is not a big incentive to keep reading.

The scene with his mom made me so sad. He explained over and over again that he was afraid of guns and didn't want anything to do with them, then Koontz shows you why he's afraid of them. But I guess then it just goes to show how brave Odd is when he takes up a gun at the end to save people's lives.

Kudos to Koontz for making such a likable character. Plus, I loved his narration-style, though it's a bit heavy on the metaphors. Here's one of my favorites:

"Hard luck seemed to seep out of the ground itself, as though the devil's room in Hades were directly beneath these streets, his sleeping loft so near the surface that his fetid breath, expelled with every snore percolated through the soil. "

I loved that image. Well, I didn't love the idea of the devil and his stinky breath, but I loved how he created the image. Very cool.

Caren: I am so bad about skipping over things when I'm nervous about a story, and then I have to go back again and reread what I missed. And I was so anxious during so much of this book that I missed some of that imagery, so thanks for pointing that out! I really enjoyed Odd's voice throughout. He had such a matter-of-fact way of talking about the supernatural and an unassuming dry wit. I think if it hadn't been in the first person it would have lost a lot of its appeal for me. For that reason alone I want to read the other books. I hate the thought of Odd Thomas having more to say and me missing out on it!

But because it was given in his voice, I often found myself wondering what an outsider's perspective would have been. So I was just tickled by his exchange with the nurse at the hospital where he was so clueless about the message she was sending. And then at the end, when he's hunting down the last killer and he mentions what a sight he must be to the crowds of people ducking out of his way -- crying and talking to himself incoherently -- I thought, "Hmm, your grip on sanity must be more tenuous than I thought!"

Overall I thought it was a fun read. Scary and disturbing sometimes, but kept light with great additions like Elvis and Little Ozzie. I'll be glad to see Odd's adventures continue into the next books!

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Solace of Leaving Early

After reading Jenny's review on Haven Kimmel's The Used World, I decided I'd better give her a shot. We'll be reviewing her newest book, Iodine, next month and I wanted to try something else of hers before taking that one on, so I started with The Solace of Leaving Early. This was Kimmel's first novel and while I haven't yet read the acclaimed A Girl Named Zippy, I can see what all the buzz is about. Kimmel's writing is so intellectual that at first it was almost a barrier to getting into the story. I wanted to tell the characters, "Stop thinking so much and start living your lives already!" But it wasn't long before I had a hard time putting it down.

Langston Braverman is a PhD dropout who comes home to her small Indiana town to hide from the world in her parents' attic. She is disgusted by the simple lives, lack of ambition, and undeveloped intellect that characterizes small town life, but at the same time, she struggles with her own insecurities at her failures and her need to prove herself. She is overly critical of everyone, including her loving parents, and especially the new nondenominational preacher, Amos Townsend. Both Amos and Langston are highly intelligent with strong backgrounds in philosophy and the arts, and their ruminations and debates are not for the reader looking for a light popcorn read!

When a childhood friend is killed by her estranged husband, Langston ends up helping to care for her young children who witnessed the traumatic event. This becomes a watershed time in all of the main characters' lives in one form or another; as they try to help the girls heal from the tragedy, they all end up finding healing themselves. Ultimately it's a hopeful book with redemption and happy endings (and I'm all about happy endings). Even if you don't follow all of the theological philosophizing going on (as I didn't), you can't help but feel deeply for the characters.

One of the things that I loved was how Kimmel played with perspective so that you couldn't get completely comfortable with a character and think you had them all figured out. You could really only get a full sense of who they were by seeing them from multiple perspectives, both inside and out, and even then they would do things to surprise you. They were so much more complex than typical fiction characters are allowed to be, that by the time the story was over it was easy to believe that they were still off living their lives somewhere. I loved that aspect, and I also loved her imagery and use of language. By the way, there is an event at the end that has become seared into my mind as one of my favorite images in all of literature. I won't mention it here because it will give too much away, but if you read it and can't figure it out, ask me later! To anyone looking for something thought-provoking with rich characters, I'd definitely recommend it. It's a bit heavy reading, but it's not very long so that compensates. Now I'm excited to try some more Haven Kimmel and see how her other work compares!

Friday, October 10, 2008

A Year in Elisha Cooper's Life

I'm a bit obsessed with documentaries. When a new red Netflix envelope arrives in the mail, my husband will ask, "Which documentary is it this time? Please tell me it's in English." Really, he's a good sport and I have watched an awful lot of action flicks over the years for him. My recent newest favorite? "King of King: A Fistful of Quarters" So, so awesome. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll wish that you could strangle the big cheater face that undermines the hero.

Elisha Cooper, who is actually best known as a children's book author and illustrator, wrote a couple of books that take on that documentary-feel. His first book was Crawling: A Father's First Year and the second is ridiculous/hilarious/terrible/cool: a year in an american high school and I much preferred the second. Now, if I had to examine a time of my own life, high school would not be preferred over the first year of my first child's life. I've never gone to a high school reunion and never will and much of that time I've repressed. It wasn't really that bad, I mean, it wasn't junior high. That's a black hole that has disappeared from my consciousness altogether. But it was high school. Yick. My first year as a mother was much more joyful and I have much better memories and more tender feelings about that time. There was a whole lot less crying during that time than there was in high school, that's for sure.

I think the difference in how I liked these books was how the stories were told. In Crawling, Cooper is narrating his experiences as a father, his bewilderment, frustrations, joys, and general overwhelming love for his baby girl. In ridiculous/hilarious/terrible/cool he is an observer, with no comments or opinions on his part. I found that in Crawling, I didn't really care what he thought. Sure, parenthood is hard, babies are cute, they spit up a lot and all their milestones are amazing, but I didn't really emotionally invest in his experience. Maybe I couldn't relate to him? Maybe I didn't really like his voice? I can't pinpoint it. Maybe it's because parenthood is my own well-traveled and documented experience over these last eight years and nothing he had to say was new or interesting to me. I'm not sure.

Even though I'd much rather not remember most of high school, I loved Cooper's high school that he observed over the course of a year. He also did sketches of the kids that were so simple and yet very descriptive. Maybe if there had been more sketches in Crawling... Who knows, moving on. Cooper followed and interviewed several students whose ambitions, quirks, goals and problems were all vastly different and all relatable to some extent. Daniel, the class president who is trying to get into Harvard and someday wants to go into politics. Emily, captain of the soccer team, perfectionist, and a much deeper thinker than those around her. Maya, the actress who has a lot of tics and fidgety habits that disappear when she's on stage. Diana, the swimmer and good student who is the first of her family to do well in school or even think about college. Aisha, the loner, has lived all over the world and this is the first time she's ever been the only Muslim in her school. Zef, the musician and caffeine addict who can't seem to show up on time for anything and finds school to be a far second to his art. Anais, the beautiful and talented dancer can't seem to see the point to school when all she wants to do is join a ballet company and get going with her life. Anthony, the drug dealer who has zero ambition even with dealing and knows something has to change in his life.

We've all known or been these kids and while I read this book, I desperately wanted each of them to figure out their messes and make good in their lives. I was emotionally invested in these kids. Cooper so beautifully depicts their body language and voices that I felt like I knew each of them. I loved that they were real kids and not some fictional construction. It made me realize that this will be my own children a decade from now, trying to figure out what to do with their future selves and how to achieve the goals they make for themselves.

I hope that if Cooper decides to dedicate another year of his life to a book project, he goes the observer route instead of the narrator route. It appeals to me so much more, and it gives me a documentary fix. Mmm, I love the documentaries.

Monday, October 6, 2008

The Princess Bride

I finally took the time recently to read The Princess Bride novel by William Goldman. Yes, this is the same The Princess Bride that the movie of the same name is based on. Oh my, what a delight! The movie stayed very close to the original story, even matching much of the same dialogue word for word. Princess Buttercup, Westley, Inigo, Fezzik, the Cliffs of Insanity, even the priest's speech impediment during the wedding......everything you love about the movie is in the book.

I actually preferred a lot of things about the movie over the book. Some of the scenes I liked better from the movie -- definitely the ending -- and the characters are portrayed so well on screen that in the novel it feels like something is missing. So, why bother reading it if you already know the story and if the characters suffer a little in print? Because the comic genius in the book comes not from the story (which is still funny), but from the narrative.

Goldman claims to be abridging the story from one S. Morgenstern who wrote and published the original tale in his native Florin. Goldman himself was introduced to it as a child by his father (whom he claims was a Florinese immigrant). He insists that Morgenstern and Florin really exist and goes to great lengths to convince the reader of this, until you're not sure how much of anything to believe (including the details about Goldman's own wife and son). It reminds me of the creation of Lemony Snicket, except that in this instance he continues to use his real name and details from his real life as a novelist and screenwriter.

The story itself has the same good-humored, light-hearted feel that the movie does, employing silly, ridiculous scenarios that are navigated seriously by the characters. But what makes it even more fun to read is that S. Morgenstern's narrative is riddled with unexpected comments, absurd justifications, and intentional contradictions. Goldman also interjects his own comments -- some clever and others just plain silly -- that are as much a part of the reading experience as the story itself. And over-arching it all is the fact that he's telling this story under false pretenses anyway, which adds to the absurdity of it. There are some great lines that made me chuckle out loud -- and that's saying something! (I am not a reading-chuckler by nature.) I would share them here, but I don't want to take anything away from the experience of discovering them on your own, so you'll just have to trust me!

If you're a fan of the movie, I would recommend taking the time to read the book. There's no great literary value, but it's a funny read that will brighten your day!