Monday, December 17, 2012

Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life by Natalie Dykstra (2012)

Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life was really engaging and very well written.  But there was something sort of hollow at the middle, and I never felt like you really got to know Clover Adams (or Henry) well enough to figure out why she would commit suicide.  Probably we would never know anyway.  But maybe a little background in depression and suicide might have helped, I don't know.

I kept wondering where Clover and Henry got all of their money - it must have been remarkably cheaper to live back then, and money went far farther than it does today.

As you read biographies and nonfiction about the Gilded Age or the Edwardian Age, the same people crop up again and again.  In this case, Frank Millet, the painter who was gay and went down on the Titanic with Archibald Butt.


Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking LifeClover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life by Natalie Dykstra
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life is a really engaging book; Dykstra is a clear, concise writer and her subjects are interesting people.  But there was still something hollow about the book, a lack of vitality.  Some of the book seems to be a list of places gone and people seen; a chunk of the book is almost a catalog of Clover's photographs.  Clover comes across as the most "real" person in the book (and since it's "her" book, she should).  Henry seemed to still be somewhat of a cipher.  Her suicide at the end is so sudden and mysterious, and while obviously no one will know, I still wish Dykstra has explored the reasons for Clover's depression and possible intentions a little bit more.


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Tuesday, December 11, 2012

My Year in Reading, 2012


In 2012, I read approximately 175 books.  This is not an exact number; there may be some books I read that I forgot about.  There are definitely some books on my blog posts that I didn’t finish.  But 175 is a good round number, and that’s the number I’m going to stick with.  I don’t know if this is a bunch of books or not.  I guess that comes out to about 3.5 books per week, give or take some decimal points.  I read everything, and some of these are picture books.  I am absolutely sure there are voracious readers out there who read far more than 175 books last year, and nary a picture book was in their list.  If anyone gets snobby about that, then they can stick that where the sun don’t shine.  Some of the lowliest picture books I read last year are far better than some of what passes for best sellers (I’m not going to name names, but you know who you are).
There is at least one book I “hate read” which is slightly different from that term being bandied about last year, “hate watching,” watching a television show you love to despise.  “Hate reading” for me is finishing a book even though I absolutely detest it, just because I want to see what the hell happens at the end (and the end of a “hate read” usually ends in me hating the book even more).  I don’t “hate read” very often – there are far too many good books out there to read to waste my time on something stupid or dull.  In sifting through the 2012 list, my “hate read” of the year had to have been The Magicians by Lev Grossman.  I heard Mr. Grossman talking to someone on NRP around the time this book was published in 2009, and I immediately stuck in on my list.  I sometimes like fantasy (less and less the older I get though), and Mr. Grossman wasn’t a traditional fantasy writer, but came from a literary background (read: snooty), but wasn’t ashamed to be writing a fantasy (so obviously not snooty).   The reviews I read in Booklist, Publisher’s Weekly and so on made the book sound like a really cool, darker, grittier Harry Potter; Narnia for grown-ups, without the Christian allegorical bullshit (centaurshit?).   I couldn’t put the damn thing down – fantastically well written. As Edmund Pevensie says at the beginning of Prince Caspian:  “Look sharp!  … This is magic – I can tell   by that feeling.”  It’s definitely magical book that sucks you into another world.  Edmund also asks his brother and sisters to  grab hands as they are sucked in, and quite frankly, I wish I had someone I could have grabbed hands with as I read this dark, dark, dark book.  Grossman decided to rewrite Harry Potter alright, only from the Slytherins point of view.  Full of angst, assholes, and anti-heroes, The Magicians was absolutely hateful from beginning to end.  It made me feel gross, man.  But there was no way I could it put it down – I wanted to know what happened to all of these horrible, hateful people.  Hate read it all.
Most of what I read last year was incredible, but I’m going to choose a few that stand out.
I started the year out reading Sarah Orne Jewett’s Deephaven (1877).  I had first read Sarah Orne Jewett over 20 years ago in college; I couldn’t tell you which of her short stories or novels I read, but during those turbulent times I wasn’t enamored of simple pleasures like I am now.  Deephaven is a gloriously simple pleasure, the story of two twentysomething Boston girls spending the summer in a small Maine community.   As I read more of the story, a little bit about Miss Jewett herself, I gradually realized that these two girls have a “Boston marriage,” the 19th century euphemism for a lesbian relationship.  There is this warm, cozy scene: "When we came down from the lighthouse and it grew late, we would beg for an hour or two longer on the water, and row away in the twilight far out from land, where, with our faces turned from the Light, it seemed as if we were alone, and the sea shoreless; and as the darkness closed round us softly, we watched the stars come out, and were always glad to see Kate's star and my star, which we had chosen when we were children. I used long ago to be sure of one thing,—that, however far away heaven might be, it could not be out of sight of the stars. Sometimes in the evening we waited out at sea for the moonrise, and then we would take the oars again and go slowly in, once in a while singing or talking, but oftenest silent."  They chose stars for each other – how lovely and romantic.  A exceptionally well written book, with vivid and perfect descriptions and sharply drawn characters.

In February 2012, I read Alan Bennet’s The Uncommon Reader (2007).  One of my guilty pleasures is reading about the British monarchy; I read books of history (, Henry and Anne, Richard III, Victoria and Albert, Edward and Alexandra, George and Elizabeth vs. Hitler, and so on) and books of gossip (Diana, Charles, Camilla, Margaret, the Duchess of Windsor) in equal doses.  The Uncommon Reader is an imaginative flight of fancy that paints this picture:  Queen Elizabeth II, after so many, many annis horribilem, discovers that she loves to read – at the cost of every other thing she is supposed to do.  It’s a great book about the passion of reading and books.  Plus, it has a bookmobile in it, that monstrosity that all librarians love.  You only need love books to love this book; republicans can enjoy it as much as royalists.

Sometime in January or February, a delightful lady I work with who is in her 70s gave me a used paperback copy of Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast (1840) and told me how great it was and that I should read it.  Although she was a native Californian, she had never read it before and that it was all about life on the California coast before the Gold Rush.    I politely took it, with a smile and nod, thinking to myself “What a dull-looking book.”  Because I have a problem saying no to ladies of a certain age, I made myself at least give it the good old college try.  What I soon found out is that you really can’t judge a book by its cover – Two Years Before the Mast was incredibly interesting and far from dull.  Dana was only in his early twenties, had sort of bombed out of college, and was looking for adventure when he signed on for a two year stint “before the mast” meaning he was sailing to California and back to New England.  Most of the book actually takes place in Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, and Monterrey, back in the day when they were Mexican ports, full of Dons and senoritas.  Definitely a rousing California history lesson; there is some incredibly vivid scenes of Dana’s ship on the way back to New England braving the winters of Antarctica.  You quickly realize how utterly dangerous these journeys were and how brave these men (and a few women, although none on this ship for any length of time) were to make these journeys.
Sometime in the middle of reading Two Years Before the Mast, I read We Are in A Book by Mo Willems (2010) because I read an article in Slate about how it was this scary existential book disguised as a cute little picture book for kids.  I love Mo Willems anyway – he’s the new Dr. Seuss, destined to be in print forever and ever.  And We are In A Book certainly has an existential tone, whether Willems meant it or not.  Pair this with the classic Sesame Street book starring Grover, The Monster at the End of this Book for a meta read aloud experience.

In April 2012, I read The Haunted Looking Glass: Ghost Stories Chosen and Illustrated by Edward Gorey (1959).  I have no feelings about ghost stories one way or another – I know some I love, and others I’m indifferent too.  This collection certainly has enough of both.  Good writers are good writers, regardless of what genre in which they write.  Gorey’s choices include a terrific story by E. Nesbit (who wrote some of the greatest books for children at the turn of the last century but even more likely known now as the writer who inspired C.S. Lewis’s Narnia kids), another creepy story by Bram Stoker (without a vampire in sight), The Monkey’s Paw (which I probably last read over 25 years ago – we all remember something about it, and that’s because it’s really, really good).  Another ghost story, The Signalman by Charles Dickens, changed my mind about the 19th century’s great novelist, and made me want to read more Dickens, which I subsequently did.
At about the same time, I read Laura Shapiro’s Julia Child (2007), an excellent, short biography of the television chef in the Penguin Lives series.  Julia Child strikes me as one of those people who have sharp corners that stick out, but are also completely visible.  Nothing hidden or dark about Julia; you get what you see.  This is one of those books that may make you want to read a longer biography or her autobiography.  Or even read her first cookbooks, which are eminently readable. At the very least, watch Julia and Julia.   Shapiro doesn’t shy away from Julia Child’s flaws either; for example, I was disappointed that Julia Child was kind of homophobic in that 1960s limp wrists are bad kind of way.  And that she certainly was no feminist; men were men and women were women in her eyes, and each had prescribed roles.  

In May 2012, I re-read The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory (2001), and it was still as deliciously trashy as I remember it being the first time I read it several years back.  I don’t think Philippa Gregory was ever as good again as The Other Boleyn Girl.  It is the best kind of beach read.  Full of ish - historically accurate-ish and sort of literary-ish (it’s a trade paperback, and that means quality).  But no ish about the fact that it is really well written and will suck you right in.

In May I also “read” a picture book called People by a German artist named Blexbolex (2011).   Unlike many illustrators (at least that I've seen), this book was silk screen, which is damn cool.  People is both an incredibly simple book and incredibly complex.  Simple - each page is a picture of a person, with a descriptor naming that person.  For example, the first page says MAN and has a picture of a fat plutocrat with a can and a newspaper tucked under one arm; a bloated version of the Monopoly man without his top hat.  WOMAN is an African (French-Afrrican?) woman in a very bright green dress with polka dots looking into a mirror.  She has a pink beehive hairdo; I wonder if this is Nikki Minaj.  COUPLE is a very pink man and woman holding hands; they could either be from Mad Men or lesser Kennedy's.  BACHELOR is in a brilliant yellow suit and holding a bouquet - perhaps he was supposed to be GAY.

It's with BACHELOR that this book takes a turn, and I start to wonder if this book is for children.  At least American children.  I think it's most likely for French children, and maybe German children.  Maybe hipster American children.  For one thing, there is a page for SMOKING.  That's really, really European.  The GIRL is also really French looking - she's fabulously dressed and incredibly thin.  Not as thin as MODEL though.  FLIGHT ATTENDANT is this drop dead gorgeous female; across the page from her is CAT BURGLAR and you realize they may be one and the same, only the burglar is in this sexy form fitting cat suit.  There is sometimes a connection between the two words -- SOLOIST and LISTENER for example (although LISTENER looks like she is from Edward Hopper's Nighthawks.  SECRETARY though is across the page from YETI (what connection are we supposed to draw from that; maybe something idiomatically French?  There are some creepy things too (EXECUTIONER?).  The BUTCHER has a dead pig slung over one arm.  Modern France (Germany?) and a modern European audience is reflected; in addition to Africans (African French?  African German?) there is MUEZZIN and EMIR.  And RABBI.

In June, I read Mildred Pierce by James Cain (1941).  It’s still stuck in my head even six months later.  II read a description of Mildred Pierce somewhere that described it as a "hard boiled" novel. I wasn't exactly sure what that meant. But if all hard boiled novels are as juicy and good as Mildred Pierce, then I'm hard boiled.Mildred Pierce had me hooked almost from the first page. Dramatic and melodramatic, Dallas and Dynasty could be direct descendents of Mildred Pierce with the adultery and sultry affairs, the shady business deals, marriages for anything but love, and dames with great legs (although I think Mildred wouldn't want me to call her dame). Oh, and the villains. Mildred Pierce might be nominally about a "grass widow" who builds a mini restaurant empire in the midst of the Depression, but really, it's about this monstrously villainous daughter of hers, Veda. Veda Pierce, a vamp, a wolf, a spinning spider, a soprano - all before the age of 20. Va va voom. There's no clear cut heroine in the book - Mildred's motives are rarely pure - but there's a died in the wool b**** villainess. Even back in the "good old days" there were canny, conniving backstabbers, and thank god for it!

After twenty years, in July I finally finished The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame (1908).  I have tried to read The Wind in the Willows at least twice before, and always got bogged down somewhere in the middle (usually somewhere around The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, which I still think feels out of place; that chapter is usually left out of abridged versions).  For whatever reason, this time it stuck, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  Maybe I need more Edwardian masculine comfort in my life right now, with buttered toast and beer and a pipe by a cozy fire, and The Wind in the Willows was just what the doctor ordered.  The adventures of Rat and Mole and Badger - and especially Toad - were just enchanting this time.  I was struck many times by how much later works of children's literature are direct descendants of Kenneth Grahame's world.  C.S. Lewis and Tolkien both have elements of The Wind in the Willows.  Stuart Little plays with than conceit of animals and humans living together.  Brian Jacques Redwall is a medieval version of riverbank.  The only character missing in any of these works is Mr. Toad.  Toad still exists today, but he's moved on from children's books. Faddish, foppish Toad, always intrigued and excited by the next big thing.  If Rat and Mole and Badger are idealized phantoms of a lost world of Edwardian comforts, Toad is still alive and well today.  He has his own reality television show; he's eating jidori chicken and wearing Laboutin high tops; he's getting photographed without any knickers coming out of a limousine.  In the 1950s, he was I Love Lucy; in the 70s he was disco dancing; in the 80s he was a wall street banker.  For better or for worse, Mr. Toad is with us - and he really makes our world a far more interesting place, doesn't he?  

Towards the end of July, I read Jo Walton’s Among Others (2010), which was probably the book I enjoyed the absolute most all year.  The story is complicated and intricate in so many ways, as only the very, very best stories can be - a girl who can practice magic and see fairies sent to live in a boarding school where she can do neither, being magically pursued by a wicked and mad mother full of evil intent towards her.  That short, somewhat stupid description can barely do justice to this unbearably moving, lovely, heartbreaking novel.  Jo Walton is fast becoming one of my all time favorites (Tooth and Claw is incredible).  What I loved most of all about this book was its many references to science fiction and fantasy of the sixties and seventies; the girl is a voracious reader, and many things she reads and discusses are things I read at about the same age.  

The book I spent the most time reading and not understanding in August was The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst, which made me feel quite stupid and shoddy and very unable to understand modern literature, and simultaneously delighted me and wanted to make me keep reading to figure out what would happen next.  The entire book, a story about a World War I (gay) poet and the reverberations of his art and personality through the twentieth century (at least I think that’s what the book was about) was intricate and rich in the same way Among Others was, but without the deliciously evil mother and the fairies.  If Hollinghurst had added fairies to the mix, this might have been my favorite book of the year.

In September, I read Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens (1838), and spent most of that month singing songs from the musical Oliver! “As long as he needs me... consider yourself, at home... food, glorious food... I’d do anything, for you dear, anything...”  I also read The Bastables by E. Nesbit and The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis.  On the surface, the three don’t have a thing in common, but now looking back I realize that all take place in London in the 19th century.  So in a manner of speaking, I time traveled back to London in September.

The book I remember reading in October with the most pleasure was While England Sleeps by David Leavitt (1993).  I fell right into the deep end of the book and only came up for air when I absolutely had to. The first half of the book is incredibly romantic and occasionally witty (sometimes hilarious) and details the sexual encounters of two twenty-something young Englishmen from different sides of the tracks (or in this case, the Tube), who are exploring each other's bodies (and Communism) for the very first time. The backdrop is the dark days of the 1930s, when the everything seemed impossibly short and brutish and the world was about to end, making their encounter seem all the more urgent. The book takes a tragic right turn about half way through, but that made the book even more fun to read, and tragically romantic (romantically tragic?). I cried like a baby at the end. Gay historical fiction is a rare bird, and well-written gay historical fiction is almost unheard of.

I had two discoveries this year in reading - noir fiction and Dickens -- and I spent the last two months of the year exploring both.  November belonged to March Violets by Philip Kerr (1989), part of a series of books called “Berlin Noir” and March Violets  is the first in the series.  It was as good as Mildred Pierce (my other foray into noir this year), and definitely different than any other book I’d ever read before.  Incredibly well plotted, with a deliciously dark setting, and memorable characters.  I ate up the twist on noir, with the hardboiled detective being a German under the heel of the Nazis.  Kerr's Nazi Germany is like everything you knew about Berlin 1936, only turned on its side to reveal the even darker, uglier things lurking underneath.  We all know about Hitler and his merry band of demons, and Kerr certainly has the usual cameos from humanity's contest for worst person ever.  But Kerr's Berlin is populated by a noirish cast of gangsters and their madchens, floozies and hardboiled secretaries, sheeplike Nazis and sharp opportunists (called March Violets) using the Nazi party for their own personal gain (although it's clear by the end that they've helped created a Frankenstein's monster that quickly grows beyond their control). Beyond all though, the language is superb.  Kerr has some of the best, most creative use of simile, metaphor, description and turns of phrase that I've ever read.  It was like fireflies on a warm summer night, metaphor and simile blinking on and off.  You'll want to start capturing them and putting them in a jar, but like fireflies, they are only beautiful in context (my favorite:  "I drove home feeling like a ventriloquist's mouth ulcer.").  For language alone, this is a five star read - and add character, setting, a terrifically exciting and complicated mystery, and you have an almost perfect crime novel.  

Finally in December, I read Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (1860). And loved it.  It was a great way to end the year of reading.

Honorable mention must go to Steven Saylor, whose Roma Sub Rosa I absolutely love.  I’m nearly finished with the series - two left - and I’m taking my sweet time because once I’m done with those two, I have to wait impatiently for Mr. Saylor to write another!

And War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells, which is one of the first and still most perfect science fiction novels.  I also read The Food of the Gods, which I enjoyed but not quite as much as War of the Worlds.  

And the American Presidents series, terrific short biographies of each president by a famous historian or author.  While each book wasn’t great, a few were amazing, and taken together the series is magnificent.  A pure joy to read.  

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Fifth Element: A Toltec Wisdom Book : A Practical Guide to Self Mastery by Don Miguel Ruiz & Don Jose Ruiz with Janet Mills (2010)

I'm very suspicious of books without index or sources. 

What the hell is self mastery and why do I even care?

The five agreements are cool in theory, but did they need a whole book?  A series of five posters would have worked just as well.  Posters with cats hanging from trees, lunchroom posters.

I'm aslo not sure the Toltecs even existed as a people; they may be mythical creations of the Aztecs. 

How exactly did these guys know about the Toltecs? I don't think they left a written record.

New age bullshit.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Hilary Mantel on Fresh Air

Hilary Mantel, talking to Terry Gross on Fresh Air, on the connection she has to history:

"Since I was a very small child, I've had a kind of reverence for the past, and I felt a very intimate connection with it. When I began, it was just being enthralled by the lives of the members of my family who really didn't seem to make any difference in day-to-day talk whether people were alive or dead. I'm one of these children who grew up at the knee of my grandmother and her elder sister, listening to very old people talk about their memories. And as I say, in their conversation, everything was as if it happened yesterday. And the dead were discussed along with the living, and the difference didn't really seem to matter. And I suppose this seeped into my viewpoint. Instead of thinking there was a wall between the living and the dead, I thought there was a very thin veil. It was almost as if they'd just gone into the next room."

Monday, December 3, 2012

The Adventure of English: The Biography of a Language by Melvyn Bragg (2003)

I've heard this many times:  " It's ask not ax"  sometimes with an ugly racial overtone.  Next time I hear someone say this, I'm going point out what Melvyn Bragg says in his book on the origins  of English, in his chapter on West Indian Creole languages:  "And still there, buried deep, are archaic English expressions such as the English Seventeenth-century "from" for "since" as in "from I was a child I could do that," and aks" for "ask" ("ax" in Old English)...  "Harrumph" says the grumpy old man.  Apparently when someone says "ax" they are the ones saying it correctly not those saying "ask."  Funny.

"Long time no see" which I say often, is pidgin English.  I've been speaking pidgin for years, and had no idea.  




http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/73888.The_Adventure_of_English

Incredible story; definitely an adventure and a biography, emphatically and eminently preferrable to a dry as dust philology or linguistics text book.  English is definitely a "character" here, as real as Alfred the Great or Shakespeare (who also feature prominently in the book).  For those whole love the trivia of word history, there is still plenty of tidbits.  But the book goes beyond trivia:  there is a real narrative line running through  that starts with English taproots and shows how English is ever adapting and changing to time and place. 






Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien (1937)

Over on Tor.com, they are doing a re-read of The Hobbit; here is one of the interesting comments (among many interesting comments) that I wanted to save:

One thing that I recently realized about The Hobbit is that as the characters go further and further east, they're journeying back in time– not in a wibbly-wobbly-timey-wimey sense, but in a literary sense. 

I mean, think about it. When we start The Hobbit, we're very comfortably located in Edwardian children's literature (I don't know if Tolkien was influenced by it at all, but the initial descriptions of Bag End are so incredibly Wind-in-the-Willows). As the dwarves keep moving east, they start encountering earlier forms of storytelling: the chapters with the goblins are incredibly George MacDonald. Beorn is a little problematic in this schema, but I feel that he works well as a fairy-tale character of the kind that Perrault or the Grimms would have written about, especially with his house all alone in the middle of the woods. (There's a touch of Robert Southey there, too, with the house in the middle of the woods actually being inhabited by bears– or one bear, of a sort.)

When we get to the scenes in Mirkwood, we've reached medieval romance, of the mortals-meeting-the-fairies kind such as Tam Lin or Thomas the Rhymer. And by the time we've reached the Lonely Mountain, we're firmly in the territory of the ancient Anglo-Saxon and Norse legends. (When Bilbo steals the cup from Smaug's hoard, causing Smaug to go into an unspeakable rage, it's a direct lift from Beowulf, and the scene where Bilbo enters Smaug's chamber and has a long conversation with him has unmistakeable echoes of the legend of Sigurn and Fafnir.) 

It's incredibly interesting how Bilbo's story isn't just a journey in space, but in time, all the way through the history of English and Western European fantastic literature. Or at least, I thought it was cool.

(I want to give credit where credit is due - http://www.tor.com/community/users/IanPJohnson - wrote this post. I just copied and pasted it because I thought it was cool and wanted to keep it handy; like putting it on a post it).

Saturday, November 24, 2012

American's First Families by Carl Sferrazza Anthony (2000)

In the chapter about health and wellness, Anthony tells about Eleanor Roosevelt's daily horse ride at 7 a.m.  I had this thought.  120 years ago, only rich people had  both horses cars; everyone else had just horses.  Now, only rich people have horses.

I finished this book, but I have to admit - I scanned some of it.  That wasn't too much of a problem, because essentially the book was like bags of buttons that were the same color but different styles.  Little tidbits in each chapter based around a theme, very, very loosely connected.  I don't think Carl Anthony used a single transition - perhaps he cut them to make the book shorter.  Many paragraphs were sentences about different presidents and what they have done, strung together, without anything connecting them saving the overarching theme of each chapter.

I'm sure I learned some new things, and I know I saw some new photographs - quite a few were previously unpublished.  The photos were excellent too.  I wish I had been Nancy Reagan and Betsy Bloomingdale's hair stylist.

The entire book was the near side of "meh."  Not bad, but certainly not life changing.  Trivia, a good way to pass the time between good books.


America's First Families: An Inside View of 200 Years of Private Life in the White HouseAmerica's First Families: An Inside View of 200 Years of Private Life in the White House by Carl Sferrazza Anthony
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Not brilliantly written, not going to change your life, but a great way to pass the time between books you actually care about.


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Friday, November 16, 2012

Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth by Bart D. Ehrman (2012)

Did Jesus Exist is a a polemic against a group of scholars (although Ehrman deftly  picks apart their claims to even call themselves that) called mythicists who insist that Jesus never actually existed.  It would probably have helped if I'd been familiar with their arguments from their points of view, although Erhman  does explain in detail what they actually believe and why, before annihilating their theories one by one.  What's interesting about Erhman is that he's a very well known Biblical scholar and Jesus expert (or so he says) and kind of infamous as well, because he's also an agnostic who teaches in the south.  This book exists as kind of a duck hunt, in which Erhman takes careful aim at each and every mythicist claim and carefully shoots each one out of the sky. His guns are logic and history.  He can be kind of cutting as he does it, which is great.  It's like watching a drag queen throw shade.   And just in case you think he's full of crap, he starts out comparing the research of he and his colleagues to that of biologists and the theory of evolution.  Almost all biologists believe in evolution, but because they are scientists, it's called a theory.  The fringe biologists who don't believe in evolution are considered just that, fringe nutjobs.  The same holds true for Biblical study.  Since the dawn of history, much work has gone into Jesus study, and none of it has proven that Jesus doesn't exist.  Only a fringe element - and not an academic one - think he doesn't exist.  Of course, historians can't know that Jesus exist from personal experience.  But Erhman really lays out the rules of historical research in a completely understandable way, and to my mind proves that whatever you think Jesus did (that's probably for another book, I guess), he definitely exists.

I like Bible study, particularly that of the New Testamant, when it's like this.  Erhrman loves and respects the New Testament; he's not here disproving it but studying it rationally, trying to figure out why it's written the way it is.  When you get over the fundamentalist bullshit of the Bible is God's word but rather a book written by fallible men, it's interesting to study. It's one of the few documents to survive from that time period.


Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of NazarethDid Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth by Bart D. Ehrman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

 Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth is a a polemic against a group of scholars (although Ehrman deftly  picks apart their claims to even call themselves that) called mythicists who insist that Jesus never actually existed.  It would probably have helped if I'd been familiar with their arguments from their points of view, although Erhman  does explain in detail what they actually believe and why, before annihilating their theories one by one.  What's interesting about Erhman is that he's a very well known Biblical scholar and Jesus expert (or so he says) and kind of infamous as well, because he's also an agnostic who teaches in the south.  This book exists as kind of a duck hunt, in which Erhman takes careful aim at each and every mythicist claim and carefully shoots each one out of the sky. His guns are logic and history.  He can be kind of cutting as he does it, which is great.  It's a real mix of scholarships and writing for us hoi polloi.


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Thursday, November 15, 2012

Sugar Changed the World: A Story of Magic, Spice, Slavery, Freedom and Science by Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos (2010)

I usually hate children's and young adult nonfiction in a very personal way.  Adjectives and descriptive phrases that come to my mind when thinking about juvenile nonfiction include "dumbed down" and "illustration heavy" and "inaccurate" and "why?"  But a rare juvenile nonfiction book comes along that peaks my interest and keeps my attention without annoying me so much that I have to throw it down in disgust.  Sugar Changed the World was one of those books.  It didn't change my life but it did make me think in a new way about something -- in this case, the country of Haiti.  After the United States, Haiti was the next country to declare independence based on the same principles of liberty and justice for all.  And because it was based upon a slave rebellion, and our country was controlled by southerners like Thomas Jefferson whose livelihood depended upon slave labor, we didn't recognize the country until Abraham Lincoln.  And really haven't given it much help even then.  Pretty sad.  Haiti could have been another America, modeled after us, rich and prosperous, but because of racism, it remains in poverty.  Sad, sad, sad.



Sugar Changed the World: A Story of Magic, Spice, Slavery, Freedom, and ScienceSugar Changed the World: A Story of Magic, Spice, Slavery, Freedom, and Science by Marc Aronson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'm not usually a fan of nonfiction written for youth, most of which is considerably dumbed-down to the point of inanity, too heavy on the visuals without much put into the writing, and (as a colleague described it once) "report fodder."  Sugar Changed the World wasn't any of those things.  It told a clear, interesting story about where sugar came from and how it conversely fostered a slave cultured and created of a culture of liberty, particularly in the United States but also for Haiti (both started out as a reaction against something sugar-related, although very sadly Haiti's story doesn't end as prosperously and well as the USA's story).  There were many old photos and maps, not all of which directly related to the text (a complaint of mine with most juvenile nonfiction) but Aronson and Budhos were certainly not writing something for a child to copy for their fourth grade report.


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Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Encounter Near Venus by Leonard Wibberly, illustrated by Alice Wadowski-Buk (1967)

I don't know when I first read this book, but it was in Wilson as a child - I think it was Lang Memorial Library, but I can't be sure.

I think I liked it so much because of Ka the Smiler.  Although he's so underdeveloped, I'm not sure why.   He wasn't all that great a villain.  He occupies very little of this book, which is disappointing. And when he does finally appear, he doesn't really make a whole lot of sense.

That was the main problem with the book - it didn't make any sense.  It felt like a whole bunch of ideas strung together without a plot or character development to attach them to one another.  Bones but no sinew or muscles.  And quite frankly, even those bones were pretty weak.

Uncle Bill is Leonard Wibberley.  That's made more clear by Wadowski-Buk's illustration of him that matches his photograph in Wikipedia.

A fairy tale, in the Wilde or Hans Christian Andersen sense, under the guise of science fiction.  Instead of a frog taking a princess somewhere, or even a wardrobe, it's a space ship.

Has the motif of a classic child fantasy, that touch of Nesbit, but more of C.S. Lewis - two brothers, two sisters, on a quest, both familiar and strange creatures, some of them from Greco-Roman mythology (mermaids, centaurs), a sinister evil one who is taking over the land.

What this also reminds me of, although published earlier (1962), is A Wrinkle in Time.  Surely Wibberley was at least aware of Wrinkle, and maybe this was some of either homage or answer to Madeliene L'Engle's book.  But Wrinkle is  far superior to Encounter Near Venus.  L'Engle's philosophy and religion are shot right through Wrinkle like an arrow; Wibberley is trying to say something, but I'm never quite sure what it is.

Lewis's children always had Aslan to ultimately guide them; L'Engle's had the three witches.  Uncle Bill isn't a very good guide, not like these other two books.

Superficially, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe and A Wrinkle in Time are similar to Encounter Near Venus.  Other world, magical elements, strange and familiar creatures, talking animals, a villain of great power, siblings.  One child captured by the enemy.  Philosophical, a little allegorical.

All of these elements in common - so why is Lion and Wrinkle so superior?

For one thing, the set up is shorter in the two superior books.  A few pages into Lion and we've met the four characters, got a real sense of who they were, and were already in Narnia.  The same is true for Wrinkle, although it takes slightly longer to get into space.

Character development is quick in the two books and slow in the third.  You feel like you know Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy really well quite soon; Meg, Charles Wallace and Calvin are familiar as well.  The four siblings in Encounter feel like cardboard characters from beginning to end.  Wibberley explained quite a bit about them, but they never felt particularly real, even with pages and pages of set up.

The "helpers" also are different.  In Narnia, the children have the Beavers, Mr. Tumnus, and ultimately Aslan.  Wrinkle has the witches, of course, but also Aunt Beast and the Happy Medium.  Encounter has helpers as well - Uncle Bill, and the lumens, but they all feel so forced.  And that Irish elephant - what the hell?  Why is an Irish elephant on another planet?

That's a real problem with the book - it can't decide whether it's fantasy or science fiction, and does a horrid job mixing the two up.  You can quibble about Narnia and it's mishmash world (Tolkien certainly did) but at least it was always a fantasy.  And while Wrinkle has some delightful fantasy elements, it is still at it's heart science fiction (everything is explained through science).  But Encounter feels so odd, like it can't quite decide what it wants to be, so just throws all the elements in together and hopes for the best.  And fails miserably.

The villains in Lion and in a Wrinkle in Time are real and memorable.  Ka the Smiler - who I remembered the best from childhood, has a great name.  But he's far too obviously modeled on something Kipling-esque.  I supposed he's the serpent from the Bible, but Kipling created a far better villain (and even better villainess) in Rikki-Tikki-Tavi in Nag (and Nagaina) - and Ka feels like a pale shadow of them (his name clearly echoes Kipling, although Ka is also the Egyptian essence or soul).  The White Witch and It the disembodied brain are two of the most memorable villains from children's literature.  They definitely leave Ka the Smiler in the dust.



Encounter near VenusEncounter near Venus by Leonard Wibberley
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Superficially Encounter Near Venus resembles The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and A Wrinkle in Time.  All three books have children (some or all of which are siblings), another world populated by strange and familiar creatures, some of whom are talking animals, helpers along the way, someone older and wiser as a spirit guide of sorts, and a malevolent evil.  Truth hangs over all three too, some sort of philosophical, allegorical, spiritual, or even religious Truth.  But Lion and : Wrinkle are blessed with great plots, quick character development, and action.  Encounter Near Venus takes forever to get started, the characters continue feelings like cardboard cutouts the entire way through, and a plot that isn't as much full of holes as it is one big hole.  Ka the Smiler, the malevolent antagonist, could have been a great villain, with his shades of Kipling (Kaa the snake, although Ka the Smiler resembles the cobras from Rikki Tikki Tavi far more); instead, he's a tack on at the end, hardly worth the storm and fear he's caused for most of the book.  Quite frankly, the White Witch and IT the disembodied brain, could kick the ass of Ka the Smiler pretty handily, even though Ka is a stand in for the Devil himself.  What a disappointment.  This was a book that I remembered from childhood as being sort of creepy and really good; it turns out to be creepy not because of the story but because it's just not very well written.  At least the illustrations were good; very, very 1960s paintings in a child's bedroom.


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On Fairy-Stories by J.R.R. Tolkien (1939)

I wanted a better grounding on what exactly "fantasy" means as a literary genre, and what better place to start with than the granddaddy of modern fantasy, Tolkien.  I had in my head that On Fairy-Stories was the definitive work on what constitutes fantasy, and lays out "the laws of fantasy" like some sort of check list, so that in the future, I could read a novel, go down the points, and at the end I would know if a book was fantasy or not.  This did not prove to be true.

Later, much later.  I tried to find some literary criticism that could help.  Nothing did.

I'm done.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury (1957)

I just could not get into this.  What's wrong with me?  Ray Bradbury is a beloved author with some of the most intellectually stimulating and most adored novels of all time.  He almost had cult status.  People vocally and loudly sneered at Scott and I in a bookstore because we didn't immediately recognize him (he was there signing books).  But Dandelion Wine - I just couldn't care.  I didn't even make past a few pages into it.  I guess I need more narrative thread, I don't know.  Maybe at some point in the future I will (be force to perhaps) try it again...  although reading time is running out.  I'm 42  now; I've read approximately 2,000 books in the last dozen years.  Let's say I have another forty years left; that's what - another 8,000 books.  Okay, maybe time isn't running out after all

I'm validated!  My friend Bill's Goodread review was a 1 star!

Wow. This hurt my soul. I've never NOT enjoyed a Bradbury offering. This was just... boring. Sorry big guy. Love your SF. This nostalgic, rambling brain-dump was too mundane to plod through. Maybe if I'd grown up in a small town. Maybe if I'd grown up in the midwest. Maybe if I'd grown up in the early half of the 20th Century. Maybe then. I muddled through over 200 pages. But I just couldn't bear it any longer.Sigh. I think I better
go re-read The Martian Chronicles to restore my faith in humanity..

I've been reading some other reviews, and needed to clarify something.  Although I agree with haters of this book that it was boring as hell, the main reason I hated this book is that it felt pretentious and self aware in a very artsy fartsy affected way.  Floating in the air above the book was a Big Idea, and frankly, I didn't care enough about the Big Idea to keep on reading.

I had made this pact with myself that when I read a classic, I would finish it regardless.  But I just couldn't in this case.    

Monday, November 5, 2012

Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked The Civil War by Tony Horowitz (2011)

I have liked Tony Horowitz's books in the past -- Confederates in the Attic and the one about Captain Cook and the one about Columbus - and really enjoyed them.  Well, I actually forgot I had read the one about Columbus and then read it again (I think I read it while we were in the Caribbean).  They were informational but journalistic, with Tony Horowtiz's point of view.  Midnight Rising is pure history, and just not that interesting (to me).


Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil WarMidnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War by Tony Horwitz
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

John Brown's body may lie a-mouldering in the grave, and I'm going to throw this book in there with him.


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March Violets by Philip Kerr (1989)

I loved March Violets so much.  I'm falling in love with the whole "noir" genre - it's really fun to discover a new genre (new to me at least).  The writing was almost perfect, particularly the plethora of simile and metaphor.  As one followed another, I kept wanting to capture and keep them, like fireflies in a jar.  And, like capturing fireflies, you give up after a bit and just enjoy them.  But I did dogear a few pages (I know, anathema) so I could record them, and some other wonderful turns of phrase.

I bet you're the sort that could find lice on a bald head.

I drove home feeling like a ventriloquist's mouth ulcer.

All you saw through the hole [in the door] were the points of his rodent's teeth , and the occasional glimpse of the ragged, grey-white oyster that was his tongue.

He shook me by the hand as I introduced myself.  If was like holding a cucumber.

He found me less amusing than a boxful of smoke.

He had mustard colored hair, coiffed by a competition sheepshearer, and a nose like a champagne cork.  His moustache was wider than the brim on a Mexican's hat.  

These aren't even the best ones - but, like fireflies, they blink and then disappear.

The setting was incredible; this wasn't a typical "Nazis before the war" type of book.  Everything was dark and gritty, but wonderful.  There was definitely a movie quality about the whole book, and I'd be interested to see it filmed.
How fun to find something new!

http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/236819.March_Violets"


Incredibly well plotted, with a deliciously dark setting, and memorable characters.  I ate up the twist on noir, with the hardboiled detective being a German under the heel of the Nazis.  Kerr's Nazi Germany is like everything you knew about Berlin 1936, only turned on its side to reveal the even darker, uglier things lurking underneath.  We all know about Hitler and his merry band of demons, and Kerr certainly has the usual cameos from humanity's contest for worst person ever.  But Kerr's Berlin is populated by a noirish cast of gangsters and their madchens, floozies and hardboiled secretaries, sheeplike Nazis and sharp opportunists (called March Violets) using the Nazi party for their own personal gain (although it's clear by the end that they've helped created a Frankenstein's monster that quickly grows beyond their control). Beyond all though, the language is superb.  Kerr has some of the best, most creative use of simile, metaphor, description and turns of phrase that I've ever read.  It was like fireflies on a warm summer night, metaphor and simile blinking on and off.  You'll want to start capturing them and putting them in a jar, but like fireflies, they are only beautiful in context (my favorite:  "I drove home feeling like a ventriloquist's mouth ulcer.").  For language alone, this is a five star read - and add character, setting, a terrificly exciting and complicated mystery, and you have an almost perfect crime novel. 




Friday, November 2, 2012

All About "All About Eve" by Sam Staggs (2000)

The subtitle is "The Complete Behind-the-scenes- story of the Bitchiest Film Ever Made."  Which are both completely true.  All About "All About Eve" is extensively complete, and All About Eve is one of the, if not the bitchiest movie ever made.

I recently read a collection of Vanity Fair articles about Hollywood that included a very, very shortened version of this book.  I think I liked the very, very shortened version better.

Staggs book made me want to watch the movie again.

But the book got very long by the end. It's extensive.  So extensive and large that it collapses by the end from all the weight.  The first half is a page-turner (I mean, if you like this kind of behind the scenes book) but the last half, when it gets reflective and thoughtful and brainy, well, it's just not that interesting.  I think I'd rather hear Sam Staggs talk about it (granted that he's a good speaker).  Or better yet, sit around and dish about it after watching with a group of gay friends (maybe all in Bette Davis drag).


All About All About Eve: The Complete Behind-the-Scenes Story of the Bitchiest Film Ever Made!All About All About Eve: The Complete Behind-the-Scenes Story of the Bitchiest Film Ever Made! by Sam Staggs
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The first half of this book was a bitch-filled kiki to "the bitchiest film ever made."  It was extensively behind the scenes, a peak into Celeste Holm's closet and Bette Davis's  cigarette case.  A gossipy gas.  Into the second half, though, this became brainy and intellectually talky, and so "complete" it rose too tall and collapsed in on itself from too much weight.  I'd much rather watch the movie with a bunch of old drag queens (dressed as Margo, Eve, Karen and hopefully Birdie) swigging cocktails (in those teeny tiny 1940s movie martini glasses) and then dish about the movie until the wee hours, picking it apart and figuring out its social context.  I think that's what the latter half of this book was attempting to do, but it needed more drag queen.



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Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Simon and Adele by Barbara McClintock ( 2006)


Adèle & SimonAdèle & Simon by Barbara McClintock
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

McClintock must have gone to Paris – this is a love letter to the city, but definitely not one of my favorite books by her.  What I did love was -- the illustration of Madeleine and all the orphans are matching behind Miss Clavel.  The end paper map, according to the note on the copyright page, is from a 1907 Baedeker – which sets the scene in beautiful art nouveau / beaux arts Paris.  (Although I never saw a motor car, which makes me think it’s set earlier.)  Her illustrations are wonderfully intricate and lovely again, but the story is really weak – it seems to me that she had the idea for the pictures and created a story around  it.


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The Mitten by Jim Aylesworth; illustrated by Barbara McClintock (2009)




I'm not exactly sure why we needed a new version of "the mitten," but another Aylesworth / McClintock pairing is worth it.  The animals faces are fantastically funny - I wouldn't expect anything less from McClintock The warm, comfortable 19th century grandma with hot chocolate setting is super sweet with nostalgia and Norman Rockwell. Don't miss the note on the copyright page for an unexpected touch of the macabre.  A great read aloud.



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I’m not exactly sure why The Mitten needed to be retold yet again – there seem to be plenty of versions that are equally good.  I still love the Aylesworth and McClintock pairings though.  Once again, the setting is some time in the 19th century – maybe early 20th, where the kindly old grandmother makes a steaming hot mug of hot chocolate in her old fashioned New England kitchen with a woodburning stove.  The grandson is a red haired boy in a knitted green sweater, and of course Grandmother knits the mitten of the title as well (red, as all mittens and scarves in stories should be). The winter wonderland setting of sledding and snowballs and snowmen is perfectly crisp and cool.  The mitten itself is filled  with McClintock’s perfectly rendered fox, mouse, bear, and rabbit.  Their facial expressions – freezing, contentedly warm, pleading for room, annoyed and squished (the fox is best), to mightily surprised are fantastic – McClintock can illustrate both animals and people in realistic ways.  While not their strongest work, this still would make a fantastic read aloud.








The little note on the copyright page has something creepy that would make a good addendum when reading this aloud to a class of older children.  “The favorite old folk tale is believed to have originated in Ukraine.  The motif is of too many characters crowding into a vessel until it bursts.  There are many variants of this story, which have appeared in different countries.  The vessels have included a hat, an earthenware jar, a house – an even the skull of a horse.”  Macabre!

GOODREADS REVIEW:  I'm not exactly sure why we needed a new version of "the mitten," but another Aylesworth / McClintock pairing is worth it. The animals faces are fantastically funny - I wouldn't expect anything less from McClintock The warm, comfortable 19th century grandma with hot chocolate setting is super sweet with nostalgia and Norman Rockwell. Don't miss the note on the copyright page for an unexpected touch of the macabre. A great read aloud.


 

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

When the Drum Sang: An African Folktale by Anne Rockwell (1970)

Smiley Hippo
Why did Anne Rockwell change her style over the years so considerably?  When the Drum Sang is almost as good as Tuhurahura and the Whale (I like the pictures and story just a bit better).  The animals are all all a little too smiley for my taste. The story is almost magical realism - it has fantastic elements (a kidnapped girl lives in a drum) but no real magic. The solution is very matter of fact and down to earth - the father gets his revenge using bees.

The story itself is really, really creepy, in a horrible Silence of the Lambs kind of way.  It's definitely a cautionary tale about strangers. As in Tuhurahura, the villain of this story has no reason to be the villain - he's just greedy and evil.  A psychopath.  Or just a zimwi, an ogre.  Afterall, when monsters appear in fairy tales and folklore, they don't always have a reason for doing what they do.  This particular zimwi liked the sound of this poor little girl's voice, so he kidnaps her, and then uses her.

Other monsters from folklore:  Japanese oni love to eat baby belly buttons.  Again, greed is their primary focus, although they loot and pillage villages too.

Trolls and ogres are always blustering, awful asses who are gross and greedy.

Orcs and goblins are nasty too.


When the Drum Sang: An African FolktaleWhen the Drum Sang: An African Folktale by Anne F. Rockwell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A cautionary tale from the Bantu tradition about the malevolence of strangers.  Silence of the Lambs has nothing on some of these old, creepy folktales and fairy tales.  A little girl with a beautiful voice gets kidnapped by a no good, greedy zimwe (ogre).  Grim indeed, but also kind of fun.  Everyone likes a happy ending, especially after a particularly scary time, and the zimwe gets stung by bees on the second to last page and runs away, never to be seen again (it might have been a more satisfying ending if he'd been stung to death, but this isn't a serial killer movie, it's a children's book).  This would actually make a pretty good read aloud; it's frightening without being too scary, and the pictures are bright and colorful.


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Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Go To Bed, Monster! by Natasha WIng; illustrated by Sylvie Kantorovitz (2007)

A girl who doesn't want to go to bed uses her crayons to draw a monster, who comes "alive" (everything looks like crayon drawing, actually). The two have a great time together building castles, flying airplanes, marching in parades - but when the girl wants to go to bed, the monster refuses, leading to some more creative drawing on her part.

With Harold and the Purple Crayon  in mind  (but perhaps more in the spirit of the Daffy Duck classic Duck Amuck http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cH6i2Z6mTRE), Wing and Kantorovitz have created a cute, completely innocuous, somewhat disposable bedtime story.  The two redeeming features of the book - the very fun and quite good illustrations in oil paints and oil pastels (that look like a child's crayonings) and the idea that art and what we create can sometimes leap out of our control in unexpected ways.

Papa , Please Get Me the Moon by Eric Carle (1986)

I always think Eric Carle is so gimmicky and overrated.  I just do get it the appeal.  All of his books "toy appeal" which annoys me.  I'm sure kids love this book, I'm sure it's a classic, I'm sure the interactivity is great for growing young brains.  Blah blah blah.  I still don't like Eric Carle.  Anathema, I know.  But I've said it and I can't take it back (Alice).

If Monica's dad goes up the sky - which I have to admit is a cute scene - and takes the moon for her - what about the rest of us?  We don't get to enjoy the moon because Monica is greedy.


Papa, Please Get the Moon for MePapa, Please Get the Moon for Me by Eric Carle
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

So Monica wants the moon, and Papa (in what I must admit is a very cute picture) climbs up with his very long ladder and gets it for her - what happens to the rest of us? I guess we don't get to enjoy the moon anymore because Monica was greedy and Papa couldn't say no.  Veruca Salt, anyone?  Carle was clearly attempting to imitate Mother Goose, but I think he should have left this story to the cat, the cow, the dish and the spoon.


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Henry Reed's Baby-Sitting Service by Keith Robertson (1966)

I know there is two more Henry Reed books in the series, but I may stop here, at least for now.  I'm getting a little Henry Reed-ed out.

I still have no idea when I first read the Henry Reed books or why, but I do know that our library - school or public, I don't know which (maybe both) only owned Henry Reed, Inc. and Henry Reed's Baby-sitting Service and that it wasn't until later that I read the middle book, Henry Reed's Journey.

Henry Reed's Baby-sitting Service is a child of the sixties as much or more than Henry Reed's Journey, but still a fun read.  It's equally episodic, and while each episode isn't equally fun or funny, taken together they make a great book.   The Sebastian twins, older teens with a car (a little red 1966 MG that's as much a character as its drivers) and driver's license, insufferably so, are as perfect foils for the slightly older Henry and Midge (driver's license-less,and thus inferior) as the Apples were to the slightly younger and more rambunctious Henry and Midge of Henry Reed, Inc.  

My favorite chapter remains the disappearing and reappearing Belinda Osborne - that's certainly the peak of the book, and while Midge's exasperation comes across as far older than her 13 years (Keith Robertson talks through his characters quite a bit, making them sound more than occasionally like the 40something parent of baby boomers than the baby boomers themselves), she - and the entire chapter - are as funny as hell.  If Henry and Midge occasionally sound older than their years, Robertson still does a great job of creating memorable characters that seem very real, and at the same time incredibly humorous. Who doesn't remember Ruth and Johnny Sebastian - or the facsimile of them - Ruth the know it all, Johnny the dumb almost-bully.  

The chapter where Henry feeds the guests horse meat is pretty funny too, and has always stuck in my mind, although no one would eat horse meat today, not even dogs.  That's certainly a plot point that would stick out today.  Henry's reluctance to babysit because he is a male may or may not stick out - I think 15 year old boys might still be reluctant and think it was a girl's job. I remember having at least one boy babysit for us; he taught my brother and I how to fill a glass of coke up to the very top.  I'm not sure boys or girls babysit anymore though.  I think people rarely leave their children at home, which tends to anger me probably more than it should.  Times change, but that change means Henry Reed's Baby-sitting Service as an entirety is a sticking point.

Goodreads Review:

Pure nostalgia, in so many ways. This was a beloved book from my childhood, re-read many times. It holds up remarkably well. Of course, from the little red MG to the idea that boys and girls babysit (do they today?), this is definitely a child of the sixties (although not historical fiction!). But Robertson creates real, humorous characters that could live in any time period, especially his creation of twins Ruth and Johnny Sebastian. They are perfect foils for Henry Reed and his friend Midge: a few years older, they have a driver's license, which in turn sets them on a different plane of existence (at least in their teenage minds). This battle between the younger license-less teens and the (almost) bullying older teens is one that could definitely happen today (with some adjustments to hair style, clothing and language). Often throughout the book Midge and Henry are mouthpieces for author Keith Robertson; their language sounds more like a 40 something parent of baby boomers than the baby boomers themselves. This annoyed me slightly as adult; as a kid I never noticed it. In fact, it probably makes Midge and Henry seem more mature and reasoned than the assortment of idiotic adults and boobs that surround them. Great, great fun!

My favorite review from Goodreads (after mine, of course), from a reviewer named Shelley:  "My mother's house is filled with young adult books from the '30s-60's. Sometime you need to read about a group of kids that mow the lawn and bbq in casual sport jackets."


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