Saturday, March 29, 2008

Children's Chapter Books

A while back I posted on The Mysterious Benedict Society. I recently heard from a reader, Erica, who also enjoyed it. I am glad you liked it! Did you figure out the final mystery? I am so curious about that.

Erica was also expressing frustration in finding really good children's books. Since I wanted to respond to her, I decided to do it here.

I love children's books. Sometimes when life just gets to be too much for me and I don't want to tempt myself by getting into an adult book, which might occupy my thoughts for several days, I pick up a young adult novel.

Now I agree with the Erica that there is tons of junk out there. Even award winners are often just plain bad. At best many books are simply trite, meaningless drivel.

Worse yet are the books for young people that aspire to push the envelope. The authors often seem to be saying, "Let's expose these poor sheltered children to the freedom of amoral living." Or those that preach as righteousness a value choice that ought to be personal choice.

Then there are the books that are filled with poor writing. Stilted dialog, run-on sentences, cheesy descriptions. Things that make reading them a chore even when the topic and general plot appeals.

Then there are those that seem to want to fill a young person with angst.

But really there are just tons of great books out there.

I consistently find my favorite children's books among those recommended in the Sonlight Curriculum catalog. As far as curriculum is concerned, I only qualifiedly recommend it. I have used Sonlight for at least parts of the last seven years. Really like some things about it. But not everything. That is a different post, perhaps.

With a very few exceptions, I can pick up and really enjoy any of the hundreds of books we have bought to use with the various curriculum levels. There are some cheesy ones. And a few boring ones. But by and large I love the books that the writers of this program incorporate into their curriculum.

Another recommendation, however, with regard to Sonlight is that you request a paper copy of their catalog. It is much easier to use than the web site, which unfortunately is slow and difficult to use. The catalog includes a brief description of each book and they are organized by historical topic as in American History or Eastern Hemisphere.

Even if you don't homeschool, or if you do but want to supplement your child's current reading material, just having the recommendations available for the various subject areas is so handy.

I know there are other homeschool catalog out there that are probably organized in a similar fashion. Since I have used Sonlight, that is the one I am most familiar with.

Other books I really like for kids are the Tomie dePaola chapter books based on his growing up years in a culturally Irish and Italian urban setting. I think they are called the 26 Fairmont Avenue series.

My friend Laura highly recommends books by Elizabeth Wainright. I have read Gone Away Lake and really enjoyed it.

The Ralph Moody books are great stories based on Moody's growing up years in various localities throughout the country during the early 1900s or so.

The Westing Game was a fun contemporary mystery.

I'm am not really much of a fantasy fan, but I enjoyed the Spiderwick Chronicles. (Did anyone see the movie? I wanted to but missed it at our cheap theater.)

I really like the stuff I've read by Patricia Riley Giff.

And some by Sharon Creech. But she is one who I think tries to push the envelop or make some deep statement on human existance. I like them for me, but would probably not recommend most of them for young adults. Too much emotion or something. Too much troubled youth stuff.

I remember reading Everything on a Waffle and thinking it was kind of fun. But it was perhaps seven or eight years ago, so I should really read it again now that my kids are of an age to read it.

I guess I could go on forever when I get on the subject of children's books. I would be interested in hearing about favorites from readers. Let me know what you and the young adults in your life like to read.

"I Still Love Technology"...NOT!

OK, so I'm not exactly Kip from Napoleon Dynamite. I feel safe saying I would never serenade my husband with a love song comparing my love for him with my feelings toward technology. Except of course we, all of us around here, do frequently sing Kip's original composition to each other in jest.

The other day I had written a nice long post. A, uh, treatise, perhaps. On double-knit. A sentimental journey to the 1970s.

But, alas, just as I was putting the finishing touches on my work of literary art, my foot was visited with a blinding flash. And the screen went dead.

The cord for the speakers had developed a bend near the plug end and the electricity chose that moment to arc through my foot in search of ground.

I guess I should be thankful that I had my rubber soled sneakers on. Just a small scorch mark on the bottom of my shoe and an iridescent pink stain really. I am also thankful that it was I and not one of my children who was favored with such an electrifying moment.

But instead of being grateful, I found my self just plain mad. I finally allow myself the luxury of sitting down to write a bit. Actually, I had been writing for about 20 minutes. And then, in a flash, my work is gone.

So we went on vacation instead.

And upon our return home guess what. The #@!* computer keyboard does not work. Nothing. After some tweaking and coaxing on the part of my very technologically inclined husband, there is still not the lightest indication of communication between the keyboard and the computer.

(Joe says I should probably translate #@!*, lest any of my readers have a dirty mind. It merely means "stinking". The stinking computer keyboard. He is a pastor, after all.)

This is the fourth-- no fifth!-- keyboard for our family in a year.

Joe and I used it as an excuse to run to town. We picked up milk and a new keyboard, deposited a few checks and went out to eat. Lemons to lemonade, you know.

And here's the clincher. What do you think was waiting for us upon our return home? The other keyboard was working.

I may someday revisit double-knit. Since no one else had the chance to read it I can say unqualifiedly that it was a really good post. But I have lots of other things bumping around in my brain waiting for their chance to be featured in virtual print. Double-knit will have to wait.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Mitford on Guns

From the third book of the series, These High Green Hills, here's the context.

Mitford is the idyllic "Currier and Ives" type town. The regulars at the the local cafe, Episcopalian rector Father Tim and buddy Mule, have been coaching the newspaper man and avowed bachelor, J.C., regarding his new sweetheart, a lady officer for the local police department. J.C. is bemoaning the fact that he doesn't really know where things stand with his lady friend.
The rector swigged his coffee. "Sounds pretty typical to me."
J.C. leaned forward. "It does?""
"Sure. One day you know, one day you don't. Pretty soon, if it's right, you really know."
"But how do you know if you really know?" asked Mule.
The rector looked slightly dazed. "I don't know," he said, meaning it.
Mule sighed. "We're kind of rusty at this."
"How come she wants me to get off coffee and axe the fats and lower my cholesterol if she wouldn't go out with me last night? I mean, what's the deal?"
"Maybe she had to work," said Mule, wanting to help.
"No way. She was home cleaning her gun."
"How do you know?"
"Because I called her up and that's what she said she was doing."
"Where had you offered to take her?" asked the rector.
"To Brendle's, they were having a sale on Tri-X film."
"No wonder she stayed home to clean a gun," said Mule.
"Have you sent her flowers?" asked Father Tim. "That's a good thing to do."
"Flowers? To a woman who carries a nine-millimeter?"
"Whoa, Buddy," said Mule. "You're sounding mighty macho there...."

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Fictional Heros

OK, I know I implied I was done with the Jane Austen conversations. But alas, my husband and other things have given me reason to revisit the subject. But there are several different aspects of my life and literary interests that have come together recently, so bear with me while I try to tie it all together for you.

Because I am a fan of Stephanie Plum, I frequent the Janet Evanovich web site. Her daughter, Alex, does a fun Q&A with subjects ranging from writing tips to information about future books to extra details on the lives of Evanovich's fictional characters. A fan asked recently which classical music selections might be enjoyed by the fictional Ranger. The answer given was Bach's Suite for Solo Cello No.1 in G Major. When I downloaded that on youtube to hear what piece it was, I found out it is one that my husband, Joe, enjoys playing on his classical guitar. Joe then specified that the Yo-Yo Ma version is the best. On the most recent Evanovich Q&A, Alex specifies that Ranger also prefers that version. So see, Joe is just like Ranger. What a guy!

Now we need to segue to my overnight road trip. Yesterday I loaded up my seven youngest kids to take a quick trip to visit my parents-in-law and my oldest son, Jeremy, who is living with them. The occasion was the annual Carnival at Jeremy's school, Echo Charter School. I thought it would be a good time to meet some of Jeremy's friends and teachers. And it was. I did not officially meet many of his friends, since the carnival is a fund raiser for the school and the students all were busy helping. But his friend, Peter, was helping Jeremy run the bowling game, and Jeremy pointed out several otherfrieinds to me when I asked. And I got a chance to meet his favorite teacher, Mrs. L.

So I had ten hours of driving with seven children in the last two days. I periodically found myself day-dreaming about some of my recent reading. Specifically I was trying to figure out what some of my favorite fictional characters would be like in real life. Would I like them? Now, in my defense, I have not read or re-read any Stephanie Plum books for about a month. I have forced myself to move on a bit to some of the other reading I was getting behind on. But of course, the Plum characters did eventually come into my internal dialog.

I have done this before, always with the same results. I probably would not become good friends with Stephanie or Morelli; they are fun to read about. But I have them pigeon holed as "pop culture" characters and much to my daughters' chagrin, I am kind of the antithesis of pop culture. I have boring clothes; I never shop; I don't watch TV; I don't keep up with sports; I try to be thrifty; and although I love take out food, I would have to be pretty wealthy to be in a position to waste as much money on take-out and convenience foods as do these two characters, not to mention the health aspects of indulging in a diet such as theirs. I am just too practical to allow myself to live like that. As much as I enjoy reading about them, I just can't see myself having anything in common with Stephanie and Morelli.

But Ranger has some noble character traits. I could imagine becoming friends with him, as much as anyone is able to be friends with him. I can imagine engaging him in arguments about his quasi-spirituality and the conflicts that I perceive in his life choices. I would like to pick his brain about his sense of right and wrong and the gray area of legality within which he operates. But of course, since he is Ranger, he would not allow himself to become engaged in any such conversation and so there's the rub. I suppose that is also why he can be portrayed as noble; because by virtue of his silently-mysterious persona, one can never really know him.

And so on down my list of favorite characters.

Imagine my surprise when arriving home I found waiting a web site Joe had pulled up for me to read. He saw a link to it on Drudge while skimming headlines and he thought I'd have fun with it. The author of this little article lists several literary heroes and using their fictional personalities, describes their good points, the reasons women love them. But then the author also goes on to sketch a bit of what a woman who marries such a hero might really expect in a marriage. Included in her list are Emily Bronte's Heathcliffe, Rhett Butler of Gone with the Wind fame, and naturally, Mr. Darcy, among others. Notably missing are the Plum men, Joe Morelli and Ricardo Carlos Manosa aka Ranger.

When later this evening my real life hero, Joe, returned home he asked whether I had seen the article he had saved for me. From the piano at which I was trying to rid myself of some built up car tension, I responded in the affirmative. Ironically, the pieces I was then playing: The Dreame, and Weep You No More Sad Fountains, (Marianne's vocal numbers in Sense and Sensibility), followed by the aria from The Marriage of Figaro that Lizzy sings at Pemberley.

In case anyone is interested, here and here are piano books with music from the various Jane Austen movies. Although I don't usually take time for the Jane Austen fan site stuff on the internet, while researching music in the various movies I did find this Republic of Pemberley site a helpful resource. They appear to have information on every JA novel and all the movies and even on the knock-off Jane Austen stuff. I have referred to it on occasion when curious about a historic detail or if I wanted to check on something from one of the books. It appears to be a very extensive web site and I have not had reason to do more than scratch the surface. But I can say that the lists of music used in the various movies and where it is available is comprehensive.

Monday, March 10, 2008

One More Pride and Prejudice Post

I have a few updates on my previous posts. Char had apparently also answered the original quiz question, but her comment did not come through for some cyber reason. She had also pointed out Jane's pronunciation which, I agree, make the quote so enjoyable. When one reads, "I believe it is of great doctrinal import, sir," one must think of the i in doctrinal as having the long i sound as in nice, instead of the American short i sound as in itch.

Since Char also told me her favorite quote over the phone, I'm not going to quote it here, because I'd get it wrong. I will merely allude to it.

Picture Elizabeth at the piano with Colonel Fitzwilliam and Darcy around her. From the other room, Lady...Catherine...DeBourgh feels like she is missing something and demands admittance into their conversation. She then regales them with the great line about being sure she would have been a true proficient had she ever learned to play piano.

Thank you Char. Wonderful!

And one more thing, the quote I included of Mrs Bennet's about winking at her daughters... Well, my daughters pointed out my error in that one. I had it "Wink at my daughter? Why would I wink at my own daughter, pray?" I've been informed it ought to be, "Wink at my daughter? What a notion! Why would I wink at my own daughter, pray?"

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Mitford on Italian Men

Do any of you enjoy the Mitford books? I started reading this series by Jan Karon about the time my oldest started school. The only reason I remember that is because I kept seeing them in the homeschool catalogs I was frequently perusing at the time. One of them referred to Karon's books as candy reading for tired homeschool moms.

At some point I ended up purchasing the first one, At Home in Mitford. I really enjoyed it, but was too cheap to buy the rest. I have read some of them from the library. For some reason, I never did finish the series. But because I really do like them, I've decided to start over and reread the ones I had previously read and go on to finish the series.

Ah, what comfort reading! I have not ever read one of the "Chicken Soup for the Soul" books, but When I think of what kind of things are just a pleasure to read, reading which brings me solace in some way or another, these books fit the bill. They are set in an old-fashioned community, a small town with an intact main street. The characters are colorfully drawn and for the most part, the kind of people you would want as neighbors. There is always some mystery or difficulty the main character, Episcopalian rector, Father Tim, has to surmount. There is humor in how the characters address each other's idiosyncrasies. And there is a love story which evolves throughout the series. But it is a good clean love story.

In the second book, A Light in the Window, Father Tim is in a pickle about his hair. While he is a faithful customer of the local barber, there comes a time when he really needs a haircut but barber Joe Ivey has his closed sign up. So Father Tim is forced to try out the services of the new "unisex" hairdresser in town. As it happens, hairdresser, Fancy Skinner, has had too much caffeine that morning, so is extra chatty. Here is one of the ramblings by which Father Tim is entertained while getting his hair trimmed.

Well! What do you think? See how it slenderizes your face? You ought to let me give you a mask sometime. No, I mean it. Men in Los Angelees (sic) and New York do it all the time. It cleans out your pores. Oh, and Italians, they do masks. They even carry handbags, did you know that? Italian men are different. My girlfriend used to date an Italian. He was so macho, you wouldn't believe it. How can you be macho and carry a handbag, I wonder? I don't have the slightest idea.
Since I am a diehard Stephanie Plum fan, I couldn't help wondering if Morelli carries a handbag and gets his face masked. Italian Americans must be exempt from that.