Thursday, September 27, 2007

Classic Book Series for Kids

My son just turned four. I would guess that he will begin to read on his own during the next year. Don’t quote me on that, but his interest in words and letters gives me the sense that it is brewing in his brain. Yesterday he asked me to read him a birthday card and he wanted to follow along, finger under each word, as I read. Seeing his interest in reading, I want to introduce him to books that will really catch his interest and make him want to read. I find that the easiest way to verify a book’s quality is to have read it myself, usually as a kid.

I would never limit the books that my sons picks out at the library (well, there are titles that I convince him to pass over), but when I buy him books I find that I return again and again to the classics that I knew. Everyone knows these stories, but I’ll mention them anyway:

Clifford: nothing beats a good Clifford story. There are so many more than there were in the 1970s. Clifford talks now. And he has friends who talk. But, not to Emily Elizabeth, only to each other. The stories are timely – there is one for every traditional American holiday. They all have a good message – usually about the importance of friendship. Some even introduce topics that parents need to discuss with their children like fire safety. And they are easy to read in one sitting without losing a child’s attention.

Curious George: We got my son a gift pack of 12 Curious George stories for Christmas last year. Much to my dismay, none of these stories were written by H. A. Rey. They were written, so far as I can tell, by a computerized program where the key idea had to be that “George is a good little monkey, but always very curious.” Nonetheless, they appeal to my son immensely. Every little boy (and girl? I only have boys so I’m guessing here) gets in trouble for an innate curiosity. So they can relate to George. Often his antics seem innocent but the books do a good job of explaining why George’s choices were the wrong ones. And again, they are easy to get through in one sitting and he loves the pictures.

Berenstain Bears: We have just started reading these books. They are longer and have many more words than the other series. But, the messages in them are really good. Right now we’ve only read a book about “Best Friends” and another about “Trouble with Money.” The morals are obvious for an adult, but they are the kinds of issues that I know are on my son’s mind. Money is something he is just beginning to grapple with – a lot of questions about what it is, where we get it, why we go to the bank. And friends are also key for him. Who are his friends? When does he get to see his friends? How does he balance his wants and his friends’ needs? These don’t get read as often as they are longer. My four-year old likes them, but my younger son loses patience. But, I caught them looking at the covers on the back of the book and figuring out which ones they had already read and which ones they wanted to pick out next.

The Masque of the Black Tulip by Lauren Willig

I finished this book early last week, but life has intervened. There has been so much going on at home and at work that this is my first quiet moment to write down my thoughts.

I am a historian. So for me this work is a classic. I don’t mean it is a classic in the sense that fifty years from now it will be placed on the shelf as a piece of great literature to be used in high school classrooms. Instead, it is a classic portrayal of academia through the eyes of a graduate student in history. Even there, Lauren Willig’s first book was a more prototypical caricature of grad student angst while searching for the perfect dissertation topic. What appealed to me about this story were the little unnoticeable tidbits. The almost inside jokes – and I don’t know the author, nor do I purport to know what it is like to be a history grad student at Harvard.

What I do understand though is the humor in the way the author describes early eighteenth-century England and France. She has create a stereotypical romance story in many ways, but it is so cleverly crafted, self-deprecating, and over the top, that as a reader you know she has consciously poked fun at the entire genre and her own ability to write such a story. First and foremost, this book reminded me of many hours spent with my own classmates. One friend in particular has such a similar wit and sense of cynicism about her own historical era that I had to double check the author’s picture and biography on the back cover. I genuinely could believe that my friend had written this book instead.

While sitting on the couch cackling at the humor my husband asked me what was so funny. I tried to read passages of the book to him, but he didn’t see the humor. Instead he decried, “This proves that all female graduate students are sexually repressed.” What can I say; we spend so much time staring at dusty archives and ridiculously dry monologues that we need some outlet. And farcical, historical romance takes us to a world that we recognize, but that is nonetheless completely removed from our dry, academic studies.

The story is cute. It follows two timelines – one contemporary as Eloise searches the archives to find the identity of the Black Tulip, a French spy in England. The other through the eyes of Henrietta who, living in England during Napoleon’s reign, is also searching for the identity of the Black Tulip. It is not particularly deep. It is not particularly difficult to follow or guess at the outcome. But, it is witty. It is fun. It is refreshing. It is chick lit and traditional romance bound and tied up with the jaded wit of a historian who can make light readable academic puns about the time and place she studies.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Mosaic by Soheir Khashoggi

Do you ever read a book then stop, look at the cover and wonder who put the wrong cover on the book you just read? That's the way that I felt about Mosaic. The book is quite interesting. But the picture on the front and the blurb on the back are only narrowly reflective of the story between the covers.
Mosaic is the story of an Arab-American family post 9/11. They experience obvious tensions because of their heritage and eventually the father decides to take his children back home to Jordan where they can be raised outside the influences of American culture. In so far as it goes, that is the story inside and the story on the back. But, that's where the similarities end.
Nowhere on the back cover does the book discuss Dina, the main character's, two best friends Sarah and Emmeline. Their stories are as much a part of the "Mosaic" that Khashoggi creates as the Jordanian/Lebanese/American family. There is even a line about how the three friends together create a mosaic.
Also, the picture on the cover is deceptive. To me, this is a very stereotypical political ploy by the editors - or whomever it is that decides on book art - to fit into the political time frame of post 9/11 United States. The cover suggests an American woman wearing some type of traditional Muslim headcovering. Nothing could be further from the truth. Subjugation of women is only a very minor plot point, veiling is never even mentioned. The story outside of the U.S. takes place in Jordan, one of the most forward-looking Middle Eastern nations. I have to wonder if someone felt that the book would sell better if it looked more "exotic" and derisive of Middle Eastern culture.
As far as the story itself goes, I liked it. Khashoggi obviously knows Middle Eastern culture and is aware of the diversity that exists both in the U.S. and in the Middle East. She creates characters who are affected by 9/11 in very real ways: they are American in form, but discover that unexpected prejudices exist.
My only problem with the plot is the end of the book. I feel like the climax and the denoument ended 30-40 pages before she stopped writing. The last few chapters were plodding and unnecessary in my view. I understand that she included some of the resolution to show a passage of time in order to make the final scene of the book believable, but I would have appreciated it much better if that information had all been left to the reader's imagination.
I love reading books about the Middle East. What better way to learn about a culture that can be so foreign to American culture than through the lens of fiction? This story increases my knowledge of what life is like for Arab-Americans who are attempting to bridge the gap between two very disparate societies. However, I wish the people who had created the book had allowed the reader's enough smarts and interest to enjoy the book on its own terms rather than through the lens of an orientalist perception of what the Middle East should look like.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Access Denied by Donna Andrews

A friend recommended Andrews’ first Turing mystery Click Here for Murder because it was so different and interesting. I met Donna Andrews at a book festival and after speaking with her for a few minutes I walked away with all four of the books in the Turing series. And it wasn’t just because she was a good salesman. What she told me caught my attention and I have to say I have really enjoyed the three books that I have read so far.

In the series Donna Andrews combines characters from three very different worlds of mystery writing. Turing is a sentient computer who solves mysteries. Like early crime fighter Sherlock Holmes, Turing is methodical and analytical – almost to a fault. To her, everything has a logical deductive answer. But, Andrews introduced two other characters in her first book who have become crucial sidekicks to Turing’s Holmes. Maude is the series Miss Marple. She is an older figure who resembles a librarian when the series starts. But, as the books progress she becomes the computer expert who works with Turing to solve the impossible crimes. The third character is Tim a pulp fiction film noir junkie who wants to be Sam Spade. Combining these three generations of mysteries, Andrews has succeeded in creating a mystery that would appeal to a huge range of readers.

As Andrews’ told me when I met her, there’s another whole side to her mysteries appeal. Andrews has made a concerted effort to create a realistic sentient computer – in the best guise of good science fiction. I think it is her crossover between science fiction and mystery that appeals to me the most. There is an interesting mystery to solve to keep the reader reading. But, there is also a lot of technical information that is very up to date and accurate. It is easy to believe in the sentience of Turing because Andrews’ places her in a realistic computer-aged world. The logical side of the character blends well with the push for independence. I loved her conversations about the garden in this book.

I love this series. But, I am the first to admit that not everyone is going to like it. My husband, a technophile, is somewhat dismissive. He liked it and thought she did a decent job with the computer, but he is so tech-y that he expects perfection. My mom found the first book “cute” and different, but it didn’t appeal to her love of historical mysteries. I would recommend this to someone who grew up with computers and is willing to create a suspension of disbelief in order to empathize with Turing as she fights against her online limitations.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Simon Said by Sarah Shaber

When I finished reading Simon Said my first thought was this is what an academic mystery should be. After ranting about how bad the Princeton Murder book was I feel compelled to explain what makes this one so much better.

Simon Shaw, the protagonist of Shaber’s stories, is a history professor at Keenan College in North Carolina. From the outset, you get a good sense of what life is like in an academic setting. It is cut-throat and demanding yet also compelling and a labor of love. Throughout the story, Shaber continually returns to Shaw’s academic duties. Because it is the middle of summer and he is teaching summer school, he has the opportunity to solve the historical crime that presents itself to him. But, he still has to partake in departmental politics, teach class, and spend time researching in the library. Unlike other academic mysteries that I have come across, Shaber didn’t decide to use an academic because they have a history of being good researchers, but then write a story that has less than nothing to do with academia. Instead, she weaves together a plausible story that combines university life with amateur detecting. (In one of her later books, The Fugitive King, the story veers away from academia quickly. However, a few key scenes early in the book are dead-on caricatures of professor-student relationships. I was willing to overlook the overdone mold of removing the academic from academia to create a more logical setting for a murder case because of the way she set up the beginning of the story.)

Moreover, Shaber’s descriptions of Keenan College portray a clear picture of campus life at this (fictional) institution. She describes not only the buildings, but also the finer points of a university setting – the administrative staff who is integral to the running of the institution, the hanger-on students who can’t adjust to graduating, the community that surrounds the campus that accepts the eccentricities of university life. Her descriptions gave a great sense of life at a small Southern college.

There are flaws; it isn’t perfect. Reading the book I knew that Shaber herself was not an academic. I don’t remember anything in particular that caught my attention, but little comments suggested a somewhat stereotypical perception of higher academics. I read one review that was disgusted by her disregard for tenure policies. Nonetheless, these discrepancies did not turn me off to the story.

Most importantly, I felt that Shaber created a realistic character whose actions largely reflected human nature. Shaw’s conversations were authentic. His actions, while not always logical, were more realistic because of that. The relationships that he develops with Gates and Julia through the book are engaging.

Obviously, I was not alone in my praise for this book. It received the Malice Domestic Award from St. Martin’s Press. Shaber wrote at least five other books in the series, but I heard that she had publisher/editor troubles and has not had any new books released. I hope that changes as I think that Shaber is a welcome addition to the world of academic mysteries.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Pirate Books for Preschoolers

My almost-four year old son recently decided that he wanted a pirate birthday party. This came completely out of the blue. I fully expected him to request a Cars theme, but while in the shopping cart at Target he informed me that he “loves” pirates. So, we have been on a quest for pirate material appropriate to an almost-four year old. I am not overly protective, but I don’t think that he needs to be reading hack-and-slash books just yet. He has plenty of time for that when he is older.

We started at the public library. I asked our librarian for pirate books appropriate for a preschooler. She gave me Disasters at Sea – a true life account of boating disasters throughout history including the sinking of the Lusitania and the Exxon Valdez crisis. Needless to say, this was not exactly what I had in mind. The other books she found were non-fiction books that were much too long to hold a young boy’s attention span.

On to round two: I spent an evening in front of the computer looking up pirate books. The Amazon feature, “Customers who bought this item also bought” is great! Picking and searching, I finally compiled a decent list of stories that are about pirates. But the focus is on buried treasure and parrots and pirate’s outfits. The mention of guns and swords is minimal.

Now each week at the library we look for two or three of the books on the list. We’ve made it through at least half and the interest in pirates has not declined.

Here is what we found:

Pirate Pete by Kim Kennedy

Pirate Pete’s Giant Adventure by Kim Kennedy

Backbeard and the Birthday Suit by Matthew McElligott

Do Pirates Take Baths? By Kathy Tucker

How I became a Pirate by Melinda Long

Shiver Me Letters by June Sobel

Night Pirates by Peter Harris and Deborah Alwright

Roger the Jolly Pirate by Brett Helquist

Pirate’s Parrot by Lyn Rossiter McFarland and Jim McFarland

On the Go with Pirate Pete by Ann Edwards Cannon and Elwood Smith

Pirate School – a chapter book series.

A Rare Murder in Princeton by Anne Waldron

This is one of the worst books I have read in a while. Apparently I am alone in feeling this way though considering that the reviews on for the book are overall quite good. But here’s my issue: The plot and the murder itself aren’t that bad it’s the rest of the book that stinks. The dialogue is completely unnatural. At least, I hope most people don’t talk like that. It just doesn’t flow in any way that sounds normal. And, the part that really got me was the recipes at the end. A dozen years ago or so Diane Mott Davidson – among others – popularized a whole new kind of mystery – include recipes or other useful tips at the end of your book to popularize it and to help the book appeal to a whole new audience. It works for Davidson, her books are about a caterer who cooks all the way through the book. But Waldron’s characters occasionally eat dinner together or cook for one another: thus a selection of recipes. Why? It seems like a total non sequitur.

Finally, the book purports to be about an academic at Princeton. You get a bit of a sense of what life is like on a college campus, but very little feel for the location. The story could have been placed at most any college campus in the United States. If you’re going to pick a well-known location like Princeton, make a concerted effort to really make the reader feel like she’s on the Princeton campus and dealing with well-educated faculty members and students. (Other reviews talk about how much they appreciate the quaint connections she makes to the real campus. Ah well, to each his own.)

I am a discerning reader, but rarely am I just out and out negative about a book. I would be willing to read Waldron’s other work, as she has published a number of books so there is an agent and editor out there somewhere who thinks she has talent. Personally I think there are many other authors and books that are worth picking up before Waldron's.

Tallgrass by Sandra Dallas

As a historian who happened to grow up in Colorado, this book was poignant for me. I have to admit, I had to pick it up twice before I really got interested in it. It tends to start somewhat slowly and I wasn’t that interested in the story. But, once I got past the first fifty pages, I found it was hard to put the book down.

Tallgrass is the story of Rennie, a 13-year old girl who lives on a beet farm in southeastern Colorado in the early 1940s. Her brother has enlisted in the war, her sister has moved to Denver to work in a munitions factory, and she has to help her parents on the farm. However, just down the road from her house the government has created Tallgrass, a Japanese internment camp for Japanese-Americans. The very realistic story of the everyday life of small town America which has been impinged upon by something so “foreign” (and yes I say that tongue in cheek) is fascinating… moving … heartwarming doesn’t quite sound right. But, it is very real.

My mom gave me this book, as she gives me much of what I read, and we talked about its use in a high school history class. Dallas has an uncanny ability to create believable characters who are realistic because they are not perfect: they make mistakes, they misunderstand situations. But, they also cry and feel and grow because of their experiences.

Part of what I like about Sandra Dallas is that her stories are innocent. If you’ve read this book, you might think that is an odd term to use considering what happens to the characters. But, by innocent I mean that the characters are normal every day people who have normal every day concerns. There is nothing fantastical that happens. There are very sad things that occur and there is a definite loss of innocence amongst her characters. But this are no blood and guts. This is the type of book you could give to a junior high student and not worry overly about the messages that she imparts.

All that having been said, I wouldn’t recommend this book to everyone. It is slow at times. And, if you don’t know Colorado, the Denver references won’t necessarily be interesting. Plus, if you are not a history buff, the location in rural, small town Colorado might not be engaging. However, the way that Dallas weaves together the story of the Japanese-Americans who were placed in these camps is not so heavy-handed to feel like a lesson in political correctness. I put the book down and felt enlightened for having read it and considering that it inspired me to start a blog, I would say it is an extremely worthwhile read.


If you liked this book, I would also recommend The Persian Pickle Club by Sandra Dallas or anything by Maeve Binchy. Her books, while they take place in Ireland, have a similar quality to Dallas’s.

Introducing Myself

Let me start with a little background. I am a reader. If I had to describe myself in one word, that is the word I would use. Almost everything that I do connects to reading in some way. In my professional life, I am a historian. I have read more history than I would care to remember sometimes. When I’m not working, I’m a mom. I read to my two sons all of the time. One of the most peaceful parts of our day is sitting on the couch, one boy on each side of me, while I read to them. Our weekly treks to the public library to search out new books is a moment of pure enjoyment for us. In my purely personal moments, I read. I read to escape life’s difficulties. I read to travel outside of the world I live in. I read to learn. I read to relax and enjoy.

I hope that you enjoy reading my rants, raves, and reviews. Maybe I will inspire you to pick up something new and different. Enjoy!