Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Entering the world of Chapter Books with my boys

My oldest son has recently begun to make the transition to chapter books. It is a very exciting change in what and when we read together. The change was solidified when he received his very own bookmark from grandma. Having something to mark his place at the end of each chapter was the necessary motivation to want to read a long book.
A few months ago we tried longer books with fewer pictures. My son picked out Mary Poppins by P. L. Travers because he knew the story from watching the movie. He was mildly intrigued but when we put it down he did not request it the next night. For now that book has been re-relegated to the bookshelf. I think the chapters were a bit long and there were too few pictures to really capture his imagination.
Our next venture was the Pirate School series by Brian James and Jennifer Zivoin. We have read the first two books: Curse of Snake Island and Ahoy, Ghost Ship Ahead. These were ideal for a four and a half year old who had a pirate birthday party, was a pirate for Halloween, and who has turned our swing set into the neighborhood pirate ship. The story was simple but he could definitely relate to the five children who were in pirate school aboard a pirate ship with Rotten Tooth as their teacher.
At that point, my son and I browsed through the kid's book collection in our basement - memories of my husband's and my favorite books. Per my son's choice, we moved onto the original Winnie the Pooh by A. A. Milne. Like Mary Poppins he does not yet have the patience to listen to the original stories. He will listen intently, but not request another chapter the next night.
At the library yesterday on a rare outing without his little brother, my son and I got to take the time to pick a number of books of his choosing. He specifically asked for chapter books - definitely a first. We sat in the neighborhood coffee shop - him with a chocolate milk, me with a vanilla latte - curled up on the red couch in the back and read all of the original Nate the Great. It was an experience I know i will remember. I love that I am beginning to pass on my love of reading to my children.

Death by Chick Lit by Lynn Harris

My ever faithful book-loving friend sent me Death by Chick Lit. It fills a great niche that she and I both read. We both love a good mystery and we both love a good mindless chick lit novel. So, when there's a chance to merge the two, it seems like a win-win situation. Lynn Harris's novel definitely fit that category.
Death by Chick Lit is a hilarious, satirical story about the media frenzy to publish anything and everything. Lola Sommerville, the novel-writing heroine, finds herself in the middle of a murder spree with fellow chick lit authors as the victims. Lola works to solve the crime for her own future in book writing while simultaneously feeling irked that the killer has not made her a target as well.
Harris pokes fun at everything in her novel. Situated in New York City, she describes the large bookstore - Starbooks - which she and her husband go to to stand in line for Harry Potter XIII, and the recently built Organic Depot.
There is nothing deep or meaningful about this novel. It is not the type of book that you will walk away from and feel more enlightened for having read it. But, if you need a break, you want something light and entertaining, and you want to put a book down and find a smile on your face, read Death by Chick Lit. It's a kick.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Murder in the Marais - an Aimee Leduc Investigation by Cara Black

Murder in the Marais is one of the best new mysteries I have read in a long time. Cara Black has done an impeccable job creating a believable, accurate, and engaging Parisian setting. Because her book is contemporary, rather than the much more common historical mysteries with a French venue, she has managed to write a novel that is unique - at least in my experience - in its venue and topic.
Black, a resident of Paris, knows the city well. She chose the Marais as the logical setting for this book. The case resides in the death of an older Jewish woman who is found dead in her apartment with a swastika engraved into her forehead. The story revolves around the complex intermingling of modern day European Union France and historical memory World War II Paris. The marais has long been the Jewish quarter of Paris and therefore it makes the most logical sense for this type of story. Black uses the reality of the Parisian street, naming names, describing buildings, to place the reader in the very accurate modern day Parisian 4th arrondisement.
Private investigator Aimee Leduc gets mixed up in the murder through an investigation into a partial historical photograph. Leduc's specialty is computer hacking and throughout the story she finds her way into any number of archives and databases not accessible to the public. But, each of these databases are based on real sources.
The reason this story captured my imagination - aside from my general francophile tendencies - is because she told a believable story that wove together a fascinating and dark past with an equally tense present day. The role of immigration today in France is a major political hot button. The continuing fascination with World War II - collaboration, deportation, prosecution, study and research - remains a tangible reality for many Frenchman, albeit hidden under a thick layer of forgetting and commemoration.
If you have any interest in contemporary Paris, in World War II civilian Paris, in the plight of the Jews in France, read this book. Since finishing it, I have gone out and bought the next six books in the series (five of them signed by the author. Sigh, if only I had realized she came to town for a book signing two weeks earlier...). I am looking forward to delving into the other neighborhood mysteries of Cara Black.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

It's a Boy! Understanding Your Son's Development from Birth to Age 18 by Michael Thompson Ph.D.

I rarely read non-fiction books. And it is even more rare for me to read any type of parenting manual. When my oldest son was about six months old my mom and my husband strongly encouraged me to throw everything parenting book I had out the window. It was too tempting to compare every action of my son's against the book. And more often than not, my son and the model in the book were not comparable. But, after reading an excerpt of Thompson's book in my Parents magazine I was intrigued and wanted to read more.
Unlike most posts, I have not actually read It's a Boy! from cover to cover. But, it isn't that type of book. I have read the relevant chapters to me, and I really like what I have read so far. As my husband mentioned, I like the book because I tend to agree with Thompson's philosophy, but I also think that he has some extremely valid points that are worth elucidating.
Michael Thompson is probably most well-known as the co-author of the book and PSB series Raising Cain, which explores the rise of violence among adolescent boys in America. His new book builds on his previous research. It is apparent that he is staring from the perspective that something has gone wrong in the way that boys are raised today which results in an increase in adolescent violence. Therefore, he is looking for address issues before they become real problems.
Much of what Thompson posits is that boys need to be allowed to be boys. He starts by stating that in fact that are psychologically and biological differences between boys and girls despite much scientific research which has long said that gender is a social construct. He believes that boys are more physical, slower to develop, and more like to use physicality to express themselves. Therefore, boys respond to stimuli differently than girls and need to be allowed to be physical. In one section he highlights the differences between being "aggressive" and being "mean." He also discusses the difficulties that arise for boys in a kindergarten setting because they do not have the cognitive and developmental abilities to sit still for long periods of time. As a result, he states that boys can become antagonistic towards school at an early age which can result in a long-term frustration with the education system.
If nothing else, Thompson made me feel better as a parent of two young boys. He confirmed that boys are more likely to hit, to bite, to run, to use their fists than girls. He also said that while they need to be controlled and disciplined, they do need to be allowed to express themselves in ways that are appropriate for them. After reading the sections on boys between the ages of 2 and 7 (I have yet to read the later chapters which are not yet relevant to me), I feel like I am better equipped to understand my boys. While there are no manuals that answer all the questions that a parent has about her individual child, this book has given me a better understanding of the psyche of a young boy than anything else that I have read.

Plum Wine by Angela Davis-Gardner

My husband came home from his latest business trip with a pile of books for me. One of my good friends and I regularly trade good finds and he had visited her when he was in California. There's nothing like filling up your bookshelf with luscious looking books, especially when you trust your friend's judgment and generally really like the same books.
I was in the mood to read something different. Over the years I have read a handful of stories about Asian culture by authors such as Amy Tan and Gail Tsukiyama. It is a culture that I know very little about and I have enjoyed adding to my knowledge through the works of these great authors. I was hoping for the same from Davis-Gardner and in some ways, my wish was fulfilled.
The story takes place in the mid-1960s during the escalation of the Vietnam War. Barbara, an American teaching English at a women's college, is forced to defend, or at the very least, respond to questions about American involvement in Asia. The correlation between Vietnam and World War II become a crucial link in the story as much of the intrigue revolves around the background of certain Japanese characters. All of these characters are connected through their shared history as hibakusha, Hiroshima survivors.
While there is quite well-known anti-War anti-nuclear weapon literature that grew out of the experiences of Hiroshima survivors, I have never read anything else that discusses the effects of surviving the bomb on individuals and their attempt to try to return to normal life. Davis-Gardner demonstrates the physical and psychological links that connect these individuals who had the fate of not dying. It is a poignant message that is rarely discussed.
However, the love story that she uses as the vehicle to explain the position of the hibakusha becomes vaguely annoying. Barbara continues to chase a man who is obviously not emotionally available. And as is too common in a certain style of literature, the book just ends. There is some attempt at resolution, but I feel as though it needed more of a conclusion.
Despite the drawbacks of the storyline, I'm really glad that I read Plum Wine. I feel like I have a more complex awareness of life in Japan post-Hiroshima. At the very least, it has made me want to go back and learn more about the impact of the bombing on the survivors who did not choose to become politically active as a result of their experiences. And, I will happily continue to read the books sitting on my shelf from CA.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Standing in the Rainbow by Fannie Flagg

If you have never read anything by Fannie Flagg, you are missing out. She is most famous for the Hollywood version of her book Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe. Standing in the Rainbow has some similarities to Fried Green Tomatoes. Flagg specializes in eccentric small town characters with a touch of both sadness and humor. I wouldn't say this was my favorite book by Flagg, but it was definitely enjoyable and worth the read.
Standing in the Rainbow follows a number of characters who all share a background in post-World War II Elmwood Springs, Missouri. The main figure who traverses the whole novel is Dorothy Smith, a small town radio host. Her son and daughter and their family friends roam through the house as Dorothy is broadcasting her show. Flagg aptly describes life in small town USA in the 1950s - town bullies, the local drunk, the local movie house. She interweaves unique characters like Minnie Oatman the heavyset gospel singer, Cecil Figgs the successful gay mortician, and Hamm Sparks the political ingenue who somehow gets elected governor.
The story spans the entire second half of the twentieth century from the late-1940s until the mid-1990s. The section of the 1940s and 50s were by far the best. As Flagg moved away from Neighbor Dorothy's family and away from Elmwood Springs, the plot became plodding. She spent too much time on Betty Raye and Hamm Sparks. I would have rather continued with the characters she introduced at the beginning.
But, by the end I was amused and sad to put the book down. It was like catching up with a lifetime of friends and feeling depressed when you know they have to go home and you won't see them again for a year.