Friday, January 28, 2011

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

Have I mentioned enough times that I love precocious, young female protagonists?  I don't care if their expertise and eloquence are over the top,  I like them a lot.  Flavia de Luce fits right in with my favorites!  She is 11, growing up in England in a sprawling mansion, and loves chemistry.  She has discovered a well-stocked laboratory from an ancient uncle, and has made it her "sanctum sanctorum."  Throughout the book she interprets and relates to happenings in terms of chemistry. 

Flavia has two older sisters, one a book worm and the other lovesick.  The interaction between them is entertaining.  Her mother tragically died, and her father, an avid stamp collector, is reclusive and disconnected from his daughters.  The mystery begins when a dead bird is found on the back doorstep with a postage stamp stuck on its beak.  (See cover illustration.)  Next Flavia discovers a body in the cucumber patch.  Being a child she is questioned, but not let in on much.  So she begins an investigation of her own.  She takes off on her bike, named Gladys of course, and solves the mystery.

The story is sometimes out there, and maybe not entirely realistic.  But it is a great mystery, has fun dialouge, endearing characters, and it is nicely resolved.  I liked reading it.  Griffin, who is 11, tore through it too, and was excited to discuss it with me along the way.  It is murder mystery, and I recommend it!

Here are some of Flavia's great lines:

About reading her first chemistry book, "Within moments it had taught me that the word iodine comes from the word meaning "violet," and that the name bromine was derived from a Greek word meaning "a stench." These were the sorts of things I needed to know!"

When she found the town library was closed, "It occured to me that Heaven must be a place where the library is open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.  No...eight days a week."

"Wrapped up in the music, I threw myself into an overstuffed chair and let my legs dangle over the arm, the position in which Nature intended music to be listened to, and for the first time in days I felt the muscles in my neck relaxing."

This is gross, but she's describing the linoleum floor in a retirement house.  "Whenever I stepped on one of its pustulent brown blisters, the stuff let off a nasty hiss and I made a mental note to find out if color can cause nausea."

I can totally relate to her explanation of how to solve a problem or remember something.  "I could feel an answer to the question nibbling at the hook I'd lowered into my subconscious.  Don't look straight at it, I thought, think of something else--or at least pretend to."

I've been unsuccessful remembering where I saw this recommended, or who talked to me about it!  I thought I was the last one to read it, but it turns out no one I've talked to has read it.  So if you have...tell me what you thought!

Oh, I almost forgot.  The title comes from this quote:
Unless some sweetness at the bottom lie, who cares for all the crinkling of the pie?
Wiliam King, The Art of Cookery (1708)
Clever, I thought.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt

My mom read this book for a children's lit class, loved it and gave me a copy.  I started it, but didn't get sucked in, then read something else and left it on my nightstand.  I'm telling you this, because I think The Wednesday Wars is a good book.  For some reason I had to get into it a way to realize it.  The narrator's voice wasn't really interesting to me at first, and I think I had to understand the characters before I cared about them.  I wasn't sure what or who to focus on because there seemed to be a lot of little storylines going on.  Each chapter is a month in the school year starting with September.  Once I fininshed October I was hooked.

Holling Hoodhood (I know, I think the name was a dumb choice too), is a 7th grader in the late 60's.  Teachers and staff members have husbands serving in Vietnam, he and his friends idolize Mickey Mantle, and his sister wants to be a hippie.  I liked the social references, and I think the story provides a realistic look at life during this time, (although I wasn't there).  I liked Holling.  The story kind of revolves around his relationship with his teacher Mrs. Baker.  He believes she hates his guts because he is the only student that doesn't go to Jewish or Catholic classes on Wednesday afternoon, so she makes him do menial jobs, or read Shakespeare.  As the book goes on they become allies, and she seems to be the kindest person in his life.

I liked how things weren't perfect, but turned out OK.  Holling is picked on, embarrassed, and dissappointed, but he does alright.  There are a few really sad parts, and a few really funny parts.

A few of Holling's thoughts:
"How do parents get to where they can say things like this?  There must be some gene that switches on at the birth of the first-born child, and suddenly stuff like that starts to come out of their mouths."

"Let me tell you, it's a pretty hard thing to be a seventh grader with new death threats hanging over you just about every day."

"Mrs. Bigio opened her mouth, but the only sounds that came out were the sounds of sadness.  I can't tell you what they sounded like.  But you know them when you hear them."

"Spring Break.  Warm and green days.  You know they aren't going to last, but when you start in on them, they're like a week of summer plunked down as a gift in the middle of junior high school."

This is age appropriate for middle grades, but I think maybe it would be best read aloud in class or at home for 10-12 year olds.  I think students of this age would like the story, but would need encouragement to dig into it.  Probably because it took me a second try.

I really liked how Holling would drop little Shakespeare phrases into his narration from whatever play he was reading.  At first it was just the "cusses" like "toads, beetles and bats" or "pied ninny."  But then he moves on and compares his life naturally with characters, and borrows phrases like "blithe and bonny."  It works.

I think this is a really well-written book, and worth picking up.  It is appropriate for kids, I'd say 10 and up.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford

I really enjoyed reading this book.  I've been struggling to come up with this post, and I'm not sure why.  I'm guessing a lot of you have read this, it seems to be going around.

First of all, this title is perfect.  It is the story of a 12-year-old Chinese American boy growing up in the International District of Seattle during World War II.  His father is a Chinese Nationalist, and has fierce allegiances, which in turn translate to fierce hatred of Japanese people.  Henry is on a scholarship at a white prep school, where he is taunted and tormented.  When a Japanese American girl (second-generation) starts working in the cafeteria on scholarship also, the two become close friends.  Their story leads us into Japanese Interment, and really captures the bitter sweetness of their friendship.

That's half the story.  The other half is Henry as a recent widower, in 1986.  He has a son of his own who is attending college.  The Panama Hotel where Keiko's family stored some of their belongs has been recently purchased, and a basement full of Japanese families' belongs have been discovered.  In these chapters Henry struggles to reconcile his old feelings of love and heartache.

I didn't mind the switching chapters at all.  There were some elements that reminded me of Amy Tan's books, just the difficulty of raising children in a different culture than you live in.  Henry's father goes from forbidding him to speak English, to suddenly forbidding him to speak Chinese.  In the course of the book, their conversations go from strained to non-existent.  In the 1986 chapters, you see how some of those communication problems have repeated themselves with Henry and Marty.

What I loved about this book is that love triumphs.  Really sad things happen, a lot.  But the characters keep trying.  Also it has a good ending.  I liked Jamie Ford's writing style, and I'm curious to see where he goes from here.  I enjoyed the historical significance of what he captured.  But for some reason, I had a little disconnect.  I liked Henry and Keiko, and Sheldon and Marty, but I didn't fall in love with them.  I read this pretty quick, but I wasn't anxiously sneaking in pages throughout my day. 
Here are some good examples of Ford's talent for writing, that also show the tone of the book:
"As he left the hotel, Henry looked west to where the sun was setting, burnt sienna flooding the horizon.  It reminded him that time was short, but that beautiful endings could still be found at the end of cold, dreary days."

"He envisioned staying at his uncle's house....and being teased by the locals for not being Chinese enough.  The opposite of here, where he wasn't American enough.  He didn't know which was worse."

"Inside had been a piece of hard candy and a quarter...The candy was so that everyone leaving would taste sweetness--not bitter.  The quarter was for buying more candy on the way home--a traditional token of lasting life and enduring happiness."  Henry is explaining the envelopes that were passed out at his wife's memorial service.

So I recommend it.  I think it's a great book, and one of the best I've read lately.  But it didn't have the impact on me that my favorite books have.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl

So this memoir begins as Ruth Reichl accepts a job as a food critic for the New York Times. It is a good combination of her experiences, her reviews, and recipes. I think it is well put together and was an interesting read. I've marked several recipes to copy and try.  I think I'm trying her Spaghetti Carbonara next week.

Ruth developed characters complete with costumes, personalities and back stories in order to eat at restaurants without receiving special treatment.  In fact, she often went in disguise, then again as herself.  It was entertaining, if not surprising, to read the differences in the food and experience.

Sometimes the story is just a little too tidy and hard to believe things happened in the way they did.  As I was reading, that bugged me a few different times.  When Dan asks her to the exact restaurant she needed to eat at again, I just felt annoyed.  In her Acknowledgements in the back of the book she talks about exaggerating, combining several days into one, and changing people around.  I think if I knew she admitted that upfront I wouldn't have had problems with the less believable parts.

I loved reading her descriptions of food and the actual reviews that she reprints in this book.  She has an amazing talent for description and you really can almost taste it as you read.  Just like Gourmet Rhapsody, it made me hungary!  This type of writing is obviously her best.

"I felt the sea urchin slide beneath my tongue, as subtle and sneaky as the glow of a buttercup under your chin, and then admired the pop of the caviar as it was crushed beneath my teeth."

"The sun poured from the sky like honey, and people threw back their heads and drank it in."

The characters and story are interesting, but I just didn't feel as connected as I do in other books.  Because she is vague with time, I wasn't sure how old her son was at different times.  Carol who didn't seem like much of a player in the first part of the book is suddenly really important, and I was trying to remember exactly who she was.  The story ended up feeling a little disjointed to me. 

Her husband is bothered by her one-upping an annoying dinner guest one night and tells her she was reminding him of a line from a T.S.Eliot poem, "Garlic and sapphires in the mud."   I looked up the Quartet and it didn't seem to direcly relate.  That being said, I like the title she chose for her book, and I hope he really said that and that she didn't make it up later to be clever.

I enjoyed reading this book, I might even look up other books Ruth Reichl has written. 

I liked it, but I didn't love it.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Anne of Green Gables by L.M.Montgomery


It has been YEARS since I've read this book. I knew I liked it, but it's hard for me to remember the book when I watched the PBS miniseries so many times as a kid. I was curious to see if it would still stand up in my mind. And it did. I love this book!

My older sister had all the Anne of Green Gables books, and I'm sure she's the first one to loan me a copy. I just can't remember when I read it last. We read this for book club, and I'm excited to go see the musical in a few weeks.
So, I think the book works because Anne is such a lovable character. From the beginning her life is so tragic, you want to feel sorry for her. She talks incessantly, so she should be annoying, but she's not. I love the way she charms everyone she meets. They all end up loving her.
Aunt Josephine says, "Anne has as many shades as the rainbow, and every shade is the prettiest while it lasts....she makes me love her and I like people who make me love them. It saves me so much trouble in making myself love them."
A few of my favorite things Anne says in this book:
"Why must people kneel down to pray? If I really wanted to pray I'll tell you what I'd do. I'd go out into a great big field all alone or into the deep, deep woods, and I'd look up into the sky--up--up--up--into that lovely blue sky that looks as if there was no end to its blueness. And then I'd just feel a prayer."
I love all her talk about kindred spirits. I feel the same way, there are those people you meet and you know just know you are going to be good friends. Isn't discovering a new friend the best feeling?
"Miss Barry was a kindred spirit, after all. You wouldn't think so to look at her, but she is.....Kindred spirits are not so scarce as I used to think. It's splendid to find out there are so many of them in the world."
"Oh, I was so nervous, Diana. When Mr. Allan called out my name I really cannot tell how I ever got up on that platform. I felt as if a million eyes were looking at me and through me, and for one dreadful moment I was sure I couldn't begin at all. Then I thought of my lovely puffed sleeves and took courage. I knew that I must live up to those sleeves, Diana. So I started in."
This is one of my favorite passages, I actually laughed out loud.
L.M. Montgomery has a great style of write super descriptive passages without being obnoxious. My 6th grader is working on descriptive writing at school, and with all the adjectives and metaphors he's trying to squeeze in, its often painful to read. But, I appreciate what his teacher is encouraging, and I think Lucy Maud is an amazing example.

It was a pretty road, running along between snug farmsteads, with now and again a bit of balsamy fir wood to drive through or a hollow where wild plums hung out their filmy bloom. The air was sweet with the breath of many apple orchards and the meadows sloped away in the distance to horizon mists of pearl and purple. Really good, right?
When I read this as a kid I had no concept of tragic loss or sorrow. So I'm sure these next few passages didn't mean much. This time they made me cry because they are so perfectly expressed.
"It was the last night before sorrow touched her life; and no life is ever quite the same again when once that cold, sanctifying touch has been laid upon it."
"It seems like disloyalty to Matthew, somehow, to find pleasure in these things now that he has gone...Today Diana said something funny and I found myself laughing. I thought when it happened I could never laugh again. And it somehow seems as if I oughtn't to."
"We resent the thought that anything can please us when someone we love is no longer here to share the pleasure with us, and we almost feel as if we were unfaithful to our sorrow when we find our interest in life returning to us."
"When I future seemed to stretch out before me like a straight road. I thought I could see along it for many a milestone. Now there is a bend in it. I don't know what lies around the bend, but I'm going to believe that the best does...I wonder how the road beyond it goes--what there is of green glory and soft, checkered light and shadows--what new landscapes--what new beauties--what curves and hills and valleys further on."
If it's been awhile since you've read Anne, maybe these quotes will put you in the mood to pick it up again. I'm so glad I did!