Thursday, December 31, 2009

Not a best-of list, just a list

Inspired by the fab Sarah Miller's look back at her year in books, these are the ones that stood out for me:

Awesome new-old author discoveries:

Edith Wharton
Oscar Wilde
Yeah, somehow I hadn't gotten around to reading her books until this year. But I finished The House of Mirth not long before BEA, which made walking around Washington Square Park with Guinevere that much cooler. And how did no one ever tell me how funny Wilde is?

Biggest shift in emotions from beginning to end of book:

The Actor and the Housewife, Shannon Hale
Until this book I would have told you Shannon Hale doesn't make me cry. Look at that cover. What could possibly be tearjerking here? Bah. Don't be fooled by all the funny bits and the great writing and the awesome story. Many tears fell at the end.

Books that made me think about a new career path:

Talking Back, Andrea Mitchell

Written in Bone, Sally Walker
I gave up on the idea of being a journalist not long after I finished college, and being an archaeologist even earlier. (Kind of hard to do when you don't like to get dirty.) But these books almost made me reconsider.

Possibly my new favorite researcher:

The Frog Scientist, Pamela S. Turner
Does anyone want to argue whether Tyrone Hayes has the best hair among frog experts? No, I didn't think so. He's also got cute kids he pulls into his work, a lab full of grad students that seems like it was made to be written about, and photogenic test subjects. One of these days I'll review this book properly.

Book that I wouldn't have read if I'd been given proper warning:

Mr. Pip, Lloyd Jones
Everybody was excited about this one. I finally got around to reading it for Twitter Book Club, but seriously: "this book takes place in a war zone" is not sufficient advisory for those of us who don't like reading about graphic violence.

Book that might make me eat my words:

Uglies, Scott Westerfeld
After The Beekeeper's Apprentice, I stopped saying that I don't like mysteries. Now I might have to rethink my stance on dystopias. (I've already promised I'll finally give Hunger Games a try.)

Book I wanted to like as much as everyone else did:

When You Reach Me, Rebecca Stead
I'm not saying it was in any way a bad book - I listened to it through the mountains of Virginia and North Carolina, and was totally engaged. (And also paying attention to the road - don't worry!) But the logic of time travel in this world really didn't work for me. On the other hand, it's the reason I'm still thinking about it months after finishing it.

Most satisfying series conclusion:

The Spellmans Strike Again, Lisa Lutz
I adore Izzy Spellman, and I still like her when she decides to grow up. (Yeah, the book isn't out yet, but this list is based on what I read in 2009.)

Book one that hooked me on a new series:

Heist Society, Ally Carter
Teenage master thieves presented in a way that's simultaneously total fantasy and realistic. And fun. Did I mention fun? I started rereading this one as soon as I finished it. The Gallagher Girls are good, but Kat is awesome.

Adaptation that makes me okay with the fact I haven't read the original:

The Omnivore's Dilemma for Kids, Michael Pollan
I read In Defense of Food, but so far haven't gotten into the original Omnivore's Dilemma. The young-reader adaptation seems to capture all the essentials of the story without getting too caught up in the technical details.

Best tongue-in-cheek narrative voice:

The Case of the Mistaken Identity, Mac Barnett
Not only does this book do a great job of spoofing the Hardy Boys style with its book-within-a-book, it also brings a delightfully dry humor to the difficulties of becoming a boy detective in the modern world.

Book that made me think the awards committees know what they're doing:

The Hemingses of Monticello, Annette Gordon-Reed
The book deserved every award it got. And probably some others I've never heard of. Yes, it really is that good.

Book that made me care about Darwin:

Charles and Emma, Deborah Heiligman
I know it's Darwin's bicentennial, but I'm just not that into him. This look at his marriage, though, was awesome. I particularly like the fact that Emma Darwin was not above bribing her kids when it came to winter wear.

Book with an awesome illustrator:

I and I Bob Marley, Tony Medina
The biography-in-verse didn't do much for me, but Jesse Joshua Watson's illustrations rocked. (As they do on the covers of the Hank Zipzer books.) I was thrilled to find out he sells paintings and prints through his website. Next time I have some decorating to do, I'll be looking there.

Online gag that worked in book format:

Ophelia Joined the Group Maidens Who Don't Float, Sarah Schmelling
The whole blog-to-book thing is overdone. I think we can all agree on that. And not everyone can make a joke last for a hundred pages or more. Sarah Schmelling managed to pull it off (and inspire some worthy imitators) while reminding us how much absurdity there is in classic lit.

Journalists who make it work in book form:
The Defining Moment, Jonathan Alter
Rome 1960, David Maraniss
Magazines are having their troubles, but there's a lot to be said for the style of writing their best journalists learn. The storytelling and short chapters make The Defining Moment more than just another book about FDR. As for Maraniss, take a look at what he got his Pulitzer for before writing him off as just a sports guy.

Best book handed to me by the author:
Any Which Wall, Laurel Snyder
Yes, it's true. Laurel Snyder is absolutely as awesome as she seems on Twitter.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Anna and Ellen

When Anna Quindlen hung up her keyboard earlier this year, I sighed and said, "At least Ellen Goodman hasn't retired yet."

So really, I should have seen it coming.

As of January 1, Ellen Goodman is retiring from her Boston Globe column.

(If you know anything about Gail Collins' career plans, I don't want to hear it. Let me keep my illusions a little longer.)

I grew up reading Anna Quindlen in Newsweek - she'd already left the New York Times by the time I discovered her - and Ellen Goodman in my local paper, which syndicated her column. And then I acquired some of the column collections they'd published - including some from before I was born, which I devoured.

I'm not the type to write fan mail - I just gush on Twitter, or something like that - but I do want to say a profound thank you to two women I never met, but learned a lot from.

Sunday, December 6, 2009


It was Miss Grey. But who doesn't need an excuse to reread Sense & Sensibility?

Grad school applications are in, and Cybils nominee blogging commences (finally!) this week.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

" will allow to be impossible, when you understand my affections have long been engaged elsewhere"

No, I'm not leaving you for a Miss Gray with 50,000 pounds.

Just admitting that I have to put blogging on hold for a few weeks. I have a grad school personal statement to write, and even though (or perhaps especially because) I'm not making much progress on it, I shouldn't spend that writing time on a blog post.

But I have loads of Cybils books to write about, along with the next few Trixie Beldens - not to mention thoughts on bookselling and politics and whatever else comes to mind - so be patient, por favor, and I'll be back soon.

(Post pic is me studying AP U.S. History back in high school, since I haven't been photographed hunting the elusive personal statement.)

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Tinker v. Sleepyside-on-Hudson

The seventh Trixie Belden book, The Mysterious Code, was published in 1961. That means we have to take a little legal-framework field trip back to the days before Tinker v. Des Moines.

Tinker, decided by the Supreme Court in 1969, holds a pretty secure place in lists of significant Supreme Court decisions. It's got some great pull quotes, like
"It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate"
"In our system, state-operated schools may not be enclaves of totalitarianism. School officials do not possess absolute authority over their students. Students in school as well as out of school are "persons" under our Constitution. They are possessed of fundamental rights which the State must respect, just as they themselves must respect their obligations to the State."
Tinker deals specifically with the free expression clause of the First Amendment, not the freedom of assembly clause, but I'd argue that wearing a Bob-Whites of the Glen jacket would be protected in the same way that wearing an armband is.

(Quick summary of Tinker: Three students decided to wear black armbands to school as a form of protesting the Vietnam War. The school announced that anyone wearing armbands would be suspended. The students wore their armbands, were suspended, and appealed their case. The Supreme Court found for the students and remanded the case. My introduction to Tinker was through The Rights of Students, a book published by the ACLU that totally made me want to take a case of my own to the Supreme Court.)

Back in fiction-land, the Bob-Whites are facing the caprice of a pre-Tinker school system.
"The school board is having a meeting tonight -"


"And they may very well tell us that we can't ever be a club again!"
Mr. Stratton, the principal, explains the logic like so:
"The board feels it must scrutinize closely the reason for any organization not sponsored directly by the school. It doesn't want secret societies to exist in Sleepyside schools, when clubs - really gangs - can be the cause of so much trouble."
I'm still not buying it - really, the school board can make decisions on a non-school-based activity? - but let's not quibble. The Bob-Whites are in trouble, and have to come up with a way to prove that their club has a valid purpose.

After a UNICEF info dump, it's resolved that the B.W.G.'s will hold an antique show fundraiser as a public display of altruism. Can't argue with Trixie's logic:
"Well, you know how it is here in the East," Trixie said, the words falling over one another in her eagerness to explain. "Everyone is interested in antiques."
Yes, welcome to the region that turned "antique" into an active participle, describing a weekend activity. Walk down Ridgefield's Main Street someday, and you'll see that she was not exaggerating. (Then stop by my store, where even people without farmhouses to furnish can find something.)

It doesn't take long for Trixie to assume that someone's going to have a nefarious interest in all the antiques gathered in one place. It's almost a refrain:
"We want to be careful not to mention how valuable some of the antiques are that we will show," Trixie said. "It might give people ideas about stealing them."
"Someone has read in the Sun about the jewel box and the antiques we have in the clubhouse. We'll have to guard them night and day."
"If we make a big fuss about the oak desk, a lot of other people may find out about the things in Mrs. Vanderpoel's house and break in... and they may break in the clubhouse."
Naturally, Trixie's proved right in the end, when thieves break into both the clubhouse and the warehouse. And even though they end up holding Trixie hostage, she outsmarts them.

And yet that's only one of the plot threads in this book, which manages to pack quite a bit into its pages. Trixie also gets attacked while bringing Bobby home from a neighbor's house, and later lost in a snowstorm and has to spend the night in an old schoolhouse (because, as Brian says in one of his less-endearing moments, "All right, Trixie, if you say you're going with us, you will. Some girls just never seem to know their place.")

And she loses a femininity battle with Moms, who complains, "I wish you weren't such a tomboy. You looked so pretty when you dressed up every day and pretended you were impressed with that cousin of Honey's" and then drags her daughter dress shopping.

Other points of interest:

Brian on Mart's use of big words:
"He probably doesn't know what the words mean himself. He reads the editorials in the New York Times and learns them by heart." Secretly Brian was proud of his younger brother.
And I not-so-secretly continue to love these two.

The phone number for the Sleepyside Sun is Sleepyside-9680. Not surprisingly, I've never had a phone number with letters in it. (But I loved seeing everyone on child_lit reminisce about theirs!)

Some nice wordplay and dry humor in this book:
  • Brian's jalopy "did not sound much louder than a cement mixer."
  • Trixie says she "could eat a boiled owl I'm so hungry."
  • Mrs. Belden orders her daughter to "give the furniture... a good dusting, not just show the furniture to the dustcloth."
This is not one of Diana Lynch's more favorable appearances. First we have this:
"He should know, too," Diana said, "how the B.W.G.'s gave my parents and me a whole new set of values. We're lots omore of a family since my mother and father discharged the butler, the nurses for my twin brothers and twin sisters, and half the maids. They thought when we firt moved into this neighborhood that we'd have to live like millionaires. I guess we couldn't do it because we've really been poor most of our lives."
And then this:
Diana's puzzled violet-blue eyes widened. She even mixed up one-syllable words.
And then right after getting excited about Mr. Belden's offer of a vacant warehouse to hold the show, Trixie tells Diana they can't accept an old oil burner from Mr. Lynch to heat the clubhouse, because it goes against the "doing everything ourselves" ethic. But borrowing a warehouse doesn't?

[Book source: My collection. Bought it ages ago.]

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Bob-Whites added Arizona to "Places I've Been"

(In other words, Sarah Schmelling's Ophelia Joined the Group Maidens Who Don't Float is definitely worth a read. And maybe a place in English classrooms, for when you need a break from comparing Poe's brand of horror to that of Ambrose Bierce.)

Sorry about that. Totally unsolicited (and uncompensated) book plug over.

Actually, Trixie could use a dose of lit humor in The Mystery in Arizona, since she starts the book by announcing
"I'm not passing math and English, and it's all your fault, Honey Wheeler. I would have spent more time studying if I hadn't been having such fun up at your place skiing, sledding, and skating on the lake."
Sure you would.

But even though Trixie's failing two of those tedious classes, her parents decide it would be too cruel to keep her from joining the rest of the Bob-Whites on a trip to Diana Lynch's uncle's dude ranch.

Which leads to important questions like this:
Would she, Trixie, stick out like a sore thumb if she didn't wear things like real cowboy boots and a ten-gallon Stetson hat?
The idea of the Other is predominant in this book, from "genuine" cowboys to "Navaho" jewelry to "ancient Aztec" customs. Arizona is exotic territory for the Westchester-bred Bob-Whites. Not surprisingly, the book is filled with headdesk moments, which I'm not going to bother quoting.

But the book does have some fun with the Otherness of the West, in terms of both the ignorance and expectations of tourists.

At a rodeo, one guest assumes all those fancy clothes are just costumes:
"I always thought you wore those kerchiefs as decorations. I mean, instead of a necktie. And those things you wear on your legs - chaps - they're just for fun, aren't they?"
And when one of Trixie's mysteries gets cleared up:
"A lot of the dudes wouldn't like it if they knew I was working for my Ph.D. They want their cowboys to behave and talk like the cowboys theyve read about and seen in the movies and on TV."
Sure, there's value in confounding expectations and overthrowing stereotypes, but it doesn't bring in as many tourist dollars.

Trixie doesn't get to escape schoolwork, even on vacation:
"Jim has given me ten absolutely impossible problems. They're all mixed up with fractions and decimals and yards and miles and square feet with a few gallons and ounces thrown in."
And later:
"I did those in school last month," Trixie told him with a sniff.

"That's right," Jim said with a mischievous grin. "The idea now is for you to do them correctly."
Finally our intrepid heroine admits why her grades are so bad:
"The truth is that I have no patience. If I had, I wouldn't have had the answer come out in gallons instead of square miles."
Which is why just about every math class - and a decent number of my science classes - made such a big deal about getting the units right. It's so easy to confuse area and liquid volume.

At the end, Jim does take a break from tormenting Trixie to dance with her. And we add another "aw" moment to the collection.
"You've got to wear one of those darling new dresses you bought in Peekskill."

Trixie shrugged. "I suppose I will, but I won't be responsible for the consequences."

"I will," Jim said gallantly. "As my partner, you will be the most graceful lady on the floor."

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

What's your limit?

Mine, in this case, was two words.

More to the point, two wrong words.

I was enjoying Jay Winik's American Upheaval, a massive book that deals with US, Russian, and French affairs after the American Revolution - until I got to this line on page 478:
"Ironically, where Jefferson was a magnificent populist, Hamilton was alternatively derided as pseudo-aristocrat (he married Jane Schyler, a daughter of one of America's wealthiest families)..." [emphasis mine]
Um, that would be Elizabeth Schuyler.

After slogging through 477 pages - which were really very interesting, filled with stuff I was mostly unfamiliar with - I slammed the book shut when I read that one mistake*.

Winik managed to get both her first and last names wrong, something I noticed only because I've been intrigued by Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton since I first met her in the pages of Founding Mothers. (More about that later.) And there were no chapter notes, just a list of some of the sources consulted for that section - which is fine in some works, but doesn't make me happy when I'm trying to figure out where the author's misinformation came from.

(Further irritation: "Jane Schyler" doesn't appear in the book's index, so relocating the passage in order to rant about it took a little while.)

When I read, I want to have confidence that the author's telling me the truth. And in this case, all it took was two words for me to lose that confidence. Was I too harsh? Should I have continued to assume that the rest of Winik's facts were accurate? How many errors do you put up with before giving up?

Next: Why Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton is so fascinating.

*For the record, I was reading the hardcover edition, but The Site That Shall Not Be Named's Search Inside feature confirms that the same words appear in the paperback.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Help me make a reading list, please

After going to hear an excellent Irish-US group last night, I'm in a mood to spend some time reading about Ireland.

When I pick books out for myself, I usually gravitate to historical fiction - which is great; I loved the Irish Country Doctor books, but I have no idea what good contemporary stuff is out there.

Basically what I'm looking for is the Irish equivalent of Ian Rankin's books, something with a great story, with a setting that's almost a character itself. YA and adult fiction are both good, but I try to avoid depressing books.

Any suggestions? They'd be much appreciated.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Trixie goes girly (for a good cause)

"I wish we could go just as we are. I never feel comfortable in anything but jeans. But I suppose I'll have to wear a dress today."
I hear you, Trixie. Comfortable is good. But for a wedding, don't you think you could try a little? We're not even looking for heels here, just something that will look good in the pictures.

The wedding in The Mystery Off Glen Road is that of the Wheelers' chauffeur Tom Delanoy and Celia the maid (who, unless I overlooked it, is never given a last name).

(By the way, I guess it was obvious that book 4 wasn't one of my favorites. This time you get a break from the ranting, though, because I'm a fan of this one. I'm sorry to disappoint anyone who was looking for another sociocultural diatribe. Anyway. Moving on.)

One of the great things about this book is how much time it spends on characterization. (Yes, even when Jim is defined as "one of those people who were so honorable that they leaned over backward to respect other people's rights even when it made no sense." Or when he "slid down the roof and, grasping the gutter for a second, swung himself to the ground... All of the boys were strong and supple, but Jim was the most athletic of them all. There really wasn't anything worth doing that Jim couldn't do - and do awfully well." What can I say? I'm in a good mood today, and feeling indulgent.)

Anyway, the character development includes some of the secondary characters too, like Honey's governess-estate manager-voice of sanity:
Miss Trask was the brisk kind of woman who, no matter what the occasion was, always wore tailored suits and sensible oxfords. She seldom wore a hat over her short gray hair and liked nothing better than to take long walks in the pouring rain, spurning an umbrella as something beneath her dignity.
She sounds like something out of Madeleine L'Engle, doesn't she? One of the quirky-but-wise grandparent-like characters, I think. I'd love to see someone make up Miss Trask's backstory.

Other great things about this book? The 1950s details. One of the illustrations - and if I found a copy online it would probably be one that's in violation of copyright laws, so just find a copy of the original or the Random House reissue - features Reagan the groom in his work clothes: puffed riding breeches and a hat that might be at home on Dudley Do-Right's head.

Also, the "no-school siren" is how they find out about their day off in the wake of a hurricane. No mass e-mails here! And country music is known as "hillbilly songs." And Brian's been saving up to buy himself a new car, one with the respectable price tag of $50.

(Side note: This series introduced me to the word jalopy. Unfortunately, it didn't come with a pronunciation guide, so when I was about 12 I spent a fair bit of time trying to figure out which syllable was the accented one.)

Anyway, Brian's jalopy is at the center of the story here. He's saved his $50, and he's all ready to buy the car from Mr. Lytell at the general store, but when the hurricane makes a mess of the Bob-White clubhouse, he wouldn't even dream of keeping the money for himself. (Because, in case it somehow slipped your mind, Brian and Jim are uber-honorable.)

So Trixie comes up with a plan to get the car for him:
"Mr. Lytell has promised Brian not to sell his jalopy to a dealer until next Saturday. Between then and now I've got to get the diamond ring so I can give it to him as security. The only way I can possibly convince Dad that I should have it is for me to go feminine all over the place. As you pointed out, I can't do that suddenly, so between now and Friday I've got to do it by degrees. Mart, to repeat myself, is going to be suspicious until the very end, so I've got to fool him first. Do I make myself clear?"
Just in case she didn't, here's the plan: Trixie uses the diamond ring Jim gave her in the first book, currently reposing in the family safe deposit box, as security, while the Bob-Whites fill in as temporary gamekeepers on the Wheeler estate and earn the money to redeem both the ring and the car. To justify her new fondness for jewelry, Trixie pretends to be crushing on Honey's cousin Ben, who's about to spend the week in Westchester. Any questions?

No, it doesn't make sense. But neither do screwball comedy plots, and we still love them.

She makes her first girled-up appearance at dinner one night:
It was agony, but Trixie somehow did it. She appeared at dinner that evening wearing a red-and-white dotted-swiss Nylon frock, white socks, and black patent leather slippers. She had brushed and dampened her blond curls so they looked almost as neat as thought they had been set by a beauty parlor expert. She had also helped herself to her mother's hand lotion and toilet water.

The whole thing had been such an effort that she found she couldn't walk naturally...

Nobody said a word for a long minute. Then, as though they, too, were controlled by strings, Trixie's father and older brothers all simultaneously took large sips from their water tumblers...

Mart uttered a sound which was identical with the yelp which Reddy emitted whenever Bobby accidentally stepped on his tail.
See, you can tell I'm in a good mood because I'm not even complaining about the construction "identical with."

Next comes the ask, as fundraisers say:
"The point is," she said sweetly, "since I haven't got a seed pearl necklace, I simply must have the diamond ring that Jim gave me. Please, Dad, won't you get it out of the bank? I mean, Ben is the sophisticated type of boy who expects his date to be at least dressed." She turned to her mother. "Honestly, Moms, I feel positively naked in this dress without any jewelry."
As in all screwball comedies, the artificial crush wouldn't be any fun if Trixie and Ben actually liked each other.
"Don't worry... He doesn't like you any more than you like him, so when you swoon around and act as though you were crazy about him, he probably won't even notice."
Honey gets a rare display of intelligence: "The bi in bicycle means that it has two wheels. I think it's Greek, like Phi Beta Kappa."

Which prompts Trixie to speculate on the likelihood of her joining that group:
"Even if I do get better marks in math so I graduate from high school and go to college, no one's ever going to give me a Phi Beta Kappa key."

"Oh, I don't know," Honey said cheerfully. "Jim is sure to get one. He'll give you his."
Because Jim, even though he won't come out and say it, has a thing for Trixie.
"Oh, my goodness," [Honey] cried exasperatedly. "Can't you leave her alone? Don't you know that her heart is broken and all because Ben is so crazy about Di?"

"So that's it." Jim abruptly left the stable.
Me, I'll take Mart over Jim-the-greatest-of-them-all.
"I have no intention of galloping or Sherlocking. I will simply provide Trixie with a few facts about snares and traps and such. Thus, if she doesn't fall into them, she will be able to recognize same."
Consider this your spoiler alert. From the book's last page:
"What's all this about a ring?" Ben interrupted. "It sounds as though you two were engaged or something."

Trixie sniffed. "If Jim were the last man on earth I wouldn't marry him."

"Is that so?" Jim gave her a gentle push and Trixie found herself sitting in the snowbank with Di...

"Do you think I'd get myself engaged to anybody as dumb as that?" Jim asked Ben...

Jim relented then and helped Trixie to her feet. "On you," he said, "snow looks good. You should wear it more frequently. Especially on your eyelashes. Much more becoming than mascara."
All together now: Awwwwwww.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Trixie Belden and the Class Snobbery

In Trixie's fourth adventure, The Mysterious Visitor, she delves into the unexplored world of social classes. She learns that there are poor people in Sleepyside. And the nouveaux riches? Well, you just can't expect real warmth or taste.

This book marks the first appearance of Bob-White Diana Lynch, whom Trixie introduces like so:
"Next to you, Honey, she's the prettiest girl in our class. She doesn't get very good marks, but neither do I. She's got two sets of twins for brothers and sisters, and her father made a million dollars a couple of years ago. They have a huge place that's as gorgeous as yours, high on a hill that's even higher than your hill, with a marvelous view of the river."
Aren't those the details you want as soon as you meet someone?

As a 'surprise' for Diana, he had persuaded Mrs. Lynch to order caterers, a five-piece orchestra, and even decorators from New York.
Diana's bedroom:
It was a decorator's dream of a room, done in royal blue and gold. There were twin beds in it, a huge sofa, two comfortable chairs, a desk, and even a love seat. The gold silk curtains matched the bedspreads, which were monogrammed in royal blue.
But there's a cure for all that, because old money always knows best:
"It's really quite simple," Miss Trask put in. "I'm sure, Honey, that Mrs. Wheeler would like very much to invite Di's parents to the dinner she's giving next Friday night. When she telephones Mrs. Lynch tomorrow morning, she could suggest at the same time that Di's friends would have much more fun if the party Di gives is simply an informal affair."
(Side note: Old money also understands noblesse oblige. The Wheelers are giving a cottage to their soon-to-be-married chauffeur and maid. But it's not just out of altruism:
"If they set up housekeeping in the village, they'll lose their jobs because Dad and Mother have to have a maid and a chauffeur who live on the premises."
Ah, the difficulties of maintaining a country estate.)

Oh, and this:
"Listen, Di," Trixie said seriously, "you've got to stop hating being rich."
And then there's the other side of town, a street Trixie has never heard of until the Wheelers' chauffeur sets her straight:
"Anyway, he says Hawthorne Street is the worst street in town. Most people call it Skid Row. Nothing but ramshackle houses where bums live when they're not in jail."
Our heroine is a little concerned about her foray into this new world. The solution? Dehumanize the residents!
"There's nothing to be afraid of," Trixie said to herself firmly. "This used to be a cowpath once. I'm going to pretend that all these strange-looking people are harmless cows."...

The women, in their bright shawls and full skirts, looked like gypsies, and the men, when they moved at all, shuffled as though their feet hurt. Even the children moved slowly and stared suspiciously at Trixie as she passed by.
And once she moves onto Hawthorne Street itself, in all its underclass glory:
They were no worse than the dilapidated buildings in the alley, but there was something evil about them. The accumulated dirt of years clung to them, and there wasn't a single solitary soul in sight... There were no porches or stoops here.
I don't know what else to say about the rampant class bias. Is it Julie Campbell's perspective, or did she just think it would be appropriate for the characters?

Thus endeth the rant. Let's move onto other details.

No, one more minor rant first. Feel free to count the instances of stupid in the following sentence:
"But he couldn't have been one of the first settlers [of Arizona]. They were mostly killed off by the Indians before the Revolution."
Okay, back to being frivolous. The Mysterious Visitor includes some good bits of dialogue, including this:
"I guess you're right," Trixie said again. "I was just thinking -"

"Don't," Reagan interrupted. "Don't think. Every time you do, this place is swarming with state troopers and G-men."
And this:
Trixie shrugged. "Do you know what 'casing the joint' means, Honey?"
"No, I don't," Honey said crossly.

"You should read more detective stories," Trixie said.
And then there's an exchange that's of interest primarily because it ties into the plot of a Cherry Ames book written by the same author (writing as Julie Tatham):
Jim patted Honey's hand. "You're too young and innocent to understand the nature of shady characters like Olyfant. They make it their business to know all there is to know about rich or famous people like the Lynches."

"I still don't understand," Honey said. "Newspapers and county clerks* don't give information to just anyone, especially not to shady characters."

"But crooked politicians do," Jim said, grinning.

"That's right," Mart said. "I've been looking into Olyfant. He's been arrested dozens of times but never convicted of anything. That spells a crooked political connection in capital letters."
I don't believe we've started keeping track of books in which Trixie gets tied up, so let's consider this Item #1. Like the "bracelets" list, it's going to grow.

*Today, at least, the second half of Honey's assumption is patently false. County clerks and other municipal employees are governed by the state or local version of the Freedom of Information Act. It's an important piece of legislation - even if I did grumble about making copies for FOIA requests back when I worked for a municipal agency.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

According to books read in 2009...

Taken from Educating Alice and many others:

Describe yourself:
Struts and Frets
How do you feel?
Along for the Ride
Describe where you currently live:
The Hive
If you could go anywhere, where would you go?
The Falls
Your favorite form of transport:
The Rock and the River
Your best friend is . . . ?
You and your friends are . . .?
Ladies of Liberty
What’s the weather like?
Favourite time of day?
Shelf Discovery
What is life to you?
The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg
What is the best advice you have to give?
How to Talk Minnesotan
Thought for the Day?
Alphabet Juice
My soul’s present condition?
The Treasure Map of Boys

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Interview: Christine Marciniak

You want a definition of unputdownable (with apologies to Ann Kingman, who despises that word)? I stood in front of my computer desk for two hours the first time I read When Mike Kissed Emma. The laptop battery had run down, so I had to plug in, but I hadn't gotten around to getting a chair for my desk. And yet I was so engrossed in the story I didn't want to leave it.

Now it's everyone else's turn, because this is When Mike Kissed Emma's launch week. It's Christine Marciniak's debut novel, and she's dropped by here to answer some questions about it.

(Full disclosure: Chris is a member of my critique group, and obviously I'm not an unbiased reader. To see what other people - ones who don't know Chris - have said about When Mike Kissed Emma, check out the reviews on Chris' blog, Simply Put.

What does your writing space look like?

My writing space looks very much like my living room. A couple of years ago I got a laptop computer - since then I've ceded the desktop to the kids and my husband (I used to sit at an actual desk and type). Now I hang out on the sofa, usually with a cup of tea next to me, and work that way.

Who would you cast in the movie of When Mike Kissed Emma?

I'm so not up on who the teen actors are these days. Zac Efron might make a good Mike. I'm kind of lost though on good ideas for Trevor and Emma. Any suggestions?

Are you a performer like Emma?

When I was in elementary and middle school I really enjoyed being on stage and did a few different things, including our Eighth Grade Production, which was a blast. Since then I haven't been on stage, but I did work backstage on a number of high school shows.

(Chris talks about her theatrical history in more detail at Simply Put.)

Have you thought about what comes next for the characters?

I suppose it would be too easy to say that they live happily ever after. I don't know if Mike and Emma are destined to stay together forever. I do know that they are going to have fun getting to really know each other and hang out together at least through high school.

What advice would high school you give Emma?

Emma seems to have it pretty much figured out. One good piece of advice would be: don't worry so much about what your friends think, be true to yourself.

What's your favorite part of The Sound of Music?

My favorite part of the movie is when Maria is singing "I've Got Confidence" as she goes up to the big house. I like how she puts on a brave face and chases away her fears. And also, like Emma, I love the scene where Liesl and Rolf are dancing in the gazebo.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The East Cost is really long

That may seem obvious, but I've been driving it - I left Sarasota on Sunday and got home to Connecticut tonight.

If you've been following me on Twitter then you've seen similar brilliant observations from the road. If not, you'll still understand that this is my excuse for not having a post ready for the One Shot Southeast Asia blog tour tomorrow.

So take yourself over to Chasing Ray for the complete list of posts from people who are better about time management (or expectation-setting; I also thought I was going to write 5500 words on this trip) than I am - and then come back here in a few days so I can tell you all about the fab Children of the River.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Change? Not so much.

Forty-nine years ago next month, Rafer Johnson became the first African-American to captain the U.S. Olympic team, and the first African-American to carry the flag in the opening ceremonies.

I didn't know that until last week.

Something else I didn't know until last week: Justine Larbalestier protested her publisher's decision to put a long-haired white girl on the cover of Liar even though the protagonist is a short-haired African-American.

Justine lost.

David Maraniss' Rome 1960 - which, by the way, features a black man on the front cover an a black woman on the back - makes it pretty clear that Johnson's prominent position was all about propaganda. Sure, he was a great athlete - he won gold in the decathlon - and he was respected by his teammates, and he was a leader, and the story of the 1960 decathlon pretty much sums up the Olympic ideal - but what really counted with the people in charge was creating the image above.

It was an attempt to drown out Cold War criticism of the ongoing segregation in the U.S. - never mind that Wilma Rudolph and her teammates couldn't stop to use a real bathroom when they traveled to meets back home. And the fact that an American observer wondered what his compatriots would think about a "colored boy" leading the team? An anomaly. The Soviets were telling lies.

At the same time, the International Olympic Committee accepted South Africa's claim that there simply weren't any qualified athletes of color in the country, and that was the reason the South African team was whites-0nly.

It's easy to read about the 1960 Olympics and wonder how much has really changed when the Carl Brandon Society still has to issue open letters like this. It's easy to say the Liar fiasco isn't really a surprise.

But what comes next?

I don't do the buying at my store, and I don't have much influence with the buyers. (I don't even buy all that many books myself, thanks to the whole working-at-a-bookstore thing.)

I can't be a writer of color myself, but I can make a conscious effort to bring attention to writers of color here. I was a Latin American studies major; it's not like I have a shortage of works to draw from.

I can pay attention to the conversation, and take part.

And then we'll see what comes next.(The 1960 Olympic marathon was also the first to be won by an African runner, Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia. He ran the race barefoot because his running shoes were giving him blisters. He won the gold medal again in 1964.)

Friday, July 17, 2009

Writers of color

Borrowing this list from Color Online, via The HappyNappyBookseller. X means read, # means on the TBR list, and ! means loved.

Susan’s Unofficial List of Great YA by or About Women of Color:

1. When Kambia Elaine Flew In From Neptune by Lori A. Williams
2. Every Time A Rainbow Dies by Rita Williams-Garcia
3. No Laughter Here by Rita Williams-Garcia
4. Jumped by Rita Williams-Garcia
5. If You Come Softly by Jacqueline Woodson (X)
6. The House You Pass On The Way by Jacqueline Woodson
7. Flygirl by Sherri L. Smith (#)
8. From The Notebooks of Melanin Sun by Jacqueline Woodson
9. Sold by Patricia McCormick
10. Heaven by An Na
11. The Parable of The Sower by Octavia E. Butler (!)
12. Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (#)
13. Persepolis by Majane Satrapi (X)
14. The Rock and The River by Kekla Magoon (!)
15. Secret Keeper by Mitali Perkins (!)
16. Mare’s War by Tanita S. Davis (#)
17. A Wish After Midnight by Zetta Elliott (#)
18. Down To The Bone by Mayra Lazara Dole
19. Don’t Get It Twisted by Paula Chase
20. Jason & Kyra by Dana Davidson (!)
21. Forged by Fire by Sharon Draper
22. Kendra by Coe Booth (!)
23. Shine, Coconut Moon by Neesha Meminger (#)
24. Does My Head Look Big In This? By Randa Abdel-Fattah (X)
25. Born Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidier
26. Skunk Girl by Sheba Karim (X)
27. The Meaning of Conseulo by Judith Ortiz Cofer
28. In The Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez (!)
29. Kindred by Octavia E. Butler (!)
30. First Part Last by Angela Johnson
31. Pemba’s Song by Marilyn Nelson
32. Wanting Mor by Rukhsana Khan
33. M + O 4EVR by Tonya Hegamin (#)
34. Lucy The Giant by Sherri L. Smith
35. The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros (X)
36 Throwaway Piece by Jo Ann Hernandez
37. White Bread Competition by Jo Ann Hernandez
38. Across A Hundred Mountains by Reyna Grande (#)
39. Silver Phoenix by Cindy Pon
40. Ash by Malinda Lo
41. The Skin I’m In by Sharon G. Flake

It's hardly a comprehensive list of the writers of color I've read and loved, let alone my ever-growing TBR list, but it's a start.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Blog Love

I admit it: I have a blog-crush.

Instead of fluttering my eyelashes and flipping my hair and waiting to see if he noticed me, I keep checking for the next post at the Abbeville Manual of Style. And the latest post is why.

This is what I've wanted to say to all the "but I want my cheap e-books now" complaints, only I hadn't figured out the words:
Let’s be clear, however: even if they are slow to accomplish this, an unchecked spree of digital book piracy will be a failure of law enforcement, not of business innovation. Customers do not have the right to steal goods that they can’t obtain as cheaply or conveniently as they might prefer... You could also have invested in a portable CD player and suffered the inconvenience of carrying a little extra weight, because that was the legal option. You didn’t have to steal music any more than we have to go shoplift from Gristedes right now because their prices aren’t as low as we might like, or because they won’t offer the convenience of, say, delivering groceries to our office this minute.
Personally, I'd like this dress in my size with a zero knocked off the price, but I'm not going to whine about not getting it - and it would be utterly baseless for me to do so.

So mwah, Abbeville. Thanks for being the voice of reason!

Monday, June 15, 2009

Trixie and all the supporting characters

It's summertime in Sleepyside, and the Trixie Belden series really gets underway with book number three.

Summer's a good time for Trixie.
The girls were wearing shorts and tops so that they could take a dip in the lake whenever they wanted to, without bothering to change into swimsuits.
There's swimming! And horses! Oh, and diamonds.

One diamond, actually, found by Trixie and Honey (of course) in the floor of the cottage at the edge of the Manor House grounds.

Honey, having learned how to tell real gems from paste (what else would a millionaire's daughter do?), is ready to hand the diamond over to the police immediately. But the ever-persuasive Trixie has other plans.
"Oh, no, please," Trixie begged. "Let's not tell anybody about it for a little while. Let's try to solve the mystery of how it got in the cottage ourselves."
And why doesn't Trixie want the police involved?
"The cottage would be positively crawling with detectives who'd find all the clues before we had a chance."
Because this is when Trixie discovers her true calling: she's going to be a detective. And Honey too, just as soon as they get through with pesky things like chores and school and older brothers who like to make fun of them.

Yes, brothers. Aside from the detective thing, Brian and Mart Belden's first appearance is what makes The Gatehouse Mystery the first real book in the series. (There's also the fact that I had this one long before I acquired the first two, but I'm sticking with my thesis.)
"The one on the left with the funny-looking crew cut is Mart. The other odd-looking creature is Brian. I hate them both at the moment."
Trixie hates her brothers (at the moment) for the same reason I love them: they provide some much-needed perspective and tranquility, and aren't given to making assumptions like "The reason why the crooks didn't come back for it when they found out it wasn't with all the rest of the loot is that they got killed off in a gang war or something."

You love them too, don't you?

By the way, the Wheelers are rich. Just in case you'd forgotten.

In book #3, that means Honey gets stuck with lines like this:
"Regan's been complaining that, what with having to drive servants back and forth and having such trouble with car repairs, we need a chauffeur. I really think I'm going to have to speak to Daddy about it."
And this one:
"Don't feel so bad. Daddy has plenty of money. He can keep us out of jail... If the police come around asking for diamonds, Mother will give them one of hers."
Oh, and we're treated to a description of casual dining a la Wheeler:
But on Thursdays, the cook's night off, the meal was a much more simple affair. Celia served the first course, and then she and Miss Trask brought in platters of cold cuts and big bowls of salad. Everyone helped himself, and the dessert was usually fruit and crackers with several kinds of cheese. Grown-ups were served coffee in fragile little cups.
(Is it just me, or does anyone else think Maureen O'Hara would be just right as Mrs. Wheeler?)

A few other miscellaneous bits of interest:
  • The Gatehouse Mystery was my introduction to Diamond Jim Brady (the Belden siblings are familiar enough with the name that they can use it as a subtle reference to the gem in question) and the art of forging signatures. The actual forgery instructions weren't so useful, because carbon paper was no longer a household staple by the time I met the book (and it was no longer the case that "anyone can rent a typewriter"), but I still liked knowing how to do it.
  • For everyone keeping count, this is now the second time we've seen "bracelets" for handcuffs, this time courtesy of Jim.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Trixie continued: happy families are all alike

It's been a long time since my last Trixie post - nearly a year.

Conveniently, our intrepid sleuth pretty much covers everything you need to know on the first page of the second book in the series, The Red Trailer Mystery.
"We're going on a trailer trip, Honey Wheeler and I, with her governess, Miss Trask, to try and find Jim Frayne, who has run away again."
What? You want more?
"Oh, Dad, Jim is really the most wonderful boy I ever knew. His ambition in life is to own and run a camp for orphan boys so they can learn how to be good at sports and how to get along in the woods at the same time that they have school lessons. So that's why we feel sure he's trying now to get a job at one of those three big camps upstate. He could be a junior counselor, like Brian and Mart, or junior athletic instructor, because he's very good at everything and he knows all about the woods and did two years of high school in one and one a scholarship to college --"
That's right, Trix. Time for a breath. (Come on, aren't you a little in love with him too by now?)

So Honey, Trixie, and Miss Trask are headed for the nebulous region known as "upstate" to those of us who live near the coast.

And how are they getting there? In a trailer, featuring a "combination living room and bedroom with a cozy little dining alcove... tiled kitchenette... glistening modern bathroom [e]quipped with a glassed-in shower, fluorescent lighting, and a compact mirrored cabinet over the washbasin."

You think that sounds like fun? Try it for a few days. Rainy ones. When one of the members of your party is a toddler suffering from severe poison ivy. And the thing leaks.

Sorry, forgot whose story we were focusing on here. Back to Trixie, who runs into another mystery, in the form of the trailer they park next to on their first night:
"That's funny," Trixie wondered aloud. "What's a man who looks so poverty-stricken doing in such a lavish trailer?"
Naturally, we find out by the end of the book. And all his problems get solved too.

In the meantime, we get to see familiar themes resurface:
  • Honey is rich.
"It must be an awful nuisance being rich... Your parents are always worrying for fear you'll be kidnapped and held for ransom, aren't they?"
  • Honey fails to display the intelligence she has in the later books.
"Why, he could go to a hotel, couldn't he?" Honey demanded.

Trixie shook her head. "Not without arousing suspicion. Boys his age don't go around stopping at hotels."

"I never thought about that," Honey said slowly.
  • Bad guys are bad from their first lines.
"It was all your fault. You weren't watching where you were going. You'll have to pay for the damage, you stupid little fool!"
  • Bad guys use a lot of slang.
"'You'd better watch who you call a numbskull around here,' Jeff said evenly. 'And in case you're interested, I'm getting fed up with you giving all the orders. This is a fifty-fifty racket, see?'"
  • So do police - state troopers, in this case.
"'Reach for the ceiling, brother... Put your dainty wrists in these bracelets, bud. Pretty, aren't they?... Since we caught these two birds red-handed, we won't need to call you as witnesses."
(This, by the way, marks the first appearance of "dainty wrists" and "bracelets" as a synonym for handcuffs. It will not be the last.)

And of course the book is full of delightful signs of 1950 - airmail letters and telegrams, camps full of husky, energetic boys, a camp called Autoville...

It's not really spoiling anything to say that the book has a happy ending.

Forget spoilers. The book is almost sixty years old, and if you haven't gotten to it yet, it's not my fault.

And anyway, the last page provides us with one more swoon-worthy Jim moment, so naturally I'll close with it here.
"'They're waiting for you at a table inside.' Jim gave her a little push. 'In you go, kid. I'm top man around here now.'"
What? I'm the only one who finds that adorable? Hmph. Just wait for book #3, where Jim gets to confront his first hardened criminal.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Chicken Saga, Part the Last

The chickens went home today. After two months of moving from one box to another...
... they've gone back to the farm.
No more converted warehouse loft for them.
Now they're in a full-scale commune.
They - well, I guess "enjoyed" is the right word - a ride along some back roads...
... and settled in among their sisters who were fostered elsewhere.

There's already some jockeying for queen of the chicken yard...
... but mostly they're excited about being outside. (Grass! Bugs! What fun!)

Sometime soon they'll move to the chicken tractor, whose resemblance to a gypsy caravan is not an accident.

In this case, they'll move a few feet every day, so they can eat bugs and fertilize the fields.
And, of course, they'll start laying in October or so. No doubt we'll pick up their output at the farm stand from time to time.
Goodbye to Peck, Pack, and Stripe!

Friday, May 22, 2009

Poetry Friday: ¿Y tu aguela, aonde ejtá?

This week's poem is a big thank you to all the people who think about race in writing, put themselves out there, and push me to challenge my privilege. Y'all are awesome, and don't get nearly enough credit.

¿Y tu agüela, aonde ejtá?
by Fernando Fortunato Vizcarondo

Ayé me dijite negro
Y hoy te boy a contejtá:
Mi mai se sienta en la sala.
¿Y tu agüela, aonde ejtá?

Yo tengo el pelo'e caíyo:
El tuyo ej seda namá;
Tu pai lo tiene bien lasio,
¿Y tu agüela, aonde ejtá?

Tu coló te salió blanco
Y la mejiya rosá;
Loj lábioj loj tiénej finoj . . .
¿Y tu agüela, aonde ejtá?

¿Disej que mi bemba ej grande
Y mi pasa colorá?
Pero dijme, por la binge,
¿Y tu agüela, aonde ejtá?

Como tu nena ej blanquita
La sacaj mucho a pasiá . . .
Y yo con ganae gritate
¿Y tu agüela, aonde ejtá?

A ti te gujta el fojtrote,
Y a mi brujca maniguá.
Tú te laj tiraj de blanco
¿Y tu agüela, aonde ejtá?

Erej blanquito enchapao
Que dentraj en sosiedá,
Temiendo que se conojca
La mamá de tu mamá.

Aquí el que no tiene dinga
Tiene mandinga . . ¡ja, ja!
Por eso yo te pregunto
¿Y tu agüela, aonde ejtá?

Ayé me dijite negro
Queriéndome abochoná.
Mi agüela sale a la sala,
Y la tuya oculta ajtá.

La pobre se ejtá muriendo
Al belse tan maltratá.
Que hajta tu perro le ladra
Si acaso a la sala bá.

¡Y bien que yo la conojco!
Se ñama siña Tatá . . .
Tu la ejconde en la cosina,
Po'que ej prieta de a beldá.
Text taken from here.

Rather than subject you to my totally non-poetic attempt at translation, I'll let YouTube come to the rescue: here's the poem read in English (albeit ninety degrees from vertical).

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

In which I rant a bit

"One British scholar who studied the Venuses in his youth never noticed any clothing because, he recalled, he 'never got past the breasts.'"
You know how women sometimes complain about men speaking to their breasts rather than their faces? That's nothing compared to what the prehistoric European figurines (most of them called Venus of Something) have put up with.

It's something I've been especially cognizant of since reading The Invisible Sex by J.M. Adovasio, Olga Soffer, and Jake Page. And it's why this Reuters article, filed under "Oddly Enough," set me off, starting with the title.

"Sexy Venus"? This is not a prehistoric pinup girl. (Which, I found out only after typing that, is exactly the term Nature uses, at least on its website, to describe the figure. I thought Reuters might have been dumbing down, but it seems the blame lies elsewhere.)

The Nature letter and accompanying commentary discuss a recently discovered figurine that bears some resemblance to the known ones, like the Venus of Willendorf, Venus of Brassempouy, and Venus of Lespugue, but is 5,000 years older than any known figurine of this type.

So it's huge - these figurines are thought to represent, among other things, the concept of gender as distinct from sex, which was a big step in the development of human consciousness.

As in, it happened earlier than we thought.

Those of us who bother with thought, at least, and don't get stuck on the idea of what The Invisible Sex calls "paleoporn."

Adovasio and Soffer took their eyes off the breasts for a while and focused on what appear to be braids. And they found that "a close inspection of the braids of the Venus of Willendorf showed that her 'hair' was, on the contrary, a woven hat, a radially hand-woven item of apparel that was probably begun from a knotted center in the manner of certain coiled baskets made today by Hopi, Apache, and other American Indian tribes."

Which is significant, because based on the amount of detail in the hat, "the carver had to have spent more time on just the hat than on the rest of the entire figurine." Seems like the important part, no?

That's not to say there's no sexual aspect: "There is simply no denying that the sculptors of these figurines went to a great deal of trouble to show off the sexual and secondary sexual features of the female human, even to the point of leaving the rest of the figure - face, feet, arms, and so forth - either abstract or absent altogether."

But they - and there's plenty of speculation about the identities of the carvers - don't seem to have put the figures in the plain brown wrapper that Reuters, Nature, and the latest researchers are reaching for.

(All quotes from the ARC version of The Invisible Sex, which is a plausible takedown of standard man-the-mighty-hunter versions of prehistory and other ways to interpret archaeological evidence. There's a reason the ARC still has a home on my shelves.)