Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Glowing Review

Before reading this book, you must read:

1. Three Men in a Boat: To Say Nothing of the Dog, Jerome K. Jerome
2. A generous helping of P.G. Wodehouse (especially his early novels and Jeeves novels)

It would also behoove you to:

1. Read some of Dorothy Sayers's Peter Wimsey mysteries
2. Have a familiarity with Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle
3. Read Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone

I mean, let's be honest, you ought to have done all that already, unless you're just some kind of shameless failure. [I'm sort of kidding because, actually, I haven't yet read The Moonstone, only Collins's The Woman in White. But I do believe a disregard of Wodehouse is a critical character flaw.]

So, have you done that? Good. Now you're ready to read a book that will make you scrunch up your shoulders and grin so wide that you feel you're attempting to squeeze out all your excess glee. It's To Say Nothing of the Dog, by Connie Willis. It's the closest thing to a modern writer writing like Wodehouse I've found, and I didn't think that was even possible. There are overbearing aunt types and a sappy Madeline Bassett type and a poetry-quoting, infatuated Bingo type and an absent-minded Oxford professor and a retired Colonel obsessed with fancy goldfish and imposters and imminently capable butlers. It's obviously a tribute to Jerome, so much so that Harris, George, J, and Montmorency have a cameo on the Thames, as does a tin of peaches (or is it pineapple?). And it's a mystery: What happened to the bishop's bird stump? But technically, it's science fiction. YES. Because it is about time travel.

And it's just the best thing you can imagine. It's so funny, and it's genuinely romantic, and it's set in Oxford, and it's really exciting, and the last line is excellent. Oh my goodness. I am positively in love with this book. I can't say any more about it, or I'll give it all away.

Many thanks to Jenny for the recommendation.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Don't Play Their Game!

[This post won't be of much interest to you unless you've already read The Hunger Games. If you'd like to know more about it, here's my review. The following is more of a personal rant than a helpful review. Just know that I highly recommend both books.]

I picked up Catching Fire (sequel to Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games) yesterday morning and completed it this afternoon. My eyes are tired and adrenaline is coursing through my veins. What can I say? It was very like THG in quality and theme. It picks up six months after the end of the games with more star-crossed loves, more wretchedness from those Capitol despots, more fights to the death, and a heap of political unrest. There is, as I expected, an agonizing cliffhanger ending, and I have no idea when the third novel of the trilogy will be published. Sorry. Aaagh.

Katniss's character is so damaged to begin with that she isn't much changed, aside from new nightmares reminiscent of the games. She struggles to protect her loved ones, not knowing whether she ought to play the government's game or rebel against it. I'm a little impatient with her slowness to rebel within the hunger games, to be quite honest. I understand that she's just a teenage girl, and technically she has been rebelling from the start of the series by trespassing and hunting. But there are all these obvious little hints that the oppressed people from multiple districts are looking to Katniss for leadership and inspiration, and she's clueless. So I'm sympathetic to her frustration that she is being used against her will and knowledge (by more than one faction), but I want her to grab control of the situation and do something really risky and smart and effective! Perhaps my expectations are too high for a 17-year-old girl. She's done amazing things already, and she spends a lot of time admirably questioning whether her motives are selfish and/or for the good. I'm too quick to compare her to Gregor from Collins's Underland Chronicles, who is younger yet wiser and more decisive. In a comparable war situation, he aims to avoid violence, choose mercy, and urges others to do the same. But of course, my critique of Gregor is that he is too young, at 11, to be a sword fighting warrior who petitions for peace.

Herein lies the value of Collins's novels. They fill me with excitement, revulsion, pity, and inspiration to the point of utter confusion. I am frustrated with protagonists on the basis of flaws which only make them more human, and yet they are fantastic, symbolic heroes. I struggle to put my impressions into stilted prose and am just going to give it up because, once again, fiction has done the job for me. However, if there's one relatable message I take from Collins's writing, it's that children can survive a lot; they're weak and strong and surprisingly resilient and thoughtful. With Free-Range Kids fresh on my mind, I'm convinced we don't give children enough credit for their intelligence and abilities at a very young age.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Worrying Less

"There has never been a single substantiated instance of any child dying from a stranger's poisoned Halloween candy." Infant formula, BPA, metal baseball bats, cell phone brain cancer, lead, raw cookie dough, and plastic bags are either less threatening than you'd think or completely non-problematic. A walking school bus and giving kids a chance to create their own games in PE are great ideas! "If you actually wanted your child to be kidnapped and held overnight by a stranger, how long would you have to keep her outside, unattended, for this to be statistically likely to happen? About seven hundred and fifty thousand years."

Awesome. I feel better. Much better. Thanks to Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry by Lenore Skenazy, I took Ben to the playground yesterday and didn't feel nervous when he crawled further away than usual, played with friendly strangers, ate dirt and ice cream, and took off his hat when he wasn't wearing sunscreen. I really like Skenazy's message, and I laughed out loud at her humorous prose multiple times. Now The Today Show seems even more alarmist than ever before. Mostly, it reminded me of the freedoms my parents granted me as a child, how much I enjoyed them, and how very much I benefited from them.

Here's a list of some of the best things my parents let me do before I reached age 20. All of these things made me brave and curious and eager to explore.
  • I walked to school without an adult every day of elementary school. In the 4th and 5th grade, this was even more thrilling because it was a much longer walk (perhaps a mile?) and after school we would wander around and explore the huge drainage ditch. I still get an enthralled shiver when I think about that ditch.
  • In the 5th grade, I went to Wild Animal Park camp and petted a cheetah. This may be the best animal experience of my life.
  • When I was 9 or 10, I spent the night with a friend whose parents were gone most of the evening. She and I baked chocolate chip cookies from scratch. (They tasted horrible, but it's one of my most exciting baking memories.)
  • In the 6th grade, my family and I walked down Bourbon Street in New Orleans. I stood still while a street performer did a flip over my head. Everyone laughed, and no one voiced a concern that I might get kicked in the noggin.
  • I spent many many hours as a kid just wandering around our neighborhoods, the mall, the movie theater, parks, and the community pool. Without a cell phone. I came home for dinner, then went back outside to play kick the can in the dark.
  • In the 8th grade, I went on two trips with a girls' service organization from my church. On one trip to a college campus, I encouraged my friends to skip the activities and wander around the campus with me at night (I was so inspired by this that I decided right then I would go to college there, and that's exactly what I did). On the second trip we went to San Antonio, where I encouraged my friends to skip the activities and wander around the Riverwalk with me.
  • My parents took us to Washington, DC. Our hotel caught on fire, but everyone was safely evacuated. We laughed and took photos of ourselves pretending to scream in horror next to firetrucks, then went to the zoo.
  • When I got a driver's permit, my dad would often take me out in the "wart." During these drives he would recline his seat and pretend to nap, or fiddle with the overhead light and tell me funny stories. He didn't give me a lot of driving tips, he just told me not to trust other people's turn signals. Later he taught me how to drive his sports car like a fighter pilot (his profession).
  • I never had a set curfew. My parents trusted me not to get in trouble, and I didn't.
  • In my junior and senior years of high school, I went on two choir tours, during which I wandered around downtown Washington, New York, Toronto, Santa Fe, and Chicago completely without adult supervision and had a spectacular time.
  • I went off to college. Without a cell phone. My mom and sister helped my carry my stuff in, hugged me, and left. It was the best three years of my life.
  • When I was 19 years old, my parents put me on a plane to Frankfurt, Germany, with some cash and a Eurorail pass. Two days after I arrived in the little town of Iserlohn, I called my parents from a pay phone; I cried a bit and complained that I couldn't call the US on the phone in my dorm and someone had stolen my luggage wheels. When I hung up I felt better and went to eat some gelato. My parents didn't feel better, but there was nothing they could do, so they didn't. I had a glorious summer. I went on on several trips with my fellow students and two weekend trips all by myself. One afternoon when I was bored, I just wandered out of the town, up a mountain, through a thick forest of evergreens, and out into a wheat field just as the afternoon sun turned it light gold. It was possibly more beautiful because I was on my own and could have gotten completely lost (but I didn't).

Saturday, September 5, 2009

I'm so very jealous....

Just check out Neil Gaiman's personal library here.

Of note: Of course there's a cat napping in the comfy chair. This is "Cat-Crazy Gaiman," as I shall henceforth refer to him.

Things missing that would be in my personal library fantasy:
1. cozy stone hearth
2. rolling ladder attached to the shelves
3. big globe
4. massive thesaurus on display
5. chrome tea cart full of tea things