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Oct. 24th, 2016


Caldecott Monday: A Tree Is Nice

The 1957 Caldecott winner, A Tree is Nice, is super adorable and not Giving Tree-like at all. Or, rather, it actually is full of nice things that trees do for us - they provide shade, they rustle pleasantly in the breeze, they provide more shade, trees are so awesome that maybe you should consider planting one so you can point at it and be all "I planted that tree" -

But, after all, planting a tree is pretty much the least Giving Tree thing you could do. It is giving back to tree-kind to thank the trees for all the nice things that they do for us.

I have a friend who teaches at a Reggio Emilia preschool, where the curriculum is based on nature, and I'm thinking about suggesting this book to her. The sentences are all short and simple, just a couple per page, which I think would be simple enough for preschoolers to follow.

Also, the illustrations are charming. This is an unusual book in that I like the black and white illustrations even more than the ones in full color; there's a certain charming level of detail to the line drawings that is effaced by the large washes of color in the color pictures.

Oct. 22nd, 2016


The Ghost and Mr. Chicken

My roommate and I went to the Artcraft Theatre yesterday to see The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, which is a movie I don't think I would have been very fond of if I'd watched it on my own; but watching it in a theater, with everyone else to laugh with, was a lot of fun.

And the theater itself was quite an experience. They have door prizes and a prize wheel ("Don't look in the prize wheel as it turns," the announcer said, "or you might get - " "MESMERIZED!" the audience shouted in return), and always show old Warner Brothers cartoon before the movie, and when they point out the fire exits, the audience cheers for a favorite. (We were fans of exit three.)

They also still have the old steel door over the projection room, from back when films were made of highly flammable celluloid and theaters sometimes went up in flames. The door was a safety measure: if the film caught fire, it would slam shut, which would trap the doomed projectionist inside but give everyone else a chance to get out.

A safety measure that is designed to kill at least one person seems like a questionable safety measure to me, but I guess they had different standards for these things back in the 1910s.

Oct. 21st, 2016


Reading Plans

The year is drawing to a close! Well, not imminently, obviously, but close enough that I have been drawing up some final reading plans to ensure that I read everything that I meant to read this year, despite the incursion of NetGalley into my life.

I want to read the Newbery Honor books that I haven’t read yet for this year, Pam Munoz Ryan’s Echo and Kimberley Brubaker Bradley’s The War That Saved My Life, which involves World War II, so I will probably enjoy it. (Echo appears to be a billion pages long. I hope it’s worth it.)

I also want to read the new American Girl series, Melody Ellison in 1964 (the books take place in Detroit during the Civil Rights Movement), and the library finally has them! So I have put the first one on hold.

I have two challenges left on my reading list. November’s is a book you’ve been meaning to read, which quite frankly describes a lot of books, but one of my friends mentioned she meant to read The Things They Carried which I have also been meaning (and dreading) to read, so I’m going to do that one.

(I also signed up for a November challenge to read books that you’ve got lying around on your shelves, because I figured that otherwise The Secret Country Trilogy might lie around for years before I got around to reading it. Books that I own always seem to go to the bottom of my reading list.)

December’s is a book published this year, which likewise offers an awful lot of choice, but when I saw Grace Lin’s new book When the Sea Turned to Silver I knew at once it had to be that one.

And...I think that’s all I’ve got planned, actually! Which is not actually all that many books; it seemed like a much longer list in my head.

Oct. 20th, 2016


Book Review: Krysia

Krystyna Mihulka’s Krysia: A Polish Girl’s Stolen Childhood During World War II is a memoir about her years in Siberia after the Soviets deported her family from Poland. It’s meant to be a memoir for children, and I suspect that morbidly inclined children will love it. I probably would have eaten it up when I was ten.

For me as an adult, though, it suffered somewhat because I couldn’t help comparing it to Esther Hautzig’s The Endless Steppe, which is a minor classic and covers much the same ground. Obviously Hautzig’s and Mihulka’s experiences are not the same, and if you’re interested in the topic both memoirs are quite readable; but if you’re only going to read one, Hautzig’s is longer and meatier and far more alive with telling detail and remembered emotion.

It helps probably that Hautzig wrote her book in the 1960s, much closer to the events depicted, so her memories may have been fresher. And I also think that Hautzig is simply a better writer; I read her book years ago and I can still remember parts of it, like the scene where they dye curtains yellow with onion skins to cheer up their Siberian hut, or Hautzig’s grief when she has to leave Siberia before the Pushkin recitation contest she worked so hard to prepare for.

But of course I also have to take into account the fact that I read The Endless Steppe in junior high, which is a susceptible age; perhaps I would have been just as enthralled by Krysia if I had read it then.

Count of Monte Cristo: Chapter 34

I am way behind on The Count of Monte Cristo. This is partly because I left it behind when I went to Chicago (it's such a big book!), but also partly because Dumas has started a lengthy digression about a couple of randos who are visiting Rome during Carnival.

Now admittedly, one of these guys is super curious about the mysterious Count of Monte Cristo, so it sort of ties in with the rest of the book, in the way that Hugo's giant digression about Waterloo ties in with the rest of Les Miserables because it ends with Marius's father meeting Thenardier, but mostly it is getting in the way of VENGEANCE. It's hard to share Franz's curiosity when I already know everything there is to know about Dantes!

And I am already pretty sure that Franz will never learn most of it, because Dantes doesn't seem like the kind of person who is going to sit him down all "I'm an escaped convict who is presumed dead and got really wealthy because I found a fabulous treasure in my cave on Monte Cristo."

However, we do have some bandits going on, so that's something at least. It's hard to say no to bandits.

Oct. 19th, 2016


Wednesday Reading Meme

What I’ve Finished Reading

I finished Welcome to Night Vale: The Novel. The propulsive force in the plot did eventually grab me and drag me along, but ultimately I wasn’t too impressed with the book; I feel like Night Vale’s world-building probably works much better in radio program form than as a novel, where you have to try to get down to brass tacks about how people actually live in this bizarre and terrible town.

So I might still give the podcast a try someday? But I don’t think the novel is worth reading unless you’re a Night Vale completist or just super into the creepypasta aesthetic.

I also read Elizabeth Yates’ charming Mountain Born, a Newbery Honor book from 1944. (I have sometimes thought about trying to read all the Newbery Honor books, but there are so many! And I think it would be hard to get my hands on the older ones…)

Anyway! Mountain Born is about young Peter growing up in a mountain community and learning how to be a good shepherd, with all sorts of interesting details about sheep and shepherding folded beautifully into the narrative - it’s a bit like the parts in the Little House books where Ma is making butter or Pa is putting together a makeshift door hinge, and the fun of reading it is in learning about how people at the time did things? The success mode of infodump, basically.

Of course spoilersCollapse )

What I’m Reading Now

D. E. Stevenson’s The Four Graces, the story of the four sisters of the Grace family, all daughters of a village parson. It’s perfectly charming - all the D. E. Stevenson books I’ve read has been perfectly charming, and I am tempted to go out and get all the rest that the Indianapolis Public Library has, but on the other hand I think I ought to keep them in reserve for those times when I hit a reading drought.

Anyway, this book has the odd distinction of being a cozily charming tale of home and village life while also being set at the tail end of World War II (which is when it was written; it was published in 1946). I love World War II books (and movies. And TV shows. And superheroes), but generally speaking they are not full of coziness.

I also really liked the way that the book dealt with its religious themes - it’s not a main theme in the book by any means, but because Mr. Grace is a parson it does come up, and I was glad that Stevenson let it come up and even more pleased because she had interesting things to say. Religious experience often seems to be relegated off to the side in modern fiction, and I can understand why that’s so, but at the same time it’s such a big part of the human experience that it seems like cutting out all mention of food, say, except in books that are specifically designated Food Books and shelved in their own special part of the bookstore.

What I Plan to Read Next

Grace Lin has a new book out! When the Sea Turned to Silver, a third book in her marvelously illustrated series of chapter books loosely based on Chinese folklore. (They’re not a series in the sense that the stories build on each other; they simply share a similar sensibility, and of course the gorgeous illustrations.) I loved the first one, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, and I have high hopes that I’ll love this one just as much.

Oct. 18th, 2016


Book Review: The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane

I was quite disappointed with Lisa See’s last book, China Dolls, so I started her newest The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane with some trepidation; but I am happy to report that the book laid all my doubts to rest. It’s lively, fast-paced, deploys its clearly extensive research with a light and masterful hand, and most of all, it does a much better job distinguishing between its various narrators than China Dolls ever did.

Of course it helps that there’s only one main narrator in The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, and the rest of the story is told through documents - emails, official documents, the transcript of a therapy session - but still, coming off a China Dolls it was a relief. (The transcript of the therapy session, a group meeting of several teenage girls who were adopted from China as babies, is one of my favorite parts of the book - both because it showcases this range of voices, and because it provides an organic place to approach international adoptions from all sorts of angles.)

Other features: strong but complicated mother-daughter bonds, a marvelous hidden tea grove, descriptions of pu’er tea so evocative that they made me want to try it (I don’t think I would like pu’er, but it still made me want to try it), and a deus ex machina tiger attack. Because why not?

The book does feature See’s trademark friendship between two women that goes terribly, tragically wrong, which I am getting a bit tired of reading over and over, but this time it’s only a subplot so that was all right. And the destruction of the friendship revolves around a high-stakes disagreement about business ethics, which is actually something I haven’t read before, and therefore refreshing.

Parts of it are a bit rough emotionally (in particular, there’s an infanticide near the beginning), but overall I really enjoyed it. Highly recommended!

Oct. 17th, 2016


Caldecott Monday: Frog Went A-Courtin'

Frog Went A-Courtin', the 1956 Caldecott winner, is totally charming. Gorgeous illustrations, alternating between lovely vibrant full-color illustrations and two-tone pages with green and black. I really wish I knew the tune of the song (it is included at the back, but alas I don't read music); I feel like this would be a wonderful book to sing aloud.

Next week: A Tree Is Nice, written by Janice Udry and illustrated by Marc Simont. I must confess this title is giving me some Giving Tree vibes, but hopefully it's totally different in every way and ends with the tree still standing around, shading people with its branches and not sacrificing itself for its ungrateful human.

Book Review: Aim High in Creation!

I really want to be able to recommend Anna Broinowski's Aim High in Creation, because once Broinowski actually gets to North Korea and starts interviewing people involved with the film industry there, it's actually quite engrossing. She connects with them on a personal level, as fellow artists (Broinowski herself is a documentary filmmaker), which gives a view of North Koreans (and North Koreans who still live in North Korea, not defectors) as human beings, which we in the West don't often see.

However, I can't recommend it, because it takes nearly half the book to get to North Korea, and the first half is not very interesting. There's a lot of stuff about Broinowski trying to make travel arrangements, Broinowski musing on her failed marriage - it feels mean to say "I don't care about her failed marriage," but really. I'm reading this book because I'm interested in North Korea.

I've become very wary of books that try to mix personal memoir with investigative reporting. Some authors can pull it off - with Bill Bryson or Sarah Vowell, the travelogue is always just as interesting as their purported topic - but usually I end up getting impatient with the memoir part. No, dude, your not-very-insightful navel gazing about your own personal problems is not nearly as interesting as North Korea or the Stasi archives in former East Germany or that book thief this book is purportedly about.

There's a general human tendency to find our own problems fascinating, and not to realize that outsiders will not necessarily share that fascination - that in fact if you want to take pages and pages of a book that's technically about something else to talk about your problems, you'd better make damn sure that you've got something entertaining and insightful to say.

And in fact Vowell and Bryson, it occurs to me, don't write about their problems; they're telling stories about fun things that happened to them on their research trips, which requires less emotional investment from the reader.

In this case Broinowski's forays into memoir are especially frustrating because I suspect it's there at least in part to pad out the book to an appropriate length, and Broinowksi had another and much more interesting possibility for that padding at her very fingertips. She could have gone into much, much more detail about the North Korean films that she loves so much that she made her own North Korean style filmlet to protest the building of a natural gas well in her neighborhood. (This is in fact her reason for going to North Korea: she wanted advice on how to make a North Korean style movie from the horse's mouth, as it were. I suspect that this is why she got such interesting interviews from the North Koreans: who doesn't love to be asked about their expertise?)

But instead we don't get much detail about North Korean movies at all, certainly no in-depth reviews, and with a couple of exceptions she doesn't actually seem to like the movies that much in the first place. Such a disappointment! I love movie reviews, all movie reviews, even (especially?) of movies I haven't seen, and I would have loved to get some thoughtful gushing about North Korean movies.

Oct. 16th, 2016


Chicago, Chicago

I am returned from Chicago, whither I went for my friend Rachel's wedding, which was GORGEOUS and also scrumptious. She had the best hors d'oeuvres: croutes with smoke salmon and croutes with chicken liver pate and compote, balls of fried goat cheese, little berry tartlets with brie; and creme brulee French toast with Chantilly cream and blueberries for the main course, along with bacon and asparagus quiche and chicken mushroom crepes, and a vast three-tiered plate of doughnuts in place of a traditional wedding cake.

Mmm, it was all so good. Chicago as a whole was lovely; I arrived a day early, planning to go to the Art Institute, but it was so beautiful that I couldn't bear to spend the day indoors and walked along the lake shore instead, all the way up to Lincoln Park Zoo, and then cutting across to visit my favorite shops on Clark Street. (I am finally getting a hang of Chicago geography! At least for this very small part of Chicago.) I was very tired by the time I reached the motel.

And now the weddings are done for the year! (Well, I have YET ANOTHER friend getting married, but she is only inviting family because the wedding is happening in Pakistan, and honestly it's just as well because I don't think I could do a a fourth wedding even if it wasn't halfway around the globe.) Just in time for me to start planning for Sae's wedding, which is next June. In Japan!

I am also way behind on The Count of Monte Cristo, because I didn't want to lug the book around Chicago (it is an awfully big book).

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