Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Blame it on the Blogging

If you are a reader of this blog. you may have noticed that I appreciate a well written t-shirt. I write about them a lot ( I think I did it best here), and consider the t-shirt my favorite literary genre. I've been reading about them lately on other blogs as well. For example, Mother Reader is a fan of them, and kindly alerts her readers to sales at Threadless, a great online t-shirt source. So is it any wonder I could not resist buying this shirt for the eight year old girl in my life who asks me at least once a week to make homemade baked macaroni and cheese for dinner? Shh.. don't tell. It's headed for her Easter basket.

Monday, March 30, 2009

The London Eye Mystery

I went into reading Siobhan Dowd's The London Eye Mystery with mixed prejudgements. On the one hand, I planned to love it as I enjoy any book set in contemporary England because I just adore reading about people eating crisps and puddings, wearing trainers, and going "to hospital." On the other hand, I had decided that it might just be The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime Light. It does bear some strong similarities to Mark Haddon's novel as both stories have male protagonists on the autistic spectrum solving mysteries, but the books are very different and worth reading.
The London Eye Mystery has been written for a younger audience. I would say it is ideal for fifth through ninth grade readers. It tells the story of twelve year old Ted who has, I believe, Asperger's Syndrome, and his older sister Kat who decide to solve the mystery of their missing cousin Salim. All three had been on a queue (another word which keeps me reading British novels) to ride the London Eye. A stranger offers Salim a ticket to ride, and he goes up on the sealed pod but does not come out when the ride is over. Ted' brain which "works on a different operating system" than other people's is ideal for solving the mystery. It is a tightly constructed mystery too, making for a very satisfying read.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Perhaps Not So Family Friendly Foodie Friday? You Be The Judge

I work hard to keep The Book Bench a family friendly place to visit. You would think it would be easy as it is mostly about children's books and family reading, but sometimes I have to rein it in a bit. I just finished reading a cookbook/memoir/philosophical tome which is a bit of a headscratcher for me as to whether or not it can be included on this family friendly blog. It was written by Kenny Shopsin (with Carolynn Carreno). Kenny is the colorful and cranky proprietor and cook of Greenwich Village's corner grocery turned family restaurant, Shopsin's. Shopsin's was beautifully captured in a New Yorker essay by Calvin Trillin quite a few years ago which, thankfully, is included in Eat Me. Both Trillin and Shopsin himself make it clear that Kenny Shopsin can be rude, abrasive, vulgar, and an excellent cook.
So, is this a family friendly book? On the negative side, it is full of expletives and questionable descriptions of food (orgasmic or having the consistency of a nipple, for example). On the other hand, it is filled with many, many great recipes that would appeal to all types of eaters and about as many interesting and often sentimental stories. Kenny and his wife basically raised their children in the restaurant and his writing reveals his unabashed love of family. The cookbook includes many great photos and a cover gimmick that my kids couldn't resist playing with repeatedly. The cover shows a white egg. At the top, a little tab reads "Do not pull." Who could resist? When the tab is pulled, the egg turns into a photo of a plate with a fried egg, toast, and bacon.
I found Eat Me a fun and fascinating read. It was nice to learn that Kenny's famous pancakes begin with Aunt Jemima frozen pancake batter. He argues that pancakes are all about the equipment, physics, and chemical reaction. Furthermore, he tells anyone who would question his use of frozen prepared batter to face what pancakes really are: "...flour and milk drowned in butter and some form of sugar. As far as food value, you might as well take Crisco, whip it up with powdered sugar, and spread it on your face. I'm not saying that they're not delicious or you shouldn't eat them, but they're a luxury, a recreation, like smoking marijuana or having sex." See what I mean?

Thursday, March 26, 2009

It Always Comes Back To One of These Guys

For hundreds of years, people referenced the works of William Shakespeare in their everyday lives. If someone they knew displayed jealousy, they talked about the green eyed monster. A panhandler might inspire one to recommend being neither a borrower or lender. So many young men have been called Romeos over the years. Fortunately, Jerry Seinfeld stepped in and took some of the burden off the Bard. Stuck waiting for Chinese food or searching for your car in a parking garage? Say to your companion, "This reminds me of a Seinfeld episode." How many times have we heard "Yada Yada Yada" or a guy described by his "spongeworthiness." Of course the height of this was while the show was still airing new episodes, but now that it is in syndication, Americans still allude to "Seinfeld" frequently. I just finished reading Eat Me: The Food and Philosophy of Kenny Shopsin, and the Soup Nazi makes more than one appearance in the text of that cookbook. For years, I used to say that for every human experience, there's a "Seinfeld" episode. That may have been a bit hyperbolic. Then my children started watching "SpongeBob Squarepants." If it is ridiculous, funny, or frustrating, and has happened to a human being, it has made its way onto that program. Not a day goes by that one of my children doesn't begin at least three sentences by saying, "This is just like when SpongeBob and Patrick..." All of that makes sense to me as there are about a gazillion episodes of "SpongeBob Squarepants," "Seinfeld" ran for years, and as we all learned for one English teacher or another, Shakespeare wrote at least 37 plays and a series of sonnets. It is beginning to amaze and exhaust me, however, that my six year old son can connect Star Wars to every aspect of his life. Star Wars! There's only, what, like a half dozen of those films. He's not old enough to read the novels. "Oh, look at that teddy bear; it looks just like an ewok!" "You are driving like Han Solo." Heaven forbid I walk out of the house with too much lipstick ("You look just like Queen Amidallah") or uncomed hair ("Now you look like Chewbacca."). Recently on this blog I wrote of how Ethan compared the Skin Horse in The Velveteen Rabbit to Yoda. I can't tell you how easily a kid can work the phrase "the dark side" into conversation! The worst part of this Star Wars referencing? It's contagious. Last night, I left the kids with my parents and met my husband for dinner and a show at Carnegie Hall. It was a lovely, classy adult evening, unlike the usual ones spent in sweatpants helping kids with their homework and shouting at them to get back in there and flush the toilet. There we were, nicely dressed and chatting quietly before the show in our seats in Zankel Hall. It is the lower level of Carnegie Hall and somewhat modern looking. My husband indicated the black ceiling with all sorts of metalwork and lights and asked me if I thought it looked like the underbelly of a Star Wars spaceship. I could have smacked him. But then a third of the way into his performance, the classical guitarist, John Williams, who had been playing beautiful pieces of Spanish and Italian classical music, told the audience that he is sometimes confused with the composer John T. Williams who wrote the Star Wars theme music. Hyuk, hyuk, hyuk, everyone chuckled. I just elbowed my husband. Every dogstar will have its day I suppose. It makes me wonder, back in the 1600's were there many mothers of pint sized groundlings saying, "Enough already with the Othello talk"?

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

I've Always Wondered

I've always wondered if there is a difference between a chucklehead and a knucklehead. Can you use the two interchangeably or is there some connotational difference? Jon Scieszka's recent autobiography, Knucklehead, does not answer my question, but I'm going to let that slide because it's such an enjoyable read. Scieszka, author of more than two dozen books including The Stinky Cheese Man and the Time Warp Trio series, tells of growing up the second oldest in a family of six boys. Much of this book reminded me of my own childhood. I'm certainly not a boy, but I have three older brothers, and like Scieszka, attended Catholic schools. The autobiography recounts familiar scenes with plastic army men, wild sessions of outdoor play, hand me down clothes, low level pyromania, and beloved books. It's a short and quick read that will appeal to Scieszka's fans and boys in the middle grades and junior high.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Garden Plans

Michelle Obama's got nothing on me. Oh, okay, there are those degrees from Princeton and Harvard as well as her wonderfully toned upper arms. Oh, and one more thing. She's got 1,100 square feet just lying around the yard, unharrassed by deer and waiting to be planted with vegetables. I actually think the newly planted White House vegetable garden is a brilliant idea. I hope it does serve to showcase seasonal vegetables and healthy eating. I love that some of the bounty will be shared with DC soup kitchens. My mom recently told me about a New Jersey elementary school near us that had students bring in apples to donate to a local soup kitchen and food pantry to honor Johnny Appleseed Day. That story made me feel good all day as did the one about the new White House vegetable garden.
Unfortunately, I pretty much have two brown thumbs, a mostly shaded yard, and sometimes as many as a dozen deer at a time walking through that shade eating everything green in their paths. These factors are working against a successful garden here on the grounds of The Book Bench estate. My husband and kids have worked some agricultural magic in the past, but it's a struggle as the little patch has to be surrounded by four feet of chicken coop type fencing. That does detract from the aesthetics a bit. I've got the answer this year: the kitchen windowsill! We'll be planting lamb's ear, polka dot plant, sensitive plant, spearmint, lemon balm, and cinnamon basil thanks to "Sprout Your Own Leafy Wonders" and "Sprout Your Own Sweet Scents." Put out by Chronicle Books, each set comes with planting trays, peat pellets, seed packets, and well written booklets. The booklets provide instructions on planting and later repotting (very ambitious), information about the plants in particular and growing things in general, and growth logs. As an added bonus, it's all environmentally friendly, using biodegradable planters and 100% recyclable packaging. Take that, Mrs. Obama! Actually, I'm wishing success to all of this year's gardeners and recommending these little kits as great birthday presents for kids who may have an interest in growing things but less available lawn space than Sasha and Malia.

Monday, March 23, 2009

TV and Movie Stuff That Sort of Relate to Books

1. As my kindergartner and I ran out of the public library one day last week (we realized his siblings were about to arrive off the school bus to an empty house), I thought I caught a blur of Sanjaya's face on the New Nonfiction shelf. I assumed it must be a book about the American Idol phenomena or the state of American television, but, no, this dude scored a book deal. I'm torn between horrified outrage and admiration for this great country we live in where anyone can succeed.
2. "ER" is up to its final episode. I've watched it from the beginning with Doctors Ross, Green, and Benton. If I were to have a girl baby in the future, I would fight my husband tooth and nail to name her Neela after the doctor played by Parminder Nagra. Judge all you want. Thank God for "30Rock" or I'd be lost on Thursdays in the upcoming months. Maybe I'll get more reading done.
3. I dropped my son off to play at a friend's house on Saturday morning. The boy's mom, a friend of mine, invited me in to see her new couches. They are lovely, but of more interest to me was the episode of "The Brady Bunch" the daughters of the house were watching. They had checked out the entire third season of "The Brady Bunch" on DVD from our public library. I could have parked my rear on those couches all day once I heard Jan whining, "Marcia, Marcia, Marcia." Luckily, I know she gets hers when that ball whacks her in the nose.
4. Finally, in bookish screen news, at my book club last week, I heard that a movie is being made of one of my favorite books, The Time Traveler's Wife. Apparently it will star Rachel McAdams and Eric Bana. While information like this might not be as accurate as something read in Variety, it is lots more fun to hear it from a neighbor while working on a whiskey sour than by reading it in a magazine.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Pizza Friday!

It makes perfect sense that I would choose pizza as the focus of this Foodie Friday. It's in fact surprising I haven't used it on any past Fridays considering how many Friday nights I order it for dinner. By the end of a week of school, homework, sports, and activities, my mind and energy are often too fried to come up with a great dinner idea. Pizza and a salad makes a terrific default dinner. Pizza is the ideal food to serve kids. It's tasty, it includes three major food groups, it can be eaten without utensils, and let's hand it to God and the Italians for creating an entree that is so helpful in teaching fractions. Moreover, if you do like my dad did when I was a kid and tear the delivery box into plate sized pieces, you've got no dishes to clean. It's no wonder there are so many kids' books on the topic. For this Foodie Friday, I'm going to share a beloved old family favorite and a fun new find. We've had Pizza Pat on our bookshelves since my eight and ten year olds were toddlers. It has been joyfully read so many times it is now held together with Scotch tape and hope. This easy reader by Rita Golden Gelman and illustrated by Will Terry tells the story of a pizza baked by chef Pat and stolen by a bunch of rats in the style of a cumulative poem such as "The House That Jack Built." It is addictively fun to read such lines as "This is the oven 800 degrees, that cooked the pizza and melted the cheese that topped the sausages, spicy and choppy, that sat on the sauce, all gooey and gloppy, that covered the dough, all stretchy and floppy, that lay in the tray that Pat bought." Pat and his pizza helped all three of my kids learn to read, making it as beloved and utilized as the phone number to our local pizzeria that delivers.

Our new literary pizza find is Tony and the Pizza Champions, a picture book energetically illustrated by Matthew Trueman and written by Tony Gemignani. Tony is, according to the dust jacket, "a world renowned pizza acrobat and chef." Tony and the Pizza Champions tells the story of the team he assembled to go to the World Pizza Championshp. Readers get a little geography as he criss crosses the USA to collect Mighty Mike and Strong Sean from Ohio, Silly Siler, a unicycling pizza chef from South Carolina, and Famous Joe, a sky high pizza tosser from New York City. Like any good team, the guys have to practice, and then they fly to Italy for the big competition. Gemignani the author uses this opportunity to show some of the many ways people eat pizza around the world, such as the Brazilians who like ketchup on their pies and the Swedes who enjoy them with coleslaw on the side. This is one of several features of the book that would make it a fun elementary school classroom read. Happily, the book ends with Tony and his team winning the world championship, and it includes recipes and illustrated instructions for tossing pizza dough. The process is pretty nicely explained in the book, but you can also check Tony out on YouTube.

Buon appetito!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Almost Astronauts: Thirteen Women Who Dared to Dream

March is Women's History Month. If you are like me, you've got some favorite go-to gals for women's history. Mine include, but are not limited t, the ladies from Seneca Falls, of course, Eleanor Roosevelt, Amelia Earhart, Sojourner Truth, Florence Nightingale, Rosa Parks, Coco Chanel, Marie Curie, and Hillary Rodham Clinton. After reading Tanya Lee Stone's Almost Astronauts, I've got thirteen more women to add to my list. This fascinating book tells the story of women who completed the same NASA testing as the men in the Mercury 7 program but were denied admittance to the program based on their gender. Reading it, you will find yourself both frustrated and inspired. Frustrated by injustices and inspired by perseverance. Although those women were held back, they did pave the way for others. Isn't that a common thread in women's history?The final chapters tell of the successes of Sally Ride, Eileen Collins, and contemporary female fighter pilots and astronauts. I highly recommend this book for girls from the fourth grade straight through high school, especially for those interested in science and technology.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

What to Read First? Brodeur or Burt?

I like my ten year old son to read the sports page of the newspaper. It is some of the best writing around- colorful, detailed, and action packed, Sports stories often open with the most engaging lead sentences in the paper. That's a skill I know elementary school teachers are trying to develop in young writers headed into statewide tests with essays: grab your readers' interest early. When recounting exciting athletic feats, sports writers make great use of literary devices including metaphors, similes, allusions, and even onomatopoeia (what would March Madness be without some "swishes" ?). So when I read a good story or something historic happens in sports, particularly ice hockey, I save a copy of the article for Aaron This morning I picked up a New Jersey newspaper for him because Martin Brodeur, goalie for my son's beloved NJ Devils, broke Patrick Roy's record to become the winningest goalie in NHL history last night. I left it on the kitchen table for him to find when he gets home from school. It's the ideal way to inspire him to spend some time with good writing. Midday I received an email from the wonderfully organized manager of Aaron's own ice hockey team. An article about the team he plays for ran in our local paper. You know the kind of local I mean. It's printed twice a week and runs stories about Brownie troops and goings on at the local senior center. But it's ink about his team and it includes a photo. So I picked up a copy of that paper too while doing errands. Both are waiting on the kitchen table. Which do you think he'll read first?

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Happy Saint Patrick's Day!

Top of the morning to you! And a chilly morning it is here in New Jersey! The kids and I nearly froze our Blarney stones off waiting for the school bus this morning! Although my husband and I have a fair amount of Irish ancestry between us, we don't really have many Irish customs in our home. However, we've got a few St. Patrick's Day traditions the kids would mutiny over if we forgot them. First, the kids dress themselves head to toe in green. It may not be the most flattering color, but they earn points for enthusiasm. Their lunch boxes hold green finger Jello (aka Jello Jigglers and Knox Blocks) shamrocks wrapped in waxed paper. Why the waxed paper? Because that's how my mom sent finger jello in my lunch box. Finally, no Saint Patrick's Day goes by without a reading of Fin M'Coul. I know there are a number of versions of this story in print, but I prefer Tomie dePaolas's for the little tiny fairies and sheep hidden on every page and because I relate to " the great lovely lass, Oonagh," Fin's giant wife in this telling of the story. I've been five feet seven inches since the eighth grade and have a number of short girlfriends. In college one friend's dad referred to me as "the big girl." So, you can imagine how I root for Oonagh as she cleverly outwits the mean giant Cucullin. She dresses Fin up as a baby and passes him off as her child, saying to Cucullin who plans to beat him up, "That may not be as easy as you think. Fin M'Coul's a big broth of a man. Why, take a look at our little baby and you might be gettin' an idea of the strength and breadth of Fin himself." Of course I always deliver Oonagh's lines in my best brogue. Last week I was the guest reader in my daughter's class, giving my best thick as soda bread brogue, praying that the three Irish women from my book club with kids in the same school weren't in the hallways and thanking goodness my friends Marjorie and Patrick live in Dublin far from my performance. I fear they might all have cringed at the inauthenticity. But, like my kids self styled in green today, hopefully I get some points for enthusiasm. Have a fantastic day in whatever way you celebrate!

Monday, March 16, 2009

Duck! Rabbit!

I have tried on my shopping list/teacher note/scrap paper book above to recreate for you some of the doodlings of my youth. Back when I was in elementary and middle school, all of my textbooks had to be covered. There were no Book Socks then. We used brown paper shopping bags- the perfect canvas for doodles and scribblings. If only Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenfeld's fun and clever Duck! Rabbit! had been around in my youth, you can bet your Sharpie markers my notebooks and grocery bag sheathed textbooks would have been covered in duck/rabbit doodles. Apparently, the is it a duck or is it a rabbit visual puzzle has been around for years, but it's new to me and my family. This delightful picture book presents two disembodied voices, one on the left side and one on the right, arguing whether the animal in the center is a duck or a rabbit. It begs to be read aloud to a group. It also tempts readers to draw their own duck/rabbits. This book is a big hit with my kids and their friends who have come by the house and picked it up off our book bench. Some of these kids say it's a duck, others say it's a rabbit, and all agree that the bar code turned into a zebra on the back cover is an excellent final note! How cute would this one be stuffed in an Easter basket?!

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Happy Birthday, Andrew!

Today is the Ides of March (Beware!) and my older brother Andrew's birthday. I owe some of the best reading of my life to Andrew. I admired him so much when we were young (still do) that if he read a book, you could bet I'd be reading it the minute he put it down. It's funny, when I close my eyes and picture him in our childhood, the image is not one of a kid with a book in his hands. Rather, I see a scrappy blond kid playing baseball or soccer, swimming, riding his bike, or tearing through the house at full speed. Whether I'm picturing five year old Andrew or fifteen year old Andrew, he's laughing, sweating, and in motion. However, I know he was a voracious reader and I tried to read every single book he read. There's one exception to that. He read and reread Johnny Bench's biography I don't know how many times when we were growing up. It seemed always to be lying around the house. That book held no appeal for me.

But thanks to Andrew, I met the Hardy Boys and Hans Brinker. I went Where the Red Fern Grows and imagined living on My Side of the Mountain. I loved My Side of the Mountain but knew, even as a child reading it, that I would have been miserable and never survived on the mountain. I think, on the other hand, it sparked Andrew's imagination, and he pictured himself surviving, even thriving, in the wild. It had that same effect on my own boy who was captivated by it when he read it last year. And, thanks to Andrew, I read one of the best series of my youth, John D. Fitzgerald's Great Brain books. Oh, how I adored The Great Brain. For that, I am forever in his debt. Those books gave me hours and hours of enjoyment.

I am looking forward to my own kids meeting The Great Brain, TD, and Sweyn, and reliving their adventures. Every once in awhile, I read a book with my kids and think how much the eight or ten or twelve year old Andrew would have loved it. Eoin Colfer's Half Moon Investigations being a perfect example. It combines humor,mystery, plot twists, and adventures he would have relished. The first time I read one of Jon Scieszka's Time Warp Trio books, I physically felt sad that it hadn't existed in 1977, because boy, was there a kid I knew who would have enjoyed it.

When my sons and daughter picture their Uncle Andrew, the image is not of a man sitting in an armchair reading a book. No, I'm sure what they conjure in their minds' eyes is a guy hosting legendary family parties, telling stories, shooting off fireworks, allowing them to help him use (God help us) his chainsaw, wrestling with them, teaching them to shoot a BB gun, cheering at their games, and more. But still, thanks to him, they've got some great books on their shelves because he is a reader and always has been, and he's been a huge influence on my taste in literature.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Foodie Friday: Spud Lover's Delight

Several weeks ago, I included Tomie dePaola's Jamie O'Rourke and the Big Potato on a Foodie Friday. It bears mentioning again with St. Patty's Day just around the corner, and it set me to thinking about other potato based books I know. Here are a few:
Potatoes, Potatoes is a great little antiwar picture book for preschool through third grade by Anita Lobel

The Greatest Potatoes is a fun historical fiction picture book written by Penelope Stowell and illustrated by Sharon Watts for that same age group.

For eight to twelve year olds, I highly recommend Patricia Reilly Giff's Nory Ryan's Song which deals with the potato famine in Ireland in the mid 1800's.
I'm no Martha Stewart, and certainly no one should be taking cooking lessons from me, but I recently tried a new (to me), easy and scrumptious way to make potatoes. I combined two recipes, one from a cooking show and one from a magazine, for Hasselback Potatoes. The result? Garlicky, buttery heaven on a fork. Jamie O'Rourke's neighbors might not have gotten tired of potatoes so soon had they tried these:
Christine's Hasselback Potatoes
14 small red waxy skinned potatoes
2 cloves garlic, sliced paper thin
1/4 cup butter melted with 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Clean potatoes.
2. Place one potato in the bowl of a large wooden spoon. Start at one end and make slices two thirds of the way through potato. Continue to end of potato. Stick two or three garlic slices in the potato slits. Repeat with all potatoes.
3. Place potatoes on a rimmed baking sheet. Pour melted butter/oil combo on top. Roll potatoes around to coat. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Bake for one hour.
4. For total decadence, serve with sour cream.
5. Enjoy!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

My Favorite Genre

As you know, the t-shirt is probably my favorite literary genre. So much has to be said in so little space, unless of course you are wearing an XXXL. And if you do wear an XXXL, people won't read your shirt for fear you will think they are staring. I realize that haiku and tweets share some of the appeal of the t-shirt in that they are condensed, but t-shirts have color and wit and they're literature that's walking around, and I just love all of that. To celebrate Dr. Seuss' birthday and Read Across America month, my kids' elementary school has a whole calendar of great reading activities planned for March. Tomorrow is "Read Me Day" where everyone can wear readable clothing. I imagine this will be relatively tame and appropriate considering their age group. I'll never forget asking a fifteen year old boy in a sophomore lit class I taught years ago to turn his t-shirt inside out or put a jacket over it as it had a pretty vulgar joke about oral sex on the front. He good naturedly agreed to cover it up, and I couldn't help but ask him who does the laundry in his house. After he informed me that his mom does, I asked if the shirt bothered her. He though about it and replied that his father who was divorced from his mom gave him the shirt probably to "piss her off" but it backfired because she thought it was funny. Anyway, back to "Read Me Day." I am determined not to let it be like Pajama Day where my kindergartner was the only kid in his class wearing street clothes and he got off the bus and burst into tears at the end of the day. The guilt of motherhood is crippling sometimes! So the big kids have already selected their shirts for tomorrow:

I especially love Aaron's selection. Aren't rebus puzzles great? Remember the old VA DERS and
A ? (Space Invaders and Niagara Falls) When we went to Maine on vacation as kids my dad used to drink a New England beer, Narragansetts (referred to as "Gansetts" by the locals, I believe) that had rebus puzzles printed under the bottle caps. Oh how I loved those! The caps, not the beers.

In honor of "Read Me Day," here are a few pieces of t-shirterature I get a kick out of:

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Theory of Relativity and Everything is Relative in Bedtime Reading

The used copy of The Hobbit that I ordered from Amazon.com has not yet arrived and my kids wanted me to read them something before bed as they had a rare night without basketball practice, an ice hockey game, or a compelling episode of American Idol. Rather than start a long book that would delay The Hobbit when it finally arrives, we read a short nonfiction book about Albert Einstein, not what I'd customarily choose for a prebedtime snuggle and read aloud, but it was surprisingly popular. Afterwards, the big kids went to read their own books in bed and I told six year old Ethan I would read one quick book from our shelves. He chose Margery Williams' The Velveteen Rabbit (sigh). I adore this book and realized that although I've read it dozens of times, I don't think I've ever read it to him. I asked why he selected it, and Ethan told me that his kindergarten class recently watched a film version and it was "great." He must have paid attention to the movie, because as I first mentioned the Skin Horse, Ethan said, "He is so wise." I couldn't agree more, and in, fact, as always happens to me, my eyes filled up and a lump formed in my throat as I read these words:

"What is REAL?" asked the Rabbit one day... "Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?"

"Real isn't how you are made," said the Skin Horse. "It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real."

"Does it hurt?" asked the Rabbit.

"Sometimes," said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. "When you are Real you don't mind being hurt."

"Does it happen all at once, like being wound up," he asked, "or bit by bit?"

"It doesn't happen all at once," said the Skin Horse. (By the way, maybe one or two little tears had now escaped and rolled down my face.) "You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand."

So there I was, reading this in a trembling voice, and the back of my brain was thinking these words should be read at weddings and funerals and printed on Congratulations on Your New Baby cards, etc.., when Ethan stopped me, sagely nodding his head, to say, "The Skin Horse is so wise, not as wise as Yoda, but still very wise." Holy crap, I love that kid and the way his brain works so very differently from mine!

Monday, March 9, 2009

The New Jersey Juice Bag Junket

My husband was in Boston this weekend for a much deserved guys' weekend away. I believe the trip earned its own name. Pub Crawl 2009. Not to be outdone, I decided to name my weekend home with the kids. I was chauffeur and activities director of the Great New Jersey Juice Bag Junket of 2009. It included play dates, carpooling, some other kid's bowling party, a playground visit, shoe shopping, and a boys' ice hockey game. The kids and I did make it to Borders to buy the new 39 Clues book (which my ten year old is really enjoying) and our weekend was alcohol free, but otherwise I bet the New Jersey Juice Bag Junket and the Boston Pub Crawl 2009 had a few things in common- overpriced and spilled drinks, inappropriate humor, loud places where one needed to shout to be heard, sticky tabletops, the consumption of bar finger food by the pub crawlers and too much eating with their fingers by the junketeers, and a splitting headache at the end of it all.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Random Food and Book Thoughts on Foodie Friday

On Fridays I like to feature a food related book here at The Book Bench, but this Friday I've just got a bunch of random food and book thoughts I need to clean out of my mental closet. Heaven knows that's the only really spring cleaning I care to do.

1. My daughter has been enjoying The Everything Kids' Cookbook by Sandra Nissenberg this week. It has kept her busy in the car, at the school bus stop, and in the waiting room at the dentist's office because it has word searches and scrambles, puzzles, and games as well as recipes and cooking tips for kids.

2. Peeps are back in the stores! Sure, there were Peep pumpkins in October and Peep snowmen and Christmas trees in December, but we all know the old school bunnies and chicks are the best. Have you ever put one in the microwave and watched it puff up? Good times. Speaking of Peeps fun, my kids learned the meaning of the idiomatic expression "gilding the lily" a few years back when we dipped the bottoms of Peep chicks in melted chocolate and then sprinkles. They were fun to make, really cute, and disgustingly sweet. Http://www.marshmallowpeeps.com/ is worth a visit with kids if you love those little marshmallows the way we do in my household. They are a fat and gluten free food by the way.

3. I think I mentioned that I have begun my third read aloud of Harry Potter, this time to my youngest. Somehow it got all three kids talking about the Harry Potter books and their favorite characters, settings, and plot points. We all agreed that we love Honeydukes Sweet Shop purveyors of chocolate frogs, pumpkin pasties, Bertie Botts' every flavor beans, and more. Interestingly, they noted that although it is a wonderful reading experience that Honeydukes sells enchanted treats, candy stores in and of themselves are magical places.

4. There is no easy segue from magical candy stores to Cormac McCarthy's bleak and gripping The Road. My husband is finally reading it and finding himself pulled into the store. As we were discussing it this week, I told him that every single time I have opened a can of food (soup, sauerkraut, stewed tomatoes) since reading The Road more than a year ago, I have thought of the man and the boy.

5. Speaking of me and cooking, here's an effect of the current economic nightmare: every night as I put dinner on the table, I find myself mentally calculating how much it cost to prepare per person. For example, Tuesday's Mexican lasagna night cost about $2.80 a person, but last night's grilled cheese sandwiches and fruit cost about a buck a person. I never really did these calculations on a regular basis before, but lately I can't help myself.

Those are my random Foodie Friday thoughts. Anything new with you and food?

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Ha! Ha! This Old Dog Has Learned A New Trick

Do you see that colorful little yarn pom pom ball? I made it! That's right; I made it! And sadly, I felt compelled to do a little end zone dance in my dining room upon the pom pom's completion. You see, I'm not very skilled at handicrafts, and I'm even less skilled at following how-to instructions. My eight year old daughter Hayden, on the other hand, is a genius at following written instructions. She is our family's go-to person for assembling new toys and troubleshooting Lego model constructions. That's why her hands are pictured knitting below and not mine. I just can't get the hang of it.
Clearly she inherited this ability to follow directions from her father, who built a gorgeous fourteen foot wooden sailboat from blueprints or from my grandfather who taught himself how to play the piano (well) from a series of articles in the New Yorker magazine. I'm lucky I can follow a recipe. Twice a year there's mild profanity to be heard in my driveway when I have to pull out the minivan owner's manual to set the clocks back and forth. I don't want my children to suffer as I do so I try to give them many experiences with maps and plans and recipes. Much as I hate to do it, I also try to model good direction following habits. So yesterday when Hayden wanted to make yarn pom poms to embellish some of her creations, I breezily suggested she consult her small (two volume) library of knitting books. She came up empty, so of course we turned to the computer and found a great crafting blog, Bella Dia, and followed its "Pom Pom Tutorial." The tutorial was easy to follow with pictures! I created that lovely little pom pom above and never broke a sweat. Of course I'm not showing you Hayden's pom pom or the example from Bella Dia or you would leave this blog post declaring mine the lamest little knot of yarn you'd ever seen.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Read Aloud Update and Then I'm Off to Buy Snacks for Future Dungeons and Dragons Nights

We finished The Mysterious Benedict Society before bed last night. The listeners were very contented. Afterwards, the older kids went to read in their own beds before lights out (Holes for him and The Doll People for her) but not until we had decided upon our next family read aloud book. My daughter has an eight year old friend named Shawn who recently finished J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit and has been raving about it. Apparently all three of my kids trust Shawn's opinion. It may not be politically correct to say, but I fear I may be opening a Pandora's box of nerdhood here. But, our home is a democracy (when it's convenient to me), so I found a copy described as "Good as New" from Amazon for one cent plus shipping and handling. It should arrive by Monday, giving my voice a much needed vacation. Well, sort of a vacation. My six year old wants me to read the first Harry Potter to him. I've read it aloud twice already, but that was several years ago and he pretty much played with Matchbox cars or fell asleep on my lap while the older kids listened. We've made a deal to read a few pages each day when he arrives home from kindergarten before his siblings. I'd better go unwrap a honey lemon Ricola because that kindergarten bus will be here in no time!

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

I Feel Like an Old Woman... What Should I Read?

I woke up this morning feeling like an old, old woman. Often I wake up with stiff fingers but today everything is aching. Before I opened my eyes I imagined that my my forearms, from elbow to fingertip, looked like Popeye's, cartoonish and throbbing in pain. I took a break from contemplating my arms to consider my lower back which was screaming at me. About eight inches of snow fell here yesterday and I shoveled for about two hours in the afternoon. I'll be suffering from those two hours for a week, I'm sure, because I'm getting old. My back began complaining during the shoveling and for some reason I was reminded of two of my favorite brothers in literature, the McPheron brothers, elderly bachelor ranchers in Kent Haruf's novels Plainsong and Eventide. I just love those two old guys. If you haven't read Plainsong, it really is a beautiful American novel. Those two got me thinking about another book with a male character who is aging, Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, which I love and have written about in this blog before. So what novels are out there about women confronting old age? Have you got any suggestions? I've read Nora Ephron's fun I Feel Bad About My neck, and by, the way, somehow my neck is sore this morning also, but that's nonfiction. Have you got any recommendations of novels about old ladies for me to read while I sit in my rocker stroking my imaginary cats and nursing my sore muscles?

Monday, March 2, 2009

Hockey Tournament Weekend

We were away this past weekend at an ice hockey tournament for my ten year old son. His team won the tournament so he was thrilled. The other guys on his team had siblings there and the hotel had a pool so my other kids were happy as well. I had vague ideas of doing a "Hockey Tournament by the Numbers" post this morning. Something a little like:

90= the number of consecutive minutes our six year old spent in the pool Friday night.

82= the number of pages I read aloud of The Mysterious Benedict Society on our road trip.

6 =number of pages I got to read in my own book, Elizabeth George's Careless in Red. Back when I was pregnant, I craved her mysteries the way some women crave pickles and ice cream. Don't worry; I'm just reading this one because I saw it on the new fiction shelf at the library.

6= also equals the number of rows my daughter knitted on the scarf she's making. It annoys me no end that she can knit and I cannot.

3= number of boys from our team in the penalty box at one time during a game!

Okay, you get an idea of what I considered writing. It probably would have been much more interesting and well written than all of that. But the last few minutes we spent in the ice hockey rink before heading home overshadowed everything else that came before, and I would rather write about those minutes. As my son's team was celebrating and packing up in the locker room, I noticed a number of tweens and teenagers in wheelchairs and walking with braces and crutches arrive at the rink. They were there to play a game of sled hockey. I had never seen sled hockey before, but I've become a fan. It pretty much follows the rules of standard ice hockey, but players with mobility limitations sit in specially designed sleds. There are two blades on the bottom of the sled and the players propel themselves on the ice with ice picks that look like small ice hockey sticks and can be used to hit the puck. My ten year old son had a lot of questions about how the players would get off the bench (they don't; they line up on the sides), how they would hit the puck (quite hard), and other aspects of the game. Just a few minutes of watching answered all of his questions and impressed him. It was fascinating and inspiring. Clearly those players love the game of ice hockey and weren't going to be kept off the ice by their physical challenges. It was very inspirational to me as a parent. I've got to grumble less about driving carpools and lugging equipment around for my kids' sports and activities and spend more time appreciating how fortunate we are. It was a great weekend from start to finish.