Friday, May 29, 2009

Foodie Friday: I Need to Brush My Teeth Just Looking at This

I'm sorry I have no foodie book recommendation for you today. I'm still busy marveling at the New Jersey cake assembled and decorated by my son's fourth grade class yesterday. It was the culmination of a year of studying New Jersey in social studies. I baked and my husband cut out Ocean County, home of the Jersey Shore. Aaron decorated it with brown sugar sand, Swedish fish, drink umbrellas, and more. Parents were invited into the school to go on a "cake walk" from classroom to classroom admiring all the cakes. When I was baking and transporting Ocean County I was a skeptic and may even have referred to it as "that bleepin' cake." Perhaps I used somewhat stronger language, but I am a convert. I was so impressed by the organization of all those fourth grade teachers and the creativity of the students that this is all I've got for you this Foodie Friday. Inhale deeply and you might still be able to catch the scent of lots and lots of sugar!

Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

Sherman Alexie's young adult novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, has been out and winning awards for several years now, but I just finally got around to reading it this week. On the one hand, I feel badly about that. I have loved Sherman Alexie's writing ever since reading The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (for my money, the best book title ever crafted) back in the early 1990s. I really should have gotten to this semi autobiographical book, his first for young adults, sooner. On the other hand, I'm glad I waited. It made several long waits I had this week go much more enjoyably, and it will be fresh in my head when the sequel, The Magic and Tragic Year of My Broken Thumb, soon comes out.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian tells the story of Arnold "Junior" Spirit, a Spokane Indian living on a reservation in Washington State. Arnold wants to be a cartoonist and escape the alcoholism, poverty, and hopelessness on the reservation. His first step is to leave the reservation high school and enroll at an all-white high school in a nearby farming town, joining the school's mascot as the only other Indian. Alexie, through Arnold's diary, broke my heart and made me laugh several times over in this fantastic book. Ellen Forney provides artwork in the form of Arnold's cartoons which add to the humor of the book. This is really a great one for teenagers.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

It's All About Me Today

The kids have been doing plenty of reading lately, and we are all enjoying John D. Fitzgerald's The Great Brain as our nightly read aloud, but today I'm going to write about two adult books I've just finished. Somehow, when I type "adult book" it sounds funny to my ear, as if I'm writing about a smutty book purchased at an "adult bookstore." These two certainly aren't smut, but they aren't for kids either.
I recently finished Andrew Davidson's The Gargoyle. I picked it up on the recommendation of my sister-in-law. Lucky for me, I take her book suggestions (and all others, of course) quite seriously. I loved this book. It was very different from anything I had ever read. Or maybe it was more like a number of very diverse things I've read beautifully woven together. The narrator is a bitter and acerbic pornographer who gets in a car accident while drunk and high. While in a burn ward being treated for horrible burns all over his body, a woman named Marianne Engel arrives from the psych ward claiming to have known him ever since she treated him for burns when she was a nun in Germany seven hundred years earlier. It is a story within a story book which combines mysticism, mystery, and romance. It is one of those books you stay up late reading even though you are tired and ought to get some sleep.
The other book I completed this weekend was Elizabeth Buchan's Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman about a 48 year old London book editor who loses her husband and her job to her assistant. I think it is the sub genre of chick lit known as "life after wife." I know I plucked it from the library shelves based entirely on its title. I did just celebrate a birthday and am very aware of my middle aged status. While it's not deep, thought provoking literature, The Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman is certainly a satisfying read.
Enough about me, what have you read lately?

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Cake Will Be Consumed, I Assure You

My little blog is one year old today, and I have a job interview, my first in years. There won't be much time for reading or writing about books today, but I guarantee you I'll manage to make time for some baked goods. Thank you to anyone who has read or commented over the last year. The Book Bench has been great fun for me.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Max Quigley: Technically Not a Bully

I first picked up James Roy's middle grade book Max Quigley: Technically Not a Bully for my son because the cover reminded me of the The Diary of a Wimpy Kid books. I'm a marketing departments dream come true. I read Max Quigley and it it reminds me of The Diary of a Wimpy Kid inside the covers in a few ways. It too has a highly unreliable and unsympathetic protagonist telling his own story. Both books are funny. Both books make use of sketches my the narrator. The actual stories, however, are quite different.
Max Quigley is a sixth grader at an elementary school in Australia. James Roy had me at the first use of "Mum," and kept me with his "cheeky," "mate," "posh," and "crosses." I think I clapped my hands when he referred to a school field trip as an "excursion." Back to Max. He's a bully even though he rationalizes that he isn't because "Bullies wait behind lunch sheds and steal kids' Twinkies. I've never stolen anything in my life. Bullies beat people up. I've never actually punched anyone in my entire life." Nevertheless, Max is a bully and his parents are at the end of their rope when he turns his attention on an extremely shy and awkward classmate named Triffin Nordstrom, "Nerdstrom" to Max. When the boys' parents arrange that Triffin will tutor Max and Max will spend time playing with Triffin on the weekends, it is interesting and funny to watch Max take baby steps towards compassion and reformation. The ending reminds me a great deal of the film version of Nick Hornby's About A Boy when Hugh Grant's (rather cheeky)character accompanies the very awkward Simon onstage at a school talent show to sing "Killing Me Softly."
I'm sure my ten year old son will enjoy Max Quigley: Technically Not a Bully as it is a good choice for third through sixth grade readers.

Monday, May 18, 2009

I Couldn't Have Said it Better Myself

After hugging and tickling, reading aloud to my children has been the single most pleasurable aspect of parenting for me. From Good Night Moon to The Hobbit (we've only 13 pages left), the moments we've spent together with books have been immensely enriching and enjoyable. It's no surprise that I read this editorial piece , "Some Thoughts on the Lost Art of Reading Aloud," in the New York Times with a head nodding up and down in agreement. It considers reading aloud from its social implications whereas I usually think about it in terms of education and parenting. And it's got some Jane Austen thrown in for good measure.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Foodie Friday: Feed Me with Stories

What makes a great cookbook? Easy to follow instructions, obtainable ingredients, lots of photographs, and a large font are all important. I suppose tasty recipes help too, but my favorite part of a cookbook is its stories. I love the history of a recipe. What inspired it? Where did the author first eat or create it? Did she us artichokes because that was all she had in her pantry? Did his grandmother make this particular chicken soup when he was sick as a child? Did her Indian nanny have these nuts as an after school snack? It's the back story that sells me on trying a recipe. Many of the cookbooks I read come from the new nonfiction shelf at my town's public library. When a new one comes in, I will flip through the pages. The longer the paragraph after the title and before the list of ingredients for each recipe, the more likely I am to check out the book.

I looked through the cookbooks on my home bookshelves to share a favorite this Foodie Friday and I found one with lots of good stories and tidbits. It is River Run Cookbook by Jimmy and Maya Kennedy and Marialisa Calta with a forward by David Mamet. Yes, that David Mamet. River Run is a tiny restaurant in rural Vermont with some very loyal local patrons, including Mamet. The menu of the restaurant and the contents of this book are largely Southern comfort favorites with Northern touches. There's Fried Catfish, Grits, Pulled Pork, Coca Cola Cake, and a number of items featuring black-eyed peas to name a few. I'm not a fan of black-eyed peas, but I'm still a big fan of this book. It gives the reader a sense of the small town community from whence it came. Where the recipes originated and/or which customers and employees favor them are revealed along with lots of black and white pictures.
Flipping through River Run Cookbook, I spotted a recipe for "Really Big Buttermilk Biscuits" that I've never tried. As I have a few cups of buttermilk in the fridge, purchased to make some lovely lemon raspberry muffins on Mother's Day, I think I'll give it a go. I do love me some biscuits! I'll let you know how they turn out. Hopefully that'll be a story with a happy ending.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

In Praise of Standardized Testing

No, I'm just kidding with that title. I'm not going to sing the praises of standardized testing. I've studied all the arguments including, but not limited to, distortion of the curriculum and teaching to the test, stress, cultural bias, and impeding critical thinking. I believe Oprah recently had a guest on her show who connects standardized testing with bullying in schools. That said, there was something wonderful about last week, the week when my third and fourth graders took the NJASK (New Jersey Assessment of Skills and Knowledge) test. Do you know why? Because the teachers sent home no homework. Oprah's expert could have come to my house to observe the drop in bullying or at least the drop in stress in my kitchen every day last week. My ten year old son frequently spends ninety minutes on homework, but not those five days of testing. Instead, he played with his brother and friends outside, he built Lego masterpieces, rode his bike, and read Kate DiCamillo's beautiful book The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. One day during testing when he was finished, his teacher helped him select it from the classroom library. He enjoyed it so much that he read his sister's copy at home in the evenings. He never would have done that after more than an hour of homework. He went with Edward from Egypt Street to the bottom of the ocean to a garbage heap to learning to love others. I'm not really singing the praises of testing but rather the benefits of less homework. It was a great week of pleasant afternoons. By the way, my daughter used the free time to read The Penderwicks, More About Paddington, and The Secret of Platform 13. She didn't create any Lego wonders, but she didn't mind. Her discovery of the Penderwick sisters will probably inspire her to compose her own ode to testing week.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

We Played Like it Was 1979

Back in the 1970s, my best friend owned a Little Golden Book featuring Donny and Marie. Oh boy, did we love Donny and Marie cause you know, she was a little bit country and he was a little bit rock and roll, but we were a little too old for the book at the time. We were more into Trixie Belden, Nancy Drew and the Little Women books. We didn't mind sighing over posters of these two,

but Little Golden books about them seemed a bit babyish. I bet that book could turn a nice little profit on ebay today. The 70s and how I spent them have been much on my mind since I passed an idyllic afternoon with my daughter on Saturday. The boys in our family were out and she asked me if I wanted to play a computer game with her. I did, and it was fun, but after a bit I mentioned that we didn't have a computer in the house when I was her age. What did you do with yourself, she wondered. Of course there were books, I told her, and records (like Donny and Shawn's) to play, but it was so beautiful outside, I decided to show her how I spent much of the 1970s al fresco. We jumped rope- "C my name is Christine and my boyfriend's name is Carl, we come from Chicago and we like candy."

We hula hooped. We prepared for careers as hula hooping waitresses.

We blew bubbles and played wiffle ball and laughed a great deal. Eventually we pulled out lawn chairs and decided to read in the shade. I tried in vain to convince her to read a Trixie Belden book. Those kept me busy back in the day. She decided to leave the 1970s behind and continued with her copy of Jeaanne Birdsall's The Penderwicks of Gardam Street. So I followed her lead into 2009 and finished Emma Gilbey Keller's The Comeback (mentioned here yesterday), but I'm thinking I'm going to reread a Trixie Belden myself and maybe Google Shawn Cassidy to see what he's been up to lately.

Monday, May 11, 2009

One of These Books Makes Me Feel Kinda Yucky

Friday evening after dinner, I played wiffle ball in the front yard with my three children. It was a warm night with lots of laughter and we had about an hour of fun until the mosquitoes really got busy and drove us inside. I was the pitcher the entire time. My sons noticed that my cheering gets louder and more enthusiastic when my daughter is at bat than when they are. They weren't complaining, just observing, and sweetly followed my lead of "atta girl" and exhorting her to "show 'em where you live," "show that ball who's boss," and from my six year old "whack the dingleberries out of it!" God forgive me, but dingleberry is his new favorite word. When my boys are at the plate, I tend only to comment on their extraordinary hits. Why the discrepancy, I've wondered all weekend long. Perhaps because my sons don't need my encouragement to swing like there's no tomorrow. They do everything like there's no tomorrow. They'd rather swing hard and miss than just stand there. My daughter waits for the perfect pitch and even then is nice to the ball. She doesn't really whack it. She's a girl who always lets others go first and when she's interrupted says "never mind" or "it's not important" about her ideas. I don't want that for her. I want her to fight for what she wants, to attack life, to never back down or bow out. I'm filled with guilt that I may have taught her to discount herself by the fact of my stay-at-home momhood. I've been at home full time for her entire life and I worry about it. I worry that she hasn't heard me tell tales of daily struggles and triumphs in the workplace. I worry that the only financial contribution she sees me make to the family is writing out the checks to pay our bills and clipping coupons. Even when I remind myself that staying at home allowed me to take her to years of speech therapy and her baby brother to physical therapy for the first eighteen months of his life, to volunteer scores of hours in her class, to chaperone dozens of field trips, to be the one who cared for her when she was sick, clapped for her during school performances, and help with homework, still I worry. So you would think that Dr. Laura Sclessinger's latest book, In Praise of Stay-at-Home Moms would make me feel better, but it doesn't. Probably because I'm inclined to dislike Dr. Laura. She insists that mothers should stay at home full time for the sake of their children and that in the first three years of life the best caretaker of a baby is the body it came out of and the breast it sucked at. That is a not too loose paraphrase. When asked in a recent Wall Street Journal interview at what point she advises mothers to go back to work, Dr. Laura said, "The answer is never." Yikes! She feels mothers should be home whenever their kids are. I don't buy that. In fact, I think the experience I had of babysitting my younger sister on afternoons when my own mom was at work helped make me a good parent. Not a good stay-at-home parent, just a good parent. There's so much to be gained from the example of a working mom as well. I feel much better about having recently read Emma Gilbey Keller's The Comeback. In it she presents seven stories of women who went from career to stay at home parenting and back to their careers. This book was encouraging because I also worry that nobody will want to hire me after all these years home. ( Clearly, I'm a worrier. Don't get me started on children choking, driving on icy roads, thin ice, insufficient sunscreen application, and head injuries!) The Comeback is interesting in that these seven women, and actually the author herself, had very different situations, and all were able to go back to satisfying careers after years at home with the kids. It eases fears about on ramps and off ramps and becoming obsolete. I had quite a bit to obsess over this Mother's Day weekend, but I'm glad it ended on a high note with The Comeback.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Foodie Friday

I didn't have any good foodie books to recommend last Foodie Friday and I asked for your culinary inspiration. From the lack of comments, I'm guessing I'm not the only one serving up too much canned soup and/or sandwiches lately. Today's mail (the old fashioned kind that comes out of a metal box) brought me my favorite guilty pleasure, Entertainment Weekly magazine, an early birthday gift from my husband. It lists some fun foodie websites including Smitten Kitchen which I mentioned last Friday and This Is Why You're Fat. I checked it out and it is worth a visit. I'm curious, does it make you hungry or does it make you want to take a very long scaldingly hot shower before throwing together a salad? I'm on the fence myself.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Mem Fox + Helen Oxenbury = I'm Headed to the Bookstore

Ever since I was pregnant with my oldest child more than ten years ago, I've been giving Mem Fox's Time for Bed as a gift to new and expectant parents. It is perfect bedtime reading for little ones. My kids all know its peaceful, loving rhymes by heart. One of my favorite gifts for toddlers is Helen Oxenbury's We're Going on a Bear Hunt. My six year old still frequently asks me to "do" it with him at bedtime. It is a fun onomatopoeia filled read aloud. So of course I had high hopes for the Mem Fox/Helen Oxenbury collaboration, Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes. It's a good thing two good friends just had babies and two more are expecting soon. Let's just say I've purchased a few copies lately. I'm in love with this book and the illustrations of roly poly squishy adorable babies and their precious fat little fingers and toes. The babies come from different backgrounds, but they all, "as everyone knows had ten little fingers and ten little toes." I feel I must offer to babysit some one's baby soon so I can read this one aloud to its intended audience.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

I Know, I Know, It's Not Called The Movie Bench

This past weekend, I went to see "Earth" with my sons. I like animals and I recycle and try to be green, but nobody would accuse me of being a tree -hugging Green Peacer. Therefore, I didn't know if "Earth" would keep my attention. Holy humpback whales, did it ever! It's fantastic, and we all loved it. I was a bit worried that my six year old son was bored midway through when he leaned to me and whispered, "I like to look up famous things and stuff on Google." I was all, "Welcome to America. Join the club. Now look, at what that wolf is about to do." He went on, "Daddy helps me Google." And again, I answered along the lines of, "Fantastic, Mr. Non-sequitir. Wow! Check out all those caribou!" And then he whispered, "Can we Google all these animals and places when we get home?" Oh, now I got it. That was the effect of "Earth" on all three of us. We were so interested we wanted to know more. The BBC and Disney put out one heck of a documentary with this one. Often when I enjoy a movie, I tell people it's good, but you can wait until it's a rental and watch it at home. Not this one. Its sweeping aerial views of the Kalahari, the Himalayas, the Arctic Circle and so on ought to be viewed on a big, big screen. An added bonus: "Earth" is narrated by James Earl Jones, aka Darth Vader to my sons. That made for some silly rewrites on the car ride home such as "Luke, I am your elephant!" Go see the movie, but don't feel envious of my drive home.

Monday, May 4, 2009

There's Chalk Dust in My Veins Still

I believe I've mentioned that I've been selectively sending out my resume, hoping to go back to teaching in September. That seems to have put me in a lesson planning state of my mind. Everything I read in the paper or see on the news gets me going. The things I could do with swine flu! Think Canterbury Tales. And oh to be teaching American Lit. with our current economy! The connections are begging to be made. Somehow, the books I've been reading for pleasure lately all have to do with teachers. Coincidence? One wonders. I'll tell you about two of them that I've particularly enjoyed.
My book club is reading Lloyd Jones's Mister Pip this month. It is the story of a girl named Matilda on a tropical island during war, who is introduced to Charles Dickens's Great Expectations by Mr. Watts. Mr. Watts, an object of ridicule and curiosity, is the only white person to remain on the island. Mister Pip is an interesting story about the power of story in all of our lives. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and has deservedly won several awards for books for young adults.
Another book I just finished reading and am pressing on anyone with an open hand is Richard Peck's The Teacher's Funeral. I just loved experiencing this one. It is set in rural Indiana in the early 1900s just as motorcars are making an appearance, and it has a one room schoolhouse. One room schoolhouses, like homeschooling, fascinate me. I love to read about them, but would rather shoot myself in the foot than teach in one. When Russell's teacher dies, he believes the Hominy Ridge School will be shut down and he can follow his dream of lighting out for the Dakotas to work as a harvester. Alas, his dream is really crushed when his 17 year old sister Tansy is hired as the new schoolteacher. It is a sweet, nostalgic, and laugh out loud funny book I can't recommend enough. Tansy is now up there on my list of favorite teachers from books along with Jo March, Professor McGonagall, and Mr. Ratburn.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Foodie Friday: Hey, Hey, Good Lookin'...

I'm turning to you for help today as no good Foodie Friday books have come across my desk or appeared on the book bench this week. There are no new cookbooks on my library's new nonfiction shelf. Moreover, I am in a cooking rut lately. It's been a lot of the same old same old for dinner around here in recent weeks. Usually I can go to Rachael Ray or The Pioneer Woman for a little recipe inspiration, but I'm just not feeling it this week. Yes, I'm feeling envious of the pioneer woman's gorgeous kitchen and pots and pans (the pot is always cleaner...), but she hasn't gotten me out of my culinary rut. A recent visit to her website did lead me to the Smitten Kitchen which is a great blog about home cooking from a New York city apartment. Although she's got gorgeous food photos and good ideas, I'm still suffering some cooking ennui. So I ask you, where do you turn for recipe ideas or a culinary kick in the pants when you're in a rut? What's your favorite cookbook, cooking show, or food blog? What's your favorite meal to prepare? What ingredient inspires you? Share with me, please, or my kids might stage a revolt and smother me in the night with the umpteenth grilled cheese sandwich I may be forced to make them for dinner tonight.