Saturday, June 27, 2009

Are You Down? I'm Down

I've got a great, light summer read for adults and older teens out there, Mishna Wolff's I'm Down A Memoir. It's hard to believe that a book which concerns itself with race, poverty, divorce, and identity issues can manage to be a light summer read, but this one does. Without being exploitative, Wolff, a white woman, tells her experience of being raised in a poor urban black neighborhood by her white father who believed he was black. She writes of him, "He strutted around with a short perm, a Cosby-esque sweater, gold chains, and a Kangol-telling jokes like Redd Foxx and giving advice like Jesse Jackson. You couldn't tell my father he was white. Believe me, I tried."
Wolff's entire childhood seemed to be her father trying to make her down. Much of the humor and sadness in this memoir lie in how she fell short of that goal. Being down came much more easily to her younger sister Anora. Both lived with their father when their parents divorced, but eventually the author moved in with her mother and attended an academically rigorous and predominantly white school. This led to further identity conflict. While her situation is certainly unique, Wolff's central story of a girl wanting to belong and to please her parents is universal. For that reason, I think it's a good book to give to a teenager looking for something to read this summer. Plus, it's funny.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Foodie Friday: Last Day of School

Today is the last day of the 2008-2009 school year for my children. I cannot believe my baby finishes kindergarten today! I can't believe they'll all be home all summer long! You can bet your bottom dollar the book bench is loaded down with library books, I've laid in extra stores of bubbles, sidewalk chalk, and caps for the cap guns, and the freezer is full to bursting with rocket pops. I've got no fancy food or cookbook to share this Foodie Friday. Summer is about basics, and it doesn't get much better or more basic than the rocket pop. Cherry, lemon, and blue raspberry. It's got a little something for everyone. When the school bus rounds the corner this afternoon, I'll be ready.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Meme Post

The Book Bench has been tagged with a meme. Actually, A Lawyer Mom from A Lawyer Mom's Musings tagged my nine year old daughter Hayden with this one. She has to list seven awesome things about herself and then tag another blogger(s). I think Hayden is chock full of awesomeness but wasn't sure if she would create a list about herself as she isn't exactly a self promoter. After some blushing and head scratching, she came up with this list of "Seven Awesome Things About Hayden":
1. I think I'm awesome at art, especially messy art.
2. For a nine year old, I'm awesome at writing with my feet.
3. I think I'm awesome at reading, especially good books.
4. I'm awesome at finding things, but not always my own.
5. I'm awesome at observing things.
6. I'm awesome at telling Ethan stories.
7. I'm awesome at thinking. I do it all day long.

Well, I love her list! I couldn't agree more, but I would like to add that Hayden is awesome at logic puzzles like Sudoku,
making cootie catchers (aka fortune tellers).
swimming the backstroke, hula hooping, making me smile, and keeping the baby carrot farmers of America in business. She eats them morning, noon, and night the way other people breathe.
So Hayden decided to tag her Tia Ana, my college aged sister who is a fledgling blogger at Shamrocks and Chancletas and her Aunt Jane at Jane's Journey. We think they are both awesome at everything but especially at achieving their goals and looking stylish doing it. Tell us seven more awesome things about yourselves.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Lemonade War Update

Swim team practice was cancelled for my kids on Friday afternoon, leaving us with a few unscheduled hours. Mostly we loafed around the house reading and/or playing with plastic army men. I read The Lemonade War and have been urging my older kids to read it ever since. That sort of makes no sense as they are the ones who selected it in the first place. I know they will eventually read it, but I want to discuss it with them. There is some great stuff in there about marketing and sibling rivalry. There was one unresolved bit at the end, the theft of some money, which I found dissatisfying. I like justice to be served, I suppose. Other than that, I strongly recommend The Lemonade War for second through fifth grade readers.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Foodie Friday: Lemonade

School is about to let out for the year here in New Jersey so we visited the library yesterday to stock up on summer reading material. When my kids are on summer vacation they like to read about other kids on summer vacation. That makes sense, but unfortunately it led me to allow a book to come home which promises to be like inviting a migraine headache for a visit. It is Jacqueline Davies' The Lemonade War. It is about a brother and sister who engage in an all-out lemonade stand war. Apparently we will also learn a bit about the multiple intelligences as the brother Evan is "people-smart" and his sister Jessie is "math-smart," according to the back cover. I think some math, advertising, and economics get thrown in as well. Each chapter of this book written for third through fifth grade readers opens with the definition of a marketing term such as "joint venture" and "underselling." All in all, it sounds like a good summer read for my kids. Here's the rub: they are going to start begging me to help them to set up a lemonade stand. I don't know what it is about my children, but the idea of selling food to people fascinates them. My daughter is not and never was a Girl Scout. She has no interest in badges, campfires, and sit upons. But once a year when her friends show up with their cookie order forms she turns green with envy. And every summer all three kids campaign for a lemonade stand. We live on a busy road with no sidewalk and hardly any shoulder. It would be one dangerous and probably unprofitable business venture. Besides, I want to spend my summer lazily sipping Arnold Palmers (equal parts lemonade and iced tea) not mixing them up for strangers. Hopefully they can live their entrepreneurial dreams vicariously through Evan and Jessie as they read The Lemonade War. There is also a website at for kids and teachers with recipes and ideas that might be worth visiting if they enjoy it.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Eyes Have It

I've been feeling old lately as my eyesight just isn't what it used to be. Considering that I've been wearing eyeglasses since I was a preschooler, what it used to be wasn't much to write home about either. I've been living that joke that goes, "You don't need stronger glasses, you need longer arms," as I hold papers away from me and squint. I reached rock bottom about a week ago when paying bills. I had to call my six year old away from building an elaborate Lego and plastic army man battlefield to read my account number off a credit card bill. The print was too fine for me to read. God knows I didn't want to write the wrong number on my check causing the payment to be late in light of the current national credit card crisis. So my poor vision had me feeling old. The antidote? Visiting my ophthalmologist's office. Holy cardigan sweaters! The room was packed with septua- and octogenarians! I never felt so scantily clad in capri pants and a short sleeve t shirt. Every other person in the room had either a cardigan or windbreaker on and looked like an understudy for this guy.
That's fine. I'm all for layering. Here's my problem. There was nothing good to read! I've said it before that the only reason I go to the doctor and dentist regularly is to catch up on my tabloids. Health schmealth! I want to know what's going on with Heidi and Spencer, Brad and Angelina, and those spunky Real Housewives of New Jersey. It seems like everyone else at my eye doctor's office wants to read Better Homes and Gardens, something published by AARP, or a magazine called Somethings of World War II. I wish I could tell you what the something is but my pupils were dilated and I couldn't quite make it out. Don't these people care about Jon and Kate and poor stressed out Susan Boyle? Ah well, I left the office non the wiser about what's happening with those cat fighting girls from The Hills, but with a prescription for new eyeglasses in my hand and a spring in my step.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Happy Bloomsday!

It's June 16 or Bloomsday today, the day on which all of the events of James Joyce's Ulysses occurred. I just love Joyce, both his writing and his own personal story. If I could have a few more daughters, I would try to convince my husband to let me name them after some of the women in Joyce's life and writing, Nora and Molly and Evangeline. The first time I ever truly felt smart in a college class and not just as if I were pulling the wool over everyone's eyes was in a seminar on Joyce. Thank goodness we never got to reading Finnegan's Wake or the feeling of academic competence would not have lasted! If you are not so fortunate as to be able to spend Bloomsday 2009 on the streets and in the pubs of Dublin, at least celebrate it by listening to, or better yet telling, a good story.

Monday, June 15, 2009


My book club selected David Benioff's novel City of Thieves for this month's reading. I am feeling lucky because
1. Although it is available in paperback in bookstores, I was able to obtain a copy from my library and save even more money.
2. That library copy is a LARGE PRINT EDITION. Listen, I'm not getting any younger, folks, and neither are my eyes. They really appreciate large type when I am reading around midnight.
3. I was reading this book around midnight because it is so good! It is so entertaining in fact that I purchased a copy for someone for a Father's Day gift and plan to recommend it to high school students looking for outside reading suggestions.
City of Thieves opens with a frame story device. A screenwriter named David visits his retired grandparents in Florida, curious about their experiences in Russia during World War II. When David asks his grandfather to clear up some some holes in the story, points of confusion, his grandfather tells him, "You're a writer. Make it up." From there, readers are treated to the story of 17 year old Lev Beniov, living in Leningrad ("Piter" to its inhabitants) during the Nazi siege of 1942. Lev must join forces with Kolya, a charismatic Russian soldier, on a dangerous and darkly comic quest. City of Thieves is so full of grim details, action, and humor that I had great difficulty putting it down. As I said, it was a win, win, win reading experience!

Friday, June 12, 2009

Foodie Friday: Foodie Puns

My kids and I have been enjoying puns lately. The "cornier" the better. That's me sticking with the foodie theme. Prepare to groan. Feel free to share your own foodie pun, or any pun for that matter.

Did you hear about the guy who brought his umbrella to the ice cream parlor? He had heard there was a chance of sprinkles.

Those who forget the pasta are condemned to reheat it.

When the cannibal showed up late to the luncheon, he was given the cold shoulder.

Did you hear about the butcher who backed into a meat grinder? He got a little behind in his work.

Speaking of butchers, what do they say when you ask, "Is that pure rump roast?"
"Nothing butt."

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Storm In The Barn

I've just had the good fortune to read an advance reading copy of Matt Phelan's soon to be released graphic novel The Storm In The Barn. I believe I've mentioned here before that I'm not a huge fan of graphic novels, but this one really drew me in with its subject matter, pacing, and high level of suspense. Set in Kansas in 1937, The Storm In The Barn tells the story of eleven year old Jack Clark who hasn't known rain in years as his family is struggling with the effects of the Dust Bowl. With a clumsy nature and no family farm to contribute to, Jack feels he is a failure to his father. Tensions run high in his town, and Jack is often the victim of bullies. Is he also a victim of "dust dementia" when he sees a sinister rain-like figure in a neighbor's abandoned barn? The historical details, from the clothing and cars in the illustrations, to the references to the Oz books popular in the 1930s give The Storm in the Barn a feeling of authenticity.
While it is a strong book to be read on its own by 9 to 13 year olds, I think it would be a great resource to accompany study of the Dust Bowl Days or a reading of Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. It is a timely topic of study as reckless, market-driven farming practices were in large part responsible for the devastation. For readers thirsty for more on the topic after reading The Storm In The Barn, I recommend Timothy Egan's The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Pardon Me, But Your Modifier Is Dangling

I've spent a fair amount of time lately thinking about grammar. I know I will be teaching plenty of it when I go back to work in the fall. I always enjoyed talking about dangling and misplaced modifiers with students. They can lead to some funny sentences. Here's an example: Hanging on the wall, my mother admired the painting. I used to have a great collection of them, but I cannot find it. I'm asking you, my dear readers, for help and entertainment. Can you compose a sentence which is humorous because of a misplaced or dangling modifier so I can build a new collection? If so, post it in the comments, and I will be forever grateful (and hopefully amused). Keep 'em clean! Here are two more to inspire you:

Covered in frosting and sprinkles, I ate the cupcake.

We saw several monkeys on vacation in Brazil.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Foodie Friday: Cupcakes!

Do you know that there are currently 7,986 different cupcake cookbooks currently in print? No? Well, then you aren't too gullible, but there are many, many cupcake cookbooks out there. The Martha Stewart machine just released one this week. I really would like to like that swirl of chocolate frosting right off its cover. That might raise a few eyebrows in my local bookstore. I haven't checked the book out yet other than casually flipping through it.
What I have sampled is the recipe for Lemon Coconut Snowballs (heaven on earth!) from Elinor Klivas' Cupcakes!
My sister has made them twice recently causing me to twice make a spectacle of myself in the over-indulgence department. Cupcakes! is a great little recipe book with gorgeous photos and clear instructions. I particularly like my sister's copy as it has some batter drips on the pages, the true mark of a successful baking book.
Cupcakes are enjoying a bit of a moment in the sun right now. I've seen ice cream cakes in cupcake size at the grocery store, visited many cupcake-themed blogs, and nearly tripped over the stacks of cupcake cookbooks at the bookstore. They are indulgent without going overboard, whimsical, evocative of childhood, and hopefully, delicious. They are also probably in my near future as I'm getting hungrier with each word I type about them!

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

On Language

First, let me say the title of this post is facetious. I think we can all agree that I am no William Safire.
I do, however, have a heightened interest in all things etymological and lexicographical of late. Perhaps this is because I've been reading Simon Winchester's The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the making of the Oxford English Dictionary. Perhaps it is because I unknowingly used a derogatory racial term to describe my brother who was quick to point out the error. He also once informed me that the name of a piece of jewelry I was discussing is a sex act. The lesson here is that I clearly move in politer circles than he does. And you're never too old to learn something new, I suppose.
My six year old son just learned an important new word a few weeks ago. He was describing a woman who was visiting his school, saying she has "huge bras." Huge bras? How would he know, I asked. He made that gesture where both arms were extended in front of him chest high with his hands facing inward and curved. "Those are breasts," my nine year old daughter informed him sotto voce, "and you shouldn't be talking about them." I have replayed it in my mind dozens of times and it makes me guffaw repeatedly.
I learned a new word this week, and it's my favorite kind, British slang. I love trainers, puddings, being knackered and gobsmacked, and queues. Actually, I think this one should be called Irish slang as I learned it from a neighbor who is from Ireland. We were both working as volunteers at our kids' field day. My lovely Irish neighbor told me she had been forced to drive home and change her shoes because her daughter insisted they were too "naff" to wear. I may not be a William Safire, but I could figure out that naff means uncool or tacky. I did, of course, look it up as soon as I arrived home to confirm that. I laughed out loud at this this one, delighted at a new word I can use to impress Madonna should we ever meet. Although I think she's a bit off the British since the split from Guy Ritchie. I also laughed because the story which introduced me to "naff" made me think of another brother of mine. If his kids ever told him his shoes were too naff to wear in front of their classmates, he would go home and return with the ugliest (naffest? naffiest?) footwear he could contrive, maybe tube socks with flip flops. This is a dad who calls his kids' school lunches their "lunch sacks" just to bug them, as in "Kids, don't forget to put your lunch sacks in your backpacks!" It gets an eye roll every time. Ah, words!

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

A Frog, A Toad, A Professor, and A Madman Are Sitting in A Car...

This may not win me many friends among the middle and high school set, but I'm a huge fan of required summer reading. I think students should have to do a little bit of reading over their summer vacation. I certainly think they should be allowed to choose at least from a list and the list should include good, engrossing books relevant to what they will be studying upon their return to school in September. As I have mentioned here, I've been sending out resumes to schools in my area in order to make my return to the classroom and the workforce this fall. When researching a school to which I plan to send my resume. I'm curious to see if they assign summer reading. What a mix we have here in New Jersey! Some high schools require no summer reading. Some basically tell their students, "Read a book this summer." Others provide lists from which to choose. Some of the lists are great, some are horrifying. My favorites are the schools that provide a few choices and a specific writing assignment based on the summer reading. One school requires students who will be taking senior honors or AP English in the fall to read Simon Winchester's The Professor and the Madman. That book has been on my to-read list for several years now. In fact, I think I gave a copy to my brother for his birthday several years ago, but never got around to reading it myself. Well, I'm not going to let a bunch of suburban seventeen year olds best me. I got a copy last week and devoured it. It is a well researched and nicely written account of two men involved in the making of the Oxford English Dictionary. One is the scholarly Professor James Murray and the other Dr. W.C. Minor, an American Civil War veteran and insane asylum patient. You would never guess that a book about the OED could read so quickly. However, I just can't imagine that it's what many high school students want to be reading on the beach this summer.

Yesterday, my kindergartner and I were running some errands. In one store he said loudly, "Oh no! We left the frog, the toad, the professor and the madman in the car!" It earned us some funny looks.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Joke From An Ice Pop Stick

Why did the book become a police officer?

He wanted to work undercover.

(My kids enjoyed it.)