Wednesday, March 24, 2010

It Comes in Like a Sufragette and Goes Out Like a Lamb

Earlier this week, my children were dong their homework. Big pat on the back to me because for once they were doing it at the kitchen table rather than in my car while I was driving to some sport or activity. One of the boys was working on spelling and the other was dealing with fractions. I tried to avoid eye contact with that one hoping he wouldn't call on me for help. That trick doesn't work any better now than it did back when I was in the fifth grade. My daughter did ask me for help with her homework. That should have alerted me to something strange afoot. She never asks for help. On that particular evening, however, she said she had to interview me. I figured I could answer a few questions while grilling cheese sandwiches and opening cans of soup. ( Don't judge!) After a few questions along the lines of, "When you were a girl, what career did you aspire to?" and "What is the most challenging thing about being a woman?", I had to ask what kind of homework this was. She informed that it was for Women's History Month. How did we get three weeks into Women's History Month without my realizing it I wondered and isn't it Black History month my son wondered aloud. Back to the interview questions. I had a problem with the one about what I find challenging about being a woman because I don't think my daughter's teacher really wants my honest response. Does she truly want my daughter to read aloud her homework to other fourth graders, telling them about her mother's issues with her period, approaching menopause, body image, and the high cost of bras? I didn't think so. So I lied or at least gave a wishy washy answer, but I didn't feel good about it.

Interesting to me, is the fact that I have read two great books this month about the challenges of being a woman. For my book club, I read Maggie O'Farrell's novel, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox. It is set in Scotland and is the story of an elderly woman released from the mental hospital she was committed to as a teenager. She is released into the care of her grandniece who previously had no knowledge of the woman's existence. The plot held me in its grip from start to finish. I read about Maggie O'Farrell and her inspiration for writing this book, as the protagonist has been put in the mental institution on the flimsiest of causes. In one interview, the author cited other examples from history. It was sad and horrifying and an addictive read. I cannot wait to hear what the ladies in my book club have to say about it!

Speaking of the ladies in the book club, several of them also suggested Kate Walbert's novel, A Short History of Women. Mmm hmm; I was reading a novel with that title without realizing I was dead in the center of Women's History Month. Although I didn't enjoy this one as much as The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, it is quite good. It follows four generations of women in one family beginning with a suffragette who dies as a result of a hunger strike in England during World War I to her great granddaughters in the United States post 9/11.

So nobody can say I failed to provide a Women's History Month post. And for the fourth graders, I would much rather recommend a good book, such as The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate that I have written about on this blog, than to give them some half truths about the challenges I face as a woman.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Questions, questions, questions!

On Saturday, I took my eleven year old son to his ice hockey tournament an hour's drive away from our home. At one point in the day, we had about three hours to kill between games so we headed down the road to Rutgers University, my alma mater. Actually it is my husband's alma mater too. We attended and graduated at the same time but never met then, but that's a story for another day. So my son and I enjoyed a lovely, sunny and unseasonably warm afternoon on a college campus. If I had known how many questions I would have to answer, I might have opted to stay at the rink and give my son quarters to kill brain cells on arcade games all afternoon. Here are some of his questions:
1. Why don't we see any war protests at home?
2. What are those things in the window of a "smoke shop?"
3. Hookah pipe?
4. Why would they sell those bong things if it is illegal to buy the drugs to smoke in them?
5. Why are there so many liquor stores around here?
6. Why would a Qdoba restaurant open right across the street from a Chipotle?
7. Pointing at a piece of particularly salacious graffiti,"Is that possible?"
8. Where do you think we can find a clean bathroom?
9. After using the bathroom in an art museum, "How much do you think it costs to tour the museum?"
10. While looking at exhibits, there were several questions about naked bodies I'm blushing too hard to type here.
11. What do you think could be in an exhibit that prohibits children if children are allowed to see the naked statues?
12. Can we get some ice cream?
13. Can I use a bathroom again?

I could go on, but I will spare you. The questions I kept asking myself were when did they start admitting thirteen year old girls to college because that's how old they all appear to me and why are they all dressed like Ugg wearing prostitutes?

As I did not have a Frisbee or hacky sack, we eventually sat on a bench in the sun with our books for the last half hour before heading back to the ice rink. I clocked many hours on the very same bench ages ago as an undergraduate. I loved it back then, but it was sheer bliss with my own boy beside me, especially when the questions ceased for awhile.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

A Shortlist on St. Patrick's Day

St. Patrick's Day is one of my favorite holidays. As a lover of carbohydrates (soda bread, potatoes, green bagels) it's a no-brainer. I also like to affect a brogue and green is one of my better colors so it makes sense. There are also many great picture books based on Irish myths and legends that I've enjoyed with my children over the years. Our favorite is Tomie dePaola's Finn McCoul which I mentioned here a few weeks ago when deciding on a read aloud book for my son's fifth grade class. dePaola's Jamie O'Rourke and the Big Potato and Jamie O"Rourke and the Pooka are also fun reads for the three to nine year old set.
For older readers, eight to twelve years old, Marie Heaney's The Names Upon the Harp is a lovely book of Irish myths and legends illustrated by P.J. Lynch. P.J. Lynch is worth an Amazon search of his own as everything he illustrates is beautiful.

For contemporary Irish fiction for that same age group I of course recommend Eoin Colfer. I think I have made it clear in this blog that his Artemis Fowl books are utter brilliance. His Half Moon Investigations about the somewhat inept twelve year old private investigator Fletcher Moon, set in a modern Irish suburb, is great fun. I've read that the BBC made a TV series of this book, and I'm curious to view it.

For adults looking for a compelling story wrapped up in the history of twentieth century Ireland, Sebastian Barry's The Secret Scripture is perfect. My book club read this one in the fall and I have not stopped thinking about it or giving it as a gift. It is sad and wonderful at the same time, telling the story of Roseanne (Clear) McNulty an Irish woman sent to a mental institution for the bulk of her life. The book begins as the institution is about to close and her doctor needs to place her somewhere. Her story and their relationship grow from there. Roseanne's personal story and fate are tangled up in the national story and fate. Loved it!
Happy St. Patrick's Day!

Monday, March 15, 2010

No Time for a Long Blog Post

I have no time for a long blog post today as I am trying to think up ways to get a copy of this book, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly, into the hands of every nine to twelve year old girl in America. It is fantastic. I'll have you know that I cried on page 47, page 181, page 252, and on page 323. It was more of a lump in my throat than full on sobbing, but I was moved and it wasn't the perimenopause talking. It is a lovely book and Calpurnia's love for her brothers and grandfather reminds me of how I felt about my own brothers and grandfather at her age. More on that later; I'm off to at least convince my own nine year old daughter to move this book to the top of the pile on her bedside table.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Coincidence in the Graveyard

Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife is one of my favorite novels, so I had looked very much forward to her next book, Her Fearful Symmetry. Unfortunately, I was disappointed. It tells the story of a British woman who dis and leaves her London apartment to her two American nieces with the stipulation that they must live in the flat for a year in order to inherit it. Interestingly, her ghost resides in the flat and eventually makes contact with the twins and her former lover who lives downstairs. The premise is great; the book just didn't deliver. What did interest me, however, were all of Niffenegger's descriptions of London's Highgate Cemetery. Guess who else was inspired by that cemetery? Neil Gaiman when writing The Graveyard Book, which, if you've been reading this blog for the last month or so, you know I love. I imagine you are getting tired of hearing about it. Sorry. Reading Her Fearful Symmetry did give me more insight into Gaiman's graveyard. It inspired me to look up Highgate Cemetery's website which was helpful to my son for visualizing Gaiman's setting. It looks like a beautiful and fascinating place. Finally, exploring the website has me trying to figure out if we can squeeze a visit to Highgate into our upcoming family trip to London. Karl Marx is buried there after all. So I guess I did get a good deal out of a book I did not like too much.

Friday, March 5, 2010

We Have A Winner!

Today was the big day. I went in for my turn as guest reader in my son's fifth grade class. After much hemming and hawing (I hear you; I need a hobby), I chose Lane Smith's brilliant picture book, John, Paul, George & Ben. It takes hilarious liberty with snippets of history about John Hancock, Paul Revere, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. It met the requirements of being short, entertaining, and not at all babyish. Since my son's class has been studying the American Revolution in social studies it seemed like the perfect choice. There were giggles and laughs and audience participation at the end when I quizzed the students with the true and false questions Smith provides to set the record straight. In it we learned that while Benjamin Franklin did invent bifocals and the Franklin stove, he did not invent PlayStation76. This book is a lot of fun for kids who know a bit of American history. Without that bit of background, the humor is lost.

In other business, I know that I have not done a Foodie Friday post here in months. I'm not sure if I will start it up again. It is worth noting, however, that I am currently reading Ree Drummond's The Pioneer Woman Cooks cookbook. Last night I was inspired to make her "Comfort Meatballs" (pages 172-173). Some people sing for their supper; last night I sang to my supper. To know, know, know you is to love, love, love you... Delicious! Next up from The Pioneer Woman Cooks: "Simple, Perfect Enchiladas" (pages 176-178).

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Oh The Pressure!

Looking at that title, you may be wondering what kind of pressure I am experiencing. Or maybe you are not wondering, but I plan to tell you. First, there is water pressure. Glorious, wonderful water pressure has been restored in my home. I've been flushing toilets with abandon for at least an hour now. Apparently my water will be running brown and dirty for a few days, but at least it's running.

That settled, I can worry about more bookish matters. Here is the other pressure in my life: I have been invited to be Guest Reader in my fifth grade son's classroom this Friday. I have twenty minutes to read to the class. What do I choose? Keep in mind, he will be in middle school next year and there will be no more guest reading. What should I choose to entertain this audience?

Last year Amy Krouse Rosenthal's Duck! Rabbit! was a huge hit. It inspired conversation and doodling.

Several times in the past I have read Tomie De Paola's Fin M'Coul. It is the perfect choice for March and I love to lay it on thick with the Irish brogue.

I am looking for something different this year. My son's teacher told me I will be reading immediately before phys ed class (I've been informed by my first grader that "Gym is a room and Physical Education is a class.") Maybe I should read about an inspirational athlete. David Adler's biographies of Lou Gehrig and Gertrude Ederle might be good selections. What to choose? Any suggestions?

Monday, March 1, 2010

What's The Difference Between a Hockey Blogger and a Pit Bull?

In case you don't have hockey fans in your home, yesterday was a big day in ice hockey. There was nail biting and screaming and dropped jaws in my house yesterday as the Canadian team beat the US team in overtime yesterday afternoon. If "our team" had to lose, at least it was Sidney Crosby who scored the game winning goal. My boys really admire him. In fact, last February I posted an entry about a Crosby biography here at The Book Bench. I don't generally rerun posts, but I will provide the link in case you are interested. It is That said, I would be much happier today providing the link to a book about Zach Parise or Ryan Miller. Ah well, good for Sidney!

If the link above does not work, my original Sidney Crosby post is from February 3, 2009.