You are currently browsing the monthly archive for December 2008.

In the spirit of seasonal reading, I pulled our old yellow copy of The Long Winter out of the boxed set of Little House books.  I read them all over and over as a child, but it’s been a while since I did more than flip through one.  Some parts I remember vividly – like the stack of pancakes that Almanzo and his brother eat, or the snow piling up on their beds during the night – but I don’t really remember the structure of the story or the style – apart from copious descriptions of food.  And since I’m snowed in, and realized this morning that I care more about having good food on Christmas than any presents that family members may or may not have been able to shop for, I’m looking forward to those food descriptions.

Page 4: Ma objects to Laura helping with the haying (“make hay while the sun shines”), because “she did not like to see women working in the fields.  Only foreigners did that.  Ma and her girls were Americans, above doing men’s work.”  But of course since Pa spent all the money on the mowing machine and can’t hire help, it’s the only way to get things done.  All those girls!  Wasn’t there a boy in real life?  Oh – he died as a baby.

8: 1st mention of food.  While Pa and Laura are haying, Ma sends out a jug of ginger water, a treat that makes “an ordinary day into a special day.”

12: (Cue ominous forshadowing music) Muskrat walls are, as always, a dead giveaway that it will be a cold, hard winter.  Which leads to an interesting discussion about why muskrats know and humans don’t, the nature of free will, and how God takes care of animals vs humans.  “A man can build any kind of house he can think of,” says Pa.  “So if his house don’t keep out the weather, that’s his look-out; he’s free and independent.”  Sadly, the claim shanty is not as snug and cozy as a muskrat house.

22: “If they were lost, they were lost. There was nothing to say about it.”  All the details of prairie life are fantastically vivid – the noise of the grass, the heat, walking down the middle of the road to save their shoes – I think that’s what I loved about these books as a kid.

23:  Ooh, is this Laura’s first encounter with Almanzo?  Lazy and sunburnt.  “His blue eyes twinkled down at her as if he had known her a long time.”  And then Laura thanks him “primly” for directions.

28:  Here we go: “She knew that the bitter frost had killed the hay and the garden…It would leave every living green thing dead.  But the frost was beautiful.”

29: More food – Ma resourcefully turns the green tomatoes into green tomato pickle, “a treat with baked beans this winter.”

31: Forshadowing alert: “‘Why such a hurry to get the pumpkins in?’ Ma asked. ‘I feel in a hurry.  As if there was need to hurry,’ Pa tried to explain.”  Clever Ma is going to make a green pumpkin pie.  Laura says she’s never heard of such a thing, but Ma says “we wouldn’t do much if we didn’t do things that nobody ever heard of before.”

33: “Sewing made Laura feel like flying to pieces.  She wanted to scream.”  Yeah, I would feel that way, too, if I had to sew two pieces of cloth into a sheet that must lie smooth “with not the tiniest ridge down its middle.”  Are these really essential skills when you’re surviving on the prairie?  Resourceful cooking, sure, but perfect sheets?

34: I seriously got a chill when Pa came back empty-handed from hunting, since all the birds are flying south early.

37: “Ice crackled on the quilt where leaking rain had fallen.”  I will never complain about cold toes again.

40: Bean broth soup with bread for lunch, and the beans baked up again with salt pork and molasses for supper.  And tea – but cambric tea for Grace – “hot water and milk, wuth only a taste of tea in it, but little girls felt grown-up when their mothers let them drink cambric tea.”

48: Frozen cattle!  Pa’s all gloom and doom and Ma’s all cheerful optimism about the weather – which makes Ma seem awfully dim-witted since we KNOW what will happen!

61: Stereotypical wise old Indian appears at town store to warn then of “heap big snow” for “many moons.”  But at least they have the sense to listen to him and move to town.  “‘There’s some good Indians,’ Pa always insisted.”

70: I forgot that Laura was so afraid of strangers and disliked both going to school and teaching.  She’s definitely a country girl and hates the idea of living in even this tiny town.

74: “Living in town, we’re in no danger of running short of any kind of supplies.”  Oh REALLY?

Nice – “Oregon’s the place to be nowadays.”  Not in this weather!

More to come – doesn’t that sound like a threat?  Can you tell I’m getting stir crazy?  Can you tell the library is STILL CLOSED?  Is it sad that I don’t mind going to my other job because it gets me out of the house?

We lost power last night, but thankfully only for a few hours!  Just long enough for my dad, brother and I to get totally loopy sitting around by candlelight.  Actually, strangely enough, I was in the process of lighting a candle when the power went out – it just turned from mood lighting to practical lighting.  So we played rummy and ate the casserole that had been in the oven (partially cooked).

Fortunately I didn’t have to go to work yesterday (my manager was already there and said she’d do my job – she’s totally getting a plate of Christmas cookies for this) because this is what my car looked like:

After I took this picture, it snowed another few inches.  I’ve never seen this much snow in Portland in my entire life.  There’s a table in the back yard that looks like a giant bundt cake now:

It even has a hole in the middle from where the umbrella goes in the summer.  Which reminds me that I still have some baking to do.  On Saturday I made chocolate muffins for breakfast, using frozen raspberries instead.  YUM.  Then I made a giant double batch of molasses cookies, which are supposed to chill for an hour before you bake them.  But the fridge was jam-packed so I set the bowl of dough outside on the porch.  Sometimes the weather comes in handy!  Yesterday was apple fritter day – there’s nothing like some freshly fried dough rolled in cinnamon sugar, let me tell you.

Next up are some rice crispy treats, and a big batch of chocolate mint bars for Christmas.  I also need to figure out what to take to church – if I can even make it to Christmas Eve liturgy in this weather.  I sure hope so, since it’s snowed the last two Sundays and I’m feeling kind of out of touch with the whole Advent thing.

I’m pretty excited about my first white Christmas.

All last week, the news was having a heyday with the “winter weather” and the “arctic blast” and all that – and it actually snowed several days in a row, and there was some ice, and one needed chains, and there were giant snowflakes that made it look like the world’s largest swan was molting somewhere overhead.  But now, we REALLY have snow.  Like, I could probably get the chains back on my car, but apparently cars are getting stuck in the snow when they change lanes.  But of course I’m still supposed to go to work.  Even through the bus isn’t even running through my neighborhood anymore.  Mmm-hmm.

Also, the snow seems to have killed all my brain cells, and even though I have all the time in the world, I’m barely reading.  Instead I’ve been drinking wine (although just in the evenings, thank you very much) and watching Weeds and baking and eating the fruits thereof.

I wonder if my car will even start…if it doesn’t, that will decide this whole “go to work or not?” dilemma nicely.

So I’ve been hearing good things about Laurie Halse Anderson’s Chains for a while now (and man does it have a fab cover!) but I’ve got this problem – every time I see the book or think about it, I get that song stuck in my head  – “Chains, my baby’s got me locked up in chains…”  Except that’s the only line I can remember.  And it is SO inappropriate for the book.  Anyway, after finishing up The Knife of Never Letting Go last night, it’s next on my list, and I’m resigned to never getting the song out of my head.

I’ve also been getting it stuck in my head whenever I think about chains on my car – which seems like a problem that will not go away since it started snowing again today.  Snow is so much nicer when you don’t have to go to work.  But ice is never nice.  Oh, I crack myself up.  This is weather that demands you curl up with your book and your cup of coffee and only leave the house to frolic in the snow, before coming back in for more book and more coffee.

I kinda went all gushy over The Knife of Never Letting Go, but I think it deserves it.  Here’s what I wrote on Goodreads:

Book One (Chaos Walking) The Knife of Never Letting Go: Chaos Walking: Book One by Patrick Ness

My review

rating: 5 of 5 stars
Teensy-tiny mild spoiler at the end – nothing specific.

Here’s a book where form and content are wonderfully matched. Todd’s first person narrative is gripping and suspenseful, and the use of an imagined dialect is perfect for the world he’s coming from. Noise is visually depicted on the page with changes in font and size that never feel gimmicky – the effect of turning the page and seeing the Noise Todd hears as he walks through Prentisstown is much like the shock of turning the page and seeing Octavian Nothing’s scratched out words. Plus, the sometimes choppy sentences give a real sense of immediacy, and this gets turned up a notch for the more tense scenes – and there are plenty of them!

The characters are fantastic and vivid, including all the people Todd and Viola meet along the way, and as someone who’s not an animal person, I have to give special mention to Todd’s dog, Manchee. He was probably my favorite character, and despite his limited abilities with language, he had an incredibly strong “voice.” As Todd tells us in the opening sentence, “The first thing you find out when yer dog learns to talk is that dogs don’t got nothing much to say.” But oh boy does he come alive on the page.

This is a huge page-turner, and despite its length moved along at a nice brisk pace, with plenty of action. There is a fair amount of violence, but it’s a source of anguish for the characters, rather than feeling gratuitous. There’s plenty of moral complexity in the story, and it’s incredibly thoughtful for how action-packed it is. For me, it’s that combo of emotional complexity and fast pace that really make it stand out. Plus, the dystopian elements aren’t too heavy handed, and the dash of sci-fi adds interest without detracting from the story.

Oh, did I mention it’s a cliff-hanger? Plenty is left for the next volume, in terms of Plot, but there are smaller loose ends – like knowing more about the Spackle – that seem just as compelling. But really, by the last few pages, I was so invested in characters surviving that I didn’t care about anything else.

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I ought to be writing Christmas cards, but I’m facing my annual dilemma – I don’t send a lot, and I never use up a whole box in one year, which means that every year, I’m using up at least one or two previous year’s cards – and that I risk sending the same person the same card twice.  Yeah, there are worse things that could happen, especially when they are cards I like.  And most people probably forget, but still.  I feel weird.

I’m reading The Knife of Never Letting Go and just zipping right along.  The language and style really fit the story well, and there’s plenty of suspense – and it just might contain my favorite fictional dog.  I’m not an animal person at all – but Manchee cracks me up.  As the opening sentence tells us, “The first thing you find out when yer dog learns to talk is that dogs don’t got nothing much to say.”  But somehow, Manchee still manages to have a fabulous voice in the story.  And I can’t help but admire a YA book with an epigraph from Middlemarch:  “If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.”  PERFECT for the book.

I have a new pet peeve, thanks to the snow and cold weather.  The main roads were pretty clear yesterday, but the back streets were still icey, so I put chains on my dinky tin-can car before driving to work.  Which of course meant that I was driving 25 the entire way to work, and back.  Which I can’t help, because I have CHAINS.  Because I don’t want to meet an icey death a block away from my house.  But whenever I was driving down a 2+ lane road, in the slow lane, other drivers felt the need to tailgate me.  Arg.  Today I am chain-free and am hoping against an icey death.  We’ll see.

Tender Morsels Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan

My review

rating: 5 of 5 stars
I’d been carrying the book around for a few days before I noticed the two faces of the bear on the cover. It was also a few chapters in before I remembered that the story draws on Snow White and Rose Red, so of course I had to pull out my book of Grimm fairy tales – and while the tale obviously forms a skeleton for the book, the emotional complexity is – wow. It feels as though the book is the original, and the story got boiled down and down until it was only that short, odd fairy tale, with all of the important magic and questions and depth of character left out of it. The book breaks your heart and somehow manages to put it together again. And while it’s not a book for everyone, the brutishness and violence never feel overdone or out of place.

In some ways it feels very YA, but a lot of the characters are adult, and although it could be described as a fairy tale retelling, it’s not at all for the same maturity level as something like Beauty or Ella Enchanted – although teens and adults who love stories like those, and can handle a more intense story, will find this very satisfying. If you can get through the first fifty pages, it never gets quite that terrible again. And it’s really, really worth it. I’m looking forward to rereading this one.

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Why, why isn’t this on the list for the Mock Printz I’m going to?  I would love to have the chance to discuss it.  It’s some of the best writing I’ve seen this year – in terms of character that are often painfully real, a wonderful use of multiple perspectives, and just plain old not wanting it to end.   I have a snow day from work and I wish it weren’t over, so that I could be curled up under a blanket right now, reading it.

Postcards from No Man's Land (Carnegie Medal Winner) Postcards from No Man’s Land by Aidan Chambers

My review

rating: 3 of 5 stars

Aidan Chambers’ Postcards from No Man’s Land and Mal Peet’s Tamar are a lesson in how two books can seem to have exactly the same plot, but each can manage to be completely individual.

Similarities: each story is told from two points of view, one a modern British teenager and the other a young adult in the Netherlands towards the end of the second world war. In each modern narrative, the teen (a boy in Postcards, a girl in Tamar) is on a journey to learn more about their grandfathers. In each story, there is a grandfather who was a paratrooper dropped into the Netherlands, taken in by a Dutch family, and who fell in love with a Dutch girl during the war.

Each book ties these two storylines together in different ways – they sound like cookie-cutter stories when you sum up the plot like this, but they don’t feel repetitive or derivative (they were published a few years apart). Another similarity emerges as you get deeper into the plots. I read Tamar first, although it was published second, and the other similarities led me to predict a certain something in Postcards, although it would probably be easy to predict just from clues in the story. I don’t want to give it away, but these twists involve family secrets and questions of why we keep secrets and why we tell them.

Differences: the big one is mood. Tamar is subtitled “a novel of espionage, passion and betrayal,” and although the modern part of the story is definitely crucial, and helps to put the historical section in context, the real heart of the story is the WWII storyline. And it is a story of espionage, but as the subtitle suggests, just as much of the suspense of the story comes from the complicated war-time romantic entanglements. The characters are still incredibly vivid in my mind, in all their flawed, heart-breaking complexity, and a year later I can picture some of the scenes with an almost cinematic quality, which is very unlike me. In fact, I’m just looking for an excuse to reread it.

In Postcards from No Man’s Land, the historical story takes second place to the story of a seventeen year old boy traveling to the Netherlands for the anniversary of the battle in which his grandfather fought, and to meet the family who helped him when he was injured. The grandfather’s story unfolds through the remembrances of an elderly Dutch woman, but it’s a much simpler story than that of the grandfather in Tamar, despite some key similarities. It doesn’t have the same suspense, and the twist lacks the punch of Tamar‘s. Instead, the modern story is much more developed and holds all the delightfully angsty characters, which makes this feel like much more of a coming of age story. Jacob is confronting all kinds of issues – assisted suicide, his sexuality, the keeping and telling of secrets – while traveling in a foreign city. While the story did a great job of capturing that feeling of being an outsider in a country, I never really clicked with the characters – they were always just out of my reach.

Strangely enough, both books won the Carnegie Medal (Postcards also won the Printz). Tamar is my favorite of the two, although I don’t have anything against Postcards – its characters just didn’t didn’t hook me as much, and I can’t really see myself enthusiastically recommending it like I would Tamar.

Here’s what I had to say about Tamar last year:

A Novel of Espionage, Passion, and Betrayal Tamar: A Novel of Espionage, Passion, and Betrayal by Mal Peet

My review

rating: 5 of 5 stars
Tamar is an excellent example of why historical fiction is fabulous – it shows you the everyday terrors of espionage and everyday life in the Netherlands during WWII, makes you hate and love and pity characters all at once, and shows how history plays out with following generations. Technically YA, there are enough adult characters in this story to make it a good cross-over. The content – and intensity – make it better suited to high school students and adults than to a younger audience. While I guessed one of the plot twists about halfway through, not knowing how it would happen put me on edge until it played out. I still feel tense just thinking about it.

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I keep running across books that seem to pair up with each other strangely.  They’re not read-alikes, sometimes they’re more like opposites.  Some pairs would appeal to the same demographic, if books can really be said to have demographics.  Some have eery similarities, with others it’s all in my head.  I’ll spread them out over a few posts.

Kristin Cashore’s Graceling and Stephanie Meyers’ Twilight series:  First of all, the dissimilarites obviously outweight the similarities, if your feelings about Twilight et al are like mine – ie, strangely compelling but ultimately unsatisfying.  Graceling is satisfying, and the writing is much tighter, the words more carefully chosen, the character more complex and compelling and all those other com- words.  Warning: mild spoilers ahead.

But they have in common: characters with inhuman fighting capabilities – you bruise when you punch them, not the other way around.  Also, mind-reading and mind-control (the good characters mind-read, the evil practice mind-control, naturally).  Also, a romance, but that’s pretty much a given in these types of stories.  In both worlds, these super-human qualities are crucial for plot and character development.

In Twlight, they feel cheesy and theatrical, used for effect and narrative short-cuts.  One incredible fighting team faces off against another!  Who will survive!  I can read your mind, so I know I can trust you, but let’s have a confusing and lengthy one-sided conversation anyway!

In Graceling, the meeting of two incredible fighters leads not only to spectacular and entertaining action, but something we like to call character development.  Katsa is forced to think about the role these abilities play in her life.  How will she use them?  How does the fact that she can out-fight Po change their dynamic?  What about the fact that he can read her mind?  It becomes an important element in their relationship, never a cheap trick.  It’s something useful and something dangerous, and it’s never just a means to add sparkles and special effects to the story.  Oh, and Katsa and Po actually have a healthy relationship.  Ahem.

I couldn’t help but think, reading Graceling right after Breaking Dawn, that Cashore succeeded exactly where Meyers failed.  Of course, the stories are trying to do very different things in terms of world-building and plot and so forth, and they’re not at all read-alikes.  BUT – I think readers who liked the action and romance elements of Twlight, who don’t require vampires and also enjoy more kick-ass heroines, will find Graceling very appealing.

Thanksgiving was the traditional and oh-so-delicious dinner, plus tequila and salsa dancing.  In our living room.  Yeah.

Who said it could be December?  This is my last week of classes.  Eep.

I need some audio book recommendations.  Here’s what I’ve already listened to.  I have three or four on hold, but I’m creeping up the list with painful slowness.  I might even have to browse the shelves today – shocking.  I’m almost at the end of The Off Season, and I’d hate to be caught without something to listen to.

Before I started using Goodreads for class reviews, I had a pretty simple way of counting the books I read.  Things like picture books and short non-fiction never made the list – things I could down in an hour or less.  Now I can’t figure out quite where the line is, and my November list at Goodreads is outrageous.  Do I count Judy Moody if I read it in one sitting?  I could start separate lists for kids, YA, and grownup, but sometimes the lines are so ambiguous, and there isn’t anything to be gained by it.  Even if I’m only keeping the lists for my own list-making satisfaction.  Oh well.  I added 35 books to my “read” shelf in November.

I just realized that January’s Mock Printz is suddenly much closer.  I’m not even sure how many I have left to read.

Only 5 more to go – and I’m really close to the end of Sunrise Over Fallujah.  Obviously I’m not too taken with it since I haven’t bothered to figure out how it ends.  I can’t tell how much my reluctance is just my lack of fondness for war stories and how much is the actual quality of writing.  I can’t put my finger on anything wrong with it – but an excellent book, no matter what the subject matter, shouldn’t be so easy to ignore.  If I can get engrossed in a book about spiders, with incredible close-up photos of hairy tarantulas, then I should be able to get into a good war story.  Little Brother, for instance, make all the technology sound fascinating – but really I could care less about technology in general.  An excellent book is more than the subject matter.

But out of what I’ve finished, there are a lot of close ties.  I thought Madapple was good, but not quite in the realm of the others.  I really enjoyed My Most Excellent Year, and it’s dripping with appeal, as is Little Brother – but they almost seem too fun to win awards.  Not that fun books can’t/don’t win awards, but sometimes it’s hard to evaluate the quality of writing for a super entertaining book, because you’re so caught up in it.  Which is maybe why they should win awards.  The others I’ve read are all excellent – really, I would be happy to see ANY of the books I’ve finished win an award.

Which starts me thinking about all the other books that didn’t make our discussion list – because really, it’s impossible for us ordinary mortals to read them all.  I thought Pretty Monsters was absolutely top-notch – and OF COURSE Octavian Nothing.  I don’t see anything in the criteria or eligibility prohibiting a collection with previously published stories, or any admonition against sequels that may or may not stand on their own.  Given that Dreamquake got an honor last year, I would consider volume two of Octavian just as eligible as volume one.  Dreamquake took some awesome concentration to decode the characters and issues and context – Octavian wouldn’t be any more difficult.  The Hunger Games has gotten a lot of attention, but I think it fits into the same category as Little Brother and My Most Excellent Year.

Hmm, now I’m digging around for other Printz contenders – very distracting.  I’m a big fan of the Printz – there’s always an excellent variety, plus the award is still new enough that you can read your way through all the winners and honor books without dying of exhaustion.  There are only two winners I haven’t read – Postcards from No Man’s Land and A Step From Heaven.

Well, this has been fun – but it hasn’t gotten my homework done.

December 2008

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