“Your Three Year Old – Friend or Enemy” Louise Bates Ames, Ph.D and Frances L Ilg M.D. (1976); 151 pages- Started February 21, finished February 28.

One of my favorite child-rearing books is called “Blessing of the Skinned Knee” (which I have already read twice, so I am not going to review here– but it is terrific) and the author makes a few positive references to the  “Your __ Year Old” series.  Months ago I looked up the book on three-year-olds, and was told by the fine reviewers at Amazon that it was basically an overview of kids’ standard behavior, it is not a how-to book, and that oh, by the way, it was a bit dated.  Lately I have been thinking that it would be cool to know if all of the hilarious things that Ben does are typical for kids of his age group, and maybe get a bit of insight into what is going on in that head of his (a lot, I have learned.) And the title was just too funny, so I asked Josh to order one for me– as cheap as you can find it, I said. And lo and behold, a used copy arrived a few days later. I laughed when I saw the cover because it the kid in the picture has got to be OLDER THAN ME! Only just now, when looking to upload the image for your amusement, did I find out that there is actually a “new” edition from 1993. So when I say that yeah, this book is dated, I mean the one I read is really dated. (I know, I know–that’s what I get for having someone else doing my shopping…) But if you are interested in a series on child development, this one is fairly sensible. But I would definitely go for the editions printed more recently than 1976.

Two curious things about this book– apparently 30 years ago the only part of child-rearing involving the father was… scolding their kids at the dinner table for having poor table manners. Really, that is one of the only times men are mentioned in this book at all. (Yes, the lack-of-dad thing is incredibly annoying, but I was able to get past it… I was also relieved that at least the authors did not endorse fathers acting like jerks.)

And then, after the chapters on typical three-year-old minds, abilities, and so on, came the best chapter of all– “Stories from Real Life”, where the authors give examples of some of the letters they’ve received from parents- um, I mean mothers.  The following letter was so incredible, I have to write out the entire thing for you. Worth the price of admission, I swear.

“Dear Doctors: I have a problem of fear in a usually fearless boy who is just three. When he was about a year old we gave him a clown that rolls bath and forth with a very realistic face and eyes that roll. At first he seemed a little afraid of it, but soon he seemed happy enough. In fact, for a time he liked it so much that he carried it around. A few evenings ago we saw a TV program about a circus. There was some violence in the picture. A knife thrower was trying to kill some other man, and although he wasn’t dressed as a clown, there were clowns in the play. I don’t know if that caused it, but the next evening our son said “That clown is going to hurt me.” His daddy told him no, that the clown was just like any other dolly. This morning the first thing he said was something about the clown. I thought about burning the clown before his eyes, but perhaps that would be too dramatic. We are going to leave soon for a vacation – would it be best to take the clown along or leave it at home?”

The authors’ response was basically what you’d think… 3-year-olds shouldn’t be watching violent TV, a scary eye-rolling clown is a dubious choice for a baby toy in the first place, don’t take the clown on the vacation, etc etc, and oh yes, by the way, are you INSANE? BURNING THE CLOWN IN FRONT OF YOUR KID WOULD INDEED BE TOO DRAMATIC!!

The moral of the story– never, ever, let your kids watch violent clown programs.
(And, if you meet some frazzled guy in his late thirties who is completely terrified of clowns, it is most likely the poor child of these crazy parents.)


yiddishwater-for-elephants“The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” Michael Chabon (2007) 411 pages, started January 22, abandoned February 14

“Water for Elephants” Sara Gruen (2007); 335 pages- Started February 14, finished February 20.

I suppose when working (or um, attempting to work) on a project like this, its an important thing to know when to cut your losses. And that is exactly what I had to do last week. I actually like Michael Chabon just fine, and started one of his recent works for a book group that was going to meet on Feb 8. But I should have known better. A few years ago I read “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay” and it took me no less than 6 months. On again, off again, until finally I mustered the time and determination needed to complete the novel. Although I ultimately liked it, I just cannot read Chabon quickly. And after weeks of reading just a few pages at a time of “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” (and a week after the book discussion, after which I became newly determined…) I decided to call it quits. I thought that the writing was good– although I don’t always see what the fuss is about with Chabon– but his ability to create a scene, and in this case, an entire alternate universe– is incredible. No doubt he is talented, and most of the fellow-readers in my book group enjoyed it. Maybe I’ll pick it up again after the completion of this experiment…  but for now, I just had to stop before it completely derailed my goal.

Speaking of which, even without the Chabon problem, things aren’t going all that great on the 50-books project. The distraction of a new season of TV is not helping matters (American Idol, Lost and Big Love seem to be taking up a disproportionate amount of time these days) but I refuse to give up. The novel “Water for Elephants” had been on my list since before the summer, and I had a feeling it was going to be what I needed to get back on track. And it was terrific. A quick read, but well-told and compelling. An old man reflects on his time spent in the circus during the depression, and tells the tale of wild adventures while traveling with the Benzini Brothers Spectaular Show on Earth. This novel is a gripping love-story, and fascinating, well-researched look at life “on a show”. The life he describes– and this novel itself– is often exciting but also very sad. Anything told from the perspective of a ninety-three year old is guaranteed to make me cry, but I’m pleased to report that I remained strong; the waterworks didn’t kick in until the last few pages. (Compare this with my recent viewing of “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”, which had me in tears for at least the last third of the film; even weeks later just thinking about that movie and I start to well up…)

One last thought… I have purposely tried to select books that skip around from genre to genre, but as I catalog all the books I’ve read, it is quickly becoming obvious how connected they all are. Completely by accident, the two novels I’ve read most recently are depression-era coming-of-age tales. Strange coincidence, no? Actually not– most people probably wouldn’t categorize “Water for Elephants” anywhere near “To Kill a Mockingbord”, but when you read them back to back, certain similarities start to emerge. There was a great line in the MFK Fisher book that I read a few weeks ago about how when you become newly aware of something/someone, you start noticing references to that thing or person everywhere. And so it is with many of the books I’ve covered so far– little bits of one keep reminding me of the others.

mockingbird1“To Kill a Mockingbird” Harper Lee (1960); 284 pages.

Started January 5,  finished January 20.

It is almost embarassing that I hadn’t already read this. Especially because I live in Alabama, know relatives of Harper Lee, and have had a paperback copy of this novel accompany me on at least half a dozen trips in the past 8 years. But something else always jumped ahead in the queue. Finally, a few weeks ago, I decided it was finally time. So I started…. and got sidetracked by a bunch of projects, including planning a big inauguration day party. But when Josh went to DC I was able to read until 1 am without getting in reprimanded, and in two nights, I read three-quarters of the book. I’m betting you already know what this is about… a brave girl and her brother come of age in small-town, depression-era Alabama. They witness their brilliant and good-hearted lawyer father (the famous Atticus Finch) defend a black man accused of attempted rape. It is a grim picture indeed of race relations in the south. (And alas, I can attest that even almost 50 years after the book was published, things are still from perfect here.) I didn’t purposely complete the novel on Jan 20, but it did feet good to finish it, then go turn on the news, and know that Harper Lee was watching too.

mfk heartburn

“An Alphabet for Gourmets” MFK Fisher (1949); 172 pages.

Started December 24, finished January 4.

I’ve been a huge fan of food-writing for years. Restaurant reviews and food articles are usually the first thing I seek out in magazines, and Ruth Reichl’s memoirs of her various stages of self-discovery are among my all-time favorite books. I readily admit that I read cookbooks (the collection of which has far exceeded an appropriate shelf allotment) for fun– far more frequently than I actually use them for cooking. And I think I’ve read “Heartburn” by Nora Ephron a dozen times. (Since it may be unfair to count that as one of my 50 books, but still something I want to recommend to anyone and everyone, I’ll just quickly talk about it right here: It’s Ephron’s fictional account of her very non-fictional divorce from Carl Bernstein, complete with recipes by the food-writer protagonist. For a sad story, it’s an unbelievably funny– and even empowering– book. And despite it being originally published in 1983, it’s not too dated.  The movie with Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep does not do the story justice- they play the characters as completely non-Jewish, which really irritated me; the film in general lacks the down-to-earth vibe and humor of the original. So skip the movie and get the book, it’s a classic is not to be missed.)

Anyway, one cannot read much food writing without finding lots of references to MFK Fisher. I can’t even tell you when or where I first heard of her, just that it seems like I’ve pretty much always understood that when it comes to classic food writers… She. Is. It. Years ago,  I bought two collections of her works, thinking that I’d get to them eventually. Well, guess what. Eventually = 10 years. The ones that I own are massive 700+ page tomes– not exactly candidates for a read in a week. And really, not exactly candidates for fun reading, ever. ( “The Journals of MFK Fisher” has joined me on vacations at least 6 times…. And still never read.) The sheer largeness of the book was just too overwhelming.

But I recently had an epiphany: if a book is available individually, then it could still count as a read for one week– even if my personal copy happened to be bound in a collection together with four other works.  I decided to start with  “An Alphabet for Gourmets”.  While some of her writings are much more personal, this one is simply an alphabetized series cuisine-related ruminations, with one or two recipes thrown in after each entry. The big question– is MFK Fisher worth the hype? Well, sort of. Her prose is absolutely gorgeous. When she writes about her family, her opinions on people and their habits, she is still so spot-on– amazing considering that this was published 60 years ago. The writing is clear, incisive, and amusing, and she was obviously a woman ahead of her time. But about food. Jeez. First, she’s pretty snobby when it comes to this topic, although I’ll forgive that because after all, food was her profession and she’s allowed. (It’s far worse to be a snob without the goods to back it up.) But, much of the cuisine that she wrote about (in this group of essays, anyway) is stuff that was fancy in the first half of the 20th century– so to me it’s either unappealing or just confusing.  Fisher talked alot about what she called “honest bread” (which I am guessing is what we now think of as “artisanal bread”)  in comparison to “puffy white stuff”. Of course this made me wonder if bad white bread existed in the same form in 1930 as it does today. (Does anyone happen to know?)  Despite this book not exactly being a page-turner, it did make me want to keep reading MFK Fisher. She would frequently throw in a random line that made me want to learn much more about her personal life (“my true love and I were taking a walk and discussing a meal….” then she goes on to talk about the meal, not how she came to be with the true love! In another essay she mentions off-handedly that she had a few ex-husbands– to me reading about marital dischord is much more interesting than fish in aspic…)  It’s a good thing that the other Fisher book that I’ve got on my shelf should actually cover some of the more People-magazine aspects of her life… thats right, it’s still waiting for me: “From the Journals of MFK Fisher.”

(But that will have to come later. For now I am finally reading another book that’s been travelling with me for years– also a classic, but one that weighs a lot less– “To Kill a Mockingbird”. Stay tuned…)

guernseyliterary“The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” By Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows (2008); 274 pages.

Started reading December 21, finished reading December 24.

This is a terrific book. Thanks to blog reader Rose for recommending it.

Do not be deterred by the title (the potato thing has very little to do with the book) or the fact that that the whole thing is in the form of correspondence. It sounds a bit hokey and I thought I’d get tired of the format in about five minutes, but I didn’t at all– in fact I tore through this book in just a few sittings. I do love historical fiction– I always get completely swept up in the story, and enjoy learning about some time/place that ordinarily I wouldn’t be thinking much about. In this case: 1946 Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands. The book is almost entirely comprised of the letters of Juliet Ashton, Londoner and author of a humorous newspaper column during the war. She receives a letter from Dawsey Adams, resident of Guernsey, and they strike up a friendship. She’s intriugued by him, his literary group (that would be the society in the title), and the island, which was was occupied by the Germans and subsequently cut off from the rest of the world for five years during the war.

The writing is great– Juliet is a terrific character, very charming and believable– and the plot moves along nicely. The literary society of the title is actually a theme throughout the whole book, and there is much discussion about the Guernsey book club and how it–really, the excuse for comraderie– helped keep them going during the war. My only complaint is that I thought it all ended a bit abruptly, but that may have been because I read the entire second half in one sitting. I still recommend this novel completely– so if you read it, let me know what you think, especially about the ending.

summernakedswimparties_lead“The Summer of Naked Swim Parties” by Jessica Anya Blau (2008); 294 pages

Started reading December 15, Finished reading December 21.

OK, So I admit it- I read two young-adult (YA) fiction books in back-to-back weeks. I couldn’t help myself.  I was so excited to finish Twilight before my movie date with some girlfriends, and the same week, my good friend Shana  insisted that I read this novel ASAP. So I caved. And it wasn’t bad, although it was very, very YA. (But more on that in a minute…)

Shana lives in Baltimore and I live in Alabama, but it just so happens that she and her husband came to meet me and Josh and Ben at my parents’ house in Florida…. so since we are vacationing together right this minute, I’m going to take advantage of the situation and present my first-ever guest blogger…

RR: So Shay, how would you describe this book in two sentences?

SA: Its about a young girl’s coming-of-age, and discovering about her body, while looking at everyone else’s body. And discovering boys.

RR: Might I point out, that those other bodies were mostly her parents friends, which was kind of weird, very 1970’s, and way racier than most of the YA fiction I was reading at age 14.

SA: I recommended this book to a old lady at the Pikesville library and then cautiously told her son that it was really dirty.

RR: So did she get it?

SA: It wasn’t available but her son said “Don’t worry she can handle it.”

RR: Well, maybe she’ll get it next time. Didn’t you think these 14-year olds were having more sex than most people do in college?

SA: Yes. It makes good reading. Sex sells.

RR: I was kind of expecting chick lit by the title (which is not good- I hate it when a book has a title that makes it too embarrassing to carry around and read in public) and then from the blurbs on the back I changed my mind and thought it might actually be decent literature– but it was sort of somewhere in the middle. Definitely not trashy chick-lit, but…

SA: She intellectualizes growing up in Southern California in the 1970s.

RR: That she did. And she can write. But I found the main character to be pretty annoying at first, then the whole thing got very depressing (although incredibly true-to-life) but it really all came together at the end.

SA: I’d like to add that Jessica Anya Blau is Jewish and lives in Baltimore and teaches at Hopkins.

RR: I think we should be friends with her.

SA: Of course.

RR: I have one more problem with the book. The shoes on the cover don’t look like 1970’s shoes. Who picked out that photo?

twilight_book_cover “Twilight” By Stephenie Meyer (2005); 496 pages

Started Reading December 8, Finished reading December 14. Saw film on December 15.

So if you want to read a almost-500 page book in less than a week, this is the one. In fact, I would have finished it much sooner had I had a few hours in a row to just sit down and read. And as my friend Kim promised, the last 150 pages go by really fast. Like, in an hour. (If only I had had this one on the plane… but no, I was busy trying to get through Sarah Vowell…)

There’s not too much new to say about Twilight, and I’m betting that you already know all about it by now… But just in case: this teenage vampire romance series was a phenomenon before it came out as a movie a few weeks ago…  now you can’t go anywhere without seeing references or hearing people talk about it. (Today I was in Barnes and Noble and saw a woman walk by with a big stack of the tell-tale black books in her arms… clearly buying gifts for all the teenagers on her list.) It’s a cute book, if you like, um, teenage vampire romances (or really, even if you don’t). Seventeen-year-old Bella moves to the Pacific Northwest to live with her dad, and develops a huge crush on a beautiful, pale guy named Edward who only hangs out with his weird siblings, all of whom are equally beautiful and equally pale and are never seen eating. Huh, go figure. Not the best-written book out there, but really, what do you expect? Bella is a pretty convincing character and the story pretty evocative of real high-school life, except for maybe, oh, the entire the vampire part. And the fact that there is no sex whatsoever– but that’s part of the plot. (Spoiler alert: it’s kind of hard for vampires to start kissing humans without going further, you know?) But it’s really fun, and even though I generally have no interest in reading anything about vampires (or werewolves, zombies, monsters, etc.) I really enjoyed this one. Eventually I’ll finish the series (the are 3 other books) but not quite yet- it seems kind of like cheating to speed through 4 books like this and legitimately count them towards the goal.

And as much as I liked the book, I LOVED the movie. It was really well-done– gorgeous and funny and full of teen-angst (that’s a good thing) and was not nearly as much of a chick-flick as I thought it might be. The actress who played Bella was perfectly cast, but I kept wishing that James Franco would show up and step in for Edward. Alas, it was not to be. Oh well. I’ll see it again anyway.