Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Burmese Lessons – Karen Connelly

Before we get into the next book, I just have to share the happy turn-of-events that shaped my morning.

Background situation:  My Keurig broke this weekend.  Just all of a sudden, wouldn’t turn on.  No lights, no sounds, no NOTHING.  [Cue abject mourning.]  So today, embarrassed, and at the behest of my push-the-envelope father, I walked into Bed, Bath, and Beyond with my dirty, broken Keurig, sans box, packaging, and receipt. 

Me (placing grubby appliance on counter):  This doesn’t work anymore.  I got it for a gift less than a year ago, and all of a sudden it doesn’t come on.  My mother-in-law bought it here.  [She totally bought it at Costco.]

Bedraggled yet benevolent sales associate:  Well, when was the last time you cleaned it?

Me:  Uh.  Never.

BYBSA:  Yeah.  You need to descale it every three months.

Me:  Oh.  What is this descaling, of which you speak?  Can you show me what I need to buy?

BYBSA:  Sure.  [Hands me $6 product.]

Me (reading $6 product box):  Um.  I think your machine has to actually turn on to use this.  Mine won’t turn on.

BYBSA:  You totally waited too long to descale it.  It’s broken now.  You broke it.

Me:  Oh.

BYBSA:  So, here’s a new one.  We’ll exchange it.  But next time, just descale it.

***Glitter and exploding rainbows***

Me:  [. . .]  Wow.  Thanks.  [Pays for $6 product, gets brand-new $200 Keurig for free, races giddily from store before senior manager can thwart exchange.]

Isn’t that the best morning ever?  So everyone needs to shop Bed, Bath, and Beyond right away.  Go give them some of your money.  They’re going to probably need it, since they’re giving out free Keurigs to every yahoo off the street.

Switching gears.  You with me, friends?  The book.  (How’s that for a transition?  I know.  It sucks.)

Burmese Lessons is a memoir, and it takes place in the late ‘90s in Burma and Thailand, during Connelly’s trek through the jungles of Southeast Asia to interview Burmese freedom fighters for a series of articles about the difficult political situation at the time.  (Some background:  Burma, or Myanmar, was and is ruled by a military junta and is considered to be among the worst civil rights violators in recent history.)  These interviews, along with her sizzling affair with a Burmese civil rights leader (yes in-deedy, there are some good sex scenes), ended up being the foundation for this book, which was published in 2010.

I have mixed feelings overall about memoirs.  Sometimes I love them.  I always love getting to peer into someone else’s life.  I’m a voyeur, which is why Facebook is LIKE A DRUG TO ME.  Chances are, if you’re my Facebook friend, I’ve stalked your pictures.  All of them, repeatedly.  Sorry about that, I can’t help myself.  So I do enjoy memoirs for this reason:  they invite and allow (and even require) me to be nosy.  The memoir genre depends on the audience overstepping boundaries of propriety and manners, and the reader gets it all – the grotesque, the squish, the shame, and the grit. 

But on the other hand, the writing of a memoir is intrinsically an egocentric task.  The memoirist runs the risk of coming off as mildly self-involved (at best) or whiny and narcissistic (at worst).  The problem here was that I feel like Connelly was closer to the latter, overall.  One issue was that she was 28 when she conducted her research and began the writing of the book.  A friend of mine recently said, “Don’t you have to be at least 35 to write a memoir?  Otherwise, you’re not grown-up enough to take seriously.”  At the risk of sounding ageist, I sorta agree.  Admittedly, this was part of the theme of the narrative – growing up, learning to live in the world as an adult, the casting off of an immature worldview –but Connelly was just plain irritating at times.  Also?  I felt like she was overly concerned with her whiteness.  Her awareness of the differences between “first-world” and developing countries seems as though it would be socially and globally conscious, a good thing.  But in the case of this book, Connelly’s preoccupation with her Western (spoiled) attitude, her overly apologetic approach toward the developing world, her “white guilt” – these recognitions came across as self-congratulatory.  To me it seemed false, like she was overly pleased with the realization of her privileges in the world.  I would’ve preferred for her to own her identity as a Westerner and QUIT APOLOGIZING ALREADY.  She chose to go to Asia, she chose to stay, and she chose to tell this story.  Again, this could be because Connelly was attempting to recreate her 28-year-old self – but in my opinion, her younger self just wasn’t that interesting.  Burma, on the other hand, is fabulously interesting.  Scandal and civil rights violations, house arrests and political prisoners, information control and military police opening fire on their own people:  these are everyday issues there.  I understand that the book was Connelly’s attempt to use her own experience to connect to the reader in order to inform the world about the Burmese situation, and I applaud her for this goal.  It’s a very good one.  But I guess I wanted less Connelly, more Burma. 

(An aside:  I totally get the hypocrisy, here, as well.  I’m complaining about the narcissism of someone’s memoir on my BLOG, for heaven’s sake, which could be the most narcissistic medium available.  Thank you for putting up with me.)

However, I don’t want to make it look like I didn’t enjoy the book.  I did, overall – I’m just hypercritical here of Connelly, as a writer.  Probably the best thing about it was that it imparts information into the mainstream, so readers will know what is happening on the other side of our world.  We don’t know much about Burma.  It’s a closed country, so that’s the whole point – the junta controls all information dissemination.  Many (educated!) people I’ve talked to about the book don’t know where the country is, and don’t realize that it has two names.  Personally, the only things I knew about Burma previously came from Amy Tan’s novel Saving Fish from Drowning, and from the documentary Burma VJ.  (Have you seen this?  It is one of the only documentaries to have “escaped” Burma and be released in the West.  If you haven’t seen it, do so.  It’s an education.)  So on this more important front, I’d say that Connelly absolutely succeeds.   

In other news, I just started The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and so far am loving it, so I need to go read.  Thanks, Emily, for the recommendation!

Friday, March 23, 2012

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children – Ransom Riggs

First of all, BIZNISS.  We have a giveaway winner:  Kristine G., from right here in my ‘hood!  Kristine, please contact me with your sewing request; I’m looking forward to making something for you!  Thanks for participating, lovely readers.  Now, on to the book.

People.  I haven’t been this excited about a newly-released book in a long, long while.  In fact, I actually had a completely different write-up ready for today, but just bumped it because I couldn’t wait to tell you about this one.  Go out and buy it, stat, then come back and read this review.  Priorities! 

To continue. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children has major geek-out potential for me.  I’m one step away from one or more of the following options:

1.  Dressing up as one of the characters for the movie premiere,
2.  Photoshopping images of myself onto the bodies of the peculiar children, and using said images as Facebook profile pictures, or
3.  Creating an online chat room centered around Miss Peregrine’s loop, in which role-playing will most assuredly be involved.

It’s just that kind of book, y’all.

Miss Peregrine’s is actually another YA novel (I promise, I do read Big People Books as well).  The main character is sixteen-year-old Jacob, who, in the aftermath of his grandfather’s death, embarks upon an overseas trip in order to answer questions about said grandfather’s mysterious life.  What he finds is…well, Crazy Pants Town.  (This is so hard to write, because I don’t want to give anything away!)  But I will tell you that time travel is involved, and that Riggs sets up the book as the first of a series, which for me signifies that this is going to be The Next Big Thing.  It’s going to explode, you guys – I’m predicting Hunger Games- or Harry Potter-type madness.  If the movie rights haven’t yet been purchased, then Hollywood is even stupider than I thought, because this book would (no, will) make a spectacular movie.

An aside:  I usually hate books and movies that deal with time travel in any way, because there’s always a breakdown in the logic at some point.  Here’s a “for instance” scenario.  If character A went back in time to 1980 and didn’t get on that airplane, then she wouldn’t have met character B, which would totally change the result, but now here we are back in 2010 and character A still knows character B and their meeting is never explained.  OMG I CANNOT TAKE IT.  This kind of thing happens in this genre constantly, and it makes me insane.  (The problem here might very well be with me, though – why is it that I can completely suspend my disbelief over the concept of time travel in general, yet be completely disturbed by its outcome?  Totally irrational.  Also?  This issue of mine annoys the shit out of Mike, who adores anything sci-fi/fantasy/bending of the space-time continuum, because I am the worst movie talker in history and I just can’t shut up about the flawed mechanics of these movies.  For reals.  (An aside to the aside:  Mike’s adoration just might have something to do with the presence of Milla Jovovich in an overwhelming number of this genre of movies, but whatever.)) 

Back to the point, though – Miss Peregrine’s is one of the only time travel stories I can recall that circumvents this logistical breakdown, due to the fact that Riggs sets up the time travel on a completely separate plane, unrelated to the future action.  Perfect.  He’s a smart dude.  Another super-cool feature of the book is how the author went about creating the story.  Apparently Riggs collects old photographs via swap meets, antique stores, and the like.  For Miss Peregrine’s, he utilized these photos to create his cast of characters, and the photos became the illustrations for the book.  In the hands of a lesser writer, I think that this strategy could have proven disastrous – hokey, or contrived – like a high school creative writing assignment gone wrong.  But Riggs makes it work, and beautifully, because the plot is just so good.  Plus, the pictures are bizarro-town.  Who doesn’t love a freakshow?  Check it out:

Fabulous, huh?  Anyway, gotta run.  I must get to some Very Important Reading Material, in preparation for tonight’s festivities.  (So excited I’m salivating, just a little.)

P.S.:  Just checked and Yes!  The movie is in pre-production to be released in 2013!

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Something New and Exciting

Hey there!  Long time, no blog, I guess.  Last week was Spring Break here, so we were kickin’ it camping-style in Big Bend National Park with the kids, which meant a week of backbreaking preparation/packing/shopping/arguing, followed by a twelve-hour drive with the three wee ones (mmm-hmm), followed by a few days of roughing it with no showers and no electricity in the desert with temperatures ranging from below freezing at night to the mid-80s during the day.  Sounds like nirvana, huh?  But really, it was fun.  Actually, the car ride was surprisingly pleasant, thanks to the DVD player and the fact that we no longer have pants-poopers in our nuclear family (always a plus).  My husband and I had remembered the drive being far worse (if you’ve ever driven I-10 in west Texas you know what I’m talking about), but then I realized that our previous treks to Big Bend had been pre-kids, and therefore before we knew what real tedium actually was.  So the moral of that story is:  once you’ve sat up with a croupy child in a steamy bathroom with a nebulizer for the four hours between one and five a.m., well, west Texas driving is a piece of cake.  Anyhoo.  Moving forward.  We had a lovely time, and actually managed to locate this little chunk of history:

To explain:  Mike carved this into a bench on the “Window” hike about 14 years ago, during our first trip there (MH being his initials, SP being mine at the time, in case elucidation was needed for my two readers who do not know me in real life – TWO. WHOLE. READERS!  Btw, I love you guys).  Little did we know that it would still be there for these three little humans to view, a decade and a half later:

I know – so romantic, huh?  But before you decide to hate me for my idyllic marriage, please know that Mike and I had a terrible hissing fight a mere two nights before we left, regarding something idiotic like what kind of jar spaghetti sauce and how many granola bars were purchased for the trip.  We’re a fricking disaster, people.

So, in order to potentially increase traffic on this here blog, I’ve decided to try SOMETHING NEW AND EXCITING, and then I promise, back to the books.  I’ve read some good ones lately (omg, Miss Peregrine!  LOVE).  So…it’s a giveaway, people!  Here’s how it works:

1) Leave a comment in the comments section below.
2) For each comment, you get one chance in the drawing.
3) BONUS!  If you are a follower, or become one, you will get an additional chance in the drawing, thereby doubling your odds.  (I know you lurkers are out there.  I know you are.)
4) In a few days, like let’s say, um, Friday at midnight, I’ll draw one name out of the hat.  Wait, let’s say Friday at five p.m., because that’s when I start drinking.  (Plus, The Hunger Games!  So dorking out about this movie, you guys.)  And what will you win?  Well, get ready, because worlds are colliding!  I’m going to sew something for you, of your choice, from my limited (yet fabulous) repertoire of things I am presently able to sew.  (Okay, so this might not increase blog traffic exponentially, exactly, since I’ve only been sewing for like three months, but I promise:  you will like it.  YOU WILL.)  Here are your choices:

                A – a skirt (little girl sizes only)
                B – a cell phone charger case
                C – a fabric cuff bracelet
                D – a yoga mat bag or tote bag

Potential hiccup:  If you’re a dude, well, I hope you do yoga or have a daughter.  Otherwise, I’m not sure this giveaway is actually for you – I’ll just make something for your wife.  (I’m not really that concerned since I think I have two male readers, one of whom is my husband.)  So!  I cannot wait to witness the veritable deluge of comments that await this post.  And…GO!!!

P.S.  Blogger is being an a-hole, as usual, and I'm having trouble formatting my pictures where I want them to go.  Sorry about that.  [Growl.]

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

For the Bigger Kids – Chapter Books

Here we go.  Deep breath.  The post on picture books took me all day to write, and I’m figuring this will be the same, so I’m gearing up my stamina to sit and THINK all. day. long.  Let’s hope I can manage it.  I’ll probably be drooling by the time my kids arrive home from school. 

Here’s my list of favorite chapter books for kids.  Most of these I read to my children; they are still quite young (seven, five, and three), and only Eloise (my oldest) is a really fluent reader as of yet.  She usually reads beginner chapter books, and there are some decent ones out there in that genre – but I wouldn’t call them literature, exactly.  Rather, they are solid books designed to grab a young reader’s attention and increase their fluency.  Plus, these are usually written in series form (quantity, not quality), so they follow a predictable pattern – kids know what they’re in for when they begin one, and I think that’s probably attractive to them.  (I’m talking Magic Tree House, Nancy Drew and the Clue Crew, Junie B. Jones,* things of that ilk.)  But these are not what I’m interested in, here.  I’m concerned with the stories I loved as a child and love even more as an adult reading them to my kids – because they are timeless.  Because they are literature.

Anything by Beverly Cleary

Beverly Cleary is a genius.  Eloise and I have read the entire Ramona series together and they are not only laugh-out-loud funny, they are poignant and sweet and touching and relevant.  They are perfect books, really.  One of my favorite chapters is the one where Picky-Picky (remember their cat?) dies, and the girls decide to bury her on their own, before their parents get home from work, to save their mother from the extra chore.  (We should all be so blessed, good grief.  Some days I wouldn’t even mind if my kids buried our dog ALIVE before I got home.  Yet I digress.  This is why these posts take me all freaking day.)**  But I loved this anecdote, and all the others, because my experience reading them as a child versus my experience reading them as an adult were completely different, yet equally rewarding:  in each reading, I took away completely different things.  As a child, I recognized myself in the girls – the awkward funeral, their squeamishness about touching the dead cat; while as an adult I connected with the parents – their misplaced guilt at not having been there, their pride in their thoughtful, resourceful girls.  All in all, you really can’t go wrong with anything by Beverly Cleary – Ellen Tebbits was another of my favorites when I was a kid, and I think the Mouse and the Motorcycle novels would be great for boys.

Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White

This is such a beautiful book.  I know you all know the story, have read it, have seen the movie, so on and so forth.  Some parents might be concerned about its mature subject matter – death, dying, enduring friendship – and while that is all understandable, I’d probably urge you not to underestimate your child.  I’m always amazed when a writer can tackle complicated emotional terrain and make it accessible to the maturity level of a child, which is precisely what White does here.  Anyway, this is a fantastic book that can pave the way for some important discussions with your kids.

Mr. Popper’s Penguins by Richard and Florence Atwater

Wikipedia recommends this one for children in grades two through four, but I read it to my kids about a year ago, when Eloise was six and Owen about four.  (But who am I to argue with Wikipedia?)  At any rate, they loved it.  It’s a fun, well-written novel, and its chapters are quite short, making for an easy read-aloud to young kids.  It would be an ideal introduction to chapter books.

Anything by Roald Dahl

We’ve read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, and my favorite, Matilda (the Matilda movie is excellent as well).  I think my husband also read Chocolate Factory’s sequel, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator.  What’s wonderful about Dahl is his ability to present the disturbing, the grotesque, the bizarre – Augustus Gloop is morbidly obese, Matilda is neglected and abused, James’s parents are killed by a rhinoceros – in a way that is somehow still child-appropriate and completely entertaining.  Plus, Dahl is an exceptionally artistic writer whose special gift is his ability to create visuals with words (this is probably why his books make fabulous movies).  It’s the Gothic Novel Lite, for kids.

The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes

This book was published in 1944, but I had never heard of it until a couple of years ago.  I promptly bought it for Eloise and we read it together, and it is one that she now rereads often.  It is short, only about 70 pages or so, with plenty of pictures, but what is special about The Hundred Dresses is how it teaches empathy.  It’s a story with a moral.  A little girl is bullied, and subsequently moves away.  After her departure, she wins an art contest, the content of which causes her classmates to feel remorse about their treatment of her, and they write her a letter apologizing.  Interestingly, the end is left open – we never learn whether the girl receives the letter or not.  It is a lovely tale; another one that makes for some thoughtful discussion after reading.

A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Eloise and I read this when she was about six.  We also attempted The Secret Garden, which was much harder – DAYUM, that one was hard to make it through.  I think Sara Crewe is one of the most loveable characters in children’s literature:  brilliant, patient, kind, and imaginative.  Anyway, I loved both books when I was young and I expect that Eloise will reread them many times as she grows up.  Both are classics, not to be missed.  The 1995 movie is beautiful too; as is the 1993 Secret Garden film. 

Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren, illustrated by Lauren Child

I read the Pippi books when I was little, but this recent edition is especially delightful.  Lauren Child, the author and illustrator of the Charlie and Lola series, does the artwork, and it is magnificent.  Her style is perfectly suited to crazy Pippi – flamboyant, colorful, and lively.  Plus, the stories themselves are a fitting introduction to tall tales, a genre that many kids enjoy.  I wish Child would illustrate the other novels in the series as well, but haven’t seen them yet. 

The Laura Ingalls Wilder books

So far, we’ve only read Little House in the Big Woods, but Eloise recently received the entire set, so I’m thinking that our next chapter book will come from this series.  These are a bit more mature since they are non-fiction.  I think my son, Owen, will love them for this reason (he was too young when we read Big Woods).  These are actually my husband’s favorite read-alouds as well, because he has a thing for the descriptions of farm chores: churning butter!  Tapping trees for syrup!  Salting meat for storage!  (I know.  He’s something of a Renaissance Man.)

The Mrs. Piggle Wiggle books by Betty MacDonald

I cannot tell you how many times I read these as a child.  If you’re not familiar with them, you need to read them right away.  They are hilarious.  Mrs. Piggle Wiggle is a little old lady who supplies her neighbors with “cures” for their progeny’s annoying behaviors (not going to bed on time, for example, or picky eating).  The books are set up so that each cure is contained discretely in its own chapter, so there is really no reason to read them in sequence.  These might be good read-alouds to a child who is a little older (maybe first grade) since some chapters are quite long.  They are wonderfully well-written and so ingenious.

Three Tales of My Father’s Dragon by Ruth Stiles Gannett

I feel a little disingenuous mentioning this one, because we actually haven’t finished it yet.  I’m currently on the second installation of the trilogy and so far, so good.  Owen ADORES it.  As much as I hate assigning gender to books, I admit that many of my selections are probably more interesting to girls:  female protagonists, etcetera.  But these tales are great for boys (or anyone who likes dragons, which is usually boys.  Sue me.).  They are an introduction to the genres of both fantasy and adventure, and lots of fun. 

The Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling

You’ve all read them.  And if you haven’t, what are you doing here, reading THIS?  Go check into a hotel for a week with all seven volumes.  You will thank me later.  I haven’t read them to my kids yet (they are still too young), but I cannot wait.  They are as extraordinary as you’ve heard.

Bunnicula by James and Deborah Howe

To date, this is my kids’ favorite chapter book we’ve read aloud.  Eloise and Owen both loved it:  a novel so funny that we literally laughed until we cried while reading.  Bunnicula is a complete original.  Told from the point-of-view of Harold, the linguistically-talented family dog, it is the story of the Monroe household and their acquisition of a pet bunny, Bunnicula.  Over the course of the tale (tail?  Heh), Harold and Chester, the ill-tempered pet cat, become convinced that Bunnicula is a vampire bunny.  Fabulous, huh?  The story continues with their misguided attempts to somehow convince their human family of Bunnicula’s sinister ways and true nature.  Additionally, there are several sequels and I can’t wait to introduce the entire series to my kids.

That’s my list!  What’s on yours?

*An aside – I actually despise Junie B. Jones.  She’s rude and annoying and there is nothing charming about her.  She has no manners.  Still, it’s not like I’m going to ban the books from the house – I’m not a prude, and they are enormously popular.  (Good grief, I was probably reading Danielle Steel at that age, my mother censored nothing.  Even the things she should have:  like Danielle Steel, for the love of God.)  Plus, one problem I’ve noticed is that there’s just not much available at the beginner chapter book reading level, so we work with what we have, right?

**I’m noticing a disturbing trend on this blog.  I think that I’ve talked about dead animals twice in the last few weeks, and I’m certain that by anyone’s standards, this is twice too many.  I promise I’m not a homicidal lunatic.  [Insert creepy smirk and inappropriately waggling eyebrows.]