Picture Book Recommendation – November 2010

My regular readers will have noticed that there wasn’t a picture recommendation for October. The reason for this is simple: we didn’t read a single good picture book in all of October. We did read a really great piece of children’s nonfiction but non-fiction doesn’t really fall under the heading of “picture book.” So a special bonus non-fiction edition of “Picture Book Recommendations” will be coming soon.

Cat’s Pajamas

Cat’s Pajamas by Wallace Edwards is all about idioms. We all know that learning/understanding a language’s idioms are the hardest part of learning a language. On each page of Cat’s, Mr. Edwards has concentrated on a different idiom. He has beautifully illustrated a literal interpretation of a correctly used idiom. For example, a rabbit (who is wearing a jacket and standing on his back legs) has his ears pierced liberally with earrings for “having ringing in his ears.” Each illustration is finely, perhaps even majestically, drawn with an incredible attention to detail and realism. Yet,a playful quality, due to the anthropomorphic nature of the drawings and the “hidden cats”  that can be found in each illustration, is not lost. The final page in this book clinched Cat’s Pajamas‘ place on our recommendation list. This page contains a “translation” or meaning explanation for the featured idioms. Until we read this translation page we hemmed and hawed about whether this was a really good book or not. My husband (two pages from the end) had commented that this would be a great book for J.T., his supervisor. English is not J.T.’s first language and idioms pass right over his head. I disagreed. I thought (two pages form the end) that the literal interpretations in the pictures would cause more confusion. But when we saw the translation page, we were both sold. This book would make an excellent and beautiful welcome gift to anyone learning function or conversational English.

Three Little Dassies

Jan Brett has produced another interesting and beautiful re-interpretation of a classic children’s tale. In her version of The Three Little Pigs, we are transported to Namibia and meet dassies. Correctly called rock hyraxes, dassies are a medium-sized terrestrial mammal that live in Africa. They are the only extant member of the genus Procavia and one of only four extant species in the order Hyracoidea. They grow to about 50 cm and approximately 4 kg. They have very unusual incisors. Surprisingly, they are the African elephant’s closest living relative and these odd teeth are actually tusk remnants.

In Brett‘s story Mimbi, Timbi and Pimbi leave home to find somewhere new to live. Their names are a very cool little detail because pimbi is the Swahili word for dassie. They build (predictability) houses made of grasses, wood and stone. But they are seen by the Eagle! The Eagle does success in bringing two of the Little Dassies to his nest, but they escape with the help of the local Agawa lizard. The third Little Dassie, who had built a house out of rocks, was able to avoid the Eagle. When the Eagle saw that the other dassies had escaped, he dove down the chimney of the stone house. He was dyed black by the soot and smoke from the fire. In real life, dassies are hunted by black eagles and do live amoung lizards in rock caves. These details give the story a Just So Story kind of feel. Thank you, Wikipedia and Kruger Park for the above information and pictures regarding dassies.

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The Bell Jar

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath is a very thinly disguised autobiographical look at Plath’s own mental breakdown. While I realize that this book has become a canon for some in regards to mental health and feminist issues, I have to be honest: I didn’t really like it. I can see how it could be valuable as an examination of the limitation of roles available to women in the 1950s and early 1960s and as a way to open up discussions around mental illness and its taboos. But I didn’t really like it.

I found it difficult to plough through. Esther Greenwood seemed weak and childish. Yes, she was depressed. It is not my intention to imply in anyway that depression is not a real disease. But institutionalization? Electroshock!? Really? Why did Esther (and, I guess, Plath, too) not stand up and say “I am sick. I need help. I need pharmaceuticals, a safe, loving and supportive home environment, and mental health professional to talk to.?” I’ve been depressed, many of my best friends have been depressed, my husband has been depressed. In all seriousness, I don’t think I know a single woman who has not, at least, flirted with depression. Esther had good reasons to feel like she was in a bell jar and I am sure that the mental illness taboo was even worse then than it is now but….I guess it felt like it was the same whining over and over again. I wasn’t compelled to feel anything for Esther except, perhaps, mystification regarding her obvious inability to think for herself. I didn’t feel like she ever had an original or interesting thought. I don’t feel like I grew at all from this book. Basically, it was boring. Next time I want to read about someone in a mental health crisis, I’m pulling out Flowers for Algernon or One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest.

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To Kill a Mockingbird

When I was in grade nine, every other class read Harper Lee’s only published book: To Kill A Mockingbird. My class read The Pigman by Paul Zindel. I have no idea what Irene Bergeron’s (our English/Reglion/Something-else-that-I-can’t-remember-right-now teacher) rational was. Now as a teacher, I look back and hope that it was some stupid administrative thing. Something like there were only 2 class sets of Mockingbird, but 3 classes needed to do their novel studies at the same time. I pray it was not that we were viewed as incapable of analyzing or enjoying or whatever-ing Lee. But I am pretty sure that, at fourteen, I must have concluded the latter because I really wanted to read Mockingbird. And so, the following summer I read To Kill A Mockingbird all by myself while visiting my Grandmother in Montreal. I remember loving it. It touched me deeply and I was happy to see it on CD at my local library recently. I realize that many of the books I read as a teen and young(er) adult, I must re-read to get a fresh perspective on. So, I re-read Mockingbird via audio book. I love audio books. We often travel long distances and my two-year and I listen to books in the car. The book was read by Sissy Spacek who did a great job. But what if books that are narrated by child characters were read by children for audio recording. A child/teen actor with a southern accent would have made an incredible narrator for this book. Regardless of this minor technical complaint, my love for this book has not been diminish by the years. To Kill A Mockingbird is incredible. A triumph!

But I was struck by something that I don’t think I even noticed last time: it was totally cool to breastfeed! I was shocked that during the courtroom scene that this incredibly intolerant society was completely ok with public breastfeeding. What a turnaround for me! I breastfed, most of my friends breastfed, breast is best and all that. But the resistance by so many members of the public was daunting. All my milk-mom friends have at least one story about their difficulties with old ladies, the hospital, restaurants, clothing stores, malls, siblings, spouses, etc. We have come far in terms of civil rights, even though the gay rights movement and Muslims are still/currently under attack, but we have taken a step back in personal and civil welfare.

Funny that you can get something different from a book every time you read it.

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The Garden-Fresh Vegetable Cookbook

Andrea Chesman‘s Garden-Fresh Vegetable Cookbook is unlike any I have ever encountered. The chapters were separated by harvest season and then vegetable making it fantastic for our CSA basket. So, for example, if it is spring and I know that I will be getting a mountain of spinach in our basket, I can turn to the chapter on spinach within the Spring section. A short discussion of the idiosyncrasies of this particular vegetable is featured on the first page of each chapter. The facing page is a yellow-bordered page that runs down how to grow, sow, cultivate and harvest your veg; some conversion math (for example 1 pound of raw spinach is 2-3 cups of cooked spinach and is between 12 and 24 cups of loosely packed, washed and trimmed leaves [24 for mature; 12 for baby]); basic cooking rules; how long to expect different cooking methods to take; and nutritional information. This is followed by four to ten recipes that feature that vegetable. Some of the vegetables included are asparagus, spinach, broccoli, swiss chard, zucchini, artichokes, corn, eggplant, fennel, sweet potatoes, cabbage, carrots, garlic, jerusalem artichoke, leeks, ruatbagas and pumpkins. At the end of each season, Ms. Chesman has included a “Height of the Season” section. This covers a number of the vegetable of that season: sort of a who’s who of spring, summer or fall. In the summer’s Height of the Season some of the included recipes are ratatouille, tomato-vegetable soup, summer vegetable bread pudding, and summer seafood stew. Side dishes are considered for mains and pairings are suggested for the sides’ recipes.

Also included are “Basic Recipes”  and “Master Recipes.” The Basics are recipes like Herbes de Provence, Pesto, Broth, Pie Pastry, Cheese Sauce via a roux and how to Toast Nuts. In my opinion, these really are the basic cooking skills that make the difference between beginning and experienced cooks. The “Master Recipes” are recipes that you can make with any vegetable like, for example, quiche. Quiche made with broccoli follows the same process as making quiche with spinach. This section includes instructions on how to roast summer and root vegetables, grilling veggies, vegetable gratin, pasta recipes, stir-fry, and the best quiche I have ever made. These two sections alone would make it worth while to purchase for a no-longer-a-beginner cook.

On top of all this, interesting information is sprinkled throughout. This information includes the origin of the vegetables and their names, as well as human interest stories about CSAers, gardeners, farmers and cooks. These stories made me feel like I was part of a community. But if you don’t like reading your cookbook, this feature will probably annoy you too much for you to enjoy this book. This cookbook is very pretty even though the pages are only black, white and a couple shades of yellow. These few colours were used very artistically. Now understand this is not a quick cook cookbook, nor is it a vegetarian cookbook either but, as omnivores who eat a lot of local vegetables, we really loved it. I will be asking for a copy for birthday/Christmas.

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Picture Book Recommendation – September 2010

The Good Garden: How One Family Went From Hunger to Having Enough.

Eleven-year-old Maria Luz lives in on a farm in a small rural Honduras village with her parents and little brother, Pepito. When the farm does well, the family can eat, save corn and beans for seeds, and pay for “luxuries” like school and vaccinations. This year the farm is not doing well. Maria Luz’s father decides to go to the city to find work and leaves the farm in Maria Luz’s care. A few months after her father leaves, Maria Luz’s school gets a new teacher. He has some ideas that seem crazy to the villagers. Ideas like composting, terracing, growing cash crops and marigolds to act as natural pesticides, and marketing their own crops instead of using the coyotes to do it for them. Coyotes are vicious middlemen who sell the farmers’ crops for them at market giving the farmers rock-bottom prices and sell seeds to them at crippling interest. Maria Luz latches on to her teacher’s ideas, but will they work? Will her family be able to live off the land as they once had? Will her father be able to come home? Will Maria Luz be brave enough to stand up to the coyotes?

Written in a compelling and informative but easy to understand and never preachy style, Kate Smith Milway’s story is beautiful and inspiring. Accompanied by Sylvie Daigneault’s colourful flowing illustrations, this book is a must-read. We, especially, liked that the coyotes were drawn as humanoids with coyotes’ faces wearing jeans, plaid shirts, cowboy hats and boots. This made the coyotes seem more of villains and less human removing the impression that Maria Luz was being oppressed by her neighbours. thus, improving the sense that her village was a community in which the people cared about each other.

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Mark Bittman’s Kitchen Express: 404 Inspired Seasonal Dishes you can Make in 20 Minutes or Less

With summer upon us, my family’s cookbook needs change. ( I did actually test this cookbook out last June, but didn’t get to turning my notes into sentences until now.) During the school year, we want a cookbook that contains recipes that are fast, easy, suggest quick and easy sides, contain a variety of easily found and nutritious ingredients, and are delicious. But during the summer, I am home everyday and have more time. Of course, for us the ultimate cookbook still contains recipes that fulfil all those requirements, but would also use up the abundance that we get in our CSA basket from Rainbow Heritage Farms. Mark Bittman‘s Kitchen Express actually delivers on all of these.

His simple recipes more like ideas, really, than true recipes. Each is less than 10 lines long and while, not separated in a numbered list, the instructions are clear with no guff or extra stuff. Oddly, the minimization of measurements included did not bother me. It felt like, “You are not baking a cake for the Queen, you are making a quick soup in the blender. Does it really have to be perfect?”

The chapters are separated by season really great for CSA basket. Each recipe has a colour title and one line subtitle. The colour makes it easy to see the division between recipes. Often, the subtitle contains a variation or a side-dish suggestion. I found that I could pick 2 or 3 recipes from the same seasonal section (or steal one that used frozen veggie from “Winter” ) and make a fabulous, albeit slightly unusual, meal in about 30 minutes. Overall, I really liked it and may pick it up for my personal collection.

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The Samurai Mysteries

Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler‘s Samuai Mysteries are quick and interesting mysteries set in early 18th century Japan. These books contain a lot of good history and many interesting facts about medieval Japan. Japanese is scattered throughout the books, but the terms are well explained and mostly used for concepts that are uniquely Japanese in nature.

We meet Seikei, a 14 year old son of a tea merchant, in The Ghost in the Tokaido Inn when witnesses a theft and is willing to be “borrowed” by Judge Ooka. Ooka, like all judges of the time and place, is a samurai; but unlike the others, he believes in searching for evidence and making sure that justice is served. Ooka fulfils Seikei’s every wish when he adopts him into the samurai class at the end of the first book. Seikei, as protagonist and narrator, uses his fresh young voice to show himself to be noble, resourceful and loyal. He is always bound to his desire to honour his foster-father, the Judge. Ooka seems to think that Seikei is very capable and, as the boy ages from 14 to 16, he sends his son on increasingly difficult and dangerous missions. We follow Seikei through teahouses populated by geisha in The Demon in the Teahouse and with him meet ninjas in In Darkness, Death. We learn more about the medieval government and the push and pull between the Emperor and the Shogun in The Sword that Cut the Burning Grass. We are kidnapped by smugglers and become puppeteers in A Samurai Never Fears Death. In the final book, Seven Paths to Death, Seikei must put all his cunning to the test in a life or death battle with a mad woman.

While all the books were fast reads ( I finished Book 2 in one evening) that I found difficult to put down, many of the mysteries could not solved by the reader due to lack of information. On the other hand, I didn’t really try to solve them either. I would happily recommend the entire series for 12-16 year olds.

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Godzilla vs. Mothra

Ok, so this isn’t a book. Sorry. But it is book and Godzilla themed, just like this blog. It is too appropriate to pass up.

Check this and others out at Savage Chickens.

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This very dark book, by Marthe Jocelyn, set in Victorian England follows 4 characters over the course of a decade-and-a-half-ish. The story jumps from person to person and from time to time with three of the view points told with an omnipotent third person narrator, while the fourth person is told in first person. It was very confusing but added tension, unfortunately, there was only enough tension added to make it annoying not enough to make it suspenseful. On the other hand, it did make it so that I couldn’t put it down. I wanted to know what would happen to the character in their next instalment as each one ended in a mini-cliffhanger.

Folly is really Mary Finn’s story: why she left home, how she ended up in London as a maid, why she fell in love and got knocked up. But we also follow another maid in the house, a boy growing up and living through the foundling hospital system, and a teacher of history in the boy’s “school.”   It seems to me that, in a book, whenever there is a child in a foundling hospital the mothers in these books always seem to find their children and the children are exceptional in someway. Give me a break. How realistic is that? “I left my infant here ten years ago, but I was able to get a job that would involve me associating with them on almost a daily basis and I was able to recognize my child instantly.” Riiiiiiiiiiiiight. I enjoyed Hetty Feather by Jacqueline Wilson way more. While very similar to Folly both thematically, in terms of setting, and while covering much of the same material, it was lighter, more cheerful and much less confusing.

By the end of the book, I did not sympathize with Mary Finn as I believe was intended. Nor did it soften me for the author’s afterword about her grandfather, the foundling. I really don’t understand why authors include a this-book-is-related-to-my-life afterword. A good book requires that you forget the author and becomes the character’s story; thus, giving the character life and making them breathe. I don’t want to remember the author, I want to remember a person that the author just happened to have invented. Overall, I wouldn’t recommend it.

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Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures

This book was lent to me by my friend, Kathryn. She really liked it because it is set in Toronto where she lived for a long time. She liked literally seeing the actual settings in her mind again. While I have visited Toronto many times, I have never lived there and I feel that this gives me a different perspective. But I know what she is talking about, I have that same thing happen with many of the cities that I have lived in. It is obvious to me that the author of this book, Vincent Lam, does live in Toronto, but has only visited Ottawa. One scene is set on an Ottawa street, and this scene almost ruined my suspension of disbelief.  I was barely able to hold on, because I lived in Ottawa and no one (and I mean NO ONE) ignores the lights at Rideau and Sussex. This is for a simple reason: ignore them and you will die. This intersection that one of our main characters brazenly rides his bicycle through is made up of blind corners, bus lanes, pedestrian underpasses, and continuous traffic. The character didn’t die by the way, he only got nicked by a bus and ended up with skinned knees. Although, Dr. Lam is, well, just that: a doctor. How he finds time to write an award-winning novel, be a competent doctor, husband and father is beyond me. (Information regarding his personal life gleaned from his author biography at the back of the book.)

This series of short stories masquerading as a novel follows 4 young doctors from pre-med to mid-career. This created a real feeling of disconnect between the tales and I never had a sense of resolution. I wanted to follow an incident longer and more fully more than once. But maybe that is what it is actually like being an ER doc. Maybe there never is any follow-through. On the other hand, I didn’t really feel like the stories were about the medical system as much as about the characters. There was considerable character development, but little enough that I think I can re-tell much of the book with one illustration. Spoiler Warning!! The following Venn diagram is a summary of most of the book in a 400 square pixel block. I admit  that I couldn’t include everything using this method. I wanted to include that Drs. A and C hated each other, and that Drs. B and D both get SARS but to do that using a Venn diagram, I would have designed and animated a 3-D tetrahedron-like figure that would spin and could be zoomed in and out of to different levels while maintaining a translucent quality. Cliff figures that I would need to learn java, flash, and scale vector graphic analysis to be able to pull it off. And that ain’t happening, so enjoy your incomplete Venn diagram summary of Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures.

Actually, the book was very good and an interesting read. I, especially, enjoyed the glossary that was included but not for the terms covered. My mother is a nurse and my training is in biology, so very few of the terms were new to me and the few that were the context was enough to explain them. I really enjoyed the glossary because of the inclusion of some very funny and interesting the author’s notes. I strongly suggest that, if you read this book, you read the author’s notes included in the glossary.

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