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Review: The Best Man

Th28251377e best thing about children’s book author Richard Peck is that I can crack open one of his books without an inkling of what’s to come and be wowed by his guaranteed belly laugh-inducing ability to tell stories. His newest book, The Best Man, is no exception.

The Best Man is an atypical coming-of-age story built around the salient male role models in Archer Magill’s life. It’s also book-ended by two memorable weddings, neither of which are Archer’s. (He is a member of both wedding parties, though, first as an ill-fated ring bearer and then as the VIP best man.)

Archer’s coming of age is atypical because he doesn’t successfully kill a shark, a boar and an octopus to earn the respect of his chieftain father, free his totalitarian-utopian community from its inability to feel human emotions, or fulfill a prophecy-fueled destiny after years of living as an ignominious orphan. Archer’s quite normal, sweet but clueless. He goes to school and tries to be middle of the pack. His best friend, Lynnette Stanley, is smarter and more interesting than him.

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Favorite Books of 2016

ashesAshes by Laurie Halse Anderson

I’ve been waiting for the conclusion of Anderson’s Seeds of America series for so long, and it doesn’t disappoint. The story is so suspenseful I actually relaxed when the characters reached the Battle of Yorktown, because they were safer there than they had been while wandering the countryside and hiding from slave-catchers. Bonus: reading this book will trigger Hamilton songs to play nonstop in your head. You have been warned.

The Best Man by Richard Peck

Only Richard Peck could write a book about social media hysteria, male role models and anti-gay discrimination without it feeling like an “issues” book. And you will laugh helplessly as you read it, especially when you meet the character who’s a snooty parody of every “upstairs” stereotype in Downton Abbey.

Cloud and Wallfish by Anne Nesbet

The way to describe this book is to imagine the TV show The Americans taking place in East Berlin, from the perspective of an American kid, with a lot less violence and spying, but with all the paranoia of living under constant surveillance.

The Creeping Shadow by Jonathan Stroud

The fourth book in Lockwood & Co. has all the usual creepy haunted houses, oddly-polite teenage drama, and dry sarcasm. Unlike the previous books, it finally stops stalling and makes great progress on the series arc of the nature of ghosts and the sinister forces that caused The Problem.
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makoons.jpgThe Birchbark House series by Louise Erdrich is often compared to the Little House series, held up as a kind of non-racist version of 19th-century life from a Native American point of view (in this case, an Ojibwe family). There are plenty of obvious parallels–the time period, the focus on slice-of-life family dynamics, the semi-regular threat of starvation/disease/winter–but such a comparison belittles Erdrich’s work, which is so much more fun and nuanced than Little House ever was.

One of the things that always bothered me about Little House (in addition to the racism and Pa’s insistence on dragging the family into ever-more-perilous situations to suit his wanderlust) was its inflexibility. The adults were always right. The kids were only good as long as they stayed quiet and obedient. And can we talk about how annoying Mary was, with her holier-than-thou selflessness? Continue Reading »

Old news to the world, but new news to me so Imma blog about it: Neil Gaiman guest starred on “Arthur.”

In the episode, “Falafelosophy,” Gaimen shows up as a pale unidentified animal with pointy ears and encourages Sue Ellen through the process of writing her first graphic novel, first as himself and then as a falafel-sized figment of Sue Ellen’s imagination.

“Trust your heart, trust your story,” Falafel-Gaimen tells her, when she frets that her friends won’t enjoy her weird story about feuding triangles and circles. “You can’t assume your audience are all squares!”

Other classic lines include:

“Neil Gaiman, what are you doing in my falafel?”

(response) “I’m your Neil Gaiman. I’m your inner Neil, as it were.”

“You don’t want to be stuck with a warm smoothing. It’s like drinking fruity bathwater.”

“Writing can’t be just about pleasing other people. You’ve got a story to tell and you’re the only one who can tell it.”

And this quote from Instructions: “What you seek will be found. Trust ghosts. Trust those that you have helped to help you in their turn. Trust dreams. Trust your heart, and trust your story.”

The folks behind Arthur are on point with their guest stars. Since Neil Gaimean is like a gateway drug for elementary kids to nerdy, creepily imaginative and emotionally honest stories and writing, this is an extremely encouraging episode for any budding writer. Here it is in all its animated Neil Gaiman glory:

littleHouseMaking the drive from the Dakotas to Missouri, I passed the exit for De Smet, South Dakota, aka the town where Laura Ingalls Wilder’s By the Shores of Silver Lake through The First Four Years are set. This awoke a deep nostalgia in me, and the urge to revisit the series starting with Little House on the Prairie. (Sorry, Big Woods. I wasn’t in Wisconsin.)

Rereading Little House was a strange visit. On one hand, some parts were as charming as my childhood memories of Laura’s pioneering life. Then again, I’m astounded the Ingalls managed to stay alive for the entire book, much less the series. As protective as Pa is of his family, he has no qualms about putting them in dangerous situations to begin with.

I’m not the first and I won’t be the last to point this out, but I kept a running tally of all the ways they could have died on the prairie:

  1. The ice cracks the day after the Ingalls crossed over the frozen Mississippi River in their covered wagon from the big woods of Wisconsin to the Indian Territories aka Kansas.
  2. Then they ford a rising creek where their horses almost drown.
  3. While building the walls of their log cabin, Ma narrowly avoids getting crushed to death by a rolling log.
  4. Their cabin is encircled by a pack of wolves at night and they don’t have a real door — only a quilt nailed across the door frame.
  5. Pa and their nearest neighbor Mr. Scott dig a well and narrowly avoid being overcome by fumes underground.
  6. Pa, Ma, Mary and Laura contract “fever ‘n’ ague” aka malaria and it’s unclear who is taking care of baby Carrie while the rest of the family is delirious and bedridden. (Baby Carrie gets ignored during this chapter.)
  7. The chimney attached to their wooden house catches fire.
  8. The prairie surrounding their wooden house catches fire.
  9. A panther visits them.
  10. The U.S. government is in the process of “resettling” the Indians from their land, and meanwhile the Ingalls are homesteading illegally on Osage land, though they don’t realize this until the end of the book. It’s amazing every encounter the family has with an Indian doesn’t end badly…

salt to the seaI remember watching “Titanic” for the first time and refusing to get sucked in by Jack, Rose and their brief but ill-fated romance (though I did shed a tear for the brave string quartet, who serenaded the sinking ship with a dignified rendition of “Nearer, my God, to Thee”) because the ending was a foregone conclusion.

So when I read the book jacket for Salt to the Sea, about the actual worst maritime disaster that I had never heard of, I wondered how author Ruta Septys would tell the story of the Wilhelm Gustloff in a way that would escape the feeling of inevitability without actually escaping the inevitable.

Septys kept things lively by dedicating a good part of the story to the dynamics between three of the four POV characters as they journey from somewhere frozen in Prussia to the equally frigid port where the Wilhelm Gustloff and the fourth character await.

For Joana, a young Lithuanian nurse separated from her family–pay attention to who her relatives are–guilt is a hunter.

For Florian, a disillusioned Prussian teenager on a secret high stakes mission, fate is a hunter.

For Emilia, a Polish girl caught between the Germans and the Russians, shame is a hunter.

For Alfred, a sailor on the Wilhelm Gustloff desperate to prove himself to the girl next door and to the Third Reich, fear is a hunter.

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My side of the water tower

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Up close and personal with a 24 day old peregrine falcon chick. This is what it must feel like to be a NatGeo photographer.

Confession: I became obsessed with peregrine falcons for a time after reading Jean Craighead George’s My Side of the Mountain as a child. During recess, I would scan the skies for the definitive peregrine silhouette, widespread wings and long tail feathers, and wonder if I could track the bird to a cliff side nest where I could snatch a chick to raise as my own, as Sam did with Frightful. (Granted, that was probably illegal, even back in my day, and I could never tell kites, hawks, and sometimes, low flying crows apart.)

Nevertheless, I had the chance to live my childhood dream when I got to pet four fluffy chicks that were temporarily removed from their lofty water tower nest for banding. At 24 days old, the chicks were too young to do much except flap their wings and squawk indignantly at being handled in such an undignified manner.

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This is exactly what it looks like. The chick is temporarily placed into a purple plastic pumpkin so it can be weighed on the scale. Females are larger and heavier than males.

Give them another two weeks to grow, and they’ll be soaring and swooping with the best of them.

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In two weeks, these primary feathers will be light, long and strong enough to help this guy or gal reach speeds of up to 220 mph during dives.

I later found out there’s a whole color-coded system for banding peregrines. The chicks I touched were banded with black over red ankle rings, signifying that they were from the eastern U.S., even though they were technically Midwest/Great Plains birds. I should find out what that’s about.