Archive for August, 2007

I don’t know about you, but when I’m feeling stressed, or ill, or am otherwise in need of a little extra comfort, there is nothing like a stack of novels to cheer me. Until recently, I thought my rose-colored memories of curling up with a pile of books in childhood might be sweetly inaccurate. Not long ago, my father gave me some letters he found in my grandmother’s house, and in one of them, penned when I was about nine, I mentioned that I had a cold and that I planned to spend the afternoon “curled up by the fire with a book.”

In the past week, I’ve read three novels that were a perfect distraction at a stressful time, though these I read by air-conditioning, not fireside. Two are books suggested by the Book Lovers’ Calendar, one of those little square calenders you tear off daily and use for scrap paper. The other is a book sale purchase.

Steve suggests I should write a bookconscious post about how our family chooses our reading material. One important source is the library’s sale rack. My best library sale purchase of all time is one that several of my friends feel certain cannot be topped — for $2, I purchased the Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.

About six years ago, I was returning some books in the Concord (NH) Public Library when someone brought in donations for the sale rack. When I spied the large, hardcover two volume set, slipcovered in a nice case which incorporates a little drawer for a magnifying glass (handy because the compact OED reproduces four of the full sized editions pages per page), I could hardly believe my luck.

“Are you donating this?” I asked. The donor confirmed, smiling at my recognition of the prize at hand. I was so visibly excited by my quarry that when I approached the desk to ask the price, the librarian grinned at my delight. “Well, two volumes, hardcover, that will be $2,” he said. I nearly reached over the counter to hug him. “Really?!?!” was all I could splutter. “I’ve wanted the OED for so long . . . .” The librarian really seemed as pleased as I was. My children were too young to be embarrassed at the way mommy was nearly tearing up with joy over a dictionary, but I am sure all of you OED fans can imagine my dumbfounded delight — a $2 OED is the bargain of the century. Every time I open it, I think of the generous donor and librarian and feel grateful to both.

Many book sales later, I have accumulated a number of bargains but none so striking as my OED. However, shopping at library racks and book sales saves my family a great deal of money and has helped us build a home library. It is also a good source of gifts for my grandmother, who at 94 remains convinced that no paperback should ever cost more than a quarter. She is still a voracious reader, so I check the rack every time I go to the library and bring her my finds whenever we visit her.

One book I picked up recently, intending to pass along to her, I decided to read myself first, after learning a little about the author. Barbara Pym underwent a long period in which she could not find a publisher for her work, and yet went on to be named “most underrated novelist of the century” in the Times Literary Supplement. Her book Jane and Prudence is one of her earlier works, published in England in 1953. It captures post-war England in richly textured detail.

On the surface, it is a novel of manners, covering just a small period of time in a few characters’ lives. On reflection, Jane and Prudence, like most of Pym’s work, is a deeper study of human nature, gender roles and class differences, and the Church of England’s evolving (or perhaps devolving) place in Englished identity.

Jane and Prudence are friends of different generations, one married to a village vicar, one single and working in London. Pym explores the way each feels about her Oxford education, the lack of intellectual fulfillment both women are aware of but unable to deal with, the way men impact the choices available to Jane and Prudence, and the ways both are victims of society’s expectations of them.

In probing Jane’s inability to be a model clergyman’s wife, and Prudence’s mild curiosity but ultimate indifference towards religion, Pym comments on the church’s inadequacy as an outlet for either woman’s capabilities. Even for Jane, who finds spiritual solace there, the church is another reminder of the avenues closed to a woman of her time and place.

If this all sounds a bit heavy, one of the most delightful things about Pym is her comic tone. Her writing reminds me of Jane Austen’s, in that the social commentary goes down so smoothly you may almost miss it. Jane and Prudence is full of humorous details that humanize even the coldest characters. Listen in as the stuffy staff at Prudence’s office speculate on who shall make the tea, watch the vicar attempt to economize by growing his own tobacco, shake your head as the unsuspecting Fabian is manipulated right out of his melodramatics as a suffering widower, and observe the villagers’ social maneuvering at a whist drive featuring a visit by their “Beloved Member,” [of parliament] and you feel you should stifle a giggle, lest poor Jane or Prudence realize how ridiculous things are.

But they do, and that’s the delight. Both Jane and Prudence are aware heroines, in charge of their lives even when things beyond their control go awry. They are not weak victims, even though they are both hemmed into narrow roles by English society of the 1950’s. I finished the novel feeling I’d enjoy being friends with either of them, especially Jane. She talks too loudly, can’t help speaking her mind, thinks of books she’d like to write when she ought to be helping to decorate the church, and invites people over without being quite up to entertaining as befits her station. But everyone enjoys her company and she clearly understands people. There’s nothing stuffy about Jane, even though she is part of an entirely stuffy social system.

Stuffiness is what the protagonist of Little Green Men suffers from as the novel opens. If you haven’t read Christopher Buckley‘s satiric novels, give them a try. Little Green Men had me laughing out loud. I first read Buckley when the Atlantic Monthly printed Florence of Arabia in two parts in 2004 — back when that magazine still carried fiction in every issue. Critics said that Florence would amuse anyone it didn’t offend, especially in Washington. Buckley pokes fun at the Washington establishment with claws bared, but I find his work hilarious, if a little scary.

In Little Green Men, Buckley imagines a super secret government agency in charge of faking alien abductions. I don’t want to give away too much, but the plot centers around two men — the pompous, Ivy league stuffed-shirt John Oliver Banion, and Nathan Scrubbs, the frustrated foot soldier of the mysterious government agency. As the plot unfolds, Buckley lampoons both the Washington insider set and the wacky alien abductee world, and he also makes fun of the ease with which the American public opinion swings, often courtesy of media reports. His satires encompasses all branches of government as well as journalism.

But while Buckley’s sharp wit sheds light on much of the excess of American popular culture and Washington cronyism, he manages to garner sympathy for Banion and Scrubbs. His plot twists unwind a little too neatly, but this is after all, satire, and the ending isn’t expected to be ambiguous. Again, I don’t want to be a spoiler, but if you were at all paying attention to politics and pop culture in the 1980’s and 1990’s, you’ll throughly enjoy the barbed references to the Million Man March, the caricatures of D.C. power hostesses, pundits, lawyers, and political operatives, and the X-Files world of alien abductee organizations and conspiracy theorists. Little Green Men is great fun.

Far more sober in setting and plot is The Kitchen Boy, a debut novel by Robert Alexander. As the story begins, a widower is putting his affairs in order for his only heir, his beloved granddaughter. It is clear from the start that the man expects to die soon. Before that happens, he feels he must record the story of his life’s darkest hours, when he served as kitchen boy to the Tsar Nicholas II and his family during their imprisonment in Siberia.

Alexander drops very subtle hints throughout the novel to give the impression that all is not as the protagonist tells us. Is he, Mikhail, a successful and very wealthy emigrant, the kitchen boy Leonka? Why has he hidden his story from his family all his life? And why is he revealing it now? Will his granddaughter be able to piece together the evidence he is leaving her to get to the real truth?

There is no way to say more without spoiling the mystery, but The Kitchen Boy was a quick read, rich in period detail, and with a pleasantly surprising ending. Alexander clearly did meticulous research, and he shares the inspiration for the book and some of the historical materials he reviewed on the book’s elaborate website. The fact that the Romanov’s last days are a real life mystery, complete with missing bodies and lost treasure, adds to the mystique of the novel’s imaginative plot. The website includes a number of links which augment the careful historical detail in the book. Don’t miss this great resource.

When it’s 107, as our thermometer read when I began this post, it is strangely comforting to read about frigid Siberia. The chilling scenes at the end of the book are a little more detailed than I would prefer, but it’s well known that the Romanovs were brutally murdered, so the reader isn’t taken entirely by surprise when the brutality begins. The horror is over quickly, just as it was on that night in 1918.

Unfortunately, so is the book.


Read Full Post »

Gregory is reading The Warrior Heir by Cinda Chima. He says it’s “relatively exciting and interesting.” From a fourteen year old boy who’d rather look at the latest YouTube clips of the week’s best soccer goals, that’s high praise.

In an earlier post, I mentioned that we’d recently asked him to read more fiction. He reads all kinds of nonfiction, including, currently, The Isaac Newton School of Driving: Physics and Your Car, by Barry Parker; and Joy Hakim‘s The Story of Science series (he’s on volume 2), as well as lots of books on race cars, soccer, and cooking (especially Asian food).

Lately he’s been poring over his grandfather’s back issues of Auto Week and he reads a great many online news and sports sites, as well as World of Warcraft forums and blogs. But when pressed to explain why so little fiction has crossed his nightstand lately, Gregory explained that the books he loves are such good stories, he has a hard time finding anything that compares.

So I suggested we do a little sleuthing on the Internet and find reading suggestions for fans of his favorite books, (such as the Beaverton Library’s “Teen Spot Great Reads“) and The Warrior Heir came up in more than one list. He started reading it a few days ago, and explained last night that one thing he likes are the long chapters, which make it easy to get into the story quickly. If that seems like a contradiction, you should know that it’s actually a telling sign of Gregory’s reading style.

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who can stop reading mid-chapter, put the bookmark in, and set the book aside and those who can’t rest until they’ve come to the end of a chapter, a neat stopping point, before they turn out the light and go to sleep, or get on with the day. Gregory is a chapter-ender. He comes by that honestly, by the way — so is his mother.

I’ve heard lots of mothers on playgrounds over the years say they didn’t ever want weapons in the house, but their boy children just made guns and swords and other toys of destruction. We haven’t ever gone through that phenomenon — save a few ceremonial swords during Gregory’s peak Eragon reading (he also made the sofa sleeper into a passable facsimile of a dragon).

Gregory never wanted to pretend to shoot anyone, and until he got into World of Warcraft, he never really played games that included violence. I have to grudgingly admit that the WoW violence isn’t as bad as I was expecting, and it hasn’t, to my knowledge, manifested itself in any real world negative behavior.

Despite his nonviolent early childhood play and cautious nature, Gregory has always been drawn to books which tell thrilling tales of daring, adventure, mythic or supernatural forces, even war. My peace loving child, who has always despised seeing another child picked on, who asked worriedly in the days after 9-11 if the bad guys would come to New Hampshire (where we lived at the time), who wrote President Bush in early 2003 that he was worried about our country going to war — this child likes to read books full of warriors. Many of the books we’ve read aloud deal with the conundrum of fighting in order to establish peace — Susan Cooper‘s The Dark Is Rising series, Lloyd Alexander‘s Prydain Chronicles, Eragon, Harry Potter, C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia.

Gregory is mostly a fan of fantasy, not realistic war stories (although both kids enjoyed one of the most amazing stories we’ve ever read, set in WWII Denmark: Number the Stars) The classic juxtaposition of good versus evil is creative fodder for fantasy, and is one of the oldest types of literature. Humans have told stories laced with conflict since before there were books — Stith Thompson’s classic, The Folktale identifies dozens of story types related to these themes. Fairy tales and folklore are full of evil witches and wizards, devils, and other tricksters, who often meet their doom, sometimes in pretty graphic ways, at the hands of the hero or heroine.

Hansel and Gretel, for example, shove the witch into her own oven. Harry Potter engages in wand to wand combat with Voldemort. The children in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe must go to battle to defeat the White Witch (and poor conflicted Edmund eventually fights for right, after he proves the important point that even good guys falter now and then). The Bible includes plenty of violence. In many of childhood’s most beloved stories, there’s a whole lot of fighting going on.

How to explain this? Are humans just naturally drawn to conflict? I think instead we are drawn to explaining it. Which is why I believe that books in which battle lines are drawn between good and evil are an important part of every child’s imaginative development and interior life. Books are a safe place to explore big ideas about right and wrong.

I would also say that stories about strife are much less scary than real life. Most kids get that an evil wizard is not going to come murder their family, but it may be comforting to read about Harry Potter standing up to such a horrendous monster, if you’re a kid who hears about a real murder on the news. I feel pretty sure that part of the reason Gregory enjoys the Alex Rider books, about a teen spy, is that he has grown up hearing about terrorism, and it’s satisfying to read stories in which vile criminals get their comeuppance at the hands of a clever kid.

Stories like these nurture the part of our human nature that believes good will prevail. Last spring I read The Healing Power of Stories by Daniel Taylor (the newer edition is called Tell Me a Story: The Life Shaping Power of Our Stories), which describes the strong effect of stories on character, moral development, and emotional well being. I think the lasting impact of stories is very real, and I think it explains why humans have told stories for as long as we’ve had language, and why storytelling is enjoying a resurgence in popularity. Check out Jim Weiss, Odds Bodkin, Jay O’Callahan, and Story Corps for some audio well being of your own.

There’s a fair bit of hand wringing over moral relativism in the world today — the notion that in popular culture, everyone’s point of view is respected, and therefore none is more valid than another. According to this theory, no one has any idea of what is good and what is bad, because it all depends on the context of the situation and nothing is absolute. But the fear that ambiguity has taken over seems to be unfounded; in public library story times and read-aloud sessions with older kids, I’ve never met a child who couldn’t explain the difference between good and evil. Kids can do so easily — and they do it spontaneously, in my experience, eagerly calling out comments, because they can relate these concepts to a story they know. And that’s another great reason to read with kids.

Read Full Post »

Stories may help kids deal with the scariness of the real world, but Katherine likes a little more reality when it comes to one particular subject: princesses. Last fall I was taking a picture of Gregory on the soccer field, and when I came back to my chair, I caught the end of a conversation Katherine was having with my friend, the mother of one of Gregory’s team mates. As I sat down I heard Katherine say, “they take away kids’ imaginations” — my friend raised her eyebrows and explained, “we’re talking about Disney Princesses.”

When asked to sum up her views on D.P.’s in one word, Katherine tilted her head to one side, thought, and declared, “daft.”

Now I admit, my kids have outside-the-mainstream views on Disney, but I think they have sound reasons for those views. Gregory has long felt, and his sister heartily agrees, that Disney storytelling is completely lacking in subtlety, resulting in films which are unnecessarily scary and over dramatized. They’re right. There’s no reason, for example, for an animated villain to fill a huge movie screen while melodramatic music gets the audience’s hearts pounding. These are children’s movies, for heaven’s sake.

Kids are able to grasp the nuances of good storytelling; they don’t need to be condescended to with such histrionics. I read the Chronicles of Narnia aloud for the first time when Katherine was only 4 or 5, and she had no trouble following the complex plots. She also had no desire to see a movie version, even when she was older. She said she could already see Narnia in her imagination.

And that’s Katherine’s main objection to D.P.’s — that the proliferation of Disney’s princess theme in every store aisle (seriously — from snacks to home decor, toys to costumes) ruins the imaginative fun of figuring out what princesses might be like. Kids are naturally savvy consumers if we protect them from excessive marketing. They know when they’re over-loaded, and Katherine was reacting to this over abundance of D.P. paraphernalia in a local store when she chatted with my friend at the soccer field.

Gregory and Katherine have also noticed and asked us why Disney seems to dominate popular imagination in general. It’s a good question. One answer is that they probably reach every consumer in America (and beyond) at one point or another, even those who don’t consciously seek their products. Scroll down to Walt Disney Corporation in the drop down box on this page to see why.

I’m perfectly happy that my kids prefer their own imaginations, and I support their resistance to the Disneyfication of our culture. There isn’t really one version of any fairy or folktale — dozens of Cinderella stories exist, from cultures all over the world, for example — and good stories are not diminished by their retelling. I don’t begrudge Disney or any author the right to retell stories. But how many people know any Cinderella but Disney’s? It’s Disney’s massive marketplace power that allows them to dominate the stories they tell. Katherine’s point is that some kids may never know any kind of princess but Disney’s, and that, sadly, limits the imagination.

Let’s face it, the D.P.’s wear frilly dresses, sing prettily, and fall in love — but as Katherine points out, that’s not necessarily what real princesses do. To be fair to Disney, they do that in some versions of their respective fairy tales. Katherine prefers strong female protagonists, like the practical, smart, capable girls in Ella Enchanted and the other Princess Tales by Gail Carson Levine, which she read last year. These are fairy tale re-tellings as well; they are actually described that way right on the backs of the books.

A further bit of evidence that Disney’s influence permeates our culture and shapes the stories we know: Ms. Levine contributes to a series of books called Disney Fairies. I found this galling quote about the series on Wikipedia which originated from a Disney corporate site (locked to outsiders), which represents all that I find unfortunate and even somewhat chilling about Disney’s version of storytelling:

“The concept of the Disney Fairies, which is rooted in Disney’s rich heritage of children’s storytelling, builds on the popularity of the famous Disney character, Tinker Bell . . .”

Excuse me? Ever hear of a guy named J. M. Barrie and his creative work, Peter Pan? As I pondered how Disney could have the nerve to claim Tink as their own, I realized two things: 1) they probably bought her and 2) Disney Fairies books are not based on J.M. Barrie’s Tinker Bell, they are based on the animated Disney version. So they are telling the truth as they created it: Tinker Bell is no longer, in the popular imagination, the fairy born in a book published in 1911 (and performed as a play in 1904), she is a Disney brand. It seems disingenuous, however, not to give a nod to Tinker Bell’s original creator.

That’s why I’d like to avoid Disney’s “rich heritage of children’s storytelling.” I respect Gail Carson Levine’s right to publish with whomever she wishes, and I’m glad Disney Fairies fans will get to read her Newbery quality writing, if they can find her books (other authors wrote most of the series ) among the myriad products in the Disney Fairies line.

I’m no scrooge — I am sure Disney brings joy to many kids. In the spirit of full disclosure, I must report that Katherine read one of Levine’s Disney Fairies books and liked it well enough (although she hasn’t sought out the rest of the series). I personally prefer my storytelling to be a little less coldly calculated to entice me to buy copious branded tie-in products.

A glance at my bookshelves will tell you I do my fair share to support the economy and I am as susceptible to the next person to some forms of marketing. But I find Disney Fairies’ shameless co-opting of Tinkerbell with no reference to the author who created her, and its accompanying franchise branding data , rather Machiavellian.

But I digress. Although she enjoyed Levine’s strong princess stories, Katherine was still not so sure they were representative of authentic royals. Somewhere along the line, Katherine asked about actual princesses, we poked around for some answers, discussed it a bit, she seemed satisfied, and that was that. Still, she wondered, as I myself wondered at length when I was a child, what is it like to be a real princess?

Which brings me, in rambling fashion, to what Katherine is reading. At a used book sale last year we picked up Royal Diaries: Cleopatra VII, Daughter of the Nile, Egypt 57 B.C. It turns out the Royal Diaries are a series about real royal girls from various times and places. Katherine enjoys history, and these books bring it to life. After she finished Cleopatra VII, we looked for more of the series at the library, and she has so far read Marie Antoinette, Austria-France 1769 and is nearly through with Mary Queen of Scots, France 1553. Last weekend we went to a different library branch, and came home with more Royal Diaries about girls in Korea in 595, Haiti in 1490, Mesoamerica in 749, England in 1544, and Russia in 1743.

Katherine says her favorite thing about the Royal Diaries is that the girls tell their own stories in the first person. She told me she uses this point of view when writing her own stories, because she really likes the main character telling the reader what’s happening. It’s definitely a lively way to learn history, and a time honored one — all good scholars consult primary sources, such as letters and diaries, when they write a history book.

Of course, the Royal Diaries are historical fiction, but the series is based on solid research, so they’re a little closer to portraying real princesses. So far, in the titles Katherine has read, the main characters are in their teens during the time period covered in the stories. That’s appealing too — these books give peek into life as a young royal, but they don’t tell the whole story, so they leave readers curious to find out more.

Perhaps my fondness for making connections has rubbed off on Katherine as well, because she told me yesterday that she found it interesting that both Marie Antoinette and Mary, Queen of Scots had to take ballet when they were young, but that Mary hated it. And speaking of connections, we just discovered that Scholastic offers crafts and activities related to some of the Royal Diaries on their website. We are looking forward to making Egyptian candy and trying some of the other projects.

I anticipate Katherine looking further into some of the places and time periods she learns about in the books, too. One of my favorite things about self-directed learning is the time and space it allows to generate one’s own”big picture” of knowledge and understanding. Katherine seems hard wired for this — I often find her looking something up that she remembers from a book or magazine that relates to her current reading, or she’ll stop me as I read aloud and rush off to get some related thing she’s remembered. We all appreciate the multi-dimensional, far ranging view of a subject that our family’s life learning provides.

Scholastic commissioned some very good authors for this series — for example, Kathryn Lasky wrote Mary, Queen of Scots and Laurence Yep wrote Lady of Ch’iao Kuo, Warrior of the South, set in China in 531. Both Lasky and Yep are multi-award winners. One of the best ways for a writer to improve her craft is to read talented authors’ books. So as part of my own life learning, I think before Katherine finishes, I’ll read some of the Royal Diaries too! In fact, just looking at Katherine, stretched out on the sofa, lost in another time and place, makes me long for a whole day, with a stack of books and nothing pressing to do but read.

Read Full Post »

On our shelf of science activity books and field guides, we have a little paper gadget the kids made a few years ago, called a “wind scale wheel.” You can make one yourself if you print the pages from the Miami Museum of Science:


We’ve learned a great deal about wind here in southwest Georgia, experiencing tropical storms, copious thunder storms, and the severe storm that sent a tornado tearing through our town on March 1, 2007. My son is a Weather Channel junkie, and my daughter built a home meteorological observation station last year, using a fun book about weather called The Kids’ Book of Weather Forecasting by Mark Breen and Kathleen Friestad.

So with all the weather tracking at our house, I’d heard of the Beaufort Scale, which is the basis of the little wheel they made, and I also know of two other weather scales that are a seasonal part of our lives in the south: the Saffir Simpson, which classifies hurricanes, and the Fujita Pearson, which classifies tornadoes (if you’re curious, the Americus tornado was an F3).

When I read in the Daedalus catalog about the book Defining the Wind: The Beaufort Scale and How a 19th Century Admiral Turned Science Into Poetry, by Scott Huler, I was intrigued. I knew nothing at all about the origins of the scale or the man it’s named for, but when I saw the cover of the book at the library, with Admiral Beaufort in uniform and a sailing ship on a rough sea, I was reminded of the Hornblower books by C.S. Forester. I really enjoy Forester, and I also recently received another seafaring series from my Grandmother – her whole set of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin books. I like a good sea story, so I headed to the library in search of Defining the Wind.

I admit wondering how an entire book could be about one little wind scale, which after all, Huler tells readers is only 110 words long. The scale is printed on a dedication page of sorts just before the introduction, and just after this quote from Francis Beaufort himself, taken from a journal entry in 1805:

“Nothing I am sure can be more useful than comparing our present ideas with those of old time, tracing back our chains of actions to their primary sources or motions, ascertaining the causes of our successes or failures, in short, studying the history of our own mind.”

This made me smile, nod, and talk to myself. A good sign, when starting a new book. I’ve copied the quote because it is something I believe myself — a theme you’ve likely noticed in my reading and writing. Connections, between all of us as human beings and among our ideas as codified in writing of all kinds, are a major source of joy and fascination in my own life. I soon learned that this urge to know how and why, when and whom, what and where, and in which way it all fits together is what led Huler on his journey of discovery into the Beaufort Scale.

First, if you are unsure of what the scale is, check it out:



I could go on with the links, because as Huler learned, the Beaufort scale is an organic creation, evolving with langauge and the times, and even changing in the place he first found it, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. Huler tells readers in the first chapter of this book that this story is his own. Defining the Wind is not a book about Francis Beaufort, or even, truly, about the wind scale. It’s the tale of a man in love with words, who discovered the scale in the 9th edition of the dictionary when he was a copy editor, and found it would not let him go.

As a word lover myself, I admire Huler’s passion for his subject, and the way it led him, in a beautiful example of life learning, to investigate the many origins of the wind scale and to meet dozens of interesting people whose own special knowledge or enthusiasm for some aspect of the story added to Huler’s own. If there is a book that shows an adult engaging in an autodidactic life and supporting himself while doing so, this is it.

Over many years, via many paths, Huler learned about wind, sailing, English history, drawing, meteorology, chart making, exploration, navigation, the British Met Office, windmills, the BBC Shipping Forecast, and the many men before and after Beaufort who contributed to the wind scale, among many other bits of information — all of which led to the final story in Defining the Wind. Like Beaufort, Huler became something of a Renaissance man, and he corresponded or met with a broad range of people whose own lives and work connect with the Beaufort Scale in some way.

Of course, Huler tells readers about the history of the Beaufort Scale, as it unfolded for him, but at the end of the book, he admits freely that the things he learned are as important as the story itself. And that’s my favorite part of this book. It’s not a dry, scholarly study; it’s not even a warm, thorough biography. It’s a trip through a curious writer’s process, as he researches, gets to know intimately, and writes about a subject he’s passionately interested in.

Huler takes us along as he visits the Huntington Library in California (home to many of Francis Beaufort’s papers); various libraries, archives, museums, and historical sites in England; the harbor of Montevideo (which Beaufort charted and sketched); a sailing ship (the Europa); a wind tunnel; his own neighborhood; and in the end, a small town called North Shields, in northern England, where the author of the actual “110 best words ever written,” as Huler calls them, worked as head post office clerk and one of five weather observers who reported to the Met Office at the beginning of the 20th century.

Yes, that’s right, Beaufort didn’t write the words that set Huler on this quest in the first place. But I don’t want to give away the entire story, because it’s best enjoyed through Huler’s eyes. Reading Defining the Wind is like sitting in a coffee shop listening to a friend tell you about a fascinating project he’s been working on, an amazing trip he’s taken, and a great book he’s read.

You’ll enjoy the story more if you share Huler’s belief in the poetic beauty of the Beaufort Scale itself. The version he read first in the dictionary is actually partially in iambic pentameter. If you’ve read poembound, you know that when I do poetry workshops with teens, I help them feel iambic pentameter by beating out the rhythm against their chests — an echo of their own heartbeats. It’s not just for Shakespeare (speaking of everything being interconnected); iambic pentameter is primally satisfying to the human ear. The langauge of the scale drew Huler in.

And it turns out, it has drawn in a wide variety of other artists. There are poems, books, drawings, paintings, photographs, mixed media art, a stamp series, and even a choral work by the Finnish composer Aullis Sallinen, all inspired by the scale. Every person Huler spoke to in the UK about the BBC’s Shipping Forecast, which includes Beaufort Scale numbers, describes it in terms of its sound and rhythm as well as its content. You can listen here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/weather/coast/shipping/

and read about the Shipping Forecast here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shipping_Forecast.

Huler already knew the Beaufort scale is poetic, but he is inspired not only by the scale’s simple beauty, but also by its utility, and ultimately, its design principles. In his research he discovered all manner of scales inspired by Beaufort’s — the tornado and hurricane scales; a scale written for Savannah, Georgia that describes the wind in terms of its effect on Spanish moss and lawn furniture; and updated versions of the Beaufort itself, like the “Peterson State of Sea” version that is in use on ships all over the world today.

The value of these variations is that each scale is useful. Each helps people identify and interpret weather conditions by describing, simply, efficiently, and accurately, the wind and its effect on human activity. Summarizing its neat beauty, Huler writes, “The Beaufort Scale describes everything the wind can do in 110 words” — these 110 words, are ordered, complete, clear, honest, and true. They are also created to be shared, disseminated widely, not kept in a university, office, museum, or archive.

And that is what Beaufort was after, in all of his life’s work, from using and distributing his own version of the scale, to keeping meticulous observations in journals, to streamlining the work of hydrography (sea mapping) for the British Admiralty and issuing the Manual of Scientific Enquiry for ships’ captains, to sharing his work through the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge — my new number one reason to hope for time travel someday. Huler realizes as he draws Defining the Wind to its conclusion that he admires Beaufort and his scale so much because he is a kindred spirit.

In piecing together all that he learned, Huler discovers that the Beaufort Scale he admires so much is “not just an example of brilliant writing but an entire way of looking at the world.” Huler writes that in the preface to Karamania, a book Beaufort wrote about his trip to map the coast of Turkey for the Admiralty, he explains that he published his experiences not out of any authority, but “rather in the hope of exciting further inquiry.” To Huler, this is an “open-hearted intellectual decency to which we ought to aspire every single day.”

In short, Huler believes, “Just the way clear thinking and clear writing have a one-to-one ratio — you can’t have one without the other — the Beaufort Scale has that kind of relationship to an observant, attentive life. If you’re thinking of things in a Beaufort Scale way, you can’t fail to pay attention.”

This resonates deeply with me, because close observation is what writers of all genres use as raw material. In his book The Poetry Home Repair Manual, former Poet Laureate Ted Kooser notes the importance of noticing things and writing them down in a journal before crafting observations into poetry. As a mother trying to instill the value of inquiry in my children, and trying to equip them not with a set of facts from a curriculum but instead with tools they can use to explore their own curiosities to the fullest, I admire both Beaufort’s and Huler’s commitment to purposeful inquisitiveness.

There’s a simple generosity in Beaufort’s hope that readers will take his ideas and run with them that Huler clearly shares, as he provides helpful illustrations throughout the book and a glorious set of appendices and notes which can hardly fail to “excite further inquiry.” I realize that’s why I like adding links when I blog, to provide readers a trailhead for their own exploratory paths.

In reading, thinking, writing, and practicing mindful attention to the world around me and the people in it, I was already striving to infuse my own work with this spirit of useful beauty before I read Defining the Wind. I have a long way to go, but I’m inspired, both by the Beaufort Scale and all of its creators and by the author who unlocked its secrets, to work harder at both living an observant life and distilling my observations into something lasting, true, and lovely.

Read Full Post »

For most of the week, the thermometer has been in triple digits. The heat index has been so high — in the 110 to 115 range, according to our local newspaper; simply beyond discomfort, in practical terms — that I find myself just shaking my head. We’ve been under an “extreme heat advisory,” which means the National Weather Service has actually issued a warning and suggests people take measures to stay cool.

So it’s been a good week to curl up in air conditioned comfort with a good book. Unless you have to take your son to soccer practice, in which case it’s been a fine week to learn how many page turns it takes to sweat bullets when it is 98 and very humid at 7pm. Answer? Only a couple. I was sapped just sitting there; I have no idea how the kids ran around after a ball. But I digress.

Perhaps it is the heat that has led me to once again select a book set in England this week: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599 by James Shapiro. The engaging plot summary in Daedalus books http://www.daedalusbooks.com/ is what initially caught my eye. I also remembered hearing the author on Talk of the Nation http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4964038

I can’t say I actually felt cooler while reading in Shapiro’s prologue about the Chamberlain’s Men, the group of “players” which included Shakespeare, dismantling The Theater on a night late in December 1598 and carting off the pieces to a warehouse where they would wait for the foundations to be laid for their new home, The Globe, on the south side of the Thames. A dispute with the man they rented the land from led to this covert operation.

Shapiro opens his book with the story of the Chamberlain’s Men and their efforts to build a permanent theater, and he then follows Shakespeare, his colleagues, and other contemporaries through the last days of 1598 and into the new year. 1599, it turns out, was a very eventful year for England, and for Shakespeare.

During that year, in addition to carrying out his many duties as a shareholder and actor in the Chamberlain’s Men and also attending to his business and family affairs in Stratford, Shakespeare finished one play (Henry the Fifth), wrote two more (Julius Caesar and As You Like It), and began what is one of his finest (Hamlet). Shapiro fills out what little is known about Shakespeare’s life and writing process with detailed descriptions of the theater world in Elizabethan London, politics at Elizabeth’s court, and life in England.

As he leads us through the year and Shakespeare’s works, Shapiro not only notes the historical significance of events, but also introduces the people who made them happen. In addition, he sheds light where possible on what Shakespeare was reading, hearing, and experiencing as he wrote.

While Shapiro is careful to point out that little is known with 100% certainty about Shakespeare’s life, he doesn’t hesitate to explain why he draws his conclusions. I appreciate that honesty in any history book; it’s good to know, as a reader, when the author is making an informed guess and when there is a paper trail or artifact to back up a theory. Shapiro’s writing style is clear, and so is his thought process.

What makes 1599 so remarkable? Besides being one of Shakespeare’s most productive years, in which he wrote not only the plays already mentioned but a fair bit of poetry as well, it was a tumultous year for Elizabeth and England. The queen was aging and heirless, and the court was embroiled in speculation about her successor.

At the same time, Ireland rebelled and England sent thousands of men, under the command of the colorful Earl of Essex, to bring the Irish under control. The campaign went badly. Meanwhile, rumors that Spain’s resurrected armada (which Elizabeth’s men defeated in 1588) was enroute to land an invasion force sent England into panic and caused the queen to mobilize defenses.

In the fall of 1599, a group of merchants gathered in London to organize the East India Company. Shapiro describes this moment, when the dashing but blundering Essex rushed home to explain himself and the merchants of London stood poised to begin their own conquering of the world, as the point when “the death of chivalry coincided with the birth of empire.” England wouldn’t rule the world by might, but by trade. Shapiro senses Shakespeare’s awareness of this turning point in Hamlet.

1599 was a “Janus like” time in England — this morning on Performance Today I heard Fred Child describe the composer Louis Spohr in these terms, because his music looked back towards the classical era and forward to romanticism, and I thought, “Exactly!” Shakespeare and his contemporaries looked back at the age of knights and the glory of the earlier armada’s defeat, and forward into the unknown of exploring the New World, of trying to beat the Dutch at the spice trade, of wondering who would succeed Elizabeth, and whether England under a new monarch would remain Protestant or return to Catholicism. To see what this has to do with Janus, read http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Janus_(mythology)

Another fascinating moment in 1599, important to bloggers, is that Sir William Cornwallis, who was among those knighted under Essex, came back to England and wrote what are considered the first personal essays in English, published early in 1600. Montaigne published his in 1580, in French of course, but Shapiro tells us they weren’t widely read in England until the 1590’s. And Francis Bacon published a small collection of essays earlier, but his were, as Shapiro says, “typically impersonal.”

Cornwallis wrote straight from the heart in the first person. Shapiro suggests that early versions of these essays, as well as possibly Montaigne’s or other writers, would have been something Shakespeare may have come across as he began writing Hamlet, which has some very elegant soliloquies, a theatrical cousin to the essay.

At the end of 1599, Shapiro shows Shakespeare toiling away at Hamlet. The play you know may well be a cobbling together of drafts, because different versions of Hamlet survived, and Shapiro tells us that since the 1700’s editors “were sorely tempted to combine the best of both, and few could resist the urge to do so.” Shapiro writes beautifully about Shakespeare’s revision of Hamlet, and that chapter alone left me with an even deeper respect for the great playwright’s brilliance.

Another fascinating point Shapiro makes is that you can tell what Shakespeare had just written or was thinking about writing when you read the plays. Characters in Henry the Fifth, Hamlet, and As You Like It all refer to Roman times and Caesar’s in particular. Shapiro tells us that Shakespeare was reading Sir Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives in 1599. Lines in Julius Caesar and As You Like It seem to echo each other as well.

As I writer I find these tidbits fascinating, because I know there are echoes, connections, and cross-communications in my own work. As I prepared some submissions this week I was particularly aware of how often I return to certain themes. James Russel Lowell (nineteenth century writer, professor, and first editor of The Atlantic Monthly) wrote, “Books are the bees which carry the quickening pollen from one to another mind.” In Shakespeare’s case he wanted his loyal audience to recall moments from other plays they’d enjoyed. But the quickening occurred in his own mind as he wrote.

Knowing that this “cross pollination,” as Shapiro refers to it, is an innate quality of the art of writing, and that by unconsciously making my own connections not only among my own work but to contemporary events, I have one tiny scrap of a link to a master like Shakespeare, is comforting and inspiring. After reading A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599, I feel a sense of belonging, as I stand in my place in the long line of people who have tried to make sense of the world through words.

Here’s a bit of what I mean, in a poem of mine which appears in the Spring/Summer 2007 issue of Frogpond:

Veterans’ Day
boys at the playground
take a hill

What’s next? I’m reading a book on the Beaufort scale called Defining the Wind, and I picked up a few novels from the library today. So check back soon for more bookconscious commentary.

Read Full Post »

So, how are the kids staying cool? One way is to sit quietly as I read aloud. We still enjoy this every day, as we have since they were babies. Lately they have requested Dr. Dolittle. Our local library has only a few of the series by Hugh Lofting; so far we’ve read The Story of Dr. Dolittle and The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle. Right now we’re reading Dr. Dolittle’s Circus, and even the teenager laughs out loud. In fact, yesterday Gregory told me “that’s a really great book.” When pressed for details, he added, “He’s funny, and nice, and he can talk to animals, and THAT is cool.”

In case you aren’t aware, Dr. Dolittle is a former physician turned vet, who can indeed communicate with animals. Along with a core group of animal helpers (like Dab Dab, a duck who acts as housekeeper), he takes in or assists all kinds of creatures who are injured, ill, or mistreated. You can check out the series here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doctor_Dolittle

Actually Dr. Dolittle is so much more than a vet– he’s a writer, scientist, and deeply compassionate man who even opposes fox hunting, an issue still hotly debated in England decades later. He has a series of humorous adventures with his animal family, usually inspired by his need for funds, since in his great selflessness, he frequently runs out of cash. The animals are a great help, as the doctor is often so caught up in his work that he overlooks the practicalities of everyday living. In short, Dr. Dolittle is a very kind character, generous, giving, intelligent, and sensitive . . .

. . . however, since they were written mostly in the 1920’s, Lofting’s books are sometimes cited as politically incorrect or insensitive. I recently heard on NPR here’s a brouhaha over the Tintin series for the same reason (and by the way, my kids have all of the Tintins currently in print in English and love them, re-reading them regularly). Some newer editions of the Dr. Dolittle series actually rewrite the questionable original passages for modern sensibilities. Our library has the 1950’s editions, but just ordered the newer, reissued versions. What to make of “bowdlerizing” the classics? http://www.m-w.com/cgi-bin/dictionary?va=bowdlerize

I think condemning a book which reflects the attitudes of its author’s time is a little misguided. When I come across a place where a questionable word pops up, or stereotype or prejudice appears, I simply pause and talk to the kids about the context. They are smart enough to discern that these views are not accepted today, and it’s a great chance to discuss history while enjoying a good story.

It’s a “teachable moment” worthy of discussion. I would venture that kids can handle discussing period language and antiquated world views — or even, talking about how they compare with prejudice in our own times — better than they can handle the sometimes graphic violence or sex found in a fair number of contemporary “young adult” novels.

In fact, I’d rather my kids read classics with a few outdated ideas than most of the “problem novels” I find on the new book shelf marketed to today’s teens. While there is plenty of terrific contemporary children’s literature, and even some novels for young people that deal with “issues” in sensitive ways, a “problem novel” is something less benign. I’m not the only one who feels this way, as a Google search will tell you.

A “problem novel” puts its young protagonist in a difficult situation — often involving social ills such as drug or alcohol abuse, violence, abandonment, sexual abuse, etc. — generally without much help from adults. In fact, for whatever reason, the main characters in this type of book often end up fending for themselves, without many decent people in their lives. Often adults are actually a part of the problem.

I find this entire genre far more disturbing than outdated racial slurs. After all, Dr. Dolittle may think the natives on an island he visits need him to “modernize” their way of life, but he has only good intentions, and I can talk to the kids about why aid in the developing world has changed as a result of the mistakes of colonialism. I can’t explain why adults would harm or neglect trusting children.

Besides, good books tell a good story, and excellent storytelling should be an author’s primary goal. I find novels that want to shout a message at me or teach me a lesson very annoying, and I am sure I’m not alone in that. Certainly a good story generally involves the main character in some kind of conflict, adventure, or challenge, but that need not be “in your face,” nor does the plot need to resemble a breaking tv news story in its shock value. It is far nicer, and ultimately far more educational, for readers to be able to draw their own conclusions.

But that seems to be the fear. The main defense of bowdlerizing children’s books, as far as I know, is that kids may be reading a book alone without helpful people handy to clear up confusion or answer questions, and that is a terrible shame. I’d rather families and educators read aloud books they want kids to understand, instead of trying to sanitize history. How will we tell future generations about the mistakes of the past if we delete them from the record?

I’ve heard teachers say there isn’t time for reading aloud, I’ve even had parents ask me how I make time, now that the kids are beyond picture books. Even reading side by side, and encouraging kids to talk about what they’re reading, helps them pick up the reading habit, and see it as a valuable pastime. We want kids to read, the press regularly reports on studies lamenting the decline in reading for pleasure — so we should just do it, and read to and with kids, often.

This evening it took less than fifteen minutes for me to read a chapter of Dr. Dolittle’s Circus aloud. Granted we usually read longer, but surely anyone can find a few minutes a day to read aloud? I’ve read all kinds of books to my children over the past 14 years, from my own childhood favorites to fabulous books I’d never read myself, and might not have. The benefit is as much mine as theirs.

Books we share lead us down interesting side routes on our family’s learning journey. For example, on Friday we read that Dr. Dolittle wanted to borrow a guinea from his friend, because he’d spent his last bit of money helping a seal escape unpleasant conditions in the circus. “What’s a guinea?” Gregory asked. Off to Wikipedia we went, and here’s what we learned:


We were able to determine that Dr. Dolittle and friends may live in a time long before the author’s, since the guinea went out of circulation in the Great Recoinage of 1816, but that possibly, Lofting is using the term to mean 21 shillings, since the word long outlasted the coin itself, and referred to this amount of money.

That’s life learning at its best.

We visited a library we’d never been to today, on the way to visit my dad. Gregory chose a fantasy novel he found on a list for fans of the Alex Rider and Eragon, and Katherine picked up several of Scholastic’s Royal Diaries series. So stay tuned for more bookconscious updates.

Read Full Post »

Katherine, who is nine, is working on a comic strip these days, about a girl named Mimi and her large family, including a number of cats. She is reading other books for fun (such as Eva Ibbotson’s Which Witch?), but for research as she writes her strip she is enjoying Cats, a Dorling Kindersley “pockets” book, and Drawing Comics is Easy! (Except When It’s Hard), written by a seven-year-old named Alexa Kitchen. Visit Ms. Kitchen’s website to see her cool book and art:


And did you know there are breeds of cat called “Egyptian Mau,” and “Turkish Van,” among many other exotic sounding beauties? If you’re not fortunate enough to have a book small enough to carry in your pocket, all about cats, try this website to see what they look like: http://www.cfainc.org/breeds.html

The cats who live in Katherine’s comic strip have names to go with their origins, such as “Hathshepsut” the Egyptian Mau.

Gregory, who will be 14 soon, is reading David Beckham’s Soccer Skills as he begins practicing with Macon United for the upcoming season. Gregory admires how Beckham has repeatedly come back from adversity during his career. Last spring Gregory played midfield and also took most of the “set pieces” for his soccer team in Albany, and fellow midfielder Beckham is masterful at these.

When he is undertaking something or trying to master a skill, Gregory likes to find out what people who excel in the same area have to say about their experiences. As any autodidact will tell you, experts are great resources.

At the library recently, Gregory chose The Children of Hurin, a novel set before The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkein, edited by his son, Christopher Tolkein. On the way home from practice tonight, he said it was a good story, but that the “old language” takes some getting used to.

We also discussed how some of his favorite fantasy books, like the Harry Potter and Eragon series, and The Bartimaeus Trilogy http://www.bartimaeustrilogy.com/, have made it hard for him to find other books to read, because he loves those so much and finds the stories so compelling that other things pale in comparison.

On Sunday, I shared several poems by the new U.S. Poet Laureate, Charles Simic, with the family. Simic’s work is thought provoking and often darkly humorous, and his style, says outgoing P.L. Donald Hall, makes him “a poet of great individuality.” (Concord Monitor 8/3/07).

See the Concord Monitor article for more on Simic: http://www.concordmonitor.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20070803/REPOSITORY/708030319&SearchID=7328966059358

and check out “Charon’s Cosmology,” Simic’s poem about the beleaguered ferryman of the underworld, here:


I’ve recently finished reading Farewell to Fairacre, one of the many books about a perfectly lovely English village by Miss Read, aka Dora Jesse Saint. Mrs. Saint is the same age as my grandmother (94) and I find her books to be the ultimate in “comfort” reading. Have you ever read a book and felt, when you looked up, surprised that you were still in the room, and not in the place you are reading about? Hemingway said that is the hallmark of a good book — that it is truer than reality.

The Fairacre books make me feel that way, and they are a great armchair vacation not only into the English countryside, but into a pleasantly “simpler” time. Saint doesn’t candy coat the past — people are people, but there are fewer cars and less technology. You’ll want a cup of tea and if possible, a cat to curl up with.

I also recently finished Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. It’s a thought provoking book, exploring what Speaking of Faith ‘s host calls “The Ethics of Eating.” http://speakingoffaith.publicradio.org/programs/ethicsofeating/index.shtml

Kingsolver describes her family’s year of eating mostly food they grew or raised, augmented by local foods. They made a few exceptions — one thing that resonated with me, because I can identify with needing to have an emergency stash of macaroni and cheese (Katherine is rather partial to Annie’s and Trader Joe’s), and I certainly couldn’t live without coffee, nor would my family wish to live with me if I did.

Why eat local? Kingsolver is motivated by the desire to support the local agricultural community, to reduce her family’s carbon footprint by purchasing things that weren’t shipped long distances out of season, and to connect with traditional seasonal eating patterns. She points out that it is only since the post WWII era that out of season produce and packaged foods became the standard fare in America, much to the detriment of our health.

Like proponents of Slow Food http://www.slowfood.com/, Kingsolver honors the sense of closeness to the earth and one’s fellow diners, as well as the sheer pleasure, of eating lovingly grown and prepared local food. As a scientist and a farmer, she appreciates the opportunity to preserve heritage varieties of fruits, vegetables and livestock. As a progressive thinker, Kingsolver points out the environmental and human costs of our choices. She is also a delightful writer, wry and honest and just plain entertaining.

Kingsolver’s husband and daughter contribute informative sidebars on nutrition, environmental and ethical issues, and recipes. I’m hoping to try their “disappearing zucchini orzo” with some of our own garden bounty soon. Additional food for thought if you’re pondering the issues in Animal Vegetable, Miracle is an op-ed in The New York Times on August 6, found here:


Steve is reading Linked: How Everything is Connected to Everything Else and What it Means by Albert-Laszlo Barabasi. It’s a book about the science of networks, recommended to him by a fellow life learning dad and colleague. Barabasi is a physics professor and he explains the theory, mathematics, history, and human dynamics behind the networks that link, well, everything. He’s done a lot of work on the structure of the World Wide Web.

Steve is interested in the way computer science and human nature come together online, so this book is fascinating for him. Based on his enjoyment of Linked, I think it will be on my nightstand when he finishes.

I’ve stayed up ridiculously late working on this first post and on the “presentation” of bookconscious. There are so many more books to share; it’s easy to lose track of time when reading or writing about reading. As reporter and author Jim Bishop once wrote, “Books, I found, had the power to make time stand still, retreat, or fly into the future.” (Simpson’s Contemporary Quotations) If only blogs did, too.

Read Full Post »