This morning Lena was talking about studying phonics in school. They were supposed to figure out the beginning and ending sounds of words. "And you know what, Mom?" she said proudly. "There was something that only Miss Smith and I knew, out of the whole class!"

That's my girl, I thought smugly, puffing up my narcissistic chest and basing my self-esteem upon my children's achievements. Yep, my kid is the smartest in the whole class!

"Yeah," said Lena. "Only Miss Smith and I knew that the ending sound of brass is the a-word!"

An amazing book

I also read Into the Forest, by Jean Hegland. Doulicia recommended it, and I'm so glad she did! I'm providing the Amazon link because the book was hard to find in the library. I ended up borrowing Doule's copy, which she found in the U-M grad library. I LOVED this book. I read it, literally, in two sittings.

No spoilers this time; I'll just say that the setting is a near-future post-apocalyptic Northern California. Though the book is © 1996 it felt very topical after the Katrina disaster. And very menacing because no explanation is given for society's collapse. The book is about two teenage sisters living alone out in the woods, learning to survive without gas, electricity, or any of the modern conveniences they used to take for granted. A combination of my two favorite genres: near-future post-apocalypse and wilderness-survival. And for the most part very beautifully written. The author is also a poet. Aspects of the plot were completely predictable, but it didn't matter in the least. It could have only turned out one way, and it did. And there's a fabulous, absolutely fabulous, moment at the end.

Five stars, two thumbs up, go get this book!

Notes from the sickbed

I hurt my back pretty badly yesterday while removing my 35-pound toddler from the stroller with no brakes, from behind and at an angle. Pow! I was bedridden all day yesterday and although I feel much better today (hubby took the day off, thank you so much my dear) I'm still taking it very much easy.

On the bright side, in the last 24 hours I got to read a LOT.

I finished The Historian yesterday. I was this close to giving up on it completely, book group or no, at page 250. You may remember that my book group chose The Historian for this month because the author, who lives in Ann Arbor, will be giving a talk at the library next month. We thought we could try to go to that, too. And you may also remember my post about all the difficulties the various members of my group had in getting hold of copies of the book. (By the way, did you notice the comment to that post from someone named Eli? I have no idea who Eli is, but if you click on his name it takes you right to the Ann Arbor District Library home page. What an honor! Someone at AADL is reading my blog! *big smug grin* I'd rather have that than be on that stupid A List any day! I also got a letter from Little Brown -- yes the publishing company -- hand-addressed to me. You wouldn't believe the grandiose thoughts that went through my head before I opened the envelope, even though I haven't submitted any MSS recently ever recently. The letter in the envelope said the same thing as Eli's comment: they've changed the date of the talk, so I can go after all. Yay!)

Anyway. The Historian. The first 250-or-so pages were a little boring. But it got better, gradually picking up momentum, and there were aspects of it that I liked a lot. Here are a few random thoughts, which contain ***SPOILERS!!!*** but I'll write them anyway because I know so many people have already read it.

1. I wish the "voices" were more varied. Pick a random sentence, you wouldn't know if it was the daughter, the father, Helen, Rossi, Turgut, Barley, Dracula. They all sound exactly the same.

2. I wish there had been an explanation other than random coincidence for their bumping into Turgut. Maybe there was and I missed it.

3. It would have been a better book if Rossi had accepted the "job" of his own volition. I would have! I would have included some discussion about knowledge itself being neither good nor evil, only the use one makes of it. I'm not sure whether or not I believe that, but this book is a perfect vehicle for that discussion.

4. I loved it that Vlad/Dracula, while alive, was apparently concerned about the salvation of his soul, donated all that money to the church, etc.

5. I have to think about this some more, but it bugged me that the dragon books had blank pages.

6. I loved it that he went after librarians and archivists.

7. I wasn't thrilled about Helen deserting her family.

8. This is just a tangent, but there was a reference to a Panteleimon. I instantly thought of the His Dark Materials series, so I did a little research. In case you are interested, he was a Russian Orthodox saint, and here is his story.

Eurocentrism at its finest

Often I feel guilty and bad about myself just because I am a white American of European descent. As if it weren't bad enough that I obediently pay taxes that support government policies I think are evil, a few years ago I made the mistake of reading A People's History of the United States: 1492 to Present, by Howard Zinn. I used to comfort myself with the fact that my early American ancestors (my mom's family goes wa-a-a-a-ay back) could not have been slave owners because they only lived in the north. But flip through the Zinn book and you'll find that those northerners were every bit as awful as those in the slave states. Only instead of oppressing the black slaves, they oppressed the native Americans . . . and each other. And unlike the evil southern white guys, the evil northern white guys managed to keep their atrocities out of the history books, too.

But there is one arena where Europeans shine like no other culture, and whenever I get to feeling really awful about our history I remember that we invented polyphonic music. We invented harmony and the symphony orchestra. No other culture on earth can match us for music.

This cd has been living in my car stereo for quite a while now. I challenge you to listen to the two versions of Ave Maria, first the Gounod and then the Schubert, one after the other and in that order, and not be moved to a place beyond even tears.


This postcard arrived today from my parents, who were travelling in northern Italy. It says:

"Just had lunch in [illegible]. Was last here in winter 1936/37. The Dolomites are really craggy and jagged. One group of peaks is called "Grandma's teeth"; that gives you an idea. The trip by tourist bus goes through mountain passes 7000 feet above sea. Love, Dad.

"Crummy lunch, but well worth it for the fabulous views. XXXOOO, Mom."

Grandma's teeth . . . ewww!

More on the fabulous teacher

Ok, so this is fourth grade. Today for homework they had to read a short story called "Planting Things." It was about the old man who loves to garden. "Mr. Willis was not a practical gardener, so it did not matter to him whether or not he could eat what he grew, or even if what he planted grew badly or not at all. Mr. Willis just enjoyed planting things." His wife is ill, and has lost her zest for life, but he cares for her tenderly at home. One of the plants on his porch is a Swedish ivy, and it is a wonderfully hardy, healthy plant. One day he discovers that a robin has built a nest in the ivy plant. ("He was glad he was on good terms with God, in case it should be a sign to him!") He is amazed and delighted, and tries to persuade his wife to get out of bed and come to the porch to see the nest with its eggs. She is pleased to hear about it, but too tired to get out of bed to see it. All summer long, Mr. Willis watches over the birds and the eggs. At one point Mrs. Willis does get out of bed to see the nest. Watching the eggs, Mr. Willis remembers what it was like when he and his wife were expecting their child. "The world had slowed down for them, and the days had been long and full of conversation." Fall comes, the baby birds fly away, and Mr. Willis carefully removes the nest. In the spring he will put the nest in his apple tree because he is a man who enjoys planting things.

They also had a short article, "All About Baby Robins," detailing the life cycle of robins; size, color, number of eggs, incubation period, typical diet, etc.

The assignment: first, three multiple choice comprehension questions (Q: How are Mr. and Mrs. Willis different from each other? A: Mr. Willis is interested in life and in all sorts of things. Mrs. Willis seems to have given up on life.) Then, "write a paragraph explaining how the title of the story tells us about the kind of person Mr. Willis is. Be sure to show examples from the story." And finally, an essay question, with two pages of blank lines for the answer: "Write about the two passages. Tell about connections that show how the two passages are alike and how they are different. Also discuss the ways in which an informational article is different from fiction. Be sure to use examples from each text."

Now is it just me, or is that a pretty sophisticated assignment -- and a pretty sophisticated story -- for nine year olds? I am just so delighted. We'll make English majors out of them yet!

And a little addendum: Joey zipped through the assignment with no parental help. But clearly he needs parental help in the Inappropriate Humor department. He finished his essay with this paragraph:
The difference between FIC and Non FIC is that non fiction is true, and fiction is not. If you wanted to learn about sheep, you wouldn't read "Larry the Lovesick Lamb," you would read "All about Sheep," or something like that.

Hope in a hopeless world

Curriculum Night at our elementary school:

Joey's 4th grade teacher is amazing! She asked us if it was okay to give him enrichment math to do in class! (Last year I had to beg and beg the teacher to give him extra math just to do at home.) She told us the whole class was extremely well-behaved, and although it's true they are overall a pretty good group of kids, if they are "extremely well-behaved" it's because she is On Top Of Things. And this is only her second year of teaching. And to quote from the note Joey left for us: "Uh . . . my favorite thing to do here is . . . WRITE!!! My least favorite thing to do here is . . . uh . . . nothing! Mrs. C. is AWESOME!!!" She was funny, too. Part of their upcoming science unit (animal behavior) involves having mealworms in the classroom. She didn't actually shudder when she talked about them, but you could see she was trying hard not to. With the kids, she acts like it's a special privilege to be allowed to take care of them. That way she never has to get too close to them herself.

Our principal was not at the meeting. She had gone down to Houston to help with the relief efforts, bringing with her 8 suitcases full of school supplies donated by our school. While there, she threw her back out (compression fracture!) and is still in the hospital down there.

Our beloved kindergarten teacher from last year is now a full-time reading specialist, working intensively with lower-elementary kids who are below grade level. This is the first time in thirty years that she hasn't had her own classroom and she misses it terribly, but, she said, and I quote, "I feel like I'm feeding the hungry."

I'm trying hard here

to process and understand what is happening to our country. I had decided not to blog about the aftermath of Katrina anymore but honestly I feel like this once-great country of ours is falling to pieces all around me. Every time I think we've hit rock bottom, and things couldn't possibly get any worse, I find I was wrong. I started to cry yesterday in the car, listening to Pops Staples singing "Hope in a Hopeless World."

Sparse . . . and a little romance . . . and something spooky

Once again I seem to have gotten behind in my blogging. It's been several days since I've posted or visited. I apologize. I got distracted by the sudden need to change my template. Six months is way too long to go without changing the template. I need -- I need! -- variety. I'm not one of those people who fears and hates change. I say: Bring it on! Give me something new! Every day! This time, I went sparse.

You might have noticed a strange title on my bedside table. License to Deal? What is that? A book about the legalization of marijuana? Heh, heh, well, no. It's a book about this guy who manages baseball players. He's an agent. He negotiates contracts, gets endorsements, and so forth. An odd choice, to be sure, not my usual fare. And I went to some trouble to get my hands on a copy (interlibrary loan, all the way from the Pontiac Public Library). The reason, the only reason, I'm interested in this is because the subject of the book, sports agent Matt Sosnick, is my cousin Amy's fiancé. They met online. Just about a month ago. And they are engaged. Madly, madly in love. Matt said he made a list of 100 things he looked for in a prospective girlfriend. Amy was a "yes" on the first 22. ("What was number 23?" we clamored to know. "Heh, heh," said Amy, "I do have a tattoo.")

Matt and Amy live in the San Franscisco area. They blew into town last weekend like a breath of crazy fresh air. Matt, who also "owns a piece" of Ticketmaster, brought along ten tickets to the Michigan football game, section 24 row 45 (for those not in the know: very good seats). Matt is warm, funny, expansive, generous, and clearly not a local. He hailed us a cab after the game. A cab! I didn't know we had cabs in Ann Arbor. Anyway, we had a ball. Amy's folks drove down from up north to Meet Him -- and go to the game, so we had a mini-family reunion. Amy and Matt, blessings on you both.

I can't wait to read the book.

* * *

Our next book group selection is The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova. We chose it because the author will be giving a talk at the Ann Arbor District Library next month.

Let me tell you something weird and spooky. The Historian is about someone researching vampires. The researcher goes through lots of dusty old archives trying to find out . . . but gets thwarted by -- (insert spooky music) -- Someone Who Doesn't Want Her To Find Out!

AADL kindly put a bunch of copies on reserve for people who signed up for the talk next month. I and others from my book group called in time, got our names on the list, went to the library to pick up the book, and -- (insert spooky music) -- no book! That's right. We have had great difficulty obtaining our copies. The complications have been, well, byzantine. And we are wondering whether -- (insert spooky music) -- Someone Doesn't Want Us To Read This Book!

The bottom line is, we don't have enough copies of the book to go around. I did finally get one, and I've been reading it like mad to finish it in time for someone else to get their turn before the end of the month. And you know what else? I can't even go to the talk at the library. It's the same night as PTO, and heaven knows I can't miss that! Oh yes, I've got my priorities straight.


I have a bunch of book-related things to write about, but I'm too tired for any except the big one, which is that I went to Melanie Lynn Hauser's book signing this evening! I read her book, Confessions of Super-Mom, a few days ago. Read it almost in one sitting, in fact. Her book is charming and hilarious. But I will not say anything more about it because I KNOW you are going to read it anyway, and I don't want to spoil it for you. Except that if you happen to have a teen or pre-teen son who is obsessed with comic books (as I do) you will especially enjoy this one.

Anyway, it was so fun to meet Melanie. Like her book, she's charming and hilarious, and very sweet. And her hair? Adorable! I got there a little late because I had to rush from across town, with Joey in tow, still wearing his martial arts gear. When I arrived she was talking about the process of writing and how she finally ended up getting published. Then she read from the book, and boy did she read! I wouldn't be surprised if she has a background in acting. She read really well! I wished I could have spent more time talking with her and her husband, who was also there.

All in all, a fun and entertaining evening. Couldn't leave the store without buying something, so we picked up The Littles for Lena (and ordered Betsy-Tacy and Tib, but maybe I'll save that one for the holidays) and a fresh copy (our third?) of Richard Scarry's Best Word Book Ever for Daniel because the previous ones have been trashed beyond any salvage.

Physics 101

Well, I'm gonna take a break from all the yucky stuff and tell you about something that happened at our house the other day. It has nothing to do with hurricanes or the federal government.

In more than twenty years of schooling I somehow managed to avoid ever taking a physics class. Thus, I have no explanation for this, this, this . . . thing that occurred. Maybe you can explain it to me.

Our neighbors around the block were renovating their kitchen. They had to get rid of their old fridge to make way for a new, smaller one. The old one was perfectly fine, and not even very old, so they asked us if we'd like it. Would we! Our fridge was ancient and too small, so we jumped at the chance. And because we are (sort of) in the landlord business, we have a dolly and some experience in moving large appliances around. So Steve trundled around to the other side of the block to pick up the new fridge. After a while, he returned with the fridge and the dolly, and also with the neighbor, who was carrying along some kind of a weird gadget that looked like the canister part of a vacuum cleaner with two hoses attached. The gadget, he said, was lent to him by his kitchen contractor. The guys wrestled the fridge up our front steps. Once it was up on the porch and poised to come in, they slid these things underneath that looked like snowboards, and were attached to the hoses that came from the vacuum cleaner, and, well, here's a picture:

floating refrigerator

He turned on the vacuum cleaner thingy, and (can you tell from the picture?) the snowboards and the refrigerator LIFTED OFF THE GROUND AND FLOATED ACROSS THE ROOM! All we had to do was gently guide it where we wanted it to go!

I know what you're thinking: did anyone have the nerve to try standing on the snowboards? Well, Joey was mad to try, and so was I, but because the thing was on loan from the neighbor's contractor we didn't. Maybe we'll get one for Chrismubirthdaykah this year.

Anyway, the new fridge is fabulous. It fits perfectly in our kitchen. It has adjustable "spillproof" glass shelves. The crisper drawers have separate humidity controls. Gallons of milk fit in the door. The freezer is gigantic. And best of all . . . it floats! :)

Thanks, Jim and Aimee!

From sea to shining sea

Honestly, I wasn't going to write anything about Katrina or politics here. I've left so many comments on other people's blogs -- my own memories of New Orleans, my rage, my sadness, my frustration -- that I'm all blogged out on the topic. But I guess I do have a couple of things to say after all.

I read an article yesterday about the help offered by other countries. Turns out the French city of Orleans mustered up a special aid package for its namesake, including opening its homes to refugees.

The other thing that leaves me with a little hope for the future is something Scrivener said (and I hope he doesn't mind me lifting this from his blog). He sez:

The one saving grace about all of this utterly inadequate response of the federal government is that unlike Iraq, when voices speak up and point to the failures, the White House won't so easily be able to point to the critics and call them traitors. What are they going to say, "You're giving aid and comfort to future hurricanes?" None of what the federal government has done or failed to do is really a surprise--this is the fallout of political decisions from the party in power over the last half-dozen years. I just hope that the American people are paying some kind of attention and that they remember how angry they are now when November rolls around.
I hope so.

Yesterday we went to the football game. Before the game started they had a moment of silence for the Katrina victims. 110,401 people in there and you could have heard a pin drop. I started to cry while we sang the National Anthem, feeling so sad for this poor beautiful country of ours that's being run into the ground.

And then I woke up this morning and learned that Chief Justice Rehnquist died last night.


Well, I gave up on Out of the Silent Planet, at least temporarily. The book was just too ugly to read. So, groping on my bedside table for anything -- anything! -- to read, I of course came up with a Patrick O'Brian, number 3 in the series, H.M.S. Surprise. We keep Patrick O'Brians scattered all over the house, because you never know when you might need a good roborative dose. This is the one where they are taking the envoy to Malaysia, but he dies on the way there. (That wasn't a spoiler. Plot is not what these books are about, though my husband would disagree.) But I did go to the library and find a nice, hard-cover, Bound-to-Stay-Bound copy of Planet. However, it's going to have to wait a little longer, because I also stopped by Nicola's this morning and picked up a copy of Confessions of Super-Mom. Daniel has just gone down for his nap. Sofa and Confessions: Here! I! Come!

P.S. If you are familiar with Patrick O'Brian I'm sure you will appreciate my clever use of the word roborative.