Wednesday, May 15, 2013

"It's good to be home! Let's have a party!"

I love classic Little Golden Books. We tend to think about old-timey morals as being all hardass, but when you really examine these books, the message is more like "Do what you feel like, kids! There'll be parties and cake!" As a parent, I disapprove. As a human being, I'm totally down with this.

First, let's talk about The Poky Little Puppy. He comes home late a few times and manages to snarf dessert two out of three of those times -- and not just his own portion, mind you, but also his four brothers' and sisters' portions, because they get hosed out of their shares -- and then, finally, on the third try he gets busted and has to go without.

What's the lesson here? Do what you feel like, and you'll get ten desserts before you get caught. Me, I like those odds. You keep on keepin' on, Poky.

The only problem with The Poky Little Puppy is that you and your kids can get so jazzed by his quietly subversive little vibe that you make the mistake of picking up The Poky Little Puppy's First Christmas, which is so brutally dull I'm not even going to waste my time or yours by describing it here. Every so often, my boys forget how boring this book was when we last read it and will ask me to read it again. I'll comply, because I'm the best mom ever, and at the end, I get these two pairs of blue eyes staring at me all confused-like, because what the hell just happened?

Anyway. My faaaaaavourite Little Golden Book is the recently re-released The Merry Shipwreck. There's practically zero discernible plotline, but that doesn't stop this from being possibly the finest children's book ever written.

First, take a gander at old Captain Barnacle there on the cover, rocking his sailor hat, sweet pink and purple striped tank top, and majestic white moustache. If that doesn't let you know you're in for a treat, you're not paying close enough attention.

So, what actually happens in this book? Here's a recap:

Captain Barnacle lives on an old barge on the East River with a posse of farm animals. (Why? This is never explained. Just accept it and keep moving. Things happen pretty fast.) One day, Captain Barnacle goes to shore to get groceries. The baby mice accidentally (or IS IT AN ACCIDENT?) chew through the rope that holds the boat to shore. The animals immediately start partying it up, just because of how awesome it is to be drifting down the river toward the open sea.

It's all good times till a storm comes up and bashes the barge up on a little island. Unhappiness ensues, but only briefly because a fireboat discovers them and takes them aboard. Captain Barnacle is also on the fireboat. This, too, is never explained, but who cares because there's another party! Stop asking for explanations! Do you hate parties?! The animals are spraying the firehoses and rampaging all over the boat while wearing firefighters' clothes. Is this a hoedown or what? And then they go up the Statue of Liberty, because why the hell not?

But then, once again, momentary sadness when Captain Barnacle realizes how effed up his barge got when it was shipwrecked. Not to worry, though, because the fire crew and the animals help spiff it up again, and then the Captain and the animals head back down the East River. As they near home, everyone in the neighbourhood is on the dock to greet them -- kids, the mailman, all the neighbourhood cats, Tony the fruit seller, you name it. And it's time for another party, because it's been six pages since the last one, and that's way too damn long. And then everybody passes out. The end.

You probably already have a copy of The Poky Little Puppy. You may not have a copy of The Merry Shipwreck. Get one, seriously. Even if you don't have kids.

In the (should be) famous words of Captain Barnacle, my new personal motto:

"It's good to be home! Let's have a party!"

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

11 Children's Classics Re-imagined as Serious Adult Fiction

There's a whole (justifiable) kerflap happening out there about book covers and gender and blabbidy-blah. But I'm not going to wade into that, because I have better things to do. Like guessing what the covers of some of my favourite kids' books would like if they were re-imagined as Serious Adult Fiction. Enjoy!

I should add that I'm just a knob with rudimentary Photoshop skills and a bit of extra time on her hands. If you liked these, the real credit goes to a few of the extremely talented artists and photographers whose work I borrowed for this little exercise in creative time-wastery:

Madeline - Natasha Katharina
The Fantastic Mr. Fox - Kelly Rae Burns
Goodnight Moon - carpenocturne, via deviantart
Lost and Found and Peter Rabbit - Helga Aichinger
The Snowy Day - Kevin J. Miyazaki

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

#2. Comfort Me with Apples by Ruth Reichl

Ruth Reichl was the longstanding editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine until it shut down. She also does all kinds of cool food-related stuff for PBS and Modern Library and has written a bunch of books, all of which were on my to-read list for way, way, way too long before I finally got my hands on one.

Don't be a silly like me. If you like good food writing and honest, unpretentious memoirs, just go out and get the damn books.

Now because I am, as previously mentioned, a silly, it turns out I picked up Reichl's second memoir, Comfort Me with Apples, not her first, Tender at the Bone. Given the fact that I enjoyed it tremendously, I'm going to hazard the statement that you don't necessarily need to read these memoirs in order.

This book is everything my first read of the year was not: fresh, heartfelt, funny, poignant. Reichl writes about being a newly married young adult in a dead-end-ish job and a dead-end-ish relationship, and the age-old struggle to figure out what the hell she wants to do with her life.

It would be easy to say something like "by recognizing and staying true to her passion for food, Reichl finds her path", but her writing is too honest for pat statements. Sure, ultimately her love for food and writing does help her get her feet under herself, but she also acknowledges all the indecision and mistakes and crippling self-doubt that happened along the way, and I think that's the real strength of this memoir. Too often, I find that, as people get older -- and if those people are successful -- they can develop overly simplistic hindsight about how they got to where they are. These people want to dole out wisdom to their youngers, but it's pretty much ineffectual because they edit out all the humbling bits that make their experiences useful or relatable.

I'll be the first person to admit that in many ways I'm still trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up. Reading Reichl's book made me feel a lot better about that.

*You may be wondering why I no longer link to booksellers to buy the books I talk about. I decided to stop doing this because, to be honest, it felt kind of bossy. Buy books wherever you want. Personally, I've been trying to get all my books as either ebooks, or through my local independently owned new and used book stores, but that's my kick. YMMV.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

I'm afraid to blink.

When you have kids, time is scary. One minute they're eating books:

The next minute they're setting themselves up with a little workstation and teaching themselves to read and write:

Did I say I was afraid to blink? I meant to say terrified.

Monday, April 01, 2013

#1. French Lessons by Peter Mayle

Okay, this is getting ridiculous. If you've been coming here for any amount of time, you know that even at the best of times the posts about, you know, actual books I've read, can be a bit on the scant side. I don't know why I do this. What can I say? I'm a mystery, even to myself.

Is it fitting that I'm finally finishing a post that I started TWO MONTHS AGO on April Fool's Day? Probably. While I may have been remiss in the book bloggery front, at least I've been reading at an okay pace and tracking my reads on the saddest looking, most dog-eared post-it note you can imagine.

But enough chatter. Let's get this out of the way before I get distracted by something shiny.

Before I say anything about this book, I feel like I have to defend myself here from potential charges of foodie-ism.  I am not a foodie. I like food. I like eating it, and cooking it, and reading about it. BUT I AM NOT A FOODIE. Mostly because, like all decent people, I hate the word "foodie".

With that out of the way, I have to say that I've always liked Peter Mayle's 1991 food memoir A Year in Provence. It fulfills all my criteria for a good comfort read: fast, easy, funny, and makes me want to go out and eat a pile of cheese. I know people who can't stand Mayle's writing, but I'm not one of them. So over the winter break, I was in a used book store, saw this title on the shelf and thought it would be a fun read to kickstart 2013. And it was. Sort of.

This is where I get into sticky territory. I hate saying mean things about books. For one thing, writing books is hard -- about a gazillion times harder than writing a blog post, and look how awesome I am at that? For another thing, on the extremely rare occasions that I've written anything negative here about a book, the author has somehow discovered it (thanks a bunch, Google) and written me a justifiably hurt note. And these notes are unfailingly polite. It kills me. I don't need that kind of guilt in my life. I already have kids.

So that's my circumspect way of saying that, while French Lessons wasn't awful, I value your precious reading time too much to recommend it. If you're reading this, Peter Mayle, I'm sorry, but hopefully you'll be comforted by the fact that, for people in search of vicarious food and fun in southern France, I still fully endorse A Year in Provence.

More reading updates to come soon. I'm 95 percent sure I'm not making an April Fool's Day joke when I say that.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Should 2013 be the year of the official Moby Dick Throwdown?

Okay, I swear to god that I'm not going to be totally lame and post nothing but pictures all the time. My reading is galloping along at a respectable pace, and I'm working on a couple of posts with actual words in them. But in the meantime, I couldn't not tell you about this awesome print that arrived in the mail from my wonderful friend Shona:

And a close-up:

This print is, of course, part of Shona's ongoing campaign to get me to read her favourite novel, Moby Dick. And get this, she sent it to me before she even knew that I'd (a) revived this site, and (b) pledged to read "new books that I secretly believe I'll hate, despite the fact that lots of people say they're good".

What do you think? Is this a sign? Should 2013 be the year of the official Moby Dick Throwdown? If I do it, will you join me?

(Print available here, if you're interested.)

Sunday, January 13, 2013

If you want a non-annoying inspirational poster, make it yourself.

I was a regular contributor to Apartment Therapy for a few years, and I was there when the typographical poster wave started to crest. (I remember the very first time I saw a "Keep calm and carry on" poster. My reaction: "Oh, shit. This is going to be big.")

The wave almost sucked me under, but I escaped just in time. As a result, I now have a bit of a love/hate relationship with inspirational quotes as art, though I could be swayed by the right inspirational quote (in other words, a quote of my own choosing).

So I was pretty pleased when I came across Recite This, an online tool that lets you input your own favourite quote and then apply any one of a number of templates to it. Here's what I came up with, using one of my favourite quotes from one of my favourite twentieth-century writers:

Some days I need this reminder. I really do. 

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Oops... we did it again.

As I mentioned last week, my dog Dobbs died just over a year ago. (You may remember him from this post, which I'm so glad now that I wrote, even though -- or perhaps because -- it makes me cry every time I read it.) He was the funniest, sweetest, most annoying dog ever, and I'm truly sorry you never got to meet him. You would have loved him, even as you were strongarming his nose away from your crotch.

He'd had a tumour removed in the summer of 2011, and we were warned there was a 50/50 chance the cancer would return. Dobbs wasn't an old dog, but he wasn't a young dog, either. He was ten years old, and we didn't think it was fair to subject him to multiple surgeries as we raced to stay one step ahead of the cancer. In the end, when the second tumour appeared, it was extremely aggressive, which was a blessing. An awful blessing, but still, I'll take my blessings where I can find him. One week he was his usual bouncy, goofy self. The next week, he was unable to even get up and walk around. We're lucky to have a vet who makes house calls. When Dobbs's time came, it was at home, in our arms, with gentle assistance from the vet. He was mourned by many. You never think about how many lives your pets' lives touch until they die.

It took us a while to work our way round to the idea of adding another dog to our family, but look what we went and did last week:

Meet Gunpowder Gertie, scourge o' the Kootenay River. (Namesake story here.) You can call her Gertie for short -- Gertrude when she's naughty. (Note: We call her Gertrude a lot.) She's a nine-week-old Lab/Husky/Tasmanian Devil cross. Her hobbies are digging in snow, chasing the cat, and chewing on pantlegs, hats, mittens, hair, toys (not her own), tables, and children. On the plus side, she was housetrained in four days. There's hope.

Part of the reason why we needed to wait a while to get a dog was because Dobbs left some pretty big fuzzy boots to fill. He can never be replaced, but he raised the awesomeness bar almost impossibly high.

Another part of the reason why I needed to wait is because, man oh man, puppies are a lot of work. Not  quite as much work as kids, mind you, but having a puppy around is a lot like having a hyperactive toddler. A hyperactive toddler who likes to eat the chewy surprises she digs up in the cat's litter box and can't be temporarily anesthetized with television.

(There's a book angle here. I'm getting to it.)

While Dobbs was born with a greater-than-average level of awesomeness in his DNA, what made him possible to live with was training. Lots and lots of training. He was a Portuguese water dog, after all, a breed whose defining traits are curly hair, intelligence, charm, barkiness, bounciness, moochiness, and general spazziness.

I am an irreligious person. So no one was surprised more than I when we turned to an order of monks to offer guidance in the ways of dog training. But when it comes to understanding how dogs think, what motivates them, and how to communicate with them, the monks of New Skete get it all right. Their order has been breeding German shepherds and training dogs for 25 years, and they know what they're talking about. They want you to know, too. As trainers, they've seen what happens when well-meaning people get off on the wrong foot with training their dogs -- especially with bigger dogs -- and they're really good at explaining why owning a dog is fun, sure, but it's also serious business.

John and I devoured the monks' books -- The Art of Raising a Puppy and How to Be Your Dog's Best Friend (both of which have recently been released with a lot of new material, and both of which are also available as ebooks) -- and man, they were so helpful to us. We have the monks of New Skete to thank for the fact that, despite Portuguese water dogs' notorious tendency to be barky and jumpy, we were able to teach Dobbs not to bark or jump (er, most of the time, anyway).

(What's also important to me: the monks explain it all in plain, non-nonsense prose. I love dogs, and I totally get that there's a fascinating deep and primitive connection that we share with them. But for some reason, when I read about this fascinating deep and primitive connection in flowery prose, it makes me want to break things. If dogs could read, I bet it would make them want to break things, too. I mean, on top of the usual things they break just for the hell of it.)

I find myself wanting to go on and on, because now that I've dusted them off and started re-reading them, I can't say enough good things about these books. If you need to train your dog, if you're thinking of getting a dog, or if you know people who have or are thinking of getting a dog, read these books. Promise?