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Really Smart Kids

Harry’s got a wand.  The Pevensies have Narnia. Percy just happens to be descended from Greek Gods. With all the fuss about kids’ fantasy novels, many might overlook these three classic and perfectly wonderful titles about kids who are just…well…kids. They are smart and sassy but also annoying and weird. Some of them are brats…almost. None of them are popular at school. They’re mere mortals for sure, but they are anything but ordinary and their stories are immensely re-readable. Give these to your favorite young reader or keep them for yourself, I’ve done both several times over.

THE WESTING GAME

by Ellen Raskin

This Newberry Award winning mystery is a whodunit covered in riddles and wrapped up in a puzzle, and never before and never since have I read anything quite like it. It begins, like all proper mysteries, with a corpse and a reading of a will. Not only does the deceased claims one of the heirs is a murderer, he also informs everyone in the room that one of them has been chosen to inherit millions! Provided he…or she…wins the Westing Game. The prospective heirs are a bizarre bunch and include ” a dressmaker, a secretary, an inventor, a doctor, a judge. And, oh yes, one was a bookie, one was a burglar, one was a bomber, and one was a mistake.” Armed with nothing but paper clues, they race against time, and each other,  to find the murderer AND win the money. What do i like about it?

FIRST-You have to THINK to get through the Westing Game and in this day and age, I think that’s a good thing. SECOND-It’s not age-bound. Yes it’s for kids, but believe me…it’s more Agatha Christie than Nancy Drew. The language is easy enough for a tween to understand, but the plot (and its solution) will confound everyoneTHIRD-I love Turtle Wexler. She’s thirteen, she kicks people in the shins (usually when they really deserve it) and she’s so ornery but she never backs down from a dare, she could probably hold her own in a fight and she’s just so smart!

HARRIET THE SPY by Louise Fitzhugh

If Harriet were a contemporary heroine, she’d be a blogger for sure. How lucky we are, then, that she was created in the pre-internet days! Our intrepid spy traipses around her neighborhood observing people and jotting it all down in her notebook. When her friends get a hold of the notebook, all hell breaks loose.

I loved this book growing up, although I’d be hard pressed to tell you why. It was only when I got older that I realized why it struck such a chord with me. It’s because it’s so realistic. Eleven is an age where everyone can turn on you at the drop of a hat and, just as quickly, decide they like you again. It’s an age where everything and nothing make sense at the same time and it’s probably the age where you are most likely to be ignored (too old to need constant watching, and also too young to need to be watched constantly.There’s a difference. Think about it). It’s also the age where things start going all grey instead of black and white and where you learn that sometimes, the truth is something best kept to yourself. A very wise book, and truly funny too.

FROM THE MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER by E.L. Konigsburg

Like Harriet, Claudia Kincaid is eleven years old and like Harriet, she feels misunderstood and confused. Claudia, however, is pro-active. Not happy where she is, she decides to run away and she takes her kid brother Jamie with her too. Where does she choose to go? The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Their survival there is a great adventure all on its own. The children hide out in the bathroom at closing time,  sleep on period furniture and take their allowance from the coins in the museum fountain. Then they also manage to get mixed up in a mystery involving a Michelangelo sculpture and a very special old lady. You’ll never see a museum quite the same way after you’ve seen it through Claudia’s eyes.

To this day, I re-read these books every few years and there is never a time these titles were not in my possession. They never get old and they never feel dated. When you think about it, that’s really kind of magical.

Chick Lit

Chick lit.  What does that even mean?

As far as I can tell, it means books written with a female audience in mind which cannot fall into the Romance category because it generally features younger, hipper girls with better shoes and well designed book covers. Or something like that. I hate that they actually made it a genre unto itself, but I do appreciate that there are times when a good dose of this sort of fluff hits the spot. The problem is, it’s now become such an ubiquitous thing that it’s become hard to separate the quality stuff  from the flotsam and jetsam. Because there IS quality stuff out there. Light, funny, and easy to read. Little guilty pleasures that can help take the edge of a hard day or that go perfectly with a beach chair and a frozen margarita. Here, my favorites from this “genre”. So far. Read them when you’re feeling frivolous. Go on, you know you want to.

FABULOUS NOBODIES by Lee Tulloch

Way, way, way before Carrie Bradshaw , there was Reality Nirvana Tuttle. And lucky you, her story is currently back in print! Really (as her friends call her) is a “doorwhore” in the hip downtown Manhattan club scene.  She’s got a dog named Cristobal (as in Balenciaga) and a closet full of frocks, each with its very own name.   She and her friends spend every waking moment of their lives trying to achieve fabulousness, the manifestation of which would be a write up in Frenzee magazine. After all, “life is cruel to people who aren’t fabulous”.

Author Lee Tulloch, former Australian Vogue writer has written a very funny and sharply satirical account of the glamorous life, circa 1980s. It’s not deep or important but then what about that decade was? Take it for what it is, a fun and frothy read packed with style, and you’ll have a ball. This is a total favorite of mine, i reread it every so often and it never gets old. I’ve just found out they’re developing it for film! Can’t wait…

BRIDGET JONES’S DIARY by Helen Fielding

If you only know this title as a movie, you should go out and buy the book. It’s tons better, as books tend to be.  We’ve all got a little Bridget in us. She’s been called both a modern day Elizabeth Bennett and a British Ally McBeal.  She obsessively counts her calories and tracks her alcohol intake and cigarette consumption with the same fervor that she does her dates, and probably for the same reason…no matter how badly one does today, one can always try again tomorrow and she tries, oh boy does she try. As the smug marrieds multiply around her, this singleton makes and breaks one resolution after another in her attempt to lose the weight, work out regularly, achieve inner poise and find the perfect guy before the New Year. Reading her diary is often funny, sometimes annoying and occasionally frighteningly familiar. The fun continues in the sequel “Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason” which is happily just as good as the original book.

Again, avoid the movie-tie-in cover if you can!

CONFESSIONS OF A SHOPAHOLIC by Sophie Kinsella

Many guys believe girls are genetically predisposed to shop and I do believe there is some truth to that theory. Becky Bloomwood, however, takes it to a whole new level. We’ve all been there but hopefully not anywhere near the same extreme. You can’t help but laugh at Becky’s exploits (like when she takes a job at her favorite clothing store and ends up fighting for merchandise with her clients)  and at the twisted way she justifies everything in her head (two-for-one shopping is like making money!), and how ironic is it that she works for Successful Saving magazine?  This sort-of-fairytale is silly, escapist fun. Skip the movie and read the book and don’t bother with the sequels unless you enjoy reading the same story over and over again. Shopaholic Takes Manhattan was mildly amusing. Shopaholic Ties The Knot made me go “meh”. By the time they released Shopaholic and Sister I was ready to kill her.

THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA by Lauren Weisberger

I enjoyed this book because its author actually used to work for Vogue under Anna Wintour (upon whom the devil of the title is loosely based) and peppered her novel with behind-the-scenes descriptions and fashion world gossip, which I loved. Also, I am a sucker for Cinderella stories and in a way, that’s what this book is. It’s not going to change your world by any means, but it will keep you happily occupied for a few hours. Meryl Streep was terrific as editor-from-hell Miranda Priestly in the film and it’s worth a watch just for her. After you read this, try Jerry Oppenheimer’s “Front Row: Anna Wintour: The Cool Life and Hot Times of Vogue’s Editor- in-Chief”. It’s a biography with a slightly tabloid feel and is the logical next step for readers who want to see how much Anna is actually in Miranda. With photos! Yay!

Food, Glorious Food

Here’s another one of my shelves. This one is The Shelf of Food Writers    and I don’t go near it when I’m hungry. Everyone on this shelf uses butter in everything, you’ll get fat just by looking at it for too long. These aren’t cookbooks, mind you, those are in the kitchen on yet another shelf. These are books about food. There isn’t a lot here yet (traditionally, it is my sister who buys the food writers) but what is here definitely satisfies.

There’s “Secret Ingredients: The New Yorker Book of Food and Drink” which I love to dip into for a quick 2 or 3 page fix. It’s an anthology of food-related articles and stories culled from the magazine. In here you find things like  Calvin Trillin’s quest for the perfect bagel (“The Magic Bagel”. Hand-rolled, boiled in a vat and then baked and served with Nova Scotia salmon and cream cheese.  Can you already imagine how good the damn thing must taste?), “Your Table is Ready” by John Kenney, where he pokes fun at the crazy-expensive Masa restaurant in New York (“We met our waitstaff: Nine people, including two Buddhist monks, whose job it is to supervise your meal, realign your chakras, and if you wish, teach you how to play the oboe” hahaha) and “Night Kitchens” where Judith Thurman travels to Kyoto to check out traditional tofu making. I am indifferent to tofu at best, but who wouldn’t crave the stuff after descriptions of zaru dofu (artisanal tofu with a mousselike consistency) “served with pinches of sea salt  or sesame seeds and dribbles of olive oil in a bowl of thick and fragrant miso“?

Then there are Jeffrey Steingarten’s  “The Man Who Ate Everything” and “It Must Have Been Something I Ate”. The man lives for food. He does pages on bread,  cheese, wagyu beef, chocolate. He gives you recipes, he will try them himself too. He will fly to the ends of the earth for the best ice cream or for the ultimate toro sashimi. He writes about this in such glorious detail that you can almost taste the food. Through him, you can eat vicariously and never gain a pound.

There’s Thomas McNamee’s “Alice Waters and Chez Panisse”, an ode to slow food and an important argument for sustainable ingredients and deliciously healthy eating and an interesting history of an American institution. I especially love that I got it at a steal…hardcover for under 200 pesos (roughly 2 US dollars).

Other behind-the-scenes books are Anthony Bourdain’s “Kitchen Confidential” and “Waiter Rant” (written by the now famous, anonymous blogging waiter). Both are fascinating and often funny and they’ll make you think twice about how you behave and what you eat when you dine out. Then there are the books about the Michelin stars: Leslie Brenner’s “The Fourth Star” and Rudolph Chelminski’s “The Perfectionist: Life and Death in Haute Cuisine”.Both are chronicles of chefs who struggle to gain, keep and regain the stars that spell life or death for high end restaurants. I haven’t read the former yet but I’ve read the latter twice. Poor Bernard Loiseau. Bipolar in a decade where we didn’t yet fully understand what that meant, obsessing over his stars and trying to keep it all together. Chelminski does not scrimp on detail and the book is full of anecdotes about the history of the Michelin guide and those iconic stars, about French bistros and restaurants and about the food. All the wonderful, butter laden food!

Newly arrived are “Julie and Julia” (which I have not read yet) and “My Life in France” (which I have). I bought both on the strength of the Amy Adams/Meryl Streep film so they have movie stills on the cover which is kind of annoying. All the same, Sole Meuniere and Boeuf Bourguignon will never be the same again. Pre-Julia, they were just dishes. Post-Julia, they have become holy grails.

While I don’t own a copy of Ruth Reichl’s “Garlic and Sapphires”, I have read and enjoyed it with my Book Club. Being a food critic is a whole other ballgame and reading about Reichl having to disguise herself to avoid getting preferential treatment at restaurants is both fun and enlightening (they really DO treat you better when you look good). I’m now eyeing Bill Buford’s “Heat” and  Dianne Jacob’s “Will Write for Food”. I’m also looking forward to any other food books you may know and want to share.

Ah yes. The Food Writer shelf is expanding.

And so is my waistline.

BON APPETIT!

I’ve always enjoyed ballet, both watching it and doing it, and growing up I counted a lot of ballet stories among my favorites.  Sadly, so many of those books were lent and never returned (grrr) and most are now out of print.

Still, for those of you who are diligent at scouring second-hand book sources, here is my “ballet novels”  list. One day, i hope to find them all again and have them back on my shelves, never again to be lent out. If you have kids who love to  dance, they’ll love these. If you used to dance (or still do), these will strike a lot of familiar chords and bring back a flood of memories.

The Sisters Impossible by James Davis Landis

Lily’s sister Saundra is an elegant, beautiful, unreachable ballerina. When Lily is forced to try and  follow in her sister’s footsteps, she discovers that her sister’s life is a lot less glamorous and a lot more complicated than she thought. It’s interesting to look at the sometimes ruthless world of ballerinas through Lily’s very candid eyes and it’s fun to watch Lily struggle through things like  her first visit to Capezio and her first ballet class where she is clearly the fish out of water. We’ve all been there, we survived and thankfully we can now look back and laugh!

Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild

Do you remember the scene in “You’ve Got Mail” where Meg Ryan is sitting inside Fox books and a lady comes and asks the salesperson for the Shoes Books? He clearly has no clue, and then Meg, all teary eyed, waxes rhapsodic about The Shoes Books which are all “completely wonderful. Ballet Shoes is my favorite…” She and me both. Completely classic story about three sisters training for a life on the stage. Almost all of Streatfeild’s books center around this theme but “Ballet Shoes” is the most well-known. I wanted to BE the Fossil sisters and spend all day in an Academy for Dancing and Stage Training. I wanted to audition for pantomimes! Read Shakespeare! Dance on my pointes! I wore out 3 copies of this book before finally getting it in hardcover. And guess what? My sister and I run a school for Dance and Music training and in my other job, I teach children Musical Theater. Go figure.

To Dance (a Ballerina’s graphic novel) by Siena Cherson Siegel and Mark Siegel

“Dancing fills a space in me”, says the heroine of this lovely autobiographical book about a girl who grew up on Jill Krementz’ “A Very Young Dancer” (see below) and eventually found herself wearing a hemlock green leotard at the School of American Ballet and dancing with the NYCB. Then life happens (as it tends to do) and suddenly she’s not dancing anymore. It’s every wannabe ballerina’s dream and, in a way, also her worst nightmare. As an added bonus, it’s beautifully drawn.

A Very Young Dancer by Jill Krementz

Responsible for many girls’ Nutcracker fantasies, for sure! The author chronicles the life of a young School of American Ballet student in photographs. The lucky child gets handpicked to be Mary in the NYCB Nutcracker. She has private coaching sessions with George Balanchine! Charlotte d’Amboise is her babysitter! She shares elevators with Suzanne Farrell! Karinska herself fits her costume! Read this one over and over again. Seriously.

Maggie Adams, Dancer by Karen Strickler Dean

My older sister had this book first and I could not wait to inherit it from her. I then proceeded to wear out several copies. I think I’ve still got one. Maggie Adams is 15. She has braces on her teeth and a potential boyfriend she never has the time to see. Her dad thinks she’s got too much ballet on the brain and she’s probably going to lose the part of the Sugarplum Fairy to pudgy Cynthia Bellermont whose mom is on the Board of Directors. Her friend Lupe is probably anorexic and her other friend Joyce is considering giving up dancing in favor of choreography. All that teenage drama! This book came out in the era of Sweet Dreams romances and is every bit as fun to read. It had 2 sequels but for me, neither came close to the original.

Just Like Jenny by Sandy Asher

Stephanie’s best friend Jenny is beautiful and funny and can whip out double pirouettes on pointe like nobody’s business. Steph’s good enough, but nowhere near as good as Jenny. The two girls have their professional lives planned out, they will both join the same ballet company and rise to stardom side by side. Of course, everything changes when they actually start having to audition against each other. I love the way it turns out for both of them in the end.

The First Step/Dancer in the Wings/ One Foot on the Ground by Jean Richardson

A trilogy that follows a young dancer from her very first lesson to her company audition. I feel really bad that these books were never returned by the kid who borrowed them from me but i do understand why she decided to keep them for herself! Great story and well illustrated too.

Ballerina by Edward Stewart

This is a novel for adults, although I read it as a teenager which is probably why I enjoyed it as much as i did. Two best friends struggle for survival and to keep their friendship together in the cutthroat world of ballet. It’s every bit as melodramatic and cheesy as it sounds and when I read it as an adult I found myself laughing and cringing at the same time. But all the same, it makes a great guilty pleasure and it usually comes cheap in places that sell used mass market paperbacks. It’s got no literary value whatsoever, it’s fluffy as hell but it’s FUUUUUN . Read it for the ballet stereotypes (the pushy ballet mother who had to cut her career short to have a child! the beautiful, rich and terminally ill ballerina! The hot Russian male dancer everyone wants!). Read it for the drama (of which there is plenty!). Or don’t read it and forever after deprive yourself of the literary equivalent of hostess twinkies.

Ah, vampires.

There are entire websites devoted to vampire books, but of course in this day and age, there are a few titles that hang on everyone’s lips. You know where this is going, don’t you?

I’ve been wanting to weigh in on “Twilight” for quite some time now. It’s a love-it-or-hate-it thing and I have to say I belong squarely in the hate-it camp. It would have been very easy (and quite pleasant) for me to go on and tell you the many reasons why I think Bella is a total loser who has no friends and who spends most of the book fainting/waiting-to-be-rescued. And why Edward, hottie though he may be, is kind of a  two-dimensional character to me (he’s a high school boy, for crying out loud). And how i really wanted to hurl the book against the wall about 100 pages in (we read it for book club  to see what the fuss was all about, and I gave my copy away as soon as we were done). But so many other people have said just what i was thinking, and in far funnier ways. Here, one of my favorites:

http://postavant.com/2009/07/the-twilight-backlash-is-warranted/

I like my vampires creepy, crawly, afraid of the sun, and seriously undead. I like it when the vampire is the creature you run away from rather than into the arms of. I guess I’m funny that way. Here, a small selection:

“Dracula” by Bram Stoker- there is a reason why this book is a classic. I literally read and reread my copy to tatters. I now own one of those definitive editions with annotations and tons of footnotes. Love it. And also loved the Coppola film which adapted the book more faithfully than most.

“Interview With the Vampire” by Anne Rice- with Lestat and all of his ilk, Anne Rice made vampires sexy but still kept them mysterious, sinister, gothic and eerie.

“Baltimore or The Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire” by Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden- This is a story about a small group of brave men with a vendetta against the vampires who are wreaking havoc and destruction on their world. It’s dark and bleak. It’s violent and gory. It’s ILLUSTRATED. Here is a vampire tale you can (pardon the pun) really sink your teeth into.

“Bloodsucking Fiends” and” You Suck” by Christopher Moore- If you really MUST read about vampire love, this is the way to go. The first book chronicles the budding love affair between new vampire Jody and her mortal boy Tommy. The second book begins moments after the first book ends. Tommy wakes up in his girlfriend’s arms, now a vampire himself. And what does he say?  He says “You bitch! You killed me! You suck!” Now THAT’S what you say to someone who turns you into a creature of the night in the name of love! Seriously though, Christopher Moore is insane and funny and brilliant. I love him.

I know, I know. I haven’t even scratched the surface of all the vampire literature that should be on everyone’s must-read list. But these are my favorites and that’s that. I’d gladly read anything you might want to recommend. Anything except the rest of those “Twilight” books, that is. 😉

No, it’s not a book title, it’s an actual shelf in my library which i have dedicated to disturbed girls, both fictionalized and real as well as disturbed girl writers. Though I’m going to have to make more room. The world is full of disturbed girls and they make for fascinating reading. You can’t see the titles very well but there’s “The Bell Jar” along with the journals of Sylvia Plath. There’s “Girl, Interrupted”, “Prozac Nation” , “Lolita” and all the Shirley Jackson books I own. “Reviving Ophelia” is here and so is “Rebecca” (Mrs. Danvers…definitely disturbed). “The Red Shoes” is here too because let’s face it…an obsession with Dance, while completely romantic, is also kind of disturbing. Especially as evidenced in Vicky Page (Mr. Lermontov: “Why do you want to dance?” Vicky: “Why do you want to live?”) who goes all Anna Karenina on us in the final chapters. There’s the beautifully tragic “The Virgin Suicides” and the kookily, happily disturbed “Mermaids”. There’s “Lisa, Bright and Dark”(“Daddy, I think I’m going crazy” Lisa said. Mr Shilling said “You’ve seen too many movies.”) If and when i find my long lost copies of “Sybil” and “The Best Little Girl in the World”, they’re going onto this shelf too.  And then there is the double whammy disturbed mother-daughter duo from “Carrie” (“OH MOMMA! HELP MEEEE!”).

Then there’s Dorothy Parker. The smartest, wittiest, saddest and funniest Disturbed Girl ever. She’s on another  level AND on another shelf (The Writer’s Anthologies shelf, as the only Parker book i own is just that). To show you what I mean about the fabulous Mrs. Parker,read this:

http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/frustration/

and this:

http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/coda/

Don’t get me wrong, though. I absolutely LOVE the disturbed girls. And I’m not alone.They fascinate the world. Do you realize almost every title i mentioned here has become a film? Most of those films were hits and a few garnered Academy Award Nominations for their very disturbed leads (notably Sissy Spacek in “Carrie”, although she didn’t win, and Angelina Jolie in “Girl Interrupted” who DID win for playing a character even more disturbed than the film’s main heroine).

Disturbed girl stories are cautionary tales, but they’re also stories about extremely complex characters, real and imagined, that are all the more disturbing because sometimes we may find we’ve been those characters too, or known them…or even worse, that we’ve been the characters who made their lives disturbing in the first place. Check out the bullies in “Carrie”. The well-meaning but ridiculously overprotective parents in “The Virgin Suicides”.  Lolita’s mother. Even the misguided, always-entertaining Mrs. Flax from “Mermaids”.

Then there’s the wondering how they got that way. Especially with the writers. What on earth happened in the life of Shirley Jackson to make her produce a story like “The Lottery”? (And the rest of her many stories, though equally brilliant, are no less eerie, creepy and well…disturbed). How did Sylvia Plath get from “The Bell Jar” to the inside of her oven?

How do girls turn out this way? And how can we make it so that they don’t?

Food for thought. And really great reading.

Damn Tana French! She gave me dark circles under my eyes! Made me overdose on caffeine! Made me antisocial!

I was doing a random stroll through the suspense/thriller aisle at my local bookstore and lucky me, I stumbled upon this author and her two novels “In the Woods” and “The Likeness”. Both feature the same heroine, the twentysomething, Vespa riding, fast talking Cassie Maddox. While the books aren’t really related, it’s better to read them chronologically because of the way Cassie evolves from one novel to the next.

As thrillers go, both these books are good solid reads. The first involves the murder of a twelve-year-old girl which Cassie must investigate with her Murder Squad partner Rob Ryan, himself a survivor of a similar attack in the very same woods where their victim is found. Cassie and Rob have a very Scully and Mulder vibe about them and their partnership is as entertaining and interesting in and of iteslf as the case they are trying to solve.

The second finds Cassie going undercover to investigate the murder of a girl who bears an eerie resemblance to Cassie herself and who goes by the name of Alexandra Madison, an alias Cassie previously used. To solve the case, she must assume the identity of the dead girl and move into the house she shares with a bunch of graduate students. Of course, she gets deeply wrapped up in their lives (If you’ve ever read Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History” this one will feel like its more sinister spiritual cousin).

Both plots offer enough twists and turns to keep you reading all night long and both give you the creepy,eerie feeling that the best of these books give. Both are curious hybrids of police procedural (I love forensics, don’t you?), psychological thriller and whodunit which make them pretty unputdownable. Both have received a ton of awards (Edgar Award, Salon.com/Christian Science Monitor/Publishers Weekly Best Novel of the Year, LA Times Crime Fiction Favorite and Book Prize Finalist, Seattle Times Best Mystery,etc etc. Even the New York Times Book Review gave French a nod).

What I find really great about them though, is that while they work excellently on that level, French is also a master at creating these really complex characters that you don’t want to stop reading about. You get so involved in their lives and stories that by the end, when the murderer is revealed you just want to shout “NOOOOO! It can’t be him/her/them! Why?!? Why did he/she/they do it?!?” You’ll close these books at the end and have to sit for a minute and just let those characters simmer for a while. Then you’ll impatiently tick of the days in your calendar until July 2010 when the next book comes out.