Things Not To Do: Fiction Writing Edition

Well, I was really hoping to write a nice long post for the What I’m Reading series at Modern Mrs. Darcy, where Anne and her readers talk about the books they’ve read recently, on the 15th of each month.  I’ve read a whole lot of new-to-me books this year, because having viral bronchitis for the entire month of January, then having a new baby in May and doing lots of breastfeeding, gave me plenty of time for reading–and it seems that a new baby makes me want to read books I haven’t read before.  But now that I’m back to work at my full-time job, as well as taking care of my baby and 9-year-old when I’m at home, I don’t have a lot of time for writing!  Maybe next month…

Meanwhile, I’m going to rant about two things that happen far too often in the novels I read.  (I won’t rat out specific books, though, because both of these are late-in-the-plot twists, thus spoilers.)  If you are an aspiring author, please avoid these irritating cliches! Read more…

3 Good Books on Civil Rights

I happen to have read three books that deal with the rights of African-Americans just before Black History Month.  Two of them are bestsellers I hadn’t read before, but the one I’ll mention first is a less-well-known book I’ve read a couple of times before and suddenly felt inspired to reread.

The Dismissal of Miss Ruth Brown by Louise S. Robbins is the story of a white librarian who was fired in 1950 because of her personal involvement in advocating equality for African-Americans.  The official reason she was fired was that she had provided “subversive materials” in the library–books and magazines that were thought by the most paranoid conservatives to be advocating Communism–but that was greatly exaggerated.  Really, the people running the town were afraid that her pro-integration activities would embarrass them and/or threaten their status.  There was a long and convoluted campaign to get rid of her, complete with a sudden replacement of the library’s board of directors, outrageous rumors, secret after-hours sneaking into the library’s storage room to photograph books (which, in fact, had been removed from general circulation), and so on.  It’s a great story!  For me, it’s especially interesting because I grew up in that town (Bartlesville, Oklahoma) and this story is both a reminder that things were worse before I was born and a spookily familiar tale of “community leaders” who make policies based on their own stupid prejudices and force out everyone who disagrees with them, and of honest citizens afraid to speak up for what’s right in a culture where personal choices can have mysterious, gossip-driven effects on people’s employment and social lives.  Most of the institutions and a few of the people who are major players in the story are familiar to me.  But even if you know nothing about Bartlesville, small-town politics, or that part of the country, this is a really interesting story!

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot Read more…

3 Books for Laughing Out Loud

Today’s Three Books on Thursday theme is books that make the reader laugh out loud.  I can’t, of course, guarantee that what’s funny to me will be funny to you, but here are three books that in my opinion are filled with hilarious moments:

Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson is an account of traveling around Great Britain.  Bryson was born and raised in Iowa, then lived in England for 20 years and wrote this book as he was preparing to move back to America.  The first time I read it, I thought it was entertaining and somewhat funny.  The second time I read it, I started in a hospital waiting room–where I was awaiting surgery, very sad about the circumstances that brought me there, and extremely hungry and nauseated–and it was so funny I could hardly believe it!  Anything that could make me laugh on that day has got to be good.  Bryson has a way of noticing tiny details that are really very strange and pulling them together with just the right phrasing.  He also has a great sense of humor about his own behavior and perceptions, which got very grumpy at times during this journey because he was hiking long distances, and the weather and/or terrain didn’t always cooperate.  I also love his book The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America; it’s over 20 years old now, so it’s something of a time capsule of a past America, and very funny.

Legal Daisy Spacing: The Build-a-Planet Manual of Official World Improvements by Chris Winn is a mysterious catalog which seems to be aimed at some aliens who are much bigger than we are and are planning to make our pesky planet (or one a lot like it) much tidier yet more smoggy.  From this catalog, they could order such items as coastline tiles and molds to form mountains into proper conical shape.  Here are a few pages.  The charming style of the product descriptions makes the whole concept less alarming and much funnier.

More Dykes to Watch Out For by Alison Bechdel is the second anthology of a comic strip about lesbians in San Francisco.  This is the volume I happen to own and have read many times; they’re all good!  These strips were published in the 1980s, and Bechdel did a great job of appreciating the lesbian subculture while showing the awkwardness of getting along in everyday life at a time when lesbians were considered very strange and threatening by mainstream society.  Although I’m very straight myself, the main character Mo’s worries and over-seriousness and social awkwardness are very similar to mine, and all the characters are fun and well-drawn.  Just recently I picked up this book for the first time in a while, flipped to a random page, and immediately started laughing at the next-to-last frame of this strip.  (NOTE: This book includes a lesbian sex scene.  Don’t read it if you can’t handle that.)

After the above, I feel I ought to offer an alternate book for children, and luckily my 8-year-old son and I have been reading one!  Lulu Goes Shopping by John Stanley is one of a series of anthologies of the 1940s comic book “Little Lulu” published recently and available in our local library!  (Look under “graphic novels” in the children’s section.)  My dad used to read me “Little Lulu” comics from his childhood, and they’re often very funny!  Lulu and her friends are always having adventures, making up stories, attempting things that go spectacularly awry, resolving arguments innovatively, and confusing the adults.  The unique cuteness of the art really adds to the humor.

The Horror From Beyond Time

I meant to post this on Halloween, but perhaps–just as our neighborhood’s Halloween celebration was postponed until Saturday (due to rain)–you are willing to extend the Halloween season by a few days and read this creepy short story, carefully honed over several years by the man I love, who really ought to write more often.

The Horror From Beyond Time

Our Favorite Publisher of Affordable Books

I recently had a birthday and was very pleased to be given three books from Dover Publications.  Daniel knows that I can never get enough floor-plan books, and Dover prints gobs of great ones!  They also have a wide selection of nonfiction, classic fiction, children’s books,  coloring books, how-to-draw books, clip-art collections, puzzle books, nature guides, textbooks, and lots more.  Most of their books cost less than $20.  They have a great environmental policy, yet their recycled-content paper looks and feels better than the pages of many other publishers’ books.

This is not a sponsored post.  I am writing this just because we think Dover is a great company and want more people to know about them!  Dover books are available from most bookstores, as well as from their own catalog.

In addition to floor-plans, I particularly like Dover’s illustrated history books.  Read more…

Saint Maybe

This week, Modern Mrs. Darcy is hosting a carnival in which writers link to their articles about The Book That Changed My Life.  Check it out to find some great new things to read!  I, of course, can’t pick just one book but linked to my list of Books That Blew My Mind.  However, there’s another excellent book I recently reread for what must be the 6th or 7th time–I can’t say that reading it changed my life in any huge way, but it’s such a very enjoyable and well-written novel that I think everyone should read it!

Saint Maybe by Anne Tyler is a very warm, real story about a 17-year-old boy named Ian who makes a selfish, impulsive decision that triggers his big brother to commit suicide. Ian then winds up joining a church (of an interesting fictional denomination) and finds healing by raising his brother’s stepchildren. The story covers 25 years and is told from the perspectives of various family members. The dialogue, sensory descriptions, and Christian insights are just wonderful!

Maybe it didn’t change my life, but Saint Maybe is one of my favorite books.  This time through, I learned it’s a great choice for reading in the waiting room when the future of one’s own family is in question, because this is a story in which love shines through and stuff works out for the best, even when it didn’t look that way at first.

3 Good Children’s Books

Today’s 3 Books on Thursday theme is children’s books, and I am going to limit this list to just 3! Of course, there are many other picture books Nicholas and I enjoyed together when he was 18 months-5 years old, before he started insisting on chapter books for bedtime stories as well as on-the-bus entertainment, but these are 3 that have a special place in my heart because they continued to entertain me even when I was reading them to him 42 nights in a row!

Ira Sleeps Over by Bernard Waber is the story of Ira’s first night away from home, at his friend Reggie’s house next door. Ira is really looking forward to it until his big sister asks if he is going to take his teddy bear. This throws Ira into a dilemma: Will he be able to sleep without his beloved Tah Tah? But what if Reggie laughs at him for still sleeping with a teddy bear? Oh, the agony! I love the dialogue, the dignified way in which Ira finally solves his problem, and the blotchy yet evocative bright-colored illustrations.

I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew is one of the lesser-known books of Dr. Seuss, but it is my favorite! The protagonist has led a carefree life until one day he stubs his toe, and then he begins to have other minor troubles, and a passerby (traveling in a one-wheeler wubble pulled by a camel) offers to take him to “the wonderful city of Solla Sollew . . . where they never have troubles, at least very few.” The journey, however, is fraught with troubles, beginning when the camel gets sick and starts to bubble so our hero has to pull the wubble. Eventually he is “crashing downhill in a flubbulous flood, with suds in my eyes and my mouth full of mud,” and it actually gets worse from there! It never fails to cheer me up by reminding me that my own troubles, whatever they may be at the moment, are not that bad.

A Picture for Harold’s Room by Crockett Johnson is my favorite of the several books about Harold (who appears to be a baby but acts at least six years old) and the big purple crayon with which he draws scenes and walks into them, creating his own reality. My favorite part of this one is when Harold’s use of perspective leads to his horrified realization that he is now only half the size of a daisy. How will he get back to his usual size?! It’s a great story about both the power of imagination and our power over it.

Check out 3 Books on Thursday and Book Sharing Monday for more writers’ favorite children’s books! See my recently expanded article Books That Blew My Mind for 29 of my overall favorite books!

3 Good Books About Parenting

Jessica’s Three Books on Thursday post today is about parenting books, so I decided to post my top three recommendations, even though they’re already included in the longer list of Books That Blew My Mind.  To prevent faithful Earthling’s Handbook readers from feeling gypped, though, I’ll first list three more books–actually, sort of categories of books–that weren’t quite mind-blowing but have been very helpful to me as a parent.

Like Jessica, I did a lot of reading about parenting long before becoming a mother.  In fact, I started when I was about eight years old and my parents bought a set of World Book encyclopedias and the accompanying Childcraft books.  Childcraft is a treasure trove for kids, but it also included Read more…

How a silly Website brought me a great book

I have been a fan of passiveaggressivenotes.com for some time now.  It’s one of those sites that perfectly utilizes the Internet’s awesome power to collect silly things seen around the world.  It almost always can make me laugh in that wonderfully sudden way that really dispels stress.

Last summer, I saw a note posted there (unfortunately, I can’t find it again now to link to it!) taped in the window of a Border’s bookstore that had closed.  Like the rest of the chain, and many other bookstores in the past decade, it had languished because so many customers went into the store to browse and read but purchased nothing, preferring to do their book-buying online.  The sign said something like this:

CLOSED FOREVER
Try using the bathrooms
at amazon.com!

I thought it was clever and funny, but I also was zinged with guilt–just as I had been when reading about the demise of bookstores–for the times when I browsed without buying or used the restrooms or drinking fountain at the Barnes & Noble that used to be in my neighborhood.  Read more…

An Unexpected Find in the Thrift Store

Recently, I bought at Goodwill two anthologies of Calvin and Hobbes, a comic strip I enjoy reading to my six-year-old son. When we started reading the second one, Weirdos from Another Planet, we were surprised to find the following note written in metallic gold pen inside the front cover:

Dear Corey,
It was really fun getting to know you. We’ll really miss you here. Have fun in your new home. Sorry I shot you. It was an accident. I thought I was out of ammo. See ya later maybe.
Your pal,
Ted R.

Maybe, indeed. I bet Corey dumped the book at Goodwill and never hung out with Ted R. again.

Then again, maybe Corey treasured the book for a decade before he passed it on. We will never know. I love the sense of mystery!

7 Novels of Other Worlds on Earth

I like science fiction, but one of my favorite kinds of books is the kind set on Earth, in the present or recent past, but in a subculture that is really vividly described and interesting.  A good example is The Chosen by Chaim Potok, one of the Books That Blew My Mind.  Here are 7 others that, while not quite as mind-blowing to me personally, also have that ability to transport me to a different “world” on this planet: Read more…

Religious Education with Ramona Quimby

I’m an Episcopalian now, but my parents joined a Unitarian Universalist church when I was seven years old, so I was raised in that denomination. There were many things about it that weren’t compatible with my spirituality, but I did learn at least one valuable lesson there: Some secular books contain wisdom and moral dilemmas that can be valuable catalysts for religious discussion and development. I’m a big fan of the Bible and prefer attending a church where it’s the main text.  It’s just not the only book that can speak to the truth in our hearts.  Last Sunday, I had an opportunity to apply this idea in my Episcopal church. Read more…

How to Do Everything!

This article is linked to the greatest tips edition of Works-for-Me Wednesday, where the hostess explains how to get a human on the phone when you call customer service, and more than 178 people have linked to their own helpful tips on how to do all sorts of things.  Here are my own greatest tips:

7 ways to eat less meat.

40 ways kids can help around the house.

13 ways to use less electricity for your lighting.

Toddler discipline in 3 easy steps!

7 product recommendations (NOT paid endorsements!). Read more…

Books That Blew My Mind

UPDATE February 1, 2012: For the past two years, this has been an article like my links page where I keep adding content as I get around to it.  Now I’m going to call it finished!  Of course, I expect to read additional mind-blowing books during my visit to Earth, but this list now includes all the qualifying books I have discovered so far.  [Um, and I added one more on February 2!]

This is a list of books that made a big difference to me at the time I first read them, and in some cases forever afterward, by giving me many new things to think about and/or a completely different angle on an old favorite topic.  I highly recommend them all.  They’re in approximately chronological order according to when I first read them, but that doesn’t mean anyone else needs to read them in this particular order, and where I mention ages please take into account that I was a very precocious reader–many kids will not be able to read these books to themselves until they are several years older.  (Check out these great chapter books for kids!) Read more…

Great Chapter Books for Kids!

It’s Works-for-Me Wednesday! We started reading chapter books to our son when he was 2 years 9 months old.  Two years later, they’re an important part of his daily life.  I read to him every day on the bus going to and from preschool, almost always from chapter books because they’re more convenient: more story for the weight, less frequent decisions about what to read, and more interesting for me!  He also chooses chapter books for some of the other times Daniel or I read to him, like at bedtime.

Chapter books encourage a longer attention span than picture books and help to develop long-term memory (because you have to remember what was happening in the story in between reading sessions).  Because there are fewer pictures or none at all, the child has to use his imagination to picture the scenes.  The vocabulary tends to be more advanced than picture books. Read more…

Hear now the Tale of Job!

My four-year-old son and I were in our car on the way to Trader Joe’s last Wednesday when this Seatrain song telling the Biblical story of Job came up on the CD my dad made for me. I turned off the engine right after the line, “Long, long they journeyed until they found Job in the ashes of his burned-out farm.”

Nicholas objected, “But wait! Why was his farm burned? and what happened next? Tell me the rest of the story.” I gave him a quick summary on the way into the store, and then on the way home we listened to the rest of the song and then played it over again all the way through. We talked a little bit about the moral: Bad things sometimes happen to good people; it is important to trust God even when things aren’t going so well for you. Read more…

The Other Three Bears

Nicholas often asks me to tell him a story while we’re walking somewhere.  Most of these stories are anecdotes from my childhood, well-known fairy tales, or made-up ramblings that entertain him for the moment but are never requested again.  This story, however, is one I invented with his help over a year ago and have told dozens of times since then.  I hope other people will enjoy it, too!

Once upon a time, there were three little bears sitting on three little chairs, very quiet and very still.  They were sitting like that because their father had told them to, and they always did everything their father told them to do.

The father bear needed his little bears to be quiet and still because he had to work very hard at his desk.  He worked and worked until . . . yawn . . . zzz . . . flop! he fell asleep right on top of his papers.

The three little bears looked at each other, and they looked at the door, and they looked at each other again, and then they very quietly tiptoed outside and shut the door.  They got their sled, and they sat down on it, one little bear behind another little bear behind another little bear, and they pushed off and slid downhill through the snow: “Whee!” “Whee!” “Whee!”

They were having great fun, when suddenly they saw ahead of them . . . a pig!  The pig had wandered out of the forest and was just standing there in the middle of the snowy hillside, looking the other way.  He couldn’t see them coming!  They had no way to steer!  Bang! Crash! The sled hit that pig and knocked him up into the air so he landed right on top of the three little bears, and they all went down the hill together: “Whee!” “Whee!” “Whee!” “Squeeeee!!” Read more…

Great system, bad example!

We’ve been struggling with our three-year-old’s demanding behavior and angry outbursts and have sought help from several books.  The most recent was Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline by Becky Bailey, frequently recommended in online discussions.

Overall, it’s an okay book.  The main idea is that a conflict is an opportunity to teach your child skills he can learn to control himself on his own, and she explains very clearly why this is such a great approach.  The book has a few very good parts: Read more…

New Realms of Reading

One day in August, Nicholas and I were walking past a pile of trash set at the curb in front of an apartment building when I noticed a huge anthology of “Peanuts” comics, clean and hardly used, on top of the pile.  I immediately grabbed it to take home.  Nicholas (age two-and-a-half) was very interested in these adventures of kids and a dog, and although he didn’t get all of the jokes, he generally understood the events.  We read from this book on the bus every day for a couple of weeks, returning to certain storylines over and over again at Nick’s request.  He soon noticed “Peanuts” in the comics section of my Sunday newspaper and began asking me to read those comics to him as well.

I’m surprised at how infrequently comic strips and comic books are mentioned as tools for teaching children to read.  It seems that a lot of people view comics as a dangerous distraction from “real” books–too easy to read or not serious enough.  But plenty of children’s picture books are easy to read and have silly or simplistic plots.  Nick is learning some things from being read comics that he hadn’t yet learned from being read picture books.  Read more…