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the imponderabilia of actual life

Updated: 2017-10-25T20:49:43.869-04:00


Boneyards: Detroit Under Ground: Book Review


  Boneyards: Detroit Under Ground, by Richard Bak, was a fortuitous grab off the new book shelf at the Ann Arbor District Library.From a recent MetroParent article on libraries I learned the shocking news that the public library in Troy, Michigan will be closing at the end of the April. Troy is not a poor suburb, nor a particularly small one. But its voters turned down a couple of millage increases that would have kept the city library running, and then the city government didn't allocate the necessary funds. I hope that the Troy library doesn't end up like the Mark Twain branch of the Detroit Public Library.Anyway, I never would have found this book without the AADL, which has such a fabulous library that I couldn't give it up when I moved out of the city to an exurb. I now pay for the privilege of being able to check books out of it. It's not that my local library isn't good - I'm often surprised by just how good the Saline District Library is (sometimes they even have books the AADL doesn't have!), and they're open to suggestions - but Ann Arbor is a much bigger city, and it has a library to match.*  Then again, Troy isn't all that small, and look what happened there. I like the comment on dETROITfUNK under the pictures of the Twain branch noting that this abandoned library is a "mind cemetery".Which brings us back to graveyards, the subject of Richard Bak's new book. I never would have found this browsing on my new nook, as much as I've found love the immediacy and portability of e-books. Boneyards is the kind of book that really doesn't work well on an e-reader, anyway - the beautiful black & white photographs are a huge part of this book, and the main reason I grabbed it off the new book shelf and stuck it in my bag with the romance, fantasy, mysteries, and memoirs that came up on my request list.I was thrilled to find that the text - the historic snapshots of a major midwestern city that it provides, both in the introduction ("Here and Gone") and on the pages facing over one hundred of these amazing photographs - was as well-done as the photographs.  Many of these photos are historic, and others are striking or evocative artistic works. Taken together, they provide one of the most unique perspectives Michigan history that I've seen.  In Boneyards, I learned about Hazen Pingree, the Detroit mayor during the depression at the end of the 19th century who created plans for unemployed workers to grow vegetables on vacant lots. "Potato Patch" Pingee became governor, died suddenly of peritonitis in England in 1901, and the Detroit City Hall was draped in elaborate mourning buntings with an enormous black-rimmed portrait. (Many of the historic photographs of funerals and cemeteries show mourning decorations that appear bizarre and extravagant to 21st century sensibilities).Then there was Benedetto Evangelista, the creator of his own religion, who provided celestial services in his basement, found beheaded in the same basement in 1929. His family - a wife and four young children - were slain upstairs, and no one was ever convicted of the murders.Native peoples and burial mounds, the deaths and graves of French and British soldiers, Greek, Polish, Italian, and Romanian immigrants, convicts buried in prison cemeteries, the Purple Gang, drug dealers in the 1980's, racial segregation in cemeteries, Henry Ford, Walter Reuther, the Dodge Brothers (Bak notes that the workers on the main Dodge line were permitted to drink beer while working), union protesters killed by the police and Ford security personnel in 1932, and unclaimed cremations are all the subjects of short but eloquent essays. The photographs alone would have made Boneyards a beautiful coffee table book, but Bak's research and insightful narrative make this something more.*Too bad you can't check books out of the University of Michigan libraries without paying a small fortune. You think they'd have some kind of special deal for alumni or local residents or both, like many other state universities, but nooo. Instead, I get some of the boo[...]

Buzz: A Year of Paying Attention: Book Review


I read Katherine Ellison's article - Doing Battle with the ADHD-Industrial Complex - when it was published a few months ago. I thought it was an interesting and insightful piece, and promptly put her new book on my to-read list. I wasn't really looking forward to reading Buzz, though.I've read a lot of books on ADHD, OCD, and Tourette's Syndrome and related disorders (including autism spectrum disorders) over the past ten years. You can see some of these books on the disability shelf in my goodreads account here, and some information on Tourette's and Tourette's Syndrome Plus (TS+) here and here. The books I've read include memoirs, parenting and teacher advice, therapeutic manuals, and fiction aimed at all ages. Some of these books were enlightening, some were depressing, and some should be required reading for anyone dealing with these issues. I wish I had enough money to buy copies of Ross W. Greene's The Explosive Child for every parent who would benefit from it, and enough copies of Lost at School and Challenging Kids, Challenged Teachers for every administrator, teacher, and paraprofessional (i.e., teacher's aide) who needs to read these books. Anyway, I thought Katherine Ellison would be preaching to the choir in Buzz, and that it was unlikely she would tell me anything new, or describe any personal experiences I hadn't already lived myself. Then the book became available on my library request list. Even though the cover gave me a headache with its vibrating-look title (and the library's fluorescent ID sticker went right through the middle of the legs in the center, making them look like some weird butterfly wearing Converse high tops), I gave it a try. I was hooked by the first chapter. Ellison describes her "bad mom moments" in unflinching detail, along with graphic descriptions of her son's defiance, anger, and confusion. After one particularly memorable incident, Ellison resolves to turn her attention and considerable skills at investigative journalism to ADHD in general, and to her son (who goes by the nickname "Buzz") in particular, for the next year.Her account of her year of research, experimentation, expense, family life, and community is fascinating. She examines medication, therapy, support groups, neurofeedback, meditation, and several other approaches to dealing with ADHD. There's a bit about the history of most of these ideas, interviews with mental health professionals and other practitioners, and interesting accounts of her experiences and her son's.  I'd heard of many of these approaches - but reading about the details of the practices was cool in a whole different way. It reminded me of Mary Roach's popular science books (like Stiff), actually. And I really appreciated the detailed end notes (complete with references), and a useful index.  When I read about the meditation technique of mindfulness that Nirbhay Singh recommends for defusing anger, for instance, I was able to turn to the research in the endnotes, and then look Singh's articles up online. My son and I both read Singh et al.'s Meditation on the Soles of the Feet Training, and though he didn't particularly like thinking about his feet, he was able to focus his concentration on something else in a similar manner to help calm himself the other day. This is an approach I hadn't ever seriously considered.Ellison's descriptions of her family's ordeals and triumphs during this year is equally engaging, and adds a certain (sometimes dark) humor to the narrative that kept me reading. I did wish that there was more about schools and educational advocacy in Buzz, and Ellison mentions that she became aware of this lack when it was too late for her to use the information effectively (in the epilogue). One work that complements Buzz particularly well is Judith Warner's recent book on children and mental health: We've Got Issues: Children and Parents in the Age of Medication. In short - it's definitely worth turning your attention to Buzz, whether you have to deal with attention deficits[...]

Every Bone Tells a Story: Book Review


Every Bone Tells a Story: Hominin Discoveries, Deductions, and Debates, by Jill Rubalcaba and Peter RobertshawIn general, archaeologists and paleoanthropologists don't do a great job of telling the public about their work. Their studies are so technologically and theoretically specialized today that it's difficult to convey all the relevant information to even a fairly well-read person, unless these people are willing to sit through several introductory lectures or classes in anthropology. And even then it can still be hard to describe the subtleties of current anthropological debates and translate the latest jargon (like hominin!*) to, the general reader. It doesn't help that anthropologists aren't generally rewarded for making their passions clear to the public. It doesn't get them tenure, advance their research, or bring in grants, and writing for non-specialists is very, very different from the type of writing that anthropologists are trained to do in graduate school. Sadly, grad students and most anthropologists aren't awarded any points for creative writing, compelling dialogue, or evocative descriptions - or any of the other things that keep readers (especially children) turning the pages of a book.Explaining anthropological research to the public is crucial if the field is going to continue to exist in times of economic hardship, however. Which partially explains why I was so excited to learn about Rubalcaba and Robertshaw's latest book when it was mentioned in the comments at Heavy Medal, the School Library Journal's blog on the current contenders for the Newbery.Sadly, I had to request Every Bone Tells a Story from inter-library loan to read it. Only ten or so libraries in Michigan currently have it in their catalogs (and Ann Arbor isn't one of them! I suggested that they buy it). Maybe if it wins some more awards it will find its way to more libraries and into the hands of more kids and adults.It's written for older kids through young adults, but like some of the other nonfiction contenders for this year's Newbery prize (such as Sugar Changed the World, by Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos, and They Called Themselves the KKK, by Susan Campbell Bartoletti), Every Bone is suitable for adults as well as kids. The writing style is simple and usually clear without being simplistic (with the exception of the section on the genetics of speech, and let's face it, mitochrondial DNA is difficult to explain clearly), and much of the information presented will be new and interesting to anyone interested in human evolution. Four sets of skeletal remains from different time periods are presented, with wonderful descriptions of their discovery, some good summaries of the deductions scientists have made that are based on these remains, and lively looks at the current debates swirling around them. Because Every Bone Tells a Story is very well-written, I found myself wondering which author wrote which parts, but it was all very seamless, without any discernible differences in style. Perhaps Peter Robertshaw is one of those rare archaeologists with a gift for popular as well as academic prose, or maybe Jill Rubalcaba has the (also fairly rare) ability to imbue scientific discourse with human interest. At any rate, it was an enjoyable read, reminding me a lot of Mary Roach's nonfiction books (Stiff, Bonk, Spook, and Packing for Mars), which are funny, informative, compelling and memorable. It's a hard balance to find.My only criticisms of this book are minor ones (i.e., not enough to warrant taking a star away from the 5 out of 5 I gave it on I wish that one of the skeletons that they had featured was distinctively female, so prehistoric gender roles could have been addressed. Lapedo child could have been a girl, but we really can't tell. I think the Time Line at the back of the book should have been put in the front - it would help readers put the Turkana Boy, Lapedo Child, Kennewick Man, and the Iceman in an temporal/evolutionary context as t[...]

New Start


Well, it's time to pull this old blog out of the basement, take it out of its box (luckily a waterproof one, or it would be moldy from all the puddles spreading out from the wall-floor joint every time it rains more than a half inch or it gets above freezing in the winter here), and use it again.

It's been an eventful year and half since I've posted. I don't want to post anything personal about my family, though. I do have the urge to post some book reviews that are a little more detailed than the ones I've been doing on my goodreads account, so you can expect some of those soon.

I don't have a real writing job at the moment. I've enjoyed the last few opportunities, writing about cannibalism and mad cow disease and orthorexia and global warming and prehistoric tobacco, but since that's done I can think about blogging again. Even though it doesn't pay as well.

PS If you're a friend or family member, don't feel bad because you didn't get a holiday card. No one did this year, though I may send out Groundhog Day or Candlemas cards in early February.

Until Our Hearts Are On the Ground


Here's the last book review that I've done in the last few years for a website that is no longer maintained (but that can still be accessed via the Wayback machine). The Association for Research on Mothering (ARM) holds fascinating conferences and publishes an incredible diversity of books on motherhood (this year's on blogging)."Until Our Hearts Are On the Ground”: Aboriginal Mothering, Oppression, Resistance and Rebirth, edited by D. Memee Lavell-Harvard and Jeannette Corbiere Lavell, is an eye-opening and diverse collection of papers published by Demeter Press, the publishing division of York University's Association for Research on Mothering. The book's title comes from a Cheyenne proverb:“A nation is not conquered until the hearts of its women are on the ground. Then it is done, no matter how brave its warriors nor how strong their weapons.”Until Our Hearts Are On the Ground's diversity is both its strength and a minor drawback. The multiple voices, different indigenous peoples, varied histories, and the personal experiences of motherhood that Lavell-Harvard and Lavell (mother and daughter editors) bring together are amazing, but the diversity is sometimes overwhelming. It can be difficult to switch gears between the different topics and styles of writing in the contributions. Lavell-Harvard and Lavell acknowledge this in the first paper ("Thunder Spirits: Reclaiming the Power of Our Grandmothers"), noting that "There is such a range of Aboriginal women's experiences existing somewhere between "traditional" and "modernized" that perhaps the only thing we do share is what Mihesuah calls a 'commonality of difference'"(p. 2).They go on to eloquently and convincingly explain how:"the historical persistence of our cultural difference generation after generation (despite the best assimilative efforts of both Church and State) is a sign of our strength and our resistance. That we have historically, and continually, mothered in a way that is "different" from the dominant culture, is not only empowering for our women, but is potentially empowering for all women (p. 3)." Lavell and Lavell-Harvard do a skillful job of organizing the diverse works into four sections: one on pregnancy and becoming a mother, the ideology and practice of motherhood, the state's influence on motherhood, and literary representations of motherhood.. And the references and the endnotes are remarkable - there are scads of wonderful, intriguing sounding articles, books, and papers from the most obscure places in each article's references. A few of the papers are written in an academic style that can be off-putting for those not accustomed to it. If you persevere, however, the insights into different cultures and social groups, and the historical understandings gained, are definitely worth a few obtuse paragraphs of sociology, medical anthropology, ethnohistory, or literary analysis. I learned something, or was moved, or came to a new appreciation for the strength that the mothers portrayed have shown in the face of incredible hardship in every single one of the papers in this book. The seventeen papers include reflections on motherhood amongst the Anishnaabe (Ojibway) of Canada, cultural and personal implications of the medicalization of birth (among Anishnaabe and Mi'kmaq communities), a fascinating look at historic Haudenosaunee (Iroqouis) mothering (especially interesting for those studying non-patriarchal societies and/or gender equality) , and one Metis mother's powerful account of how traditional parenting skills programs made a difference in her life. “Back to Basics” describes mothering, and the impact that grandmothers and aunts - also prominent in several of the earlier papers on Canada - have on children’s survival (especially from kwashiorkor) in urban Ghana. On my first look at the book, I thought that Africa was a far cry from Canada, and wondered how this piece could possibly fit in with the other papers, but the [...]

Perfect Madness: Book Review


Again, a couple of book reviews from 2005 that were lost in the ether, retrieved by the magic of the Wayback machine. I fixed a couple of spelling errors, love that Firefox add-on.Perfect Madness or Localized Insanity?Well, I finished reading Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety, by Judith Warner today.I was very disappointed. The reviews were better than the book (and a lot more coherent). She totally disses Mothers & More and other similar groups, by the way, as:“utterly corrupted by the competing religions of the American left and right”….(they) “purport to unite working and nonworking mothers alike in an ecumenical, pro-family social agenda. Their organizers, I found, were committed to this vision, and strove to make it a reality. But their membership, carried over from their pre-name-change days, was another story. Once you scratched the surface of their pro-unity slogans, all too often, something quite different emerged. Competition. Intolerance. And a big dose of sanctimony. Coming, most notably, from stay-at-home mothers seeking validation for the “sacrifices” they’d made in the name of motherly virtue” (p. 265-266).It’s possible that other chapters are a lot different from mine. Do any of us seem sanctimonious here? I’m just not getting that vibe. But more on Warner’s book later, I have to go eat lunch with my daughter. She’s done drawing dinosaurs._____________________________________Imperfect Madness Judith Warner’s Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety is first and foremost an opinion piece on “the current culture of motherhood” - it should not be taken as sociological or cultural analysis of even the most rudimentary kind. I liked Miriam Peskowitz’s The Truth Behind the Mommy Wars a lot more for its examination of the work/family/time issues facing American mothers, and Douglas and Michael’s The Mommy Myth for its historical analysis of the media and its influence on modern parenting. Strangely, and very obviously leaving a gaping hole, Warner makes absolutely no mention of Douglas & Michael’s book, even though she covers a lot of the same issues (Peskowitz’s was published close to the same time as Warner’s). Warner’s book strikes me as sloppy in terms of research, logic and presentation. Her endnotes are not presented in the text of the book, but arranged by page number in the back, so when you want to check the basis for a given statement, you have to turn to the back to see if it is endnoted. Almost every time I did this, I found Warner’s statement was based on a secondary source - a newspaper article or a magazine article usually. Very rarely was any scientific data (even from soft sciences, like sociology, psychology, or anthropology!) cited. For instance, her statement that today’s children display more anxiety, throw more tantrums, behave more disrespectfully, and are just overprotected brats is based on an article from Better Homes & Gardens. Warner makes some sweeping (and unfounded and just plain inaccurate) generalizations about kid’s food allergies and the use of medication for ADHD & other behavioral problems that are sure to piss off many parents who deal with children with real problems of this nature. And “Attachment Parenting” - even a middle class watered down version gets given extremely short shrift as just an example of the bad side of over-parenting: “baby-wearing, co-sleeping, long-term breast-feeding and the rest of it — cruelly insensitive to mothers’ needs as adult women”. According to Warner, co-sleeping makes for unhinged, sleep deprived mothers. Funny, everyone I know that co-slept did it because it enabled them to get more sleep. Some other things that bothered me were the chapters on how this socio-cultural phenomenon that she calls “The Mess” is a personal psychological failing, like bulimia or anorexia, caused by mothers: 1. tryi[...]

Thanks to the Wayback Machine


I've retrieved a book review that I did for Mothers & More for their "Mothers at Work" blog campaign in 2005. Since you can't access it anymore through regular avenues, I didn't think they'd mind if I put it on my personal blog, so all of my book review links work.

It Really Is All About Time...

….according to Miriam Peskowitz in The Truth Behind the Mommy Wars: Who Decides What Makes a Good Mother?

What a great book. Here’s my review from my personal book log:

A really good, thoughtful, well-written book. I don’t know why it hasn’t been reviewed anywhere but a couple of blogs, when Judith Warner’s book (which I haven’t read yet, so no comparisons) is all over the place.

Peskowitz looks at SAH moms, moms who work PT, and WOH moms, and every permutation of work/childcare and “sequencing” you can imagine. She examines the stereotypes, politcal manipulation, media & marketing, and what women (and some men) really do, and how women’s “personal choices” (as in “opting out”) may actually be more being “squeezed” by culture, companies, and just the time crunch that being a parent entails. She looks at feminism’s role in this and in motherhood.

This book was a huge breath of common sense. Peskowitz doesn’t rant, she doesn’t tell gut-wrenching personal stories (or especially hilarious ones), and she doesn’t over-simplify the issues. Maybe that’s why it hasn’t been a big hit? It’s too reasonable? I dunno.

One thing lacking: an index. There are good footnotes, and you can tell that her statements are backed up by fact (and you can check the facts yourself via the footnotes), but an index would help you when you think, hmm, what did she say about FMLA (the Family Medical Leave Act)? What chapter was that in again?

Here’s one of my favorite quotes: “With the kids interrupting and needing attention, who can finish a setence, let along organize a piece of a revolution?” (p. 173).

I don't even feel the need to change anything I wrote over four years ago! The book is still a breath of fresh air.

The Busy Tree: Book Review


I got two review offers a couple weeks ago. I turned down the offer for Tucks Pads (I'm not sure what I would say about them....maybe I could have looked at the medicinal uses of witch hazel? Hemorrhoids in history?), but I happily accepted a free copy of The Busy Tree, written by Jennifer Ward and illustrated by Lisa Falkenstern.My seven year old nature lover mostly picks chapter books for herself now, but luckily (for me, because I love them, too) she still enjoys picture books. She agreed to review The Busy Tree with me, to give everyone a kid's perspective.Here's her comments:"I like the cover.It's really realistic! It shows underground! And it shows animals there."Basically, she raved about the artwork and the progression of the story, and happily read the simple rhymes.I enjoyed The Busy Tree a lot, too. It's nice to be able to give such a positive review to a book. The last free book I got I hated (but luckily only had to discuss in an online salon), and I was critical enough of Maximum Ride: Saving the World and Other Extreme Sports to enrage a few tween readers who couldn't stand seeing their favorite book series criticized. They were downright polite compared to Darla Shine's fans, though.Anyway, The Busy Tree made me mourn the loss of the giant elm tree in our back yard, and long for a big old oak tree. The kind that takes about a hundred years to mature, unfortunately.Like my daughter, I loved Falkenstern's illustrations, and all of the different aspects of the single tree that the authors brought forth for us.When I first saw the cover, I was afraid the book was going to be too precious and and/or overly cute, but as my daughter pointed out, the cover is just a clever collection of many of the different creatures shown in the book. She noted that the moth there was probably the result of the bagworm cocoon pictured on one of her favorite pages. There's nothing terribly cute about bagworms, though they are definitely an interesting and common tree dweller. My son actually actually considered some of the bagworm caterpillars on our pin cherry tree as pets one year (then again, he also wanted to keep maggots as pets).The graphics I found of the cover online were kind of dark, so I took the pictures here so you can get a better feel for the book. Which I happily recommend for kids and adults who like gorgeously illustrated picture books featuring realistic natural settings, or trees (especially oak trees), or who may be interested in the ecology of a single tree.[...]

Libraries & State Parks - Hammocks Subject to Availability


If you're in Michigan and you have a library card (and if you don't have a library card, what's wrong with you?), there's a great deal going from now to the end of September, combining two of my favorite things: books and nature. You can go to your local library and get a free pass for any state park (98 of them!), good for seven days (usually there's a $6 vehicle fee, unless you've got an annual pass). It's part of their new Park & Read program:

Many parks will also have a hammock available at no charge for Park & Read participants to borrow while on-site for the day so they can fully enjoy a great book in Michigan's great outdoors.

"The program was designed to give people a free trial visit to experience what a fantastic family and recreational resource their Michigan state parks and recreation areas can be," said Maia Stephens, recreational programmer for the DNR Parks and Recreation Division. "Besides, what's more relaxing than a day at the beach or under a shady tree with a good book?"

Here's a list of the Park & Read Parks with hammocks. Although the Saline District Library isn't on the list of participating libraries, since I found the link for the program on their website, I think they offer the passes, too. The Ann Arbor District Library is listed, along with Chelsea and Brighton libraries.

Catching Fire


Strangely enough, I have two very different books with the same title on my "to read" list right now:

(image) (image)

Weird coincidence, eh?

And for a short review of some fiction for kids about archaeology, combining the two interests above - anthropology (Richard Wrangham's Catching Fire) and Young Adult fiction (Catching Fire is the not yet released sequel to Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games) - check out my review of Reading the Bones, by Gina McMurchy-Barber. It's one of the only pieces of fiction that I've read (for adults or kids!) that deals with many of the issues that archaeologists face. Amateur collectors, the repatriation of Native remains and sacred objects, scientific goals, and homeowner's feelings about private property are mixed well with overly authoritarian adults, a rebellious pre-teen girl, and some suspense. I hope McMurchy-Barber writes another and that this book gets a little more press - it was hard to find!

Fun with Google Searches


I hope the person who searched "babababababababababa babababababababababa babababa" enjoyed the book review of All the Fishes Come Home to Roost, by Rachel Manija Brown. No, there is no sex in Maximum Ride (not the Extreme Sports one I reviewed, nor the others), and I'm sorry I don't know where you can find Tastykakes in Michigan.

If you're not finding what you want with "patriartical", may I suggest you try "patriarchal"?

Twitch and Shout: Book Review


(image) "Son, neurological disorder is the wave of the future."

This statement by the author's father is from the frontspiece to Twitch and Shout: A Touretter's Tale, by Lowell Handler. I've said something similar to my son, but reading Handler's memoir gave me more a bit more insight into what he deals with every single day. In middle school, no less.

On one level, Handler's book is an enjoyable coming-of-age, overcoming disability, finding your niche story. But it also has some startling (to me, anyway) insights into Tourette's Syndrome and OCD:

I know a woman with OCD who thinks continually of the word Ebola. Regardless of what is happening around her in conversations or on the television or radio, she is thinking Ebola. The fact that the word represents a horrible, deadly virus does not matter to her; more significant is the sound the world makes audibly and in her mind when it's repeated. She is fascinated by the "acoustic contours" of the word itself. Touretters often develop such an obsession with words, lost in an amusement park of the mind where thy can spend hours turning over the vocal and mental variations in form, inflection, pitch, and even the meaning of a world or phrase. A single word may become the roller-coaster ride for a Touretter on which he or she can be carried away for hours, unable to complete another task (p. 37).

Handler relates his interviews with several other people with TS (including those featured in the film he helped make, with the same title) and I thought this explanation by Adam Seligman was intriguing:

"My theory about all Tourette symptoms," Adam continued, "is that you have a buildup of pressure, which must be relieved by an action. The action is either a physical movement, a sound, a ritualistic compulsive act, or an obsessive thought. If you don't relieve this pressure it builds up, and you feel like you are going to explode (p. 92)."

Twitch and Shout is was clearly ahead of the game when it comes to explaining the need for health care reform and orphan drug support (it was published in 1998), and it also includes fun and interesting stories about eating nasturtiums with Oliver Sacks, Zulu ideas about Tourette's, self-medicating, humility, degrees of disability, and humor.

As an unexpected bonus, I love black and white photography, and Twitch and Shout is nicely illustrated with some of Handler's photographs. In fact, a little web browsing shows that Handler's photographic work is amazing. Check it out, along with his book.

No! Let Them Eat Thin Mints and Samoas!


And you can buy them from my daughter's troop if you happen to be at Cabela's in se Michigan next Saturday morning. Forget about the new Dulce de Leche flavor - they sound much better than they are. The sugar-free chocolate chip isn't bad, though, and I think the lemon cremes are sadly unappreciated.

We already did our part selling at Busch's in Saline last Saturday. Thank goodness there was an overhang there that our table was under. Still, dismal weather.

Let Them Eat Kale


I've been reading some interesting stuff on food and its economics and politics.The Politics of Food by 11D is a wonderful post that includes the following quote that sums my feelings up nicely:Food is not a priority to most people. Pressed for time and energy, most people are going through the drive-through window at Wendy's. Even if it was cheaper and more readily available, kale and okra are only important to the intellectual fringe. And people don't want to hear about it. They don't want the guilt. Vegetable-guilt drives people to Sarah Palin's well as a link to Ezra Klein's Foodie Politics post at The American Prospect.I'm seeing the same split between foodie ("pie in the sky"?) intellectuals and people who are struggling to pay for their food and don't have time to cook it in the comments on's post titled Low-Income Children Shamed by Cheese Sandwich Policy, which spun off a Chicago Tribune story about the policy that the Albuquerque Public Schools recently instituted, where students whose parents are behind on paying for their lunch bills get a cheese sandwich, milk, and fruit for lunch.It's too bad the Tribune didn't bother to do a local story on this, because I'm sure there are schools in Chicagoland that have similiar policies. Here in Michigan (hey, maybe we're an economic bellwether for the rest of the country!), both my first grader and my sixth grader's schools have done something like this for years - if your child's account is more than $5 in the hole, your kid gets offered a PBJ sandwich if they didn't bring their own lunch. They don't get to have one of those cheeseburgers that makes McDonald's look like gourmet food, or even a little pool of the fluorescent liquid cheese-food-product with a pile of tortilla chips (all served on a lovely styrofoam tray) that passes for nachos.Also close to home, Mark Maynard has a post called The President Calls for Victory Gardens. Despite the fact that a commenter said my contribution (a link to Eat the View, and their cute historical video on the White House lawns & gardening) was the stupidest shit he'd seen in ages - and I have to confess, it does highlight the gulf between foodie intellectual and "what's for dinner tonight?"Americans - I'm still planning on planting a few tomatoes in the back yard when the ground thaws in....oh, three months or so. Maybe I'll even buy some kale at the Saline Farmers' Market when they open again. It probably doesn't taste too bad in ramen soup, and if I tell my 12 year old that's how they eat it in Japan, he may even try it. Maybe I'll go wild and use the entire flavor packet.[...]

Newbery Winners and Where to Put Them


I haven't mentioned all of the Newbery winners that I've read (and blogged about over at The Newbery Project) for a long time. So here are links to some of the best of the ones that I've read in the last year:The Twenty-One Balloons, by by William Pène du Bois - won in 1948 and I think this is the most underrated of my favorites. It belongs on your shelf along with Jules Verne, and both my (then 11 year old) son and I loved it.Miracles on Maple Hill, by Virginia Sorensen - set squarely in the 1950's, I think this is another winner a lot of people have never heard about. Great story about the healing power of nature (think The Secret Garden). Gay-Neck: The Story of a Pigeon, by Dhan Gopal Mukerji - sadly, no boy (and few girls) over the age of 8 or 9 will ever check this out of the school library, and it was surprisingly modern and engaging for something that was published in 1927. Maybe you can find a copy published in the U.K., where it carries the title Chitra: The Story of a Pigeon. Seriously, this story of a pigeon was pretty darn cool. Who would have guessed?Dear Mr. Henshaw, by Beverly Cleary - another book that sounded booooring but was fun. If you've ever written a letter to an author (or your child has to for a school project), you might enjoy this. And you don't have to be divorced or have divorced parents to like the book, either.Hitty: Her First Hundred Years, by Rachel Field - yes, old-fashioned again (hey, it won in 1930), but surprisingly interesting, especially for a book about a doll. I don't even like dolls and I liked this a lot.and finally, my favorite out of all of these: The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman - this year's winner. I didn't want to read it at first, because I'm not a huge fan of horror, but the reviews (even before it won the Newbery) convinced me that I should give it a try.The first chapter is scary - not graphic and gory, but definitely scary. And if one of your kid's anxieties is that people are going to sneak into your house and kill you all while you sleep, you might want to steer them away from The Graveyard Book for a bit. Anyway, because of the nature of the story, librarians are having a hard time deciding whether to put it in the regular kid's section or in the YA or Teen section.The Ann Arbor District Library gets mentioned in this article as having "hit upon the most Solomon-like solution to the problem — it classifies Gaiman’s book under Y for youth fiction, which is in between J for juvenile and T for books in the teen room."I see that my local library (the Saline District Library) put it in the youth section ("birth through age twelve"). I kind of hope that they buy another copy and put it in the Teen section, because some of the comments on the School Library Journal article note that older kids don't want to check stuff out of the "little kid" section, whereas readers that are 11-14 years old are usually eager to venture into the Teen room. My 12 year goes happily back and forth between the two sections, but he's oblivious to some of the social rules and status distinctions that rule his peers.I liked Roger Sutton's perspective on this. Really, though, you should just buy your own copy of The Graveyard Book, read it yourself (because I predict you'll want to read it again and again), and decide if your kids can handle it.[...]

Another Good Reason for Kids to Have Recess


And for them to have trees and bushes and flowers and the like on a playground, not just flat grass, pea gravel, and plastic and wood play structures: there's good evidence that "interacting with nature" improves cognitive function, especially memory and attention. And if your kid has ADHD, the more nature the better.I read an interesting newspaper article on this research last month: How the City Hurts Your Brain, by Jonah Lehrer (and kudos to the Ann Arbor Chronicle for it's blurb on UM research that lead me to this). Unfortunately, our recent weather (just how many mornings has the temperature been in the single digits or below zero?) has pretty much kept all of us indoors. We don't even have to go out to walk the dog anymore. And as much as I like WiiFit, I did suspect that it's just not quite the same as actually jogging, snowboarding, or taking a yoga class or walking to school.Well, it's going to be above freezing this weekend, and I'm determined that we go on some of the "nature hikes" we had been doing that my kids complain about but seem to enjoy once we're actually out there. One of the authors of the study cited above notes that "People don't have to enjoy the walk to get the benefits. We found the same benefits when it was 80 degrees and sunny over the summer as when the temperatures dropped to 25 degrees in January. The only difference was that the participants enjoyed the walks more in the spring and the summer than in the dead of winter."I wondered about the "urban walks in Ann Arbor" part of the study - I mean, Huron Street isn't exactly New York City, don't all those trees in Tree City help mitigate the stress of this urban setting? The study noted that participants walked in the Arb and at the Matthaei Botanical Gardens for the "nature" part of the study, which sounds good. I found myself wondering how a suburban neighborhood falls in this natural/urban continuum. And congratulating myself for buying a house on the edge of town, with its views of rolling farmland and a couple of barns and lunch trees.I'm reading Sarah Vowell's The Partly Cloudy Patriot right now, finding it much easier going than The Wordy Shipmates (yeah chapters! short chapters, even), if not as good historically. Her essay on "The Strenuous Life" touched on these indoor/outdoor themes, and as someone who would rather read than ski, ice skate, or even take the kids sledding, I found myself agreeing with her guilt about liking the indoors. Plus, this line made me snort:What if I'm perfectly content that, on any given day, my only communion with the earth is watching the sun set over New Jersey or burning a "geranium jasmine oak moss" aromatherapy candle? (p. 194)So I decided that I'm reading Bernd Heinrich's Winter World: The Ingenuity of Animal Survival next, and we'll contemplate hibernating animals while we slosh through the melting snow and mud sometime soon. Whether we like it or not.[...]



Perhaps I took Reblock Yourself the Polly Frost Way! a little too seriously. I haven't blogged here since before Christmas.Yes, most of my family did explore viral gastroenteritis in January. That's another excuse. I knew it was sweeping through my daughter's grade school. I suspected that it came on quite suddenly when we were at her school's Winter Carnival, when a nine year old a few people in front of us in line lost his dinner. At least his dad hadn't paid for that second piece of pizza yet.And I've been busy shoveling snow. And putting plastic over our leaky windows. I'm glad to see the last of January.I have been reading. Here are a few notes on what I've been reading since the beginning of the new year:Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle, by Daniel L. EverettThis was a truly interesting book, if a little disjointed. The author combines an autobiographical account of his work as a missionary and a linguist among a group of Indians in Brazil (the Pirahã) with some classic ethnography and musings on linguistics theory, philosophy, and religion.The Pirahã are really different, both culturally and when it comes to language. If you want to read about about some people that think about life in a fundamentally different way, this is a good introduction. Sleep, ambition, raising children, numbers - wow. It's hard to wrap your mind around their worldview, but even the little we can comprehend makes you think about your own life choices - this one of those things that is most seductive about reading good anthropology. And Everett writes better than most anthropologists.Some might find the chapters on linguistics a little slow going (but if you've always wanted to read about Chomsky, Whorf, etc. this is a good introduction), but you can always just skim that and enjoy the parts about Everett's life and how the Pirahã change him. Whether their culture shaped their language or the language molds their lives is one of the points Everett discusses at some length.The title comes from a Pirahã belief that sleep is dangerous, too much will make you weak and vulnerable to jungle threats. They get up a lot in the middle of the night, poke the fire, bake a potato, eat something, chat, etc. - an eight hour stretch of sleep is unheard of in their villages.Right now I'm reading The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell. How is it that I've never read anything by her before? It's wonderful. Puritans and the Brady bunch and shining cities on hills. But why oh why didn't she use some chapter breaks? And an index? I'm halfway through the book and wondering if she is going to mention The Witch of Blackbird Pond (isn't that how most older girls of my generation learned about Puritan life?), and I can't check the index. Hmpf.Speaking of Newbery winners, I am still reading them for The Newbery Project. The most recent one (a re-read) was Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book, which was so good that until I started Sarah Vowell's book everything else suffered in comparison.[...]

Snow Day


Today was a snow day. My son missed a big math test and movie afternoon at school, and my daughter missed pajama-pizza-and holiday party day (but the first grade teachers sent a note home Thursday night reassuring their students that it would be rescheduled after school resumes in January).

Check out the drift on our garage roof. I'm glad we got that new roof in October (and if anyone's looking for a really reasonable recommendation for a roofer, I heartily recommend Tony's Roof Repair in Ann Arbor).


Currently Reading


I should blog about something besides books. Like "actual life" even, imponderable or not.

But not today! There's a snow storm coming tonight and tomorrow morning (the media are beside themselves with excitement. Will it be a snow day? Do you have enough ice melt, bread, milk, beer, and egg nog?) and I have stuff to do before it hits.

I did want to mention one of the books I'm reading now, though.

I'm really enjoying The Trouble Begins at 8: A Life of Mark Twain in the Wild, Wild West, by Sid Fleischman. It's on the short list of books that the "Mock Newbery Committee" is considering for the 2009 Newbery Awards (if you want to know more about that, check out this blurb I wrote on The Newbery Project). It's written for older kids, so its short chapters are the perfect length for reading in bits and pieces, but the vocabulary and syntax are not child-like in the least. I was thrilled to run across "farm sass" again (see the lengthy post I did on "garden sass" a few years ago), as in:

Meanwhile, the tightfisted wife of the publisher provided meals notable for their trifling portions. News of the great potato famine then raging in Ireland could not have escaped backwater Hannibal, and Sam must have felt himself to be a cosufferer. To sustain himself, Sam felt obliged to raid the cellar at night for potatoes and other farm sass taken in barter for subscriptions (p. 28).

I also learned that when he was in his 20's, the young Samuel Clemens planned to travel "to the headwaters of the Amazon and collect coca and trade in it and make a fortune" (p. 34), which is fun to know.

I don't think that Fleischman's biography is going to win the Newbery (only a couple of other biographies have won - one on Abraham Lincoln in 1988, and one of Louisa May Alcott in 1934) - but I'm happy to recommend it for older kids and adults alike. If you want a more critical review of the book, I recommend Wendy B.'s review on, because she said everything I was vaguely thinking but couldn't articulate.

If You Really Want a Snow Day...


(image) should wear your pajamas inside out and flush an ice cube down the toilet. This is what one of the neighborhood kids told my son last Sunday afternoon, anyway, when they were predicting 3-7 inches overnight, and everyone (except for a stay-at-home parent or two :-/) was really wishing for another day tacked on to the end of the Thanksgiving weekend.

I had never heard about this bit of childhood magic, so I went Googling and found an interesting link to an NPR story. An inquiry on the parenting board I frequent also turned up several instances of related rituals for getting a snow day, including licking a spoon and sleeping with it under your pillow, and putting a white crayon under your pillow (along with wearing your pajamas inside out or backwards). I wonder how far back these stories date? It's an interesting anthropological question, and if I had time I would check out something like this book on Rituals and Patterns in Children's Lives and see if it's in there, and what other childhood rituals (May baskets? dandelions under the chin? jump rope songs?) are in there.

My son who struggles with OCD expressed his disbelief in this particular ritual, and laughed about how funny it was, this "normative manifestation of compulsive behaviors found in typical development". Which is interesting - when it comes to real OCD, everyone else's rituals (including many group beliefs) are utterly bizarre. But your own idiosyncratic rituals, avoidances, etc. - no matter how illogical, those are different. You just never can tell with OCD, can you?*

Anyway, we got rain and then maybe an inch of snow, which quickly melted. The photo above is actually from last January.

*pun intended. I know very well it's the "doubting disease".

And Another "Year" Book!


Strangely enough, I finally got a book I've had wish-listed on for about a year (which is great for all those books you'd like to have, not borrow from the library, but are too cheap to buy right now on or - it's like getting a surprise present when one of these books gets listed.

Anyway, the book is Suburban Safari: A Year on the Lawn, by Hannah Holmes. And it fits right in with all the "year in the non-fiction life" memoirs I posted about last week.

Suburban Safari is an excellent book, by the way, full of the best kind of nature writing, by someone who understands that you don't have to travel to some pristine wilderness (as if ever there was such a thing, except maybe in the New World more than twenty-thousand years ago) to observe nature.

The Year of Reading "Year of Something" Memoirs


So I'm reading A.J. Jacobs' The Year of Living Biblically right now. An entertaining book, full of weird bits of knowledge about mixing linen and wool, praying, coveting, and other things I don't think about very much.

And it occurred to me that I've read a number of "I did something for a year" memoirs. And most of them were pretty enjoyable. In the last few years (ok, I fudged the post title a bit), I've read Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages, by Ammon Shea; Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen, by Julie Powell; Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, by Barbara Kingsolver; Gary Paul Nabhan's Coming Home to Eat: The Pleasures and Politics of Local Foods (note that Nabhan beat Kingsolver to the punch by a few years, and also refrained from the using the word year in his subtitle); and The Scavenger's Guide to Haute Cuisine, by Steve Rinella (what, no subtitle at all?).

And also: A Country Year: Living the Questions, by Sue Hubbell,
and The Outermost House: A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod, by Henry Beston (the oldest of this type of book I read, published in 1928). Whew, that's a lot of "year of something or other" books.

Rinella's book is the only one I've read that comes up in an entertaining article from the NYT Book magazine with the title "The Year I Stopped Shopping, Had Lots of Sex, Cooked Street Pigeon...", which I found by Googling "year of doing something memoirs".

Clearly, I need to do something....something different for a year and then write about it. But what?

From Abluvion to Zyxt (A Book Review of "Reading the OED")


Whenever we come upon one of those intensely right words in a book or a newspaper the resulting effect is physical as well as spiritual, and electrically prompt: it tingles exquisitely around through the walls of the mouth and tastes as tart and crisp and good as the autumn-butter that creams the sumac-berry. One has no time to examine the word and vote upon its rank and standing, the automatic recognition of its supremacy is so immediate.—Mark Twain, in William Dean Howells, 1906I love unusual words, especially words that are saturated with history, or words that describe something that I never realized had a word devoted to it (imponderabila, from Bronislaw Malinowski's Argonauts of the Western Pacific fits both criteria for me).I regularly read Michael Quinion's World Wide Words and WordSpy (adorkable! fauxmosexual!), check wordy books out of the library, and spend far too long rambling through the Internets searching for the origins of phrases like "garden sass" or "fall vs. autumn"- as you can tell if you click on the words label in my righthand sidebar. And I was thrilled when both the Saline District library and the AADL offered access to the Oxford English Dictionary online.So when I saw Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages, by Ammon Shea, I knew it was a book that I should check out. And I wasn't disappointed.The book is ordered alphabetically (duh), but it's not all words. Well, actually, it is all words, there are no pictures in it, but it isn't all definitions. The essays on dictionaries and reading them are wonderful in their own right:But what about all the things that you cannot do with the electronic version?You cannot drop the computer on the floor in a fit of pique, or slam it shut. You cannot leave a bookmark with a note on it in a computer and then come upon it after several years and feel happy you've found something you thought you had lost. You cannot get any sort of tactile pleasure from rubbing the pages of a computer. (Maybe some people do get a tactile pleasure from rubbing their computers, but they are not people I have any interest in knowing anything about.)....I've never looked across the room at my computer and fondly remembered things that I once read in it. I can while away hours at a time just standing in front of my books and relive my favorite passages merely gazing at their spines. I have never walked into a room full of computers, far from home, and immediately felt a warm familiarity come over me, the way I have with every library I've ever set foot in (p. 56-57).But on to Shea's favorite words! Here's the first entry in the A's:Abluvion (n.) Substances or things that are washed away.Chances are you have never stared at the dirty bathwater washing down the drain and wondered, Is there a word for that? but now you will forever be cursed with the knowledge that indeed there is (p. 5).My favorite in the A's, though is:Anonymuncule (n.) An anonymous, small-time writer.This delightful word is the result of combining anonymous with the Latin word homunculus ("little man"), p. 9.And constult! Why don't people use this word today? It's perfect:Constult (v.) To act stupidly togetherTaking part in an activity that is inordinately stupid just because one's friends are doing it is not the exclusive province of teenagers - it just seems that way.Shea has a wry voice, and seeing his opinions come through in the commentary on the definitions and his musings about libraries (public and personal[...]



I'm in Saline, on a fairly busy street. Do you think my pumpkin's more likely to get smashed if it has the "Yes We Can" or "No More Lies" design from the Yes We Carve site?

I like the fact that Obama's campaign people ask for a mere $5 contribution and encourage you to carve your pumpkin to show your support, though I'm not generally a fan of co-opting holidays for ideological purposes (see this post from Halloween three years ago, and this one). I'll probably stick with my bumper sticker and t-shirt for political purposes, and let the kids carve the traditional triangle eyed faces on their jack-o-lanterns.

Though I do think Obama's graphic artists' designs are way cooler than the McCain ones.

And if you'd like Tina Fey to come to Michigan (instead of Sarah Palin), check out this petition on the Michigan Democratic Party's website.

A Map of Home: Book Review


Since I haven't bothered to blog since last summer (and did so very rarely before that in this last year!), you should realize that if I'm getting on here just to plug a book, it must be really, really good. And it is. It is so very,very, good you should buy it now and find a way to get your copy signed by the author soon.A Map of Home, by Randa Jarrar, is the best book I've read in ages about being a rebellious teenager. Best book about it forever, maybe. And I've read a lot of books featuring teen angst, teen love, growing of age, the experience of being an immigrant, and dealing with dysfunctional families.If you read and enjoyed Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow by Faiza Guene, or The Glass Castle, by Jeanette Walls, or Stealing Buddha's Dinner, by Bich Minh Nguyen (hey, she lived in Ann Arbor for a while just like Jarrar!) then I think you'll like A Map of Home. Jarrar's novel reminded me of the best of all of these books in its honesty and in the heroine's ability to find humor and insight in the most unlikely places.It's funny, it's sweet, it's rude, it's geographically and historically interesting, and it's incredibly easy and just enjoyable to read. A Map of Home is the story of Nidali, who was born in Boston (to a pair of the most loud, stubborn, and memorable parents I think I've ever seen portrayed), who grew up in Kuwait before the first Gulf War, and who matured in Egypt and finally, finished high school in Texas. Check out Nidali's first reactions to Texas:I looked out of the car's window, mesmerized by the highway. Cars stayed in their lanes. They stopped at the traffic lights: here, these red and yellow and green circles were not mere suggestions or street decorations. The roads were clean. The graffiti on the inside of tunnels was pretty, like a well-tended flower. the air didn't smell of trash. A woman was crossing the street and no one appeared to offer her his luscious love bone. In the distance I saw lights from the city; they hovered over us like the personal illuminations of a hundred tiny angels (p. 215). I don't think the title A Map of Home was catchy enough, somehow (there seem to be a lot of rather highbrow books out there favor that the use of a map as a literary device, don't you think?), though I did enjoy how Jarrar used maps in the book. Not literally (although that's not a bad idea, maybe she could draw one herself for the paperback cover?), but literarily.My only regret is that I didn't read this book a few months ago, so I could have gone to her book signing in Ann Arbor a few weeks ago. But since Jarrar lives here, I hope she does another local one sometime. And I hope she is working on another novel right now. I'd love to read her take on marriage and motherhood.[...]