Friday, December 31, 2010

The Printz Award Winners: 2008

I've been plugging away at the list, using the cold weather as an excuse to stay inside and read while using the exercise bike rather than going outside to run. That means a little more reading time, and I've made it through the list of books from 2008 that the ALA deemed were those that "exemplify literary excellence in young adult literature."

Geraldine McCaughrean, The White Darkness
Honor books:
Judith Clarke, One Whole and Perfect Day
Stephanie Hemphill, Your Own, Sylvia: A Verse Portrait of Sylvia Plath
A.M. Jenkins, Repossessed
Elizabeth Knox, Dreamquake: Book Two of the Dreamhunter Duet

Clarke's One Whole and Perfect Day: Another Aussie makes the Printz list, with a book that didn't feel YA to me at all. Sure, the main character is a teen, a girl who feels like her family is totally crazy and hopes that maybe her grandfather's upcoming birthday party might be a chance to have something go right for a change. But her point of view isn't the only one: we get scenes from the point of view of her mother, her grandparents, her brother, her brother's girlfriend, her brother's girlfriend's mother (and father)—characters with a wide variety of ages and backgrounds. YA books are usually in the first person, and even when they aren't they're usually focused on one character's point of view. To include the thoughts of—gasp! adults, especially adult family members—seems really really unusual. That's not to say I didn't enjoy the book, it was fun and the characters were interesting, I'm just not sure how open most teens are to reading about the enemy's, er, their parents' or grandparents' side of things.

Hemphill's Your Own, Sylvia: The author labels this a "verse novel" that is based on the life of the poet Sylvia Plath, who famously committed suicide via gas oven at age 30, with her children in the next room. I've mostly known about the controversy surrounding her death and her legacy (her estate was controlled by her husband, poet Ted Hughes, from whom she was separated at the time of her suicide), and the whole kerfuffle turned me off of wanting to know more. Hemphill's verse novel/biography combines poems, sometimes in the style of Plath's own work, with brief explanations of the biographical facts behind the event described in the poem. The triumph of Hemphill's work is not just the wonderful poems which trace Plath's life and work, envisioning her and the people around her, but that it made me think I've been missing something. The poems moved me, both as verse and as story, and made me want to go to the library.

Jenkins's Repossessed: It seems like YA has been flooded with supernatural fiction over the past few years,  what with all the vampires, angels, werewolves, fairies, and other creatures starring in their own novels. This book features a demon—sorry, a fallen angel—who tires of tormenting souls in hell and decides to take a vacation on earth. He assumes the life of a slacker teen scheduled to be creamed by a bus, and discovers the fun of having a physical body, and the complexities of having feelings. After a few philosophical discoveries—has anyone noticed he's left Hell? does God pay attention anyway?—Kiriel leaves Earth behind, having tried to make a difference in a couple of people's lives. This book was a pleasant-enough read, but I didn't find it revelatory, having left that kind of philosophical angst behind during my own teen years.

Knox's Dreamquake: Although I had access to this book, I didn't think I could fairly judge it without reading the first volume, which was checked out of the library. Rather than wait, and postpone this blog entry weeks and weeks, I took my first pass for a while. Too bad; this fantasy looked interesting.

McCaughrean's The White Darkness: Wowee. I had no idea what this book was about when I cracked it open—I had some vague idea it might be a fantasy, given the dreamy-looking cover and the acclaimed British author's previous work in retelling myths—but it turned out to be a contemporary adventure set in Antarctica. The story is told by Sym, a 14-year-old Brit who is fascinated with both Antarctica and the polar explorer Lawrence "Titus" Oates,  who perished on Scott's fatal expedition in 1912. Sym feels estranged from her schoolmates, most of whom are obsessed with boys and clothes—we don't discover she is partially deaf until a few chapters into the book—and often talks to Titus in her head. When her "uncle" turns a weekend in Paris into a trip to Antarctica, Sym is thrilled at first. As she discovers more about her uncle's true intentions and his past relationship with her family, the novel turns into a terrifying, hallucinatory journey into the cold and the blinding white of Antarctica. It was an intense story of survival, and even if it did push the boundaries of disbelief in places, it was a fascinating portrayal of one of our planet's last frontiers.

So overall, I didn't think it was a great year for the Printz books. A couple of them I thought were interesting enough to read once, but kind of forgettable. The National Book Award winner from this year was Sherman Alexie's Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which I have read and do think will endure, while the runners-up included Sara Zarr's Story of a Girl, which I thought would speak more to teens, especially girls. Of the Printz books I read, I'd probably pick Hemphill's as my favorite ... but as a writer I may be inclined to favor books about writers.

I would say at this point I've only two more years of award-winners to read, but the 2011 awards will be announced in February, so I may not finish by then ... keep posted to see.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Photo of the Week--12/27/10

This building in Lucerne, Switzerland, was just cool: the Wasserturm ("water tower") in the middle of the Kapellbrücke (Chapel Bridge). The Kapellbrücke was built in the 14th century to help defend Lucerne from attacks, and is the oldest wooden covered bridge in Europe. The water tower is 140 feet tall and made of brick, so it has served not only as a water tower but as watch tower, treasury, and torture chamber (oooo!). A lot of European buildings have such interesting backgrounds just by virtue of existing for centuries, but we thought this one was extra intriguing. A tower! In the middle of a bridge! In the middle of a river! No wonder it's one of Switzerland's most popular tourist attractions.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Don't Fear the Springform

Another holiday, another party, another round of "Diane, this cheesecake is awesome!" Although I've always had a love for baked goods (for more evidence, see Cookie of the Month), it took me a while to attempt a cheesecake. Part of it might be that I was never that wild about cheesecake, having only been exposed to it in restaurants, where it was usually plain, dry, and accompanied by fruits I didn't really like. I have to admit, though, that a big reason I didn't attempt a cheesecake was the pan. That's right, I was intimidated by the springform.

I mean, look at it. It's got some kind of mechanism on the side. If it looks  complicated, I reasoned, it must be tricky to use. I bet the recipes must be tricky, too. Why should I bother to play around with tricky pans and tricky recipes when there are so many cookies and cakes I could make instead?

Well, I finally broke down and got one at the first Pampered Chef party I ever attended. You go to those things and eat the food or sample the wares and feel like you should buy something. I was living in England at the time and had a tiny oven, and the springform was cheaper than stoneware anyway, so I bought one. And lo! It wasn't that hard to use. And guess what? Fresh cheesecake, made with interesting flavors, is pretty damn tasty. I became a cheesecake baking fiend. So I am going to share some of my cheesecake baking tips with you, along with a recipe that never fails to get compliments.
  1. Digestive biscuits make a better crust/base than graham crackers. I learned this out of necessity, as  digestive biscuits are native to England while graham crackers are not. They are made from wheat flour and wholemeal, and have a denser, grittier texture than graham crackers. This makes them great for a cheesecake base, as they don't collapse under moisture like graham crackers do. I usually find them in the international section at the grocery store, or at specialty stores like Cost Plus World Market.
  2. You can reduce the fat/calorie content by judicious substitution: neufchatel or light cream cheese instead of the full-fat stuff, vanilla yogurt instead of sour cream. I've used all these with success, although you might need to adjust baking times (see number 4 below).
  3. I can't stress enough how much a real mixer can make the cheesecake. It's just too hard to get cream cheese blended by hand; a powerful stand mixer will take care of all those lumps. Making sure you let your cream cheese soften before mixing is helpful, too.
  4. Don't trust your recipe when it comes to baking times. I often have to leave my cheesecakes in for longer than recipes say to make sure that the center gets set. This time can be 10 or even 20 minutes longer than a recipe's baking time, but cheesecakes are so dense that it's hard to overbake them. Fail to bake them enough, though, and the center will be too gooey. (Not that anyone will complain, it still tastes great, but it's hard to serve a gooey cheesecake.)
  5. Experiment with flavors! I've had success with chocolate, Bailey's (or both!), peppermint/candy cane, pumpkin, cranberry, triple berry, M&Ms ... lots of things lend themselves to cheesecake, because the cream cheese base is so bland it mixes with any kind of flavor. I simply Google "cheesecake recipe" to find something new and interesting to try.
And now, one such Googled recipe that gets great results with a relatively simple instructions.

Cranberry Cheesecake with Walnut Crust
1½ cups graham cracker/digestive biscuit crumbs
½ cup finely chopped walnuts
¼ cup butter, melted
1 can (16 oz.) whole cranberry sauce
3 packages (8 oz. ea) cream cheese, softened
¾ cup granulated sugar
¼ cup flour
3 eggs
8 oz. dairy sour cream
2 t. vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 325F. Combine crumbs, walnuts, and butter. Firmly press crumb mixture into the bottom of a 9-in springform pan. Bake until golden, 5 or 6 minutes; remove from oven. Cool slightly. Spread with cranberry sauce and set aside.

Reduce oven temperature to 300F. Use mixer to beat cream cheese, sugar, and flour until smooth. Beat in eggs, sour cream, and vanilla until well-blended. Pour evenly over cranberry sauce. Bake until a knife insert1 to 1½ inches from edge comes out clean, about 1 hour [or longer, if necessary--D]. Turn off oven; leave the cheesecake in over with door ajar until top is firm to the touch, about 30 minutes. Cool on a wire rack about 1 hour. Cover and refrigerate until cold, about 4 hours. Just before serving, remove cheesecake from pan onto a serving plate.

Serve and receive compliment!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Photo of the Week--12/20/10

I chose this photo not so much because the building is that interesting in itself, although it is a pretty example of a British manor house. No, St. Michael's Mount is more interesting because of how it's situated. Take a look at the picture to the right: St. Michael's Mount is just off the Cornwall coast in a nice little bay. When the tide is in, as in this picture, it's an island. When the tide is out, you can walk from the mainland to the mount. That makes this building, and the little village at the base of the mount, much more interesting. Imagine how much work it must have been to get all the building materials up to the site! Although the St. Aubyn family has owned the mount since the mid-1600s, the National Trust manages visitors, so you can visit most of the island, either by boat or on foot. If you've ever seen the 1996 film version of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night with Helena Bonham Carter and Imogen Stubbs (and if you haven't, you should), you might recognize the island as the setting for Orsino's castle. We visited in 1999, and the mural/map along one building in the film was still visible. Cool.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Cookie of the Month: White-Chocolate Cherry Shortbread

I know, it's more like "Cookie of the Season," since I haven't had an entry in this series since August. Number one, I've just been that busy, and number two, I haven't had an occasion to make cookies. Okay, maybe I don't need an occasion to make cookies, but I definitely need somewhere to distribute them besides my house (and by extension, my hips). It's the holiday season, so I needed to bring something to my band's holiday concert. I had two requirements: I wanted something that looked pretty, and I wanted white chocolate. A little Googling and I found this recipe at the Better Homes & Gardens site:

½ cup maraschino cherries, drained and finely chopped*
2½ cups all-purpose flour
½ cup sugar
1 cup cold butter
12 oz. white chocolate baking squares with cocoa butter, finely chopped
(or be lazy like me and get chips)
½ teaspoon almond extract
2 drops red food coloring (optional)
2 teaspoons shortening
white nonpareils and/or red edible glitter (optional)

1. Preheat over to 325F. Spread cherries on paper towels to drain well. *I actually avoided this by using candied cherries instead. No draining, and they mixed in pretty well.

2. In a large bowl, combine flour and sugar. Using a pastry blender, cut in the butter until mixture resembles fine crumbs. Stir in drained cherries and 4 ounces (⅔ cup) of the white chocolate. Stir in almond extract and, if desired, food coloring. Knead mixture until it forms a smooth ball. It's surprising, how you start with a completely crumbly mix of stuff you think can't possibly hang together, but after a little kneading it turns out into a reasonably sticky dough, like you see in the picture here. I did use food coloring, although I think it formed a little ball and didn't spread very well throughout the dough, so I wouldn't use it again. You get enough red color from the cherries anyway.

3. Shape dough into ¾-inch balls. Place balls two inches apart on an ungreased cookie sheet. Using the bottom of a drinking glass dipped in sugar, flatten balls to 1-1½-inch rounds. Here's a silly question: what other kind of glass might you use besides a "drinking glass"? Is there any other kind of glass, and if so, would it really be suited for squishing dough? I don't think so. Anyway, this is what the cookies looked like pre-baking.

4. Bake in preheated oven for 10 to 12 minutes or until centers are set. Cool for 1 minute on cookie sheet. Transfer cookies to a wire rack and let cool. My baking time was about 12 minutes, although the cookies didn't get that golden tint you expect from shortbread. Perhaps they needed another minute or two, or perhaps they just won't get golden with all the stuff in the dough.

5. In a small saucepan, combine remaining 8 oz. white chocolate and the shortening. Cook and stir over low heat until melted. Normally when I melt chocolate for dipping, I do it in the microwave, 20 seconds at a time at half power. This time it didn't work, and I had to go to the saucepan method and add extra shortening. The shortening makes the chocolate smoother and more suitable for dipping.

6. Dip half of each cookie into chocolate, allowing excess to drip off. If desired, roll dipped edge in nonpareils and/or edible glitter. Place cookies on waxed paper until chocolate is set. Mmmmm, I broke out my various mixes of holiday decorations. You can see I had some with nonpareils and sugar, and some with holiday "evergreens and berries." Both types tasted equally yummy. The cherry flavor was subtle, the white chocolate sublime, and the toppings added an interesting texture. You could taste the shortbread base underneath the cherry and white chocolate, but the texture wasn't very like shortbread at all. These were very smooth, chewy cookies, pure shortbread tends to be crumbly; again, I couldn't tell whether this was due to the extra stuff in the shortbread, or whether they needed a couple more minutes baking time. In any case, these were extremely tasty, and even though we had four dozen left at home after taking some to the concert, they were consumed within a few days.

All in all, I take away a little for the texture and give these cookies a nom nom nom nom (4 of 5 noms).

Monday, December 13, 2010

Photo of the Week--12/13/10

I selected this photo of the Ingreja do Carmo in Lisbon not because of any particularly interesting architectural detail, but rather because the building exists in the first place. Of course you see the sky through the window, but if you look more closely you'll also see it peeking through the trees, too. That's a lot of sky to be seen, and that's because this church was damaged during the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, which some scientists estimate to have measured around 9.0 on the Richter scale. Besides killing between 10,000 and 100,000 people, the earthquake destroyed 85 percent of the buildings in Lisbon and caused tsunamis that were noted as far away as Cornwall, England (see next week's photo). This convent church had its roof collapse, destroying a 5000-volume library, and it was never rebuilt. It served briefly as a military billet, and now is an archaeological museum. Unfortunately it was close when we went to visit, so we only got this view from the outside; luckily it was still a fascinating view.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Printz Award Winners: 2007

It's been tricky finding time to read, but luckily I'd already read two of the books on the 2007 list that "exemplify literary excellence in young adult literature," according to the American Library Association. It was an outstanding year for Printz books.

Gene Luen Yang, American Born Chinese
Honor books:
M.T. Anderson, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol. 1: The Pox Party
John Green, An Abundance of Katherines
Sonya Hartnett, Surrender
Marcus Zusak, The Book Thief

Anderson's Octavian Nothing, Vol. 1: This is an extraordinary historical novel set during the American Revolution, with its title character not a rebel or a loyalist, but a slave. The story is told through diary entries and letters, all with a formal language that enhances the historical feel. Octavian's story is told in four parts, and that's how I consumed the novel. The first part was fascinating, as we see Octavian's childhood growing up as an experiment in a research college. He is taught Latin and Greek and music (and has his poop weighed every day), while his mother, an African princess, is treated like a lady. Of course he has a gradual discovery of what their slavery really means, especially after smallpox ravages the college and his mother dies in part two. Part three covers his escape to rebel forces, and part four his recapture. The depth of the character and story kept building with each part I finished, and I eagerly turned to Vol II. You'll have to wait for the 2009 reviews for that one, sorry. (Octavian Vol. 1 also won the National Book Award for Children's Literature.)

Green's An Abundance of Katherines: Green floored me with his dark Printz-winning debut, and I enjoyed his second novel just as much, although it had a completely different tone. Colin, the narrator, is a former child math prodigy who has been dumped by 19 girls named Katherine. The later dumping has occured after high-school graduation and Colin, afraid he will never demonstrate any genius again, goes on a road trip with his friend Hassan. They end up in Tennesee and take a job for a woman who owns a tampon-string factory, and Colin discovers mathematical formulae cannot substitute for (or explain) love. I loved the comic tone of the book, which used footnotes and other asides to enhance the humor, and although I'm not thrilled with Green's reliance on the manic pixie dream girl archetype, I really enjoyed the novel. The nerd jokes were right up my alley.

Hartnett's Surrender: This novel by an Australian author really floored me. I'm not sure how to describe it without ruining the story, because it's a psychological thriller that's more of a mystery than a pure thriller. At least I can give you the opening setup: a young man named Gabriel lies dying, wondering if his old childhood friend Finnegan will visit him before the end and bring his dog, Surrender. Years before, back when Gabriel was known as Anwell and was involved in a horrible tragedy, the two boys made a pact: Anwell/Gabriel would embody the good for the two boys, and Finnegan the bad. Now that human bones have been discovered in a forest nearby, however, things start to unravel, leading to a surprising and violent climax. The mystery was engaging and the resolution, and although it's the kind that gives more questions than answers, was very satisfying. It's a haunting book that stays with you.

Zusak's The Book Thief: Another gem of a book from Australia (and again much different than his previous Printz honoree), this story set in Nazi Germany and narrated by Death hit bestseller lists around the world. Death is fascinated by young Liesel, whom he first encounters when her young brother dies on a trip when the two siblings are being taken to live with foster parents. During the trip she steals her first book, a guide for gravediggers, and her new foster father teaches her to read using the book. She is soon stealing books from book burnings and the mayor's house, reading and writing being a way for her to cope with the increasingly difficult conditions under the Nazi regime. She has two other encounters with Death, who at the end notes "I am haunted by humans" like Liesel. Even if you think you have fatigue with WWII/Holocaust stories, this one is so powerful and hopeful—attesting to the eternal power of words—that I think you would enjoy it.

Yang's American Born Chinese: The winner this year was actually a graphic novel, a field that's always been popular with YAs, but only lately has branched out to broader topics. This novel is three related stories in one, beginning with the trouble young Jin Wang, son of Chinese immigrants, is having in assimilating into his American school. The second story builds on the Chinese folk character of the Monkey King, who in the book keeps accumulating power to prove he is more than just a monkey. The third story is presented like a television sitcom starring Danny, a blond American teen who keeps changing schools every time his Chinese cousin Chin-Kee, an amalgam of Asian stereotypes, comes to visit. As the novel bounces back and forth between the three stories, we see the connections as each character struggles to define their identities without denying their origins. I thought it was very cleverly presented, although I didn't find it that revelatory, being somewhat far removed from my own teenage struggle for identity (ie, old and irrelevant). I certainly can see why it's considered a groundbreaker in graphic novels for young people, although there has been great work in the genre for years.  (American Born Chinese was also a National Book Award finalist, and won an Eisner Award for Best Graphic Album: New.)

So all in all, a superlative year for YA literature, and I would be hard pressed to choose a favorite among these books. I suppose it would depend on my mood, because there was something for my inner history, math, and book-loving geeks, and they're not very good at fighting it out.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Photo of the Week--12/6/10

In July 1999 we rented a car and drove around the northwest part of Ireland, and in County Galway we found this cute little castle, Aughnanure. It's not a huge complex, like you generally think of when you hear the word "castle," but rather a "tower house," a defensive structure that was designed to defend a key strategic location. There are a couple hundred of these "castles" in County Galway, and Aughnanure lies near Lough Corrib, the second largest lake in Ireland, and near enough to the city of Galway to be an important water supply. As you can see, the castle was in a bit of disrepair, although thankfully it was sturdy enough for us to climb the ruins. Because if you're going to visit a ruined castle, you should at least be able to climb around it like a bunch of monkeys and play hide and seek.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Fashion Math: When does 526 not equal 526?

I haven't been posting in the blog much lately, owing to a pressing deadline last week, another upcoming deadline in two weeks, and preparing for the holiday season. (Which in my family begins with Thanksgiving, an entire four-day weekend devoted to my two favorite sins, Gluttony and Sloth.) Being so busy might account for my pissy mood, but maybe it's because I haven't been venting my spleen on the blog. Lucky you! You're going to get a whole series of rants!

Today's rant concerns my most recent annoyance: stupid wracking-fracking-sacking women's clothing companies. I complained a couple of years ago about the frustrating phenomenon of vanity sizing, which makes it difficult to figure out what size to get when you're trying on clothes. I've lost 10-15 pounds since that original post, which is great, but it has made finding my size more difficult, as it's now the lowest women's size available in many stores. (I do not have junior hips, I gotta shop in misses.) When it comes to jeans, I have to try things on in different sizes, owing to cut, style, brand, etc. I was so happy when I found a jean that fit me perfectly, a Levi's 526 model. I got one pair of the single color they had in my size, and wished they had the other color, but oh well. When I returned to the store a couple months later, they now had corduroys in the 526 style. I tried them on, and they fit perfectly ... but they only had golden-brown, not the black I coveted, and of course the dark blue jeans still weren't available in my size. Grrrrr.

Then I saw a sign! Use our online kiosk for more colors and sizes! Shipping free! I toddled over and yes! Found the black! Found the oceana blue! Got them on sale, with a coupon, shipped right to my house! I was excited, until I tried them on. The black cords were great—fit just as perfectly as the others—but the dark blue jeans were a little tight. I washed them, thinking maybe the fabric was just stiff, but I ended up with a pair of jeans that went on like I was wearing a girdle. Dang, I thought, I got a bad one. Sometimes it happens, things get mis-sized or mislabeled. I would just have to go to the store, find my size, try it on, and then exchange.

I went to store number one. Of course, they didn't have my size in the dark blue jean. They didn't even have it in the light blue jean I already had. I went to the service counter with my sad story, and they offered to check the item with nearby branches. The one a couple miles south had not one but two in my size, so I thought I'd go try them on. At store number two, I grabbed both of my size, one in each color, and headed to the changing rooms. As I slid the dark blue ones over my legs, I got an uncomfortable feeling ... this time I could barely get the damn things around my hips, and forget about buttoning them! The light blue ones, however, fit perfectly. WTF? Being stubborn, I went out and got the next size up in the dark blue, along with two sizes of two other dark blue styles. Of course, the higher size of the 526 was too big in the waist (my usual hip-waist ratio problem), while the other models were cut differently and didn't fit in either size.

The other models not fitting doesn't bother me so much; of course different styles will have different cuts and different hip-waist ratios and other things which mean they won't fit me well, but some other woman will love them. But why oh why, dear Levi's, would you label two pairs of jeans with the same model number and not have them fit exactly the same? I could have understood it if there was a big difference between the cords and the denim, because the two fabrics have different weaves and give in different ways. But to have such a big difference between two pairs, both made of denim? I think you're deliberately trying to drive the American female crazy. At least, after chasing those stupid jeans around town, I feel crazy enough to throttle some fashion designer somewhere.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Photo of the Week--11/29/10

I chose this picture of the Palais de Chaillot, on the site of the former Trocadero Palace, because I liked how wild the fountains were. We were there on a sunny spring day, but it wasn't that warm, so I don't know why they had the large fountains spewing mist all over everything. It still made for a pretty picture ... although that didn't require much skill, as most pictures taken in Paris are pretty.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Photo of the Week--11/22/10

Barcelona, what a beautiful city! Many of its sights were designed by the architect Antonio Gaudí, including the extraordinary cathedral known as the Sagrada Familia ("Holy Family"). Even from a distance, it's a striking  sight, with its conical towers reaching into the sky. I took this close-up because I was fascinated by the detail work, which covers the entire building. I especially liked the colors of the stained glass.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Photo of the Week--11/15/10

One of the things I loved about visiting Malta was the variety of buildings and sites on this Mediterranean island. This is the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Mnajdra, a megalithic temple complex that dates to sometime around 3500 BC. We weren't there for an equinox to witness the sun lighting up one specific doorway, or for a solstice, when the sun lights up flanking megaliths, but we could climb around the complex, see the limestone megaliths and benches, and otherwise envision the place in its original setting. You can see there isn't any visitor center, or guard rails, or anything else to get in the way of the imagination—at least, there wasn't in 1999, when we visited. Now, I believe there is a tent to prevent further erosion, and guard ropes to direct tourist traffic. But when we visited we were the only ones there, and it was easy to imagine yourself in the middle of an ancient culture.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Printz Award Winners: 2006

The pace of fall hasn't slowed any, but I have with a twisted ankle ... meaning instead of running, walking, or TKD I've been using the exercise bike. I can read while I bike, and I've  made it through the books from 2006 that "exemplify literary excellence in young adult literature," according to the American Library Association.

John Green, Looking for Alaska
Honor books:
Margo Lanagan, Black Juice
Marilyn Nelson, A Wreath for Emmett Till
Elizabeth Partridge, John Lennon: All I Want Is the Truth, a Photographic Biography
Markus Zusak, I Am the Messenger

Lanagan's Black Juice: This collection of short stories from an Australian writer was trippy, wild, imaginative, and right up my alley. The author used all different kinds of fantastic settings, but only one was what you might think of as traditional fantasy, with a medieval-type setup. Sometimes it took a little patience to figure out the setting—one was futuristic punk, one seemed an African or aboriginal setting, one I didn't know how to describe—but they were all worth it. Lanagan creates snapshots of wildly different worlds, all with something interesting and powerfully moving at the center. I gobbled this book up very quickly. (Black Juice also won two World Fantasy Awards, for best collection and best short story for "Singing My Sister Down.")

A Wreath for Emmett Till: I'd heard of this book before, and was familiar with the subject—the fourteen-year-old African American boy who was murdered in Mississippi in 1955—but I didn't know that Nelson's book was actually a cycle of 15 interlinked sonnets, a form called a heroic crown. The last line of the first sonnet made up the first line of the second sonnet, etc etc, until the 15th sonnet, which is made up of the first lines of the previous fourteen. The format itself is impressive—especially when you see the first lines of the last sonnet spell out "RIP Emmett Till"—but the poetry is just as exhilarating. She uses imagery from popular culture, mythology, and history; links the hate of lynching to the attacks of 9/11, imagining a grown up Till becoming a hero in the towers; and calls for an end to hate. I read the book through once, then again with the notes the author includes at the end, explaining some of her references, and was thoroughly impressed. This book should be read not just by kids who need to understand the civil rights era, but by kids who don't think they like poetry. It's a wonderful, wonderful book, and the first thing I wanted to do after finishing it was share it with someone else. (A Wreath for Emmett Till also won a Coretta Scott King Honor citation from the ALA.)

Partridge's John Lennon: this heavily illustrated biography was one of the books that has led a renaissance of sorts in nonfiction for kids, as it seems lately there is at least one nonfiction book (if not more) that scores a major honors every year. And this is a very appealing book, liberally supplied with photos, that tells the story of Lennon's life from the time he was born until his murder in 1980. As someone who writes a lot of nonfiction, I really admire Partridge's judicious use of historical context, giving us just enough history to understand the events in Lennon's life without interrupting the flow of the story. The  structure is simple, the pacing quick, and the subject compelling, making for a good read for any age.

Zusak's I Am the Messenger: this novel by an Australian novelist felt more like what they're now calling "new adult" literature rather than "young adult," as the main character, Ed, is out of high school and struggling to find purpose in his life. Chance seemingly sets him on a new path when he inadvertently thwarts a bank robbery, leading someone to send him playing cards in the mail with strange messages. The cards set Ed a series of tasks in which he is to help people, sometimes by directly intervening in their lives and sometimes just taking small actions that send a powerful message. Ed is an interesting character, and his struggle was compelling reading, but as the novel progressed and he learned more about who was sending him the cards, I found the story taking a metafictional turn that I found irritating. It was an entertaining read, but left me slightly unsatisfied at the end. (I Am the Messenger also won the Children’s Book Council of Australia Book of the Year Award.)

Green's Looking for Alaska: This novel, I think, was another game-changer in YA fiction, for its frank depiction of teenage "misbehavior." At the very least it introduced an incredible new voice in the genre. The "Alaska" of the title is not the state, but a girl that Miles "Pudge" Halter meets soon after starting classes at an Alabama boarding school. Alaska is wild and mysterious and Pudge is soon head over heels ... but the relationship doesn't last (because of a twist I won't reveal), and he and his friends are left trying to piece together why. The book has often been challenged by censors for its portrayal of teenage sex, smoking, cursing, and drinking—but none of these behaviors are gratuitous, and we see the consequences of the characters' poor choices, so these elements only strengthen the emotional honesty and power of the novel. I read this novel last year, and quickly sought out Green's other books.

So how might I have voted among this books? I have to say that I thought this year's finalists the strongest across the board since the first year of the Printz Award, and it would have been a hard decision. But I think Alaska is likely to be the longest lasting of the bunch, so I think I would have had to agree with the panel.

Can I manage to get to 2007 by the end of the month? I'm certainly going to try ... only four years of the award left to cover, and I'd like to get there by the end of the year.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Photo of the Week--11/8/10

So many fountains in Rome ... so lots of opportunities to get shots like this one, with the Pantheon in the back.  I liked the lighting and how it made the features of the sculptures stand out in relief (those teeth!), with the huge columns of the Pantheon gently glowing in the background. We took this trip in early 1999, when Boy was almost five, and we were traveling with my parents and my grandmother, who was making her first trip to Europe at age 83. It was the end of a long day traveling from Florence, so Boy took a nap with his grandparents while TSU and I had a nice relaxing drink at a cafe by the side of the Pantheon. This wonderful  view from our table was the icing on the cake of having a little time to ourselves in a beautiful city.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Photo of the Week--11/1/10

I'm going back through my various vacation photos and pulling out those pics of interesting buildings or details. This photo is of one of the doors of the Florence Baptistery, an octagonal building across the plaza from the massive Duomo cathedral and the Campanile (bell tower) di Giotto. The Baptistery has three sets of these bronze doors, including this relief by Lorenzo Ghiberti depicting various Old Testament stories. Actually, my manservant Patsy is whispering that these are only copies, as the originals are now hidden away to protect them from further damage by exposure outdoors. Still, very impressive artwork, which took the artist and his workshop 27 years to produce. I can't imagine spending that much time on a single project, but it might be worth it for something that lasted this long!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Printz Award Winners: 2005

It's taken me a while, but I've finally made it through the books from 2005 that "exemplify literary excellence in young adult literature," according to the American Library Association.

Meg Rosoff, how i live now
Honor books:
Kenneth Oppel, Airborn
Allan Stratton, Chanda's Secrets
Gary D. Schmidt, Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy

Oppel's Airborn: I don't know where I've been that I hadn't heard of this guy's work before, but this fantasy novel was right up my alley. It's set on an alternative Earth where zeppelins are the dominant form of travel, and follows the adventures of Matt Cruse, a cabin boy on one of the spaceships. These adventures include rescuing a damaged air balloon, encountering pirates, crashing on a lost island, and discovering a new species of winged creature. Although the adventure is great fun, it's Matt's relationship with his co-discoverer, Kate de Vries, and his struggle to finally accept his father's loss that make this a great read. (Airborn also won the Canadian Governor-General's Award for Children's Literature.)

Stratton's Chanda's Secrets: Another Canadian author, a completely different genre. Set present-day in an unnamed African nation, the novel follows teenager Chanda as she tries to unravel many of the secrets that surround her family and friends. She doesn't really have secrets of her own, except that she suspects the truth about her mother's illness: HIV/AIDS, the initials no one around her will discuss even though it is ravaging her neighborhood. Omigod, you may be thinking, AIDS in Africa, this is one of those "issue novels." But it isn't, really, because Chanda is a real character and we learn about how the disease affects her family and her country through her experiences, not through any lectures. The facts are dire, but the ending is hopeful, making for a satisfying read.

Schmidt's Lizzie Bright: Oh, how I wanted to love this book. Schmidt is a Michigan author, and I enjoyed his more recent Newbery Honor book, The Wednesday Wars. And Lizzie is a historical novel with an unusual setting—an island town off the coast of Maine in 1912—something that usually hooks me right away. And it's not that I didn't like the characters (a minister's son who feels he doesn't measure up, an African American girl from a nearby island who befriends him) or enjoy the writing. But somehow every time I put the book aside, I wasn't in any hurry to pick it up again. And as I got further into the story, I understood why: because the novel is based on real events, I knew it wasn't going to end well. Bad things were going to happen to these nice characters—really bad things. Worse things than I'd imagined, really. So while the story was interesting, and built tension, and developed all the characters (even some initially "bad" ones), I wasn't in the mood to read the sad (but admittedly logical) ending. Excellent book, just not what I wanted to read just then. (Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy also earned a Newbery Honor citation.)

Rosoff's how i live now: I'd actually read this a year or two ago, because the premise sounded so intriguing: an American girl is visiting relatives in the English countryside when war breaks out and she and her cousins are left alone to manage on their own. I love post-war/apocalypse stories (maybe I'll blog about that later), and this one was very enjoyable, with a different angle (the teen in a foreign country) I hadn't seen before. The voice was very strong in this first-person narrative, and so Rosoff could break all sorts of rules that writers are always told to follow, the main one being "show don't tell." Her narrator, Daisy, relates the whole story from her own point of view, and so there's little dialogue (except what she summarizes) and many scenes she's telling second-hand. While normally I'd get annoyed when someone breaks this rule, Daisy's voice was so strong and compelling that I didn't really notice. In addition, the story itself goes along at breakneck pace, and Daisy's growth as a character is natural and organic. It was an extremely entertaining book, even the second time around, when I knew what was going to happen.

So how I would have voted this year? I'm not ashamed to admit the two genre books were my favorites, and I think the fierce, original voice of Rosoff tips the scales in her favor. Again, it's interesting to note that as in 2004, there was no overlap between the Printz and the National Book Award lists. This, although three of the five books (but not the winner) were for young adults. But if I were to read all those as well, I'd never get to the end of these posts! I'm making progress on 2006, already, so look for that in a couple of weeks.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Photo of the Week--10/25/10

When we visited Amsterdam in the fall of 1998, I had to get a shot of this boat. Amsterdam is noted for its, er, enlightened attitude toward the cannibis plant, and I'm sure there are tourists who go there just to experience it. As we were traveling with a 4-year-old and I'm an asthmatic, it didn't have any appeal, but this boat was too funny to resist. I'm not sure how the folks at Disney would feel about Aladdin's genie and Donald Duck cavorting about with weed  ... or maybe that explains a lot about their behavior, like why Donald never wears pants.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Photo of the Week--10/18/10

Boy, I have been writing this blog for quite some time ... long enough to go through all our vacation photos and post two from each one. I'm going back to the beginning again, and this time instead of the best photo, or one featuring the family, I'm going to look for weird and wonderful buildings. This is Clifford's Tower in York, England. It's the keep of York Castle, which was destroyed and rebuilt several times between its erection in 1068 and the British Civil War of the mid-1600s. The mound on which it sits is artificial, so the Tower really stands out, especially as you wander the scenic city walls which wend their way through the city.

Friday, October 15, 2010

It's not that I'm not writing...

... it's that I'm not writing for you. You may have noticed the pace of my blog entries has slowed down quite a bit in recent months. I started this blog in June 2008, back when I was focusing on my fiction and only taking the occasional freelance job. Then TSU and I looked at the bank accounts, looked at number on Boy's varsity jacket ('12), and decided I needed to step it up. In 2009 my invoices totalled nearly three times my total from 2008; it looks like 2010 will be another 35% more than 2009. I've been a busy freelancer, finally feeling like the popular girl everybody loves.

Sadly, my fiction has been taking a back seat. And I was okay with that for a while; one of my manuscripts was getting good feedback—almost-but-not-quite positive responses from editors and agents—and I was content to let it sit there with a "maybe." I did manage to barf out a first draft of a novel during NaNoWriMo last year, as well as three "chapters" of a middle grade novel (since abandoned ... for now), but I wasn't as regular as I had been.

I've decided that has to change. After attending a couple of conferences with really helpful workshops, I'm ready to get out there again. Novel #1 needs a little tweaking to the plot and it already has an editor who's a good candidate for submission (she used the plot summary as an example of "what works" in a workshop). Novel #2 needs more character development; I've been brainstorming some things, and will be making notes in a journal so I can go back and do some heavy revising at some time in the future. Novel #3, which came out of the NaNoWriMo, is undergoing major revisions, but I'm having fun playing with the structure and exploring the characters. Fitting those projects in among my paying jobs, my teaching, and my volunteer work is proving pretty challenging, but I'm going to manage it. One of the ways I'll manage is by making the blog take a back seat. I'll keep posting my weekly photos, but you'll be lucky if you get more than one extra entry per week. I'm running out of craft projects to share and I don't have time to bake more cookies, let alone room in my diet! I know my legions dozens handful of readers will be disappointed relieved, but you gotta write what you're passionate about ... and since I woke up before my alarm today thinking about revisions, not blog entries, that's where I'm going to be writing most days.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Photo of the Week--10/11/10

Although we've traveled to various places around the world, some of the loveliest scenery is found right in our Michigan backyard. We took a trip up to the northern lower peninsula last summer, and this photo of Lake Michigan was taken not far from the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. If my hair looks a little bedraggled in this photo, it's because earlier that day we climbed the dunes and walked all the way—3.5 miles round trip through the sand—to the lakeshore and back. It was worth it for views similar to this one!

Thursday, October 7, 2010

My work here is done...

Like a lot of people, I'm fascinated by the weird and wonderful wildlife found around our planet. So I was really interested when I heard/read a story about a recent survey of deep-sea creatures and the new species they had found. I love reading about new species—it's a reminder that there's always something left to discover, even if you think you know it all—and besides, new species are usually some of the freakiest-looking creatures you've ever laid eyes on.

I was really impressed by this recently discovered hydromedusa jellyfish, Bathykorus bouilloni, that they had nicknamed the "Darth Vader Jellyfish." (I'd reproduce the photo here but it's copyrighted, so here's a link to the National Geographic pic.) This critter was a jellyfish that looked like Darth Vader's helmet, round on the top with that crazy flared brim at the bottom. I shared this fact with Boy, since I thought he might find it amusing (and yes, I'll admit I'm desperate to have a conversation with him that elicits more than a grunt).

ME: "Oh, did you hear about that new jellyfish they're calling the Darth Vader jellyfish? It kinda looks like his helmet."
BOY: "Is it black?"
ME: "No, it's white, but it really has the same shape."
BOY: "If it's white they should call it a Stormtrooper jellyfish."
ME: "Stormtrooper helmets aren't the same shape. They don't have that flared thingy at the bottom."
BOY: "But the Vader helmet is based on Stormtrooper helmets."
ME: "????"

Every parent hopes that some day their children will grow up to share their interests and values. Yesterday I had a pointless, nerd-tastic argument with my son involving science fiction trivia. I think I've done my job!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

2010 Book Report: Third Quarter

The quest continues to read 100 books in 2010; I was one behind halfway through the year, so did I catch up during a lazy summer, or get slowed down by the crazy fall? Here's my list of this quarter's reading.

Key: C: Children's; F: Fantasy; H: Historical; Hr: Horror; M: Mystery; MG: Middle Grade (ages 8-12); NF: Nonfiction; P: Poetry; SF: Science Fiction; SS: Short Stories; YA: Young Adult (age 13+); *not in the last ten years at least; ^read for work.

07/02/10: David Almond, Skellig (YA, 2)
07/03/10: Walter Dean Myers, Monster (YA, 1)
07/03/10: Lois McMaster Bujold, The Sharing Knife: Beguilement (F, 4)
07/04/10: Bujold, The Sharing Knife: Legacy (F, 4)
07/05/10: Bujold, The Sharing Knife: Passage (F, 3)
07/07/10: Bujold, The Sharing Knife: Horizon (F, 2)
07/08/10: Ellen Wittlinger, Hard Love (YA, 1)
07/09/10: Louise Rennison, Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging (YA, 1)
07/11/10: Carol Plum-Ucci, The Body of Christopher Creed (YA, M, 1)
07/12/10: John Green and David Levithan, Will Grayson, Will Grayson (YA, 1)
07/13/10: Lois McMaster Bujold, The Curse of Chalion (F, 5)
07/16/10: Bujold, Paladin of Souls (F, 4)
07/17/10: David Brin The Practice Effect (SF, 5 or 6*)
07/19/10: Chris Lynch, Freewill (YA, 1)
07/21/10: Peter Dickinson, The Ropemaker (YA, F, 1)
07/21/10: Virginia Euwer Wolff, True Believer (YA, 1)
07/22/10: An Na, A Step from Heaven (YA, 1)
07/24/10: John Joseph Adams, editor, Federations (SF, SS, 1)
07/25/10: Terry Trueman, Stuck in Neutral (YA, 1)
07/27/10: David Almond, Kit's Wilderness (YA, 1)
07/29/10: Virginia Euwer Wolff, Make Lemonade (YA, 1)
07/31/10: Garret Freymann-Weyr, My Heartbeat (YA, 1)
08/03/10: Sara Zarr, Story of a Girl (YA, 1)
08/05/10: Nancy Farmer, House of the Scorpion (YA, SF, 3)
08/07/10: Jack Gantos, Hole in My Life (YA, memoir, 1)
08/09/10: Aidan Chambers, Postcards from No Man's Land (YA, 1)
08/13/10: Lois McMaster Bujold, The Hallowed Hunt (F, 3)
08/14/10: Carolyn Mackler, The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things (YA, 1)
08/18/10: Jennifer Donnelly, A Northern Light (YA, 1)
08/21/10: K. L. Going, Fat Kid Rules the World (YA, 1)
08/22/10: Angela Johnson, The First Part Last (YA, 1)
09/02/10: Simon Winchester, A Crack in the Edge of the World (NF, 1)
09/03/10: Allan Stratton, Chanda's Secrets (YA, 1)
09/16/10: Suzanne Collins, Mockingjay (YA, SF, 1)

Total for the quarter: 34 books, mostly read in July and August—so I've had both the lazy summer and the crazy fall. With 83 books total through three quarters, I'm definitely on target for 100 for the year, although I'll have to do a lot better than September's 3-book pace or I'll fall short. Most of the books I read this quarter were young adult novels, for my Printz Award project, although I did sneak in a couple of series by my favorite author as well as a lone nonfiction work.

So what was my favorite book for the quarter? Looking back over the list, there isn't one that strikes me as amazing or life-changing, but there was one I greatly admired as a writer, and that was Chris Lynch's Freewill. The more I think about his experiment with the second-person narrator ("you look around and see..."), the more impressed I am with its execution. He took something that could have been tiresome and experimental and made it integral to the plot and characterization. I think anyone curious about writing techniques should read it.

Check back in three months for my year-end survey, to see whether I made my 100-book goal.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Photo of the Week--10/3/10

During our crossing of the Drake Passage on the way to Antarctica in early 2008, we attended several lectures on the kinds of wildlife we could expect to see there. Seals and whales and all sorts of marine birds, including, of course, penguins. There were three kinds we could expect to see, our expert told us: the Adelie (crazy-eye), the chinstrap, and the gentoo. The beautiful Emperors would be occupied far south of us with breeding, and the king penguin, which is smaller but has similar coloring, was usually found north of our location, on the subantarctic chains like the Falklands. Imagine our surprise, then, when at our first stop we encountered this very lost king penguin on the beach among a whole bunch of chinstrap and Adelie penguins. He hung out on the beach as we traveled the island; I think he knew he was the subject of much admiration. He didn't even mind the paparazzi as they took pictures; here he posed specially with the two of us (at a reasonable distance away, of course).

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Crafting How-Tos: Turn a rug into a wall hanging

I may have mentioned earlier that part of my going crazy at the end of this summer was because I spent a lot of time remodeling my dining room. It wasn't that the dining room was hideously ugly or out of date or not to my taste—I chose the carpet and curtains, after all—but it was the preferred site for my former feline's misbehaviors. So the carpet had an unfortunate aroma and needed to be replaced. We decided to install bamboo flooring, and so while the floor was bare, why not paint as well?

In choosing the new color scheme, I decided to take my inspiration from a beautiful silk rug we purchased during a visit to Turkey. Because of  prior unfortunate feline encounters, however, we decided the rug should be displayed on the wall, not the floor, safe from our cats' unerring ability to aim their vomit at the most difficult place to clean. The rug was only around 27x48 inches and weighed less than five pounds, making it a good candidate for a velcro mounting. I read on the interwebz that many museums prefer the velcro method, and it looked like a relatively easy thing I could do myself. Just sew a strip of velcro to the back of the carpet; attach the other side of velcro to a board; mount the board on the wall; and voila! Let the velcro work its magic!

These were the materials I used:

  • 2-inch wide velcro, the width of my rug
  • a wooden board, same width, that could be screwed into the wall
  • enough undyed muslin to back the velcro and cover the board
  • heavy upholstery/carpet thread in a color to blend with the rug
  • a darning needle
  • staple gun and staples

The muslin was necessary to protect the carpet from touching the velcro, untreated wood, or staples, possibly causing discoloration. So the first step was to sew the fuzzy side of the velcro to a piece of muslin. There should be around a quarter-inch of overlap on each side, and you can see my math went a little fuzzy and I ended up with a very small margin around my velcro. It was enough to hand-stitch it to the carpet, however, and that was the most labor-intensive part of the process. I very painstakingly used a darning needle and heavy upholstery thread to attach my velcro strip to the rug. I placed a stitch every three to four knots, and at around 16 knots per linear inch, that meant four to five stitches per inch. When placing the needle, I had to seek out the natural gaps in the weaving, and keep the stitches from crossing rows and becoming visible. Bending the carpet helped me find these spaces, and you can see from the next pictures that this careful placement helped the stitches disappear:

Yes, the stitches were that small.
I very carefully drew the thread to the other side...
... and poof! The thread is invisible!
It took me several hours and one very sore thumb, but I got the strip attached to the back of the carpet, as you see in the initial photo. Putting the velcro and muslin on the wooden board was much easier. I took out my trusty staple gun (used previously to recover the dining room chairs) and sproing! snap! bam! I had a board ready for mounting on the wall.

That's when I turned things over to TSU. Along with other important jobs, like Killing Ceiling Spiders and Changing Light Bulbs, he is in charge of Putting Things Up On Walls. He has special tools and it makes him feel useful. In this case he even took out little pieces of muslin before screwing the board in, then glued the muslin on top of the screws so they wouldn't touch the carpet.

All that was left was to put the two velcro parts together. It did take me a few tries and a level to get the carpet hanging exactly how I wanted it, and then I had to use a string to get the fringe on the top to flip behind the edge of the carpet, rather than hang down all willy-nilly. But that required minor effort, and the result was majorly cool!

Oooo, pretty, shiny carpet on the wall! See how the teal-ish accents in the carpet are picked up by the light blue paint? My cats will have to work extremely hard to try to vomit on this baby!

I was very pleased with how this turned out, considering it was something I'd never tried doing before. I don't think it would work with the 4x6-foot carpet we have, as it's too heavy, but in that case the carpet has turned into a sofa drape, visible yet somewhat protected from our varmints.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Photo of the Week--9/27/10

We had most of a day to ourselves in Ushuaia, which purports to be the most southernmost city (not village) in the world. It's nestled in the foothills along the tail end of the Andes Mountains, and we took a little jaunt up into these foothills, where the glaciers were starting to melt in the southern summer. It was cloudy but still a beautiful day to be out and about among nature.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

We want you as a new recruit!

September and school season are well and truly underway, and with a high school junior living in our house, so is the flood of college brochures. I know that twenty-*cough-cough-cough* years ago, I must have received my own share of collegiate junk mail, but I was so focused on going to Michigan that I didn't really look at any of them. Now that I'm going to be the one writing the checks, however, I'm paying closer attention to the invitations in the mailbox. Boy, of course, is ignoring most everything that comes addressed to him; like me, he's only thinking of Michigan. So I'm going to be the one to inform you about the current state of university propaganda. These came in standard-size letters unless otherwise marked.

Colorado School of Mines: The message basically says: We're engineers!
Northern Michigan: A brochure with pictures; translation: We do have girls way up north!
University of Chicago (1): The envelope was addressed to "the parents of Boy." But the letter says "you might thrive in our vibrant environment." Maybe the exciting online quiz will settle it.
Loyola of Chicago: Oooh, an interactive online quiz, "check it out now, Boy!"
Illinois Wesleyan: We're highly rated and have high graduate placement!
University of Rochester: bigger envelope; "our curriculum has no required subjects" (boldface theirs), plus lots of research money and low student/teacher ratios.
Miami (Florida): another quiz! and we can send you text messages!
U of Georgia: on the envelope: "request your movie poster." On the inside, for Boy: "Athens, #1 campus scenes that rock." For us: "honors fellows receive a nearly full scholarship."
Tulane: Geez, another online quiz to help you find the right school/major for you?
Albion College (1): on envelope: "What kind of thinker are you?" "Are you a true thinker?"
Hofstra U: another "discover your interests" and "what to look for in a college" quiz. Gee, I wonder if the answer is "Hofstra"? And at least now I know it's in New York.
Otterbein College (OH): a postcard-sized, magazine-style brochure touting the usual.
Denison U (OH): Selected as one of 40 "colleges that change lives." P.S., merit-based scholarships!
U of Kentucky (1): "see why UK is well on its way to becoming a Top 20 research university" ... um, call back when you are one?
Case Western Reserve (OH, 1): we're considered a great producer of grad students.
Capital University (OH): Folded brochure, postcard size. Pretty generic.
Ohio Northern: Another, thicker folded postcard-size brochure. Magazine layout.
Vanderbilt (1): Bigger (half-magazine), lots of pretty pictures, lots of rankings.
"The" Ohio State University: 8x11 envelope did get Boy's attention: "Can I burn it and put it on YouTube?" Brochure with no gimmicks, just lots of details.
Wayne State U: shiny foldout brochure, basic "how to apply" plan.
Case Western (2): large postcard saying come meet a counselor.
U of Chicago (2): fold out postcard, a few stats, quote from play
MIT (1): this one also got Boy's attention: big 8x11 foldout into huge shiny poster.
Albion (2): 8x11 envelope, letter stressing high rankings, shiny brochure with more basics.
Kentucky (2): We're still trying to be Top 20. By 2020, after you graduate, so tough luck there.
Reed College (OR): winner for furthest away!  8x11 envelope; letter stresses fun atmosphere (our nuclear reactor has a rubber duck floating on top!) yet the brochure has boring periodic tables and online resources.
Kentucky (3): Really? Three letters? But hey, "you are likely already eligible to receive an academic scholarship," and this time there's no "almost top 20."
U of Chicago (3): another quirky postcard.
Vanderbilt (2): bigger postcard, mostly about financial aid.
U of Michigan...: yay! U of M! ...Dearborn. Aw, crap. But now we know the AP History score is worth 3 credits, or $972.
MIT (2): postcard inviting us to meet a rep locally. Boy said yes.
Kentucky (4): Okay, now you're just sounding desperate. Even if this time you actually give a personal username and password.
Washington U (St. Louis): ooh, this online survey is "backpack secrets of top scholars"!

So, a pretty broad mix of small liberal arts schools and big state universities. Appeals to money, prestige, fun, grad-school potential. Magazine graphics, online quizzes, statistics. And still, Boy didn't want to open a single one of them.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Photo of the Week--9/20/10

We spent a few days in Argentina back in 2007, on our way down to an Antarctic cruise, and one of the highlights of the city was La Recoleta cemetery.  It's like a miniature city in itself, built of mausoleums in different styles. Some were old and archaic and overlooked, while others were clean and modern and obviously still tended by someone remembering the person within. You could get lost down the small-scale streets; luckily the sky was clear and blue and it wasn't too hard to find your way out. If you still had trouble, you could always follow one of the very friendly felines who made their home there.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Quilt Files, Episode 22

I'd made the same baby quilt pattern about five or six times, varying the colors and fabrics each time. So when I discovered last fall that a couple of friends were expecting, I was ready to try a different pattern. When one of them said they were decorating the nursery in "bright, bold colors," I knew exactly which pattern to choose. I headed over to my favorite fabric store with the goal of finding several bright, bold, mostly solid batiks. The "Pure and Simple" pattern called for five solids: red, yellow, green, blue, and purple. I thought, however, that the blue and purple were too close together to make a really good contrast. After pulling out a dozen different bolts, I decided that red, orange, yellow, green, and blue would produce the most striking combinations.

As you can see, the pattern itself is pretty basic: 3½-inch squares, pieced together in rows. It's the pattern of those differently colored squares, reminiscent of those old-fashioned woven potholders, that makes it interesting. The pattern may look too complicated to use the strip-piecing method—where you sew two or more strips together and then cut them into linked squares, which is much faster than cutting those strips into squares and then sewing the squares together—because those colors alternate all over the place. Careful analysis, however, showed me that there were equal numbers of paired squares: red-red/red-orange/red-yellow/red-green/red-blue/orange-orange, etc etc. So I was able to do some strip piecing to create the paired squares, and because I actually did two quilt tops at the same time, I saved quite a bit of time.

Once I had my stacks of color pairs, the rest was easy: sew together rows in the appropriate patterns, sew the rows together, and add a red border. Once I managed to get the right amount of fabric for the backing (I altered the size of the pattern, and forgot to add the borders in when I calculated the area), the rest was easy. The top was of a manageable size to machine quilt, and the pattern was extremely easy: straight diagonals radiating out from the center of the quilt. You may be able to tell from some of the darker squares in this picture that I used a variegated thread (in primary colors, of course) to do the quilting. (Click on the photo itself to get it in a new window, and you can enlarge to see the detail, if you like). I like using multicolored thread when I quilt because it makes different patterns against different colors, adding another layer of interest to the pattern.

I really loved the results I got with this design: the boldness of the colors, the high contrast of the pattern, the simplicity of it all. In the future I might adapt it to create a quilt with my huge stash of scraps, but in the meantime I have a old project to finish quilting, so I may not get to any new projects for a while.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Photo of the Week--9/13/10

My goodness, another photo with me in it? By the time we visited Washington DC in 2007, we had a teenager who wasn't very interested in sightseeing any more. (Actually, he never was very interested in sightseeing, but it's a lot easier to manage a non-teenager with promises of ice cream.) So TSU and I left him behind with Grandma and took a weekend trip by ourselves to the nation's capital. And here I am in our capital before the Capitol (spelled with a capital C), where you might be able to spy the capital part of some columns. It was a cloudy fall day, but we still had a great time walking our feet off seeing all the museums and other sights.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Conference Report: SCBWI LA

You might recall that about six weeks ago I headed to Los Angeles for the annual conference of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. It was exhilarating, exhausting, inspiring, entertaining, and an all-around great experience (despite the horror story of my three flights home, which I won't tell here except to say that it will be a cold day in Hell before I fly American Airlines if I have another choice).

And really, I meant to share some of the things I learned from the experience; for instance, if you want to place in the costume ball, "subtle and classy" is not the vibe you need. (Okay, the heart deely-bobbers are not exactly subtle, but I thought the dress was nice and the wings weren't over-the-top.) At first, I thought I might actually blog from the conference, as I did in New York in 2009. But I was taking a great workshop that was held all four days of the conference, and we had homework every night. I had no time or energy to blog during my scant free time.

So I thought, maybe I'll write something up the week I get back. After my misadventures getting home, though, I felt like I was playing catchup, and I kept putting it off. Now that it's September and I've barely had time to revise my manuscripts using information I learned, let alone sent out any queries to editors or agents I met there, I've had to admit defeat. You are not getting a detailed report of my experiences at the conference. There was a lot of esoteric writers' stuff anyway, although I'm sure everyone could appreciate the line, "if you chase trends [with your writing], the vampires win!"

But do not despair! I still have something special for you from the conference, and that is proof of my talent for bad puns. You see, at every SCBWI conference, they have joke contests. They give you a theme, you write a joke, and if they read it aloud in between sessions, you get a prize. And I won not one, but two prizes! Here was the theme: you are an editor who can travel through time and thus acquire a memoir by anyone in history. What is the title and who is the author?

My first winner was pretty tricky, as it was read aloud and it really works better visually, so you should be able to get it right off. The book? Abridged Too Far, by Noah Webster. (Of dictionary fame. Get it? Abridged dictionary. Get it? That's bad, we love words. Get—oh, never mind. The SCBWI director loved it.)

The next one came the next day in a flash of brilliance. Another bad pun, but easily figured out: A Farewell to Arms, by Venus DeMilo. Okay, you have to know your iconic art for that one, but writers are a smart crowd.

My last joke submission wasn't used, perhaps because it really described the challenge more than met it. The joke setup was that we had to choose one of six words that some say are inappropriate for a kids' book (like boobs, butt, booger), and write a sentence with a silly substitute. The challenge inspired a limerick:

An author was given a dare
To choose naughty words with more care
She didn't know what
Could fill in for "BUTT"
Oops! Pardon my French, "derriere."

That one wasn't a winner, but it was my favorite. Because really, I didn't "write" this limerick, it was more like it attacked me while I was trying to get to sleep and I had to write it down before it would leave me alone. And that, as much as anything else I can tell you, is a conference in a nutshell: inspiration even when you're exhausted and overworked and trying to sleep.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Recipes from Fish Camp: Don's Broetchen

Has anyone ever met a carbohydrate they didn't like? Certainly not anyone in my family, and my uncle Donald is the king when it comes to making tasty, yeasty, yummy treats. Each Thanksgiving at least one person burns their fingers on his rolls because they grabbed them straight from the oven, and for the past two years his contribution to camp cuisine has come in the form of broetchen. "Broetchen" rhymes with "Gretchen," which gives a clue as to the treat's German origin. They're "little bread," or rolls, and they are tasty, good with jam or meats or any other way you want to use them.

Now, my uncle has been baking bread from scratch for years and years, so it's hard to communicate the "feel" of bread dough that is properly ready. That comes with experience, but in the meantime we have his rambling recipe to help us along. I've boldfaced the ingredients to help you pick them out.
  1. Begin with two cups of warm skim milk
    • I actually use powdered milk and enough of it (usually almost 1 cup) to make almost a quart of (reconstituted) milk, but in only the two cups of warm water; result: extra rich milk
  2. Add 1 package dried yeast  (or about 1½ tsp. dried yeast if you buy it in bulk, as I do)
  3. Let yeast stand in warm milk base for 5 minutes (or lots longer, for that matter)
  4. Add 1 teaspoon (or slightly more) salt
  5. Add 2 Tbl sugar ...... mix well, and then you are ready for flour
  6. Add approx. 3 cups bread flour; mix well (until you have like a thick slurry)
  7. Mix in 2 Tbl oil (corn or canola or olive or grape or whatever .... the batches I made for vacation in the UP even had a tiny dab of cod liver oil)
  8. Add  2 more cups of flour ... work it in as well as you can ... turn the mass out on counter top, kneading in more flour (up to maybe a cup more) until dough is is softly pliable, a mass which won't stick to your fingers
  9. Let rise for an hour (or longer; it doesn't matter)
  10. Punch the dough! Then cut the punched down mass of dough in half, and the halves in half, and those quarters in thirds ... until you have lumps of dough about the size of an extra-large egg (there should be about 12 of them)  
  11. Shape it into a very small loaf.
    • It's the feel of doing this which I can't give you.... You use the palms of your hands like a backdrop for shaping the dough-lets and your fingers to tuck the outside edges under and in; in shape they will be something like a miniature, misshapen football ... put them on a cornmeal sprinkled cookie sheet....let rise until double in size.
  12. Take a knife and gently, delicately mark a slash longitudinally ... bake at 340 degrees F,  about 30  minutes ... take them out, see if you can resist eating one on the spot.*
*Especially if you have one of Don's home-made jams to go with it! I can speak from experience.

An additional note: These little treats do just fine if you freeze them, then thaw them in a microwave for 20-30 seconds or so. Don brought dozens and dozens to camp, and we made regular inroads on his supply until they were exhausted and we were looking around forlornly for more.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Photo of the Week--9/6/10

We took a short trip to New York in June of 2006, and capped it off with a visit to the USS Intrepid, a former aircraft carrier that is now a museum. I think this photo was actually taken on our way out of the museum, and miracle of miracles, Boy posed for it without complaint. I'm not sure where he acquire this "gotcha," cool-cat pose (maybe from too many Bond movies?), but he liked to bring it out once in a while and was cheerful enough after a day with mechanical marvels to smile for the camera.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Printz Award Winners: 2004

Time again to check out the books—this time from 2004—that "exemplify literary excellence in young adult literature," according to the American Library Association.

Angela Johnson, The First Part Last
Honor books:
Jennifer Donnelly, A Northern Light
Helen Frost, Keesha's House
K.L. Going, Fat Kid Rules the World
Carolyn Mackler, The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things

Donnelly's A Northern Light: I was really looking forward to reading this one, ever since I got my hands on an advance copy of the author's latest, Revolution, my favorite book of last quarter. This was a completely different type of book, being a pure historical rather than a modern-historical-magic realism (maybe?) hybrid, set in northern New York in 1906. It was inspired by the notorious murder that also inspired Theodore Dreiser's classic An American Tragedy, and opens with the discovery of Grace Mae Brown's body in Big Moose Lake. It is assumed that she and her male friend, two guests at an Adirondacks hotel, both drowned after an excursion on the lake. But hotel maid Mattie Gokey comes to suspect something different when she peeks into the letters that Grace asked her to burn before she died.

This seems like a straightforward mystery—and one that will be easily solved, once Mattie gets the courage to look at the letters—but the greater mystery actually lies in Mattie's own background. Although the novel opens with a body at the hotel, there are frequent flashbacks to Mattie's life on her father's farm, taking care of her three younger sisters despite a burning desire to write and go to college. Mattie made a promise to her mother on her deathbed to take care of the family, so each time we see Mattie in the present, working at the hotel despite her father's disapproval, we wonder not only what she will do about the letters, but how did she ever get here? With each flashback we think we have a better grasp on it, but only at the end does everything come together for Mattie, with each plot strand contributing to a satisfying conclusion. It's a wonderful example of how to use structure to amplify your story, as the use of flashback enhances the mystery and character development. (A Northern Light also won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for YA fiction and Britain's Carnegie Medal, under the title A Gathering Light.)

Frost's Keesha's House: Grrrr. My library didn't have this, and it looks interesting: a series of stories, all told in different poetic forms, about teens who find refuge for their various troubles at the inner-city home where Keesha lives with an unofficial guardian. I'm always interested in what people can do with poetry, so maybe I'll get this on loan later.

Mackler's The Earth, My Butt, etc.: I heard the author speak at this summer's SCBWI conference (an engaging talk on writing though good times and bad), and got my very own autographed copy of this honor book. The voice of her book's narrator, Virginia Shreves, was equally engaging as she opens the book by relating how her not-quite-boyfriend almost made it to second base with her—and all she could think about was whether he would see the bubber underneath her shirt. Virginia is a plus-sized girl in an average-sized family of overachievers, and she is having difficulty coping with their expectations, as well as the usual high school social pressures. For a while she tries to conform and get along, but a shocking accusation directed at the older brother she idolizes leads her to start standing up for herself and discover who she actually wants to be. It was a satisfying to see Virginia grow and change, without having the "makeover" ending you would get in a movie.

Going's Fat Kid Rules the World: Was the Printz committee having body issues this year? Another book told in first person by an overweight teen living in New York, that doesn't end with them miraculously slimming down and transforming their life? The similarities are superficial, though: whereas Mackler's Virginia is from a upper-middle-class, two-parent family, Going's Troy is from a poorer neighborhood and is living with his brother and their widowed father. His story opens as he is considering jumping off a subway platform into a train; he is stopped by a grubby, skinny older kid who turns out to be a legendary musician from Troy's high school. Curt sees something in Troy, inviting him to become his drummer, and despite his lack of self-confidence Troy responds. Curt has his own troubles, though, and Troy has to muster the guts to save his life in turn. While I found Curt's character a little unbelievable—kind of a drugged-out, male version of the manic pixie dreamgirl archetype, existing more to enable Troy's character development than to have a life of his own—Troy himself seemed fully realized and his story was very entertaining.

Johnson's The First Part Last: This is another novel that makes great use of a dual timeline to create mystery and add impact to the story. It's narrated by 16-year-old Bobby, who is alternately exhilarated and exhausted by his new baby daughter, Feather. His struggles to be a good parent alternate with flashbacks to the days when he was carefree and hanging out with his friends. When he discovers his girlfriend Nia is pregnant, they (with the help of their parents) decide to give the baby up for adoption. Therein lies the mystery: if they had decided on adoption, why does Bobby now have Feather, and why does he parent her alone? I found the answer, which comes at the very end of the book, both unexpected and moving. Johnson also subverts a lot of stereotypes with this novel: not only do we see a young man feeling tender and paternal, but her African American New Yorkers are not fatherless ghetto kids, but middle-class achievers who have the loving support of two parents (although one set is divorced). I think too often when people think of books with African American characters, they think of inner-city or historical settings, so it's nice to read one that shows a broader experience. This was a short but very powerful little book. (The First Part Last also won the Coretta Scott King Award for Fiction in 2004.)

So, how might I have voted this year? All the books I read were enjoyable, and while Johnson's First Part Last was a little gem, I have a thing for historicals, and Donnelly's A Northern Light was not only interesting as a historical but also as a mystery and as an wonderfully structured piece of writing.

An interesting note: this year there was no crossover at all with the list for the National Book Award for Young People's Literature, even though four of the five NBA finalists, including the winner, Pete Hautman's Godless, were YA novels. More evidence reinforcing how subjective these kinds of awards really are.