Browsing articles from "June, 2010"
Jun 29, 2010

Summertime Reads: Half Magic Review

Summertime belongs to childhood. The grown-up version, with BBQs and yard work, can’t compare to the long, long days spent exploring and digging in the dirt.

Now, I’m a winter girl, through and through, but when the lightning bugs start to rise up out of the grass, I start to ache for the summers from when I was little. Unfortunately, all the kids who used to comeoutandplay have moved on, and I’ve been trying to eat less dirt, so I was at a loss for a way to revisit my summers.

Then I remembered Edward Eager. Eager was a Harvard grad and a sophisticated, grown-up playwright. He never thought about writing children’s books until he had his own son. They quickly read through Eager’s favorites, E. Nesbit’s fairy stories and the Oz books, but then Eager couldn’t find anything else to read to his kid. So he decided to write the stories himself. Writer’s perogative.

Half Magic is Eager’s first fairy tale. It’s about a group of four children, three girls and one boy, who recently lost their father. (Those unfortunate children who keep both their parents must resign themselves to utterly uninteresting lives.) Their mother can’t afford to take them to the country for vacation, and the kids are at a loss for a way to make their summer worthwhile. One day, while on their way to the library, the children find an old, worn nickel.

After a few accidental mis-wishes and much discussion, the kids realize that it’s the coin they found that’s causing the magic–well, a little magic. Somehow, because of the age and wear of the coin, it will only grant half of each wish.

The wishes,  done by halves, bring the kind of adventures you only find in proper fairy tales. They have rules and consequences and the adventure is in learning how to manipulate the magic. Each child gets a day in charge of the wishing, and each day of wishes gets a few chapters to play out.

Later on in the book, when the children understand the coin fully, the wishes get a bit boring–“I wish X times two” takes care of the guess work–but until then, there are several good mishaps. (My favorite is when they wish that the cat can talk. Have you ever met a cat who can half talk? That’s not a happy cat.)

So, if you need a way to rekindle your vacation time, check out Edward Eager’s books. (Read the first chapter of HM here.) They’re fast, funny, charming reads. Most of them take place over the course of a few warm days, and they’ll all bring you back to the time when lightning bugs were only a fraction of your summer magic.

Read if:

  • You’re looking for the most appealing way possible to spend an afternoon with fractions.
  • You can’t find anyone to play Ghost in the Graveyard with.
  • You want a proper fairy tale.

Disclaimer: I got this book and many others from my family’s close friend, Jeri. Every year for my birthday, Jeri would give me a big box of old books. (These would last me a couple of days, and then my reading habits would continue to be a financial burden for my parents, who raised me to buy books before food, and gladly kept me fed.) Jeri introduced me to lots of my favorites, and I’d be remiss not to mention her in a post about Edward Eager. If I didn’t give her credit, she’d threaten to tan my fanny.

Jun 21, 2010

Grounded Contest Winner

Last week I asked you all to send in your best ground travel stories in honor of Seth Stevenson’s Grounded. The clear winner, thanks to originality in transportation mode (who rides bicycles any more?), the quality of language barrier (seriously, they named a town “Uijeoungbu”?) , and the inclusion of rice paddies (who doesn’t love rice paddies?), was Lorraine.

Here’s her story:

When I moved to South Korea in 2006, I didn’t realize how lonely of a place it could be for Americans. My roommate and I didn’t know the language, didn’t understand the culture, and didn’t really make a lot of friends. However, one thing we did know how to do well was ride our bikes. We quickly became avid cyclists and soon outgrew the little path along the river that lead to E-mart in the next town over. We had been following this routine for weeks before we realized we were actually riding between 15 and 20 miles everyday. We loved our little bike rides, but somehow we longed for a greater challenge; some epic adventure leading us to a whole new world.
That’s when we decided to ride to Uijeoungbu. Uijeoungbu was known for its hospital, its shopping, and its notoriously difficult to pronounce name. Most importantly it was about 20 miles away, thus providing an adequate challenge for us thrill seekers. We started our journey one fateful Saturday morning; first riding the normal path until the end and then getting on the main highway that supposedly led to Uijeoungbu. The idea was to ride along the shoulder of the road until we arrived. The only problem was, a few miles down this road the shoulder disappeared. As car after car whizzed by (with an occasional horn honking or Korean man shouting out the window) I watched my life flash before my eyes several times before I finally called out to my roommate “I don’t think we can go any further!” We stopped in the parking lot of a plant nursery to discuss our new plan. Accepting defeat was not an option. So, we decided to back track, find the nearest non-death-defying road and ride it in the general direction we were heading. Surely all roads lead to Uijeoungbu, we hoped. I’m not certain what happened, but it became apparent a few hours later that the plan had failed. We wandered along random winding paths, turning every which direction until suddenly we realized – we were utterly and hopelessly lost. Not only did we have no idea where Uijeoungbu was, we had no idea where home was, where our town was, or even where that big scary road was. We wandered through rice paddy after rice paddy, occasionally running into mountains and turning around or almost getting ran over by rice-harvesting-machines. We stopped several times and laughed at the situation, but the Korean rice farmers never seemed to understand the humor. Along the way we asked several natives “Dongducheon?” in hopes that they’d point us towards our hometown. Many walked away, some rambled off in Korean, and most starred at us perplexed, as if they don’t see two white girls on bikes riding through their rice fields every day.
In the end, we had to admit defeat and call our one Korean bike riding friend to come save the day. We handed the phone to one somewhat friendly shopkeeper (she didn’t kick us out immediately) and let her speak to our friend Jongmoon. I still have no idea what words were exchanged, but I expect he said something along the lines of “I’m so sorry my crazy white friends got lost in your rice paddy.” Regardless, he showed up on his bike a little while later, and laughed at us the whole way home.
Thanks Lorraineo! Send me your mailing address and I’ll send you your very own slightly-used copy of Grounded, one or more used ten-ride-tickets-as-bookmarks, and some Monday-morning appreciation and affection.
By the way, Lorraine is back in South Korea for a while and is tweeting her adventures. You should follow her.
For all of you equal opportunity equinox enjoyers out there, I know today is just another day, but for everyone else, happy first day of summer!
Jun 15, 2010

A Day in the Life of a Printers Row Lit Fest Volunteer

Boarded my train, armed with not enough coffee.

Was awakened from nap by commotion from downstairs. Something had gone terribly wrong for a few thuggish passengers, and they were expressing their discontent. Five squad cars later, there was again peace on the Metra.

Arrived at the fest. Got t-shirt, lunch voucher, tour of speaking venues.

Chatted with other volunteers. Met a second-grade teacher and lover of YA lit, a retired copy editor with a mystery manuscript, and a recent grad who’s trying to break into publishing. (The wanna-be-publisher and I felt for each other.)
Compared author assignments: The second grade teacher immediately hit the jackpot: Audrey Niffenegger, one of the biggest names at the Fest. We all tried not to hate her for her good fortune.

10:05am Picked my first group of authors. They were all mystery writers from Chicago, and didn’t exactly need to be shown around, But, I did get to sit through their session, and it was one of my favorite parts of the day.

The Thrill of Mystery
Kevin Guilfoile: Moderator.
Guilfoile has written several mystery novels, and is the spitting-image of John Astin, so, really, who better to moderate a discussion of crime novels?

David Heinzemann
If you were to write a character about a crime reporter for the Chicago Tribune, you’d probably end up with someone who looks a lot like David Heinzemann. Heinzemann works for the Trib, and wanted to write novels that incorporated real places in Chicago. Guifoile said, “If you want to read something true about Chicago, read his books.” I liked him, partly because he started out working for the Daily Southtown, which makes us practically neighbors.
On getting sources for news articles: “Earn a reputation for being trustworthy and you’ll gain sources.”

Gillian Flynn
Gillian Fynn was introduced as “the nicest, warmest women you’ll ever meet, but she writes the darkest [stuff].” Flynn started out as a TV writer for Entertainment Tonight, working on her novel at night. She said that she would get so tired of writing pop during the day that she’d come home and make her novel darker and darker. (Whenever anyone referred to Flynn’s novels as “dark”, one of the men on the panel would say something like “Yeah, she certainly made it darker…they’re very dark books.” After 45 minutes or so of this, I’d say that Flynn’s books are…pretty dark.)
On leaving lose ends: “I don’t believe that people change much, but I do try to leave [my characters] in a better place.”

Marcus Sakey
There are to kinds of authors: the kind who get tiny black and white photos on an inside flap somewhere on their book jacket, and the kind who get a full-color, full-size, full-body photos. Sakey is the latter. When I walked up to the group of authors, he was talking about how the avalanche almost ruined his Mt. Ranier climb last weekend. There was a line of middle-aged women sitting in the front rows just dying to ask him flirtatious questions about his next novel. It was a little like an episode of Castle.
On beginning his career in advertising: “Advertising is a great training ground for fiction. It’s basically what you’re writing anyway.”

Took a few minute between authors to explore the fest. There’s a couple who sell antique printers blocks ever year, and I spent most of my spare time digging through their stock trying to find ampersands. I ended up with three. I love them.

Spent the rest of the day in the C-SPAN room. Honestly, if I wasn’t assigned non-fiction, I probably would have just stayed in fiction. I was glad that volunteering sent me out of my comfort zone, espeicially because I got to hear Robert Remini speak.
Robert Remini
I really enjoyed Remini’s talk. He’s a retired college professor, and a passionate story-teller. You know he was everybody’s favorite prof. He was dignified, but animated and funny. He’s written several biographies, and is an expert on Jacksonian America. Honestly, out of the three sessions I attended, Remini’s is the only book I wanted to take home. (I ran out time while he was signing, thought, and didn’t get a change to purchase it. Time for Amazon.)
On compromise in politics: “It’s not about giving up on your principles, it’s about finding a way to govern.”

Picked up my last group of authors. This was where I had my 30 seconds of fame: C-SPAN isn’t given anything but a list of names, and, like I said, authors don’t get full-page headshots. No one knew for sure which author was which. So, I pulled out my magic phone, googled the authors, and the venue coordinator let the C-SPAN people know what we found out. That’s right, you have me to thank for accuracy in reporting on C-SPAN on Saturday, June 12.
My last authors were Nick Reding and Jim Frederick. This was a deadly serious session. Reding’s book was on the rise of meth abuse in middle America and Frederick’s was on “One Platoon’s Descent into Madness in Iraq’s Triangle of Death”.


Finished. No more authors to escort.

I definitely recommend volunteering at the Lit Fest. I got career advice from editors, met writers who work for the Chicago Tribune and Time Magazine, as well as several published novelists. I got to hear first hand stories about how different writers write (long-hand, on computers, in the bathtub). I debated with the venue coordinator about whether Nick Reding looked more like David Anders or Woody Harrelson. (Ok, some parts of the day had more literary merit than others. And I still say Woody Harrelson.) But all in all, it was a really fantastic day of reading and learning.
And, I got a free t-shirt.

Jun 11, 2010

Review: Grounded by Seth Stevenson

Grounded by Seth Stevenson***Give Away: I’ll send you my spare copy. Check the end of this post!***

I’ve left the country exactly once: senior year of college, spring break, a friend and I decided we needed to break my single-country record. So we drove from Chicago to Toronto. We detoured just because we could. We got lost. We felt every single mile of that trip. Sure, we could have hopped on a plane and appeared someplace exotic, but that would hardly be an adventure. Half the fun was crossing the US border and finding that our GPS didn’t speak Canadian.

During one detour, we met the owner of a small coffee shop. He had emigrated from Ethiopia to Canada to teach theology at the University of Toronto. (How he ended up owning a roast-your-own coffee shop in London, Ontario, I am not sure.  It didn’t seem polite to ask.) He asked where we were from, and when we said Chicago, he made us sit down and tell him our story. When we explained that we didn’t really have a plan, that our plan was to wander till we made it, explore, and then wander back, he was astonished. “You are so American!” he said. “Canadians would never take a trip without an exact itinerary. No one but an American would make a trip like this.” *

So when I read Seth Stevenson’s book Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World, I couldn’t help but think, Seth, you are so American! Who else would make a trip like this? Who else would quit their job, their life, and circumnavigate the globe, over land, no less.

I’ve been reading Stevenson’s articles in Slate Magazine for about two years. He writes their monthly ad column, which I read religiously, but it’s just to get me through until the real thing: his travel essays. These I save for special occasions.  He never describes his trips in terms of hotel stars or mattress cushiness. I love Samantha Brown, but you can only be wowed by a mini-bar/flat-screen/hairdryer combo so many times.  Seth doesn’t bring you on his vacation, he tells you about his adventures.

Seth Stevenson hates airplanes. Yes, he understands their convenience, but he hates the whole jet-flying process. He hates the cattle-prodding at airports. He hates the lack of human dignity in post-9/11 security checks. He hates the stale, recycled air pumped into cabins. But most of all, he hates how airplanes suck the life out of a journey. Airplane travel, he says, is cheap teleportation. You jump from point A to point B and miss everything in between. So, when Stevenson and his girlfriend decide to quit their normal lives and circle the earth, they decide to do it with their feet firmly planted.

Stevenson organizes the book by types of travel (boat, train, bicycle, car, and boat again). He gives a little history on each transportation mode, which adds weight to his argument that we should use them: when you take an ocean liner, you’re not just feeling the spray of the water and seeing the sky over the seas, you’re helping to preserve a part of the human story.

One major contradiction: whenever Seth has a difficult or unfortunate travel experience, he says, “Well, at least I’m not in some airless plane cabin”. I understand that he’s saying “Hey, a bad experience is better than no experience”, but instead of living through the smell of other passengers, or the wild sea storm, he pops a Valium and chases it with scotch. What’s the difference between sleeping through a bad flight or sleeping through a bad plane ride? There’s no life there, there’s no experience. It’s still oblivion, it’s just on the ground.

What I don’t think is coming across here is how funny this book is. I read most of it on the train, bitter that my Metra wasn’t a Japanese bullet train, and my laughter woke sleeping accountants.  (A hazard of train travel: not everyone wants to share your joke, and not everyone wants to let you sleep.)

I saw Stevenson just briefly at a book signing for Grounded. He read passages of the book, and answered questions. (My question: How did you write while you were traveling?, expecting something along the lines of “a love-worn Moleskin” or “smoke signals”. His answer: a very, very small computer.) He was funny and nervous. His girlfriend was there, I liked watching them interact. He’d answer a question, she’d correct from the back row. He’d forget a detail, she’d supply it. It fit their book personalities perfectly: he’s the traveler, she’s the navigator.

My hope was that when he signed my book, it would be with some impetus to travel, something that would just force me to do something rash, like disappear to Europe for a while. Instead, he wrote “You’re GROUNDED!!!”.

I guess I’ll stay here.

I enjoyed this book. I don’t know if I enjoyed it as much as his travel essays. Somehow I don’t know that he can sustain this sort of story for 300 pages. Sometimes the transportation history seems irrelevant, and sometimes I get a little tired of his judginess. (He doesn’t like most American travelers. Understandable, I guess, but it just gets a little old after a while.) But it’s worth the read because this book makes the world seem both bigger and smaller at the same time. The earth is conquered; you can circle it in a day. But there’s always more to see.

Read if you:

  • Want to take a travel-free trip around the world.
  • Have days where you want to pitch everything and drive forever.
  • Admired Phileas Fogg‘s determination, and want to see a modern iteration.

*He then gave us directions, sight-seeing tips, and his business card. He said if we needed anything, we could call him and he’d drive right up and rescue us. I recommend that everyone travel with an Ethiopian theology professor/barista.


GIVE AWAY: You know that thrilling feeling of going to a used book store, finding that perfect book, and then finding that the previous owner carried it around with her and accidentally underlined stuff in it? You can have that feeling delivered to your house!

I’m giving away my spare copy of Grounded to the person with the best ground-travel story. I’ll even throw in a used 10-ride train ticket, so you can imagine the luxuries of train travel.

Leave your story in the comments, and I’ll judge you like the American traveler that you are. Only in a nice way.

(Unless you’re Canadian or something. If so, welcome!)

Jun 8, 2010

Preparing for the Printers Row Lit Fest

Here’s is something I’m excited about: The Printers Row Lit Fest. It’s happening this weekend, June 12-13th.

However, confession: I’ve never actually been to the Printers Row Lit Fest. I’m really just assuming that Chicago+Books=thebesthingI’veeverseen. So, here’s hoping.

Since I’m volunteering at the fest based only on my assumptions, I’ve pulled together a some information on it.

Here’s what I know so far:

The PRLF is the largest literary event in the Midwest. This year, there will be 11 stages offering over 100 free literary programs, including book signings, author readings and children’s programs. (I read something about Curious George attending. This is good: I’ve got a few questions.) All of the programs are free, but you need a ticket for anything going on at the Harold Washington Library.

Lots of attending authors are also on Twitter, so make sure you check them out.

If you’re going:

  • Bring cash. There are millions of books for sale, most of them at reduced rates, but most vendors don’t accept credit cards.
  • Bring a poncho. From what I’ve read, it usually rains at the fest, and it probably will this time, too.
  • Bring books to donate. Open Books will be collecting books to sell. All proceeds go to their literacy programs.
  • Work on your upper-body strength.  These ain’t no eBooks.

About that volunteering thing: I will be working as a “friendly and professional” author escort. I’ll be answering their questions, showing them around, and trying not to be starstruck. The PRLF is still looking for volunteers for Sunday, if you’re interested in helping out. You’ll get a free lunch and t-shirt! (Exclamation point theirs.)

Go to the PRLF if:

  • You love books, and love old books more.
  • You’re looking for an excuse to spend a Saturday in the best city in the world.
  • You want to see what your favorite hardcover looks like in a poncho.

There. Now we’re both more informed.

I’m really excited! (That exclamation point’s mine.)

Jun 6, 2010

What to read, what to read…

I’m this close to being done with my first book review, but I really don’t know what I should read next. I’d like to read a few books that were published in the last year or so, but I’m not very good at it.

So, here are three I was looking at:

Her Fearful Symmetry: A Novel by Audrey Niffenegger

  • I love this title. I want to read the book just so I can work the title into conversation.
  • I liked The Time Traveler’s Wife, even if it got a little romance novely sometimes.
  • Audrey Niffenegger lives and works in Chicago. I am in full support of all Chicagoians.
  • A ghost story sounds really good right about now.


  • Publisher’s Weekly used the word incoherent in their review, and lots of TTTW fans were disappointed.
  • It takes place in London, which is only a con when I want to read a Chicago novel.

The Wild Things by Dave Eggers


  • It’s written by Dave Eggers, who I may or may not have a crush on.
  • I throughly enjoy McSweeney’s.
  • A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius was one of the first books I read out of high school, so I’ll get a little nostalgic.


  • I might be reading it because I liked the movie, and I hate doing that.
  • I already know this story pretty well.

Imperfect Birds: A Novel by Anne Lamott


  • I’ve never read any of her fiction, and probably should.
  • Anne Lamott’s going to be at the Printers Row Lit Fest, and I’d like to be up-to-date.
  • The reviews sparkle.


  • It looks just the teensiest bit depressing, but that’s probably not a good reason to skip a book.
  • I don’t really like the picture on the cover. Ok, that’s not a good con either. I keep looking for cons but I just can’t find any. I think that my trying so hard for cons is itself a con, because it means I don’t feel like reading this one. We’ll see.

Those are my current possible picks. It seems to me that HFS is in the lead, but I’m very open to suggestions as long as the book’s newly published.

What would you pick? Do you have any other suggestions?

Jun 2, 2010

Chapter One: In Which I Begin Blogging

I used to read everything: little books, big books, fat books that bruised the table when I dropped them, thin, floppy books, chapter books, picture books, books that sing when I pressed a button, books that left me quiet for hours after. I read books that came in series, and books that stood alone. I read short stories, long stories, magazines, and shampoo bottles in the shower.

When I was really desperate, I resorted to reading instruction manuals. These were always handy—every glove compartment comes equipped with one—but they were a bit dry. Really, what ten-year-old little girl needs to know the correct air poundage for a set of tires?

The problem with the instruction manuals, aside from not being terribly applicable, was that I never learned anything lasting. None of the information ever really stuck. There wasn’t a reason for it. But, I wanted to read, and it was sometimes useful to know what that button was under the steering wheel, so, when there was nothing else, I read manuals.

After a while, I began to see that reading everything wasn’t necessarily beneficial. I started to see that different books carried different merit, different weights. I started to dig deeper into the stacks, trying to find the books that were true. I wanted to find books that told the truth and told it in a way that I could, first, understand it, and second, remember it. I wanted to become other people in other places. I wanted to travel. I wanted to see mistakes and consequences. I wanted to find and hide treasures.

As I started digging for new stories, I found more and more, better and better books. I sorted them into piles in my head: the ones about sensible, talking animals; the ones about growing up quietly; the ones about extraordinary adventures. These are the books that did more than keep me turning pages, but prompted me to pick up another book when that one was finished.

As I grew up, my tastes matured a bit, but I have never outgrown the best books from my childhood. They’ve followed me everywhere I go, whispering into my ear whenever I walk into an old house, or see an animal peeking around a corner, or walk down a crowded street. Better, though, is when they offer nudges when I really need them.

They gave me experiences that equipped me for my semi-adult life.

But, I still need a good lot of equipping, so part of the purpose of this blog is to make me read more, and part of it is to make me process through what I read. Mostly, though, it’s because I love books, and want to have more opportunities to talk about them.

No one should ever be without something valuable to read, and I’d like to offer my opinion on some of the books available. Maybe I can help to save you from instruction manuals.