Kids Who Read Too Much

February 25, 2010 at 3:16 pm | Posted in Reading with Kids | 7 Comments

My nephew, Li’l Brain, looks more like me every year.  He takes after me, too; he’s bright, he’s good at spelling, he’s bossy and a bit of a know-it-all, and of course he wants to read all the time.  His poor father, who suffered for years as my four-years-younger brother, finds this all too distressing.

I came up to visit for a week to celebrate a couple of birthdays and help my parents and my grandma with some big chores.  Naturally Li’l Brain and I found ourselves sitting together at one point talking books.  (He started it, I swear!  He asked if I had read The Lovely Bones, which of course I had, but considering that he’s 12 I was surprised he had).  I got some paper and started writing a list of a few books I thought he might like – or rather, should read now before he gets too old to enjoy them properly.  My brother, whom I will call Punk, asked what we were doing, and the following conversation ensued.

P:  Actually I’d rather he spent less time reading.

Me:  Why?

P:  Because he’s unaware of his surroundings, like you.

Me:  What are you saying?

P:  He’s not part of the real world.  There are things that he’s just clueless about.

Me:  What does that have to do with me?

P:  Let me give you an example.  (He relates a story in which Li’l Brain says a friend “isn’t Vietnamese, he’s Asian.”  I’m still puzzling out how this is relevant).  I took a pen and wrote “philistine = your dad” on Li’l Brain’s book list, to give him something to look up later in the dictionary.

At this point other family members started weighing in, fortunately changing the subject, and shortly thereafter the Li’l Brain section of the family went home for the night.  Our other brother stayed for a while and we talked a bit.  He reminded me how competitive Punk has always been.  In many ways our childhood is still very much alive.

Aunties regard children in an entirely different way than parents do.  I look at Li’l Brain, who is taller than me now and whose voice is changing, and I see a dear young man who is athletic and popular, funny, focused on his schoolwork, and clearly on the path to college.  When he initiates conversations about books with me, I feel so proud I could burst.  My brother sees an opinionated little rebel who selfishly buries his face in a book and somehow can’t manage to take after his father.  My brother is a construction worker, handy with tools but still recuperating from being crushed by a back hoe a few months ago and breaking his spine in three places.  When I think Li’l Brain probably won’t follow his great-grandfather’s, grandfather’s, father’s and uncle’s footsteps into blue collar work, it comes as a relief.

Every father wants a better life for his children than he had himself.  It’s easy to say that when you’re gazing down at your sweet little baby.  But when the baby grows up into a mouthy teenager, and then chooses a path you find mortifying, it’s hard not to take offense.  When the teenager grows into an adult who lives in a nicer house and brings home a bigger paycheck, it’s hard not to feel maybe a little resentful.  At the same time, it’s hard on a kid to surpass his parents.

Education is a great gift.  It’s hard, though, when you find yourself more interested than your family of origin in cultural pursuits or education for its own sake.  On the one hand, you start to run out of things to talk about with your family and your childhood friends.  You quit having certain things in common.  On the other hand, you most likely don’t fit in with people who grew up in families that were always focused on more intellectual attainments, either.  It’s a lonely path.  At least Li’l Brain and I have each other.

“The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers”

February 17, 2010 at 10:53 pm | Posted in Fiction | Leave a comment

An intriguing premise and interesting historical background make The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers a fun read.  It’s packed with bank heists, car chases, shootouts, and, why not?  Criminals rising from the dead.

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Thomas Mullen pulls off a story that will have you wondering, just what is going on here?  I always appreciate when I’m not able to guess the ending of a book, and I wasn’t able to here.  The 1930’s setting is well realized and quite relevant to current economic realities.

“Mindless Eating”

February 15, 2010 at 12:41 am | Posted in Nonfiction, Slow Food | 3 Comments

The best of pop psychology, funny, fascinating, and with a bit of a Candid Camera sensibility, Mindless Eating makes a great read even if you don’t find the topic relevant.  Honestly, though, how many of us can claim we never eat mindlessly?

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I listened to Brian Wansink’s book on audio, mostly while cooking.  Luckily for me, food prep makes me less likely to snack, perhaps because raw onions aren’t very good.  I can vouch that the narration is superior, and the only bad thing about it is that it’s hard to turn off.

What you’ll learn from the book is that no matter how bright you are, no matter how dedicated you are to healthy eating, there are pitfalls and snares to trip you up at every turn.  I’ll summarize the points that seem the most helpful for my family.

  • Identifying a few small ways that extra calories tend to creep into your mouth can help you effortlessly lose about 10 pounds a year.
  • It’s best to dish up meals directly onto the plates, putting serving platters on the table only for salad and other vegetables.
  • Smaller plates and bowls, and tall skinny glasses, help us dish up less.
  • Make half your plate salad and vegetables.
  • One person in the family is usually the “nutritional gatekeeper” who does most of the meal planning, shopping, and cooking.  That person has a lot of say over whether the family is fat or healthy.

I’m in my skinny jeans again – size 4! – since it appears that I only really snacked and ate junk food in the office.  I’m good at keeping it out of my shopping cart and my cupboards.  My dear hubby is in a weight loss contest at work, with two months to go.  I’ll use what I learned from Mindless Eating to see if my role as nutritional gatekeeper can help him along.

Walk and Read

February 13, 2010 at 3:37 am | Posted in Book Blather | 2 Comments

Yesterday I went on a long walk, and I decided to listen to an audio book on the way.  Often I read while walking, and I’ve taken a bit of flak for it – pedestrian comments, honking, and once a lecture from a gentleman who was riding a bicycle on the sidewalk rather than use the bike lane two feet away.  I thought an audio book would be a nice compromise.

It turns out this works really well as long as there is no traffic.  As soon as a vehicle got within two car lengths, I could no longer hear until it had passed behind me about the same distance.  Unfortunately, even on a quiet street traffic was just busy enough to ensure that the book spent as long on Pause as it did on Play.  When I hit the main thoroughfare I gave up and put the headphones away.

No sooner had I done so than I saw a young girl texting while pedaling a bicycle.  I guess nobody wants to travel without some kind of entertainment!

PS I got honked at anyway.

The Book That Changed My Life

February 8, 2010 at 6:51 pm | Posted in Nonfiction, Personal Finance | 7 Comments

In my second week working at home as a wanna-be writer, I wanted to share a little about the book that started it all:  Your Money or Your Life, by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin.  (Hey, it looks like a new edition came out in ’08!)  I was lucky enough to stumble across this book in 1997, and I’ve probably read it 3-4 times since then.

The sad thing about evangelizing a favorite book of this nature is that nobody is interested.  I’ve tried to lend it out half a dozen times, and each time it comes back slightly skimmed.  I can say quite frankly that this is one of only two books I’ve ever lent out that I’ve actually gotten back!  Not only that, but usually within a couple of weeks.  I’m sure I’ve lent out at least two dozen books in my life that flew away never to return.  I’m giving up now, but perhaps this little paean of praise will inspire someone else to check it out from the library or perhaps even buy it.

I won’t summarize too much, except to say that YMOYL is a textbook on how to think frugally, learn to save money, and become financially independent – all without resorting to multi-level marketing, chanting, flipping real estate, or whatever else the Easy Money books teach you to do.  This is what I learned:

  • Money is life energy.  Every penny you earn represents part of your life that you never get to re-live.  When you spend it, you’d better be sure you’re really glad you traded part of your life to buy whatever it was.
  • Debt is a cancer.  When you spend more than you earn, you pay dearly for the privilege.  There is no pair of shoes cute enough that I want to pay for them three years from now!
  • Planning is crucial.  No matter how busy or tough things are, you have to take the long view with your finances because the years are going to go by regardless.  Whether you save or spend, you’re gambling on what your circumstances are going to be like further down the road.  Better hope you’re right.
  • It is possible to become financially independent.  Even if nobody in your entire family tree ever had two nickels to rub together.  Even if your income has never reached the national median.  All you have to do is know how much you really need to get by on and keep saving until your investment earnings reach that level.  If you want it badly enough, you’ll do whatever it takes to save as much as possible to get there.

What my husband and I did last month was to look over our finances for 2009, compare them to the five- and ten-year plans we made last winter, and realize that the time was right for me to Quit My Day Job.  We’re still paying off his ex-wife’s debt from six years ago, and he still has to pay child support as well, but in three years we’ll be done.  In the meantime, we figure, even if my writing doesn’t get anywhere, I can continue to pull my weight with temp jobs from time to time.  In three years, when our little bunny goes off to college and we’re debt free, my husband can make his own jump.  We know what we need to earn to afford our minimalist lifestyle, and as an engineer and a secretary we can pretty much go anywhere in the world to work.

Ironically, my first week at home, Sweetie Junior caught a nasty cold and my husband wound up having to pull 31 hours of overtime.  Words cannot express how much my being at home improved our standard of living, at least that week.

What’s it like?  We spend less than 25% of our net income on our rental house, which is both bigger and nicer than we would have settled for.  We have one vehicle, which is paid off at just over 100,000 miles.  He buys his clothes at Costco and I buy mine at a local thrift store, or we shop at Ross.  We pretty much never go out – we spend $15 a month on Netflix and maybe $60 a month at restaurants for the three of us.  We don’t drink alcohol or coffee.  He has one credit card – a mileage card – that we use occasionally for convenience, but otherwise we’re debit-only and have been for years.

It might sound grim to most people.  It works for us, possibly because we’re both of Scottish extraction.  We started discussing and planning our finances together long before we even began dating!  It was a few weeks after we set up our 5- and 10-year plans that he proposed.  We have our fun cooking together and trying new recipes, reading aloud from library books, playing with our pets, working out together, and talking a lot.  Sometimes we talk about what it would be like if we spent our time sacked out in front of the TV or driving back and forth to the mall, eating fast food, and we both shudder.

There have been times when I’ve listened to my friends – all of whom earned more than me – chattering excitedly about Shopping and I’ve just felt like crying.  Not for me, though; for them.  My husband and I have compared notes, and every single one of our friends has debt problems that won’t seem to go away.  We know because over the years they’ve all come to us and told us about them.  They all also seem to have major dreams that they’ve felt forced to put on the back burner.  For instance, we have a friend whose dream is to “mow rich people’s lawns” when he retires, and another who wants to deliver flowers.  Both of these guys could quit and start doing those jobs tomorrow if it weren’t for debt, you know?

It does take years and it does mean saying goodbye forever to Cute Shoes and it does definitely put you outside the mainstream, which can be uncomfortable.  But it is possible to get up one day and say, “You know what?  I’m going to live my dream now.”  And if you can do it, you should do it, for yourself and your family but also to inspire others, whose dreams might be cooler than yours.

How Not to Teach Kids to Read Aloud

February 7, 2010 at 4:20 pm | Posted in Reading with Kids | 5 Comments

My stepbunny, Sweetie Junior, is in high school now, so I figure we only have a few years left to salvage what we can of her education in a third-rate school district.  Here’s some new motivation that has lit a fire under my chair.

We were talking around the dinner table, and the subject of audio books came up.  SJ mentioned that “we” were listening to an audio book in which the narrator would make a mistake, say, “Oh, wait,” and re-read the mistaken sentence.  There appeared to be no post-production editing whatsoever.  “What book was that?” I wanted to know, “I want to make sure I don’t accidentally listen to it.”  “It was something about, like, Four Aprils,” she replied.  I asked if she meant Across Five Aprils, which I knew she’d read for school.  That was it.

Then a sinking feeling took hold of me.  I had assumed she and her mother were listening to this shoddy audio book, but now I wasn’t so sure.  “Who’s we?  Where were you listening to this book?”  “In school,” she said.

I froze.  “Do you mean to tell me you sit in class and listen to an audio book?”  “Yeah,” she said, “the teacher has, like, stuff to do.”

This explains so much.

I dropped my face into my hand and shook my head.  Then I tried to explain how important it is for kids to get every possible opportunity to practice reading out loud.  My man Rocket Scientist chimed in that it’s really embarrassing to mispronounce something when you’re giving a presentation at work.

The other things I’m wondering are, a) what the Sam Hill is the teacher doing during active class time that he couldn’t do during free periods or in the evening?  and b) where did they dig up this amateur production, that in no way could possibly be an improvement on the kids taking turns to read?

See, you’ll never find out what your kids are really doing in class.  You ask them how their day was and they say Okay.  You ask if they learned anything interesting and they may have something to share.  But no amount of probing is going to uncover fun facts such as, My teachers are incompetent, or They quit caring years ago, or I may not make it through college at this rate.

We’re finishing The Knife of Never Letting Go tonight.  I’m starting to wonder how we can find a way to do two books a week instead of one.  Twelve years of schooling isn’t that much, really, when you come down to it – especially in some places.

Booking Through Thursday: Winter Reading

February 4, 2010 at 4:03 pm | Posted in Book Blather | Leave a comment

Here is my response to this week’s Booking Through Thursday:

The northern hemisphere, at least, is socked in by winter right now… So, on a cold, wintry day, when you want nothing more than to curl up with a good book on the couch … what kind of reading do you want to do?

When the weather is bad, I like to read books in which the weather is also bad.  This might sound strange, but to me it adds to the atmosphere.  Reading about stormy weather during the summer just reminds me that summer will be over soon.

The other thing I like to read during winter weather is dark, heavy stuff.  January especially calls out for depressing plots and doomsaying nonfiction.  Gloom goes with gloom.

Now, I live in Northern California, where our winter blahs just mean rain, wind, mud, and the occasional flooding incident.  The temperature rarely descends to freezing.  Last week I saw some daffodils blooming, shortly followed by a robin perching in a tree.  I guess if I’m going to read American Pastoral I’d better do it before spring comes!

“Sandman Slim”

February 4, 2010 at 3:36 pm | Posted in Fiction, Science Fiction | Leave a comment

Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim is a hilarious and profane joyride, a novel with enough juice to make a series, and something I hope someone is making into a film right now.

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On the first page we learn that the protagonist, Stark, has returned to Earth from years of living in Hell.  What follows is a rip-roaring revenge story packed with supernatural beings, great action sequences, and more costume changes than the film Elizabeth.  I don’t want to spoil it for you, though – you’ll have to enjoy it for yourself – but if you’re into vampire stuff, you might enjoy Sandman Slim for a slight change of pace.

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