dampscribbler: (books)
I'm proud to announce that as of last night I've already achieved my goal of two books read this month, thanks in large part to [profile] blackholly, who wrote the diminutive books which make up The Spiderwick Chronicles, of which I read the first one in two (yeah, I'm that slow) nights.  It's delightful to finally come across a kid's book that is illustrated.  Maybe I'm just reading the wrong age group of kids' books, but I expect that the reason I'm not seeing more illustrated literature these days is economic -- artists (in this case, Tony DiTerlizzi) have to be paid, and authors have to be paid, and no one really wants to pay significantly more for a book just because it has illustrations.  So, you either get picture books or you get text, but it seems rare anymore to get a book like, say, "The Headless Cupid," or "The Westing Game," which surprises the reader with a lovely illustration every ten or twenty pages.  Which may be why The Spiderwick Chronicles are broken into five books, each about 100 pages long, but containing lots of great illustrations.  In this first installment, the Grace children -- Jared, Simon, and Mallory -- move with their mother into a weird old family house after their parents' divorce.  At first the house just looks weird, but of course that's not enough to make a fun story, so soon the house sounds weird, and then weird things start happening, and soon you've got a rollicking fun book for and about kids. 

The other book I finished this month, which I started last month or maybe in May, is The Hearts of Horses, by Molly Gloss.  It's hard to compare Molly's writing to anyone else's.  When I first read a book by her, it was The Jump-Off Creek, and what soon struck me about it was the slow, patient pace at which it progressed, which matched the situation and disposition of the main character perfectly.  The Hearts of Horses, which takes place in the winter of 1917-1918, also progresses patiently, which again suits the main character, Martha Lessen, a young woman with a romantic notion of cowboys who plans to make her way through the West breaking horses and cowboying.  (Sorry about the comma splicing there. Yikes.)  Martha spends a winter breaking a "circle" of horses in fictional Elwha County, Oregon, helped in her endeavor by the fact that most able-bodied men have gone "over there" to fight in Europe, leaving farmers and ranchers in need of help wherever they can find it.  Martha isn't a fan of the "ride 'em crazy 'til they break" method of gentling a horse.  Here's the first paragraph of the book:

In those days, even before the war had swept all the young men from the ranches, there were girls who came through the country breaking horses.  They traveled from ranch to ranch with two or three horses they had picked up in trade for work they'd done.  Of course most outfits had fifty or sixty horses back then, so there was plenty of work, and when the war came on, no men to get it done.  Those girls could break horses as well as any man but they had their own ways of doing it, not such a bucking Wild West show.  They went about it so quiet and deliberate, children would get tired of watching and go off to do something else.  They were usually all alone, those girls, but it wasn't like in the moving pictures or the gunslinger novels, the female always in peril.  If they were in peril it wasn't from outlaws or crooked sheriffs, it was from the usual things that can happen with ranch work -- breaking bones, freezing your fingers off -- the kinds of things that can happen if you're a man or a woman. 
And this is exactly what a reader of The Hearts of Horses gets -- plenty of the kind of peril that an average rancher could expect early in the last century, and plenty of quiet and deliberate.  I fully enjoyed The Hearts of Horses, and in honor of Buy a Friend a Book Week, I would be delighted to send a copy to one reader in the U.S. or Canada who comments here by noon Pacific Time tomorrow, Wed., July 9, 2008.  I'll randomly select a winner in the afternoon and post the winner's ljname, or name, for non-ljers.

And now for my 15-minute a day writing challenge honesty check-in: (ugh)
 - July 3 -- none
 - July 4 -- none
 - July 5 -- none
 - July 6 -- none
(I obviously need to find a way to squeeze in the writing while my family is home.) 
 - July 7 -- I wrote for over an hour, hand written, about 12 pages, I have no idea how many words, probably about 1500.) 
 - July 8 -- I'll count this entry, although I do plan to do some more writing later in the day.  Looks like 917 words, so far.  And it took a lot longer than 15 minutes.  ;-)

(Edit: I cut my sucky first three paragraphs from this post, so it's way less than 917 words now.  I know you'll get over it.)
dampscribbler: (Daring Book)
I was delighted to be tapped as a reviewer for The Daring Book for Girls,, the companion volume to the best-selling Dangerous Book for Boys, which surprised and delighted readers earlier this year and fanned the flames of a variety of controversies (boys vs girls? dangerous play?) that continue to this day. When I learned that Andrea Buchanan and Miriam Peskowitz, whom I was already familiar with through their website Mother Talk, were to be the authors of this volume, I was pretty darned excited and I set my expectations fairly high.

The day my review copy arrived I thumbed through the book I thumbed through it for what I considered to be a few basics -- knot tying? check! Queen Boudica? check! making a book cover? check! There were some pleasant surprises, too. Boudica is profiled as part of a series called "Queens of the Ancient World." Cleopatra is included, but so are some others I had never heard of: Artemisia of the Persian Empire and Zenobia, "Queen of the East." The illustrations are pretty. I loved the "Women Spies" section. "Telling Ghost Stories" appealed to the writer/storyteller in me. "First Aid" is a quick introduction to important first-aid techniques, and is supplemented by a page of "Important Women in First Aid." Also included are math tricks, the periodic table of the elements, and a chart of Greek and Latin root words, among many other surprises like "Negotiating a Salary."

Less exciting to me, but likely to appeal to young girls, are some more typically "girly" things -- making a friendship bracelet, a daisy chain, and cootie catchers. As these are not the kinds of skills I remember well from my own childhood, I expect to come back to them when my own daughter (now 3) is old enough to want to try them.

Part guidebook, part gamebook, part history book, part reference book, "The Daring Book for Girls" is chock-full of interesting bits and pieces I expect to come back to time and again. It's only weakness seems to stem from this very diversity -- there's so much to visit that I can't always re-visit something I saw earlier (an alphabetical index at the end would have been helpful) and the historical sections, in most cases just a page or two, are presented in a rather dry and matter-of-fact way that may fail to ignite enough curiosity in a young reader for her to decide she wants to go to the library to find out more. These flaws are minor when considering a book with this much to offer, and I look forward to coming back to "The Daring Book for Girls" as my daughter grows up and seeks adventures of her own.

For more information, you can visit the book's website: http://www.daringbookforgirls.com

Disclosure: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher for review and will be paid a $20 Amazon gift certificate. This review is part of the Mother Talk Blog Tour for The Daring Book for Girls.
dampscribbler: (money for nothing)
My first glimpse of what author Edward Ugel calls “The Dark Side of Lottery Millions” came in the summer between my junior and senior years of college. I was living at home with my parents in Illinois, working a temp job for a blue-chip corporation and buying a weekly lottery ticket, dreaming of “winning big” so I could replace my falling-apart car, pay my own tuition instead of skiving off my parents, live in a real house instead of a sub-code rental shared with 6 other students. It never occurred to me to quit school if I won. The point of winning the lottery was to make life easier, not change it completely.

Toward the end of the summer, I came across an article in the Chicago Tribune profiling the winner of the Illinois Lottery’s first jackpot, a sort of “where is she now” article. It was appalling. Once a year for the past decade, the winner had received a check for fifty thousand dollars. She had won a $1million jackpot ten years before, to be paid annually for 20 years. Halfway through her annuity, she had developed a habit of spending large as soon as her check came until it was gone, usually in 6 months or less. She then spent the rest of the year begging and borrowing from friends, relatives, and lenders. The reporter asked her what she would do when her last check came. Her answer so floored me that now, twenty years later, I remember it word for word: “I’m going to cry and cry and cry.”

“Money for Nothing: One Man’s Journey Through the Dark Side of Lottery Millions” is a roller-coaster ride through author Edward Ugel’s experience in an industry that blossomed in the 1990’s as a result of lottery winners behaving in just such ways. Ugel’s job was to buy the winners’ payments, or remaining payments, for a fraction of their face value. This allowed the winners an opportunity to pay off debts accumulated as a result of, in most cases, bad decision making and willful over-accumulation of stuff – houses, cars, boats; maybe even a sorry couple of horses. The money came from investors, who would presumably collect the annual payments over time, thus earning a return on the cash they provided. In between was The Firm, the company (well, the fictionalized name of the company) that Ugel spent nearly a decade working for, and the crew within who provided the means to close the deal. And the deals were such that The Firm, and the folks in it, made a lot of money buying off lottery winners.

Ugel ambitiously weaves in and out of, essentially, three stories – the story of The Firm and his relationship with it, the story, or rather stories, of many of the desperate lottery winners he met, and his own more personal story of dealing with unemployment, compulsive gambling, and, when he closed a deal, coming into big money almost as easily as the lottery winner did, and managing that money just as badly. The writing is uneven, dragging at times, but where Ugel succeeds he really soars. The shower scene in an Atlantic City hotel in the last chapter is not to be missed, seriously. His profiles of the lottery winners are the most entertaining parts of the book, though he admits that names, locations, and basically all facts about the winners have been changed to protect their privacy. He dedicates Chapter 2 to the history of lotteries as far back as the Old Testament, and the role of lotteries in the development of the United States. Chapter 3 just might be the most important chapter in the book for anyone who wins the lottery or thinks they will. He calls it “Everything You’ll Wish You Never Knew About Winning The Lottery,” which is pretty much dead opposite of how I felt about this chapter. And it’s worth mentioning that beneath the chapter title he quotes one of the lottery winners he met as saying “I wouldn’t wish winning the lottery on Hitler.”

Think about that a minute.

Ugel compares himself and his co-workers at The Firm to the lottery winners, drawing parallels between personality traits and life habits. No one comes out looking good, but no one is a monster or moron, either. True that I don’t think there was a single person in this book I’d like to spend an evening at a bar with (and many evenings are spent at bars), but Ugel touches on the humanity in each person in a way that makes it easy to understand how he could be so good at his job for so long. I highly recommend “Money For Nothing” to anyone who has ever dreamed of “hitting it big.”

*Note: This review is sponsored by Mother Talk. I received a free review copy, which I wrote in quite a lot, and a $20 Amazon.com certificate, which, as far as I know, I cannot use to buy lottery tickets.

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