Thursday, June 23, 2011

As I am Slowly Buried: My Take on Professional Reading

What a Writer NeedsOf late, busy hasn't been a word that would adequately describe my life. After my wedding, I vaguely expected that my life would become simpler, more relaxing, more day by day. It hasn't though. I suppose in some way I should be thankful for this; after all, life doesn't always dish you what you want, but it is sure to give you what need. What I need right now is focus. Plain and simple. I need my mind to drawn away from everything else so that I can do what I need to do, finish reading What a Writer Needs by Ralph Fletcher.

It's for a course I'm taking, and though I've had an opportunity to finish it for years before this course required it, I've never been able to do it. I'm not a great reader of professional books. In fact, I am a horrifyingly bad reader of professional books. I do read them, as should anyone who has a respect for their profession, but I read disjointedly. I read without consistency. I take month or even year-long breaks between chapters. I have been known to read some professional books so slowly that by the time I finish a new edition has been published. I read about thirty of them at once, so many that afterwards I have little to recollection of which one said what about what, not that I'm the type to quote an author after the fact. I'm the type that will say, "I remember reading somewhere that…" because I have no idea which book something came out of. I just know that it was somewhere in some book, and that's good enough for me.

So I've been reading this, cover to cover, and I have to say that I'm encouraged by how well it's going. Even though I've never been great at finishing them, I love Ralph Fletcher's books. He's one of the authors whose books I am somewhere in the collective middle of. I've started every book of his I've ever seen, though not always at the beginning, and I've read at least a couple of chapters that I thought would be useful. I've done the same thing to a number of other authors of such books: Katie Wood Ray, Donald Graves, Donald Murray, Lucy Calkins, Barry Lane, Rob Marzano, and Charlotte Danielson all come to mind. I don't mean it as an affront to these people. I know that they are all incredibly talented writers. They write interesting, engaging work. It's just that I can only remain interested and engaged in a single professional text for maybe an hour before my mind is pleading with me for something light-hearted and irreverently stupid.

You could blame it on immaturity or label it as the consequence of an underdeveloped mind, but I just think of it as my own personal coping mechanism, my way of preventing brain overload. After all, I read somewhere that you shouldn't take life too seriously. No one gets out alive.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Wolven by Di Toft, OR I Conquer the Wilds

WolvenIt was a weekend worth remembering; a disastrous attempt at building a fire with wood that just wasn't having it; a carefree jaunt through a flea market that redefined rockbottom pricing; an opportunity to dive headlong into a British paranormal adventures series about that most overdone of angles, lycanthropy. I couldn't be much happier. Okay, in certain respects my weekend camping trip could have gone much better. In others, it was pretty near perfect.

Let's choose to accentuate the positive though. That boils down to the number of stars that are visible in central Pennsylvania, good company making for good times, and Wolven by Di Toft. Before I dive into the depths of joy that Toft's book of a boy and his dog boy brought me, let me just thank my wife and my sister-in-law for pulling me along with them on their trip to the wilds of central Pennsylvania. I don't normally go for the whole roughing it angle. Don't get me wrong. I have no aversion to nature but, as Jim Gaffigan so eloquently put it, "I'd like to keep the relationship professional." You really don't get to see so many stars in my small suburban town. That was hardly the case in the pitch black of the campground I spent a few days in this week. The trick was finding a patch of sky unobstructed by the abundant trees to view the spectacle overhead.

In the daytime, between wrangling with an energetic niece and nephew (a nephew that could run even an olympic marathoner ragged), I read Wolven and what a pleasant reprieve it was. No vampire romances to be found in this one. In fact, neither of the characters are old enough to have any interest in that, though there was the one scene where the two of them were entranced at the carnival by a girl with a swirly gown and wild hair. Instead, this was more akin to Shiloh if Shiloh had been partially human. Toft writes a fair adventure, though I feel somehow uncertain after this first book. I know that there's a second adventure in store for those brave enough to plow forward, but I was kind of expecting the villains to be more lasting. You see, she killed all the baddies by the end of book one. Now she's going to have to introduce a whole new batch of rotten toads for book two. I suppose that's the way it works for some series. Each volume would stand on its own well enough that it wouldn't need a series to back it up.

We'll have to wait on that second one as I haven't seen it in any of my local bookstores, though it claims to be out and ready for reading already. In the meantime, I'm going back to the land of the shrouded night sky. I'll miss the constellations, but home is where your stuff is after all.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Marriage, the End of the World, and an Eventful Saturday

On May 21, 2011, as the most recently predicted end of the world closed in on us, I found myself and my closest friends and relatives wearing tuxedos and milling around a banquet hall like really inept secret agents. In case that doesn't encapsulate what an awkward experience preparing for a wedding can be, let me add that this was my second visit to that same banquet hall that day, the first having come a few hours earlier when I was setting up various decorations with a collection of the most dedicated volunteers any person has any right to hope for. You see, on May 21st, I not only survived another fruitless apocalypse prediction and married someone who obviously severely underestimated my shortcomings, I also learned that a wedding can make even the calmest of people into forgetful, blithering morons. I am now a married man. On May 21st, I was that aforementioned moron. And yet, somehow I managed to get a ring onto my bride's finger and she must have said I do despite her better judgement.

And this fortuitous circumstance merits posting. Also, I have a couple of books to review and they are of the wedding variety. I'm not going to promote any of the hundred or so wedding-on-a-budget books that my bride copiously provided me with over the past year or so. There are more than enough people who spend their lives trying to push those books on unsuspecting goofballs like me without my throwing my thoughts into the fray. And I can't say I really read any of them carefully enough to merit their review. My bride did though. And she told me what they said. She knows enough about them to write a book of her own just reviewing everyone else's materials.

Flower GirlWhat I will review are two picture books that I read before we presented them to my niece and my cousin as part of their flower girl and ring bearer gifts. I read them, lost the first copy ring bearer book, replaced it, and presented the books to my young relatives with a few other things that my wife had picked up.  Of course, with a combined age of less than ten among the junior members of our wedding party, the books weren't the big hit I might have hoped they would be. No, that honor went to the build-a-bear companions we gave them. I liked the books though. They could have been any one of a number of books. Like so many other things in the wedding industry, there is an overabundance of picture books devoted to flower girls and ring bearers out there. Go to your local bookstore and give it a look. You'll see what I'm talking about.

Anyway, the basic idea behind your average book of this variety is something relatively cute and heartwarming, like a terribly drawn-out Hallmark card. Flower Girl was pretty much par for the course in that regard. It was cute. Heck, it was much more than cute. Yeah, that's right, I gonna drop the A-bomb. Flower Girl was stinkin' adorable! I wanted to hear a few of my literate relatives gush an "aww" and "Isn't that sweet?" I must have missed it though. Either that or the book was shoved way down deep in the gift bag and they didn't see it until a few days later.

The Best Ever Ring Bearer: All the Best Things About Being in a WeddingThe ring bearer book was every bit as brilliant. I should know since I've purchased two copies of the thing. I'm still hoping to find that first copy before the digital age ends the reign of the printed book so I can resell it and regain a degree of my dignity. Anyway, these aren't books that will redefine the genre. They will never be shortlisted among the candidates for great American literature. They'll sell a ton of copies though, since people who get married temporarily lose their financial mind and buy a whole bunch of stuff that they wouldn't even look at normally.

Anyway, I'm a married man now, so happy days are here. The day went off without a hitch and  other than the fact that I have now purchased a couple of books that most people will giggle at the existence of, I am so much better for the experience. So if you're as love loopy as I was (and still am), know that you're not alone, and that these two books are out there with about a million others are lurking in your periphery, waiting for their chance to strike your wallet. My advice? Let them. And let your wife have it her way on her wedding day. It's in your best interest.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Well Wishes for Lois Lowry

Recently, I've been following the blog posts of Lois Lowry more closely than usual as she has recounted something terribly difficult, the slow decline and death of a dear friend of hers, Martin Small. I have great respect for her work and though I haven't read every book she has ever published, I've read enough to know that she is an author of great and varied talent. I feel true sorrow at hearing about this hardship. As with many of the writers whose work I've read, I feel a strange connection to her despite our never having met, as though we're distant cousins or long separated friends. I want to send condolences though I'm not sure that such a gesture from a complete stranger would be at all meaningful or even helpful.

I experienced something similar when I read about Jane Yolen's struggle with the passing of her husband. I truly wish that I could reach out to them since I feel that by sharing their writing they've reached out to me in some way. It's difficult not to feel compassion for someone who shared something as personal as a piece of their own writing. I feel protective of them, because I know how hard sharing can be. There is a degree of exposure that comes from writing that can't be paralleled in almost any other profession.

So even though Lois Lowry is a stranger, I feel a sense of loss for her. I wish I could take away some of her suffering. I won't be offering commentary on any of her work here. I've read a lot of it, but this is hardly the time for it. Right now, I just want to wish her well. I want her to know that I am going to keep her in my thoughts. I won't claim to understand what she's going through. I know that's unrealistic. I just want to say I'm sorry for her loss, whether she ever reads this or not.

If you'd like to catch up on the blog posts I referenced in this post, here is the link:

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Reading challenges and an uncontrolled appetite...

If you read this blog carefully, and occasionally click on the blue highlighted words you find, you might have already noticed that I am a regular user of the book-centered website, I keep a running log of my reading activities on the site, I offer up reviews of many of the books I've finished reading (though they are typically very short reviews and incomparable to what I put up here), and I keep up with the blogging activities of many of my favorite authors thanks to a very simple blog display interface. More recently, I've taken part in the 2011 Goodreads Reading Challenge, something that I didn't think much of to start, but have since become unavoidably obsessed with. The premise is simple. Since users of Goodreads spend much of their time sharing what they've read and their opinions on those books, it seems only natural that Goodreads is able to gather statistics on a user's reading habits over a given time, provided that the user bothers to offer that information up. Therefore, it isn't too difficult to keep a running total of the books a user reads during the course of a year. If the user had a reading goal for a given year, Goodreads could offer progress updates to the reader and basically keep the reader on pace to reach that goal.

2011 Reading ChallengeI made a tentative goal to read 100 books in 2011. I remember as a child when my school would hold the 100 book challenge and we would all read for that mythical number and the resulting pizza party when we succeeded.  When deciding on my own goal I thought, I read a lot of books as a children's librarian. Even though I don't have any kind of prior gage on my reading habits, I figured 100 sounded like a nice round, possibly attainable number. Then I started monitoring my reading, being sure to update the site on any books I finished in a given day.

Well, it turns out that I was low-balling it. I topped 100 yesterday and now I'm moving beyond that. And I have to say that I give Goodreads a lot of the credit. I'm not saying that I wasn't a habitual reader before. What I'm saying is that I was a disorderly reader before. I was in the middle of just about every book I put my hands on. I didn't finish things. I would read something, get really involved in it, put it down at the end of a day about half finished, and pick up something completely new and different the next day without ever returning to finish what I was reading the day before. I was a mess. I had a fairly good memory for books so when I would pick something up for the second time, possibly even years later, I would pick up where I left off with only vague blurriness about a few forgettable details. But it didn't cater to being the sort of reader who would finish a lot of books. I new a little of a lot of things, but not nearly enough of almost anything for my opinion to be worth its while.

Now, I find myself going back to the same book day after day, writing status updates on my current progress in the Goodreads sidebar, and being so engaged that I find myself driving my fiancee up a wall with an almost constant need to gush about what I thought of this or that book. That's where this blog is probably saving my life in some manner. If I poured everything I was thinking into one ear hole, the owner of that ear hole would have every right to attempt to murder me. It would easily be deemed self-defense by any court of law.

"Your honor," my former fiancee would say, "he had only just finished a one-sided discussion on the merits of Chris Crutcher's Deadline when he unthinkingly segued into an anecdote from a Sloane Crosley essay he'd been reading. Now, I like I Was Told There'd Be Cake as much as the next girl, but one person can only take so much! Am I right?" The judge would solemnly nod his head and pardon her of all charges, and justice would be done. I can't argue with that. One person can only take so much. So I put my thoughts down here, where the reader can choose to click the close button rather than doing me bodily harm for the sake of some peace and quiet. I clog the Internet with a little bit more mindless chatter, and I move one step further toward a happy marriage. It's a happy alternative I think. I'm sure my fiancee agrees.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

A Little Something Unbearable…

A Touch of Dead (Sookie Stackhouse: The Complete Stories)Two o’clock on a Saturday and where do I find myself? In a women’s clothing store, waiting for my dear fiancée to try on a few pairs of brown dress pants. What does a man do in a women’s clothing store? He waits, occupying himself with anything that he can find to distract himself from the misery that is sitting in a women’s clothing store on an otherwise beautiful spring day. And so, the time had come for me to acquaint myself with Miss Sookie Stackhouse. You see, my fiancée is a True Blood fan, one among a legion of fans by my understanding, and so like many True Blood fans, she has decided to read the series from which True Blood was derived.

Now, if you are among the few who has read some of my earlier blog entries, you’ll remember that the last unbearable thing that my fiancée dropped upon my lap was equally paranormal, and equally cringe worthy. I am speaking, of course, of the Twilight books, Stephanie Meyer’s saga of strange creatures with strange addictions to sorry excuses for humanity. That’s right, Bella Swan, I still think you’re a dimbulb. I was never much for the Team Edward versus Team Jacob argument. I was always on Team You-Both-Could-Do-Much-Better. But this is a new beast altogether. Sookie Stackhouse has her own skills, her own vampires, her own dog man, her own messy home life. And I am not reading the entire series. It’s enough for me that I have passed by the television a few times while she was watching an episode.

No, my meeting with Sookie is due to an acute oversight on my part: leaving the house without sufficient reading material. I make a point of always keeping something to read from or write upon whenever I go out. This is primarily to prepare me for just such a situation as this one, the unplanned visit to pick up a pair of pants, or shoes, or a blouse, or just to browse for the sheer joy of it. As long as I have something to occupy myself with, I know I can persevere through whatever is thrown my way. Yet, on this particular Saturday, as we pulled into a parking space and prepared to disembark, what did I find behind me? Nothing. Well, the near equivalent of nothing. Just the volume of Sookie Stackhouse short stories that my fiancée recently checked out but neglected to remove from my backseat. Desperate times. I picked up the book and trudged into the store.

The book was in large print, not because my fiancée needed it, but because that was the only edition the library had available. That was fine by me though. If there’s one quirk I don’t take issue with, it’s the publisher that takes unnecessary pity on my eyes. Aside from that, it turned a 300 page book into a much more manageable burden should I become strangely enthralled. So I cracked it open to the beginning and dove in. Around me, my fiancée began draping pants that she wanted to try on. I become a human coat rack in stores. It’s okay. I’ve happily resigned myself to this lot in life. She’s more than worth the slight indignity.

I started reading a story about a trio of fairies who suspect that one of their own has been slain by a coworker at a strip club. This is not exactly my choice of material, but it’s better than price stickers and clothing labels. They’ve rounded up their collection of suspects and tied them up in various parts of the house. Sookie, who reads minds (but apparently doesn’t see the moneymaking potential therein, since she works as a waitress at a dive bar), has been brought in to interrogate the suspects. After cross-examining one after another, each with their own backlog of reasonable suspicion, Sookie uses her powers of deduction to piece together a plot that pins the club owner with premeditated murder by lemon juice. Oh boy, I think. Fairy murder by lemon juice doesn’t bode well for what’s to come.

The next story is of the vampire persuasion. It centers on the coming of who else but Count Dracula, and via a few slightly funny “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” references it builds a story around a vampire holiday, of all things. It ends with a vampire being staked by Sookie while other vampires, werewolves and werepanthers (that’s right, I said werepanthers) all look on. Oh my, maybe the clothing labels would have been better. But I keep reading, and horror of horrors, I am getting hooked. I manage to blow through the third story, a story centered on another vampire who killed Sookie’s long-lost vampire cousin, before my fiancee picks out her pants, and I am started on number four by the time we exit the store. Maybe there’s something to this paranormal escapade after all.

So you’d think that after leaving the store and returning home to my room-o-literature, I should be ready to set aside Sookie’s stories and get back to the high-quality books I normally read, but you’d be wrong. I keep on keeping on. In fact, I read the final two stories before dinner. Story four involves some simple detective-style storytelling focused on an insurance agent who dabbles in magic to increase his clients’ luck. I’d hardly even call it a story as much as an inconclusive yet colorful anecdote. Story five is a shameful attempt at paranormal harlequin writing. Basically, the story boils down to a lonely Sookie looking for a little lovin' and finding it in the arms of an abandoned werewolf. Then, because everything isn't odd enough, it turns out that the werewolf was only a shifter/actor hired to give the required lovin' by Sookie's recently discovered fairy great-grandfather as a Christmas gift. Yet I still manage to zone out everyone, everything, even through the fairy grandparent hiring his human granddaughter her own prostitute. Even my fiancée seems a bit peeved with me before I’m through, though when I read a book like this she does offer me some leniency.

So, I have fallen prey to Sookie Stackhouse. I don’t have any desire to read the other stories. I’ll leave them to the masses. But for one day at least I have to admit that I became a Sookie faithful. She helped me through something unbearable, even if the reprieve she offered might have been every bit as unbearable under other circumstances. I guess I owe her one.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Sex Lives of Cannibals and Lost On Planet China by J. Maarten Troost

The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial PacificDuring my teenage years, I would never have imagined reading a book titled The Sex Live of Cannibals simply because I couldn't get through the title without tittering like an adolescent schoolgirl. Yes, I am, or rather I was and might still be that immature. But for whatever inexplicable reason, I was recently able to get past that or at least keep on reading through the giggle fit it caused me and finish this book. That probably has something to do with the fact that this is the second book by J. Maarten Troost that I've read. Despite The Sex Lives of Cannibals being the first book Troost managed to get published, I stumbled upon an audio edition of his most recent book, Lost On Planet China, a month sooner. It might also have something to do with the fact that I didn't read them at all, but opted instead to listen to both books in my car while on an endless daily commute to and from work.

Lost on Planet China: One Man's Attempt to Understand the World's Most Mystifying NationLost on Planet China is an excellent book. The audio edition offers the reader who hasn't the eyes to spare the chance to experience that excellent book. True, the people at Blackstone Audio made a curious choice of readers choosing Simon Vance, a top-of-the-line performer with a strong English accent despite the author's lacking any such accent. It gives the reader the impression that they are listening to a wandering Brit on a far-flung expedition from his not-so-native home in California, but it does little to detract from the quality of the book. I devoured it in the space of a few days despite all the obstacles that preparing for my wedding caused. I'm getting married soon, on the 21st of this month to be precise. Yet, somehow I managed to fit 11 hours of listening pleasure in between the endless shopping that weddings strangely require. I think it was the one thing that allowed me to maintain some degree of sanity amidst the buying spree. I needed to hear the trials of another man in an equally foreign climate to give me perspective on my own.

Sadly though, when a book is consumed with such ferocious haste, the reader finds himself in need of further nourishment to sustain him through the continuing mayhem. I needed distraction. And so I found myself an audio edition of The Sex Lives of Cannibals, read by the same humorously English Simon Vance. I guess the people at Blackstone just assumed that a man who lived in Holland as well as some of the more interesting parts of Europe for a time would have to be encumbered by some verbal peculiarity. Or maybe I'm reading too much into it and Simon Vance just happens to enjoy reading Troost as much as I enjoy listening to him read it. In any case, The Sex Life of Cannibals turned out to be a beast of entirely different proportions. It was plain to see that from the start. For one thing, this memoir recounts an entirely different Troost, one who is unmarried yet oddly living the married life, unsure of what he wants to do with his life career-wise, and entirely unprepared for any of what he was getting himself into. True, Troost was continually mystified by China too. The lifestyles and customs of the Chinese were perplexing to say the least. But in Cannibals, we get the chance to observe him as he develops coping mechanisms. We witness his gradual acceptance of a life where nothing can be assumed, no part of his past can offer him guidance, and setting dictates choices in every conceivable moment.

I gained an entirely new understanding of the hardships of life in the Pacific. My experience on Pacific islands is limited to the Hawaiian six: Oahu, Maui, Kauai, the Big Island, Lanai, and Molokai; where living in paradise is only unattainable because I couldn't afford it. Compared to life on tiny Tarawa where Troost witnesses firsthand that the postcard appearance of a life in the Pacific is quite unlike anything a person might experience in reality, I have no business offering commentary on the subject. There is a degree of limiting life to its more basic survivalist tendencies that a person might expect to find in a book about someone who survived a plane crash in the remote Himalayas. The chapter on island dogs alone is enough to make any person realize that this is another world onto itself. Savagery doesn't seem like such a far off descriptor for the lifestyle one must embrace, though to call the people of Tarawa savage would be inaccurate. The Kirabati in his book are kind people that I grew to like just from getting to know them secondhand over the course of the story. Some of their customs seem like a bit of a stretch for me, like the system in which anyone can walk up to you, ask you for something that they want or need, and you have to agree to offer it to them right there on the spot. It's pronounced baboosi, though I'm not sure about the correct spelling. While I am a big supporter of sharing, this seems to be a bit over the top. In general, they are just living the life that an atoll dictates to them.

This book was enough to make me know that I never wanted to live on Tarawa or any other part of the Republic of Kiribati. But then again, after reading his China book I was happy to write off China as a place I wanted to keep my distance from as well. Maarten Troost's literary career seems to boil down to a very simple formula. He hunts out an adventure in a bizarre place or the adventure hunts him out somehow instead, he promptly dives in way over his head, he's washed away in a flotilla of harrowing and slightly horrible events, and then writes it all down as accurately as he can recollect with a generous dose of historical insight thrown on to illuminate the whole experience. It does the trick. Despite the fact that I wouldn't want to relive any of his adventures firsthand, I've found myself replaying a chapter a couple of times just to pull everything out. I wouldn't trade places with him though. Not for all the money in the world.

Getting Stoned with Savages: A Trip Through the Islands of Fiji and VanuatuA life of adventure is probably not in the cards for me. I am looking forward to Getting Stoned With Savages as soon as I get my hands on a copy. I'll continue to read what J. Maarten Troost writes though, and to paraphrase something I read in another review, a book is all the closer I need to get to a life like his.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Jim Dale Carries Me Through the Classics

Let me start by saying that I am not one of those readers who believes that reading the classics is a reader's rite of passage, necessary in order to qualify his or her opinions on other works. I've never read the endless tomes of Leo Tolstoy or the collected poetry of Emily Dickinson, and though I'm sure there are those who would disagree, I don't think my thoughts are any less valid for this lack of experience. Despite this, I recently polished off a book that I had been trying to read for quite a few years, and I managed it from start to finish in just a little more than a day's time. It was J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan, a classic by most people's standards, but not the easiest story to grasp for a miserably incompetent American reader who gets caught on every dose of English wit and wisdom so liberally splashed onto every page by the renowned Mr. Barrie.

My secret to success wasn't anything brilliant. I'm not about to sell you on some stupid program guaranteed to make you a snooty reading snob in seven easy steps. Nope. I'm still the low-brow buffoon I've always been. I've just discovered a reading format that pushes me through the unattainable books that I never imagined I'd find myself finishing. The audiobook. Well, that, and I've found a reader who makes otherwise unbearable stories truly enjoyable. And that reader is Jim Dale. Now, I know that I'm not this man's only fan. In fact, in the world of audiobooks, Jim Dale has roughly the same status that Oprah has in the daytime television. He read the audiobook editions of all seven Harry Potter books, which one assumes would naturally catapult him to the forefront of the profession. The thing is, he did it really well. Every character received their own voice treatment. The man does voices, lots of them. And he wins awards for them, lots of them.

Peter and the StarcatchersPeter and the Shadow ThievesI didn't listen to the Harry Potter books though. I read them, page by sleep-deprived page. In fact, I came across Mr. Dale's talent thanks to Dave Barry and an awful daily commute. I was in the local public library wondering. That's something I spend an inordinate amount of time doing in libraries, wondering. I look and look, feeling strangely at home. Yet, that day I happened across the audiobook edition of the book Peter and the Shadow Thieves read by none other than Jim Dale. It'd been a couple years since I'd navigated my way through the innumerable pages of Peter and the Starcatchers, and I figured I'd put book two in the series off for long enough. Aside from that, I had to contend with two hours a day, five days a week of driving that I found about as bearable as most of the time I spent in college-level psychology courses. So I borrowed the audiobook, popped in disc one and settled into the most pleasant surprise I'd had in months.

If you looking for a real treat, I strongly recommend the aforementioned series in its delightful audiobook format. You'll find nothing better. I flew through the remainder of the books and found myself wanting more than anything to hear a little more. Jim Dale had brought Peter Pan to life for me in a way that no movie ever had, had renewed my interest in trying to finish the original Barrie book, had brought the wonder of Neverland into better focus. Now, Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson did a wonderful job putting together a compelling series full of action and intrigue, mystery and suspense. Dale went that extra mile though and animated it with only the power of his voice.

Anyway, when I returned the materials I borrowed and I thought there was nowhere else to go with it, I found myself back at the audiobook section leafing through the other listening options. And wouldn't you know I saw an audio edition of Peter Pan read by none other than Jim Dale? I picked it up without another thought and hurried out to my car to start my next adventure. By the next day, I'd finished it off though. I listened to it again. I didn't know what I found harder to believe, that I'd gotten all the way through or that I'd understood it well enough to thoroughly enjoy the experience. Well, that was how it all started. I'd become one of the Jim Dale faithful. I went back to library looking again for something else he could pull me through. I found classics. Jim Dale reads classics. As I write this, I have A Christmas Carol  by Charles Dickens and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. I'm nearing the end of A Christmas Carol right now, and it's been another excellent experience from the death of Jacob Marley up to now. I'm ready to descend into Wonderland as soon as I leave the snowy pre-Christmas streets of 19th century London. I have the strange feeling that it will be a lot of fun. Who knows where I'll go next? Maybe around the world in record time with Phileas Fogg? We'll just have to wait and see.

In the meantime, if you have the means and an otherwise horrific car ride ahead of you, stop by your local library and pick up an audiobook courtesy of Jim Dale. You won't regret it unless you have an aversion to quality entertainment. If you do, that probably explains your choosing to read this blog, but I can't account for taste. Thanks for taking a look. I've got to get back to the ghostly intervention of one miserly Mr. Ebenezer Scrooge.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

TODAY, I DISEMBARK FROM UNDERPANTS! Book 8: Captain Underpants and the Preposterous Plight of the Purple Potty People

The eighth book in Captain Underpants's series of epic adventures seems to be the last, though you wouldn't get that impression from reading the final page of epic novel 8 where Pilkey promises many more books on the way. First of all, there is the promised next adventure of Captain Underpants titled Captain Underpants and the Terrifying Return of Tippy Tinkletrousers. Since it's been 5 years and there's still no Tinkletrousers, I think now might be a good time to give up hope on that front. Anyway, it sort of leaves me with a certain lack of closure on this reading challenge. I never had any intention of giving the two books of "crunchy fun" a second glance (or a first glance for that matter), so not reading them doesn't bother me, but an unpublished Captain Underpants makes my accomplishment seem unfinished somehow.

Anyway, the final step in my Captain Underpants Challenge was right on par with the previous seven. The story was a bit absurd, the humor a bit stale, the plot twists a bit far-fetched, and yet it was not a bad book on the whole. I didn't care for the disparaging remarks made at the expense of the elderly, but at least Pilkey made them into an impressive pair of superheroes by the end. Boxer Boy and Great-Granny Girdle flying off to find an early bird special together was the most romantic moment of the entire series without a close second.

This wasn't my favorite epic in the series, but it was okay. I found the alternate version of reality that the boys were transported to far more appealing than the one they started and finished the series in, but I suppose that was intentional. Crackers the Pterodactyl never made it home to the Mesozoic Era, massive property destruction caused by Sulu the gigantic bionic hamster is surely going to come back and haunt the boys at some point in the near future, and let's not forget that the boys are off prison for bank robbery, but all that can be handled in the future (if there is a future). I have a bad feeling that the evil versions of the boys aren't finished in this series. I wasn't all that impressed with them to be honest. They were fairly predictable, and how many evil versions of superheroes can be done before you just don't care anymore? I think I've reached my limit on that variety of plot twist. Evil twins, alternate realities, parallel universes? They've all been done to death.

Along the way through this final adventure, many of the jokes fall along the same lines as jokes from previous books. I still enjoyed it when characters made references to other parts of the book by page or chapter number. It was still funny when Pilkey referred to the fact that the plot could only work in a slightly obnoxious children's book. The problem is that by the time I reached this point in the series, I found myself longing for something else. Just being privy to the knowledge that the author knows what he's doing is a bit silly and nonsensical doesn't give a reader fulfillment on its own. I don't hate the books. They're good for an occasional laugh. They just get a bit tired after a week straight of one-a-day pacing.

I'm ready for the end of this challenge. I think I've learned something from the experience and I will never again sneer in derision when a child tells me they'd like to read the Captain Underpants books. I know them for what they are and even though I will never call them the finest example of…well… anything, I can say with some degree of certainty that they are okay. There are regrettable moments among the good, but that's the case with most books. This series wasn't the something special that it's been made out to be by both its friends and its foes. It was pretty commonplace writing, written to pseudo-offensive perfection. If you're after that sort of thing, then by all means dive in. As for me, I'm over it. It was fun while it lasted, but that time has passed. I'll leave it to my family to decide whether I'm any less sane than I was before I started.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Book 7: Captain Underpants and Big, Bad Battle of the Bionic Booger Boy, Part 2

Before you ask me why I didn't bother to include "The Revenge of the Ridiculous Robo-Boogers" in the above title, see my explanation for the same problem in my book 6 entry and move on with your lives. Now, to more pressing matters, like my omission of a V.I.H. (that's Very Important Hamster) from my review of book 6. That's right, everyone! I did an entire review of Captain Underpants and the Big, Bad Battle of the Bionic Booger Boy, Part 1 without mentioning the hero of the story, Sulu the Bionic Hamster.

So Sulu, as you might have guessed, is a hamster and he's bionic. He's truly the sort of pet that every child should dream of having. At the start of book 6, Sulu was a non-bionic hamster belonging to Melvin Sneedly, but by the end, Sulu was a heroic, monster-fighting super hamster living in George and Harold's tree house. Quite a transformation to undergo in about 160 pages, and yet he didn't even get an honorable mention in my review. That's just unacceptable. I should be banned from the series for such an omission. So I'm going to make it up to him now, in CAPITALIZED, BOLD, ITALICIZED, PARTIALLY UNDERLINED PRINT!


Well, now that that's over, let's get down to book 7, the unnecessarily long story of Melvin's second attempt to use evil brilliance to take over the world and become popular. So part 2 of the Bionic Booger Boy epic was not really about a bionic booger boy as much as it was about the brain switcheroo at the end of part one. Within the first chapter, Sulu the Bionic Hamster managed to fire the robo-boogers into outer space where they took a backseat role to Melvin for most of the book. In essence, Carl, Trixie, and Frankenbooger took up a supporting role even though they were the focus of the entire ridiculous subtitle of the book. Melvin and Krupp stole the storyline from Freaky Friday, each taking on the body of the other. That got old fast, but Dav Pilkey did have the decency to assure that our suffering would be over by chapter 17.

Anyway, the discovery that they had been switched was quickly followed by several convoluted plans to undo the damage, culminating in the most convoluted of all, to build a time machine ala Back to the Future and go back in time to nab the Combine-O-Tron 2000 before it was destroyed. This sounds foolproof, right? Ha! At least there wasn't a lot of space time continuum jabber to stumble through. Pilkey was more interested in making references to how painfully aware everyone was that they were merely characters in an absurd children's book. Like they always say, if something draws out a laugh the first time, do it over and over again.

So George and Harold recklessly careen through time, doing whatever it takes to get back the Combine-O-Tron 2000 including stealing a pterodactyl from the Mesozoic Era to hijack the librarian's car. Long story short, they succeed and Melvin modifies the machine to steal Captain Underpants's superpowers for himself, succeeds, and still doesn't get the recognition he's after. Captain Underpants, Harold, and George head off to battle against Carl, Trixie, and Frankenbooger, who have miraculously returned via Poopsie the space shuttle, and manage to overcome the robo-boogers even without their superpowers. The hidden moral seems to be "you can't buy friendship." Dav Pilkey would certainly be horrified to discover that he had written a second moralistic adventure in his series of amoral fiascos, but it happened anyway.

One more book to go and I'm still standing. Will I make it through this last volume? Check back tomorrow to find out!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Book 6: Captain Underpants and the Big, Bad Battle of the Bionic Booger Boy, Part 1

Okay, so I cut the subtitle, but I mean, come on! How many words can one person justifiably put on the front cover of a book without his publisher saying, "That's enough, bub! Save some for the inside!"? I'm pretty sure that sentence is a catastrophe of punctuation, but it had to be done. For the Captain Underpants purists out there, the subtitle was "The Night of the Nasty Nostril Nuggets" which is another masterpiece of alliteration, though I stand by my earlier comment. Too long is too long, regardless of word choice.

So let's get down to the story. Melvin Sneedly, a tiny speck in the background of Captain Underpants's previous adventures, surges to the forefront in this epic. He's the villainous tattletale that was just bound to happen somewhere in a series about two exceptionally mischievous school-age boys. Of course, being a villain in the Dav Pilkey realm of villainy means that something has to be childishly gross about him. Enter the dependable unplanned element entering the transformation machine's energy beam as he attempts to transform himself into a super bionic being ploy. We've all seen it done a thousand times before, but snot covered super being is definitely a new twist on an old trick. The usual angle is a half boy, half animal. It's not one third boy, one third robot, one third mucus. Pilkey gets kudos for creativity.

Melvin Sneedly was truly an awful little guy. Even before he turned into the contents of a nostril, he wasn't particularly likable. Sure, he was underappreciated just like many of the Underpants villains were before they turned evil, but he was also a detestable pain-in-the-neck with a slight Napoleon complex. I'm no psychologist, but the kid needed help. One thing that separated him from the pack was the fact that he didn't turn evil right away as if mutation is an inherently evil activity. No, in fact, he tried to go on with his life while working toward the fix for his malady. I don't know why he didn't try to contain himself while he worked towards righting things. He could have been an unobtrusive gross thing in a vacuum sealed bubble and saved a lot of hassle, but let's not nitpick at an otherwise kind-of-okay story.

The Incredible Hulk-like mutation he underwent at the tissue factory was amusing if for no other reason than that the only thing anyone seemed to notice about it before it got out of hand was Melvin's sudden bad grammar. Also the solution to the problem being as simple as switching the batteries around in the Combine-O-Tron 2000 was a stroke of pure brilliance, especially since it gave Pilkey ample opportunity to take a few humorous shots at the absurdity of the entire story. Both of my favorite lines in this story were written in that same self-deprecating vein of humor.

The first came on page 125 when Captain Underpants needed a red cape with black polka dots and George and Harold were hiding behind, of all things, a red curtain with black polka dots. He wrote,
"Gee," he said, "I sure wish I could find a red curtain with black dots on it."
"Hey," said George as he pointed to the red curtain with black dots on it, "here's a red curtain with black dots on it."
"What a remarkably unexpected coincidence," said Captain Underpants as he grabbed the latest in a series of convoluted plot devices and tied it around his neck.
That is good comedy. There are no two ways about it. The second came on page 160 when George and Harold have just suggested that to undo the effects of the Combine-O-Tron 2000 they switch the batteries around. Melvin's parents knock the idea for its lack of scientific foundation. They say,
"You can't expect to reverse the effects of a highly complex cellular-moleculizing Combine-O-Tron just by switching the batteries around. That type of thing only happens in obnoxious children's stories."
George responds by self-consciously replying, "Ahem. Well… why don't you just give it a try anyway." I really respect him for handling it the way he does. Everything in these books is cleverly crafted with tongue-in-cheek sensibility. He's obviously playing with us. He knows he's pushing some limits, though nothing he's doing hasn't been done a thousand times before.

I say we should all laugh along with him at the joke he's made. Whether we decide to join in or not, he's had his fun. It's up to us to decide if the fun is at our expense or ours to share.

Book 5: Captain Underpants and the Wrath of the Wicked Wedgie Woman

Well, somehow I managed to escape the wrath of Captain Underpants and the Wrath of the Wicked Wedgie Woman completely unscathed. Sure, there was that moment on page 137 when I had to make a decision about whether or not to read Chapter 25, The Incredibly Graphic Violence Chapter (In Flip-O-Rama) after George and Harold warned me not to. I mean, I did say that I'd read all eight books, and if I skipped pages 137 to 156 in book five I'd always have that hanging over my head, but if anyone would know when it was a good idea to skip a few pages in a Captain Underpants book, George and Harold would. What to do, oh, what to do? Well, I read the forbidden chapter. I didn't give myself the eleven spankings and time-out that the police officers on page 138 gave out as punishment, but they were hanging from a street sign by their underwear and they are only police officers from a children's adventure story so I think I might live outside of their jurisdiction.

Anyway, the near marriage of Mrs. Ribble and Mr. Krupp was probably the highlight of this book for me. Mr. Krupp's frozen in fear reaction was pretty funny, especially since it lasted for about a week. Also, Pilkey decided to play with the references to previous books in the series a lot more than usual this time. The hands-down best example of this had to be when he poked fun at the annoying length of the third book's title just after the remaining super power juice from book three spills on Wedgie Woman's head. I think that might be the best angle at humor in the later books of the series. Who can't appreciate an author who's willing to poke fun at his own work? Pilkey has been willing to do this since the start of the series with a casual comment from George or Harold when the story takes a turn for the seemingly improbable. Now, however, he's kicked it up a notch.

I kind of wish that Robo-George and the Harold 2000 didn't have to be destroyed in the battle against Wedgie Woman. They seemed like they might have had a lot of potential laughs left. When the Harold 2000 kicked the ball right through page 102 and onto page 103, I thought for sure that Pilkey would keep them around for at least book six. All in all, they didn't seem so bad, just a bit mislead. With a little guidance from the new and improved Mrs. Ribble, they might have turned out just as well as everyone else at Horwitz Elementary. Now that I think about it though, they were probably better off ending things they way they did. Lucky them.

Anyway, the next book is a two parter as far as I know, something about a bionic booger boy. After that, I should only have one book left. That would imply that the light at the end of the tunnel should be coming into view anytime now. I really think I'm going to make it. Thanks to the one reader or so that has stuck by me since this whole crazy idea came into my head. You shouldn't have. Really. There are better things you could have done with your time. Come to think of it, there are better things that I could have done with my time. Oh well. At least I had some laughs.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Book 4: Captain Underpants and the Perilous Plot of Professor Poopypants

Hooray! I'm halfway there. I have to say, I expected my face to be set in a permanent cringe by this point, but it's not. This series isn't as terrible as I was convinced it would be. It's funny. Sure, all the stories are nearly identical in structure, and if a joke worked in book one, it's still being used in book four, but sometimes a joke can still be as funny the fourth time as it was the first. I don't mind that. Some of the best gags in the history of comedy were based on solid repetition. Who can forget the longest knock-knock joke ever? You know the one. The guy keeps knocking on the door and saying banana until finally the home owner presumably opens up holding something large and menacing and growling because the guy changes his tune and says orange and the joke mercifully comes to a close.

Then again, no one ever laughs at that joke. They usually end up chasing the person who told it down the street with torches and pitchforks. Dav Pilkey, I won't chase you around with a torch and pitchfork for reusing the same jokes again and again. I don't advise anyone else to do that either. I'm sure he's a nice guy. His sense of humor might begin to wear on you after a while, but that's no reason for joining a pitchfork toting mob.

Anyway, Professor Pippy Pee-Pee Poopypants was quite the alliterative mess. His backstory in the geographically interesting land of New Swissland (I say interesting because it's described as being "just southeast of Greenland" i.e. Iceland) where everyone has silly names, left me wondering whether Pilkey has any fans in Reykjavik. If anyone has good reason to brandish torches and pitchforks at Mr. Pilkey, the people of Iceland might. Among all the "epic novels" that I've read, Poopypants was the first villain I actually felt bad for. In fact, changing everyone's name to give them a taste of their own medicine almost seemed just after they laughed him right out of the world of academia and never gave him a chance to share his inventions. He's no hero though. He proved that when he treated his assistant like he was less valuable than dirt. If only he hadn't decided to rename himself Tippy Tinkletrousers from jail, this story could have had a happy ending for everyone involved.

I love the running joke with the little boy who always happens to witness the most unlikely moments of each story, and consistently tells his mother what he saw only to be told that he is making everything up. They usually make only one appearance per book, but in this one they showed up twice, both times running the observant son and oblivious mom bit to perfection. That wasn't the only first in this volume though. This book also marked the first time in the series when George and Harold purposely turned Mr. Krupp into Captain Underpants to try and save the day. That's not a big surprise since during the third book Captain Underpants drank superhero juice meaning he is now a bonafide superhero when the clothes come off. I suspect that will start happening more often in the books to come, but I guess I'll have to wait and see.

Well, that about does it for book four. The Wrath of the Wicked Wedgie Woman is up next, but before I sign off for today I'd like to mention some disturbing news I happened upon last night. Someone beat me to the punch in my little Captain Underpants challenge. Before I even conceived of the idea to blog about my Underpants experience, someone out there had already blogged their way through book four. Since then, that same blogger polished off book five and one can only presume that book six can't be far off. I really enjoyed her thoughts on the books she's read so far, so I only think it fair to offer her thoughts up to anyone who has been following my efforts. That's right, I take care of my readers, all two of you. The blog I'm referring to is Kids Tails and the blogger is Michele Lee. Check it out if you have the chance. It's sure to be worth your time, especially if you assign so little value to your time that you bothered to read this post all the way to the end. Just kidding. Don't stop reading.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Book 3: Captain Underpants and the Invasion of the Incredibly Naughty Cafeteria Ladies From Outer Space (and the Subsequent Assault of the Equally Evil Lunchroom Zombie Nerds)

To begin with, that title could have been an entire chapter by itself! But I suppose this is the era of the long title and that's what you get with a series like Captain Underpants. This book was a bit more of the same running gag with a new twist. Now, instead of Mr. Krupp mistakenly believing that he is a superhero named Captain Underpants, he actually will be a superhero, though that development doesn't come until the end of this volume of Underpants. Also, the villains have stepped up a notch. Aliens coming to take over the world and coincidentally choosing Horwitz Elementary as the headquarters of their evil plan was certainly a convenient twist. This doesn't bode well for the rest of the series. Already Mr. Pilkey is resorting to some pretty far-fetched gimmicks to squeeze another story out of his hat.

I'd call this amping up of the series a typical choice though. Harry Potter amped up at book three. So did Gregor the Overlander and Percy Jackson and the Olympians. Book three is usually the game changer for whatever reason. The danger takes a step in the messy direction, the heroes come to some realization of their true potential, things just start to happen. Things are no different in this series. Sorry if I'm letting a secret go here, but the Mr. Krupp edition of Captain Underpants gets superpowers in this book. He actually manages to fight off a mutant dandelion beast, rather than getting caught by the bad guys and waiting on George and Harold to save the day.

There was also one moment here in which George and Harold did something so out of character and noble that I had to read it twice just to make sure I'd read it right. It came as they were trapped in a cage in the aliens' spaceship. George and Harold worked together to do something in the best interests of planet Earth by putting their own lives in danger. When did the two of them grow a conscience? It must have been somewhere between book two and three. Could they be growing a respectable character? Too soon to tell. We'll just have to wait and see, just like whether or not I make it to the end of this challenge.

The next book is the halfway point. The title is a bit shorter, but here comes Professor Poopypants, a real crowd pleaser if Captain Underpants ever created one. I think I've managed to cling to my sanity so far, so keep on reading, because a nervous breakdown can't be far off. My father has concerns that I'm hanging one foot off the deep end here, and I'd hate to just dangle one foot over the abyss without taking the leap at some point.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Book 2: Captain Underpants and the Attack of the Talking Toilets

"I would start drawing a picture of this chubby super-hero looking guy, while I talked about creating my own comic books. Then I would tell my audience the name of the character I was drawing. When I said the words 'Captain Underpants', all the kids would burst out laughing. I'd draw the underwear and the cape, and the kids in the audience LOVED it! Finally, I'd mention the title of one of the comics I had created as a kid. It was called 'Captain Underpants and the Attack of the Talking Toilets'. When the kids heard that title, the room would EXPLODE with laughter!"— Dav Pilkey

I figured that I'd open with a Dav Pilkey quote today, so the above comes direct from Dav Pilkey's website. Anyway, I finished book two and I'm still here. The realization that I'm coming to is that he's writing a series for the audience that probably turns to television more often than the library for their entertainment. The humor in this book would seem relatively mild were it featured in Spongebob Squarepants, so no I'm not offended by it. I think that the teachers are poor representations of real teachers, though I suspect that they are poor enough that any reader, even a child, would understand that.

George and Harold are basically the same delinquents they were in the first book. In a real school system, their parents would have been forced to home-school them and spend their every waking hour trying to keep them out of juvenile hall. Their pranks are your basic extremely expensive property destruction variety that would be a one way ticket out of any school system with a hefty bill for parents. The difference is of course that the staff and principal are all monstrously bent on George and Harold's demise, which is giving a couple of pranksters much more credit than they would get in reality.

So, the name of the game seems to be the running gag. A lot of the jokes and humorous reactions were rehashed in this volume. Basically, this works a lot like a comic book or a children's cartoon series on television. I'm reminded of my favorite show growing up, Pinky and the Brain. If Pinky didn't ask Brain, "So, Brain, what are we going to do tonight?" and Brain didn't respond, "The same thing we do every night, Pinky! Try to take over the world!" the episode just never would have happened. If the Brain didn't ask Pinky, "Pinky, are you pondering what I'm pondering?" and Pinky didn't respond, "I think so Brain, but..." only to finish with some craziness, I think the show might have been cancelled on the spot. The same goes here.

The set-up was not so very different from the first book. The boys commit some heinous act of prankery, get away with it, villainize the staff for trying to prevent its recurrence, and are validated by the staff overreacting with evil and maniacal glee at their plan to prevent it in the future with torturous punishment. There are your first fifty pages. Then the boys manage to create havoc despite the punishment, it gets out of hand, Captain Underpants is awoken only to get in over his head, at which point the boys save him and find a way out of Mr. Krupp's endless punishment. That's the rest of the book. Oh, and whenever the action reaches a comical climax, Pilkey drops some Flip-O-Rama into the mix.

It's still funny. It's different enough to qualify as a new story. There is still that added element of an extra layer of humor for the observant reader. Overall, these aren't bad books. They're not great either, but if children are open to reading them, I say let them. I would advise that an adult just cautions the child that what they read is not an example of how things are supposed to work. Then again, if a kid doesn't figure that out on their own, chances are that things weren't quite right to begin with and this isn't going to make it any worse. Pranking isn't harmless fun, as George and Howard suggest. But looking at the reaction of the other children of Horwitz Elementary who are often the butt of the pranks, you can see that's the case. They don't look at George and Howard as heroes. In most cases, George and Howard are afraid that the other children will find out that they are behind the pranks. They know the other kids don't see the humor in ruining extracurricular school events.

That being said, I don't believe that the books condone George and Howard's actions. They just fail to condemn them, which isn't great either but it could be worse. Anyway, next up in my challenge is book three, Captain Underpants and the Invasion of the Incredibly Naughty Cafeteria Ladies from Outer Space. There's a subtitle too, but I'm too tired from the first part to finish. Wish me luck.

Book 1: The Adventures of Captain Underpants by Dav Pilkey

Well, I made it through book one. Seven more are on the way though.

To begin with, I think I can lay one mystery to rest right now. I know why the Underpants books have such a short shelf life, and no, it's not because they are so perfect that readers tear pages out just to have a keepsake from the reading experience. No, the truth is far more sinister than that. I say sinister because I suspect that this spine cracking reality was brought on intentionally. I don't know whether to put it on Scholastic or Dav Pilkey, but the crux of the issue is Flip-O-Rama. Since Pilkey branded it as his own creation, he has to shoulder a little of the blame here. Allow me to explain.

In chapter 16, humorously titled The Extremely Graphic Violence Chapter, Pilkey introduces his evil brainchild, Flip-O-Rama, providing instructions for the reader on the finer points of viewing his two-page animation technique. It's like something from the old school of animation, you might think. Not quite. This is cleverly disguised instruction in book abuse. Pilkey directs readers to hold open the book by laying their left hand across the seem of the book and pressing until it lays flat. If the book is a paperback edition, this means cracking the book's spine. Basically, that's a death sentence. So that's why my Underpants books never last. They are built to self-distruct. Touché, Mr. Pilkey!

Well, now that that is out in the open, let's get down to the story. I didn't hate it. George and Harold, the real protagonists of the story, were not the living terrors that I thought they would be. They deserved to be expelled from school for their antics and probably had a criminal future, but I've read worse. They don't hold a candle to some of Roald Dahl's little monsters. The principal, Mr. Krupp, was as one-dimensional and boring as every other forgettable, angry school principal in the history of fiction. If you've read one book with a cruel principal, you've read them all. To continue my Roald Dahl comparisons, the Trunchbull would've eaten Mr. Krupp for lunch.

That being said, the book is intended to appeal to the 'absurdity is funny' crowd. I happen to fit in to that crowd. The boys chasing their underwear-clad principal around town while he parades about playing superhero, and all because of a order-by-mail hypnosis ring is funny. The asides Pilkey throws in are subtle and clever. My personal favorite in this volume came courtesy of George just after the robots emerged from the Rare Crystal Shop carrying the stolen crystal. He said, "You know, up until now this story was almost believable." Clever. There is hidden humor for the observant reader. You just have to watch for it.
I don't know if I believe the story is going to maintain its simple humor. Series in this style tend to get tired before the finish, or they give up on being clever and just take a long swim around the toilet bowl to maintain laughs. I don't know where this one is going to end up. I'm hopeful for my own sake that this will be the exception to the rule.

Saturday, April 16, 2011


We've all done it before, looked down on something that we considered low-brow, silly, vaguely offensive, and probably even crude without trying it first. That's been my encounter with Captain Underpants. I've knocked him down, argued against that eerily simple logic that, hey, at least they are reading, nodded solemnly as a teacher berates his adventures with their lengthy adolescent titles.

But I've never read them.

Sure, I've glanced at one from time to time when it needed some magic tape repair, but even then I've averted my eyes from the print so as to avoid some inadvertant glance at the horrors that almost certainly lay within. And yet, Dav Pilkey saw to it that without any support from any adult anywhere in the professional community, his underwear-clad superhero books became many of the most popular books in a children's library. His books have made it onto the New York Times Bestseller List with some degree of consistency. That's right, librarians! Dav Pilkey has proven he doesn't need us!

And so, today, I embark on a harrowing quest. Like many of the greats who've come before me, I'm taking the plunge into unkempt waters. In the coming week, I'm going to read Captain Underpants. And I'm not going to stop after book one! Oh no! I'm going from book one straight through to book eight. There's no turning back. I have to do this. You see, I just bought the entire series twice over for my library. My previous copies were well beyond retirement condition. I'm fairly certain that my best copy of book four, Captain Underpants and the Perilous Plot of Professor Poopypants, had been whittled down from a 25 chapter, 153 page epic novel to 16 chapter, 97.6 page bundle of tape. In most cases, there was more tape than paper left. I really didn't want to spend my meeger funds to replace them, but the public wants what the public wants. And while I can't stop America's youth from poisoning its mind with dribble, I can come to know the poisonous dribble for what it is.

So I find myself standing on the precipice, ready to fall into the bottomless pit of depravity and body-part humor. I think of my peers: the immortal journalist Nellie Bly, acclaimed naturalist William Beebe, experimental cook Julie Powell, and limited-time environmentalist Vanessa Farquharson. All these heroes had their trials, tribulations, and moments of regret, but did any of them quit? No. Well, mostly no anyway. If they did quit it was only for a few days, and then they were right back at the grindstone. So I'm going to do it. And I'll write about it along the way. To my readers, I can't promise that this experience won't change me, leaving me a hollow shell of the person I am today. But the two of you are probably just here for the awesome background I chose anyway, so who cares?

Happy reading, people. Remember me as I was.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

The ALA ate my wallet!

Moon Over ManifestI finally did it yesterday. I bought the 2011 batch of ALA award books. Yes, I know that the winners were announced more than a little while ago already, but every year I go through the same trepidation about making that quick purchase when they are announced. This has become an annual battle for me. I know that the publishers are counting on this quick purchase mentality from librarians. We're supposed to look at the list, realize that those books haven't weaseled their way onto our shelves, and panic about how the public will perceive our seeming noncompliance, enticing our collective mass to hightail it to the bookstore to pay that oh, so unappealing retail price for a book that might not even have any waiting readers back home. I suppose I haven't gotten that far into librarian thinking to do that yet. Give me a few more years.

Anyway, I haven't read any of the new winners yet. In fact, for the past few years, prior to seeing their titles printed on the ALCS homepage and in about a dozen pieces of junk mail from various book vendors, every one of the winners dwelled in that bottomless pit of books I'd never heard of. Sure, in 2008 I was aware that Neil Gaiman had published something new that I hadn't seen, but Neil Gaiman is almost always publishing something new that I haven't seen. The man is about as prolific as they come. (Neil, if by some miracle you're reading this, I am trying to keep up and I really loved Stardust. A novella about Tristran and Yvaine's adventures between the fair and throne would be much appreciated.) Getting back to reality though, the ALA awards are a bit like the Sundance Film Festival anymore. They select books that wouldn't make a big dent without a little help from their friends at the ALA. Don't get me wrong. I'm all for helping out the little guy. I'm just saying that that's how the awards seem to work now.

A few years ago, there was a spew of articles about how the award-winning books of the past decade or so have been so obscure and bizarre, that they were causing the ALA awards to lose their relevance. And at first, I thought, "No! This would be a tragedy that the entire world of children's books would suffer for!" Then, a couple of months ago, I learned from a rant (her word, not mine) by Jane Yolen that the Today show snubbed the Newbery and Caldecott Award winners from their traditional spot the day after the award winners were announced. In their place, Today had run an interview with Snooki, the reality television star. Jane was steamed. She had some choice words for Today, for Snooki, for anyone willing to listen. She blogged about it. She sent a letter of disapproval to Today. I shrugged my shoulders and wished I had a life that included the time to watch the Today show in the morning...or at least time to sit down for breakfast before work. Maybe the articles from a few years back were right on the money. Maybe there are just so many awards out there today that I can't get excited about the annual batch from the ALA like I once did.

In reality, I think I have simply come to the conclusion that an award doesn't mean that much. I'm happy for the people that win them. It feels good to be recognized for good work (though I realize there are innumerable awards whose purpose is to recognize things other than good work). Also, I recognize that there is more to an award than simple recognition, like prizes and monetary compensation, which I find equally acceptable. Who could make better use of some extra cash than the starving artists, after all? The thing that I find bothersome is simply the reverence that has come to be associated with winning certain awards.

Conversations that worry me go something like, "Oh, she won the Newbery? She must be great then!" There's almost a degree of validation that comes with the ALA awards, not dissimilar to winning a Super Bowl ring for great NFL quarterbacks. Yet an award from the ALA comes simply from impressing a small panel of readers, experts in the field of children's literature, whatever that means. As the old saying goes, there's no accounting for taste. The judges could've read everything the world of publishing has ever had to offer, but it doesn't make their opinion worth anymore than yours or mine. Does Dan Marino's lack of a Super Bowl win take something from an otherwise amazing career? Maybe. Does Chris Soenpiet's lack of a Caldecott take something from his contribution to children's literature? Not a chance. So maybe I'm a bit of a cynic. I don't dislike the thought behind a book award. It's the methodology behind selecting the winner that leaves me wanting something more.

One Crazy Summer (Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction (Awards))So I'll read Moon Over Manifest and I'll marvel over the illustrations in A Sick Day for Amos McGee. I'll even delight in the joys of Bink and Gollie and wonder at One Crazy Summer and Dave the Potter. I'll do all of that someday soon, I guess. But I'm not going to rush things. The mere fact that a dozen or so people got together in a room somewhere and decided that those were the best children's books America had to offer in 2010 doesn't mean I have to agree. It doesn't mean that I'll hurry out to the bookstore to fork over the hundred or so dollars it would cost to add the hardcover editions of each of those alleged masterpieces to my home collection. Paperbacks suit me fine. Congratulations to the winners. You worked hard and deserve a little respect for what you've done. I hope you get that. I promise I'll get to your books just as soon as my budget and frantic lifestyle allow for it. Just don't be surprised if it's not this year...or the next...or maybe the one after that.