Monday, November 26, 2007

The Daring Book For Girls

This is a Mother-Talk book review.

Upon first perusal, some might wonder why The Daring Book For Girls is getting such rave reviews. In this age of cell phones, video games and instant messenger, do girls really want to know how to press flowers or make a daisy chain? Isn't that a little old-fashioned?

Yes. Yes it is. And old-fashioned is good. Old-fashioned can be fun. But the old-fashioned ideas in The Daring Book For Girls, by Andrea Buchanan and Miriam Peskowitz (founders of Mother-Talk) are also interspersed with such common-sense information like how to change a tire. How to negotiate a salary. The Greek and Latin roots of words. All useful information that anyone (girl or boy) should know.

I read thru this book and kept thinking "Oh, man, I wish this was around when I was a kid." There were so many things that I used to do, that I could have done better, taken further, if only I had this book. It's sort of like a big sister, without the annoying get-out-of-my-room-you-pest business.

There were far too many things that jumped out at me to write about here, but there are a few that I do want to mention.

Besides the cool things to make, like daisy chains and friendship bracelets and sit-upons, there were whole sections on famous women. Famous women inventors, famous firsts by women and even famous women pirates. The two women who caught my eye were Helen Free and Clara Barton. Most people are familiar with Clara Barton; she founded the American Red Cross. She was also born and lived most of her life in the town next to the one where I grew up. Her name graces one of the best camps for girls with type 1 diabetes in the country. We're big fans of Clara Barton in this house. The other was Helen Free. She was a urinalysis expert (how one becomes one of those is, thankfully, a detail left out of the book). In 1958 she developed the first home diabetes test. She was inducted into the inventors Hall of Fame for this invention.

Another section that caught my eye was a bit on words that will impress. I love words. When I was a kid, a favourite after dinner game was to pick a word out of the dictionary and have everyone guess its origins and meaning (I think we may have invented Balderdash), so my interest was piqued by their list. Included on it were: crepuscular, jejune and one of my top five, all-time favourite words: sesquipedalian. Oh, how I love that word. There were other words, but frankly, my little heart was singing too loudly upon spotting sesquipedalian.

And finally, there was advice about boys. "1. If a boy doesn't like you the way you are, the problem is him, not you. 2. Don't try to make a boy change for you - it's important to appreciate people for who they are." I think I was about 30 before I figured that one out.

I can't recommend this book enough. It is an excellent resource for something other than television, video games or chatting on the phone when you're looking for an activity to do with your daughter. The writing is crisp and not condescending. The sections are short, the activities are fun and interesting and definitely not boring.

If you know a girl between the ages of 8 and, oh, 13 or 14 (or older - it's also a great resource for babysitters), add this one to your holiday shopping list.

Monday, November 12, 2007

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

This is a review for MotherTalk.

I love books. I mean, I really love books. I just moved recently and I had forty boxes of books. And that was after giving away 5 or 6 grocery bags full. It's pretty safe to say I am a book junky. I'm also picky. I don't like books that broadcast the plot on page three. I don't like books that have stilted dialog or ridiculoulsy complicated plots. I can be a bit of a snob when it comes to books and I'm unapologetic about it.

When I opened my copy of The Thirteenth Tale I had no preconceived notions about the plot. I hadn't read a review, I didn't know anyone who was reading it and had never even heard of it. It didn't take more than five pages before I was immersed. I fell into this book and didn't want to come out. This passage was what got me:

"As one tends the graves of the dead, so I tend the books. I clean them, do minor repairs, keep them in good order. And every day I open a volume or two, read a few lines or pages, allow the voices of the forgotten dead to resonate inside my head. Do they sense it, these dead writers, when their books are read? Does a pinprick of light appear in their darkness? Is their soul stirred by the feather touch of another mind reading theirs? I do hope so. For it must be very lonely being dead."

Margaret Lea works in her father's antiquarian and rare books shop. She dabbles in writing biographies, always of obscure people, those that would otherwise have been forgotten.

She recieves a letter one day from Vida Winter, a famous, and famously evasive, aging author. Miss Winter wants Margaret to write her biography after having read Margaret's biography of two brothers. Margaret is reluctant at first, since every interview Miss Winter has ever given has contained stories and nothing close to the truth. But she agrees to the task and travels to the Yorkshire to write this woman's tale.

The Thirteenth Tale is a ghost story. There are ghosts that are obvious: When Margaret was born, she had a conjoined twin. They were separated and her twin died. Margaret feels this loss sharply and often sees her twin when she's going about her every day activities. There are ghosts that are teased out in the process of telling the story.

As she is writing her biography, Margaret walks the Angelfield estate where Vida was raised as Addeline Angelfield, along with her twin sister Emmeline. The girls were left to run wild after their mother was committed to an asylum and their uncle went mad with grief. There are not-so-subtle hints at incest between the girls mother, Isabelle, and their Uncle Charles. There is a half-deaf housekeeper and a gruff but kind gardener who look after the children, but they have little control over the girls' behaviour. A governess is eventually hired, with somewhat disasterous results. A ghost, abandoned babies and a massive fire round out the gothic notes of the story.

There are nods to Jane Eyre and Rebecca in The Thirteenth Tale; it weaves a similar spell over the reader. Vida Winter's hidden life story proves to be much more fascinating than the tales she wove to journalists over the years. Anyone who loves reading with a visceral, nearly animal pleasure is sure to enjoy this book. It tips you headlong into the story, allowing you to completely suspend disbelief, which is, in my opinion, the sign of an excellent storyteller.