Sunday, December 30, 2012

Martha Speaks: Shelter Dog Blues

"by" Jamie White

I suppose it should be noted that this book is not by Susan Meddaugh, but "based on the characters created by" her, an "adaptation" by Jamie White, based on a TV script by Matt Steinglass.  A book written by a committee in pieces, for the purposes of extending a brand – not to tell a story.

Martha is a talking dog who loses her collar and gets snatched up by the dogcatcher.  Once at the pound, she leads an escape, gets caught again, and then organizes the other dogs to help showcase their plight and get them adopted.  I read this to my class.  It was received with interest, but none of the fervor that they have for, say, Stink, Flat Stanley, or the incomparable Mercy Watson books (which I read religiously but don't list here because in my mind they are too short to count).  This lack of fervor is understandable, as the Martha books seem not to have any of the kind of madcap humor aimed at adults as well as children or truly memorable eccentric characters that those series have.  As you might think about a book written to promote a show, it's simply too careful for such things; in other words, it's rather boring.

two stars

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Stink and the Incredible Super-Galactic Jawbreaker

by Megan McDonald, illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds

Stink writes a letter to a candy company and receives ten pounds of free samples, which sets him off on a letter-writing spree in search of more freebies.  His parents disapprove, but Stink has more on his mind, such as which pajamas to wear on pajama day at school, why his friend Webster is acting grumpy with him, and what exactly an idiom is.  It’s more goofy fun – the second-grade version of madcap – enhanced by Stink’s hilariously silly cartoons courtesy of fine illustrator Peter Reynolds.  I enjoyed this one more than the first, as all the plot points come together in the end to let Stink show everyone he can change his spots by being generous with what he has.

four stars

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Stink: The Incredible Shrinking Kid

by Megan McDonald, illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds

Stink, Judy Moody’s short second-grade brother, worries that he is shrinking when he is appears shorter at night than he had the previous morning.  With this on his brain, he deals with his hair being dyed orange by his sister, losing the school pet, and starting a campaign to get James Madison (the shortest president) on a state quarter.  Stink is a delightful character – geeky, silly, totally earnest about his obscure interests; and McDonald’s zippy, silly, funny prose is fun.  I read this to my class, and while I’m not totally sold on some parts (as with Junie B. Jones, there don’t seem to be any consequences for outrageous behavior), they and I found it quite entertaining.

four stars

Saturday, December 15, 2012

It Feels So Good When I Stop

by Joe Pernice

The nameless narrator, having walked out on his rocky and three-days-old marriage in New York, stays at his brother-in-law James’ Cape Cod house that stands empty following James’ own impending divorce from the narrator’s sister.   Looking after his baby nephew to make ends meet, tooling around Cape Cod on a rusty, undersize bicycle his sister rode as child, he thinks back to how he and his wife met and the course their relationship took, while in the present he meets a fragile young woman who wants him to help her make a home movie about her dead son.

The narrator was in a band that went nowhere, and Pernice, a hip indie singer-songwriter himself, seeps the book in media cool: earnest appreciation of good music in all its forms, from Doris Day and Mel Tormé to the Chills and the Frogs; name-dropping Tom T. Hall, Teenage Fanclub, Todd Rundgren, Ross McElwee, Mudhoney, Errol Morris, Nick Drake.  Lou Barlow even appears briefly to meet the protagonist after a show.  The narrator’s internal monologue is a peppered with self-deprecating one-liners (“Everything I knew about how fucked up the music business was came from a story about Fugazi I’d skimmed in ‘Magnet’”) and cynical observations (“I poked at the food like I was examining a pet’s stool for an ingested coin”).  I’m probably the exact target audience for this sort of prose, and I found it to be an engaging, if ultimately lightweight, novel.  The narrator’s meandering musings on how little he’s done with his life and whether he’s permanently damaged his relationship with his wife are bittersweet and amusing.  It’s not exactly the final word on the human condition, but moving in its way.

three stars

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Dangerous Animals Club

by Stephen Tobolowsky

A collection of essays and autobiographical pieces by the veteran character actor, amounting a book that is both memoir and pop philosophy.  He’s a witty and self-deprecating story-teller who seems to have an inexhaustible cache of bizarre anecdotes, from his childhood escapades hunting poisonous animals in Texas fields to the surreal experience of working under eccentric director David Milch on “Deadwood,”  from the inexplicable and nasty vendetta an acting professor maintained against Tobolowsky when he was at SMU’s drama school to being thrown out of a hotel in France for punching a toilet, from his rocky relationship with his first love who became a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright to being held at gunpoint while shopping and trying to talk the crazed gunman down before police jumped him.

The writing is polished and Tobolowsky can make you chuckle as well as tug your heartstrings, but what I think makes this book stand out as something beyond a collection of actor’s stories is the heart behind it.  Whether talking about his reluctant attachment to an abandoned dog that bounds back from the brink of death or relaying his gentle argument with an atheist in a hotel bar, Tobolowsky comes across as a gentle soul who realizes how lucky he’s been, and appreciates the ride.  It makes his book a pleasant and affecting experience, not just an interesting or amusing one. 

four stars

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

A Cook's Tour: Global Adventures in Extreme Cuisines

by Anthony Bourdain

The star chef, given a TV show after his book becomes a hit, goes on a globe-trotting tour in search of the best local cuisines have to offer, attending feasts (and getting quite drunk) in Basque country, off the beaten track on Vietnam, Cambodia, coastal France, Spain, Portugal, Japan, Scotland and at fine restaurants in San Francisco.  Like his previous book, it’s a very well-written, wry, intelligent, witty look at food and culture.  The chapters on Vietnam, veering from hedonistic overdose to near shock at the squalor there, are particularly compelling reading, as is the account of having a whole lamb cooked by Tuaregs, with a “sensational, delicious, delightful” testicle as the crown jewel, as it were, in Morocco.

From a decadent and orgiastic taster’s menu at the French Laundry in San Francisco to the infamous “evil”-tasting cobra bile he manfully swallows in Vietnam (“this will make you the strongest”), Bordain savors all he can get out of life.  Brash and opinionated, he shares his iconoclastic views with relish, whether praising “bad boy” Gordon Ramsay (whom Bordain admires as a chef and a hard worker) or deprecating a vegan meal in the harshest terms (“the knife work was clumsy and inept… the vegetables were uniformly overcooked, under-seasoned, colorless, and abused”).   Bourdain is more than a food writer; he’s got the travel writer’s deft touch, bringing the essentials of a culture and people to the surface without a lot of purple prose or soul-searching.  A very enjoyable, terrific armchair journey.  

four stars

[read twice: 6/25/02, 12/5/12]