Book review: Pirates!

August 1st, 2010

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Author:Celia Rees
Reading Level (Conceptual):Children 12 and up
Reading Level (Vocabulary):Children 12 and up
Genre:Fiction
Year of publication:2009

I don't think the exclamation point in the title is warranted.

I picked it up because I saw "based on a true story", and wanted a glimpse into what pirate life was really like, but throughout the book I felt like it was very fictional.


After I finished reading the book, I learned that it was only loosely based on a true story and none of the characters was ever real. Anyways, a quick, cute read (I read it in about three hours) but not in any sense a gnarly pirate book as is implied in the title.

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Trip report: Amish Friendship Bread

July 13th, 2010

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I sent the following out to my Freecycle group the other day, Day 7 of our latest Amish Friendship Bread adventure:

My daughter’s friend met her the other day, and, smiling, said, “I have something special for you.” and handed her a bag of Amish Friendship Bread starter. Which means that said well-intended friend is not very far along in her Amish Friendship Bread journey.

So we now have a starter at Day 7, and in about 4 or 5 days, it will split into four little babies, each of which will multiply like bunnies and pretty soon our home will be overrun with fattening cakes and the smell of cinnamon. Which is why we have resolved to terminate this particular branch on the Amish Friendship Bread family tree quite abruptly, after we’ve baked the first iteration. UNLESS some of you fine folks would like a packet of starter when it next becomes available, which will be soon.

Please let me know if you would like to at least experience this interesting flashback to 1950s America.

Also serves as a GREAT lesson in exponential growth.

You would need to take possession of the starter promptly when it becomes available. What you do with it once it’s yours, I do not need to know.

Freecyclers from near and far responded, mostly with condolences.

One helpful soul pointed out the obvious: We did not have to keep a starter for ourselves. We COULD just bake all the babies into tasty coffee cakes and freeze what we could not eat.

We would then have NO STARTER to foist upon an unwilling Universe, but we would have many yummy cakes to eat when we are hungry.

So here we are, on Day 10: Baking Day

  • One bag of starter is going to an intrepid Freecycler who has promised she knows exactly what she's getting into.
  • One bag is going to a friend who, I fear, is in denial about what she is getting into.
  • One bag was used to make two yummy coffeecakes, one of which will soon be given away. I found a recipe that does not require me to use vanilla pudding mix. Vanilla pudding mix, in fact, pudding of any variety, is not an ingredient I would ever choose to have in my pantry.
  • I will (!!!!) keep one bag of starter, since I now know I can and will kill it off and eat it at any time I care to.

Trip report: Berkeley 2010 Juggling and Unicycling Festival

July 11th, 2010

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When @johnnyfuncheap tweeted that there was going to be a free juggling and unicycle show in Berkeley this weekend, we were torn, torn, torn.

We don’t much enjoy driving to Berkeley and we always dread the drive back. It’s a long drive for us, we who have a very painful personal history with bridges letting us down hard (literally), and the Bay Bridge has not been retrofitted, etc., etc. But we nearly always have a great time when we get to Berkeley.

The fire juggling show at ten was what compelled us, and so we dragged ourselves to the Berkeley High School Jacket Gym to see what it would be like.

Our festival experience did not start all that auspiciously. We have never SEEN a high school that big. But beautiful, very, very clean. Nicely laid out. Big though. We drove around, drove around looking for parking. Eventually, we DID find a legal parking space very close by.

We arrived at the huge, huge gym and found it absolutely PACKED with incredible jugglers. There was a guy juggling miniature toilet plungers. There were large groups hurling pins at each other. There were folks with rhinestone-encrusted hula hoops. There was a guy spinning balls on his fingers. There was a woman in a purple t-shirt who kept doing incredible juggling things while the expression on her face implied that nothing whatsoever was going on. We kept having to dodge out of the way of stray pins and lurching unicycles.

I said the gym was PACKED with incredible jugglers, but that was a lie. About a third of the gym was dedicated to a ferocious game of unicycle basketball. Some of the players were on normal unicycles, some were on taller ones. Each rode with a unique style. It was simply amazing that in all the time we watched, no horrendous crashes occurred. We noticed that traveling with the ball seemed to be legal, as did handling the other players pretty roughly, and we also noticed that players fell off and go back onto their unicycles as if rolling out of and then back into bed.

Well, we talked with a bunch of the talented jugglers around us, watched jealously as a tiny, tiny boy getting his first unicycle lesson on a tiny, tiny unicycle, and gawked at the wide array of missiles soaring from hand to hand and at the apparently never-ending basketball game. After about 45 minutes or so, my daughter said, “We don’t know how to do these things. We don’t belong here.” It was still an hour until the fire show.

And then, who should take us over? Dan Chan, Magic Man. He asked my daughter if she knew how to juggle. She answered, “A little.” He offered her a lesson. She shyly refused. Dan did not give up. He asked ME if I knew how to juggle. I said, “Not a bit.” He said, “Are you willing to learn? Come over here.” So I went. And my daughter followed.

Dan handed me the most enchanting juggling balls you’ve ever felt. They are called GBallz and they are made of buttery leather and stuffed with millet. They seem to be the perfect size for any hand. They have a very reassuring weight as they drop into your palm. When they fall, they make a very, very quiet, non-embarrassing splat and THEY DO NOT ROLL AWAY.

So poor Dan started to teach me to juggle. I was an attentive but inept student. And by then Dan could see that my daughter was begging to just hold the GBallz, let alone learn from Dan. He looked at my daughter and said, “She’ll be juggling in 20 minutes.” He gave her three GBallz. (We later learned that this was very kind, since they are very expensive and we were sorely tempted to take them home so we could keep juggling them all night and for the rest of our lives ….)

Dan is just a fantastic teacher. He shows you something, and then he lets you try it and gives you feedback. Then he says something like, “Do that ten times and then you’ll learn something else.” Then he walks away and shows back up a little later when you’re ready to learn more.

I learned to juggle two balls fairly well considering I have no talent in this area. My daughter was juggling three pretty nicely before an hour or so had passed. People whose juggling we admired kept walking up to us and giving us helpful tips.

In no time at all, the incredible, wonderful, exceptional fire show was on. At fire show, there was a guy on a unicycle making origami from burning paper, shouting in Spanish and English for us to cheer him on. There was a guy with a burning whip. There were several flaming unicycle-riders juggling fire. There was a fire-eater and a fire-dancer and the music was great and the space in which we watched was comfortable and beautiful.

The Berkeley 2010 Juggling and Unicycling Festival runs through tomorrow, Sunday, July 11. If you can go tomorrow, go. If you can’t, look for it next year and go to their workshops. (Everything except a show on Saturday night was free, far as I know.)

My photos are here:

Book review: The Blue Girl

June 14th, 2010

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Author:Charles de Lint
Reading Level (Conceptual):Sophisticated readers
Reading Level (Vocabulary):Children 12 and up
Genre:fiction

This is a book that can be placed under the category of "Urban Fantasy" : fairies and other fantasy creatures running around modern day cities...

Picked this up as a quick read. Not gripping per say, but interesting.


It's about a girl who befriends a ghost and then becomes tangled up in the inner workings of the hidden fantasy world. I thought that this was a stand alone book, and have not read the 14 previous books, which I just learned existed, so it is definitely a fun fast read for those who enjoy fantasy.

--Fizzy


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Book review: Marsbound

June 14th, 2010

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Author:Joe Haldeman
Reading Level (Conceptual):For grown-ups
Reading Level (Vocabulary):For grown-ups
Genre:fiction
Year of publication:2009

Very sci-fi. Interesting take on the future.

In this setting the future seems just like now, except for updated space travel and things like that. It doesn't get toooo into details on the world, because almost all of it takes place in space. Anyways. The story follows Carmen, who is the first to discover inhabitants on mars. I like her as a character because she is very questioning of the rules and is just an interesting perspective to view the book through. Within the book there is also a romantic strand, so I'd more recommend this for women then men.

This definitely contains adult content.

-- Fizzy


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Book review: Water for Elephants

May 10th, 2010

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Author:Sara Gruen
Reading Level (Conceptual):For grown-ups
Reading Level (Vocabulary):For grown-ups
Genre:fiction
Year of publication:2007

Fizzy says:

Great book. REALLY cool. It follows the story of one man for one summer, as he runs away to the circus. Accidentally.

Gruen definitely did her research, and gets deep into the gritty life of traveling circuses around the 1930's. The hierarchy that separated bosses, performers, and workers is very clear, and Jacob, the narrator, doesn't fit into any of those categories, which leads to an interesting and fast paced novel.

I read it in about a day and a half. SUPER good. Recommend it to anyone.

Emily says:

Beautiful and deep, but interspersed with the fascinating circus lore is unspeakable cruelty, human to human, and especially, human to animal. Balanced, sometimes, by unbelievable grace.

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Book review: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Book 5)

April 26th, 2010

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Author:J K (Joanne Kathleen)  Rowling
Illustrator: Mary GrandPré
Reading Level (Conceptual):Children 12 and up
Reading Level (Vocabulary):Children 12 and up
Genre:fiction
Year of publication:2003

I think this is my favorite of the Harry Potter series so far, but also my least favorite in some ways: Harry, Ron, and Hermione have definitely grown up a lot between books four and five, but they do it in a somewhat annoying fashion.

Although everyone has crushes on everyone else, both Harry and Ron are very oblivious about their own feelings, and others, and what limits that they should push (in terms of girls, and rules, and stupidity).

What I really like about this book is that the themes are broadening. There are a lot of government scandals that make a lot of sense and add an interesting edge to the book, making the series more true-to-life, rather than only focused on one kid's adventures to save the world...

But I really do NOT like the "Hogwarts High-Inquisitor" because she is badly done and annoying. No one is actually that cruel.
Similar books

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Book review: The Elegance of the Hedgehog

April 26th, 2010

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Author:Muriel Barbery
Reading Level (Conceptual):Sophisticated readers
Reading Level (Vocabulary):Children 12 and up
Genre:fiction

This book is remarkable, in that with every page I read, I was more captivated.

For one thing, the author tells the story in a very interesting way: The story is narrated by two very different, but also very similar, characters. One is a 12 year old genius and the other is a 50-something year old concierge in the fancy hotel she lives in.

So that's cool, but the writing style is what really got to me. Barbery gets very deep into some philosophical questions, that at many points I found confusing at first, but once I got into my "elegance of the hedgehog mood", I really enjoyed it.

The way she uses language is just so PRETTY that I easily got sucked in. My only warning is that the ending is super surprising, although very satisfying nonetheless. I had to wait awhile to write my review because a) I didn't know what to say, and b) The ending got me pretty emotional, because the characters were so believable (I was almost crying on the bus when I finished it).

-- Fizzy

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Book review: Makers

February 5th, 2010

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Author:Cory Doctorow
Reading Level (Conceptual):For grown-ups
Reading Level (Vocabulary):For grown-ups
Genre:fiction, cyberpunk
Year of publication:2009

Let me start by saying that I would like at least one of every invention described in Makers. I am particularly taken by the RFID/GPS/labeling/cataloging system that allows a person to locate any item they have tagged by typing in its name. But I would be happy to ride The Ride, or own any one or all of the tiny robots, the Super Marios, well, truly, any and all of them.

Doctorow also puts forward an interesting business model - the 6 months and you're out theory of manufacturing anything. Seems exhausting, but true to life. And may very well be the only viable model for hardware manufacturing in the future.

That said, Makers is the book that Ayn Rand would have written instead of The Fountainhead if she'd lived a few years later and chosen engineering rather than architecture as her metaphor.

In the Makers world, anyone with a moderate-to-high IQ is not only smart, but sensitive, creative, well-intentioned, and deep-down-to-the-core good (although sometimes that is not immediately apparent). Sure smart guys (and they are mostly guys, of course) may occasionally take actions that send others to the hospital for months at a time, but they do eventually realize the error(s) of their ways and take steps to correct them.

Women in the Makers world are very, very bright, attracted to Makers, attractive, moral, tolerant, thrifty, ... well, you know, they are pretty much not very reality-based.

Oh, and then there are the policemen. Seems that policemen (and lawyers) were pretty much put on this earth to physically and/or psychically destroy smart people.

Anyway, the plot moves along at an involving pace. And you like and approve of and root for all the smart people who are constantly inventing all kinds of very cool things.

And then appears the very horrific random outburst of violence or kind of overly long sex scene (but then, I am probably not the target audience of this book; maybe the Powers That Be thought these were necessary).

So, anyway, I'm very glad I read this book. But I did feel that Death Waits was treated overly harshly. He is a very young smart person, no doubt, but he IS a smart person, if not an engineer. It's good that in some fictional universes, smart people are not the enemies. Now, in addition, I'd really like to visit a fictional universe in which smart women are people too.

-- Emily Berk

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Book review: The Children’s Book

February 4th, 2010

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Author:A.S. Byatt
Reading Level (Conceptual):For grown-ups
Reading Level (Vocabulary):For grown-ups
Genre:fiction
Year of publication:2009

There are so many intertwining, involving stories in The Children's Book that it was sometimes hard to slow down and remember that great novels are not entirely about what they are about.

Set in the time leading up to World War I and before women's sufferage, the plot tells of a group of families and their associates and friends. There is a destitute young boy who is nurtured to become the artist he deserves to be. There are the young women who, lacking the vote and receiving conflicting messages about how to behave socially and politically, pay terrible prices. The subplots about how various characters resolve their needs to express themselves politically, even when expressing their opinions may adversely affect those they love should be required reading for anyone thinking of a career in politics.


This is not an easy book to read, but it is also not an easy book to put down.

It's as if Byatt is leading us through a magical party. She continually blows up the most beautiful balloons and then, once you've become entranced by one, she wanders back to burst it.

-- Emily

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