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Saints in Art
Thomas Michael Hartmann, Stefano Zuffi, Rosa Giorgi
The Gorgeous Nothings: Emily Dickinson's Envelope Poems
Emily Dickinson, Susan Howe
Selected Poems
Emily Dickinson
Emily Dickinson
Cynthia Griffin Wolff
Lies My Teacher Told Me : Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong
James W. Loewen
Gone with the Wind
Margaret Mitchell

The Bishop's Wife

The Bishop's Wife - Mette Ivie Harrison This is a fairly enjoyable tour guide through Mormonism, and an absolutely hot mess of a mystery.

The Mouse of Amherst: A Tale of Young Readers

The Mouse of Amherst: A Tale of Young Readers - Elizabeth Spires The only way this book could be more adorable is if it were also a stuffed animal.

The main character mouse in question is so flippin' cute, I found myself wishing this book were a stuffed animal, or at least came along with one so you could hug it while you were reading and maybe ask if it was ready for you to turn the page yet.

Wow. It's official. If a book is charming enough, it will turn me into a blithering idiot.

Anyway. Although the delicately expressive line drawings of Claire A. Nivola would have sufficed to win me over, Elizabeth Spires' story is outstanding. At one point, I was howling with laughter. (I'll tell you which point in a minute.)

Emmaline is a well-bred but adventurous mouse who moves into a New England house. She soon realizes that she is sharing a chamber with a most unusual housemate: Emily Dickinson.

Dickinson teaches Emmaline to love poetry and even to turn her paw to versification herself. These two shy, mischievous, nature-loving creatures communicate by leaving one another poems on bits of paper placed where no one else will find them.

Dickinson favors helpless mice over marauding cats (a fancy supported by her verse as well as by her niece's recollections), and keeps Emmaline safe from harm. In exchange, Emmaline is fiercely loyal to her dear Emily. When writer/editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson pays a visit and doesn't properly appreciate the genius of Dickinson's work, Emmaline is so furious she knocks a vase over, "missing him by a hair."

That's when I laughed. The ferocious expression the artist gives Emmaline's usually delicate features on this page is worth the price of the book, even if the rest of it weren't absolutely wonderful. The good news? It is.

Emily and Emmaline are loyal, loving friends; but eventually Emmaline realizes that it's time for her to make a choice:

I saw I must decide once and for all whether to leave the Dickinsons' – as Emily never would. For although she was content with her life's "circumference," narrow but infinitely deep, I felt stirred to see more of life.

I love that the author references the geographical smallness of Dickinson's existence while also acknowledging that this was what Dickinson had chosen, and what she needed in order to work – and her work was her life.

I'm also deeply impressed that the poetry Emmaline writes doesn't present as mediocre next to Dickinson's verse, but in fact is so good that at one point I had to check and see if one of Emmaline's poems wasn't actually one of Dickinson's.

I'm still in the middle of my Dickinson research, so I'm not sure what tragedy of ED's life Spires is referring to when she has Dickinson reacting with great agitation to the arrival of a letter. (Nerd outburst: I think it might be the death of Judge Otis Lord, but in this book ED's father is still alive when the letter arrives, and in real life Mr. Dickinson had died before Lord, who loved and was loved by Dickinson, passed on.) But the scene is beautifully handled, and shows a tender friendship between mouse and poet. After Emily falls asleep at her writing desk, Emmaline composes a lovely poem to console her, then carefully extinguishes the candle (another adorable illustration).

The next time you're at the library, check this book out and treat yourself to 15 minutes of absolute delight. Even if you've never been especially interested in Dickinson, or poetry, or mice, this book is irresistible – and it's a terrific introduction to the life and work of the great poet of Amherst.

My Emily Dickinson

My Emily Dickinson - Susan Howe Boy howdy, do I feel like an idiot.

Not one reviewer here says anything along the lines of, "Um, guys – what just happened?"

Not one reader I could find rated it lower than 3 stars – and the vast majority of reviewers give it four or five, and swoon in their reviews.

So I guess it's just me.

I'm the dork who feels as if I stumbled into someone else's drug trip when I thought I was supposed to be reading a book about a poet and her work.

I thought I was reasonably literate (for a civilian), but reading this book felt like having books flung at my head by an invisible assailant.

If you know me, you know I'm all about the Post-Its when I read. And my library copy of My Emily Dickinson is stuck with its fair share – but all the passages I found worth hanging onto are quotations from other people's works.

The only bits I marked that Susan Howe actually wrote are things I wanted to mention here because I disagree with them strenuously. "Dickinson means this to be an ugly verse," Howe says at one point, because apparently being a poet herself means having permission to speak on behalf of a long-dead writer. (Hint: NO.)

And "Elizabeth Barrett Browning...failed as a poet herself."

Excuse me? EBB wrote poems even non-poetry lovers can admire:

If thou must love me, let it be for nought
Except for love's sake only.


Does that sound like the beginning of a failed sonnet?

Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote beautifully, and her writing is remembered – people quote her all the time. (She wrote the sonnet that begins, "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.") By any reasonable standard, she did NOT fail as a poet.

So I couldn't keep up with most of Howe's writing here, and I didn't like the few opinions I could understand.

I feel like a weirdo and an idiot; but other than being glad to see some of the quotes Howe passed along from other writers, I did not enjoy this book, nor did I get much out of it.

Back to the library it goes, and on to the next book about Dickinson I go.

Death and What Comes Next

Death and What Comes Next - Terry Pratchett Poignant reading under the circumstances, but as darkly funny as all of Pratchett's Death tales are.

Thank you for using the time you spent here to make the world a happier place, Sir Terry.

The Cambridge Introduction to Emily Dickinson

The Cambridge Introduction to Emily Dickinson - Wendy Martin I'm working on a YA novel involving a serial killer and one heck of a lot of Emily Dickinson references. (No, I'm not writing Dickinson into the role of serial killer. Sorry. That's too weird even for me.)

Anyway. I checked this out from the library because I'm reading a full-length biography of ED and it's good but a little overwhelmingly analytical at times. I wanted a good brief overview. I figured this book would be a basic, even generic look at Dickinson's life and work

I was kind of a judgmental jerk, it turns out. This book is a great brief overview, and it's anything but generic. I learned so much, and I'm everlastingly grateful to Wendy Martin for tipping me off to what I'll call Dickinson's Irish connection. It gave me an idea for a future YA novel.

If you're interested in Dickinson's life or work but don't want to make a career out of learning about her, or have always wondered why different collections have different versions of what's supposedly the same Dickinson poem, read this book. (Yes, I took a long time to finish it, but only because I was taking copious notes.)

Men Explain Things to Me

Men Explain Things to Me - Rebecca Solnit I didn't know this book was a collection of essays when I first sat down with it. I thought it was an expansion on the title essay. I would have enjoyed this book more if I'd known what to expect, so in case you didn't know, either: this book is a collection of feminist essays.

Some of the writing here makes for some pretty brutal reading. Much of it had me jumping up and down, shouting, "YES! FINALLY, SOMEONE ELSE IS SAYING THIS! IT'S NOT JUST ME! THIS IS TRUE!"

Passages like this one:

It's not that I want to pick on men. I just think that if we noticed that women are, on the whole, radically less violent, we might be able to theorize where violence comes from and what we can do about it a lot more productively. Clearly the ready availability of guns is a huge problem for the United States, but despite this availability to everyone, murder is still a crime committed by men 90 percent of the time.

And this one:

No female bus riders in India have ganged up to sexually assault a man so badly he dies of his injuries, nor are marauding packs of women terrorizing men in Cairo's Tahrir Square, and there's just no maternal equivalent of the 11 percent of rapes that are by fathers or stepfathers. Of the people in prison in the United States, 93.5 percent are not women, and though quite a lot of the prisoners should not be there in the first place, maybe some of them should because of violence, until we think of a better way to deal with it, and them.

And so many more. I could quote this book all day. (Ask my friends.)

Solnit points out, correctly, that South Africa is the rape capital of the world. I already knew this, and have been known to point out (again, check with my immediate circle) that we all cared a lot about the horrible things going on in South Africa when those horrible things were racist. Now that it's women who are being brutally mistreated – gosh, look at the time. And anyway, that's not the same thing as apartheid, is it? It's not the government raping women. So, you know.

Excuse me while I punch a wall.

Solnit's chapter "Who has the right to kill you?" has never been more timely. It addresses the idea some men have that they have a right to control women's behavior, and to mete out punishment for "misbehavior." (Misbehavior being behavior such men don't approve of, such as women not basing their actions on what such men want.)

A few days ago, I was listening to a news report about one of the rapists who's facing the death penalty for his murderous assault on a medical student in New Delhi. This rapist was interviewed about his crime, and I was expecting to hear him sound utterly cowed, utterly chastened. He was facing possible execution, after all, for a crime that had prompted outrage around the world. I expected this to be hard to listen to, because I rarely enjoy hearing people cringe no matter how hard they've worked to earn the privilege of doing so.

Instead, he doubled down. He had the right, he said, to teach a lesson to a girl who was out late with a boy she wasn't married or related to. And anyway, he wouldn't have hurt her so much if she hadn't fought back.

Well, I was right about it being hard to listen to.

I want to point out one small fault in this book, because it's a misuse of statistics I've run into before and it drives me nuts and I need it to stop. We can do better, and when it comes to a cause as important and beleaguered as feminism, we need to do the best work possible.

Here's a passage from Men Explain Things to Me that didn't have the intended effect on me:

About three women a day are murdered by spouses or ex-spouses in this country. It's one of the main causes of death for pregnant women in the United States.

The first sentence made me blindingly furious. I wanted to run outside and do something. Shout from the rooftops. Donate to my local shelter. Something. Anything.

The second sentence made me think, "That's true – we've really made a lot of medical advances. Women aren't dying in childbirth, or from pre-eclampsia, or from the side effects of hyperemesis gravidarum, nearly as often as we used to. And that's not what you meant, is it?"

I know I sound like a heartless jerk, but I can't STAND it when people use what I call the Popularity Contest of Doom to make a point that makes itself without any help.

I remember hearing something on the radio years ago about suicide among the very young. Really, you barely need statistics at all if you're going to agitate against that. If one single solitary child is taking her own life, that's one child too many. Take my wallet. Take my chocolate. Do whatever you need to, but make it stop.

This report or ad or whatever it was couldn't stop there. Instead, a woman's voice intoned, "Suicide is the leading cause of death among children aged 9 to 14 in this country."

And I'm sorry, but yes – as a rigorous critical thinker, my first thought was, "Well, YEAH. We've hit the medical causes so hard that suicide has had the chance to catch up."

Solnit said something about how "this is the number one cause of death for women" a few times in this book, and it drove me quietly out of my mind every time. Because what does that mean? Why phrase it that way? If the leading cause of death among pregnant women in America is murder, and then German measles makes a horrific comeback and pregnant women start dying more of that even though the murder statistics didn't change any, are you saying I shouldn't worry anymore about pregnant women being murdered by their spouses and ex-spouses because who cares about the second-place winner in this race from hell?

If you don't mean that, why bring it up at all?

If you have meaningful figures and statistics, give me those. If three American women a day really are murdered by spouses or exes, that's what I care about. That's enough. More than enough. I don't care who else wanted to be queen of the evil prom.

This is a tiny quibble about a book that turned me into the reader everyone dreads – the one who looks up from her page and says, "Let me just tell you this one part" and then makes you late for work by reading aloud for ten minutes straight, pausing only long enough to say, "Isn't that amazing?" before starting in on yet another part that you really have to hear.

Brace yourself to read this book, but read it.

The New England Primer [1843]: or, An easy and pleasant guide to the art of reading: Adorned with cuts; to which is added The Catechism.

The New England Primer [1843]: or, An easy and pleasant guide to the art of reading: Adorned with cuts; to which is added The Catechism. - Benjamin Harris I read this Kindle goodie because Emily Dickinson grew up with it and I'm researching her for my scary YA work-in-progress.

As you can see from my updates, this 19th-century New England children's book is not exactly Dr. Seuss. They do have some things in common, though.

Hey! Let's compare them, shall we?

Do this primer and the beloved books of Dr. Seuss:

1. Utilize lists of short, commonly used words in order to help children learn to read?
Seuss: Yes!
Primer: Yes

2. Believe that words like "heinous" and "hateful" are good and proper two-syllable words for young readers to learn?
Seuss: Um...
Primer: YES

3. Offer young readers stories written in catchy rhymes?
Seuss: Yes!
Primer: Depends on your definition of "catchy"

4. Offer at least one story featuring a delightfully playful cat?
Seuss: Yes
Primer: NO

5. Offer at least one story featuring a cat playing with big, hairy rats and then killing and eating them?
Seuss: Good gracious, no
Primer: Heck, yeah

6. Teach, via aforementioned fun-loving cat, that playing around a little behind your parents' backs is okay as long as you clean up afterward and no one gets hurt?
Seuss: Totally
Primer: Absolutely not

7. Teach that if kids sass their parents, they should "die the death"?
Seuss: faints
Primer: Burn, baby, burn.

Conclusion: Anyone who thinks Dickinson's poetry is a little on the morbid side should read this book and realize that, if anything, she's a ray of sunshine in a dark New England winter.

Fer realz, her work actually rebels against this aspect of her upbringing. She celebrates the joys of earthly existence in poem after poem, and vigorously disagrees with the idea that life is nothing more than a (not always) lengthy preparation for death:

Who has not found the Heaven – below –
Will fail of it above –
For Angels rent the House next our's,
Wherever we remove –


Dickinson so adored the good things her life on earth had to offer – her beloved family and few treasured friends, her dear dog Carlo, the ever-dazzling beauty of nature, and of course her writing – that she composed, on the torn-off corner of an envelope, what is possibly the cheekiest prayer-poem ever written:

Some Wretched
creature, Savior
Take
Who would Exult to die
And leave for
thy sweet
mercy's sake
Another Hour
To me


This book may have succeeded in its memento mori mission with the majority of its young readers, but Dickinson rejected it utterly. And that's all I care about.

Read this if you want a creepy look at what used to be considered appropriate fare for children.

The Angel In The House

The Angel In The House - Coventry Kersey Dighton Patmore "Well, why not just take one quick look?"
The foolish reader asks herself,
And plucks another ghastly book
Into her lap from off the shelf.

"What is this rhyming scheme I see?
Annoying, and a bit singsong.
First A, then B, then A, then B –
Good heavens, where did I go wrong?"

"Where are the books of fun and joy,
The books that would bring me delight?
Why do I read this sexist goy
As soon as I conclude Twilight?"

"Research," I murmur with a sigh.
"This book will help my novel work.
That's why I read this sexist guy,
Although he is a total jerk."

"He makes me want to pound my head,
Or hang myself with my own scarf;
His writing fills my soul with dread;
Let's face it: this book makes me barf."

"'Her daisy eyes had learn'd to droop' –
Dear sir, please tell me what this means.
I think that you are full of poop.
Your poem makes me want to screams."

"This poet's full of mule manure!
How does he know how women tick?
He can't say what we're like, I'm sure –
For heaven's sake, he has a dick."

"He likes his girls dumb and demure
Religious, mild, and gently bred;
He likes us sweet and simple, pure,
Without a thought inside our head."

"Well, sir, I cannot help but think
That you and I should never meet.
Your thoughts on women frankly stink
More than a mar'thon runner's feet."

"I'm so glad that you bought the farm
So long ago and far away;
For I would surely do you harm
If you mansplained this shit today."

(I was going to do something all educational and classy and talk about Virginia Woolf and stuff, but this was more fun. Plus now you know what the book sounds like without all the trouble of reading it.)

The Girl on the Train: A Novel

The Girl on the Train: A Novel - Paula Hawkins The short review: Fangirling. Just totally could not get enough of this story. Stayed up late reading and then got up early to read. ON A SUNDAY, PEOPLE. Sleeping until 9:00 has been my idea of church for years now. NOT TODAY. Read this while I was brushing my teeth and washing my face. Wanted to take it with me on my jog. Resented "having" to go to a concert I was lucky enough to get free tickets to – yes, the music was exquisite, but why did it have to be playing today when I HADN'T FINISHED THIS BOOK YET? Holy carp, what a rollercoaster.

The more coherent review: The writing reminds me a lot of Shirley Jackson, which is the highest compliment I can give. The structure is innovative, and Paula Hawkins knows how to give out just enough information to keep you running after more, but doesn't tease so mercilessly that you want to throw the book across the room.

It wasn't just the plotline that kept me glued to this book. (I'm barely exaggerating about that glue. I took it with me in my purse to that concert so I could read during the intermission, and actually tried to prop it up in such a way that I could read while I was making the bed. That's a cry for help, folks.) It was the way Hawkins forced me to rethink and reexamine all my assumptions about the various characters. This story goes way beyond anything as simple as an unreliable narrator. THE WORLD is unreliable. Until it isn't. Until the right people have the courage to look squarely at what's in front of them, instead of being distracted by what they want to believe.

I am out of my mind over this book, and I'm afraid that'll ruin it for some readers because come on – how could it live up to this kind of hype? (I tried to read while shaving my legs. In the tub, with shaving cream and a new blade in my razor. I'm almost sad that didn't kill me, because it would have made one hell of an obituary.)

So don't read The Girl on the Train just because I raved about it. Check out a few pages and see if it grabs you.

I'm just saying, every once in a while a book goes bestseller because it's really, really good.

P.S. Don't forget to reread the first couple of pages immediately after you finish this novel. Paula Hawkins pulls a bit of The Sound and the Fury action at the beginning of GOTT – not enough to drive a reader nuts, just enough to keep you wondering.

Damn You Autocorrect! 2

Damn You Autocorrect! 2 - Lyndsey Saul Ten Reasons You Should Read This Book

1. You read the first Damn You Autocorrect book, and reading this one will give you a sense of completion.

2. It's the only way to find out for sure if the title really is as high-concept as it sounds, or if it's some kind of obscure metaphor.

3. Stephen Fry is quoted as saying this book is "completely and utterly hilarious," and when has Stephen Fry ever led you wrong?

4. You can see all the really filthy stuff I didn't post in my updates.

5. You can find a simple cooking suggestion to help you use up all those priests you have lying around getting overripe in your kitchen.

6. You can learn why autocorrect does hilarious things to some people's texts, but is totally boring when it comes to yours.

7. You can find that information in an introduction that's way shorter than the introduction to the first volume of autocorrect awesomeness, because apparently they read my complaint about that first lengthy introduction and took it seriously.

8. If you're falling behind on your Goodreads Reading Challenge, this book can help you catch up way more easily than those pesky classics of great literature.

9. You can learn from the many, many examples in this book that when it comes to texting someone in whom you have a romantic interest, you should ALWAYS reread your texts to that person before hitting "send."

10. Reading this book on my recommendation will earn me valuable bonus points I can redeem somewhere, I'm pretty sure.

Nim's Island

Nim's Island - Wendy Orr, Kerry Millard This is one of several reviews I wrote for the late Secular Homeschooling Magazine. We ran an article about homeschoolers in fiction, and I rated a lot of YA novels based on how good they were and how well they handled homeschooling. Mostly, homeschoolers were hauled out as the reliable weirdos in story after story; but it was still fun to do lots of reading and call it my job.

So: Nim's Island.

Category: Oceanic-adventure unschooling.

Summary: Nim Rusoe lives with her scientist father Jack on a secret island. They have all the technology they need to make them happy and keep them in touch with the rest of the world when necessary. (Jack sells the occasional article electronically, and orders in supplies once a year.)

When Jack goes off to collect plankton for a few days, Nim decides to stay home with the animals -- a sea lion named Selkie and an iguana named Fred. (The drawings of Fred are killer adorable. Actually, all of Kerry Millard's line drawings are worth the price of the book so far as I'm concerned.) Adventures ensue, including Nim surviving a volcanic eruption and rescuing a famous writer.

Conclusion: When your paradise-island-dwelling father wonders aloud if he's being selfish by depriving you of a "normal" life, tell him he's out of his mind and stay on the awesome island.

Rating as a novel: Lots of fun for all ages.

Rating as a novel about homeschooling and/or homeschoolers: Ditto.

Breaking Dawn (The Twilight Saga, Book 4)

Breaking Dawn - Stephenie Meyer The short review: If you'd like to read something from the Twilight universe so you can feel culturally literate and cool, read online summaries of the first three books so you have a sense of what's going on, and then read this one.

The longer review: If you hadn't read the first three books, you'd never know from reading this one that Edward routinely treated Bella like an idiot (see my previous reviews and, oh, probably the entire freakin' Internet).

You'd certainly never know that Bella put up with being stalked, threatened, manipulated, controlled, and gaslighted because the alternative would be – oh, noes! – speaking up for herself.

Bella in this last Twilight novel tells Edward to stop ruining her good time on their honeymoon when he tries to pull his usual "But I'm bad for you, Bella" nonsense. "We're married and I want a sex life and it's called a honeymoon, so shut up and get over here, already," she (more or less) replies. And he does. (Eventually. There's still some brooding, but waaay less than there would have been if Bella hadn't told him to put a sock in it.)

Bella makes her own decisions about her own body when Edward tries to arrange for her to have an abortion without even telling her. Either he takes it as a given that she'll go along with whatever he says, or he doesn't care what she thinks – this is going to happen. Except it isn't. She rallies her troops and stands up to him when she's not even strong enough to literally physically stand up.

She eats her cake and has it, too (which is how the saying used to go, back when it made sense) by getting to have a baby with the vampire she loves and getting to become a vampire herself. And thanks to how things work in this universe, she gets to be the baddest-ass vampire on the block – at least for a while.

Edward stops being such a condescending berk and treats her with respect, admiration, and utter trust. He has faith in her strength and is proud of her abilities. (Where the hell was all this good behavior back when she was human? Maybe it's not that these books are sexist so much as Edward is racist. Or speciesist. Or deadist. Whatever you'd call it.)

I liked that Bella got to have a lot of fun being powerful for once. She also enjoys her new supernatural good looks without letting them go to her head.

A friend of mine warned me that the climax of this book is a bit of a cock-tease (my words, not hers), and the surprise at the very very end was a huge disappointment to her. I see her point, but I was actually fine with all of it. I even kind of liked the surprise, since I thought it reinforced the idea of Bella being in control.

Conclusion: This book was on top of my lunchtime reading material stack, and it didn't get demoted or shuffled down once. I found it an engaging and enjoyable read, and if the previous novels had been like this one, I'd have liked them just fine, even with the love triangle and insta-love. I mean, they wouldn't have been my Most Favoritest Books Of All Time Ever, but they wouldn't have made me scream.

So. There. I read all the Twilight books.

Now I just have to survive Fifty Shades of Grey, and then I can finally read that stupid Chuck Palahniuk book and explain all the references to my friend.

Calling Dr. Laura: A Graphic Memoir

Calling Dr. Laura: A Graphic Memoir - Nicole J. Georges I feel sad and kind of guilty that I didn't like this graphic memoir as much as I expected to. Sad because, well, duh – it's disappointing to be disappointed, and this sounded so promising. Guilty because Nicole Georges definitely had a story to tell, and I feel as if I caught maybe half of it.

Partly that's because of Georges' style. I read plenty of comics and graphic novels, and I've never found it difficult to tell who was talking. In this book, I often did.

Partly, though, I kept looking for an arc that just wasn't there. Georges keeps bringing up ideas and events that feel as if they're leading to some kind of payoff, and then it all fizzles out. Things happen almost at random, without much in the way of analysis. The story is vague and melancholy and the wrong kind of quiet.

True fact: Nicole Georges' response to stress is to doze off. That's exactly how this story felt to me – as if she weren't quite awake through the telling of it, but expected me to be.

I love graphic novels, but this one just didn't work for me.

Anya's Ghost

Anya's Ghost - Vera Brosgol The really, really short review: I started this book last night. I was happy to get up this morning because I knew I'd get to finish it over breakfast.

I WAS HAPPY TO GET UP ON A MONDAY, PEOPLE.

The still reasonably short review:

I'm not feeling very eloquent today, so I thought I'd post a transcript of how I sounded as I read Anya's Ghost:

"Oh, shoot – this is due back at the library soon. Better read it..."

"...wait, what does that say? Oh. That's the Cyrillic alphabet. This girl's mom is very old-country Russian. Cute. But now I want to know what that food is, and I can't even sound it out..."

"I'm liking this. I – whoa, okay, that was kind of scary. Ooh – I'll bet she wishes she'd hung on to that 'fattening' food now..."

"Oh, that is such a guy thing to say. What a maroon. Oh, well – at least he helped her."

"Whoa! Wasn't expecting that! This is getting really good."

"That was pretty funny."

"That was really sweet!"

"HOLY CARP, THAT'S THE FUNNIEST THING I'VE EVER READ."

"Okay, this is getting kind of spooky..."

"I SO WAS NOT EXPECTING THAT."

"OH HOLY NIGHT THIS IS REALLY SCARY."

"Aw! What a great ending!"

"Crap. I wish this book had been longer."

Conclusion: Read this book. Srsly.

Alabama Moon

Alabama Moon - Watt Key This is one of several reviews I wrote for the late lamented Secular Homeschooling Magazine. We ran an article about homeschoolers in fiction, and I rated a lot of YA novels based on how good they were and how well they handled homeschooling. Mostly, homeschoolers were hauled out as the reliable weirdos in story after story; but it was still fun to do so much reading and call it my job.

So: Alabama Moon, by Watt Key

Category: Creepy backwoods illegal homeschooling

Summary: Occasional trips into town for supplies are the only times Moon gets to see anyone other than his father, or glimpse the world outside their tiny hidden home. Just before he dies, Moon's father advises Moon to leave Alabama and go to Alaska to seek others of their kind – people who know how to live off the land and refuse to have any relationship with the government. The fact that Moon is only ten when his father dies doesn't stop him from trying to follow this injunction. Fortunately, he doesn't succeed, though the reader becomes increasingly sympathetic with his wish to. Instead, Moon ends up in a warm, safe home with a loving family, and learns the difficult lesson that you can love and honor someone and still not agree with him – even if he's your father.

Conclusion: The "Little House" books will seem kind of creepy for about a week after you finish reading this.

Rating as a novel about homeschooling and/or homeschoolers: It's true that Watt Key is writing about one very unusual child in one very unusual situation. If you're a homeschooler, good luck explaining that to friends and relatives who read this book and panic about your decision to teach your own kids.

Rating as a novel: A brilliant, beautiful book with subtle characterization and a terrifically clever court scene that ties up all loose ends. Ideals of love, redemption, friendship and forgiveness permeate the story.

George the Goldfish. Lone Morton

George the Goldfish. Lone Morton - Lone Morton George the Fish has the Worst Day Ever

(A True Tale of Terror)

Although I was still learning the language myself, I was the closest thing to a French speaker our local homeschooling group had. It fell to me, therefore, to teach a little French class to my young son and some of his friends.

Fortunately for me, our library carried some children's books put out by Barron's Educational Series called "I can read French." The simple, picture-book style stories are written in French with English translations on the same page. The writers assume that the reader has a smidgen of knowledge of how French should sound – there's a pronunciation guide in the back, but you can only do so much in trying to describe how a language sounds. But I got by, and when all of us were tired of lesson lessons, a story was a nice break.

"Good news, guys," I said one morning after we'd drilled some vocabulary. "I found a new story."

I held it up: George the Goldfish, or, in French, Georges le Poisson Rouge.

"Does the goldfish die?" my son and his friend Olivia asked more or less simultaneously.

It was lucky for me that they were my only two students that day, because it was right then that I made an absolutely inexcusable mistake.

I've made it a point of pride that you don't assert something as a fact unless you're jolly well sure it's true. It infuriates me when I hear adults blithely pronouncing unfacts to their kids because those adults either don't know the truth themselves or are too lazy to check. If you don't know something, say you don't know. If you aren't 100% positive, say you think this is so, or don't think it is – whichever is appropriate.

I have gone on about this ad infinitum. Ad nauseam, even. I've written whole articles on the subject. And yet when the children asked their anxious question that day, I didn't even think about the fact that, frankly, what else does a goldfish do when you have one around for longer than five minutes? I also didn't do a quick flip through a book that was twenty pages long at most, with no more than two or three sentences on each page.

Instead, I thought, "Good grief, kids can be so morbid!" And aloud, in a tone to match that thought, I said, "Of course the fish doesn't die!"

In my defense, they named the whole book after him, for heaven's sake. You can't have the title character dying on you. Unless you're Shakespeare, and no offense to the good people at Barron's but I wasn't quite prepared to put George the goldfish up there with King Lear.

"Now, settle down and quit worrying," I added, pulling my chair up to where they sat expectantly. "Isn't it interesting that in English, we call it a gold fish, but in French, it's red?"

We all agreed that this was very interesting, and I started in on the story, covering up the English translation on each page as I read aloud. "Harry a un poisson rouge," I read. Harry has a goldfish. "Il s'appelle Georges."

"His name is George!" my son shrieked triumphantly.

On the next page, we read about how George(s) liked to swim around in his bowl while Harry watched adoringly.

Then we got to page three.

"Mais un jour," I read aloud. (But one day.) As always when I'm reading to children, my eyes slipped ahead of the text I was pronouncing. I caught the word "meurt" and, appalled, checked the translation.

"Oh, my God!" I said.

"What?" the children asked eagerly.

"The fish dies!"

The children looked at one another, and then at me. Oh, this was great. Humiliation galore, plus I'd probably traumatized them for life.

Salvage time.

"Can you believe this?" I demanded indignantly, as if the only issues at stake here were literary standards. "They killed the main character on page three!"

"Rude," my son said, evenly enough, and I took heart.

"Kids," I said, "I am so sorry. I am so dumb. It just never even occurred to me that they could do that. I should have checked when you asked. I should have read the book before I brought it in for you guys."

My son seemed calm, if a little startled. Olivia looked rather taken aback by the whole thing, but she's a fairly sturdy sort. Still...

"Let's read something else," I said, starting to shut the book.

"NO!" they exclaimed in stereo.

"Read it!" my son said.

"We want to know what happens!" Olivia said.

"But guys, the fish died," I said. Not much room for character development there.

"There has to be more than that," my son pointed out reasonably. "There's the whole rest of the book left."

"Maybe they have a funeral," Olivia said.

"Maybe the funeral's in the toilet," my son suggested.

Olivia gave him the cat-like stare that's a specialty of hers. She comes from a long line of warm-hearted, cool-eyed women.

"They do flush fish," my son protested. "I've read about it."

"I'm pretty sure they don't do that in this book," I said, having learned my lesson about making sweeping pronouncements.

"Read it!"

I gave in, conditionally. "Okay, but if it freaks you guys out, I'm getting something else."

"We're fine!" my son said.

"We like it!" Olivia said.

I sighed and opened the book again. We read about how Harry was sad and cried, and the kids were delighted because they knew the French words for "sad" and "cries." Then Harry's mother came in and gave Harry a hug. "George made you happy," she said.

"Not for long," my son said sourly.

His mother said they should bury George in the garden – "Aw, man, no toilet," my son said – and he would "make the garden happy."

The children expressed vast skepticism on this point. "Okay, maybe 'happy' is too strong a word," I editorialized. "Seriously, are you guys okay with this?"

"Keep reading!"

"Harry peint une petite boite," I read. They could tell from the picture that Harry was decorating a little makeshift coffin. And then he put George(s) on some leaves in the box.

"George looks like a fish salad now," my vegetarian son said.

"That is disgusting," I said. Then I looked at the picture, and darned if he wasn't right. The leaves didn't look like foliage from a tree; they looked like something Harry might have foraged from the fridge.

"I'm not saying he should be a salad," my son said. "He just looks like one."

Fair enough. I read on.

In an exciting twist, the mother and son bury not only George(s), but also three flower bulbs. Not in the same coffin, but they do share the same plot, as it were. "Now George will help the garden grow," the mother announces cheerily.

"Ew," the children said.

The seasons passed swiftly in the story, leading the children to ask some difficult questions along the lines of just how the heck long does it take for a few flowers to grow, anyway. And then, finally, three beautiful yellow flowers sprouted from George(s)' grave. And Harry smiled.

"Do they at least get a new fish?" Olivia asked.

"Why? It would just die on them," my son answered for me.

The French lesson was pretty much destroyed at this point, much as I'd tried to emphasize the vocabulary words they already knew or could figure out from context. We broke for lunch early, and I confessed my sins to Olivia's mother, who'd spent lesson time making us all a lovely déjeuner. Fortunately, she's very forgiving, and has a great sense of humor. As Olivia didn't seem exactly racked with grief, we agreed to hope that no harm had been done.

Naturally, my son's father had to hear all about this event, especially the part about Mommy being stupid enough not to familiarize herself in advance with a book she was going to read to young, impressionable children.

"Look, none of the other books in the series are like that!" I said in my own defense. "There's one about a giraffe and a hippo, and one about a farm where all the animals get along, and –"

"It's true. Nobody had died up to this point," my son said thoughtfully.

"And I'm sorry, but there is something seriously wrong with killing off the title character on the third page."

"He didn't even get a chance to do anything," my son agreed.

His father was listening intently. "Was this book written by a French person?" he asked. "I mean, dying on page three is pretty dramatic. Maybe it's a French thing."

"It's a kids' book!"

For reasons that made sense at the time, we brought Georges with us a few days later to a doctor's appointment. "Read this," my son said in the waiting room.

"Oh, geez Louise. Aren't you ever going to let me forget this?"

"I like it," my son protested.

"Fine," I said. "But it has to be a French lesson. I'll read it out loud in French, and then you tell me what it says in English."

My son looked less than thrilled, but agreed. The first page was some of the least inspired translating I've ever heard. "Come on, honey," I said. "Work with me, here."

My son sighed.

"Georges fait le tour de son aquarium," I read sternly.

"'Look out – he dies on the next page!'" my son "translated."

My son cracked up, and a mother waiting with her children gave me an "I'm this close to calling the authorities" look. Crimson, I hauled out my son's math workbook and gave it to him, resisting the urge to thwap him on the head with it.

The next week, the kids met for French lesson again. This time Lilli, our third student, was also present.

"Did you bring George?" Olivia asked me the second I stepped inside.

"Um," I said. George is not my son's name. For a second I had no idea who she was talking about.

"Lilli didn't get to see it last time," Olivia explained. "She was sick. But she's here today, so you have to read it again."

I couldn't believe this. I'd been worried sick about emotionally scarring these ten-year-olds, and had instead introduced them to their new favorite story.

Fortunately, all my French books had been tossed into the same bag, so George had indeed come along for the ride that day. Olivia and my son took great delight in embellishing the story for Lilli's benefit. ("Seriously, he dies in like two pages!" "Doesn't he look like a salad in this picture?")

When we got to the end, my son announced, "I'm going to write a sequel to this."

"Harry buys another fish?" Lilli asked.

"George comes back as a zombie?" Olivia suggested.

My son shook his head. "It's going to be called George the Fish Meets Toto the Toilet."