Sunday, January 24, 2010

Don't Myth Out!!

There’s a lot of shouting and posturing and writing of articles, wrestling with the extent to which we have or have not been “dumbing down the curriculum”. Normally, I would agree with the people who are concerned that we as Americans have lowered our standards in education. However, I must confess that there are areas of the classic canon that intimidate me. Unlike my partner, Kevin, who always loved mythology, no book of Greek myths caught my interest as a child, and somehow none of my coursework ever included a solid overview of any of the major cultural mythologies – even though I’ve studied authors who based much of their work on Greek, Roman, or Norse myths, I never got the original foundation.

If we only scratch the surface of English vocabulary, the names of the constellations, medical terms, poetry, theater, literature, science fiction and fantasy, even modern film, we see references to these stories everywhere. How much richer our experiences would be if we knew the origin of the “Hippocratic Oath” and how much easier to read Shakespeare and Lord Byron without referring to the footnotes all the time!

I tried to remedy the holes in my background by buying first Bullfinch’s and later Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. Both are excellent texts, and important references to have in the library. Nevertheless, I’ll admit to enjoying in this case some of the simpler, more colorful, more artistic approaches that have been published “for children.” My advice is to check them out with your kids, by all means, but revel in them for yourself as well!

The easiest, most inexpensive book is most likely The Gods and Goddesses of Olympus by Aliki. Penned to offer an overview of Greek mythology for the youngest readers, this book might give a softer, simpler foothold to the adventures of the original “Olympic” crew. The first part gives a brief description of the birth/creation of the deities, including the rise and fall of Cronos and the defeat of the Titans. Unless they are certain of the sensitivities of the children learning these stories, some parents and teachers may want to follow Aliki’s lead in avoiding long explanations of how Cronos ate his children (“don’t worry, he puked them up whole again later!”). Obviously, these stories are not meant to seed your child’s nightmares or be read as a morality guide. The second part of the book dedicates a page to each of Cronos’ disgorged children, who join with Zeus to rule the universe. Aliki’s distinct art warms the entire book, grounding the simplified character profiles. Recommended for kids who perhaps want to see the film version of “The Lightning Thief” with an older sibling, or are struggling to read the book on their own, I included this book in the list also for the benefit of its low price.

Another book which achieves the same goal as Aliki’s, with its focus on the earliest age group or those who need more visuals and fewer words, is Usbourne Books’ Greek Myths for Young Children, written by Heather Amery and illustrated by Linda Edwards. Usbourne Books’s signature style includes bright graphics which, though colorful, are clean, neat, simple, pleasing the eye and mind of the reader without overwhelming it. Usbourne is well-known for their beautiful products for children – art books, an “I Spy”-type of series called “1,000 Things to Spot”, cute board books with things to touch, early language books, science and nature facts and more. This lovely hardcover adds another feather in their cap.

Moving up the ladder in terms of reading difficulty and fuller explanations of the Greek gods, goddesses, monsters, myths, adventures, quests, legends and heroes, we have two wonderful choices. The D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths, first published in 1962, is a classic; the other, The Mythology Handbook, is a newcomer from March 2009.

Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire were European immigrants who came to the United States in the early 1930s after distinguished art training and professional work on the Continent – Edgar was a pupil of Henri Matisse; in his early career, he had illustrated books in Germany and painted frescoes in Norway. Ingri was first a student of Norwegian artist Harriet Backer, who then continued her art studies at several prominent schools in Germany and France. Though at first the couple began working on individual art careers after their move to New York City, soon they were encouraged to turn their collective efforts to children’s literature. Both Doubleday and Viking Press published the couple’s children’s books throughout the rest of the 20th Century. Many of their lovely books depict myths and folktales from around world, while others focus on American historical figures. With their inimitable combination of modernity and antiquity, storytelling fun and classic education, clear wording and evocative art, many now-adult readers credit this book as THE foundation to their understanding of why the Greeks matter to us today.

The Mythology Handbook, a spin-off of its parent book, Mythology, will be a format perhaps most familiar to children and teens who have purchased other books in the popular Candlewick series known as the ‘ologies. Beginning in 2003 with Dragonology, Candlewick has published an interactive group of books written by early “experts” such as “Sir Ernest Drake” the dragonologist or “Emily Sands”, nineteenth century explorer and Egyptologist. All of the ‘ology books fascinate kids and teens with pull-out maps, sealed letters, compasses, insets, stylistically “period” art and souvenirs of each writer’s various adventures.

Before you head out to the theaters to see “The Lightning Thief” with your grandkids, before you try to help your child with his paper on Shakespeare, before you take the family to Cherry Springs Sky Park for a little stargazing, why not brush up your mythology?

Hobo says there’s no shame in loving picture books. He wrote a picture book about the epic journey of a little kitten. He didn’t slay gorgons, but he did meet a spice kitty who smelled pretty bad. Share your adventures with Hobo at Or get an overview of other great books at

Friday, January 22, 2010

and now... time for some Skulduggery Pleasant!

Ack! It’s Sunday afternoon, and I haven’t started my book review yet. Sigh. If only Skulduggery Pleasant would show up at the bookstore now, in person …. well, I guess I can’t say “in person” if he’s a skeleton, and actually the skeleton of a dead wizard, but he does talk and joke and cast spells and fight bad guys and drive an awesome tricked-out Bentley, so what should I say, “in dead-but-actually-quite-animated person” ? No matter. If Skulduggery were here, I’d have him cast the reflection spell, creating an exact (if a little more boring) duplicate of me, who could walk straight out of my mirror to work at the store and write this book review, while I went to play practice and then spent the rest of the day relaxing with a book.

Anyway, I digress, but it’s difficult not to do that with Skulduggery around. There’s always something unexpected popping up or dropping in that needs explanation. Luckily, the explanations are delivered with great deadpan humor, snappy repartee, in dialogue with a host of weird characters, and accompanied by life-threatening escapades. Skulduggery lives in a world of magic which is parallel to ours, happening in the same time and space as the “normal” lives we mortal humans lead, with Detective Pleasant and his fellow wizards living right under our noses all of the time, not unlike Harry Potter and his friends. We first meet Skulduggery Pleasant in Derek Landy’s book, Scepter of the Ancients, originally released in Great Britain as the eponymously titled Skulduggery Pleasant, in 2007.

Stephanie Edgley encounters Skulduggery (complete with wig, sunglasses, scarf and raincoat to disguise his lack of tissues) at the funeral for her Uncle Gordon. An only child, living in the small Ireland village of Haggard, Stephanie was a favorite of her Uncle Gordon, a bit of an eccentric writer who had strange friends. Though intelligent, given to a sharp tongue and droll humor, Stephanie’s life has been rather quiet and ordinary until Gordon’s will is read: she has inherited the bulk of his estate. Soon, she finds that she has inherited his enemies, too, as well as his friends, most of whom were part of a world of magic about which she has never known. One evening, visiting Uncle Gordon’s house to check out her new inheritance and perhaps get a peek at his latest, unfinished manuscript, a powerful man bursts in, demanding her name, insisting she give him the key, threatening her death. Enter Skulduggery – battle ensues, with fisticuffs, magic balls of fire, and the unveiling of Skulduggery’s boney figure.

Stephanie gets some quick lessons in the world of magic, where one must protect both their “real” and “given” names by taking a name of one’s own choosing. In less than a week, she meets China Sorrows, an entrancingly beautiful woman, collector of rare magical artifacts; Ghastly Bespoke, a supernaturally-talented tailor; and the Elders, including the deliciously named Sagacious Tome. Eventually, after much thought and several more brushes with near-death experiences, Stephanie chooses her own name. Readers will cheer the name she chooses, and the new girl-warrior it represents, as Stephanie surprises everyone, including herself, as a force to be reckoned with. Like J. K. Rowling, Derek Landy has given his readers complex vocabulary to chew on, while weaving it smoothly into the storyline.

In this first adventure, Skulduggery is certain that his old nemesis, Nefarian Serpine, is behind the murder of Stephanie’s uncle. Looking for any excuse to bring Serpine to punishment, Skulduggery soon finds out that there’s a great deal more at stake – such as the end of the World as we know it, the re-emergence of the Old Gods of Legend (“the Faceless Ones”), and the death of all humanity. Skulduggery and Stephanie face vampire guards, trolls, fearsome “Hollow Men” assassins, and the embarrassment of driving in an ugly yellow car while the Bentley is in the shop, all in their quest to prove Nefarian’s wickedness to the Elders, and find the Scepter before he does.

The best part about these books is that I discovered them after the second and third books were already published, so I don’t have to wait for the release of Playing with Fire or The Faceless Ones. So, don’t wonder too much if you stop at the bookstore and I seem a little more dull than usual, or I don’t seem to recognize you – that’s just my reflection at work. And, whatever you do, don’t tell my enemies that I’ve changed my name.

Hobo doesn’t need any more names, not even a last name. He doesn’t believe in name-calling. Don’t worry, he’s not interested in taking over the world, because cats are already the gods of Earth. He realizes he is often imitated, but never duplicated. Read his first adventure in “Hobo Finds A Home, and learn of his further adventures at his blog,, or on facebook at

Friday, January 15, 2010

Learning to Love You More!

No matter what we say, or what we preach, we all judge books by their covers. Without a doubt, there are a multitude of reasons for this, from our hard-wired neurology to long-established social patterns to frequent laziness. Although working with used books does help me in my attempts to break myself of this habit – learning that there are still some real treasures hidden inside those dirty covers without pretty dust jackets – I still often grab a book from the shelf because it catches my eye.

So, it is with complete honesty that I tell you that I would have completely missed out on the book I’m presenting to you this week, Learning to Love You More, by Harrell Fletcher and Miranda July. Based on the cover photo – an older couple, embracing and smooching – and based on the title, I would have dismissed the book as yet another book on relationships. If I’d seen a copy of this book, at a library sale, for example, I would have reflected on how the bookstore self-help section is already quite full, thank you very much, and gone on my merry way.

Lucky for me, though, I read a newsletter recommending this book among a few other choices for creative folks, and was intrigued enough to buy a copy. Now I need to pass this recommendation on to you, since I have my doubts as to whether you would choose this book from the shelf, and maybe you, too, would be sad to miss out on the fascinating, unique, vibrant treasures that await inside.

The authors of this book – the editors, really – are artists. Their book, Learning to Love You More, and the accompanying website, asks everyone to be artists and writers, too. The “LTLYM” project encourages people to delve into their pasts, giving short assignments that spark the imagination, invite reflection, spur collaboration. In their introduction, Fletcher and July explain how, “sometimes it is a relief to be told what to do.” Indeed, as these artists show, an assignment is not always a limitation, but instead a springboard.

The website they launched in 2002,, has been an ongoing participatory project until this past May of 2009, when they finally stopped accepting new “results” and decided to maintain it as an archive. The book, too, is a collection of wonderful, hugely varied examples of people’s responses to the 70 suggested assignments.

The assignments run the gamut from quick and easy – # 33 braid someone’s hair – to intense and thought-provoking – # 59 interview someone who has experienced war. Looking at the responses people from all over the world have shared, I find myself inspired and touched. In our society where every detail of anyone’s life is made public, be it truly intimate or ridiculously inane, on Twitter and facebook or American Idol and major media headlines, I am so glad to find people who encourage us: if we are going to share so much of ourselves, what do we have that is worth sharing? Fletcher and July ask us to put some thought and effort into this need we have to share ourselves with the world.

Hobo had a little blog, whose commentary was varied. Every person Hobo met, he tried to make them merry. Share your love and creative process with Hobo by emailing him at, or by reading his blog at

Monday, January 11, 2010

10 for $10: our fourth year of listing inexpensive gift books for everyone

Well, we’re at that time of year again, folks – the email from the editor, reminding us that there isn’t one but TWO back-to-back early deadlines for the newspaper, to end the year right as New Year’s follows Christmas in less than one week. It’s also the time for those few last minute gifts: gifts for the office party where, thankfully, a reasonable spending limit has been set; stocking presents; presents for your second cousin’s boyfriend who is coming to the family Christmas get-together after all; and, best of all, it’s time for your favorite book columnists to give you our yearly small price-list book-list. In years past, we’ve called it our stocking stuffer book list, or our budget gift book list, as we’ve extolled the virtues of the mass-market paperback, or the big-bang-for-your-buck factor of gifting a book. Here, then, once again, to help make certain your “ho-ho-ho!” doesn’t turn to “oh no, no, no!” is this year’s rendition, the “10 Books for under $10” list.

Here are some of our favorites, with something for everyone on your list….

No. 1 Draw Thumb Animals: Fine Art at Your Fingertips, by Klutz Press, cover price $6.95. Klutz specializes in creative books, featuring either crafts or games, and the materials necessary to engage in said activities. These fine books, directed mostly at children, are also loved by adults for either (a)giving the family something to do together or (b)giving the children something fun to do so the adults don’t kill the whining children who are now bored at the end of their Christmas vacation or on the drive back from Grandma’s house.

No. 2 Track Pack by Ed Gray and Decourcy L. Taylor, published by Stackpole Books, cover price $9.95. Making the lists for at least the third year in a row, I can’t say enough about this awesome little outdoor guide. Thin and tall enough to fit in a back pocket, backpack pocket, or inside jacket pocket, page for page, this book is packed with more information than most books five times its size or expense. Spiral-bound for easy use, each page shows the life-size paw print of at least one wild animal, complete with fold-out pages for the big ones (like the grizzly bear! cool!) and a little map showing the animal’s range in North America. Users can put the book right down on the ground next to a print for comparison. Now you can really see if those “reindeer” prints are caribou, or white tails.

No. 3 From the “Little Golden Guide” series that has been around for generations, Stars, by Zim, Baker, and Chartrand, with illustrator Irving, published now by St. Martin’s Press, cover price $6.95. I chose the one on Stars because I love explaining to folks how these books – full of pictures, charts, diagrams – are great for kids, but have enough information that my brother was required to buy this one for his college class on introduction to astronomy. Grab one of these and take the family to Cherry Springs’ Dark Sky Park.

No. 4 The first book in the Shakespeare series by Charlaine Harris, entitled Shakespeare’s Landlord, published by Berkeley Prime Crime, cover price $7.99. Though it was her “Southern Vampire” series that vaulted Harris to national fame when HBO picked up the books for the basis of their “True Blood” series, forget all of that, at least for a little while. Grab a great mystery with a complex main character, a young woman made too old for her years since she was the victim of a horrific crime. Lily Bard moves to a small town to start again, becoming as low-profile as possible. She chooses Shakespeare, Arkansas to amuse herself with its tie into her last name, and paces the streets at night as she wrestles with her PTSD. Unfortunately, she witnesses someone depositing a body in the local cemetery, and feels compelled to report the crime….

No. 5 The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss, cover price $8.99, from Daw Books. This one is definitely for the fantasy, epic journey reader on your list, but, even better, it’s for the folks who DON’T normally read in this genre, either. Rothfuss is a word craftsman, a really skilled technical writer, as well as a heck of a storyteller. Dive into this rich, adventurous novel, and join the rest of us who are dying for the sequel.

No. 6 Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure, edited by Rachel Fershleiser and Larry Smith, published by Harper Perennial, cover price $12. Okay, I know I’m cheating here a little bit on the price, but most bookstores have some kind of discount program; I happen to know an especially good one in this area. :)This is a great book for just about anyone: can you write your life’s story in six words? These six-word memoirs are fascinating, especially as you imagine the story behind them.

No. 7 Pocket Idiot’s Guide to Living on a Budget (2nd revised edition), by Peter Sander, published by Alpha Press, cover price $9.95. Out of the many books on the subject, don’t you agree it’s better to start simple, keep it simple, and best of all, it’s one of the least expensive books on the subject!

No. 8 My Name is Charles Saatchi and I Am an Artoholic, by Charles Saatchi, published by Phaidon Press, cover price $9.95. Phaidon Press published hundreds of great titles, focusing on art, art history, and the work of specific artists, and many of these books are fantastic paperbacks listed at $9.95. Saatchi, with his brother, was the co-founder of one of the largest and most influential global advertising agencies, and his art collection rivaled his business fame. This new title by the normally reclusive Saatchi is a fascinating look at the strange economics of contemporary art.

No. 9 Outlander by Diana Gabaldon, now published by Dell, cover price $7.99: eighteen years after its first publication, this first book in an epic series combining history, romance and fantasy, still regularly populates bestseller lists. I’ve seen many couples who read this series together, following the two main characters back and forth in time from Scotland in the mid 1700s to the Civil War in America to the battlefields of World War II. This is romance with substance and hundreds of pages of adventures.

No. 10 The Bible – for some, a controversial selection; for others, a given. Whether you are a Christian or not, and whether the recipient is a Christian or not, a Bible is still (a) one of the bestselling books, not just of all time, but for any given fiscal year; (b) one of the most-often gifted books, under many different circumstances; (c) a fascinating, confusing, engaging, culturally-relevant read which has the potential to enrich the mind, education, spirit, conversational ability and overall life of the reader. As far as price is concerned, a person can spend a great deal on a Bible, but there are many varieties available for under $10.

So, my friends, I hope you are able to use this list as a springboard: you can still stretch your dollars to stretch your mind, learn a lot, laugh out loud, escape your life, enhance your life and/or change the life of the person with whom you share a book. Happy holidays, and happy reading!

Hobo is too busy getting as close to the heater as possible to comment. He has to concentrate so his fur doesn’t scorch. He says Kasey wrote enough here, anyway, except she forgot to mention that “Hobo Finds A Home” is also less than $10, if you know the right people to ask.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Myth Adventures

by Kevin Coolidge

"Without a knowledge of mythology much of the elegant literature of our own language cannot be understood and appreciated." -- Thomas Bulfinch

The hard seat of the desk presses into my butt. My back itches. I want to scratch. I need to stretch. The hands of the clock aren’t moving. I have to go to the bathroom. There’s an incessant buzzing sound. It’s a fly. Suzie’s hair has gotten longer. X equals five!

Miss Lamia scornfully tells me to raise my hand before blurting out an answer. I’m told to stay after class, again. I’m writing on the chalkboard, “I will not blurt out the answer before raising my hand,” for the 78th time, when an odd smell invades the air, a mixture of sulfur and dirt. I spin around and Miss Lamia is coiled on the desk, her eyes glowing red, a scaled tail poking out of her long white skirt…

We’ve all had teachers who were monsters, but not like the creatures Percy Jackson must face. Percy is having problems. He’s about to be kicked out of boarding school…again, and lately mythological beings and the Gods of Mount Olympus seem to be emerging from his Greek mythology textbook, and into his life. And even worse, he’s angered quite a few of them. Welcome to the world of Percy Jackson & the Olympians.

Percy Jackson & the Olympians is a series of young adult fantasy adventure books authored by Rick Riordan. The series consists of five books, The Lightning Thief, The Sea of Monsters, The Titan’s Curse, The Battle of the Labyrinth, and The Last Olympian. The main protagonist, Percy, discovers that he is a demigod, a son of Poseidon, Greek god of the sea and earthquakes, and the mortal woman, Sally Jackson.

He learns that the legendary beings in Greek myths really exist, as well as the Olympians (Greek Gods) and that Olympus is now situated on the mythical 600th floor of the Empire State building. Percy finds himself frequently plagued by monsters, as he meets other young “half-bloods”, both friendly and hostile. He’s the center of a prophecy that could change the balance of power. He embarks on several quests, discovers powers, explores the Greek mythos, saves his friends, tangle with the gods, and saves Mount Olympus.

Percy, like most demigods, has dyslexia, because his brain is wired to read ancient Greek instead of modern languages, and he’s been diagnosed with Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, which is actually a heightened alertness that keeps demigods primed for battle. This was inspired by the author’s son, who had recently been diagnosed with both ADHD and dyslexia. His son had been studying Greek mythology in school, and asked his father to create bedtime stories using characters from mythology, and thus Percy Jackson sprang to existence from Riordan’s head.

I’ve been interested in Greek mythology since Junior High, and I was looking forward to reading the Lightning Thief, first book in the series. Instead of just enjoying the first book and writing a review, I found myself jumping into the next three books of the series, and will soon finish The Last Olympian. I found the series to be a fun, entertaining introduction to Greek mythology for grade levels 6th through 8th, without being intimidating or overbearing.

The Greek myths, from the epic struggle of the Trojan War to the wanderings of Odysseus, form the foundation of Western literature. Greek mythology has exerted an extensive influence on the culture, arts and literature of Western civilization and remains part of Western heritage and language. With a better understanding of these myths, we gain a better understanding of ourselves.

Does your vorpal sword go snicker-snack? Or does it just snicker? Email me at Miss a past column? Consult the oracle at If you want to be the hero of your own story, you may have to write it. Hobo did just that in “Hobo Finds A Home” about a kitten’s heroic journey into the unknown.