Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Build a Better Mousetrap

“If a man can write a better book, preach a better sermon, or make a better mousetrap than his neighbor..." Ralph Waldo Emerson

Yep, build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door, but you are just going to have to reseed the lawn, and that’s not the purpose is it? You want to catch the little bugger scampering in your wall. You could just get yourself a cat. Now, living in rural Pennsylvania in what was basically a converted barn, I expected to have a rodent problem. I also expected my cat to catch mice. Luckily, there’s more than one way to skin a cat, or catch a mouse.

The traditional spring trap works with mixed results, the mouse can grab the bait and run, you can forget to check the trap, only to be reminded that you’ve caught something by the stench that greats you when you come home from a long day at work, or your children and pets can delight in setting it off. Believe me. You do not want to be weaving storytelling magic at 1AM when a trap goes off and the pet hamster goes missing. I also found sticky paper to be a cruel way to catch mice, and mice soon learned to avoid the areas containing the sticky surface.

You could go with a small live trap if you’d like, but why go to all the expense when a little duct tape, a cardboard paper towel tube, and a 5 gallon bucket can be quickly transformed into a cheap trap trick?
Just position the tube on an edge of a counter that has been visited nightly by your furry, little pests. Tape it down, leaving about two inches hanging off the edge. You are going to want to put a slight crease in the tube right at edge of the counter. Smear a little peanut butter in the tube overhanging the bucket that you have prepared to catch the vermin, and when the mouse enters the tube to take the bait, the tube bends and slides him into the waiting receptacle. You can then decide to feed him to the lazy cat, flush him down the toilet, or release him in your neighbor’s garden.

A frugal friend once suggested this to me years ago, and it has actually worked on several occasions, except for the times that Hobo, the cat actually decided to let his curiosity out, and knocked my contraption onto the floor.

I was recently reintroduced to this trick in Manskills: How to Avoid Embarrassing Yourself and Impress Everyone Else, a book by Chris Peterson and published by Creative Publishing International. It is filled with quick tips, tricks and skills that any man, or woman will find useful.

There are techniques for splitting wood, recaulking your bathtub, and snaking a clog. In just two paragraphs, you can learn out how to take care of that cigarette burn your friend left in the carpet. You may have never used a cookie cutter before, but it can be for more than just baking. Sleep easy with the money you save, and by learning how to stop that toilet from running. It’s probably just the valve seat, or a pull chain that is too short. This time, you can plan on getting all your security deposit back…

Build a better mousetrap? Or if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it? Drop me an email and let me know. Miss a past column? Visit http://frommyshelf.blogspot.com and read them all. Hobo, the cat, would rather chase butterflies and dance in sunbeams than hunt for mice. You can read about his adventures in “Hobo Finds A Home”, a children’s book about a cat who found a good meal, a friend, and a forever home.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

"Not Dead Yet!" -- chick lit, sex, and retirement

Read the Printed Word!

My friend Michele is a recent retiree. Like many retirees, she is finding her post-retirement life filled with more opportunities, projects, meetings, family visits, dreams and plans than perhaps held by her former “working” life. Pursuing her dream to engage full-throttle in the community of books and writers, Michele published her first children’s book, Tales from Shrimps, this past December 2010. She’s now hard at work on her daily blog as well as a fiction novel for adults. Michele comes into the bookstore on a regular basis – for events, for books, and to talk shop.

A couple of months ago, Michele mentioned a new Lorraine Bartlett mystery she’d just read, wondering if I had other readers make the same observation that Michele had. Namely, Michele asked, was anyone else annoyed by the fact that a forty-something author would write with such seeming disdain for her own “older” characters – “and they’re only in their fifties and sixties!” Michelle fumed. Although she admits that she may be extra-sensitive about this issue, I believe Michele voices the frustration of many women “of a certain age” who continue to have active lives.

“I’m not dead!” she insists. “I’m not ready for the nursing home! I’m just recently a grandmother! I’m tired of turning on the TV or flipping through a magazine and seeing people like me represented only in ads for Depends undergarments, hearing aids, diabetes supplies, or life insurance! Ack, don’t get me started on my rants about this!” Actually, though, I am interested in her rant. In our bookstore and in the publishing business, we see more moms and grandmoms turning to young adult romance like Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight” series, because the characters are fun and the romance is still hot without being tawdry. Yet more than one of these “older” women has asked me for recommendations for “something like” the young adult romances but “not about teenagers.”

Over a decade ago, authors like Helen Fielding (Bridget Jones’ Diary), Candace Bushnell (Sex and the City), and Jennifer Weiner (In Her Shoes), forged a new sub-genre known – sometimes derogatorily – as “chick lit”, which offers well-written, sympathetic, fun characters to female readers. These authors paved the way for more books featuring stories predominantly about the lives of contemporary women, written for women who like to read about people who sound like themselves and their friends. Nevertheless, more often than not, most of these books focus on women in their twenties and thirties, struggling with dating, work, a social life (usually in the city), and early marriage. The Baby Boomer women and their younger siblings, while they may find these books amusing, still have slim pickings when looking for fun “chick lit” about chicks dealing with retirement, aging parents, adult children moving home, empty nesting, and their own aging.

Enter author Claire Cook. Not two weeks after I had this conversation with Michele, Claire Cook sent me an advanced reader copy of her latest book, due to be released June 7 of this year, entitled Best Staged Plans. At first, I thought Plans looked like just another cute chick lit book. I was pleased to find not only a new kind of “chick lit” – one I can recommend to my mom and her friends, but one I enjoyed as well. Sandy Sullivan is ready to move to the next stage of life with her husband: they’d dreamed of selling the big New England house that they restored while raising their children, and moving to a fun beach condo. Though she continues doing some business as a home-stager for other people selling their houses, on her own homefront, Sandy’s dream of downsizing is thwarted by the heel-dragging of her adult son who moves back home to inhabit their basement, and her retired husband who is too busy playing tennis and going jogging to help with home repairs.

Frustrated by their lack of cooperation, Sandy decides to fly to Atlanta to help her best friend’s boyfriend redecorate a newly acquired boutique hotel. Since Sandy’s newly-married daughter lives in Atlanta, she plans on having some great girl-time with her daughter, earning some money and professional satisfaction, helping out her best friend, and showing the men of her family her displeasure, but the best-made plans …. Though self-confessed control-freak Sandy is flustered and anxious with the turn of events in Atlanta, in meeting a homeless woman who sleeps under the hotel’s dumpster, Sandy soon finds out that there are much worse life changes than being left alone with an overly-polite son-in-law or dealing with her best friend’s probable cheating boyfriend. Though Best Staged Plans starts out with characters who seemed a little shallow to me (anyone who knows me will tell you, interior decorating is not high on my list of priorities), Cook uses this to pave the way for a gentle but satisfying life lesson to be grateful for what we have.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Watch the Skies

Kevin Coolidge

There’s nothing better than a cold beer on a hot day, except maybe a good story to wash it all down. A good story is exactly what I got last week. I had wandered into one of our fine local establishments and ordered some refreshment. I was sitting at a table in the corner, nursing my drink, and enjoying a respite from the blistering afternoon. Yep, I was just minding my own beeswax, when I happened to overhear a couple of roughnecks razzing their buddy about a “big bird”, and if it was safe to go back into the woods. I must admit my curiosity was aroused. I wandered over to the bar, offered to buy him a beer, and commented, “I’ve heard about some damn big birds over in that neck of the woods…”

Now big birds are nothing new to the woods and wilds of Tioga County. We have several nesting pairs of bald eagles in the Pine Creek Gorge, as well as the occasional osprey, and there’s always a good chance of spotting a circling turkey vulture. I first read about freakish big birds in Amazing Indeed: Strange Events in the Black Forest, Volume 2 by Robert Lyman Sr. His book chronicles a fascinating blend of history, folklore, and wonders found in the forests of Potter and Tioga County.

Some strangely large birds have been sighted in the skies over the endless mountains. Described as an enormous black or very dark brown bird, often with a white ring around its long neck and a wingspan in excess of 20 feet, this giant bird of prey is known as the thunderbird. The legend of the thunderbird was part of Native American mythology long before the arrival of Europeans. The giant bird created a rumbling noise by flapping its immense wings. It was thought to be a myth created by the Indians to explain thunder.

Lyman himself claimed to see this massive bird back in the early 1940’s. He described it as vulture-like, dark brown in color, with “narrow wings”. The bird was observed on and then over a road north of Coudersport, Pennsylvania. By measuring the road he knew its wingspan was at least 20 feet. The creature flew off into dense woods. Lyman’s research efforts revealed that there was a history of such sightings dating back to at least the 1890’s.

The possible relationship of thunderbirds to disappearances of missing people was not the purpose in reporting on the birds, but his research included at least 11 cases of disappearances that had occurred over a period of 100 years – from 75 year-old Barney Pluff who was devoured in 1941, to a four year-old girl in McKean County, Pennsylvania who was snatched in 1937 while her parents were picking berries. Perhaps something or someone else is responsible, but eight children and three adults have disappeared without a trace.

Even today, giant-bird reports continue, though some people would like to dismiss such sightings. It’s true that there can be difficulties in human observations—such as gauging distance and scale, and tricks of poor lighting. Surely such a great bird of prey would leave a trace, or maybe – just maybe – Penn’s Woods, with its forests and swamps, offers a place where the thunderbird can linger and be seen by a lucky few…

Big birds? Or big lies? Drop me an email at from_my_shelf@yahoo.com and let me know. Miss a past column? Fly on over to http://frommyshelf.blogspot.com and catch up on book reviews, newsletters and more. Looking for a story that’s not hard to swallow? Check out “Hobo Finds A Home” a children’s book about a cat who left the farm, found a friend, and found a home.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

Fantasy, abandoned by reason, produces impossible monsters; united with it, she is the mother of the arts and the origin of marvels. – Francisco de Goya

For this week’s book review, ladies and gentlemen, and children of all ages, I’m pleased to present one of the most unusual books I've ever read…. By turns dark, whimsical, edgy, atmospheric and hopeful, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is full of glamours and history and things that go bump in the night. Author Ransom Riggs has collected real (not retouched or photoshopped!), vintage, black-and-white photos featuring strangely-dressed children doing odd things. These photos are intriguing enough in their own right, but they become captivating and eerie when partnered with the story Riggs weaves to tie them together. Drawing from traditions as diverse as the Lovecraft mythos, Grimm's fairy tales, and Brian Selznick's The Invention of Hugo Cabret, nevertheless, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children is startlingly original.

When Jacob Portman was very young, his beloved Grandpa Portman told him fantastical, strange tales of the time he spent in an orphanage in Wales, living in an enchanted house with children who had unusual talents. Grandpa Portman’s stories included friends who were invisible, who could hold fire in their hands, who could lift boulders with one arm. He told Jacob that all these peculiar children lived together, watched over by a wise, strict hawk, protected from the monsters who would hunt them. As Jacob got older, he believed his father’s explanation for his grandpa’s stories: Grandpa Portman was an Eastern European Jew, part of the Kindertransport that came to the United Kingdom to escape the Nazis. Indeed, there were monsters who hunted these children; if Grandpa wanted to create fantastic stories about this, perhaps it was easier for him than explaining the horrors of the Holocaust. With this more rational explanation, Jacob stops believing his grandfather’s stories, though they continue to have a close relationship.

At age sixteen, Jacob sees himself as a boring, somewhat nerdy high schooler who will never have the talent or the chance to live the adventurous, exciting life his grandfather did – becoming a soldier, fighting in wars, traveling the world, speaking several languages, becoming a weapons expert. He knows he will end up working in the family-owned chain of drugstores. All this changes suddenly for Jacob, though, with the esoteric, dying words of his grandfather, meant only for Jacob. To shake off the nightmares of the monster who stalks his grandfather and him in his dreams, Jacob convinces his father to take him to Wales, to search for the orphanage where Grandpa Portman spent several of the war years. Jacob finds a ruined old house, hundreds more photos of the peculiar children, and much more on heaven and earth than he ever dreamt of.

To tell much more of the actual plot is to take away from your pleasure in discovering it. Riggs’ new book defies categorization – though I currently have it shelved in the young adult fantasy section, I’ll be putting this in the hands of adults who enjoy fantasy, horror, historical fiction, folktales and mythology, and anyone who loves a beautiful book. The construction of the actual pages and binding is an experience for the senses. This is not one for the e-reader. Peregrine’s Peculiar Children deserve a place in your hands and on your shelf. Note that first and second editions have already sold out from the publishers and in many stores; the movie rights were purchased BEFORE the book was even released! This one has award-status written all over it.

Monsters in your head or monsters in your family tree? Let Hobo know your peculiar stories by emailing him at from_my_shelf@yahoo.com. Looking for more things peculiar or monstrous? Search our book review archives at http://frommyshelf.blogspot.com.