Monday, February 25, 2008

The Order of Things: How Everything in the World Is Organized into Hierarchies, Structures, and Pecking Orders

Author: Barbara Ann Kipfer

First line: From the inner workings of the smallest things to the complex system of the universe, The Order of Things is an attempt to cover all those things that we ourselves have organized, or what we have found naturally organized, into: hierarchies, structures, orders, classifications, branches, scales, divisions, successions, sequences, rankings.

Why you should read this book: Whether you're trying to remember the seven deadly sins or the seven wonders of the ancient world, all the dynasties of China or the structure of the US government, the order of poker hands or the order in which Shakespeare's plays were published, this book has an answer. From abacus to zoology, Kipfer has classified the known world according to its understood structure including science, religion, history, arts, sports, and philosophy. A remarkable reference for anyone reveling in natural curiosity or suffering from general forgetfulness.

Why you shouldn't read this book: You're an anarchist.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World

Author: Michael Pollan

First line: The seeds of this book were first planted in my garden--while I was planting seeds, as a matter of fact.

Why you should read this book: Beginning with the thesis that domestic agriculture is not a human invention, but rather something that grasses did to people to give them a leg up in their ongoing battle with trees, Pollan lays out the relationship between plants and people in terms of manipulation of desire: plants fulfilling some basic drives in exchange for most-favored status. Four plants and four corresponding desires are examined: apples and sweetness, tulips and beauty, marijuana and intoxication, and potatoes and control. This is an intense, well-researched and wonderfully written book that will necessarily change your perspective on the ideals of order and innovation, the place of man in nature, and the food you put into your mouth.

Why you shouldn't read this book: You're a lawyer for Monsanto, currently litigating cases against farmers who have stolen your client's intellectual property (i.e. planted unlicensed spuds genetically impregnated with pesticide).

Thursday, February 21, 2008


Author: Margaret Wild

First line: Through the charred forest, over hot ash, runs Dog, with a bird clamped in his big, gentle mouth.

Why you should read this book: Wild, weird, warm, and wonderful, this is a book about trust and betrayal, disability and adaptation, acceptance and desire, to wit, all the adult emotions you can possibly fit into a kid's picture book. Dog, blind in one eye, and Magpie, who has lost the power of flight, form a perfect partnership, until Fox makes them a trio and introduces doubt into the dynamic. It's deep and beautiful, written on the level of a fable so that kids can draw their own conclusions and take away a meaningful lesson about friendship.

Why you shouldn't read this book: You relish being a home wrecker.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Ralphie and the Swamp Baby

Author: Vicky Rubin

First line: Ralphie hurried home from school, happily clutching his mud-wrestling trophy.

Why you should read this book: When a young alligator finds his accomplishments upstaged by an unhatched egg, he determines to return the interloper from whence it came. Armed with a bit of misinformation, he absconds with his unborn sibling into the swamp in search of a stork's nest to engage in the ultimate act of sibling rivalry. Even before the stork sets Ralphie straight on the origin of eggs, the little gator realizes that the egg has some potential and learns to love his sister.

Why you shouldn't read this book: You told your kids about the stork and you plan to keep telling your kids about the stork, and you don't need any smarmy stork undermining your authority or encouraging your kids to ask difficult questions about animal reproduction.

Under the Table

Author: Marisabina Russo

First line: When there's nothing to do, I crawl under the table.

Why you should read this book: A little girl explains why her special place under the coffee table is a good place to be. She engages in typical under-the-table activities, until one day she decides to start decorating the underside of the table with her crayons, an act of vandalism that goes undiscovered until someone decides to move the table. Little kids identify with and are captivated by the protagonist and her activities in this charming and amusing book.

Why you shouldn't read this book: You're too busy enjoying yourself under the table.

Who Will Go to School Today?

Author: Karl Ruhmann

First line: "Good morning, Sam!" called Mother. "Come on, time to get up!"

Why you should read this book: Sam considers sending a stuffed monkey dressed in his clothes to school so that he can sleep in. As he explains to the doll what to expect and how to behave so as to seamlessly uphold the charade, Sam realizes that switching places with a stuffed animal may not be all it's cracked up to be. A positive story for kids who have trouble getting out of bed.

Why you shouldn't read this book: You're a truant officer.

Glass Slipper, Gold Sandal: A Worldwide Cinderella

Author: Paul Fleischman

First line: Once upon a time there lived a wealthy merchant whose wife had died.

Why you should read this book: The Cinderella story is among the oldest and best-disseminated of all fairy tales, and this book brings together seventeen different versions to create an international fable that highlights the universal nature of the yarn. The illustrations underline differences in style among the various sources, while the text provides multiple versions of certain elements, for instance, the components of the girl's finery or the dishes served at the wedding feast. Very clever, very enjoyable.

Why you shouldn't read this book: You know that Fairy Godmothers say, "Bibbity-boppity-boo," and you're not interested in another word on the subject.

The Invisible Princess

Author: Faith Ringgold

First line: Long ago, in the tiny Village of Visible, way down in the Deep South, there lived two slaves called Mama and Papa Love.

Why you should read this book: In a story rich with metaphor, an invisible princess defies the cruel slave master who torments her family, although she herself is protected from his wrath by the Powers of Nature. Even the master's blind daughter can see how beautiful and irenic the princess is, and when she learns her father's plan to harm the princess's family, the Queen of Bees and the Prince of Night devise a plan to free all the slaves. With intense, captivating illustrations and a strong message of love and equality, this is a perfect book for smart kids with a basic grasp of fairness and American history.

Why you shouldn't read this book: You're still flying the Confederate flag and declaring that the South will rise again. On second thought, if you're still flying the Confederate flag and declaring that the South will rise again, you really need to read this book.

Harry on the Rock

Author: Susan Meddaugh

First line: It was a calm day when Harry floated out to see.

Why you should read this book: Harry the anthropomorphic dog has a hard time of it when a seagull drops a clam on his head, initiating a chain of events that leaves the hapless rower stranded on a desert island with a smashed boat, a single tree with foul-tasting leaves, and a strange, orange egg. Harry's original intention to eat the egg is thwarted when a very unusual lizard hatches from it. Although the lizard is friendly and useful, its ability to fly and breathe fire frighten Harry into ungrateful behavior, until he finally realizes the creature's true intention and potential.

Why you shouldn't read this book: You would have eaten the egg even after it hatched.

League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Volume 1

Author: Alan Moore

First line: Greetings, children of vanquished and colonised nations the world o'er.

Why you should read this book: With inimitable tongue-in-cheek genius, Moore delivers a delightful romp through a steampunk Victoria, peopled by the the heroes of that era's literature. The unflappable Mina Murray (since divorced from Jonathan Harker following the events of Bram Stoker's Dracula) leads a band of incorrigibles on a quest to save London from a science-fueled gang war between a Chinese opium lord and the undisputed mastermind of British crime. Moore nods his head to the literary greats, as well as the penny-dreadfuls, merging adventure, horror, and science fiction in a story that sucks the very marrow from the dawn of speculative fiction.

Why you shouldn't read this book: You thought the movie adaptation was brilliant, particularly the bit where Mina turns into a vampire.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Satan in Goray

Author: Isaac Bashevis Singer

First line: In the year 1648, the wicked Ukrainian hetman, Bogdan Chmelnicki, and his followers besieged the city of Zamosc but could not take it, because it was strongly fortified; the rebelling haidamak peasants moved on to spread havoc in Tomaszow, Bilgoraj, Krasnik, Trubin, Frampol--and in Goray, too, the town that lay in the midst of the hills at the end of the world.

Why you should read this book: Inspired by the real-life events surrounding the false messiah, Sabbatai Zevi, the Nobel-prize winning Singer recreates the sights, sounds, scents, and flavors of the seventeenth-century Jewish shtetl and the religious mania of a people whose unending woes leave them starved for the mystical promises of a new messianic cult. From the holy desires of the cabalists, the town slowly descends into insanity, eventually violating commandments openly in anticipation of their imminent ascent to the holy land, where all laws will be revoked and all crimes forgiven once the Almighty reunites with the holy spirit to usher in the new age. It is a story of a lost world, where evil dances as a palpable presence, held back only by piety, and given free rein once the laws are discarded.

Why you should not read this book: You're looking for the light-hearted, muddled philosophy of a pious and introspective milkman and his dealings with his independent-minded daughters. This is not an optimistic piece of literature, but a cautious warning.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

The Moon by Whale Light: And Other Adventures among Bats, Penguins, Crocodilians, and Whales

Author: Diane Ackerman

First line: One winter evening, I took a seat in a natural amphitheater of limestone boulders, at the bottom of which was the wide, dark mouth of Bracken Cave.

Why you should read this book: It's a breakneck poetic safari, providing a microscopic lens on four worlds rarely glimpsed by the average reader. Ackerman, embarking on a series of adventures, gets up close and extremely personal with a number of animals, engaging in behaviors most of us would never even dream of (sexing alligators with one finger up the cloaca, searching out caves full of bats, swimming beside very large whales in frigid waters) and writing of her experience with luscious aplomb. The author's journey is seamlessly melded with historical, mythological, and naturalistic information, detailed descriptions of the fanatic field workers she meets along the way, and rich reflections from her own understanding of the biological world and the place of man within it.

Why you shouldn't read this book: You get cold just thinking about icebergs, twitch imagining bats, and don't even want to know the definition of a cloaca.

Monday, February 4, 2008

What Does Peace Feel Like?

Author: Vladimir Radunsky

First line: How interesting! The word Peace is beautiful in all languages.

Why you should read this book: The authors asked a group of international schoolchildren to describe their ideas of peace in terms of their five senses, and they told him that peace smelled like pizza fresh from the oven, looked like a loving mother, sounded like singing, tasted like ice cream, and felt like a cat's fur, among other things. It's a thought-provoking book for young ones. The last page of the book provides a list of how to say "peace" in almost two hundred languages, and two percent of the profits from book sales go to CARE, an organization committed to effecting peace by creating sustainable solutions to poverty.

Why you shouldn't read this book: You're too busy praying for peace.

Don't Mention Pirates

Author: Sarah McConnell

First line: Scarlet Silver had a secret that nobody could guess:

Why you should read this book: Despite descending from a line of pirates and living in a boat (planted firmly in dry land), Scarlet and her brother are forbidden from discussing pirates, on account of the terrible accident that befell their grandmother, Long Joan Silver, during an encounter with a giant shrimp. Still, Scarlet is attracted to all things piratical, most particularly treasure hunting, and when she strikes gold, the family forgets their long-held taboos and fall back into the pattern of doing what pirates do best. A crowd-pleasing tale.

Why you shouldn't read this book: Recent maritime disasters haunt your family.

Pussycats Everywhere!

Author: Sheila McGraw

First line: Mister Whiskers didn't come home Friday night.

Why you should read this book: When Karen neglects to describe her lost kitty on a series of missing cat posters, she ends up with thirty-seven lost kitties, none of which is her beloved Mister Whiskers. This book described Karen's adventures with an overwhelming number of adorably, cuddly, destructive felines, culminating in happy endings for thirty-eight cats and one grateful kid. A nice story about love and hope.

Why you shouldn't read this book: Previous citations for animal hoarding on your police record.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold

Author: C. S. Lewis

First line: I am old now and have not much to fear from the anger of gods.

Why you should read this book: Lewis retells the ancient myth of Eros and Psyche, in novel form, from the point of view of Psyche's older, decidedly unbeautiful sister, Orual. As in the original, Psyche, a girl whose beauty rivals the gods, is sacrificed, but becomes the bride of Eros, until her sister's skepticism causes her to fall from grace. In Lewis's version, Orual adores her sister beyond measure, and frames her story as a complaint against the gods who stole her beloved, culminating in an understanding of the spiritual nature of mankind and the place earthly love has in keeping individuals from true knowledge of the divine.

Why you shouldn't read this book: You think you're the avatar of Aphrodite.