Books Are Pretty

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Daring Book for Girls.

Unlike The Dangerous Book for Boys, the predecessor to Miriam Peskowitz and Andrea Buchanan’s Daring Book for Girls, I have no guinea pigs at home to work with. I have absolutely no evidence to bring to the table about actual girls enjoying this book. I, however, along with several of my coworkers, enjoyed making the cootie catchers quite a bit. Making the little paper fortune teller blasted me back to fifth grade so fast I could even remember where in the room my friend Iwalani sat playing with it between classes. We used them to find out which boy we were going to marry, using the boys in our class. This guaranteed that every fortune was a massive letdown, because, you know, they’re called “cootie catchers” for a good reason.

This time we used them to tell our fortunes, like “You will suffer a massive breakdown and change all the locks on the doors and windows when the rest of your family is out” and “you will spend most of next year fused to a toilet seat."

The cootie catcher: Still a good way to waste time.

The rest of the book maps out most of girl territory, such as making a lemonade stand and a tree swing, telling ghost stories, learning how to paint with watercolors, and whistling between two fingers. Peskowitz and Buchanan, while not shying away from the traditional feminine – you can learn how to sew and press flowers – are adamant about including lots of information that appeals to both genders, such as the rules for basketball, canoeing, and karate. The Daring Book for Girls is resolutely committed to female empowerment, sometimes boringly so, with their talk of stocks and bonds and Robert’s Rules of Order.

Still, you have to hand it to them for putting that stuff in there, anyway, knowing those pages will get skipped over in favor of learning how to spy on people and make friendship bracelets.

While very similar to its masculine predecessor, The Daring Book for Girls takes into consideration the fact that girls come from many different cultures. This puts The Dangerous Book for Boys to shame, because a more accurate title for the boys’ book would be The Dangerous Book for White Boys. While I understand Conn Iggulden and Hal Iggulden, authors of the Dangerous Book, wanted the book to have an old-fashioned retro feel, Peskowitz and Buchanan prove that you don’t have to sacrifice the retro feel in order to make all girls feel included and important.

While the boys are busy learning bupkis about cultural diversity, the girls learn Spanish phrases and a section is devoted to “Daring Spanish girls,” Japanese T-shirt folding, how to tie a Sari, and double-dutch jump roping, a mainstay of African-American girlhood, is taught. The illustrations in the book feature girls of different races as well.

When the book for boys was first published in the U.S., a certain amount of criticism was lobbed at the book for segregating activities by gender. While I am a fan of the book for boys, as are my kids, this point was brought squarely home while looking through the girls’ version, which has a very small section on making stitches. Sewing, as we know, is an extremely feminine activity, so this womanly art isn’t mentioned in The Dangerous Book for Boys. Sewing is nothing that a boy will ever, ever need to know, because there will always be a woman around to mend his clothes and sew on buttons. Unless, of course, there isn’t. In February’s issue of Vanity Fair, a journalist reports from the front lines in Afghanistan, and interviews several of the soldiers in a unit that is constantly under fire. The first introduction to the soldiers features one of them sitting on a small seat. Guess what he is doing? Sewing! His pants have ripped open right around the fly, and there is no time to mail the pants home for Mom to take care of, so he’s sewing his clothes all by himself. While fighting in a war, that most traditional of feminine activities.

This is exactly why, to have a well-rounded childhood, both boys and girls need the books for both boys and girls. To have anything less would be doing them a disservice.


The Dangerous Book for Girls
By Andrea Buchanan and Miriam Peskowitz
January, 2008 by Harper Collins
Hardcover, 279 pp.
ISBN: 978-0-06-147257-2

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Sunday, March 16, 2008


n 1944, Kathleen Windsor, inspired by her husband’s work as a history professor, published her first novel, Forever Amber, the sprawling saga of Amber, a poor peasant girl who claws her way to the top with nothing more than a pair of gorgeous amber colored eyes and an antipathy toward celibacy. It was roundly condemned by the Catholic Church, banned in 14 states, and the film the book inspired was condemned by the Hays Office. All this smiting managed to accomplish was to ensure that my teenage mother and all her fellow filthy-minded high school friends couldn’t wait to get their hands on a copy.

This year, Traci L. Slatton, inspired by her husband’s interest in Renaissance Florence, published her first novel, Immortal, the sprawling saga of Luca, a poor street urchin who claws his way to the top with nothing more than a head full of gorgeous reddish-blond hair and the ability to live forever. Immortal is full of forced prostitution, looting, pillaging, and sodomy. Plus,it makes the Catholic Church looks like it’s packed with a pile of crooked assholes, and so far the book hasn’t raised a single eyebrow. Damn these modern times!

I suppose it doesn’t hurt that Forever Amber is the bodice-ripper to end all bodice-rippers. Immortal is much more intellectual and restrained, making it ultimately a much better book, or at least one you don’t have to tape a brown paper bag book cover over the original cover so nobody can tell what you’re reading.

The book spans nearly two centuries, from 1324 to the end of the 15th century, covering the long and lonely life of Luca Bastardo, who seemingly originated on the streets of Florence, unable to remember his life before the age of nine. Sold into slavery by his best friend, Luca finds himself trapped for twenty years and at the mercy of brothel owner Bernardo Silvano, a sadist sociopath who almost whimsically tortures kills the numerous children held there for any number of infractions. Luca’s soul is kept intact by his love of the great artwork that was happening in Florence at the time, and pushes away the horrors of his life by focusing on his beloved paintings. At last, Luca escapes, and by doing so makes an enemy of the Silvano clan, who pursue him relentlessly for generations to exact their revenge.

As the world ages around him, Luca begins to search for his origins, to see if his parents are ageless like he is. He begins to hear scraps of tales of a race protected by the mystical Cathars, a sect of Christianity persecuted by the Catholic Church for heresy. His search is difficult and frustrating, because the people who have information – Bernardo Silvano, who has a mysterious paper regarding Luca’s origins that he taunts the boy with but will not let him see, and a man known only as the Wanderer, who is friends with the Jewish family that takes in Luca after his escape from the brothel. The Wanderer and his temperamental donkey seem similarly ageless, but both the Wanderer and his friend, Geber the Alchemist, seem more intent on answering his questions with inscrutable questions of their own.

After seeing a vision in the philosopher’s stone given to him by Geber and the Wanderer, Luca begins a new quest – to find love, even though he is told by the vision that finding his true love will also hasten his death.

Immortal, at its heart, has an almost Zen-like flavor. Luca spends the better part of his long life seeking enlightenment, and grows frustrated by his inability to control his gifts, both as a physico, a profession taught to him by his father-figure Moshe Sforno, the kind Jewish doctor who takes him in, and as an alchemist, where the ability to turn lead into gold eludes him. Isolated and lonely, Luca’s heart is as fragmented as his religious beliefs – his view of a good God who works through his protégé Leonardo da Vinci to create masterful works of art, and an evil God who laughs at his misfortune. Rather than find the path to enlightenment through a series of successive reincarnations, Luca has just this one long life to figure out the key to happiness.

Slatton takes this period of history that is seen now mostly in dusty history books, raises it to its feet, and fleshes it out to create one man’s compelling life, peppering ancient social mores and belief systems with just a bit of modern language (one character refers to another as a “good drinking buddy,”) and adding just enough magic to make the whole thing seem real.

I really love a good book of historical fiction, and Immortal was a very pleasurable book to read, one that I looked forward to picking up. After slogging through science books which were too hard, and humorous compilations of essays revolving around the dating scene, which were too soft, it was nice to find a book that was just right.


by Traci L. Slatton
February, 2008 by Delta
513 pp, Paperback
ISBN: 0385339747

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