Friday, January 13, 2017

"Barbie and Ruth"

Growing up, I had one Barbie doll. She wore roller skates and a neon yellow sports outfit. However, she was often relegated to the back of the closet since I much preferred playing with “My Friend” dolls.  

When my daughter was in kindergarten, she began asking for Barbies. Most were modeled after the Disney princess characters, but she also favored Barbies who were going to the beach. When we packed up to move last year, she gave the whole collection away. She has held on to her generation’s 18” doll.  

So I was curious, but not invested in, the story of Ruth Handler, the brains behind Barbie. Barbie and Ruth: The Story of the World's Most Famous Doll and the Woman Who Created Her by Robin Gerber opens with Ruth Handler in court. Her company, Mattel, is being accused of shady financial practices.

This dramatic opening sets the stage for Handler’s life. Gerber rewinds from the 1970s to Handler’s early years in retail. We learn how her business acumen, along with the creativity of her husband Elliot, launches her into business.

After a few years in the toy business, Ruth decides to create a doll that allowed girls to “project their dreams of their own futures as adult women.” As Gerber says, “Boys and girls did not just play with different toys; they grew up to be men and women [like Handler] who created different toys.”

Just as fascinating as reading about Barbie’s birth, was learning the story of how toys grew from being a Christmas commodity to one that is sold year-round. Television played a big role in making this shift as it changed the timing of the sales and manufacturing of toys. Designers also had to take into consideration how a toy would look on television.

After leaving Mattel and struggling with breast cancer, Handler created her second business. She developed and sold a product called “Nearly Me” - a silicon breast prostheses.

Whatever your opinion on Barbie’s suitableness as a role-model, it’s hard to disagree with Handler’s. Despite her later legal troubles, she became a leader in a male-dominated field and created an iconic toy that has made it onto kids’ Christmas (and Birthday and Tooth Fairy and Last Day of School) lists for generations.  

Friday, January 6, 2017

Challenge Accepted

The new reading challenge for 2017 is posted. First up…read a debut novel. After consulting this list, I chose The Assistants by Camille Perri because a) it was immediately available through my library’s Overdrive page and b) who can resist a book described as “9 to 5 meets Bonnie and Clyde, with a dash of The Devil Wears Prada.”

Tina Fontana is the assistant of the title who stumbles upon a scheme to siphon money from the expense account coffers to pay back her student loans. When an assistant in accounting catches on, she ropes Tina into helping her do the same. However, after falling for a young lawyer in the legal department, Tina’s conscience begins weighing on her. With the help of her partners in crime, she sets out to make the scheme public and above board.  

As a young Sassy reader, I dreamed of editorial internships at glossy magazines in New York.  As an adult, I love sendups of that world (like this and this) that focus on disgruntled assistants, sample closets, and the drama of deadlines and ambitious editors. The Assistants, a fast, easy read, is a debut that will produce a movie deal if not a sequel. 

Friday, December 30, 2016

I Have My Own Quirks

Although this article argues otherwise, I often deem a book worthy to be read if I like the quotes-superlatives-blurbs-(dare I say)reviews on the back cover. In this case, I'm working backwards to share a cover quote of a book I’ve already read in the hopes of enticing you, dear reader, to do the same.

Of the books I’ve read this year, the following (in no particular order) have made it onto the coveted “quirkiest reads of the year” list.

The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie
“A literary novel with a squirrel subplot may sound improbable” The New York Times Book Review

"Dahlia's story is a zany, hilarious, laugh fest that made my inner geek girl sit up and search for a caper to solve!” Rebecca Zanetti, New York Times bestselling author

A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews
“a careful balance between hilarity and heartbreak”  Michael Cart, American Library Association

"This novel is light as a zephyr and unique as a snowflake." The Washington Post

“smart, serious, heartfelt and confessional without being maudlin" Janet Maslin, The New York Times

The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson
“Kevin Wilson commands the cavalry riding around the vastly important Army of the Loopy.” Padgett Powell, author of EdistoAliens of Affection, and The Interrogative Mood

The Rabbit Back Literature Society by Pasi Ilmari Jaaskelainen
“Twin Peaks meets the Brothers Grimm” The Telegraph (UK)

Friday, December 23, 2016

Blessing in Disguise

The Herdmans are notorious for smoking cigars, setting things on fire, and having a pet that requires a “Beware of Cat” sign. As the narrator says in Barbara Robinson’s The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, “We figured they were headed straight for hell by way of the state penitentiary…until they got themselves mixed up with the church, and my mother, and our Christmas pageant.”

Lured to church by the promise of free refreshments, the six Herdman siblings show up at the first rehearsal for the Christmas pageant. Before anyone realizes it, all of the starring roles have been assigned to the various Herdmans. “And there they sat. The closest thing to criminals that we knew about, and they were going to represent the best and most beautiful.”

There’s only one problem. They’ve never heard the Christmas story before. As the pageant director patiently tells the story, the siblings interrupt asking her to explain manger, swaddling clothes, Wise Men, and myrrh.

“’And, lo, the Angel of the Lord came upon them,’ Mother went on, ‘and the glory of the Lord shone round them, and ---‘
‘Shazam!’ Gladys yelled, flinging her arms out and smacking the kid next to her.”

Eventually they make it to the dress rehearsal but fail to run through the whole play. On the night of the pageant, the whole town shows up to see just what the Herdmans are going to do. When Joseph and Mary are late for their cue, everyone figures they forgot. However, a few minutes later the disheveled couple show up in the doorway. Mary pauses to burp the baby and they make their way up the aisle. Some are appalled that Jesus gets burped, but the narrator comes to some realizations that will change her perception of the Holy Family forever.  Jesus could have been a colicky baby. After all he “was born and lived…a real person.” And Mary “is always going to look a lot like Imogene Herdman – sort of nervous and bewildered, but ready to clobber anyone who laid a hand on her baby.”

The story is not about a peaceful scene you might find on a Christmas card, but it’s “about a new baby, and his mother and father who were in a lot of trouble – no money, no place to go, no doctor, nobody they knew.”


And long after your daughter has finished the book, she’ll randomly, gleefully yell out the Angel of the Lord Gladys’ immortal words,” Hey! Unto you a child is born!”

Friday, December 16, 2016

“A story of alienation, political tyranny, homelessness, working-class people, pagans, and angels"

This is how Nadia Bolz-Weber describes Christmas in her book Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People.

As I was reading this book, I was getting ready to give a presentation to the youth group at our church. For me, this is a tough audience especially when my lesson plans include info on, yes, World Soil Day. In the days leading up to the presentation, I kept daydreaming about coming down with food poisoning, having to help my kids with a last minute school project, or being stuck in a freakish blizzard.

And then I read this:

“We make lame excuses to get out of commitments, or we blame other people for the fact that we can’t show up. But sometimes we create these smoke screens to divert attention from the truth of our own decisions and shortcomings.” 

Huh.

Bolz-Weber herself writes about dreading a speech she has to give at a youth conference. On the plane ride there, she encounters a young teen in the seat next to her who makes her realize that her connection with this other person was a message from God:  “Oh hey, God told me to tell you something: Get over yourself.”

I, too, got over myself and survived the presentation despite a few rowdy junior high boys and a mildly lackluster “discussion period.” I was even invited back next month. Hopefully, I won’t be as anxious the second time I stumble my way through. As Bolz-Weber writes, “Never once did Jesus scan the room for the best example of holy living and send that person out to tell others about him. He always sent stumblers and sinners. I find that comforting.”

So do I.


Listen to an interview with the author here.

Read a report on how we gather in community here.

Interested in books on simple living, spirituality, community, and social justice? Find a list here.

Friday, December 9, 2016

The Good Life

A small group of mortal philosophers call on Athene. She transports them through space and time to Thessaly (later known as Atlantis) where they attempt to create the city outlined in Plato’s Republic. After they’ve organized food, shelter, clothing, artwork (originals not copies), and a schedule of education, the philosophers procure ten thousand and eighty children from slavers. Manual labor is done by a fleet of robot workers.

Thus the experiment begins.

Jo Walton’s The Just City follows Apollo, made mortal, a young girl named Simmea, and Maia, one of the philosophers, from the city’s founding to the arrival of Sokrates. It is Sokrates that encourages the citizens to question if justice is truly being served.

When I set out to complete (!) the challenge by reading a book of historical fiction set before 1900 (“the boring part of history…where nothing happened except people inventing things”), science fiction would not have been my first pick. However, since I trust these folks, I decided to give The Just City a try. And then couldn’t set it down for the next two days.

Since this year started with Miss Piggy and ended with Plato, I’m curious about what 2017 will bring.


Friday, December 2, 2016

"Come, Mrs. Bunny, we must hop!"

This week’s challenge was to read a book out loud to someone else. Mr. and Mrs. Bunny Detectives Extraordinaire! by Mrs. Bunny (translated from the Rabbit by Polly Horvath) was just the thing to amuse both the reader and listener.

Madeline is disappointed in her parents’ disdain for graduation ceremonies and the need for a pair of white shoes for said ceremony. However, new shoes seem less important when she comes home to find a note that her parents have been kidnapped by “The Enemy.” Meanwhile, on an island nearby, Mr. and Mrs. Bunny have decided to become detectives. Mr. Bunny suspects Mrs. Bunny is looking for an excuse to buy a new hat. Mr. Bunny is right. However, their detective skills (and new fedoras) are soon put to the test when Madeline asks for their help in rescuing her parents from, dramatic pause, the foxes. With the assistance of a code-cracking Marmot, a mooching neighbor called Mrs. Treaclebunny, and plenty of carrot cake, the bunnies solve the case.

The charm in reading this story out loud is giving voice to Mr. and Mrs. Bunny’s quick-witted exchanges. Equal parts sarcastic, long-suffering, and endearing, Mr. and Mrs. Bunny are just as eager to criticize as they are to compliment each other. Also amusing are Madeline’s off the grid parents and their dealings with their kidnappers.  


Next on the list is Lord and Lady Bunny – Almost Royalty! This time writing credit goes to both Mr. and Mrs. Bunny.