Reviews of Amelia Elkins Elkins (A Modern Take on Jane Austen’s Persuasion)

Portion of Amelia Elkins Elkins Cover

It’s been two months since I released Amelia Elkins Elkins, a retelling of Jane Austen’s Persuasion in which a modern Anne Elliot seeks justice for her mother’s death. The novel takes place in the suburbs of Philadelphia, my hometown, and includes a type of litigation that I know through my husband’s legal practice. We’re both lawyers, which means that law is a constant topic of conversation in our household (much to the dismay of our three daughters, who probably know more legal jargon than they should for their ages!).

Anyway, it’s been fun to share my Amelia with the world… and also a little nerve-wracking! I started this blog three years ago to overcome my fear of sharing my writing with others. I’ve come a long way since then. :-)

It’s been wonderful to hear from people who have read my version of Jane Austen’s classic story.

Last month, Anadarcy @ My Vices and Weaknesses profiled Amelia on her blog, saying:

“Michael is as loveable as Frederick… You really need to grab a copy and read it, I only hope that you enjoy Amelia Elkins Elkins at least as much as I have enjoyed it.”

Then, yesterday, Maggie @ Macarons & Paperbacks wrote:

“Blair does a fantastic job at preserving the spirit of Austen’s Persuasion in her modern adaptation… One of my favorite parts about this novel is how the romance, although thrilling and sweet, was not the main focus of the story. I loved diving into the legal world, which I know little about, and I appreciate how Blair clearly described all of the technical terms and documents.”

I am grateful to both of these bloggers for reviewing Amelia Elkins Elkins — and to everyone else who has either read it or considered adding it to their TBR list. Thank you!

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A Child’s TBR Pile: One of These Books is Not Like The Others

In our neck of the woods, the new school year doesn’t start until September 8th, which one of my rising second graders says is “forever and ever and ever away from now!”

Indeed it is, especially for working parents who need to fill the 15-day gap between summer camp and school. Thankfully, my family has stepped in to help.

Today, my twins will go to what they call “Camp Na,” where they will hang out with my sister (Aunty Na) who has planned a week’s worth of art-related fun. Luckily for everyone involved, my sister happens to be a very talented artist and teacher.

One of my twins made sure to pack plenty of reading material to occupy her time between projects.  These are the books she selected:

IMG_5896

While she was sleeping, I removed one from the pile.

She’s only seven!

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* A few of these books are old favorites (See Pregnant Workers’ Rights at Wayside School (Yes, That One).

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What Pet Should I Get? (1960 Versus Now)

New York Times Best Seller List August 23 2015These days, when Harper Lee and Dr. Seuss top the best seller list for “new” books they wrote decades ago, it feels more like 1960 than 2015. Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, the sequel early draft of her Pulitzer Prize winning To Kill a Mockingbird, and Dr. Seuss’s What Pet Should I Get?, a recently rediscovered picture book, have been breaking sales records this summer (see here and here).

I’m wary of literary estates (or lawyers of living clients who act like they’re representing estates) hawking every last item their deceased authors ever touched—if the author had wanted to publish it, they probably would’ve—but I still decided to purchase the ebook version of Dr. Seuss’s newest book.

We own many of Dr. Seuss’s classics, including Happy Birthday to You!, which recommends a pet as a present and includes the sentiment that “the best pet is the tallest of all-est,” a line my tall four-year-old appreciates (as I discussed in Updating Dr. Seuss for a 21st Century Kid).

I’d been wondering whether What Pet Should I Get? contains a similar opinion about the ideal size of a pet. So, yesterday afternoon, my daughter and I decided to find out.

The book, which stars a pair of round-faced siblings who have to agree on what pet to get, certainly has a mid-20th Century feel to it. Not only is it in the typical style of Dr. Seuss’s 1950s and ‘60s hits, but, as the publisher’s note points out, there’s another antiquated aspect to the story:

“When Dr. Seuss wrote What Pet Should I Get? over fifty years ago, it was common for people to simply buy dogs, cats, and other animals at pet stores. Today animal advocates encourage us to adopt them from a shelter or rescue organization…”

Pet ownership has changed in other ways too. For example, fifty years ago, the poodle was America’s favorite purebred dog. Now, it’s the labrador retriever. Dogs and cats remain popular pets (members of the family!), but their popularity has declined. According to the the most recent U.S. Pet Ownership and Demographics Sourcebook (2012), pet ownership overall has dropped by 2.4 percent.

Maybe pet ownership would increase if we could adopt the types of animals that are available in Dr. Seuss’s What Pet Should I Get?, which includes not only cats and dogs, but new kinds of pets like:

A pet who is tall with image from Seuss Book

My daughter liked this pet best of them all too.

What she didn’t like, though, was this book’s frustrating ending, which is … spoiler alert!that we never find out what pet the siblings get.

Drawing from the Seussian canon, my daughter guessed, “They probably took home a cat with a hat on a mat.”

I asked her to show me what that pet would look like, and after a couple of minutes, she came up with this:

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She explained, “It’s actually a really tall bird. The cat, hat, and mat are invisible.”

Here’s the four-year-old artist:

IMG_5817 (2)

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*Remember how hard the Faulkner estate “works” to stay in the limelight?

**I’m not going to read Go Set a Watchman, but if you have and want to chat about it or if you’re interested in spoilers, check out the discussion at Socratic Salon.

***The “best sellers” image is a composite from The New York Times webpage (accessed on August 16, 2015).

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On Sloths, Beer, & Venomous Creatures (That Aren’t Poisonous)

What do sloths, beer, and venomous (as opposed to poisonous) creatures have in common? Not much, except that they are all related to bookish or linguistic topics:

(1) “Slothified”

Sparky!Monique Pool, who lives in Suriname, has saved hundreds of sloths. In this video on CNN.com, you can see her “slothified” home. Her goal is return the animals to the wild, emphasizing that sloths are not pets. This is a point I mention to my children every time we read Jenny Offill’s poignant children’s book, Sparky!

As I discussed in Sparky. Sparky? Sparky!:

“The story features a little girl who wants a pet. Her mother says, ‘You can have any pet you want as long as it doesn’t need to be walked or bathed or fed.’

Somehow a sloth fits the bill (presumably, it feeds and hydrates itself from the leaves in the yard).

[…]

Offill’s fictional child hopes that her sloth, Sparky!, can be trained out of his slothful behavior. Will he adapt to meet her expectations—and earn the exclamation point beside his name–or will she learn to accept him as he is.”

Sparky isn’t the only fictional sloth to make his way into my children’s lives. We also have J. Otto Siebold’s Lost Sloth, in which one of the slowest creatures on earth wins a shopping spree.

And who could forget the cameo appearance of two sloths on the cover of Pssst! by Adam Rex?

mating or parenting_An uncomfortable question

My post on the controversy surrounding those sloths, Is this Book Adorable or “Lewd and Unsuitable for Small Children”?, receives traffic from inquisitive googlers searching for information on sloth mating habits (at least that’s what I assume they want when they google “sloth sex”). As informative as that post is—if I do say so myself!—I don’t think it’s quite what they’re looking for.

(2) My Kid’s Too Young for Beer, But Not for “Cuddly” Cholera:

I learned that Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum, one of my daughter’s favorite places to go, is hosting a pop-up beer garden on August 27th with its own brew: Ümlaut Fever.

Cholera is Cuddly_Apparently (2)Unfortunately, my daughter is only four, so she won’t be attending the event.

Some people even think she’s too young for the museum’s regular exhibits, including a fascinating collection of skulls and the remains of a woman encased with a fatty substance called adipocere.

The Mütter Museum’s gift shop is where my little girl picked up her cuddly cholera microbe, which didn’t faze anyone at her awesome preschool when she brought it in with one of her bird toys (as described in You Have a Bird and… What is That?).

To learn more about the Mütter Museum, check out their website. To learn more about the man who created it, check out Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz’s book, Dr. Mütter’s Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine (which I discuss in Dr. Mutter’s Marvels: A True Tale?)

(3) Poisonous or Venomous?

It’s common for us to use “poisonous” and “venomous” interchangeably, but a recent article from Smithsonianmag.com sets us straight:

“Some people use the words interchangeably because once in the body, the chemicals do similar damage, attacking the heart, brain or other vital targets. But the terms do mean very different things. Traditionally, venomous creatures bite, sting or stab you to do their damage, while you have bite or touch poisonous critters to feel their effects. That means venomous organisms need a way in, like fangs or teeth.”

frogs side of the storyWords are fascinating, as are the venomous frogs that prompted this discussion. These homely frogs “use spikes along their lips to inject potent chemicals, giving aggressors a mix between a head butt and a toxic smooch.”

So, beware.* Corythomantis greeningi isn’t the type of frog on which to act out your “frog prince” fantasies. ;)

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*The image with the frog is the cover of Frankly, I Never Wanted to Kiss Anybody! by Nancy Loewen (author) and Denis Alonso (illustrator). It’s told from the frog’s perspective (we have this book, but my kids haven’t read it yet).

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What the Heck is a “Revenant”? (A Tale of Past Revenge–And Present Greed)

This past weekend, my daughters were kind enough to allow me to use their computer after mine died. However, I didn’t want to test their patience by hogging their means of playing “Animal Jam” long enough to write a blog post.

Thankfully, Mr. AMB wrote one for me. It’s a review of The Revenant, a book I might read, contrary to my husband’s expectations, but won’t buy as an e-book (see the review for the reason).

Until Mr. AMB stumbled upon this book, I’d never heard of a “revenant.” It’s an antiquated word that those who’ve decried the overuse of “zombie apocalypse” should consider resurrecting (Remember these fabulous words? I’d love to see “Grimgribber” and “Flesh-tailor” come back into style).

~AMB

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Mr. AMB’s Review:

RevenantI told A.M.B. I didn’t know what to read next, and she recommended, “why don’t you try to find books like The Martian?” So I dutifully proceeded to Amazon, searched for The Martian, and thumbed through the “customers who bought this item also bought” tab until I came across The Revenant, by Michael Punke. The title jumped out at me because just last month, the epic trailer for the movie version of The Revenant came out.

The book, first published in 2002, was built upon the true-life story of Hugh Glass, a fur trapper in the 1820s who was mauled by a bear and then abandoned by the two men assigned to care for him. As the book’s description concludes,

With shocking grit and determination, Glass sets out crawling inch by inch across more than three thousand miles of uncharted American frontier, negotiating predators both human and not, the threat of starvation, and the agony of his horrific wounds. In Michael Punke’s hauntingly spare and gripping prose, The Revenant is a remarkable tale of obsession, the human will stretched to its limits, and the lengths that one man will go to for retribution.

Sounds good to me! (I can already hear A.M.B. replying, “sounds dreadful to me.”)

First things first: what the heck is a “revenant?” I had no idea.

The word comes to English from the French revenir (“to return”), and it means “a person who has returned, especially supposedly from the dead.” These days, I’d assume such a person would be a zombie or undead. I ran a Google Ngram analysis and found that revenant was far more common than either zombie or undead until the 1960s. The underlying story in The Revenant takes place a century before either zombie or undead were used at all, and so the title is apt, and not just an excuse to use an antiquated term.

As the book’s description said, The Revenant is indeed “a remarkable tale,” one told through “gripping” prose that does for wilderness survival in the 1820s what The Martian did for extraterrestrial survival in the near future. When Glass decided to build a “bullboat,” something I’d never heard of, I went straight to Wikipedia, and found “From 1810 to 1830, American fur traders on the tributaries of the Missouri regularly built boats eighteen to thirty feet long, using the methods of construction employed by the Indians in making their circular boats.” Bravo. The vivid and detailed description of Glass’s tribulation is what really sells The Revenant, and makes it a compelling re-imagining of a true story from nearly two centuries ago that was only sparsely documented.

This Price was Set By MacMillanAh, but there’s a catch: the darn thing was $12.99, a price that Amazon tells me was set by Macmillan, one of the greedy publishers previously caught conspiring to raise e-book prices. Is electronic version of The Revenant worth $12.99? No, particularly not when The Martian is $5.99. Until the price drops, consider finding The Revenant at your local library.

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Oliver Sacks on Writing (Why Use One Adjective When Six Could Apply?)

On the move

In On the Move: A Life, Oliver Sacks’s recently published memoir, we become better acquainted with the complicated human being whose popular case studies have given us insight into rare neurological conditions and whose commentary in the New York Times has both made us better appreciate the Periodic Table (not that I ever needed that kind of encouragement) and look forward to turning 80.

In The Joy of Old Age (No Kidding), published on the cusp of his 80th birthday in July of 2013, he wrote:

“My father, who lived to 94, often said that the 80s had been one of the most enjoyable decades of his life. He felt, as I begin to feel, not a shrinking but an enlargement of mental life and perspective.”

Less than two years later, however, he received a terminal cancer diagnosis. He has chosen to live out his days in the “richest, deepest, most productive way” he can, saying:

“I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.”

I have thought about his joyful approach to aging and his determination to feel alive in the face of death quite often over the last few months as the mainstream media — and this blog — have been obsessed with another octogenarian, the mysterious Harper Lee. It’s hard to know how old age has affected her, but her lawyer’s attempts to ruin her legacy cast doubt on her competence (particularly when the lawyer acts as though she’s representing an estate rather than a living, breathing person).

But I digress, a tendency that I apparently share with Dr. Sacks.

In On the Move, he describes his penchant for “tangential thoughts” and his love of adjectives:

“… I discover my thoughts through the act of writing, in the act of writing… often my writings need extensive pruning and editing, because I may express the same thought in many different ways. I can get waylaid by tangential thoughts and associations in mid-sentence, and this leads to parentheses, subordinate clauses, sentences of paragraphic length. I never use one adjective if six seem to me better and, in their cumulative effect, more incisive.”

When it comes to “sentences of paragraphic length,” Dr. Sacks reminds me of my other half, Mr. AMB, who in real-life is a far more prolific and accomplished writer than I am. I am often the person who slashes adjectives from his swollen, but beautiful, sentences. Meanwhile, he’s the one who points out when I‘ve been succinct when I should’ve been concise, two words that aren’t interchangeable in my book.

I’m one of those writers who never exceeds a word limit. Most of the time, I wouldn’t even come close to the limit without “tangential thoughts” packaged in short sentences separated by returns.

How about you? Are you “guilty” of sentences of paragraphic length (like Dr. Sacks and Mr. AMB) or paragraphs that consist of short, solitary sentences (like yours truly)?

***August 30, 2015: Oliver Sacks has passed away. He was 82. It’s impressive that he kept writing until the very end. According to the New York Times, “On Aug. 10, his assistant, Ms. Edgar, who described herself as his ‘collaborator, friend, researcher and editor’ as well, wrote in an email: ‘He is still writing with great clarity. We are pretty sure he will go with fountain pen in hand.'”

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Enid Blyton Who?

BlytonIf you happen to have an extra 1.85 million pounds lying around, you could become the next proud owner of Enid Blyton’s charming “cottage (in quotes because, really, it’s a sizable home with four bedrooms, two bathrooms, and three reception rooms).

I’d convert 1.85 million pounds into American dollars for my fellow countrymen and women — according to the stats, most of my readers are American — but, well, would any of them care? My bet is that many of them don’t know who Enid Blyton was.

Britain’s Blyton died almost half a century ago, but she remains one of the the most beloved children’s book authors in the world — except in the United States.*

I didn’t know who she was until the late 1980s when my Australian cousins sent a box of her books over to us. None of these books were available at my local bookstore.  They’re more widely available now, thanks to online retailers, but Blyton’s books still haven’t reached the popularity they have in other places.

I’ve often wondered why that’s the case. Is it that the American market was already saturated with our Nancy Drews and Hardy Boys (then) and our Fancy Nancys and the like (now)? Is it lingering unease about the UK (some 200 years after Independence)? Or is it a case of American self-absorption (do we only want to read about ourselves?).

Who knows.

Interestingly, one of the most popular posts on my blog is actually one about Blyton. Its readers aren’t the usual folks. They’re people from all over the world who google some permutation of “Enid Blyton racism sexism” and land on Enid Blyton, Are We Mistaken?

In that post, I discussed the controversy around some of the content in Blyton’s books that modern readers have deemed racist and sexist. At the time, back when some people in Blyton’s hometown opposed the town’s decision to hold a festival in her honor, I wondered “whether an author’s antiquated, abhorrent views should outweigh the historical importance, literary merit, and entertainment value of [his/her] books.”

Is it fair to judge an author from the past by modern standards? Generally speaking, I would say no, though I might support a publishing company’s decision to cleanse the controversial content to some limited extent (a degree of censorship — a tactic I am usually against — that I discuss in More Thoughts on the Censorship Spectrum: Cleansing Racist Themes from Children’s Books).

As for Blyton, there are some who just can’t look beyond the racial epithets and sexist attitudes in her books. Meanwhile, there are others who either don’t mind the content or see it as uncomfortable but forgivable remnants from the past.

Blyton’s books may be somewhat less popular than they were in the last century, but there remains a great deal of interest in her work and also in her former home — except in the United States, where few probably care that 1.85 million pounds is about 2.8 million dollars.

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*There must be other countries where she isn’t well known (perhaps countries that were never part of the British empire). However, her books have been translated into more than 80 languages.

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