Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Mysterious Benedict Society

The Mysterious Benedict Society
The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey

by Trenton Lee Stewart

There is a website.
There is a Wikipedia page, but I don't think it's very good.
Of course, Amazon's page has lots of customer reviews.
There's even a third book due in October (available for pre-order now).

So what's all the fuss about? This series-in-the-making features four unusual children, lots of logic puzzles, action and adventure, interesting supporting characters and a strong dose of whimsy. I'm not surprised it's popular. When I read the first book, I had a feeling of deja-vu before I realized that it vibes a lot like the Lemony Snickett books. And all of a sudden I thought, "Voracious reader boy character? Check. Inventive female character? Check. Small but stubborn and precocious child? Check." There is, in addition, a boy with photographic memory and an encyclopedic knowledge of obscure facts; interestingly, he's the only one of the four who isn't an orphan.

There's also something about the general tone that reminds me of the Series of Unfortunate Events. The difference being that I could stand to read these two books, even though one of them is about as long as four or five of the Lemony Snickett. They're not so unremittingly sombre, for one thing, and perhaps less predictable in that things go right more often than they go wrong, but at any given point they could go either way.

There are also shades of Harry Potter in the strong emphasis on ethics and compassion. Just as Harry Potter lets an enemy escape rather than kill in anger, the protagonists in these books, while not shying away from conflict or violence when necessary, refuse to kill. In general, though, there is more trickery than fighting, making them much more readable for people like myself. And of course this sustains the narrative, since the main villain always escapes to menace another day.

I plan to give these books to my children for summer reading. I think they'll enjoy them, and look forward to reading the third this fall. I'll probably read the third one, too. These books are well-written, the characters are varied and interesting, and I know my kids will enjoy the puzzles and their solutions. Not great literature, but very enjoyable, I would recommend these books to anyone.


Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Tired of waiting at the park?

So, the other day, it was getting to be time to leave the park. Ziad had taken his shoes off, scattered sand toys all over the sand area, and was deep in a game of tag on the climbing structure. I somehow extricated him, then got distracted myself as I made my way to the exit. When I got myself back into leaving mode, he was playing tag again. Which would be OK, except that he hadn't done anything about getting his stuff the first time I started to leave. Which made me mad. So I said to him, "I'm going home. If you can your stuff and get to the car by the time I leave, I'll give you a ride."

Which, surprisingly, lit a fire under him. (I mean, did he really think I was going to leave him at the park?) It was a long walk from the play are to the parking lot, so I knew he would be more than able to get his stuff and get to the car about the same time I did. I don't walk all that fast these days, and I certainly wasn't setting my fastest pace.

As Ziad comes panting up to the car, we see a mom back at the play area calling him. We realize he has his sand toys, all right, but does he have his shoes? No. So I had him stow his toys in the car and run back for the shoes, while I pulled out of the parking place and pulled up to the curb of the park entrance. A few days later I heard from another mom that as he ran back for his shoes, the look of fear on his face was striking.

I think I'm an excellent candidate for mean mom of the year.


Monday, June 01, 2009

Not so silent after all

From the Wikipedia article on Silent Spring comes this quote from the book itself:
No responsible person contends that insect-borne disease should be ignored. The question that has now urgently presented itself is whether it is either wise or responsible to attack the problem by methods that are rapidly making it worse. The world has heard much of the triumphant war against disease through the control of insect vectors of infection, but it has heard little of the other side of the story—the defeats, the short-lived triumphs that now strongly support the alarming view that the insect enemy has been made actually stronger by our efforts. Even worse, we may have destroyed our very means of fighting. ... What is the measure of this setback? The list of resistant species now includes practically all of the insect groups of medical importance. ... Malaria programmes are threatened by resistance among mosquitoes. ... Practical advice should be 'Spray as little as you possibly can' rather than 'Spray to the limit of your capacity' ..., Pressure on the pest population should always be as slight as possible.

That last bit deserves to be repeated.
Practical advice should be 'Spray as little as you possibly can' rather than 'Spray to the limit of your capacity' ..., Pressure on the pest population should always be as slight as possible.

This was written in 1962. Since then, we have seen the consequences of ignoring this advice in other areas, too. Antibiotic resistant staph? TB?
Wikipedia quotes a 1999 Time magazine article about Silent Spring:
Carson was violently assailed by threats of lawsuits and derision, including suggestions that this meticulous scientist was a "hysterical woman" unqualified to write such a book. A huge counterattack was organized and led by Monsanto, Velsicol, American Cyanamid — indeed, the whole chemical industry — duly supported by the Agriculture Department as well as the more cautious in the media.

Monsanto. You don't say.

The thing that strikes me about the text from Silent Spring is how moderate it is. One last quote from Wikipedia:
Carson had made it clear she was not advocating the banning or complete withdrawal of helpful pesticides, but was instead encouraging responsible and carefully managed use, with an awareness of the chemicals' impact on the entire ecosystem.

It seems to me that I see this phenomenon on an almost daily basis. Person A makes a statement. Person B wildly overreacts. Perhaps Person B didn't really hear all of what Person A said. Perhaps Person B only heard a few words and filled in the rest out of their own imagination. Or perhaps person B has some idea about Person A, either from experience or just innate prejudice, that makes them assume they know what Person A is saying. It may sound nebulous and vague when it's described this way, but my opinion is that practically every flame war on the internet fits this pattern to a greater or lesser degree.

This troubles me. First of all, there is so much needless energy and emotion expended with people flying off the handle. Even worse, there is no resolution. The argument goes around in circles and never gets anywhere. There is no hope of compromise, and no problems are solved.

Of course, I include myself among the guilty parties.