Book Review: Have Spacesuit, Will Travel

Vintage cover of "Have Spacesuit Will Travel"Well geez, who doesn’t like this book?  It funny, it’s exciting, it’s smart.  It’s solid Heinlein without all the sexual fantasizing of Heinlein’s later books.  It’s impossible not to like a book in which slide rules are a space man’s best friends and oxygen tanks are repaired with duct tape.  This is a book about solving problems, and whether the problem is how to get to the moon, how to escape from a pit, or how to convince a group of aliens not to destroy the Earth, our hero, Kip, never stops thinking and never gives up.

Kip, a teenage boy, starts the book with a dream – he wants to go to the moon.  His father, who is possibly the best father in all fiction, ever, supports him in his efforts without helping out too much.  The major themes of this book are of the importance of independence, self-reliance when necessary, teamwork when possible, and above all the importance of hard work and personal responsibility.  Kip tries to win a trip to the moon and fails – but he does wear a spacesuit as a consolation prize.  This turns out to be handy when he is kidnapped by aliens.  I suppose you could argue that another theme of the book is:  Always Be Prepared.

This book is hard sci fi – it’s light, and it’s fun, but it’s packed with math, science, and technology.  Kip names his suit “Oscar” and by the time he’s done giving Oscar an overhaul we, the readers, could probably assemble our own suit from scratch if we wanted to, just by following Kip.  The book is very much about solving problems as opposed to character development.  Kip ends the story pretty much the same person he was at the beginning, only with his horizons dramatically expanded.  The relationship between Kip and his fellow spacefarer, Peewee, an eleven year old girl genius, is fun to watch although the dialogue sounds more like Heinlein talking to himself than like two different people talking to each other.

I had a blast reading this book, and I have a new motto, thanks to an early line, “Any statement that begins with the words ‘I really ought to’ is suspect”.  I recommend this for anyone looking for a light, quick, sci-fi classic with an emphasis on facing and solving problems.

Introducing Friday Book Club!

SWT-Book-ClubsWelcome to a new feature of Geek Girl In Love – Book Club!  I lead a monthly book club at the Arden-Dimick Branch of the Sacramento Public Library.  Every Friday on this blog, I’ll be posting something relevant to the book we are reading that month, and hoping for some online discussion.  You should be able to enjoy and participate online even if you haven’t read the book.  If you are in the Sacramento area, join us in person at Arden Dimick Library, on the third Sunday of each month, at 2PM.  Otherwise, hang out here for bookish chit-chat.

Our first series is on Gothic Literature.  September is all about Edgar Allan Poe – expect the first post on Friday, September 6th.  In October we are reading Dracula, and in November we are reading Miss Peregrine’s Home for Unusual Children.  We will take a break in December but be back in January with a three-month series on humor – we’ll need it, after all that goth!

Incidentally, some of you had a confusing sneak preview of the Poe entries earlier this month due to technical difficulties.  Once again, this blogger learns a valuable lesson about not performing tasks that require attention to detail after 11PM.  Hopefully now I have my dates sorted out, and in the meantime, a few of you had a head start – yay?

So dust off your Poe, if you are so inclined, and get out that black lipstick you had back in the 1990’s (who, me?) and get ready for a creepy Autumn, to be followed by a funny Spring.  I’m excited!  Life of Poe, coming your way next Friday!

Wednesday Videos: Candy From A Baby

WednesdayVideoI love you, Mythbusters!  Never change, you magnificent bastards!

For full results (not in video form, sadly, click here).

Sadly, even Mythbusters can be deterred.  Explosives and sharks hold no terrors for them, but lawyers…that’s a different story:

If that story makes you feel sad, you cheer yourself up by seeing  what happens when the Mythbusters play with matches:

Go do something loud and funny today – you know, for SCIENCE!

Hooray for Triple Digits!

the number 100 made from legos

As of this writing, we officially have a hundred followers – Mad Scientist Husband refused to subscribe until I got ninety-nine followers so that he could be the one hundredth one.  That’s pure romance, people.  Flowers are boring, but a man who follows your blog is a man to keep.

So as I type madly away in the dead of night, I have to wonder – who is reading my stuff?  To the best of my knowledge, here’s who’s reading:

1.  My friends and relatives on Facebook who are being sucked in against their will because I have used the powers of WordPress for evil.

2.  My mom.

3.  My mom’s knitting group, possibly because they fear that if they don’t read my blog, my mother will attack them with knitting needles.  Such is a Mother’s Love.

4.  The mad scientist, henceforth known as No. 100.

5.  And this is the amazing part:  Some people I don’t know.

It’s true!  I know it’s true, because I don’t think I actually know 100 people!  As they say in Bloom County, “I say to myself, ‘Why, that is DARNED exciting!'”

So thanks to the one hundred (and possibly, by the time this is posted, more) people who are subscribing to Leave a comment and tell us what draws you to the blog – the book reviews?  The science stuff?  Videos?  My scintillating wit?  Today, 100.  Tomorrow, the world!

Book Review: Grimbold’s Other World

Cover of Grimbold's Other WorldMy animal loving cousin said, “Why don’t you review a book about dog training?”  Cousin is well aware that we have had mixed success with our dog, who will jump through a hoop on command but still eats all my clothes.

“Well”, said I, “Most of what I write about is science fiction and fantasy and romance…”

“Oh”, said Cousin, “Would you review this book I liked when I was a child?  It’s not about a dog, it’s about a cat”.

This being an equal opportunity blog, both cat and dog books are welcome, especially if they fit into one of the genres listed above, so I gave her recommendation a try.  It was delightful although I suspect it’s one of those books that’s better when you are a kid – I say this because I thought the book was not strong as an overall piece of literature, but had great kid-bait moments.  I can hardly wait to read the chapter to my daughter in which a baby dragon is lost and found.  She’ll eat it up.

Grimbold’s Other World, by Nicholas Stuart Gray, is a children’s fantasy book about a boy who befriends (sort of) a cat that is able to guide the boy between worlds.  The boy is able to communicate with animals and often finds himself in other worlds by accident, although he is usually guided there by Grimbold.  Grimbold keeps needing a human to help him save the son of an evil sorcerer.  This son is something of a jerk and always in trouble, but Grimbold just can’t stand to see him come to harm.    The story is episodic, as the boy, named Muffler, goes about his life but is constantly interrupted by inter-world crises.  Along the way we encounter an anxiety-ridden dog, a loyal horse, a baby dragon, a unicorn, and, in my opinion, some truly dreadful poetry.

This book does not have especially well-developed characters, or amazing powers of description, or brilliant use of language, or a plot that makes much sense, or much thematic depth to it.  So, were I grading it, I would not give it an A.  BUT – this book has a cat that pulls the boy into an alternate universe by taking him through the chimney, a unicorn, and a baby dragon.  Frankly, that’s some good literature, right there.  Well-developed characters and such things would be icing on the cake, but let’s face it, once you’ve got talking animals and a baby dragon, you can’t go too far wrong.  I haven’t tried this book out on my own daughter yet, but I predict that she will look upon it the way I look at a package of Oreos.  She will read this thing before you can say “baby dragon”.  This is nine-year-old kid crack, especially if the kid in question loves animals.  No wonder Cousin liked it – I did too!  I’m not sure if many adults will find it to be deeply satisfying – it doesn’t have the substance of something like the Narnia books or Neverending Story.  But you’ll enjoy sharing it with your kids.  Just don’t be surprised if you find your kids climbing up the chimney.

Gateway Drugs: The Science Fiction Edition

door opening onto poppiesIt’s time for Gateway Drugs – and this month we’re looking at science fiction.  The joy of science fiction is that it encompasses so many styles of writing.  In popular imagination, science fiction means Star Wars and Star Trek – stories with lasers, spaceships, and aliens, and a lot of action.  God knows, I cherish those things.  But there are all kinds of writing within the science fiction genres – mystery, romance, comedy, tragedy.  There’s space opera and there’s small-scale, character-driven, philosophical stories.  you name it, science fiction has it.

The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy

Let’s start with an anthology that has a little bit of everything.

The Latest Edition of The Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy

The Latest Edition of The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy

Here’s what the author Connie Willis has to say about The Year’s Best:

My second big influence was The Year’s Best SF&F.  This was the 1950’s, when Judith Merrill, and Robert P. Mills, and Anthony Boucher were editors of this collection, which came out every year.  I’d read a Philip K. Dick story, and then a Theodore Sturgeon story, and then a Frederick Brown story, and then a Shirley Jackson story.  It was an amazing experience, not just because the stories were amazing, but because I saw this vast variety of things you could do.  You could have a highly experimental story, and then a rip-roaring adventure, and then a horror story, and then you’d have a sweet little romance – all in one book.  Had I just read novels, I don’t think I would have stuck with it.

One of the first stories I ever sold was a romantic comedy.  It was called “Capra Corn” – a terrible title.  I knew that within science fiction, I would write anything I wanted to.  I thought, I can write a sad story and then a really fun story, and nobody said a word.  I thought, I can do anything I want!  That’s why I had so much fun, and why I’ve stuck with the genre all this time.

R Is For Rocket, Ray Bradbury


I discovered science fiction when I asked my dad for something to read.  He showed me his collection of Ray Bradbury and Issac Asimov short stories.  Not only did those books get me to read science fiction, but according to a lot of rooms full of current sci-fi authors, those two guys got ALL of us to read science fiction, long before we knew what science fiction was.  In R is for Rocket,  you can read about spaceflight, and sea monsters, and time travel.  You can read about the emotional problems that come with leaving everything you know on Earth behind to colonize Mars.  You can read “The Sound of Summer Running”, which is about a boy who wants new tennis shoes, and isn’t science fiction at all.  I also recommend Bradbury’s S is for Space.

I, Robot, by Issac Asimov

I, Robot

This collection of stories includes a mystery, and a psychological mind game, and a cave-in on another planet.  So again – if you like action, it’s here, but the core of the stories is about how people work, and how robots might work someday, and how robots and people would interact.  The stories are funny, and touching, and scary, and sad, and heart-warming.  I don’t care how much you say you don’t like science fiction – if you don’t find at least some of these stories to be a least a little bit interesting, your soul is dead.  I’m not judging you – simply stating a fact.

But let’s say you want to read a novel.  OK, here’s a list:

If you enjoy love stories, try these:

A Civil Campaign, by Lois McMaster Bujold

To Say Nothing of the Dog, by Connie Willis

Rivited, by Meljean Brook

The Best of All Possible Worlds, by Karen Lord

If you like spaceships and lasers, and politics on far-flung planets, try:

A Deepness in the Sky, by Vernor Vinge

Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card

Dune, by Frank Herbert

If you like to laugh:

Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams

If you like to think deep thoughts and be intellectually and emotionally challenged, try these:

The Sparrow, by Maria Doria Russell

The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. LeGuin

Kindred, by Octavia Butler

OK, that should keep us all busy until next month!  What are your favorite science fiction books?

Book Review: The 21 Balloons

Cover of The 21 BalloonsOh, 21 Balloons, how I do adore you, even though the hero of your story is a misanthropic jerk.  In fact, I love you in part because your hero is a misanthropic jerk.  But mostly, I love this story for the idea (what would you do if you discovered an island that was home to an incredible diamond mine) and for the inventions (you would use the money from the diamonds to make cool toys, of course!)

The 21 Balloons was written and illustrated by William Pene du Bois.  It won a Newbury award in 1948.  It certainly deserved it.  This book entertained me when I was a kid and it gets better every time I read it, which is often.  The story is told in flashback by Professor William Waterman Sherman, a math teacher.  After years of teaching, Professor Sherman is royally sick of children and of teaching math and he decides to spend a year in a hot air balloon.  Well, not IN the balloon, obviously – in a house suspended from the balloon.  All goes well for the first seven days – and then a sea gull encounter causes Professor Sherman to crash land on the island of Krakatoa, where he is greeted, to his utter amazement by a dapper man with a big secret.

The character of Professor Sherman is so consistently without sentiment that he’s wildly refreshing.  I wouldn’t want to spend a year in a balloon with him, but so many people in children’s literature are very nice, or very evil, that someone like the Professor is a refreshing change of pace.  He’s not evil, he’s not cruel, but he’s interested in his own well-being.  Not to the point of being without morals, but enough to, for instance, fail to mention that he’s a retired teacher to a group of people who would doubtless pressure him to come out of his much beloved retirement.

The real excitement comes not from the plot or the characters but from the details.  Every detail of the balloon house is described, and it makes you wonder what your house would be like.  What would you invent if you were apart of a group of very rich, very smart people with a lot of resources and leisure time?  What would your constitution look like if you drew one up from scratch?  And how many ways are there to cook lamb, anyway?  These are pressing questions in the book and they will keep you daydreaming long after the book is over.

Look at these illustrations, aren’t they wonderful?  I deeply regret that I am unable to share my personal favorite:  Professor Sherman being pulled by his balloon across the surface of the ocean, with sharks nipping at his bare toes.

illustration from 21 balloons

The Balloon Merry-Go-Round

illustration of balloon house

The Balloon house. Not pictured are a great many books (paperback, small print).

Don’t you want to go read the book right now, and then start drawing pictures of your house on Krakatoa and your own balloon invention with a new box of crayons?  OK, go do that!

I guess if there’s any problem with the book, it’s that it’s rather tasteless to make light entertainment out of a disaster that caused the deaths of over 36,000 people.  As a child, I had no idea that there was a real Krakatoa – you can imagine my surprise when I discovered it.  It seems deeply unfair that that horrible tragedy was real and yet we do not have elevator beds and airy-go-grounds.  Since the real explosion happened in 1883, perhaps its not, as they say, “too soon” to turn it into a fantasy about living in a place so unstable that no one will ever look for you.  Just watch out for Anak Krakatau!

Wednesday Video: Best Movie Trailer For an Imaginary Movie, Ever

WednesdayVideoMy baby goes back to school tomorrow and I have end of summer sadness – luckily this trailer is providing me with a last minute does of full-on, blockbuster popcorn happiness.  The folks at made this amazing mash-up trailer – thanks, guys!

History’s Hidden Heroes: Lynn Margulis

Photo of Lynn MargulisLynn Margulis lived from 1938 – 2011.  Her most significant legacy is her contribution to the field of endosymbiotic theory.  She fought for years to defend the validity of her ideas, and they are now generally accepted as fact.

Endosymbiosis is a theory that states that all eukaryotes (organisms with cells that contain nuclei), including humans, are descended from a combination of bacteria and archaea.  There are three domains of life:  bacteria, archaea (single-celled organisms that are similar to bacteria but different in structure), and  eukaryotes.  Dr. Margulis’ theory states that all eukaryotes evolved from a combination of specific archaea and bacteria that combined into the same individual and began to reproduce as a single individual.

This theory was intensely controversial because in standard evolutionary theory, populations usually evolve into separate groups (with the exception of species hybridization, which is rare).  But in Dr. Margulis’ theory the organisms combined to make a new individual, which went on to establish a whole new domain of life.  Today, her theory is generally accepted, because she was able to show the extreme similarity between mitochondria and some kinds of bacteria.  This theory revolutionized the field of evolutionary biology.

Dr. Margulis was also involved in formulating the Gaia hypothesis, the idea that all life on earth (the biota) is in symbiosis with the atmosphere and other non-living parts of earth.  Although she collaborated extensively with James Lovelock, she rejected his metaphor of the Earth as being one living organism.

It is unfortunate that Dr. Margulis spoke out against the idea that the HIV virus causes AIDS.  In this, she joins a long line of scientists who were brilliant and right about a lot of things, and horribly wrong about some other things (see:  Dr. Fred Hoyle, brilliant astronomer, strange, strange man).  Dr. Margulis had a tendency to devote herself to an idea and defend it to the death, and it just so happened that in the case of endosymbiotic theory, she was right.

Geek Bonus:  Remember how George Lucas ruined Star Wars by saying that the Force involved using midichlorians?  Of course you do.  Well, the idea of midichlorians is that they are in us but also separate from us.  This was inspired by the very real existence of mitochondria, which are the descendents of the original bacteria that combined in the original eukaryotes.  That is why mitochondria have their very own DNA even thought they reside in our cells.

Many thanks to my mad scientist husband for suggesting Dr. Margulis as one of History’s Hidden Heroes, and for staying up late into the night patiently trying to explain endosymbiotic theory to me despite the fact that my grasp on cellular biology is limited to a vague idea that biological organisms consist of cells.  Also thanks to the ever-reliable (Ha!)  Wikipedia article on Dr. Margulis for supplementing the science lecture with dates and things.

Book Review: The Real Jane Austen: A Life In Small Things

Cover of The Real Jane Austen, A Life in Small ThingsThe Real Jane Austen:  A Life In Small Things is a delightful, entertaining biography of Jane Austen that challenges the popular image of her as a provincial prude.  This is a relatively short book, packed with information, and so much fun to read due to the chatty tone and the organization of the book, which allows the author to focus on individual topics of interest rather than a strictly linear chain of events.

Here’s a few things I learned about Jane:

  • Jane travelled all throughout England, and somewhat into Wales.  She didn’t travel overseas because during most of her adult life England was at war with France and overseas travel was restricted.
  • She loved children, but seems to have been sufficiently concerned about the discomforts of pregnancy, the dangers of childbirth, and the time-consuming nature of mothering to genuinely not have wanted her own, even though she just as genuinely loved her godchildren, nieces, and nephews.
  • Jane was no country mouse.  She spent a great deal of time in London, which she enjoyed very much, and Bath, which was a large tourist center.
  • She liked the night life!  Jane attended many a ball, loved to dance, and loved the theater.  She had quite a few male followers.  She seems to have remained single out of choice rather than necessity.
  • Jane was well-known and greatly admired during her lifetime and although at first she said she wanted to be anonymous, she grew to enjoy being known.  During her life as after her death, her most popular novel was Pride and Prejudice.

This was the first biography of Jane I’ve read, and I felt it gave me good insight into her life and personality.  However, it’s not intended to take the place of a more linear biography, and there were areas in which I felt a little lost.  If you have a serious interest in the life of Jane Austen, I’d suggest you read this along with another, more conventional biography.  If you want just want some insight into Jane Austen, this book should work for you just fine on its own.  I found it to be a fast, fun, informative read.

Portrait of JAne Austen from the back

The only undisputed portrait of Jane Austen, rendered by her beloved older sister, Cassandra


Wednesday Video: Nothing To Prove

WednesdayVideoSeen this yet?  No?  Well, watch it now – it’s awesome.

I’ve never had a hard time being recognized as a geek, possibly because I emanate geekness from my very pores.  But our society is still having a hard time coping with the concept that you can love science fiction, fantasy, and gaming even you have *gasp* girly parts.  As evidence I give you the fact that my nine-year-old daughter loves Star Wars and Phineas and Ferb and The Avengers, but those T-shirts are only sold in the “boy” section of the store (and when she wears them to school, believe you me, her classmates have a lot of questions about why she’s wearing “boy” clothes).  And God Forbid there should be a Black Widow shirt from the Avengers movie.  Come on, marketers.  Avengers was a major blockbuster.   Black Widow was a major character.  Where’s the love?

Given the fact that women dominated the social media conversation about Comic-Con in 2013, and that women bought 40% of the opening weekend ticket sales to Avengers, and that four of the six authors nominated for a Nebula Award in the 2012 “Best Novel” category were women, and that 40% of the people who attended Comic-Con in 2012 were women, and that men as well as women are fed up with the fact that this is still an issue (special thanks to allies Will Wheaton, John Scalzi, and Jim C. Hines), I’m hoping that my daughter’s daughters will find the above video to be cute but baffling.  I am so sick of this conversation – but I’ll keep having it as long as I need to, until my daughter’s daughters can like what they want, when they want, where they want, without being judged on the basis of gender.

Book Review: The Shambling Guide to New York City

Cover of Shambling Guide to New York CityIn The Shambling Guide to New York City, Mur Lafferty upends urban fantasy by being completely matter of fact about it.  Her main character, Zoe, accepts a job at a publishing firm that makes books for monsters – the politically correct term is coterie.  Zoe has to fend of the advances of the office incubus, decide whether or not wearing perfume to a meeting with vampires would be a good move (it might make her smell less like lunch) or a bad move (it might offend their sensitive senses of smell).  She learns to take coterie taxi’s and pay for thing with Hell Notes and cope with the fact that there are human brains in the office fridge.  Above all, Zoe never stops using her publisher’s brain – even during her first, shocking exposure to the coterie world, part of her is wondering what might publish well with this demographic.

I loved this book right up until all the plot madness kicked in and frankly, I lost track of what was going on.  Eventually Zoe has to go out and fight evil, but I preferred just watching her buy coffee.  There was a golem made out of a plane, and lot’s of explosions, and you, know, action type stuff happened, but that was all pretty confusing.  The strongest stuff of this book is definitely its matter-of-fact, funny, and at times horrifying look at what it would be like to work in an office full of monsters.  For instance, here’s one of Zoe’s coworker’s to-do lists:

To Do:

Eat Brains

Meet With Zoe regarding writing assignments

Learn where Wesley lives

Follow Wesley

Report back to Phil, Montel, or Zoe

Be Discreet

Eat More Brains

And no matter what kind of horrible carnage is happening, Zoe’s boss still expects her to keep to her deadlines.  Hence my new favorite office sign:



Come back tomorrow, and I’ll be happy to cope with anything.  For today, I have to do my job.

I thought this book was hilarious, but it was also not for the faint of heart.  Innocent people get eaten and coterie think very, very differently than humans, even those coterie that Zoe thinks of as friends.  There’s a scene of sexuality that involves what might best be described as attempted mental rape.  This book takes on a whole range of possible consequences of working with coterie, from the cute (the water sprite can flow under the office door and bother you even when you locked the door) to the horrific (when zombies run out of brains, bad things happen).

I loved this book even when it horrified me or grossed me out – I was rather impressed that the author kept the humor without shying away from the bad stuff.  I was less impressed by the chaotic ending – I still don’t know what happened, to be honest.  But I’m very much looking forward to the Shambling Guide to New Orleans.  Incidentally, humans who work with coterie can wear talismans of protection and guess what!  You can get your own!  Aren’t these pretty?  There goes my disposable income *sigh*:

photo of talismans


You can order these from surly-amics.  Practical and pretty – my favorite kind of thing!

Science at Work: Finding a Cure for Food Allergies

discovery_medicine_no_65_stephen_c_dreskin_figure_2A child in my area, Natalie Giorgi, died last weekend of the same food allergy that my daughter has (peanut).  My first impulse was to rant and rave about all the people who have died from food allergies, but a few minutes of googling that for gory details had me curled in fetal position and whimpering.  So instead here’s some news about possible upcoming treatments for peanut allergies.  It’s time for…SCIENCE!

Allergies happen when the immune system reacts to a food protein as though it is a threat.  Some allergies can be cured or  lessened by giving the patient very small doses of the allergen, and increasing the dose gradually until the body learns to accept the allergen.  As a kid, I had shots of grass pollen in my arm once a week until I could tolerate being outside in the Spring (I had, as a side effect, developed a strong aversion to doctor’s offices).  The tricky thing with food allergies is that the body reacts so violently to the allergen that it is difficult to desensitize the patient without, well, killing them.  But scientists are getting better at finessing the tiny, tiny doses that they have to start with, and experimental methods are making waves.

I cannot over-stress the fact that current treatments are in trials, and are conducted under immediate medical supervision.  Do NOT try this at home.

Most experimental treatment involve giving the patient proteins by mouth.  In sublingual immunotherapy, the patient holds some liquid containing peanut protein under their tongue for two minutes and then swallows this.  After 44 days of this treatment, patients showed significant improvement, although it was not as high as the experimenters had hoped.

In oral immunotherapy, you swallow some peanut protein, usually a higher amount than is involved with sublingual therapy.  The beneficial effects seem to be greater than those experienced by people who try sublingual immunotherapy, but the side effects are greater as well.

The new exciting thing is a therapy involving wearing a patch.  The patch would contain a peanut protein and gradually desensitize the wearer.  The idea is that because the proteins would be absorbed through the skin, there might not be the side effects that are associated with oral therapies.  It’s also much more convenient to wear a patch as you go about you daily life than to visit the doctor every day for a month and a half or more, as in sublingual therapy.  Eventually you take the patch off, and ta-da!  You are cured.

One research team has been working on a shot, Xolair, that blocks allergic reactions by blocking the antibody that causes the reaction.  Xolair is already approved for treating asthma.  Patients get a series of shots, and then start immunotherapy.  This seems to be helping kids who have extremely severe allergic reactions to many foods instead of a single food allergy.  It seems to work quickly and help with a range of allergens – but the process can be difficult and painful as many kids have mild to sever reactions during the course of the oral immunotherapy.

My daughter’s allergist predicts that we’ll have a cure for peanut allergies that is widely available in about five years.  For the child from my town who died last weekend, that is too late.  I have been blessed in finding nothing but kind support in my family and community, but not all people have been so lucky.  Please support those around you who have food allergies or who are parenting a child with food allergies even if you think they are crazy, or trendy, or over-protective.  Probably some of them are, but most of them aren’t, and our kids deserve the protection of their community.  This quote from The New York Times, by Melanie Thernstrom, does a beautiful job of summarizing the anxiety of being the parent of a child with a food allergy:

Food allergies are a peculiar disease, because most of the time the child is not sick — indeed, she may be bursting with health — but is in omnipresent danger. Statistically the chance of dying is slight. Although the number of emergency-room visits for anaphylaxis caused by food has gone up significantly in the past decade — to as many as 90,000 in a year — only 100 to 200 people die (although statistics are difficult to collect because such deaths are often coded as cardiac arrest). Even for a severely allergic child like Tessa, the mortality rate is estimated at roughly 1 in 1,000, because parents of such children tend to be extremely careful.  But food allergies amplify a kind of fear every parent experiences — of a child dashing suddenly into the street and, just like that, being gone. Your child is always playing near a precipice that is visible only to you: you may be able to keep her from falling off, but you can never move her away from the edge.

My daughter has a great life.  She has a family who adores her and an excellent school.  All her needs are met and quite a few of her wants.  She has every advantage that a middle-class kid can have – and that’s a lot.  There are so many kids who don’t have these advantages, and don’t have even their most basic needs met – not just in other countries, but here, in my country, in my city.  I never forget that.  I never stop appreciating our life and I hope I never stop working to help kids who need so much more than what life has given them so far.

But you know what, Natalie Giorgi had all the same advantages that my kid has, and she still died.  My child has a lot of good things going for her, and yet we live on the brink of disaster all the time.  My child is on a precipice.  Help me keep her from falling.  Thank you.

Book Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

OceanLane_HC_cI imagine that if you’re reading a blog called “Geek Girl In Love”, you probably are already a Neil Gaiman fan – but if you’re not, this book is a great place to start.  In English major parlance:  it uses the tropes of mythology, horror, and coming of age to produce a lyrical vision of metaphor made actual.  In normal language:  it’s scary as shit.

Ocean tells the story of an unnamed man who is home for a funeral and takes a side trip to his childhood home.  Past his old home is a farmhouse and a road that leads to a pond.  At the pond, the man begins to remember long-buried memories from his childhood, when he was menaced by occult forces and aided by the Hempstock family.

This book is deeply creepy.  In some ways it resembles Coraline, with its child narrator who sees a world grown-ups can’t, and in which the family members who are supposed to take care of you are dark and terrifying shadows of themselves.  The book is also beautiful, with the Hempstock farmhouse representing all that is comforting and safe, and the natural world being both terrifying and lovely.  Here’s the boy eating dinner with the Hempstocks, following a harrowing night and about to face more terrors still:

I do not miss childhood, but I miss the way I took pleasure in small things, even as I could not control the world I was in.  I could not walk away from things or people or moments that hurt, but I found joy in the things that made me happy.  The custard was sweet and creamy in my mouth, the dark swollen currants in the spotted dick were tangy in the cake-thick chewy blandness of the pudding, and perhaps I was going to die that night and perhaps I would never go home again, but it was a good dinner, and I had faith in Lettie Hempstock.

Ocean is a bittersweet story.  It’s about discovering that there are worlds within worlds – not just ones of magic versus the mundane, but ones inside people’s minds, ones in which adults are thinking thoughts and wanting and fearing things that have nothing to do with you, the child.  The narrator takes the horrors he encounters more in stride than other children might, because he already believes that the world is not safe (he has no friends, and no one comes to his birthday party).  This isn’t a book about the truth setting you free – too much knowledge is seen to be a dangerous thing, and indeed, our narrator seems to be unsettled and vaguely unhappy as an adult, perhaps because he was always a sad person, perhaps because of a trace of the supernatural remains inside him, or perhaps because he was exposed to too much knowledge too soon.

quote from Ocean at end of Lane

Quote, designed by Lakshani Surnaga

Neil Gaiman has a remarkable ability to inspire others.  People don’t just read his books, they inhabit them, and they interpret them with their own drawings and poetry and music.  Maybe this is because he creates a sense that the world he’s portraying is deeply layered.  For everything he describes, and he describes things vividly, there’s a suggestion of a whole host of other things not described.  So there’s room for everybody and every thing in it.  I highly recommend a visit to Zen Comics for this interpretation of Gaiman’s speech, “Make Good Art”.  I also recommend that if you are going to read Ocean, you set some serious time aside.  It’s a small book, but you’ll have to read it in one sitting.  Then, you’ll want to read it again – once for “what happens next”, once for the imagery and themes.