Two Tech Bios

I’ve been reading the biographies of two men who are pure geniuses. In the past, my non-fiction reading was usually limited to cookbooks and how-to guides, but lately I find myself drawn more and more to true stories about real people’s lives. As a matter of fact, both of these books were recommended to me by my husband, who read them first (and who is also a genius in my opinion). So I guess I have him to thank for my newfound love of biographies.

Ghost in the Wires

by Kevin Mitnick

I just finished listening to this fascinating audiobook. As the subtitle says, it’s the tale of Mitnick’s “adventures as the world’s most wanted hacker.” (Whenever I hear the word hacker, that brilliant Weird Al song, “It’s All About the Pentiums,” starts playing in my head: “What’cha wanna do? Wanna be hackers? Code crackers? Slackers, wasting time with all the chatroom yackers, nine to five chillin’ at Hewlett-Packard!” But I digress.)

Without question, Mitnick possesses uncanny problem-solving and social engineering skills. His story is almost unbelievable, describing one expertly executed exploit after another. What amazes me most is that, after being chased by the FBI and spending time in prison for his crimes, he now has a successful career in security consulting, i.e., companies now pay him to hack into their systems to reveal their weaknesses. Who would have thought! It sounds like the perfect job for him.

Now I can’t wait to read The Art of Deception, his first book in which he basically tells people how to avoid falling for scams like the ones he pulled off.

 Steve Jobs

by Walter Isaacson

I’m still working my way through this tome. Actually, I’m reading the Kindle edition (on my iPhone, of course), so it’s not as physically heavy as the 656-page hardcover edition. One might find the sheer length intimidating, but let me assure you that the text itself is very readable and engaging, almost like reading a novel, except the characters and events are all real.

Our home and daily life is literally pervaded by Apple devices (iPhones, iPads, computers, and an Apple TV), so make no mistake, we hold Steve Jobs in high regard around here. With all due respect to Jobs’ memory, my husband and I both marvelled at some of the crazy things he did in his lifetime. Although it certainly didn’t make him an easy person to live or work with, it was probably because of, not in spite of, that craziness, or should I say intense perfectionism, that he was able to accomplish all he did.

Next, I’m thinking perhaps I should read his Apple cofounder’s biography, iWoz. (Steve Wozniak, by the way, wrote the forward for Kevin Mitnick’s book.)

Animal Stories For Adults

Come, Thou TortoiseCome, Thou Tortoise
by Jessica Grant

Have you ever wondered what goes through your pet’s mind? I know I have. What initially drew me to this book was the fact that it features a tortoise as one of the narrators. Yes, you read that right: A tortoise—as in, the hard-shelled land-dwelling reptile–narrates several chapters of this book.

The other chapters are narrated by Audrey Flowers, or as her Uncle Thoby calls her, Oddly. The nickname suits her well, because odd is exactly what she is. But in a very lovable way.

The story is told with a unique combination of quiet sadness and comic relief—but mostly comic relief. I laughed at Audrey’s adorable quirks, cried for her losses, and was completely blindsided by her final discovery. Perhaps other readers saw it coming, but for me it was totally unexpected. Lest I spoil it for anyone, I will leave my comments at that. If you get to the end of the book you’ll understand.

Three Bags Full
by Leonie Swann

A co-worker recommended this book, and I was immediately intrigued by the notion of a sheep detective story. I’m currently on the fourth chapter. Whenever I tell people that I’m reading a book about a flock of sheep who are trying to solve the mystery of their shepherd’s murder, I usually have to clarify that it is actually not a children’s book. Not that I don’t enjoy a good children’s book every now and then. In fact, it’s probably my love for children’s books, combined with my love for animals, that makes me appreciate whimsical, imaginative stories like this one. I’m looking forward to seeing how it unfolds.

He was a real nice Martian, Mister King.

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

No, this is not a sci-fi novel. And you will have to read the book to find out which character said those words and in what context. (It has nothing to do with aliens.) It happens to be one of my favourite parts of the story, involving one of my favourite characters—a very courageous and intelligent woman. There are, in fact, several courageous, intelligent women in this novel. I think that’s what makes it such a compelling read.

The women in The Help are actually writing a book, a collection of their own personal stories about what it’s like being a southern black woman working for white people in the 1960’s. You’re a free woman, not a slave, but certainly not treated as an equal by your white employers and their friends. You can’t even use the same bathroom as white people.

I was surprised by how much I could identify with the black maids in this story. Like Minny, I take great pleasure in expressing myself through the art of cooking. (After reading about Minny’s famous caramel cake, I was thrilled to find the recipe for her special icing on the author’s website.) Like Aibileen, I love taking care of other people’s children and finding creative ways to teach them. I even used to write my prayers down on paper like she does. (When I read that, I thought it wouldn’t be a bad idea to start doing it again.) They tell their stories with humour and wisdom, and I loved how their voices, with their Mississippi accents, can be heard loud and clear. Aibileen’s voice drew me in from the very first chapter.

I could also identify with some of the white female characters: Miss Skeeter, the writer, and Miss Celia, the… um, young naïve housewife? Let’s be honest—she’s a floozy. But oh Miss Celia, my heart breaks for you! You’ve faced one of the hardest, saddest things a woman could ever face, I think. (Again, you’ll have to read the book to find out what happened to poor Miss Celia.)

This wasn’t one of those books that I left sitting in the pile on my nightstand. No, I lugged this heavy hardcover around with me, reading a few paragraphs, pages, or chapters every chance I got—while waiting in the car for my husband to leave work at the end of the day, while waiting for the teakettle to boil, while eating my soup. And yes, of course, I read some more before falling asleep.

Now that I’m done reading The Help, I miss the voices of those characters. I wonder if the upcoming movie will do them justice. I’m also eager to see whether Stockett will write a second novel (this was her first). It was one of those books that I was almost sorry to finish. But I’m glad I read it.

New Books, New Recipes!

I love my job!! Yesterday while I was unpacking some boxes of new books for the library, I came across three shiny new recipe books. Talk about perfect timing: they were all slow cooker recipe books! Must be a trend. Anyway, I couldn’t wait to bring them home and devour them.

Slow Cooker Revolution

by the Editors at America’s Test Kitchen

“One test kitchen. 30 slow cookers. 200 amazing recipes.”

That lasagna on the cover sure looks tempting. There are some intriguing recipes inside too, like Loaded Baked Potato Soup, Lamb Vindaloo for you Indian food lovers like me, and even some jam and marmalade recipes. Not to mention some yummy desserts and fondues.


Slow-Cooker Quick Fixes

by the Editors of Southern Living Magazine

“15 minutes, ready to cook”—so the cover of this colourful, eye-appealing volume claims. I love the Slow-Cooker Secrets that are sprinkled throughout the pages—handy little tips like: don’t add dairy products till near the end of the cooking time, or else they will curdle. And did you know that browning ribs in the oven first will help make your sauce thicker? That’s news to me! I’ll have to keep that in mind the next time I make ribs in the slow cooker.

More Make It Fast, Cook It Slow

by Stephanie O’Dea

I enjoyed Stephanie O’Dea’s first slow cooker recipe book, Make It Fast, Cook It Slow. I loved the conversational way she described her recipes and her family’s reactions to them. At work, we have little coloured stickers for the staff to stick on our favourite books, so library patrons will know what we’ve enjoyed reading. Mine are purple and say, “Leanne’s Picks.” Well, let’s just say that Make It Fast, Cook It Slow got a purple sticker on its cover! I’m sure this second volume will deserve one too.

My Crockpot, My Friend

Whoever invented the slow cooker, I would like to shake your hand. Being able to cook delicious meals without physically being in the kitchen, or even in my house for that matter, is truly marvellous, especially when I’m at work all day. In April, I’ll share a few of my favourite slow cooker recipes. For now, here is a great book to whet your appetite!

Not Your Mother’s Slow Cooker Recipes for Two

by Beth Hensperger

I found this unique cookbook at the library. It has some delicious-sounding ideas, like salsa chicken, ginger-plum pork, and chicken mole (which I’ve never tried before, but which my sister-in-law informs me is an amazing Mexican dish). You can even make overnight oatmeal for breakfast. (Now that sounds a lot better than my usual bowl of cold cereal!)

The cauliflower soup with leeks in it sounds tempting. Hopefully it’s as good as the leek and potato soup my grandma used to make. Honey barbeque ribs — my husband will definitely love those. And watermelon salsa served alongside pork tenderloin — I’ll have to try that one this summer.

Now excuse me while I go copy some of these recipes and add them to my can’t-wait-to-try pile!

Books About TV Cooks

I used to love watching cooking shows on TV. Rachael Ray, Yan Can Cook, and Emeril Live, they all fascinated and inspired me with their magical kitchen talents. If, like me, you’ve ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes (who pre-measures those ingredients, or cooks the picture-perfect roast that’s ready to pull out of one oven seconds after the demo roast is put into another oven?) then here are two books I recommend. One is fiction, and one non-fiction.

Comfort Food by Kate Jacobs

This book is a breezy, fun read if you’re in the mood for something not too heavy. It depicts the behind-the-scenes drama of the fictional TV show, Cooking With Gusto! (a phenomenal name for a cooking show in my opinion). The main character, Gus, who hosts the show, is a Martha-Stewart-like figure. Despite her flawless cooking skills, life is not so perfect for her outside the kitchen. Gus must deal with the loss of her husband, rocky relationships with her two grown daughters, and a younger, more attractive cohost who ruffles her feathers.

I enjoyed listening to this story as an audiobook while I did some painting in our living room last summer. It was amusing enough, and the cooking show aspect appealed to me since I love to cook so much. I could have done without the lame love interest, but I suppose romance is a must-have ingredient for this type of women’s fiction. In terms of my reading diet, you might say this book was more of a quick snack than a nutritious meal, but hey, if you’re not overly hungry, sometimes that’s all you need.

Being Martha by Lloyd Allen

What better companion to a story about a fictional character resembling Martha Stewart than a real-life account of the domestic maven herself? Written by a long-time neighbour and friend, this non-fiction narrative portrays the “real” Martha as she is seen, not through a TV camera lens, but through the eyes of those who know and love her.

I was truly inspired by this book (once again, downloaded as audio so I could listen to it on my iPhone). It made me want to be a little Martha Stewart in my own home: cooking delicious meals, keeping things spotless and well-organized, and making my plants and loved ones around me flourish. I suppose I identify with Martha not only because of my love for cooking, gardening, and crafts, but also because I tend to be a driven perfectionist too (although I’m learning to accept that life cannot and does not always have to be perfect).

Even Martha Stewart has made some mistakes in life. The book also talks about the time she spent behind bars following the infamous insider trading scandal. But even in prison, she was making crafts and crab-apple jelly.

I love the way Martha’s daughter Alexis defended her mom:

“No matter what they say about my mom, all she ever does is teach the world good things that will help them in life. So what if she shows you the perfect way to do it? Would you want your professor at school to do anything less in any other subject?”


Who Loves the Little Lamb?

Who Loves the Little Lamb?I thought it would be fitting, in honour of Valentine’s Day, to feature a book about love. If you’re a mom with young children, then this book seriously needs to be on your bookshelf! I think it would also make a lovely baby shower gift for any mother-to-be.

Listen to how it starts out: “Who loves the fussy lamb?” Picture a bawling little lamb (aw, poor thing!). Then picture the loving mama sheep (just as she appears on the cover) giving a reassuring hug while she croons, “No more crying, here I am. Mama loves her little lamb.”

The book continues like this, with page after page of different animals in different scenarios showing each mother’s unconditional love for her little one. With David McPhail’s charming illustrations and Lezlie Evans’ tender-hearted rhymes, it’s a perfect read-aloud for bedtime—or anytime, for that matter.

So cuddle up with your own little lambs and take a quiet moment to enjoy this book together. It will remind them (and you) just how much you love them.

Teaching Kids What Books Are For

Sometimes a book catches your eye right away and you can tell from the cover it’s going to be a fun read. Other times, it’s the most inconspicuous book that you happen to pick up out of mild curiosity, not expecting much, that turns out to be a real gem. This is one of those books.

The Wonderful BookThe Wonderful Book by Leonid Gore

First impression: Oh great, another children’s picture book with a cute bear on the cover. Yawn!

But believe me, this one is definitely worth picking up. It had my storytime group giggling from start to finish, and at the end, one little boy blurted, “Read it again!” As any literacy educator knows, finding books that appeal to boys is quite often a challenge, so I took this as high praise indeed.

I decided to make a complete fool of myself when introducing this book. I pulled it out of my storytime treasure box and said, “Oh look! It’s a pillow!” As I pretended to go to sleep with my head on the book, the group erupted in giggles. Grumpily, I knocked on the cover and complained about the hardness of my “pillow”. The kids (in vain) tried to tell me, no, no, that’s not what a book is for!

I proceeded to try a few other silly things with the book, like using it as an umbrella in the rain or a chair to sit on, but each time, the kids insisted that I was mistaken. Finally, I asked them to please tell me what to do with the book. Never before has a group of kids demanded with such passion that I read them a story!

Ok, so maybe the fact that I built it up so much helped… a lot. The kids were highly amused by the animals in the story—from the bear who uses a book as a hat to the mice who use it as a dining table—who were just as confused about books as their crazy storytime teacher.

While there are other books that promote reading in a positive way (and they certainly have their place), this one emphasizes the joy of reading by showing what a book is NOT for. That’s what sets it apart and makes it so funny to preschoolers, who delight in such silliness.

Pete the Cat free audio download

“Can we read Pete the Cat again? Please?!”

Be prepared: Kids will beg you to read this book again and again after you read it to them once. It’s a highly requested storytime favourite in at least one library I know.

Children will love singing along with Pete the Cat as he delights in his ever-changing shoes—whatever colour they happen to be at the moment. We can all learn a simple but valuable lesson from this unflappable feline: No matter what you step in, keep walking along and singing your song!

You can download the song and story for free here, so if you ever do get tired of reading the book, your kids can still listen to it over and over again to their hearts’ content. Thanks, Harper Collins!

Read-aloud favourites

I recently used these three picture books for my Play and Pretend Storytime at the library. (Age group: 3 to 6 years.) They’re all loosely related along the themes of imagination and animals, but mostly I picked them because they had new, shiny covers and were fun to read!

Mathilda and the Orange Balloon
by Randall de Sève

I used a sheep puppet to introduce this story. I told the kids her name was Mathilda and she had brought something special to show them, but it was hidden in my bag and they would have to guess what it was. Mathilda the puppet then “whispered” clues in my ear: 1) It was round. 2) It was kind of big, but not heavy. 3) It was orange. They loved this guessing game. The special thing Mathilda wanted to show them was, of course, an orange balloon.

The story has wonderful images, although not much of a plot. Still, who can resist the charm of a cute little sheep who wants to pretend she is an orange balloon? It’s an enjoyable, light-hearted read that encourages kids to use their imaginations and dream because “anything is possible!”

Children Make Terrible Pets
by Peter Brown

I love how this book defies expectations. The picture on the cover says it all: Lucy the bear holding her sweet, lovable human pet. It’s all backwards! The kids and I also loved how the humans kept making funny squeaking noises throughout the book. I let them chime in on those parts.

A good song to go along with this is Teddy Bear, Teddy Bear, Turn Around:

Teddy bear, teddy bear, turn around.
Teddy bear, teddy bear, touch the ground.
Teddy bear, teddy bear, show your shoe.
Teddy bear, teddy bear, that will do!

Pout-Pout Fish in the Big-Big Dark
by Deborah Diesen

The illustrations in this one are great. For some reason, the characters remind me of Fraggle Rock (ah, fond memories from my own childhood!). Anyway, what makes this a perfect read-aloud story is the bouncing rhythm, as well as the elements of rhyme and repetition. It’s what literacy educators call a predictable book; like a song with a chorus that repeats between verses, the story has a “refrain” that kids can quickly learn by heart and read out loud along with the teacher. In terms of helping children learn to read, this is a bonus feature!

My favourite part is when the fish swim to the deepest, darkest part of the ocean. The pages are almost black, but you can faintly see the fishy characters peeking through the darkness. What great work on the part of the illustrator, Dan Hanna. While many may not admit it, I think most children can relate to being afraid of the dark, which makes the book’s messages about courage and friends sticking together through thick and thin highly relevant to young readers.