The True Meaning of Smekday came out in 2007, so this spring's sequel, Smek for President, was an unexpected joy. I read both books with my 11-year-old son, who still lets me read out loud to him, although at this point, I'm afraid that every book is going to be the last. If you've already read the first book, then you'll want to read the second one, which is almost as good as the first. If you haven't yet read The True Meaning of Smekday, here are some reasons that you should give this kid's book with crossover appeal a try:

1) The main character is named "Gratuity"-- her mom liked the sound of it-- but is nicknamed "Tip". This kind of offbeat cleverness runs through both books.

2) Tip is a strong, smart, resourceful girl, AND a girl who just happens to be biracial, in a book that's not about race at all, really.

3) There's an alien from the planet Boov whose name on Earth is inexplicably J-Lo, even though he has nothing to do with Jennifer Lopez-- and he is extraordinarily funny. Seriously. Several times while reading these books, my son and I laughed until we couldn't breathe and our faces were wet with tears.

4) Wildly inventive comics are scattered throughout the book like little treats waiting to be discovered. 

5) J-Lo and Tip team up to save the world in an insanely goofy and original way.

6)This story has at its heart a deep and beautiful friendship. It doesn't matter that Tip is human and J-Lo is an alien. They're true to each other.

7) Both books are wonderful read-alouds for an adult and a child to experience together. Honestly, even if you read it to yourself, you're going to want to read parts of it aloud to anyone who happens to be in the room.

I suppose I should mention that there’s a movie based on the first book which was also released this spring. I’m afraid to see it because I can’t believe it’ll be as good as the book, but let me know if I’m wrong, okay? And in the meantime, here’s a list I made of absolutely wonderful read-alouds for a parent to read with children who are perfectly capable of reading to themselves-- but they’ll still allow you the pleasure of reading to them. 

I first met my husband, Neil, when we were both working about a hundred hours a week in a fish cannery in southeastern Alaska. When the salmon slowed down and we had some free time, we loved to explore the island’s beautiful scenery. I was always desperate for sun, but he liked to linger in the dark, damp parts of the forest-- looking for mushrooms. I thought this was completely weird at the time, but I’ve since been converted and we’ve found lots of mushrooms together. I love to eat them, but I also love how I experience nature more deeply, and perhaps in the way that human beings are meant to experience nature, when I'm intent on finding something out in the wild. The forest floor leaps into detail you don’t ordinarily see unless you’re looking for just the kind of moss and pine needles that chanterelles seem to prefer.

We harvested these on private property that belonged to a friend, so we were allowed to get this many.Morel season is happening on Mount Hood right now, people! Please be safe-- some mushrooms are deadly. It’s best to start with an experienced mushroom-hunter. But if you’re ready to do some research of your own, check out this list of books recommended by my husband. Neil has thoroughly investigated the library’s collection, so I thought I’d share the fruits of his research with you.

 

I loved the 2013 novel Life After Life, which told the story-- stories-- of Ursula Todd and all the lives she might have had, many of which involved surviving the London Blitz. I was delighted this year to find that author Kate Atkinson has written A God in Ruins, a companion piece to Life After Life, which expands on the story of Teddy, Ursula's brother. I love this character, a man who survives real horror, and who, as the pilot of an RAF bomber plane, drops horror on countless others. After surviving when so many pilots have not, he decides that after the war, he must be kind. And he mostly succeeds in being kind to the people around him for the rest of his long life.

Author Kate Atkinson writes so beautifully that she makes me want to stop the endless stream of books flying at me and have myself a little Kate Atkinson festival. It's always so delicious to discover an author you love who's already written tons of books. Maybe I’ll do it. A God in Ruins is glorious, a book about flight, about the terrible cost of war in terms of lost lives, about the value of one single life, about time itself. The narrative skips backward and forward in time and tells stories from Teddy's life and from the lives of the people he loves. But then, within each story, you find yourself shooting backward in time and sometimes forward into the future, so all of that past and future informs the present. I kept thinking about time, how it changes us-- and sometimes can't change us one bit-- about how every moment can be affected by all the moments before-- and how, in our memory, those moments can be colored by everything that comes after, too.

I've read and watched a number of things lately in which time has been used to allow you to get to know the characters in deep and interesting ways. I loved Richard Linklater’s wonderful movie Boyhood, shot in twelve consecutive summers. And then I happened to come across Here, a fascinating new graphic novel set entirely in a corner of a single living room over years and years. It became apparent that I needed to make a list of books and movies in which time plays its very important part, and you can find that list right here

It captured my imagination when a colleague told me that Roy Blount Jr. said of Charles Portis that he “could be Cormac McCarthy if he wanted to, but he’d rather be funny.” I listened to the audiobook of True Grit soon thereafter, and I agree. He’s my favorite kind of funny, too. The humor all emerges out of-- and illuminates-- beautifully  realized characters. In this, I’d compare him to Jane Austen as much as anyone else-- Jane Austen without the courtships but with more shooting and swearing, and with a very different set of social expectations. The conversations around the campfire are priceless. And in True Grit, as in Austen's novels, the most important thing is to be a fair and strong person, even in trying circumstances.

You might already know the story of True Grit. A 14-year-old girl is determined to avenge her father’s death, so she hires a crusty U.S. Marshall to find the murderer and make sure he is punished. Much against his will, she rides into Indian Territory with him to see the job done. The Coen brothers flick absolutely did this story justice, but I'm glad I turned to the book (actually, the audiobook) to enjoy the elegant writing. I vow that there will be a lot more Charles Portis in my life in the future.

Donna Tartt, author of The Goldfinch and The Secret History, was the voice actor for True Grit, and she was perfect. If you’re interested in experiencing more classic works read by their ideal voice actor, take a look at this list, and please let me know if you think of any more audiobooks that need to be added to it.

I like lots of music that’s just plain pretty--I'll admit that I have a weakness for harmonies and a sprightly fiddle line-- but there’s something especially bracing for me about listening to women singing loud, singing honestly with little regard for “just plain pretty.” It makes me feel a little freer myself, like swearing sometimes does, like quitting jobs to take off traveling used to feel.

The latest album to scratch that itch for me is Sleater-Kinney’s No Cities to Love. The songs are catchy, with quirky, inventive guitar. The lyrics are all about power, getting it or fighting it. My favorite song right now is the first single, “Bury Our Friends.”

We speak in circles
We dance in code
Untamed and hungry
On fire and in cold
Exhume our idols and bury our friends
We're wild and weary but we won't give in

My heart gives this little leap when Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein sing that “won’t give in”.  The vocals are howled in No Cities to Love.  I read an article that said Tucker, in particular "sounds like a badly injured opera soprano, or like an enraged mother hyena.” She does, and it’s great. This whole album made me think of the story that Tina Fey told in Bossypants about Amy Poehler saying “I don’t care if you like it” , a story that seems to be resonating with me and a lot of women I’ve talked to lately. We want to be ourselves. Sometimes it isn’t pretty. We don’t care if you don’t like it.

One thing you will like is that this album, as of this writing, is available both on CD and on MCL’s streaming music and video service, Hoopla. So if you have a library card and an Internet connection, you could be listening to it right now. After that, check out this list I made of other loud, honest female voices. Let me know if there are artists I missed who I should have included!

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