Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Two mysteries and books about spelling bees and homeschooling

No real thematic connections between these books...just books I finished recently.

I highly recommend American Bee: the National Spelling Bee and the Culture of Word Nerds: The Lives of Five Top Spellers as They Compete for Glory and Fame, by James Maguire ([Emmaus, Pa.]: Rodale, 2006). The book consists of several sections, including sections on the history of the spelling bee, and the history of English spelling. Starting the book, I figured I'd endure those sections, to get to the sections I really wanted to read, the profiles of the spellers. But Maguire's writing is so good that I thoroughly enjoyed the history of spelling bees, and the history of English spelling was fun, as well. The portraits of former National Spelling Bee champions was my least favorite part of the book: not that they were bad, but mostly they illustrated how the Bee, and studying for it, has changed. I didn't feel I learned much about the individuals. The portraits of five contenders for the 2005 Bee, however, are a different story. These are fully fleshed out portraits of the kids and their families, and what interesting, quirky, fun kids they are!! This is where the book really comes alive. The final section, a chronicle of the entire week of the 2005 Spelling Bee, is also quite fun, with mini-portraits of various competitors, and a real feel for what it's like to be at the Bee. For many of the competing kids, Bee week is a rare chance to hang out with other kids as into academics as they are (lucky them, to experience that before high school; I had to wait till college!).

Real Life Homeschooling: The Stories of 21 Families Who Make It Work, by Rhonda Barfield. New York: Fireside, 2002.
I bought this one at an outlet mall. When I realized that a majority of the families portrayed are Christian, and quite religious, I thought about skipping it and giving it away. But I'm glad I stuck with the book. Each chapter follows a definite formula, but the families are interesting (well, most are). The author covers a variety of approaches, and does include a decent range of families: a Jewish family, an African-American (Christian) family, a single mom, a family with a sun with Down's syndrome, a family in rural Alaska, and some who home-school for reasons unrelated to religion. Each chapter talks in-depth about a typical homeschooling day (though most families say there's no typical day, and that's what they like about homeschooling!), and the families talk about the difficulties, and the discouraging days. In most cases, the mother does the majority of the teaching; the tasks the fathers do are what any feminist might expect: manual stuff, math, religion. With the Christian families, there's almost always a section where the mother says "[Dad] plays an important role in homeschooling; he teaches religion and leads our daily devotions." But that's a pretty minor quibble. One anecdote I really enjoyed: a Christian family profiled near the end of the book. The parents are proudly relating all the different jobs their kids have held, including the initiative one daughter took in buying tickets to some college football game and reselling them near the stadium at a considerable mark-up. They sounded so proud their daughter had tried her hand at ticket-scalping!

Revenge of the Wrought Iron Flamingos, by Donna Andrews (New York: Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Minotaur, 2001), is a very funny cozy. The amateur detective, Meg Langslow, is an artist who works with wrought iron. She is in her hometown, Yorktown, VA, selling her work at craft fair run in conjunction with a reenactment of the Battle of Yorktown. The setting allows Andrews to poke fun at the reenactment craze, and we meet even more of Meg's crazy relatives (first introduced in Murder With Peacocks, a great wedding-preparation mystery). Andrews has her own website, Donna Andrews, but is part a group of cozy mystery authors called Femmes Fatales.

My Ex-Best Friend, by Beth Brophy (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003), came out in March 2003, before the recent spate of books about the endings of female friendships. I liked the suburban Washington, DC setting, and I really liked the examination of the pain a "broken" friendship can cause. This one is much more serious in tone than Andrews, though it does have humor, mostly self-depricating humor from the first-person narrator, a mother of three who's a reporter at a national weekly news magazine.