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Recommended reading

At Home in Mitford, by Jan Karon

If you haven't discovered Jan Karon's Mitford series yet, this is the place to start. There are nine books in the series so far, not counting the cookbooks, children's books, and other assorted spinoffs, and we know it's a painfully overworked cliché, but we can't think of a better word to describe these stories than heartwarming.

Mitford, you see, is a mythical small town in an unnamed mid-Atlantic state (probably North Carolina, as that's where Karon lives), and the stories center around Father Tim, the rector at Lord's Chapel Episcopal Church. Now, here is the incredible part, which you've probably never seen before in a modern American novel: Father Tim is not gay, hypocritical, alcoholic, hooked on prescription painkillers, wrestling with gender identity issues, having a crisis of faith, secretly strangling hookers, or having an affair with anyone in or out of his congregation, married or single, including children, pets, or livestock! Instead, he's actually trying to minister to his congregation, deal with their issues, and live a good Christian life!

Crazy stuff, huh?

Anyway, these books are highly recommended for the somewhat more mature reader, especially Christian women over the age of 35 or so, and yes, they're also available in boxed sets and as audio books. If you want to check them out more closely, Karon is kind enough to have the first chapters from each book posted on her website, which also offers an astonishing assortment of interactive features for her fans. (A recipe exchange? We wish we'd thought of that.)

The Enchanted Forest Chronicles, by Patricia Wrede

For the young female fantasy fan who has already blazed through Harry Potter and is wondering what to devour next, we recommended Patricia Wrede's Enchanted Forest Chronicles. This four-book boxed set, Dealing with Dragons, Searching for Dragons, Calling on Dragons, and Talking to Dragons, concerns the adventures of Cimorene, a decidedly improper fairy tale princess who fails to understand why she should sit around waiting to be rescued while the boys are out having all the fun. Funny, charming, and clever, these books were some of our daughters' favorites when they were younger, and now that they are adults, they still reread them every few years. Highly recommended.

Redwall, by Brian Jacques

Wrede's Enchanted Forest books are terrific, but they are definitely oriented towards a female audience. For boys we recommend Brian Jacques' Redwall series. These books are the stories of the peace-loving mice of Redwall Abbey and their various animal friends, and their struggle to defend their gentle way of life against the barbaric rats, weasels, stoats, foxes, etc., etc., etc. The books have a wonderful Wind in the Willows vibe to them, and yet are full of good old-fashioned honor, chivalry, and heroism. The part we like best, though, is that there is not one drop of pseudo-Celtic magickal nonsense in the lot.

Be forewarned though: the Redwall series is seemingly endless (Jacques is still cranking out a book a year), and if your boy takes a liking to them you'll be on the hook to buys lots more books. But is this really a problem?

Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi

For the mid-teenage through 20-something young woman, or for anyone who is struggling to understand modern Iran, we highly recommend Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood. This is the autobiography, in graphic novel form, of Marjane Satrapi, an Iranian illustrator and author who now lives in Paris. Told in stark (but not gruesome) black-and-white drawings, and occasionally (but never inappropriately) R-rated language, this is the story of the years leading up to the Ayatollah Khomeini's revolution, and it's aftermath, as seen through the eyes of a 6- to 14-year old girl. The daughter of affluent and educated Iranian leftists, Satrapi came from a family and a social class who at first supported the Islamic Revolution, because they were simply incapable of believing there could be any government worse than the Shah's.

The story of what happens after that, as a thoroughly westernized young lady is forced to go under the veil, is by turns funny, sad, and at times downright terrifying.

Eaters of the Dead, by Michael Crichton

For disaffected male high school or college students who claim that they don't like literature, we recommended Michael Crichton's remarkable Eaters of the Dead. According to Crichton's afterword, this book was written in answer to the assertion by an English professor friend of his that there was no way to make Beowulf interesting. Starting with the authentic 10th century manuscript of ibn Fadlan, an Arab from Baghdad who was sent as emissary to the Bulgars and wrote one of the first known documents on the culture and customs of the Vikings, Crichton creates a demythologized Beowulf that is not content to be merely "interesting;" this book is more on the order of Holy Mackerel! Even knowing exactly what it is beforehand and how it all ends, you will be amazed at what a taut, effective, and compelling adventure Beowulf becomes in Crichton's hands! (P.S. You may also find this book on the shelves under the title of the Antonio Banderas movie that was based on it, The 13th Warrior.)

Flyboys, by James Bradley

For World War II history buffs and those who like to squirm and shudder while they read, we recommend James Bradley's Flyboys. By the author of Flags of Our Fathers, these are the true stories of what happened to the American airmen who were captured by the Japanese, the Chinese civilians who lived under Japanese rule, and ultimately, in reprisal, to the Japanese themselves. In the immortal words of Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, "Strange thing is, they make such bloody good cameras." Definitely not for the squeamish.

How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime, by Roger Corman, with Jim Jerome

For aspiring filmmakers, screenwriters, and those who just plain like movies, we recommend How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime by Roger Corman, with Jim Jerome. While you may equate Corman with low-budget and laughably awful sci-fi quickies such as Attack of the Crab Monsters and It Conquered the World, or at best with later films such as Death Race 2000 and Battle Beyond the Stars, what you may not realize is that this is the guy who did the original versions of Little Shop of Horrors and The Fast and the Furious, and who launched the careers of Martin Scorsese, Jack Nicholson, Peter Bogdanovich, Jonathan Demme, Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Francis Ford Coppola, John Sayles, James Cameron, Gale Ann Hurd, Robert DeNiro, Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn — okay, and William Shatner, too, but he also gave Ron Howard his first shot at directing. Corman has been called "The King of the 'B' Movies," along with many other things considerably less complimentary, but in a just world this book would be required reading for every aspiring YouTube filmmaker out there. (And from the looks of their recent works, at least Cameron and Hurd should be required to go back to Corman for remedial training in how to make worthwhile films on tight budgets and short schedules.)

Recommended listening

Greatest Hits, by Vince Guaraldi

You've loved the wonderfully laid-back Latin jazz of the Vince Guaraldi Trio ever since you were a kid; you just didn't know that that was what you were listening to. But if the music on this disc doesn't put you in a happy mood with a big smile on your face, you'd better check in with your cardiologist, because you just might be dead.

Amazon has links to download samples of every track on this disc. You may have trouble getting the links to work, because of your firewall settings, but you definitely should give them a try. Highly recommended.