Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Occam's Razor and the Bald Mezzo-Soprano from Alaska

The explanation of any phenomenon should make as few assumptions as possible, eliminating those that make no difference in the observable predictions of the explanatory hypothesis or theory.
--Occam’s razor, Wikipedia

Or as they say where I come from: KISS—Keep it simple, stupid. Why? Because the truth is invariably far more banal and obvious than you could have imagined.

Ms. Jill St. John. The story is, she has
an IQ of something like 162. Of
course, she is also rumoured to
have dated Henry Kissinger back
in the day--so who knows.
On July 13 2009, the NY Times ran an article about Governor Palin’s resignation (Palin’s Long March to a Short Notice Resignation). While containing a few more specifics, the article still focused on the usual suspects: Governor Palin shoots self in foot via her own poor choices, followed by her blaming a vast left-wing conspiracy (cough cough) for all her troubles. 

So, if we strop Occam’s razor, cutting out all the unnecessary assumptions, would that shed light on why Governor Palin suddenly resigned on July 3? In the immortal words of Gene Autry: yes. 

What theories do the bare facts eliminate? Two, for starters. 

First, it wasn’t Samsara Samizdat (and the rest of the Bad Dudes of the Blogosphere) dropping the ethic complaint dime that pushed Governor Palin into private life. Second, it wasn’t Governor Palin’s fear of exposure that the contractors who built the Wasilla Sports Complex also built some part (if not all) of her house for free that motivated her resignation (Fox Mulder’s poster says I WANT TO BELIEVE, and has a UFO on it; mine says I WANT TO BELIEVE—and has a picture of Governor Palin’s house). No, after shaving off all the exciting bits from the right & left, we’re left with the same boring truth that we always suspected: it was the money (and not Governor Palin’s money) that pushed her out of La Maison Governor. 

But What About the Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy?

To hear Governor Palin tell it (and she is not shy about telling it), BB King was thinking about the angst of Poor Sarah’s plight, when he wrote “No one loves me but my mother—and she could be jiving too.” The July 13 NY Times article quotes Governor Palin complaining that after she was selected to be Senator McCain’s running mate, “hordes of opposition researchers came up here digging for dirt for political reasons, making crap up.” How evil were these hordes? “We spent most of our day, my staff, a lot of the members of the Department of Law and myself, dealing with things that have nothing to do with policy or governance,” Governor Palin complains, “It has to do with setting the record straight in this game that’s being played right now.”

Ms. Mamie Van Doren. Proving you
are not a quitter by by quitting your
job is as silly as being a placekicker
wearing....oh, nevermind.
No, it doesn’t. With information from the Anchorage Daily News, I did a point by point breakdown of the nineteen ethics complaintsthat Governor Palin insists are the bane of her existence. Are they a nuisance? Sure. Maybe even a major pain in the ass. But are they any different from what America’s other 49 state governors face? Not even vaguely. Moreover, most Governors have much bigger concerns taking up their time. If Governor Palin and her staff had to spend “most of [their] day” dealing with those piddling complaints, then the Alaska Governor has much bigger managerial concerns (besides who all is assigned to worry about the Unrepresentative Elitist Liberal Eastern Media Establishment (the UELEME), currently infiltrating the blogosphere).

Moreover, in Governor Palin is just blowing smoke in her faux outrage over how the cost of these complaints was robbing the Alaska taxpayers blind--and she knows it. The Governor is very loose with her figures, but just for poops and giggles, let’s call it an even million dollars has been “wasted” in ethics complaints. Or double it: call it TWO MILLION DOLLARS. So what? Why get so excited about that money, when Alaska is facing a $1.35 billion budget shortfall for fiscal year 2010? As the Good Book teaches us: Why beholdest thou the $2 million USD mote that is in thy Governor’s budget, but considerest not the $1.35 billion USD shortfall beam that is in thine State budget? Or how wilt thou say to thy Legislature: Come pull out the $2 million USD mote out of mine ass; and, behold, ignore the $1.35 billion USD budgetary shortfall beam up everyone else’s butt? (Mathew 7:3-4. Sort of). 

Do Vast INSERT POLITICAL TENDECY HERE-Wing Conspiracies exist? Sure they do. In his book A Vast Conspiracy, The Real Story of the Sex Scandal that Nearly Brought Down a President, Mr. Jeffery Toobin details the history of the Paula Jones case. Ms. Jones frivolous complaint against then Governor Bill Clinton was on the verge of expiring, courtesy of the statute of limitations, when a conservative group recruited lawyers to draft and file the complaint. From there, the Paula Jones group built ties with Independent Counsel Ken Starr, who then pulled together the various threads of claims against the Clintons (Whitewater et al, all of which were created solely to embarrass the Clintons personally and damage his Presidency). 

Not Ms. Shannyn Moore--so don't even
think about singing "Diamonds...daisies
Is there a similar group, targeting Governor Palin? Uh huh. And our leader is That Girl from Homer.

Therefore, Occam’s razor would have us conclude that Governor Palin did not resign because ethics complaints from her “enemies” has made Alaska ungovernable.


What is especially difficult about hating Governor Palin is trying to keep perspective. She is money, in that you can count on her to always say something stupid, and to take whatever childish brickbat comes her way personally. What do you think Arnold Schwarzenegger would say if David Letterman made a joke about one of the California Governor’s daughters having sex with Alex Rodriguez? Hint: it rhymes with “nothing.” Why? Maybe because Governor Schwarzenegger knows nobody cares when David Letterman cracks wise. Or just maybe, it might be because Governor Arnold has other things on his mind—like the fact California is facing a $53.7 billion USD budget shortfall, which is 58% of the State’s total budget. 

So, separating off the extra-crazy that Governor Palin brings to every interaction is critical to understand what actually is happening to her and Alaska. Once that’s done, then a review of the ethics complaints against Governor Palin shows that she has three problems. 

Mr. Tony Curtis, after being "elected"
Mayor of Universal City. Ms. Mara Corday, (right) is fire marshal, and
Ms. Mamie Van Doran is police chief.
We are unable to confirm rumour that
Curtis later fired Ms. Van Doren for
her refusal to dismiss Mr. Curtis's
ex-brother in law from the police
First, (for reasons that are beyond me), Governor Palin appears wholly unable to grasp the concept that as an elected official, she has an “official capacity,” as opposed to her “personal capacity.” As a private person, “Sarah Palin” can walk around, wearing logos of a size and quantity that would embarrass even your basic NASCAR driver. But as “Governor Palin,” she needs to think about creating even implicit product endorsements—especially when the product at issue is paying for your husband’s snowmobile hobby. Similarly, when you have problems with your family (ie your daughter’s big mouth ex-boyfriend or that jerk state trooper your sister divorced), those are “Sarah Palin’s problems,” NOT the problems of the Alaskan Governor. As they say where I come from, using your official capacity to resolve your personal vendettas is a Bozo No-No. 

Second, Governor Palin has a problem with the truth. For example, in Governor Palin’s July 3 “explanation” of why she resigned, she said that all “fifteen” of the ethics complaints against her had been dismissed: “every one.” She won! Well--no, she didn’t. Both First Husband and Governor Palin were found to have abused their official capacity, by trying to have their ex-brother in law (the state trooper) fired. Second, Governor Palin had to pay back taxes for money she billed the state for per diem expenses, while she stayed at her home in Wasilla. Third, she had to reimburse the state for transportation costs of her children, on trips that were not official state business. Next, some of her staff were ordered to undergo ethics training, following a controversial hiring. Finally, two complaints are still pending. 

I am not the only one to think Governor Palin has a habit of opportunistic shading of the truth. One of the main points in Mr. Todd Purdum’s long (but not particularly revealing) article in Vanity Fair is that Governor Palin loves to shape reality to conform with her own views. If you’re interested, Mr. Purdum’s article gives a few more examples.

Third, I may be going out on a limb here, but Governor Palin really seems to have issues with money. For starters, look at “Clothesgate.” While Pat Nixon may have made “good cloth coats” respectable in political circles, Nancy Reagan wasn’t having any of it. Cost schmost--Nancy Regan was the first lady, and she was going to look good. And for both Nancy and Pat, that was fine. Governor Palin, on the other hand, wanted it both ways: she wanted to wear top end clothing, while at the same time insisting that she was a cloth coat kind of gal.

So what happened? After the GOP provided a reported $150,000 USD wardrobe for Governor Palin and family, Governor Palin looked ridiculous when she insisted that those clothes “belong to the Republican Party.” And that after the campaign, “those clothes will be given to charity.” Or that Governor Palin was powerless in the hands of the McCain campaign: All she ever asked for was a diet Dr. Pepper—but (somehow) wound up with six figures’ worth of high-end clothing. Yeah--I hate when that happens.

Need another example? What other politician in America is going to collect a per diem, while living in their own home, and then become genuinely hurt and upset when someone notices?

Ms. Julie Adams. Not exactly another
Ho Ho Ho, because she is in no way
affiliated with Spenard Building 
Which is why it is so easy for me to believe the contractors who built the Wasilla Sports Complex also built Governor Palin’s home. That, and the fact the Palins’ explanation of how their home was built is transparently idiotic. My point is, though, Governor Palin creates many of her own problems by sticking her hands into too many cookie jars.

So, are these three weaknesses (not understanding the difference between personal and official capacity, a habit of twisting the truth when convenient, and being a little to grabby about money) enough to push a Governor out of office? Maybe—but not this Governor. See The Bob Rule.

Something else pushed Sarah Palin out of office.

Show Me the Money and/or Lack Thereof!

Here’s a joke I just made up: What’s the difference between a great Alaskan governor, and a crappy Alaskan governor? About an eighty dollar drop in the per barrel price of crude oil! [INSERT SOUND OF DRUM RIMSHOT HERE].

Governor Palin famously once said “Believe me, Alaska is like a microcosm of America.” Here’s how Alaska is not like a microcosm of America. Alaska has no state sales tax, no state income tax, and minimal property taxes. Where does Alaska get its money? Revenues from oil production, and Playas Uncle Ted and Congressman Don Young bringing home the federal bacon--Alaska style! Thanks to the tireless efforts of Alaska’s federal legislators, Alaska may have been number forty-nine on your program, but it’s number one in your heart—no, not there. I mean a solid number one in per capita pork barrel project dollars—and there is no number two.

Keeping in mind that Alaskans get their money from federal largess and oil, it is easier to understand why Alaskans' love affair with Governor Palin has come apart. In a drama worthy of a SE Hinton novel:

--Oil sold for $140 a barrel.
--The “Permanent Fund” paid out $3269. USD to 610,768 qualifying Alaska residents (almost double the previous year’s payment).
--When Alaska’s corporate (ie oil) tax revenues dropped 32%, there was enough money in the state reserve funds to make up the difference. So no worries!
--Alaska budget was balanced and service levels maintained.
--Governor Palin has an 83% approval rating.

--The bad news: Oil is now selling at roughly $64 USD a barrel. The good news: That’s up from last winter’s $30 a barrel.
--Alaskan oil production has declined by 64% since 1988, but corresponding price increases more than made up for the losses—until now. 
--With the state reserve funds all spent in last years Permanent Fund Extravaganza, Alaska now has a $1.35 billion USD shortfall, which is 30% of its annual budget.
--Uncle Ted manages to get felony convictions overturned, but meanwhile has lost his seat. More importantly, Alaska’s federal legislators’ ability to dump truckloads of federal money on state is seriously compromised.
--Governor Palin’s approval rating dropped to 55% at the time she resigned. 

Ms. Irish McCalla, taking issue with an
unidentified man, who apparently
was making fun of Ms. McCalla's
persistent high make up to small 
clothing ratio.
Are those problems really insurmountable? Of course not. Sure, putting together a budget without a corporate or personal tax base is tough—but so what? In a July 7 2009 ABC News report of the Ten Most Broke States, Alaska only clocked in at number six. Heck, California Governor Schwarzenegger, Arizona’s Jan Brewer, Nevada’s Jim Gibbons, Illinois’s Pat Quinn—in their DREAMS they have Alaska’s problems to contend with. Yeah Alaska, right now it doesn’t look great. But with a little focus and political moxie, there’s no reason why Governor Palin couldn’t make like Jimmy Stewart, saving the Bedford Falls Building & Loan.

What’s Wrong with this Picture?

So, does Governor Palin have the requisite moxie and focus? In the immortal words of Gene Autry: no. To illustrate, look at two recent events in the world of Alaska politics.

First, on April 16 2009, Governor Palin’s nominee for Attorney General, Mr. Wayne Anthony Ross, was rejected by the Alaska legislature on a vote of 35-23. For the first time in Alaska’s history, a cabinet nominee was not confirmed. Where was Governor Palin during this historic vote? Evansville, Indiana, speaking to a large pro-life group.

Example number two: Governor Palin opts to follow the lead of a few GOP Governors, and rejects President Obama’s stimulus package. She announces that Alaska would not accept roughly one third of the $930 million USD that Alaska is entitled to receive—all in the name of greater fiscal prudence. The Alaska Legislature, on the other hand, they opt to join the legislatures of states where GOP governors profess intent not to accept the Stimulus funds i.e. the legislatures all go on to take the money anyway. Without stopping to blink, Alaska’s legislature enacts bills accepting all $930 million USD of the federal stimulus money. Governor Palin then responded by vetoing bills, thus rejecting approximately $28.56 million USD of Alaska’s stimulus, money that was targeted for energy cost relief assistance. As reported in the July 9 Anchorage Daily News, the legislature is pursuing a special session. Several key legislators insist they have the votes (seventy percent is required) to override Governor Palin’s veto.

Regardless of the qualifications (or lack thereof) of Mr. Ross as Attorney General, or merits of rejecting a third of the stimulus package, both examples show a shocking dearth of political savvy on Governor Palin’s part.

Ms. Joi Lansing. The reason lifeguards
are always yelling about "no running"
around swimming pools, is because
sometimes women wearing heels 
want to go swimming.
What do you do when you nominate someone for your cabinet, and that person needs approval by the legislature? Here’s an idea: how about someone from the Governor’s office ASK members of the legislature what they think about the nominee? That way, some time BEFORE the day of the confirmation vote, someone in the Governor’s office will know that more than 50% oppose the nomination. Once this little gem of intelligence comes to light, the Governor has one of two options: either the Governor starts doing serious arm twisting, or (what is more likely) the Governor’s nominee will announce they have changed their mind about a cabinet position—because (cough cough) they want to spend more time with the family. 

But say there is some good reason to push the nomination forward, to the point of losing a floor for the time first time in Alaska history. Where should a good Governor be? SURVEY SAYS: there in the Statehouse building, doing last minute arm twisting, praising the nominee and denouncing all who vote against this fine person. I’ll give President George W. Bush this much: he stood tall beside his incompetent underlings—no matter how big a moron those underlings were. 

The fact Governor Palin was in Indiana (and not Juneau), that sends the message that the Governor doesn’t care if her nominee is approved. And if the Governor doesn’t care, why should anyone not named Wayne Anthony Ross care?

Second, given that Alaska Needs Money (just like Mars Needs Women), what possible rationale could justify (from the parochial perspective of Alaskans) not accepting federal money? And even if there is such a rationale, why would you start talking about rejecting $300 million USD, then turn down only $28.56 million, when even that rejection is a good bet to be tossed out on a veto override?

Finally, Governor Palin’s July 3rd manifesto about saving Alaskans the “$2 million USD” lost in ethics complaint investigation becomes even more meaningless, when with the stroke of a pen, she is trying to cost Alaskans (at a minimum) fourteen times that amount.

The bottom line is after Governor Palin’s political posturing on the stimulus package, and the fiasco over her choce for Attorney General, she ultimately comes across as 1) a loser, or 2) an idiot, or 3) both.

The Bald Mezzo-Soprano

So, once we have cut away the assumptions based on wild rhetoric (from Governor Palin) and wishful schadenfreude (from me about investigations on la casa Palin), what are we left with? Alaska is facing big problems, and Governor Palin has demonstrated (for whatever reason) a repeated inability to competently address even small problems. 

Using the principle of Occam’s razor then, it’s only natural that Governor Palin would resign, to protect Alaska (and her dwindling reputation) from her own incompetence.
Ms. Faye Dunaway. Didn't I tell you not to ask me about who paid for or built my house?

Razor be damned. Me and Fox: WE WANT TO BELIEVE! Who built and paid for Governor Palin’s home in Wasilla? Inquiring minds want to know. Plus, inquiring minds also love nothing more than to re-publicate defamatory material without answering to it in a court of law or being responsible for the abuse of right to free speech under the Alaska Constitution and continuing to publish falsehoods of criminal activity recklessly without any regard for the truth which some people threaten as being actionable

But we digress.

Ms. Ruth Bennett contributed to the writing of this article, but only on the condition that her efforts would not be recognized. She is receiving recognition though, because of her unusually snarky attitude while contributing.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

"Fifteen" Kids' Books that in My Experience, Kids Actually Like Reading

[American librarians] don't understand what children enjoy. They love reading about unpleasant people getting done in in a chocolate factory. The best bit in the giant peach story was when the disagreeable aunts got squashed to death by it. [Children] don't relate; they fantasize.
--Roald Dahl

As Clint Eastwood said in Magnum Force: A man’s got to know his limitations. A more prudent person in my shoes would hesitate drafting a recommended reading list of Childrens’ Literature. After all, I have no kids of my own, and the last time I lived with minors was during the first term of the Clinton administration. Additionally, I have not read any of the Harry Potter books. Nor have I read Charlotte’s Web. My taste in books leans heavily towards the old timey, and not just because I have personal memories of the Johnson administration (Lyndon, not Andrew, for all you wags).

Ms. Audrey Hepburn. She is hot, but
not too hot. This is, after all, a review
of kids' books. Plus, Ms. Hepburn gets
extra kudos for all the good work she
did for the United Nations.
Nevertheless, I feel confident in telling you that my bona fides are in order. For example, I laugh like a stoned hyena at Captain Underpants. I think Robert Lewis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses is the single worst book ever written. And most importantly, I have given books to dozens of kids, and while I can’t help but draw the occasional lemon, no kid has ever been disappointed to hear that my presents will include books. I am almost as proud of the fact that a friend’s daughter (a kid who barely knows who I am) said “Your friend Bill really gets me about books,” than I am about being an honours graduate from law school. I want to be sure that after I die, at least one person will remember to say that all my life, I pointedly tried to give kids books that the kids loved--and their parents hated. 

So, with the caution that hip hop happening groovy cats from Nowsville may very well be disappointed, here are my Fabulous “Fifteen” Books (Kids’ Edition):

1. Best in Show: Mr. Mysterious & Company, by Sid Fleischman

Mr. Sid Fleschman does not get the attention he deserves. He has written a very charming series of picture books about a “Farmer” named McBroom, who has a one acre farm that grows anything, and in about half an hour. Several of his books have been made in television movies by Walt Disney--Bullwhip Griffin, for example—and the stories are so good, not even Disney can screw them up (well, not completely). I am a fan of Mr. Fleischman for the same reason I’m a fan of any author. After all, what makes a good kid book is the same thing that makes a good non-kid book: good characters and good writing.

Ms. Heddy Lamar. And no children: 
Ms. Donna Summer was a Disco
Diva. Ms. Lamar just had powerful
people who made her wear ugly 
Mr. Mysterious & Company is the story of a family, shortly after the US Civil War. They travel the Western United States in a covered wagon, visiting small towns where they perform a magic show. The father is the magician, the mother plays the piano for musical accompaniment, and all three kids play age-appropriate roles in the show. This was one of my favorite books when I was a kid, and my nieces also loved this story.

I should include a caveat, though. The book was written in 1962, and the portrayal of Native Americans is quite dated. Aside from that, there are strong girl characters, and the youngest child (also a girl) holds her own. Unfortunately, this book is often out of print, and can be hard to find.

2. Favorite Son Award for Book Probably Only I Would Love: The Shy Stegosaurus of Cricket Creek, by Evelyn Lampman

This was the first book I ever read that made me cry—even though I KNEW there was no creek, and no stegosaurus that spoke English and wagged his tale like a dog. That just plain did not matter.

This is a story about a boy and a girl, living in the southwestern United States, whose family runs a motel (I think they run a motel. I could be wrong) that is on the edge of going out of business. The only thing that can save the proverbial family farm is to find some evidence of dinosaurs in the area, thus creating an incoming swarm of paleontologists, all needing motel accommodations. Surprisingly, the kids find a living stegosaurus, who insists he is so shy, he would die if he met anyone else.

I am especially impressed with a conversation that the kids have with the stegosaurus about the morality of digging up the bones of ancestors, and putting them on public display (the stegosaurus is offended by the practice). 

While the ending is sad, the stegosaurus does not die (no one dies). 

Ms. Elke Sommer. When it came to Big
Hair, she was ready to bring it.
Unfortunately, virtually all of the kids I have given this book thought it was too square for their tastes. But it’s still my favorite son…..

3. Book with Highest Positive Rating By Kids—and Highest Negative Rating by Parents: The “Butt Wars” Trilogy, by Andy Griffiths

These books were written for people who find most pee and poop jokes too intellectually demanding.

I got into a fairly heated argument with a friend of mine, before he finally agreed to give his son (who was refusing to read any books) a copy of The Day My Butt Went Psycho. Later, my friend told me that weekend, his son had a friend spend the night, and for the first time, the two boys read a book (this book) under the covers with a flashlight. That’s the good news. The bad news is that his wife was decidedly unhappy, about my friend giving their child a copy of this book. 

The premise of this modern tour de force is that your butt is a separate entity, with its own consciousness, and is able to jump off your body and run around. Jake, the chief protagonist, is upset because his butt not only repeatedly runs away, but is organizing other butts to take over the world. I thought the first book, The Day My Butt Went Psycho, was the best. But the consensus of the cognoscenti is that the second book, Zombie Butts from Uranus, is the best of the bunch. However, we all agree that the third book, Butt Wars: The Final Conflict, is still well worth reading.

The picture book winner of this award is The Story of the Little Mole Who Went in Search of Whodunit, by Werner Holzwarth. This book involves a nearsighted mole, who as he was coming out of his hole, suffered some unknown animal doing “that,” and having “that” land on top of the Mole’s head. The book is much better than it sounds. 

Ms. Jill St. John, circa Diamonds are 
Forever. Okay--maybe Ms. St. John
was a disco diva.
4. The Dao Master Award: Winnie the Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner, by A.A. Milne

Forget The Tao of Pooh or The Te of Piglet. Just my personal opinion, but those books stink. And forget about When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six. Those poems also stink. Instead, read the Stephen Mitchell transliteration of theDao te Ching, and then go to the source. 

Unfortunately, the Christopher Robin character may get on your nerves (he does mine)—and the Walt Disney version manages to lose about two-thirds the charm—but the Bear still brings it. Here’s what I mean. Pooh and Piglet are out walking one afternoon, and a big storm blows in. Piglet starts to get scared, and says to Pooh “What if the wind blows, breaks one of those big branches off a tree, and the branch falls on us?” Pooh thinks about this for awhile, and says “But what if that doesn’t happen?” Piglet thinks about that, and then feels much better. 

Rinpoche Winnie the Pooh: nunca te olvidamos.

5. The Batman Award for Kid Power: The Baudelaire Orphans Saga, by Lemony Snicket

If you are too young to have seen the original Batman television series, starring Adam West (which at this point is going to be pretty much all of you), go rent it. The show is very funny. However, watching the show as a kid, I didn’t see any of the humour, and thought I was watching just another serious police drama, like Kojak, Adam 12, or Dragnet (ask your grandparents).

Ms. Yvonne Craig. What? You don't put
on go go boots to fight crime?
Mr. Snicket is able to walk that same line with this series of thirteen books, where the three kids are smart and capable—but all the adults are just too dense to understand what’s going on (a common problem all children face). The books are also so melodramatic, that they are hilarious. Moreover, I am immediately soft on any book, where the author goes to great lengths to discourage you from reading it.

6. Award for Book that You Know In Your Heart Is Really True, Even If You Hotly Deny that You Believe It: The Borrowers Series, by Mary Norton

The “Borrowers” are a species of people who are less than six inches high, and live inside the walls of homes in England (and probably your home as well, but don’t talk about it, or your parents will think you are strange. Don’t ask how I know this). The borrowers survive by (ahem) BORROWERING stuff from the people whose houses they share. The central family are two parents and a daughter. The daughter is lonely, and cannot accept that Borrowers and big people cannot be friends. The books are well written, and the family goes through an amazing series of adventures in The Borrowers AfieldThe Borrowers Afloat, and The Borrowers Aloft. In 1982, Ms. Norton wrote another volume, The Borrowers Avenged, but I have not read that book.

I have not see the John Goodman film, so I have no opinion on it—other than I am almost always bitterly disappointed at the complete incompetence of filmmakers trying to make even a decent movie out of great kid books. However, there was a wonderful episode of Chicago Public Radio's This American Life about these books that is well worth listening to.

7. Best Award for Bestest Body of Work: Roald Dahl.

I feel like an idiot even listing Mr. Dahl--that’s like saying ocean water has a salty flavor or that the sun is on the warm side. What do I mean? I was talking to one of my neighbors about children’s literature, and my neighbor told me her daughter had read everything Mr. Dahl had written—so far as my neighbor knew. “Oh yeah?” I said, and turning to the daughter in question, and asked her which was the better story: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or The Great Glass Elevator? This child paused, and said “That is a very difficult question.” Indeed it is.

Just my personal opinion: any parent who does not provide their children with copies of BOTH Charlie and the Chocolate Factory AND the sequel, The Great Glass Elevator, should be immediately reported to Children’s Protective Services. Again—forget the movies, both books are just great reads. 

Ms. Irish McCalla. Nobody--and I really
do mean nobody--could look better
after falling down than Ms. McCalla.
I am not familiar with Mr. Dahl’s complete oeuvre, having never read The WitchesMatilda, and have said BFD too many times to read any book named The BFG—but those books all receive positive reviews from people I trust ie kids. I did read James and the Giant Peach, and have to tell you as a tribute to Mr. Dahl’s writing and story telling, I enjoyed the story--while being creeped out by the giant insects. 

Where Mr. Dahl really shines, though, is in his poetry. Now, I am poetry clod from the word odd. For example, I don’t care for ee cummings—because I don’t get it. I not being snobby here; just stupid. So understand that when I tell you that Revolting Rhymes is one of the best books I have ever read, Mr. Dahl has accomplished the impossible. Revolting Rhymes is a retelling of schmaltzy fairy tales, in the spirit of Rocky and Bullwinkle’s Fractured Fairy Tales (ask your grandparents). For example, the “dwarfs” in Snow White are all retired jockeys, who lose their money betting on horse racing. Snow White steals the magic mirror, which the dwarfs use to pick the winners of horse races. The story concludes: “Gambling’s not a sin/Provided that you always win.”

8. The Where You Stand Depends on Where You Sit Award: The True Story of The Three Little Pigs, by A. Wolf, by Jon Scieszka

This is one of my favorite books, period. Mr. Scieszka's book is a re-telling of the story of the Three Little Pigs, but told by the Big Bad Wolf, from his jail cell. Alexander T. (for “The”) Wolf’s story is a brilliant example of an unreliable narrator, with bizarre rationales as to why the wolf had to go to the Pigs’ houses. The destruction of the houses made of straw and twigs are easily explained accidents, with the deaths of the pigs mere happenstance. The Wolf equates his eating the pigs with the reader finding a cheeseburger, sitting there on the floor ready to be eaten.

I gave this book to a friend of mine, who later told he she had to tell her son the book was “lost,” because after reading it to her son every day for over two months, she had to find something else to read, or risked losing her mind.

Unfortunately, not all of Mr. Scieszka's books are as good. For example, I love the premise of The Stinky Cheese Man, but found the story disappointing.

9. How to Have Children Do What They Don’t Want to Do Award:Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus and Don’t Let the Pigeon Stay Up Late, by mo williams

My first marriage came as a package set, with a five year old boy and an eight year old girl. I had not spent any time around kids, and was completely flabbergasted to discover my stepson flatly refused to believe in the concept of linear time, as well as cause and effect. For this five year old, life was one endless series of random phenomena—and it was great! Unfortunately, I had no language to communicate pretty much anything to someone embracing that philosophy. Nothing I said made the slightest sense to him—and that was okay too. Well, okay for him. I lost my mind—but we digress.

Ms. Diana Dors. You can tell this is
really a dirty picture: Ms. Dors not 
only has pulled both feet off the floor,
but she is also smoking.
mo williams’s books introduce both a bad pigeon, and the concept of breaking the “fourth wall.” Each of his books begins with a narrator telling the reader that the narrator has to leave the story, and asks the reader to “help” the narrator—for example, by not letting the pigeon drive the bus (or stay up late). As soon as the narrator leaves, the pigeon appears, and uses every kid argument ever to try and convince the reader to allow the pigeon to stay up late (or drive the bus). At the end, the narrator reappears, thanking the reader for not letting the pigeon drive the bus (or stay up late).

If I had those books back in the day, telling my stepson “Don’t let the pigeon drive the bus” would have made sense to him—as opposed to “Don’t climb the ladder. You might fall off and crack your head open, because that’s what happened last time,” which was just a meaningless murmur in the wind.

Unfortunately, not all of Mr. Williams’s books are as good as these two. I was particularly disappointed with The Pigeon Finds a Hot Dog. My advice is to read the books before you buy them.

10. The Best Book with the Worst Movie Award: Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, by Ian Fleming

This book is just an enigma. Another one of my favorite books as a kid, I was completely shocked by the Disney adaptation, starring Dick Van Dyke. What the film shared with the book was 1) the title and 2) the main character restored an old car. I remember being so outraged at the time—I was sure it was somehow illegal (not just immoral) to produce a film CLAIMING to be about a book, but having nothing to do with the actual STORY. Perhaps fortunately, I lacked the ability to explain this to my dad (who had taken my sisters and me to the movie—one of the rare times we saw a film inside a theater), because no good can come from conservations like that.

Ms. Ursula Andress. "What do you 
mean 'he's not available'? Who?
Absolutely not. Out of the question.
What? Oh alright. Put him on. 
Hello? Is this Dr. Maybe?"
Moreover, Mr. Fleming is widely known for having written the James Bond novels, which are notorious for flat, dull, and insipid writing. So what happened here? Who cares—this book’s a great read.

In this story, the father buys and restores a wrecked car, and as part of the restoration, the car develops consciousness (but in a good way. Not like Sky-Net, in the Terminator movies). The family is surprised to discover the car can not only communicate (sort of), but also fly and travel as a form of hovercraft over water. Just for kicks, the family (who lives in England) decides to go to France. This is just another great story about a family. Sure, they have a flying car that’s also a sentient being—but the main point still is this is a good story about a family.

11. The You Sure Put Us In Our Place Award: Aliens for Breakfast, by Jonathan Etra

I need to give credit to my mother for this book. When my stepson started school, he just decided that he was not going to learn to read. No special reason why not; he certainly was capable. He just didn’t see any need for reading. Again, I was completely baffled.

(from l to r): Not George W. Bush, Not
Richard "Dick" Cheney, Not Donald
Henry Rumsfeld.
My mother, on the other hand, responded by trying to find books that my stepson would like. While I don’t recall my stepson particularly liking this book, it remains one of my favorites—right up there with Gilbert Shelton’s The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers. But again, we digress.

Aliens for Breakfast begins with a boy who wishes he was popular—like the new kid in his class. Unfortunately, the new kid is a space alien, preparing to take over the planet. The main character discovers this fact, when he’s eating a new cereal, and the “prize” turns out to be a miniature “Space Ranger.” The Space Ranger explains to the boy how earth is in danger, and the boy has to help. Why? Because there are so many planets in the universe, and so many species attacking each planet, the Space Patrol budget only allows about eighty cents per planet needing to be saved. Consequently, the Space Rangers have to travel “fourth class” inside boxes of cereal.

There are at least two other books in this series, named (predictably) Aliens for Lunchand Aliens for Dinner. I was disappointed with Aliens for Lunch (the story just wasn’t interesting), and have not tried to read Dinner. But Aliens for Breakfast rocks (IMHO, as we said back in the day). 

La Belle Holly Golightly. Breakfast
at Tiffany's is one of the very few
examples where both the book
and the film are excellent, each in
their own way.
12. The cf Sorry Rabbit: Trix are for Kids Award: The Garfield cartoon series, by Jim Davis

Don’t get me wrong: I love the comics. Pretty much all comics. But I hate Garfield. Just my personal opinion, but I think Garfield is boring, repetitive, and the art is terrible. And while I am not proud of this, just to give you perspective: I still laugh out loud at Blondie. 

Kids (as a rule) think Garfield is hilarious. I’ll never understand why. If you know a kid who won’t read, or has trouble reading, based on my experience—they will read Garfield cartoons, before they’ll read anything else.

But because of my strong aversion to Garfield, I’d suggest (if you can) taking your problem reader to your local bookstore, and having the kid look at not only Garfield, but also Baby Blues, MAD Magazine collections, Peanuts, Calvin and Hobbes—anything. But based on my experience, they will invariably be entranced by that stupid cat. Buy the damn book anyway. You can always have the book covered in a plain, brown wrapper, so you can everyone you’re buying porno (that’s what I do).

13. The “What Are You? A Hundred?” Award: The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame

I’m sorry—but there is a reason why this book is on every baby boomer’s favorite reading list: the writing is wonderful. A few years ago, I was listening to National Public Radio when author Daniel Pinkwater and Journalist Scott Simon were trashing the Walt Disney empire. Now, I hate Walt Disney for reasons too silly to go into just now, so Mr. Simon and Mr. Pinkwater had my attention. The specific focus of the Pinkwater-Simon ire was the Disney “adaptation” of The Hunchback of Notre Dame into a “children’s” book, based on the crappy Disney film. Mr. Pinkwater was particularly incensed over the fact that “bad books” by Disney were pushing “good books” out of the market. By way of illustration, Simon and Pinkwater read an excerpt from the Disney version of Victor Hugo’s classic. The writing was just boring. Boring—that’s all you can say. In contrast, they opened The Wind and the Willows to a random page, and just picked a few sentences. There is a reason why this Kenneth Grahame classic has legs: the writing is fun. 

The Garfield conundrum notwithstanding, even more than “adult” books, kids demand (and deserve) good writing.

Speaking of which…

Ms. Cleo Moore, one of the greatest
scream queens of her--or any other
--time. You'd scream too, if you had
to wear something like this to go
14. The Weirdest Story That Still Works Award: Lizard Music, by Daniel Pinkwater

Disclosure time: I love Daniel Pinkwater. And while some of his books are better than others, I still love all his books—if only because he wrote them.

But even Mr. Pinkwater will tell you that his best book is Lizard Music, the first book he wrote. What’s Lizard Music about? If I tried to tell you, you wouldn’t believe me. But no matter; it’s a damn good book.

15. The Dag! Don’t You Read any New Books? Award: Olivia Saves the Circus, by Ian Falconer

This is another cheesy pick, because everyone knows and loves this book. This book (which I feel is easily the best of the “Olivia” books) is a good story with the central character a girl (granted, a girl pig—but it still counts), who describes a wild adventure during “Show & Tell” at school. The artwork also deserves special praise. Besides--all little girls are the Queen of the Trampoline.

16. Multiculturalism Award For Something Probably Only I Think is Award-Winning Multiculturalism: The Cat in the Hat in English and Spanish, by Dr. Seuss (translated by Carlos Rivera)

Not just another boomer icon, the Cat in the hat is unquestionably The Man. Much as I love that book (I even love the far weaker The Cat in the Hat Comes Back), I was stunned when I first saw the edition with English on the left hand page, and Spanish translation on the right hand page. 

Again: this is just my personal opinion, but I think you can say things in Spanish that are just plain wilder and more fun than they sound in English. For example—just my personal opinion—but while Fidel Castro’s speeches are inspiring in Spanish, I think they sound kind of dumb in English. So for me, reading The Cat in the Hat in Spanish just gives the book more flavor. 

I don’t know how to explain this without sounding culturally demeaning, or implying that The Cat is Mexico’s answer to Lincoln Perry’s Stepin Fetchit. I am saying nothing of the sort. What I am saying is that reading the story in English, I think a body jumps up and down on a beach ball, while balancing a fish bowl on the end of an umbrella, just because you can. It’s a test of skill. But in Spanish--for me, you jump up and down on the beach ball (balancing a fishbowl on the end of an umbrella), because there is no reason why you shouldn’t: Why WOULDN’T you choose to squeeze every bit of joy you can out of life? So what if the person jumping happens to be a talking cat wearing an outlandish hat? The point is, you don’t live your life by half measures—even if you need a strange cat to tell you.

I am also enamored with the P.D. Eastman classic Are You My Mother? (Eres Tu Mi Mama?)—despite the fact that Spanish version does not call the steam shovel “Snort”—which is just unforgiveable.

Ms. Barbara Nichols. 
That's Good!
That's Bad! 
That's . . . oh, nevermind.
17. Weird Books Because I am a Weird Guy Award: That's Good! That's Bad! in the Grand Canyon, by Margery Cuyler

There are a series of these books, but I have only read the one about the Grand Canyon. The premise of the stories is a little boy has an adventure on one page, and at the end of the page, the narrator concludes "...and that's bad." But you turn the page, and the narrator says "No, that's good!" and goes on to explain why that's good. So that page ends with with the statement "...and that's good." Of course, you turn the page, and the narrator says "No, that's bad!" With a new adventure every page for thirty odd pages, each adventure that seems good is is actually bad, and vice versa--this is one weird book. I like it!

18. The It's Bad Enough You're a Nerd--Now You Want Kids to Be Nerds Too? Award: MEANWHILE... and A Barrel of Laughs, A Vale of Tears, both by Mr. Jules Feiffer

Go ahead. Call me names. I don't care. I love Jules Feiffer. I love him when he is smart ( Jules Feiffer's America, from Eisenhower to Reagan). I love him when he's stupid (Tantrum). How could I not love his kids' books? about a boy who discovers he can change his reality, just by using the device MEANWHILE made famous in comic books. A Barrel of Laughs, A Vale of Tears is about a Prince who goes on a long quest that has both--well, you know.

19. A Moron Says What? Award: Mad Libs, by Roger Price and Leonard Stern

I wanted to have at least one pick that was off the beaten path, and this is about as far off reservation as I'm likely to wander. For those of your fortunate enough not to know what Mad Libs are, they are a brief story with several key words left out. A person is the writer, who asks the guesser (I don't know what the titles actually are) to name a verb (for example). Or an adjective. An adverb. The name of a boy in the room. The name of a girl in the room. (You get the idea). The guesser has no idea what the title or "theme" of the story is, until the very end. The "writer" then announces the "theme" or title of the story, and reads the story with all the words suggested by the talker. If this does not sound like much fun--it's not.

Ms. Diana Rigg. This was not one of
Mrs. Peel's better days.
Still, back in the proverbial day, Mad Libs were considered big fun, and flooded my alma matter, Halecrest Elementary. I recall Mr. Wright, our poor six grade teacher, trying to no avail to discourage the use of "stupid" and its many permutations for an adjective. However, while I was a frequent witness to said big fun, I don't recall ever filling the writer or guesser roles. Why? Mainly because I never thought the finished stories were all that funny, and decided it was not worth over coming my considerable shyness to participate (No doubt everyone who has ever had share the dead albatross of my personality in a graduate level class is sneering "liar!" but it is true: I was not born saying things like "See, e.g., Your MOTHER!" Nor was it always the case that any trifecta ticket for asshole bingo that didn't feature my name prominently was money wasted. Incidentally, if you don't know what "asshole bingo" is, don't bother going to Wikipedia. Believe it or don't--there is no entry for "asshole bingo." Instead, do a google search. You'll find all the help you need).

So, if I thought then (and still do today) that Mad Libs were just a boring and stupid fad (despite lasting for COUGH COUGH years), why I am I listing them as recommended books for kids? Because if you think I learned what the difference between an adverb and an adjective is by memorizing some rote phrase about "modifying"--guess again. I learned more about parts of speech by watching others playing Mad Libs than I ever learned from big fat books ostensively on "English."

To sum up: if you love your children's command of grammar more than your own sanity (Let's go parents: Stand and Deliver!), don't rely on the idiocy of your children's acquaintances (like my parents did. They were just lucky, end of story), pony up a few bucks for Mad Libs (and a few more for extra strength Excedrin), and just keep telling yourself how proud you'll be, when little Scooter grows up and starts kicking ass and taking names in AP English.

Ms. Jane Russell. Remember what I
keep saying about Ms. Russell
knowing how to always look good,
no matter how weird or ugly the
setting? Some outfits can tax the
talents of even the pros.
20. The Special Books for Good Readers—Or Books I Think That Are Good For Reading Aloud (Not that I’ve Ever Done It) Award: Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation, by Olivia Judson; A Man on the Moon, by Andrew Chaikin

I first heard Ms. Judson on National Public Radio (pretty much everything I know, I had to learn from NPR). She is (apparently) a very talented evolutionary biologist—but so what? She’s a hilarious writer. This book is written in the form of advice of the lovelorn, with praying mantises, fig wasps, dolphins, etc etc all writing to “Dr. Tatiana” about strange behaviors. For example, the female praying mantis signs her letter “I Like ‘Em Headless in Lisbon.”

Is this book porno? No (despite the fact the cover features a drawing of two beetles copulating—there are no other pictures). The bottom line is this book is a well-written and interesting book on nature. And is very funny.

Now, if you haven’t told your kids about the proverbial birds & bees, will this book help break that ice? I have no idea, and (trust me on this) my guess is much worse than yours. I will say that I first gave my niece this book when she was in junior high (and while she will hotly deny it), she found the subject matter too “embarrassing,” and put the book aside until she was in high school—and became much more interested in the “nature” aspect than the “sex.”

I am a child of Apollo. My generation thought I Dream of Jeannie was a documentary (except for the “genie” part). A friend of mine runs away every time she sees me, because I always (and I do mean always) tell that same old, tired story about how when we were in the fourth grade, I was certain sure she was going to grow up and be a honcho at NASA. Why? Because out of the entire class, only she and one other girl were able to take home a piece of paper with dittoed math problems, solve the problems, and bring the paper back to school the following day (that particular skill continues to elude me). 

Not a head honcho at NASA.
My point is the Space Race is (both then and now) just a great story—especially when it is divorced from the hideous Cold War rhetoric.

You’d think having such great material would make writing a snap—but you’d be wrong. Bad books about Apollo are called “legion,” for they are many. Andrew Chaikin’s 1994 classic, on the other hand, is a wonderful book that summarizes all the Apollo missions, and includes charming pictures of great characters, like Charlie Duke, John Young, Alan Bean--big bang the whole gang. I was especially moved by the stories of the later moon flights: Apollo 15, 16 and 17.

Are there books out there with more information? Sure. If you’re trying to be king of the moon geology nerds, there’s Don E. WilhelmsTo a Rocky Moon. Despite (IMHO) Harrison Schmitt’s idiotic politics about the “private sector” paying for space flight, I enjoyed his Return to the Moon. Because of my own struggles with chronic depression, Buzz Aldrin’s books will always be my personal favorites. The best (as in “most informative”) single volume I’ve seen is Richard Orlof and David Harland’s Apollo, The Definitive Sourcebook. Finally, in the interests of full disclosure, I have not even looked at (nor saw the movie of) Tom Wolf’s book on the Mercury astronauts The Right Stuff (I just don’t like Tom Wolf, so you’ll have to ask someone else about that one). 

But if you’re looking for a ripping good story about Apollo, this is it. This is a long book (the text alone is almost 600 pages), but Mr. Chakin stays focused, and keeps the story moving. For example, had I written this book, there would be another hundred pages alone on the idiotic hypocrisy of the Nixon administration giving Apollo unqualified praise—and then cutting the final moon shots in the name of economy, despite the fact those trips to the moon would have been laughably inexpensive.

No—A Man on the Moon is about the excitement and sheer joy that was Apollo, and nothing more; if only because anything else would not add to (and probably detract from) the story.
Ms. Marlo Thomas. She can feel Mrs. Peel's pain. Back in the day, ingenues had to wear such giant eyelashes, they could hardly keep their eyes open. I thought they were all on the nod-- but that's just me.

* * * * * * * * * * *

As always: suggestions, comments, criticisms, and vicious personal attacks are not only welcome, but strongly encouraged. 

Ms. Trish Flanagan assisted in the creation of this story, but prefers to have her contribution remain anonymous.