Archive for the ‘Books’ Category
September 20, 2018 @ 8:34 am | Filed under: Books
I’m reading Prairie Fires, Caroline Fraser’s A+++ book about Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane, and I quipped on Facebook that so far a chief takeaway for me is: One should never achieve a level of fame that inspires historians to go through one’s personal correspondence. 😉
That post has generated a good discussion of Fraser’s book, and in answering some friends’ questions I wound up writing a whole tome, which I thought I might as well share here.
S. mentioned, “I didn’t realize there was so much new material in it!”
I replied: re new material, you might be thinking of Pioneer Girl, which is Laura’s original memoir, a manuscript written long before the Little House books. I was given a copy back in the 90s when Harper commissioned me to write the Martha books. It was published for the first time last year in a wonderful edition annotated by Pamela Smith Hill. It’s a much bleaker narrative, telling many chapters of the story that Laura left out of the children’s series (death of her brother Freddy, the awful Burr Oak Iowa years, etc). I haven’t reread it in many years but at the time I loved getting a peek behind the curtain to the more raw, adult memoir and learning what happened in some of the gaps in the series, and what kinds of changes she made to the narrative thread when she reworked the material into children’s novels.
Prairie Fires is a stunningly thorough nonfiction book by Caroline Fraser which maps out the life stories of Laura, her parents, Almanzo, and Rose. It’s impeccably researched, drawing heavily on Rose and Laura’s personal correspondence, Rose’s diaries, their many published writings in various periodicals as well as their books, land records, local archives, etc. The depth of Fraser’s research is impressive and makes this historical fiction writer’s heart go pitty-pat.
In this account, Laura comes off better than Rose, but Fraser doesn’t shy away from discussing Laura’s flaws and quirks. Not a problem for me, since LIW was demystified and humanized for me a long time ago. As a look behind the curtain at writing process, Prairie Fires is fascinating and hugely valuable. I’ve loved watching the interplay between Laura and Rose (and occasionally Laura’s editors) that helped shape the Little House books. I think Fraser does a much better job of unpacking the complicated writing/editorial relationship between the two women than Holtz’s Ghost in the Little House.
I do wonder sometimes if Fraser’s educated guesses (and they are HIGHLY educated and thoroughly considered, don’t get me wrong) are a tiny bit presumptuous—she does make some assumptions about motivations and personal emotions. But she always makes it clear that those statements are suppositions. “Laura may have felt…” etc.
In response to J.’s question, “do I dare to read it?”: If Laura is on any kind of pedestal in your mind, this book probably knocks it out from under her. But for me it’s been marvelous–a look at the real Laura, the woman, the often struggling writer doubting her abilities and deferring to her daughter’s judgment–then bristling back and defending certain authorial choices, digging in when she felt strongly about a scene. As a writer of historical fiction I am just EATING UP the conversations about how to mold *truth* and *fact* into a compelling fiction narrative.
[Side note: I was really stunned to encounter a speech in which Laura talks about how she tells the truth ***but not the whole truth*** because that’s what I have said myself many times these past 13 years about my blog (everything I share is true, but I don’t share everything) and of course it served as a major theme in The Prairie Thief. “Not the Whole Truth” was in fact my working title for that book! (Nixed by my publisher as not kid-friendly/gripping enough. Prairie Thief was their title but it gave me serious angst since I wanted the book to stand apart from my Little House work.]
I had already been aware that Laura rearranged some of her family’s travels and left whole huge chapters out of the series. Fraser’s book delves into precisely why those changes occurred. Excellent insight for any student of fiction and memoir.
S., re how Laura’s books are doing these days…well, the past twenty years have been a time of growing awareness of the highly problematic areas of her books. Her family’s story goes hand in hand with the story of Native Americans being cruelly displaced from their lands. Fraser takes an unflinching look at that history, as well as the ways in which Laura’s pervasive message of rugged individualism breezes past the many times her family received government or community assistance of various kinds. (Not to mention the Ingalls family skipping town when Burr Oak debts mounted up.)
My understanding is that sales of Laura’s books have declined somewhat over the past fifteen years but they still remain staples. Personally, I think contemporary children are less engaged by the long, detailed *process* descriptions (making bullets, making a door, etc)–why read a step-by-step when you can watch it on Youtube, you know? (I’m not being disparaging–I freely admit I too would rather watch a video of a door being made than read a blow-by-blow narrative. But not sausage. I don’t want to watch a sausage-making video. Give me Laura’s narrative anytime.) And of course Harry Potter swept in a great wave of interest in children’s fantasy. Historicals were on the downswing for a bit but have bounded back up now with many brilliant own-voices works.
The reality is that Laura’s books require discussion. When my own kids came along I realized I was hesitant to just hand the books over–I felt like conversation and contextualizing was necessary because of the treatment of Indians, the minstrel show, etc. Today I would add: the climate disruptions also invite what Julie Bogart calls Big Juicy Questions. Not to mention the politics (for older readers)…
Laura’s work is certainly in no danger of being forgotten—she’ll always be a pivotal figure in children’s literature. But the field is rich and crowded now. The glorious explosion of kids’ graphic novels, the brilliant prose of contemporary authors—there’s an overwhelming abundance of books competing with Laura’s now. Not to mention all the visual media. Much of her prose is what would now be called “quiet”—I say this as a passionate lover of “quiet books” — in a market that prefers action and zip. All of which is to say that I think there are many reasons why contemporary kids aren’t embracing Little House with quite the fervor we did (and for our generation it’s probably impossible to gauge how much our zeal was spurred by the TV show—I honestly don’t remember which way I encountered Little House first! But I do know that Nellie Oleson always had Alison Arngrim’s face in my mind. I would guess I encountered book and show more or less concurrently).
Probably more to come when I’ve finished the Fraser book. Closing in on the finish now…heart in my throat.
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(I wrote much of this last week, didn’t post it, and then the air quality improved. I went on an hour-long ramble yesterday evening and it felt marvelous. But today: hazy skies and burning throats again.)
The air quality is terrible here in Portland this week: fires in so many directions. We’re stuck indoors and there is a lot of bouncing off the walls going on. Quite literally, in Huck’s case. But all of us, really! I miss my walks. I’m an addict now, that’s become clear. Morning nature walk with the kids; long evening ramble on my own or with Scott or both. How many blossoms are opening and closing while I’m closeted in the cool house, breathing the filtered air?
It’s only been a few days. I’ll survive. 😉 The fires—far away from us but so fierce we’re inhaling them across the miles—the weeks of dry season still ahead. The warming planet, the denialism—the campaign against reality being waged with fearful success in certain quarters. These things are much more concerning than my missed nature walks.
I think sometimes about our friend Tracy, the hospital social worker, telling me all those years ago when Jane was beginning chemo that some parents of patients are ‘monitors’ and some are ‘blockers.’ Monitors feel less anxious when they have lots of information. Blockers feel more anxious by information overload and prefer to leave the in-the-weeds details to the experts. (I was told I’m the most monitory monitor they ever met. This because I was begging—in those pre-Wifi days—medical textbooks so I could fully understand about pluripotent stem cells and what was happening in my baby’s bone marrow.) This distinction wasn’t a value judgment; it was meant to help terrified parents cope with the ordeal: a child with cancer. An awareness of what relieves or inflames your anxiety is powerful knowledge. But I’ve come to believe that being a blocker is only safe if you can utterly trust the experts in question. And the voices who turned climate change into a political issue—framing it as politics instead of a set of facts supported by abundant data—those voices are not trustworthy. We’ve all got to become monitors now.
Oof. Do you know I thought I was coming here to write about sourdough starter? That’s one of the ways we entertained ourselves indoors this morning: we got a starter going two weeks ago, and today* we tested it out on a batch of pancakes. (Too hot to bake bread.) The pancakes were delicious; the starter is strong. Rilla handles most of the care and feeding (and she keeps a log book with daily updates about status and hydration level), and Huck flipped all the pancakes. And Jane…got on a plane and went back to California to start her new job. (Sniffle. No, I’m excited for her, truly!)
*Last Wednesday, that was. From here on is new today, Monday.
Since I can’t spend much time in the garden, I’m obsessing over my houseplants, and they have rewarded me with surprising blooms.
Nearly a year after I bought it, my Aeschynanthus is blooming and I’m over the moon. I used to grow these beauties (commonly called lipstick flower) by the half dozen back in pre-baby days, along with Nematanthus and other gems. We left nearly all our plants behind when we moved to Portland last summer, but a few months after our arrival Scott and I were en route to buy a card table (for jigsaw puzzles) from a Craigslist seller and we passed a Very Large Sign emblazoned with one of the nicest phrases in the English language: PLANT SALE. Of course I had to pop in *just for a look*. It turned out to be the annual sale of the PDX chapter of the Gesneriad Society—an organization I belonged to myself, back in the day. (Some of you longtime readers may recall a post I wrote about that chapter of my life ages ago.) Anyway, I spent five dollars at that plant sale last summer and have been enjoying the trailing foliage of my Aeschynanthus and Nematanthus all year. That five bucks also bought me a Streptocarpus (Cape Primrose), whose pink blossoms made me giddy…while they lasted. I never could keep a Streptocarpus alive.
It was clear the Aeschynanthus was happy with its spot near the east-facing window of my studio—gorgeous, abundant foliage—but no blooms. Until HELLO, suddenly it’s a Revlon commercial in that corner. These flowers are bonkers. And it’s bursting with them. Talk about a makeover!
And then! And then! The very same day I lamented on Instagram that I missed my old goldfish flower (the aforementioned Nematanthus)—we met friends for a drink in the evening, and there was a small nursery next to the alehouse, and GUESS WHAT I FOUND. A bitty little $2.50 goldfish flower in full bloom. Of course I had to adopt it.
What I’m reading:
My Mary Stewart kick continues. Over the weekend I reread Thornyhold (far and away my favorite of her books so far) and Rose Cottage (second fave), and now I’m a couple of chapters into Thunder on the Right (bit of a slow start, but picking up). Many of her books can be had for $1.99 on Kindle at the moment, including Touch Not the Cat (I loved this one), The Ivy Tree (suspenseful, moody), and Madam, Will You Talk?
This Rough Magic is an extra dollar, but it’s Tempest-inspired! Probably #3 in my rankings so far, but I have several other novels to go. Including The Moon-Spinners—remember the Hayley Mills film?
August 10, 2018 @ 8:38 pm | Filed under: Books
Here’s the sequence: I’m lying on the bed reading the opening chapter of a library book on my phone. I don’t know why I’m doing this: I’m several chapters into Deep Work, about which I’ve just talked Scott’s ear off for an hour or more during dinner and, afterward, our walk; and I’ve got another Mary Stewart novel on the Kindle, which I know I’ll find totally absorbing as soon as I settle into it properly. And here beside me on the bed: A Tale of Time City and Elizabeth and Her German Garden, both of which I read, oh golly, back in the ’90s I guess it would have been. (Or more precisely, Time City was read to me by Scott, one of the books we enjoyed aloud together when Jane was a newborn. I nursed, he read.) I grabbed them on my way into the room, for no particular reason. I’m hungry for something, pacing a mental library like a caged tiger, wanting a contrast to the sobering, change-demanding Deep Work.
And so here I am ignoring the books already in progress or gathered on my way to this quiet corner. I got up at six this morning and was in my chair, writing, by 6:10. I haven’t stopped since, unless the walk counts as down time. (It does.) Now the rest of the family is watching Superman and I have an hour free, an hour to spend reading. I ache to read. I think about it all day long: how I can’t wait until evening is here and I can read.
But then I don’t. I work on tomorrow’s NYT crossword puzzle, which hits my phone at 7pm. Get about halfway through before flicking away. Instagram, but only for a moment. I want to read. Why am I not reading?
I remember that a Penelope Lively book I’d requested hit my Overdrive account today. I tap open the Libby app (though I’m not clear on why I’m now using Libby for Overdrive; the library website nudged me in that direction but didn’t explain why) and there it is: Dancing Fish and Ammonites: A Memoir. I’m going to relish it; this I know from the cover, the brief description. Below this new arrival, there’s the audiobook of The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, a big chunk of which I listened to last Sunday while doing some handwork—and then in the rush of the work-week, forgot all about. I was enjoying it quite a lot, and the audio version is wonderful: a delicious array of voices.
Below that, the Mary Poppins audiobook—that’s my next Brave Writer Arrow title, I just turned in Redwall today, and in late afternoon I decided to get a jump on this next assignment. I looked all over the house for our copy of Poppins; I know it’s here somewhere; it’s nowhere to be seen. Thus the audio, which I’d downloaded last week in anticipation, and spent some time with before dinner this evening. This is suddenly adding up to be a lot of books in progress (let’s not mention The Penderwicks on Gardam Street, which I’m reading to the kids but didn’t today). And below Mary Poppins on the Libby screen, yet another book I put on hold (not audio this time)—last weekend, I think, when my friend Kelly Ramsdell mentioned it on Instagram? Ursula K. Le Guin’s No Time to Spare. The title terrifies me. It sounds like more Deep Work. I scroll back up and tap open the Penelope Lively.
Oh dear, the Preface, I’m hooked already, I genuinely want to read this. By page two, I want to read it on paper. This keeps happening lately—is it a delayed reaction to purging our shelves of (sob) hundreds, really I think it might have been thousands, of books before the move last summer? We couldn’t afford to move them—you know how it is with books—and I’m sure there are still a thousand left on my shelves, here in Portland, it’s not like I’m deprived…but I miss the abandoned ones. I remember particular volumes and where they lived on the shelves. I can’t think about it too hard. And I’m not buying books at the moment but I keep wanting to. I want this one, this Dancing Fish and hello, you had me at Ammonites to hold in my hand, to mark up with underlines and notes. Earlier today I was pining for a hard copy of Deep Work—again the urge to scrawl in the margins, to make satisfying little checkmarks next to bits I like.
Penelope Lively ends her preface with this:
“…most of us end up with an identifying cargo—that painting, this vase, those titles on the shelf. I can give eloquence to mine—I know what they are saying. Not so much detachment here; more, a flicker of memoir proper—a voyage around the eighty years by way of two ammonites, a pair of American ducks, leaping fish…And a raft of books.”
Oh Penelope, what are you doing to me?
I flick to chapter one but my eyes have left the screen; I’m staring at the nearest shelf and thinking, suddenly, that what I ought to do is forget about all the books I don’t have on hand and just—oh it’s a ludicrous thought, I know that even before the thought completes—read my way back through my own shelves. Every book, one after another, in the order in which I find them on the shelf: a sort of Julie-and-Julia project, aspic and all.
Ridiculous, I know. But the idea tickles my fancy and I go to the bookcase nearest the bed, just to see. Top left corner, the obvious place to start. Oh but I can’t start there—it’s the Norton Anthologies, the five we kept for homeschooling purposes. You can’t start with Norton Anthologies! Can you?
Next in line: The Lord of the Rings. Which, you know, you don’t have to twist my arm to get me to fall into those volumes…but it is wise? How many dozens of times have I read them!
(The Norton Anthology of Women’s Literature is whispering to me. How long is it since I’ve read The Awakening? The Bluest Eye?)
The rest of that shelf is old Greensboro Reviews—I was poetry editor in the early 90s—and some back issues of Flow Magazine. This will never do. I huff impatiently and turn away from this bookcase, which is laughable, since shelves four and five are where I’ve been stashing books I own but haven’t read yet and really want to. Look, I’m tired, I worked really hard today, I’m perhaps a bit irrational. There are two tall, crammed bookcases on the next wall. Top left corner: some picture books, I can skip those (or can I? what rules do I want to invent for this game I know I’m not actually going to play?); what’s the first novel-length book on the shelf?
Lloyd Alexander’s Time Cat. Er, I’m not in the mood. The Rhetoric and the Poetics of Aristotle, hahahahaha. Next. Papa’s Daughter by Thyra Ferré Bjorn, read half to tatters before I turned eighteen, and perhaps only once since. If it were Papa’s Wife I might have succumbed—the Lucia crown; the lutefisk and the midnight sun!—but Papa’s Daughter, eh, I feel impatient with Button’s moods already. Oh here’s The Sherwood Ring, lying sideways because I pulled it out two weeks ago for a juicy reread…and then didn’t. I stand there for a moment, falling into page one, this is perfect, it’s just what I was looking for to counterbalance Deep Work. (Forgetting again that I already have that counterbalance with the Mary Stewart novel I started the other night, which one is it this time? Nine Coaches Waiting, that’s right.) (Nobody mention the subtitle of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. Oh, that’s rich.)
I abandon Sherwood Ring, too, and wander to the computer to chronicle this foolish indecision, this half hour I could have spent, you know, READING. I’ve crammed all the books back on the shelf. It’s 9:30, which is when I watch TV.
July 26, 2018 @ 2:37 pm | Filed under: Books
SO MUCH TO CATCH UP ON HERE! A children’s hospital stay, a San Diego trip, Comic-Con, oh my. But not now! I gotta work! But I wanted to share this thingie I made.
This morning I mentioned on Facebook that I was updating my boy’s medical one-sheet in preparation for a visit to a new doctor. This remark generated a flurry of requests for a shareable template. So I’ve put one together and stuck it on Dropbox. I’ll work on a Google Docs version later.
(I used to call this my Doctor Roster—some of you may remember when I thunk it up!)
Adapt and share as you wish. Cheers!
Eight years ago I was far too discreet to name the book that caused Scott to threaten me with the worst possible revenge.
And now I have no idea what book it was.
What brainpower I might have for blogging, I’ve been pouring into advocacy/activism on Facebook. Scott thinks I should try to archive some of that writing here, though, which is a smart thought. I might try just messily pasting it onto a page (rather than a post) and not worrying about format or anything.
Ever since I joined Twitter in 2007 (followed by FB shortly afterward), I’ve pondered how best to archive things I share on social media. I used to periodically comb both networks for any funny kid quips I’d shared—those are the things I most especially want to keep here in my forever-place. And now there’s Instagram pulling the lion’s share of my attention, social-media-wise, another archive of my work stored on someone else’s server. I never can decide how much to pull over here.
Certainly not the most pressing issue of our time, not even close to the most pressing issue regarding my time, but it’s something I think about. Scott and I recently found ourselves laughing and awwww-ing through a bunch of Bonny Glen and Left of the Dial posts from ten years ago, and those stories are golden. We wouldn’t have remembered half of them (maybe any of them) if we hadn’t written them down.
I also note that my reading life has suffered since I dropped the habit of blogging about it.
As we roll into summer here, I’m shifting the moving parts around and pondering ways to tweak my schedule. There’s room for everything—all the important things, at least—as long as I’m clever about it. But sometimes that’s a pretty big ask. 😉
Sick kids this week, and lots of IEP stuff going on. But golden hour doesn’t begin until 8pm these days, so I’ve managed plenty of long, rhapsodic evening walks. The light is glorious. I’m completely enchanted.
Huck, Rilla, and I are still reading The Penderwicks and lots of poetry. They finished learning the Willow Cabin speech from Twelfth Night and have begun If music be the food of love. play on. We spent a few weeks immersing in the history of Ancient India, and next week we’re starting an exploration of ancient numbering systems. Rilla helped me prep for it and we’re both pretty excited to dive in. And we’re doing watercolors almost every day, because I’m addicted. Strawberry number two was ripe today. We’re anxiously awaiting the arrival of this lovely book: Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses. (Amazon influencer link.) I’m in no hurry at all for the tide to go out.
The first week of the year has slipped away. Slipped? Flown? Hmm, neither is accurate. It was a full week, an intense week of long phone calls dealing with IEP issues and other challenges we’re facing with S’s school. (Further affirming my belief that being an engaged school parent is every bit as time-consuming as homeschooling, if not more so. I remember when people used to be shocked when I made that argument. Homeschooling my other kids may be the least stressful thing I do, and the least demanding in terms of time and mental energy. The ratio is tipped so much farther in favor of joy and delight than pretty much anything else I do. But that’s a topic for another post.)
I’ve made some concrete changes in the past several weeks, in an attempt to reclaim lost bits of time and rebuild good habits that have crumbled rather a lot during this past tumultuous year. Had to start with myself, of course. In early December I began writing three pages first thing every morning, before I pick up my phone or even get out of bed. Three pages, longhand in an 8 1/2 x 11″ spiral notebook. I’ve been afraid to talk about it lest that somehow kill the habit before it gelled. But it’s been over a month now and I think I can make myself keep going. I’ve only missed one day so far—Christmas morning has its own particular demands. 🙂 Scott’s a big help, cheering me on, not minding the light popping on at 6:30 a.m. when it’s still deep dark here.
My daily nature walks with Huck and Rilla disappeared during the holidays—in large part because the cold air is making me cough. An allergy/asthma thing, quite annoying. I miss walking, both with the kids and with Scott—a habit we practiced for many years in San Diego but haven’t found space for here yet. I mean, I know we haven’t been here all that long and I wasn’t exactly up to walking for a while there. But the thing with habits is that we form them one way if we aren’t forming them another. And right now Scott and I have the habit of not walking. I loved our old sunset walks, and the early-morning walks before those. I’m looking for the right corner of the day to tuck them back into.
I’ve been examining my social media habits too. I enjoyed Chris O’Donnell’s post about reasons to blog more in 2018. He raises some excellent points. This time last year I was determined to return to daily blogging a la 2005, and I kept it up pretty well for a while. And then…life intervened. So much life! But…here I go again, the earnest attempt.
(Other blogging friends did a better job of keeping up the old posting rhythms. They’re in the sidebar under “Blogging Like It’s 2005.”)
Movies watched this week: Star Wars: The Last Jedi
TV: Parks & Rec rewatch
I read quite a lot this past week. I think I always do, during the first week of the year, because the blank space in my sidebar booklog bugs me. Didn’t sketch much. Hoping to kick that habit back into place this week.
I asked the following question on Facebook and wound up with a nice fat list of suggestions for my TBR pile:
What are your reading plans for this year?
(If you’re a reading planner. If not, what’s in your pile right now?)
December 27, 2017 @ 4:43 pm | Filed under: Books
Year after year, this may be my favorite week for blogging. “Old Year Week,” as Mole calls it. I love tidying things up and making a fresh start. It’s a time, too, for reflection: what worked this year; what didn’t. I wasn’t able to be as consistent with daily posting as I’d hoped at the start of the year, but who could have predicted what this year would hold for me, for all of us. Methinks I can cut myself a little bit of slack. 😉
I worked on my sidebar booklog for a while yesterday—it was woefully behind—and discovered to my horror that I had written “Douglas Adams” as the author of Watership Down, which would have been a verrrry different kind of book. I’m going to hope it’s a case of nobody noticing, rather than that you were all too polite to point it out. 😉
Most years, this is the week that my fall Cybils reading frenzy is suddenly, breathlessly, over—finalists selected, blurbs written, book towers carted off to other parts of the house. That’s the case today for my Round 1 panelists, but this year I’m YA category chair only, not one of the YA readers. (I’m a Round 2 judge in Early Readers and Chapter Books, but that work doesn’t start until the New Year, and instead of reading 70-some YA novels in two months as in years past, I’ll only be reading the short lists of finalists. Big difference.)
Anyway, most years right around this date, I find myself suddenly at liberty to read (gasp) anything I want. It’s a tremendous feeling. This year I have a list of books begun earlier in the year, which I’d like to finish up but probably won’t. 2017 was for me a year of leaning on old friends—Hanff, Nesbit, Byatt, Montgomery, Tey, and (ahem) RICHARD Adams—and cozy mysteries during and after the months of my cancer treatment. And a steady course of Moomintrolls in our readaloud life. 🙂 No regrets whatsoever. But I do feel like stretching a bit and picking up something challenging or long-awaited. I also have a few last Arrow books to finish up: a delicious sort of work, that.
I’m not making new reading goals yet. I did make a little shelf for myself, in much the same way that I like to assemble enticing collections of readalouds and read-alones for my kids. It’s partly a real shelf (I’ve been in a hard-copy mood more and more often, lately) and partly virtual—a pile of tomes I’ve been carting around on my Kindle for ages.
A different stack entirely: old favorites I pulled out one day to discuss on a video for my Patreon, but never did. Hmm…now I want to reread The Firelings. And The Sherwood Ring. And The Gammage Cup, which isn’t even in the pile. Oh dear, is there no end to my book gluttony?
This post ran off in a different direction than I intended when I began. I’ll save the other train of thought for later. Until then, I hope Old Year Week brings you some peaceful down time in which to indulge your own bookish whims.