Posts Tagged ‘booknotes’
June 2, 2017 @ 7:24 am | Filed under: Books
What happens when you read Station Eleven in bed before opening your laptop to Paris Agreement discussion: profound discombobulation. What are these fossil fuels you speak of? Here in Year Fifteen, electricity is a distant memory and the children have never seen a lit screen. Uh, like the one on which I’m reading this book, these posts. I’m addled. Somebody fix me a plate of wild boar.
He stood by the case and found himself moved by every object he saw there, by the human enterprise each object had required. Consider the snow globe. Consider the mind that invented those miniature storms, the factory worker who turned sheets of plastic into white flakes of snow, the hand that drew the plan for the miniature Severn City with its church steeple and city hall, the assembly-line worker who watched the globe glide past on a conveyer belt somewhere in China. Consider the white gloves on the hands of the woman who inserted the snow globes into boxes, to be packed into larger boxes, crates, shipping containers. Consider the card games played belowdecks in the evenings on the ship carrying the containers across the ocean, a hand stubbing out a cigarette in an overflowing ashtray, a haze of blue smoke in dim light, the cadences of a half dozen languages united by common profanities, the sailors’ dreams of land and women, these men for whom the ocean was a gray-line horizon to be traversed in ships the size of overturned skyscrapers. Consider the signature on the shipping manifest when the ship reached port, a signature unlike any other on earth, the coffee cup in the hand of the driver delivering boxes to the distribution center, the secret hopes of the UPS man carrying boxes of snow globes from there to the Severn City Airport. Clark shook the globe and held it up to the light. When he looked through it, the planes were warped and caught in whirling snow.
Related: How the United States Looked Before the EPA
January 26, 2017 @ 8:33 pm | Filed under: Books
1. Picture books
Today is the 26th and my Goodreads log says we’ve read 23 picture books so far this year. Sounds about right; we’ve missed a couple of days here and there but not more than two or three. I may have forgotten to log something.
Mrs. Biddlebox by Linda Smith, illustrated by Marla Frazee. Until I went to grab the cover from Amazon just now, I didn’t realize this was out of print. The author died not long after it was published—we had the same editor, who sent me a copy, knowing my kids would love it. They truly do. Mrs. Biddlebox turns a grim, gray day around by, well, eating it up, bad mood and all. I hope your library has a copy because it looks like it has become a collector’s item, judging by the resale price.
I Scream, Ice Cream: A Book of Wordles by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, illustrated by Serge Bloch. Lots of punny fun from the always delightful Rosenthal.
Diary of a Fly by Doreen Cronin, illustrated by Harry Bliss.
Diary of a Worm.
Diary of a Spider. Everyone knows these; everyone loves these. My kids can’t listen to one without demanding all three.
The Lady with the Ship on Her Head by Deborah Nourse Lattimore. A longtime favorite of mine—my copy was signed (and delightfully doodled in) by the author when she did a booksigning at the children’s bookstore I worked at during grad school, many moons ago. Madame Pompenstance can’t figure out what kind of fancy hairdo to concoct for the king’s contest. When she bends over to scoop a few sad shells off the beach to ornament her coiffure, a tiny three-masted ship rows right onto her head. She has no idea it’s there, even though the tiny crew drops anchor below her earlobes, forming cunning little earrings; she only knows that she has a fearful headache all day long. So funny, and the art is lavish and captivating. A big hit with my gang.
Frog Girl by Owen Paul Lewis. You had me at the bit where the frog lifts the skin of the lake and takes the girl to her underwater frog village.
World Rat Day by J. Patrick Lewis and Anna Raff. A poem collection of made-up holidays. Dragon Appreciation Day is Rilla’s favorite.
2. High-tide companions
We’re still reading The Secret Horses of Briar Hill at bedtime—only a few pages at a time, because Huck is a sleepy guy at the end of the day. We can’t move it to morning because then Stevie would miss out. So I’ve started a new midmorning read-aloud; I was wanting some historical fiction to tie in with our Age of Exploration studies. Beanie suggested one of her old favorites: A Murder for Her Majesty. I haven’t read this one in ages, and possibly never aloud. SO GOOD. We’re only on Chapter 2 so far: young Alice witnessed her father’s murder and went on the run. She’s been taken in by a group of choirboys at York Minster, and they’ve just decided she should cut her hair and hide in the choir. Suspense!
3. My own meanderings
You didn’t think I really meant that Dickens quote the other day, did you? I didn’t look it up to see who said it, but “Let us have no meandering” sounds like Betsey Trotwood. Me, I’m a meanderer. After I finished Ilsa (about which: seriously, more later—not tonight because they’re waiting on me to watch the rest of Fellowship), I found myself in a familiar dither over what of a hundred (a hundred hundred!) options to choose next. Sometimes it takes me weeks to choose. It’s annoying. Just settle down and PICK something! I fight with my brain sometimes. I’ve read the openings of at least five books. One is about King Edward VII and I do mean to finish it. Another is about bees (I know, shocker), and yet another falls into my favorite subgenre: books about books. I keep dipping back into it and will probably curl up with it this weekend for real. And then there’s a (digital) stack of YA novels whispering to me. Also: I did download Martin Chuzzlewit and have chuckled through two chapters so far. I’m arriving too early at Jamie’s May Dickens read-along but her description of this particular novel piqued my interest. Realistically, though, I’ll have to shelve it soon and turn my attention to Great Expectations, which I’m teaching in March.
Oh, and I forgot the three in-progress audiobooks. What is wrong with me? Code Name Verity (edge of my seat; I’ll be recommending to Beanie; and yes I’m very late in getting to this one, which knocked everyone’s socks off a few years ago); Landmarks (still); and A Short History of Nearly Everything.
A bonus post for today! But this one’s mostly for me: another little addition to our family collection of All About Weeds stories.
Strangely, I can’t find the first All About Weeds story in my archives. I’m sure I must have written about it here! But maybe not. Maybe it was pre-Bonny Glen, a tale posted to a homeschooling message board instead. I suppose it must have been, now I think about it: my Amazon history tells me I purchased the book on July 13, 2002. And it entered our lives as a library book some time before that. Which fact (its being a library book) provides the drama of the first anecdote, actually.
We’d moved to Virginia only a few months earlier (on New Year’s Day, 2002, as a matter of fact). When spring arrived, O glorious mid-Atlantic spring with its abundance of dogwood and redbud blossoms, I was in a mania to know every single plant growing in our yard. Among the books I checked out from the adorable train-depot-turned-library in our little town was a rather dusty tome about weeds. I did say every plant.
I flipped through the weed book but I found it rather dry, and besides, I was sidetracked by what would become a years-long obsession with Noah’s Garden: Restoring the Ecology of Our Own Backyards. (Chip, meet block.) All About Weeds sat neglected (so I thought) on a table for a day or two, and then I returned it to the library.
Soon after, Jane (age sevenish, I think? heavens, that was a long time ago) came to me, came to me all in a dither. Where, she begged most earnestly to know, WHERE was that fascinating weeds book?
When I told her I’d returned it to the library, she was crushed. It was the BEST BOOK EVER, I was informed (in tones conveying, yes, both capitals and italics). Full of the MOST INTERESTING information.
And as my shopping history testifies, so persuaded was I of the merits of this superior tome that I purchased a copy for keeps.
The best and perfect weed book makes a number of appearances on this blog, even if its origin story has been lost to the archives of some distant Yahoogroup. “Bonny Glen Firsts” (published in 2011) tells me it was in fact the second book I ever mentioned here:
Second book mentioned (though not by name): All About Weeds, a Jane favorite for years. Seriously.
(Ah, there you go. Not mentioned by name. I’ll have to dig up that post.)
I find it mentioned in a March, 2006 post called “The Tide Is Going Out“—an early exploration of my tidal homeschooling concept.
The other day a neighbor asked me if we take a spring break. I laughed and said, “Yes—the whole spring!”
We’ve had such a pleasant time the last couple of months, immersing ourselves in some good books and other forms of study. Now the outdoors is beckoning, and our daily rhythms are shifting. Spring is calling us, urging us out of the house. We are a bunch of Mary Lennoxes, unable to resist the rustlings and chirpings, the spikes of green, the gypsy winds.
I keep finding cups of water on the counter with tiny blossoms floating like fairy lily pads: the first bluets and starry white chickweed flowers. Chickweed, so Jane tells me, is an edible plant and quite tasty. (“Like sugar snap pea pods, Mom.”) She has begged me not to uproot the vast patch of it that has taken over a stretch of our backyard mulch bed, just uphill from the strawberries. Another weed, a purple-flowered plant the children call “cow parsley,” is popping up all over the lawn, much to their delight: they suck the nectar from the itty bitty orchid-like blossoms and proclaim it better than the honeysuckle they’ll seek out later in the summer.
Jane, who had been binging on math during the past three weeks, seems to have shifted her attentions to botany. I find myself tripping over her tattered copy of All About Weeds everywhere I go, and upstairs, the microscope is much in demand for the viewing of leaf cross sections. An experiment involving scarlet runner beans has become the centerpiece on the kitchen table.
So there we are, four years later, and Weeds is still in constant use. It seems wee 2002 Jane hadn’t been overstating her affections.
A month after that, April 2006: “Things to Do While Your Mother Is in the Hospital” (delivering your baby sister). This one—which is the post that sparked today’s story and this entire trip down memory lane—made me laugh pretty hard. (Not at poor Rose’s plight. At The Book’s role in her recovery.)
If you are seven…
…get stung under the chin by a wasp.
If you are ten…
…recall a passage from that scintillating classic, All About Weeds, describing the sting-soothing properties of yarrow, and concoct a poultice of newly emerging yarrow leaves with which to soothe your little sister’s wasp sting.
Well done, young Jane!
Which brings me to today. Huck’s birthday post keeps turning up melt-my-heart tidbits in the “related posts” widget at the bottom of the page. I was clicking along a little baby-picture rabbit trail when I happened upon the “things to do” post above. Rilla, who was aww-ing over my shoulder at her adorable baby brother’s toddler antics, was transfixed by this glimpse at what her big sisters were up to on the day she was born. She read the post breathlessly, pausing only to interject “Oh, I love that book!” at the bit about “that scintillating classic.”
The chip doesn’t fall far from, er, the older chip.
We found the book, you know, during last week’s grand shelf-cleaning. It has been returned to its permanent spot on Jane’s bookcase.
January 12, 2017 @ 6:24 am | Filed under: Books
Ah Ha! by Jeff Mack. Chronicle Books. This deceptively simple story is an absolute hoot. The only text in the whole book are variations on “Ah ha!” and “Ahh!” Ah ha! A little boy catches a frog. Ahh, the frog escapes from the jar. Ah ha! Right into the mouth of a predator. Ahh! He gets away again. And so on. For beginning readers, this is about as easy as it gets—you can read a whole book with just two sounds. For kids a bit older, like mine, it’s a fun exploration of inflection. How many shades of meaning can you infuse into those two simple syllables?
When Moon Fell Down by Linda Smith, illustrated by Kathryn Brown. HarperCollins. I’m sad to see this lovely book has gone out of print already. It’s been in regular circulation around here since my former Little House editor—also its editor—sent us a copy many, er, moons ago. Moon falls out of the sky one night, meets an amiable cow, and takes her along on an adventure around town. My favorite part is Moon’s discovery of a hidden side to things he has heretofore only seen from above—shop windows and horses’ knees, for example.
High tide read-alouds:
Story of the World Volume 3: Early Modern Times by Susan Wise Bauer. Rilla, Huck, and I are just beginning this tome this week. I’ll admit Chapter 1 left them a little befuddled. It’s presented in a framing sequence several layers deep: imagine you’re a traveler who’s been all over the known world having adventures; it’s 1600 and there are these two kings you’re going to learn about, but first let’s back up to 1500 to hear about a young man who wanted to be Emperor because of this other emperor several centuries earlier…whew! And at the end of the chapter, both my kids were disappointed because they’d wanted to hear more about that grizzled old two-toothed world traveler from the first paragraph, who never showed back up. Fortunately, I know the text will settle down soon and they’ll be hooked into the historical dramas. But I think they’d rather hear the tale of the seven-toed, two-toothed scurvy man who survived being bitten by a cobra and a water moccasin. (!)
Fifty Famous Stories Retold by James Baldwin. Oldie but goodie. My favorite way to introduce my small people to classic references like the Sword of Damocles, King Alfred and the cakes, and the famous Laconic “IF.” (Those links will take you to the Main Lesson Project, where you can read the stories for free.)
The Oxford Illustrated Book of American Children’s Poems, edited by Donald Hall.
“Can I keep playing Legos while you read, Mom?”
“Can you play with them quietly enough that you’ll be able to hear?” ”
“Yes, but I need to rummage for some certain pieces first.”
“Okay, you rummage. I’ll pick out some poems. Ooh, Macavity!”
[Fifteen-year-old looks up from her geometry, bursts into song.]
My own queue:
I finished Cat’s Cradle. If you’ll forgive me for getting ultra-intellectual on you for a moment—that is one bananas book. 😉
I got so much, and most mud got so little.
I seem to be rereading two Nick Hornby essay collections at once—Housekeeping vs. The Dirt in print, and More Baths, Less Talking on Kindle. Also in this collection: The Polysyllabic Spree and Shakespeare Wrote for Money. Yes, I will almost certainly have to reread them all before this kick plays out.
One of my favorite aspects of these “Stuff I’m Reading” columns is that Hornby leads with lists of the books he bought that month, and the books he actually read.
“The seasoned reader, accustomed to the vicissitudes of a life spent accumulating books, can probably guess without checking that in any given month, the Books Bought and Books Read lists hardly overlap.”
“Surely we all occasionally buy books because of a daydream we’re having—a little fantasy about the people we might turn into one day, when our lives are different, quieter, more introspective, and when all the urgent reading, whatever that might be, has been done. We never arrive at that point, needless to say…”
And here he’s speaking to my rabbit-trailing, homeschooling heart:
“And so a lot of adult life—if your hunger and curiosity haven’t been squelched by your education—is learning to join up the dots that you didn’t even know were there.”
(All these quotes are from More Baths, which is more easily quotable simply because I have it on Kindle and can copy-paste from my “Your Highlights” page.)
Some enticing new titles landed on my Netgalley shelf this week, including a new-to-me reprint of a Madeleine L’Engle novel, Ilsa, which has been out of print for some sixty years and is being reissued by Open Road Media next month. More on that to come, surely. And I’ve received a copy of Maud, “a novel inspired by the life of L. M. Montgomery” by Melanie Fishbane, due out in April from Penguin. (Jen of Recreational Scholar expresses some ambivalent feelings about it in this post.)
January 9, 2017 @ 6:30 am | Filed under: Books
Leslie in VA absolutely made my week with this comment:
Many, many years ago. . . you gushed over “Fruitless Fall” and that book truly changed our life. I read it, my husband read it and our older kids read it. My husband (phobic of bees) wanted to get bees (still does). Fast forward to today and my oldest son, 21, now works on a queen bee farm in Hawaii. He was truly inspired by that book. Thank you for your part in him finding his path!
I told Scott, “I feel like I was just given a George Bailey moment without having to get to the desperate jump-off-a-bridge stage first!” Thanks, Leslie, really. And thanks to all of you who’ve let me know my book chatter has been meaningful to your family life at some point or other. It means a lot to me to know that, truly. 🙂
Leslie went on to ask,
Also, thoughts on goodreads? I think it is a valuable tool but decreased activity over the past year. Are people reading less, not using it, is there another site? I have been keeping track of our books for over 5 years (kids have different shelves) because I often draw a blank when asked for suggestions for a certain age. Wondering what you think of its usefulness?
Have you read Keeper of the Bees by Gene Stratton Porter? Delicious!
Taking the last question first: I have not! It’s been recommended to me by a number of Bonny Glen readers over the years, and I think I even snagged it on Kindle at some point. Why haven’t I read it yet?? If anyone understands my reading tastes, it’s you folks. Perhaps I can make it a January treat.
As for Goodreads, I too enjoy it but my use comes in fits and starts. I’ve been somewhat more consistent at updating my books in the past few years…at least, until October hits. Then, if it’s a year I’m serving on a Cybils panel (and since I’m now chairing the YA Fiction panel, every year will be that sort of year), it all falls apart. I can’t keep up with the logging.
I’ve tried once or twice to log my kids’ reading that way, but it’s hopeless. Too darn many books. Beanie does log her reading at her own account, though.
I admit I seldom read Goodreads comments on books I’m interested in—not the general pool of comments, that is. I do enjoy reading the remarks left by my Goodreads friends and acquaintances. It’s always fun to enter a book and discover six of my GR pals gave it four stars.
Oh, but about those stars—I hardly ever give any! Sometimes I’ll award them, but only if it’s (in my opinion) a four- or five-star book—and I’m terribly inconsistent at that, having entered many excellent books without putting in any stars at all. It bothers me that a three-star rating (which is supposed to mean “I like it”) is considered by writers (and readers) to be a lackluster, low rating. I don’t want to deflate someone’s scores (and feelings) by seeming to give it a bad grade. And writers work too hard on books for me to go around slapping a depressing two stars on their efforts, even though I’m bound to feel ‘meh’ about some of the books I read. So—I mostly ignore the whole star machinery. A zero-star rating isn’t factored into the book’s score. And it certainly doesn’t mean I thought the book was worth zilch. Some of my lifelong favorite books show up as zeroes in my list, because I didn’t bother with the stars.
I keep thinking I could use Goodreads to log incoming review copies, but there too I get bogged down by the busywork of entering titles.
In the end, my sidebar booklogs are a more accurate reflection of my year’s reading. I wish I’d begun keeping them sooner than 2008!
How about the rest of you? Do you have a good(reads) system?
A tangent: as I write this, at 8:30 Sunday evening, I’m listening to Rose and Beanie play a piano-and-violin duet in the next room—a song from one of the Zelda games, I believe, quite lovely—and my heart’s about to burst with delight. They each started group piano classes around age eight. Rose ‘graduated’ from the music school last spring, at age eighteen. Beanie still attends, along with Rilla, who’s in her third year. And Huck is beginning this week.
Beanie has been taking violin lessons for about a year. The instrument she plays on was given to me by Scott, my senior year of college. He knew I’d always wanted to learn and found a second-hand three-quarter-size violin somewhere. I took lessons for a few months from an elderly fiddle player who taught me out of an old hymnal. I confess I didn’t get very far. I was self-conscious about practicing in earshot of my roommates. The violin got bumped around through several moves, suffering a broken bridge at some point. And the bow disintegrated. The summer before last, Rose spent six weeks in Colorado with my parents and was given the rather amazing opportunity of assisting their neighbor, a violin repairman, with the restoration of my old instrument. She brought it home to Beanie, who’d been pining to play strings for ages.
And here we are. They sound, to this mama’s ears, utterly magical. When they play, I don’t just hear melody—I hear history.
Our weekend picture book reading:
The Pencil by Allan Ahlberg and Bruce Ingman. A pencil draws a host of characters, and then when they clamor for color, he draws a paintbrush to help out. But when he draws an eraser, things begin to go downhill…my kids love this book, from the mild chaos created by the Calvin-esque eraser to the beleaguered pencil’s clever solution. This book would pair nicely with Harold and the Purple Crayon—or that Looney Tunes where Daffy Duck is being tormented by the paintbrush that created him (wielded, of course, by Bugs Bunny).
A Visitor for Bear by Bonny Becker and Kady MacDonald Denton. I wrote about this gem in 2008: “This was one of the Cybils nominees, and when I read the library copy, I knew it was a keeper. Sweet, funny story about a rather curmudgeonly bear who, despite his best efforts, finds himself playing host to a persistent and amiable mouse. I showed it to Scott, who instantly pegged it as a perfect Rose book. Endearing art, charming story.”
Open This Little Book by Jesse Klausmeier and Suzy Lee. From my 2013 booknotes: “A series of quirky creatures is reading a series of little books, each smaller than the next. Very clever way to play with the convention of the codex. All those adorable nested books are irresistible to my kids. And the art, oh the art: utterly to swoon for.”
How to Read a Story by Kate Messner and Mark Siegel. <– This last one, I’m informed, will be our Monday pick, if we can find it. It fits nicely with the meta-book themes of The Pencil and Open This Little Book, which is probably what made Huck think of it. Some of you will recall that I caught Huck on video reading this one out loud, back in 2015. (Those character voices—oh my heart!)
January 8, 2017 @ 12:26 am | Filed under: Books
Yesterday I picked up one of my cleaning-spree finds: Nick Hornby’s Housekeeping Vs. the Dirt. Just the thing to reset my brain after Cybils reading, I thought. Hornby’s what-I’m-reading essay collections were hugely important to my reading life several years back. He was writing monthly columns about his own reading life—not reviews, but meditations and meanderings, an ongoing conversation with the books he was immersed in each month. Those essays, originally published in Believer magazine and then bundled into several print collections, struck me as wittier, more deliberate versions of the kind of book-notes I’d been casually posting here on the blog for some time. I learned pretty early in my blogging career that I don’t enjoy writing formal book reviews (worrying, as I do, that I’ll wind up at dinner someday with the author of something I gave an unfavorable review to)—what I like is having conversations about books as I’m reading them. It’s during the reading that I’m burning to talk about what’s on the page. After I finish a book, I want to cocoon with it a bit, and finding words for it feels like work.
So as I said, I had more or less figured that out within a year of blogging, and I decided to think of what I was doing here as discussing rather than reviewing—sharing my enthusiasm, thinking out loud, capturing what thoughts the book put in my head while I was reading it.
When, in March 2009, I discovered that Nick Hornby was doing something similar (albeit in a more substantive, organized fashion) in his Believer essays, I felt my own thoughts come into focus. To chronicle one’s reading life—now there’s an activity that excites me. Ms. Mental Multivitamin, then as now one of my favorite bloggers (she posts these days at Nerdishly), had been doing exactly that at M-mv for longer than I’d been blogging (and probably since before Hornby’s essay series began).
(Thinking back, it’s likely I heard about the Hornby essays from Ms. M-mv in the first place.)
When I picked up Housekeeping Vs. the Dirt yesterday, my first reaction was to chuckle over the memory of what happened when I first posted a picture of it here in April, 2009. I presented the photo as evidence of Scott’s thoughtfulness—the book appeared on our bed not long after I’d mused aloud about wanting it—and a few commenters politely wondered if my husband might perhaps be going round the bend.
Q: “Was it a hint that the house was messy, was it exactly what you wanted, or was it a way of saying it’s ok honey, I love the house just the way it is?”
Huck would have been three months old at the time, and I imagine if a book about actual housekeeping had appeared, unsolicited, on our (unmade) bed as a sort of hint that it was time to tidy things up, said book might have hit a nearby wall…or head. 😉 But that would have required an entirely different kind of book, and an altogether different sort of husband.
And so whenever I come across Housekeeping Vs. the Dirt, I chuckle over the critical importance of context. Hornby’s title, of course, refers to two of the books he discusses in the volume.
And here we get to why I love to read the book-musings of other readers: because writers like Nick Hornby and Helene Hanff (O my beloved) don’t just write about the books; they write about relationship. The relationships they form with books. The ways their mental and emotional landscapes are altered by those books. There are personal connections and anecdotes; the books become a part of the reader’s history, shaping new narratives. All the books on my shelves have stories behind them, not just inside them. When I hold a volume, I’m remembering not only its contents, but where it came from and what was happening the first time I read it. Our old books, the ones we’ve hauled from house to house, state to state (uneconomically, sentimentally), contain multiple stories—their own, our family’s, and sometimes, if they came to us used, the stories of previous owners. Like Billy Collins, I’m entranced by the narratives we find in the margins:
…the one I think of most often,
the one that dangles from me like a locket,
was written in the copy of Catcher in the Rye
I borrowed from the local library
one slow, hot summer.
I was just beginning high school then,
reading books on a davenport in my parents’ living room,
and I cannot tell you
how vastly my loneliness was deepened,
how poignant and amplified the world before me seemed,
when I found on one page
A few greasy looking smears
and next to them, written in soft pencil —
by a beautiful girl, I could tell,
whom I would never meet —
“Pardon the egg salad stains, but I’m in love.”
—excerpt from “Marginalia”
When I pick up Hornby’s Housekeeping, I find it holds a piece of the congenial, bookish blog community I’ve enjoyed for so many years; and a memory of the happy jolt I felt when Scott surprised me with it; and the reading jags I went on because of Hornby’s recommendations; and the pleasure of curling up with those books while my last infant slept on the (unmade) bed beside me, in a room that existed in a state somewhere between housekeeping and the dirt.
All these associations rushed upon me before I’d even opened the book to page one this afternoon. I hit the Preface (page 11, technically) and felt immediately compelled to open the laptop and click New Post.
“I began writing this column,” Hornby writes,
“in the summer of 2003. It seemed to me that what I had chosen to read in the preceding few weeks contained a narrative, of sorts—that one book led to another, and thus themes and patterns emerged, patterns that might be worth looking at. And of course, that was pretty much the last time my reading had any kind of logic or shape to it. Ever since then my choice of books has been haphazard, whimsical, and entirely shapeless.”
You see why I love him.
“It still seemed like a fun thing to do, though, writing about reading, as opposed to writing about individual books. At the beginning of my writing career I reviewed a lot of fiction, but I had to pretend, as reviewers do, that I had read the books outside of space, time, and self—in other words, I had to pretend that I hadn’t read them when I was tired and grumpy, or drunk, that I wasn’t envious of the author, that I had no agenda, no personal aesthetic or personal taste or personal problems, that I hadn’t read other reviews of the same book already, that I didn’t know who the author’s friends and enemies were, that I wasn’t trying to place a book with the same publisher, that I hadn’t been bought lunch by the book’s doe-eyed publicist….”
“But this column was going to be different. Yes, I would be paid for it, but I would be paid to write about what I would have done anyway, which was read the books I wanted to read. And if I felt that mood, morale, concentration levels, weather, or family history had affected my relationship with a book, I could and would say so.”
Which is exactly what brings me back to these essays, time and again. And to other chroniclers of the reading life. Give me your moods, your weather, your family history, your ‘tired or grumpy or drunk.’ Give me the reader as well as the book. In the end, that’s my favorite genre, whatever it’s called.
January 5, 2017 @ 2:50 pm | Filed under: Books
I found a new(ish) middle-grade novel on my Kindle I’d been meaning to read with the kids. It’s a review copy of The Secret Horses of Briar Hill by Megan Shepherd, sent to me by the publisher via Netgalley. I usually pre-read new books before diving into them as readalouds, but I liked the description and first chapters of this one quite a lot, and I decided to just dive in. So that’s our next novel, and we’ll save The Firelings for later.
Secret Horses takes place an English hospital during the second world war, a hospital for sick children—tuberculosis, it sounds like so far. The young narrator, Emmaline, sees winged horses in the mirrors and windows of the hospital. In reflections, the horses are vivid and present, nuzzling cups of tea on bedside tables. But when you look behind you at the real room, there’s no horse there, winged or otherwise. So far (chapter two) only Emmaline can see them. Highly promising, methinks, and Rilla agrees. Huck is worried about the dying Anna, the oldest of the Briar Hill children, “but I’m okay with going a bit farther to see what happens,” he says.
Here’s a list of our middle-grade readalouds from 2016.
Understood Betsy by Dorothy Canfield Fisher
Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle by Betty MacDonald
A Lion to Guard Us by Clyde Robert Bulla
The Family Under the Bridge by Natalie Savage Carlson
Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh
From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg
Ace: The Very Important Pig by Dick King-Smith
And these audiobooks:
Beezus and Ramona by Beverly Cleary (narrated by Stockard Channing—perfection!)
Frindle by Andrew Clemens
The Witches by Roald Dahl
Fantastic Mr. Fox by Roald Dahl
I feel like I’m missing something! But those are the ones I have written down.
All of these books went over well with Huck (age seven) and Rilla (who turned ten in April). I think Harriet the Spy was the only one that didn’t really grab Huck. He wasn’t sure about Understood Betsy, heading in, but by chapter three he was hooked. And when we came to the end, he asked in a quivery voice, “There are more Betsy books, right?” I had to tell him that no, not about this particular Betsy. But we do have some wonderful Betsy books waiting in the wings…
I think Mixed-Up Files and Understood Betsy were their favorites. And Frindle was a marvelous listen, probably my favorite of the bunch—although I would happily listen to Stockard Channing read the phone book, and her Ramona was quite satisfying. Rilla and I got about halfway through Ramona the Pest before our Overdrive checkout period ended and it disappeared from our queue. We’re back on the waiting list now.
A Lion to Guard Us was the perfect companion to our colonial America studies. It’s a short novel and had the kids pretty well entranced, although there were parts that distressed my sensitive Huck: the mother’s death, early on, and then the sad disappearance of the kindly doctor at sea. He’s okay with hearing about death in a story as long as there is plenty of space for discussing it as we go, and a cozy spot next to me under a blanket.
All in all, a pretty good year for readalouds. Of course this is only one piece of the literary picture. There were also poems and picture books, history and fairy tales. Basically, I read to them all morning and then send them out to play while I work.
Scott handles the bedtime stories and I need to get a list from him, because I can’t remember what he read this year.
Wonderboy (too old now for his baby blog name, but what do I call him here?) got into the Boxcar Children books this year, and Dan Gutman’s Weird School series was heartily enjoyed by both my boys. They all read lots of comics—Calvin, Foxtrot, Peanuts—and too many graphic novels to list. And I’ve utterly given up at keeping track of what my older girls are reading. Too. Many. Books.
Beanie and I read a lot of good stuff for her literature class, which I teach to her and three other girls. In 2016 we did Jane Eyre, Pygmalion, The Tempest, Beowulf, Canterbury Tales, Sir Gawain, the first book of the Faerie Queen, and…what am I forgetting? We start Lear next week. She also has a taste for nature-and-science-related nonfiction, and I’ve pulled a lot of selections off this old Jane list for her.
Highlights from my own reading year. So hard to confine to a small space! If I leave Cybils candidates for later, to narrow the field a bit, then the standouts are Passage and Lincoln’s Dreams by Connie Willis—Passage in particular was wrenchingly good, and I find myself thinking about it all the time. I’d like to revisit it soon. I reread Julie Schumacher’s comical Dear Committee Members on a plane this summer because I so enjoyed the voice of the beleaguered English professor’s many lively epistles. And rereading Jane Eyre in preparation for teaching it burned that novel more deeply into my heart than ever. (Burned, get it? Motifs of fire and ice?)
I also had the fun this year of previewing a chunk of an upcoming Cassandra novel by Stephanie Spinner. She left me hanging and I’m itching to read more! (Hint…)
A new Connie Willis, Crosstalk, landed in my Netgalley queue just before the Cybils took over my Kindle. It’s got a high-priority spot on my 2017 list.
In addition to the household Fresh Start cleaning spree, the New Year always means an overhaul of my sidebar here on the blog. It begins with the year’s reading log, which must be transferred from sidebar to its own page. (In 2016 I got smart and started the page early—but then Cybils overtook my reading life and the page remains, as my sidebar note says, about thirty books behind. Perhaps more like 27 today. I’m getting there, book by book.) The empty space under the current year’s heading always drives me crazy until I’ve finished a book. Lots of years, I find time on January 1st to read a short children’s novel—last year it was Miss Happiness and Miss Flower—just so I can remove the placeholder text and enter an actual book title. I roll my eyes at myself while doing it, but I do it all the same.
Except I haven’t done it this year. Too busy sparking joy with every book in the house. I’m reading Cat’s Cradle, because I never have and Scott asked me to. 🙂 We often slide each other reading requests, wanting our frames of reference to be shared as much as possible. When Jane was a newborn, Scott would read aloud to me while I nursed her. We started with some childhood favorites the other had missed—The Great Brain (his); Harriet the Spy (mine). (You haven’t lived until you’ve heard Scott’s Ole Golly, let me tell you.)
Cat’s Cradle isn’t a long book, but this week’s pattern of cleaning frenzy in the morning and brain-work in the afternoon has left me too tired to make it through more than a few pages when I hit the pillow at night. So the gap remains.
The reading log is my sidebar equivalent of Flylady’s shiny sink. Once it’s been updated for the year, I have to start moving other things around. As the year’s book log grows longer, it throws columns off balance. I rearrange things and in January have to arrange them back. Which leads to a reassessment of what else is occupying space there. I’ve nixed some bits this year, tried to make the informational bits up top more compact so you get to the part that contains actual content—the recent comment widget and the “Caught My Eye” links—more quickly. I let the links section slide a bit during Cybils season, but I’m planning to use it more actively now, entering short remarks on the shared links so that section is more like a mini-blog within the blog. I know from your comments in the past that some of you do click through to see if I’ve added new links, which makes me so happy. 🙂 I’m glad you find them useful or interesting.
I’ve found a way to add links to this section directly from Feedly—very convenient! But I have to go in manually to add commentary.
At the bottom of my sidebar you’ll find a new addition: a “Blogging Like It’s 2005” blogroll. Yes, a blogroll—seriously old-school! This is the fruit of a conversation on my Facebook page. I asked my FB friends questions whether they still read blogs, and if so, do they use a feed reader like Feedly or Bloglovin, or do they rely on social media for notifications of new posts. I was surprised to discover that almost everyone who answered said they pretty much just click through on links from Facebook or Twitter.
It gives me the shivers to think of relying on the caprices of Facebook to find out if blogs I love have new content up. I will forever mourn Google Reader, but Feedly does the job pretty well for me—and has some nifty post-sharing functionality that comes in quite handy, as I mentioned above.
But I seem to be in the minority. Now, until this conversation I was posting my own blog links on FB only sporadically, because 1) I hesitate to spam my friends’ feeds with my own content; and 2) Facebook’s tricksy algorithms have a way of downgrading your updates if they too frequently contain links to the same website. Which means there’s no guarantee your friends will see your new post links, even if you do put ’em on FB.
But that’s fine, now that I know people prefer to see blog updates in their newsfeed, I’m happy to comply. And I have to say I’ve been thrilled by all the discussion happening in the comment box this week—thank you all for taking the time! 🙂
Well, as I said, this FB conversation led to a burst of wistful reminiscing about the lively blog community of old. A few of us decided to try to revive the spirit of those days by posting more often, more chattily, and by making an effort to comment on one another’s blogs. Thus the new blogroll. Let me know if you’d like to be included.
Today’s picture book: well, so far we’ve only read Hedgie’s Surprise again. (“Because I love it so much!” Huck pleaded.) But I found Jan Brett’s The Wild Christmas Reindeer mixed in with non-Christmas books (so we missed it), and I think since we’re on a Brett kick, it’s what I’ll read tonight. I did begin The Firelings last night, by the way. Huck had played outside all day and fell asleep two pages in. And today I happened upon The Minstrel in the Tower, which is a nice short readaloud that I haven’t done with this set. I’m contemplating holding off on Firelings for now.
I’d like to start sharing thoughts on some of the Cybils nominees I read this fall. To begin with, here’s the blurb I wrote for one of our finalists, a beautiful historical novel called Salt to the Sea.
As the Nazi Reich collapses and the Soviet army sweeps across the East Prussian countryside in the winter of 1945, three young refugees find themselves thrown together among the crowds of desperate, uprooted travellers. The distinctive voices and histories of Joana (“the nurse”), Florian (“the knight”), and Emilia (“the Polish girl”)—each guarding painful secrets—create a harrowing picture of the lives thrown into tumult by the war. A fourth narrative voice, the self-aggrandizing declarations of a young Nazi soldier named Alfred, adds an unsettling counterpoint to the narrative. The fates of the four narrators will converge at the doomed MV Wilhelm Gustloff, a German ship targeted by Russian submarines. Ruta Sepetys brings authenticity and heart to this moving, gorgeously realized work of historical fiction.
It’s hard to pull off good historical fiction, and even harder (in my opinion) to manage multiple narrative voices gracefully. Sepetys excels at both endeavors. Her characters have lodged in my heart—particularly the old shoemaker, whom you’ll meet on the road. Highly, highly recommended.
I’ve been so busy this week, I haven’t had time to explore the other Cybils categories. We always try to read as many finalists as we can, especially the picture books! Time to fill up my library cart…
August 20, 2016 @ 2:25 pm | Filed under: Books
I’m sitting here tidying up my Goodreads and Netgalley accounts—a task long neglected. I’m terrible about submitting Netgalley feedback, in part because so much, so VERY MUCH, of my book recommendations come in the form of casual answers to blog comments, Facebook questions, speaking engagement Q&As, and word of mouth. You can’t always point to a permalink for that stuff.
But still. I’m turning up a lot of gems I’ve talked about in passing but never wrote proper posts about. But to quote Goldie Hawn in Overboard, there’s no time now.
So let me just share some capsule reviews of books I read during the past couple of years, books that stand out in my mind for one reason or another.
Roomies by Sara Zarr and Tara Altebrando. Read this as a first-round judge for the 2014 CYBIL Awards in YA Fiction. It was a standout for me that year–the story of two incoming college freshmen roommates getting to know each other via letters the summer before they move in together. At first their connection misfires—they come from quite different backgrounds—but gradually as they learn more about each other and grapple with their own doubts and hopes, they forge a friendship. What really struck a chord for me was the roomie who is oldest kid in a large family, ready to launch a more independent life but torn up over leaving her younger siblings behind. Since that was the year my own oldest-of-six was a freshman in college herself, at a school six hours from home, I loved the candid, at times heart-wrenching exploration of what that particular separation might be like.
Blue Gold by Elizabeth Stewart. This one’s a bit harder to write about because the prose is flawed, which is a hard thing for me to say in public. The thing is, my strong feeling the whole time I was devouring this book (also a 2014 Cybils YA Fic nominee) was: EVERYONE SHOULD READ THIS. In three alternating narratives, we see behind the scenes into dramatically different worlds linked by the technology we rely on: a Chinese factory worker struggling to keep the pace of soldering smartphone parts together; a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo trying to keep her family together under threats from a local militia gang; and a North American girl whose imprudent cellphone photo becomes a tool for public shame. Powerful stuff, even if the writing is a bit choppy and inelegant.
Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar. Gorgeous book. Couldn’t put it down and of course I had to go read a ton of Woolf afterward. What a beautifully rendered, respectful portrait of these two women and their circle—Virginia Woolf and her sister Vanessa. Vanessa’s complex, fraught relationship with her challenging sister was masterfully and lovingly wrought. And the gentle glimpse of E.M. Forster—wonderful. Highly recommended.
The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert. Victorian lady botanist working out a theory of natural selection on her own? Talk about having me at hello. And this was gorgeously written. I loved it and know I’ll return to it again.
Okay, that’s four. Enough for now. Only nine more pages of Netgalley ARCs to click through. 😉
Meanwhile, in Goodreads land, I’ve renamed a bunch of my lists and am attempting (again) to do a better job of logging picture books and incoming review titles. And a new addition: a “didn’t finish” list for books I’ve read at least three chapters of. Most often these are things I mean to return to when time permits, like Wolf Hall and The Buried Giant, both of which expired on Overdrive before I had a chance to finish. Other times it’s just a book (often nonfiction) that I read a significant chunk of but chose not to complete. Those chunks still inform my reading and thinking life, and I want to track them.