Writing about Reading, and Why I Can’t Always (and Yet Always Want To)

September 30, 2009 @ 8:53 pm | Filed under:

Why, I wonder, am I so compelled to write about my reading life? I suppose it has something to do with memory, with holding on to things (we recall best those things which we have narrated, as Charlotte Mason was astute enough to recognize), and also with the way putting thoughts into words, written words, shifts vague and swirling impressions to coherent observations, connections, understanding.

Then, too, the urge to talk (write) about books springs also from booklover’s enthusiasm: when I’ve enjoyed something, or even just parts of something, I am eager, eager, eager to share. This creates all sorts of readerly, writerly dilemmas for me: sometimes I start conversations that I can’t squeeze out time to finish (though, in my mind, they are never finished, never closed; and I’m always figuring I’ll have a chance to chime in at some point). Sometimes I want to talk about books that I mostly loved, but I had this one quibble with a plot point, or I thought the ending was weak, or the first-person narrative voice was an unfortunate choice, or—well, any critical observations at all, and if the author is a living person, I find myself completely paralyzed at the prospect of putting my criticism in print. (Which is why, of course, I’m not a book reviewer by trade.)

When You Reach MeThen, of course, there’s the spoiler problem, over which I’ve sweated here before. For example, I want to tell you all about how much I enjoyed Rebecca Stead’s excellent middle-grade novel, When You Reach Me—but if I say anything, practically anything at all, I’ll give away things I’d rather you discovered yourself in the pages of the book, in the perfect way Stead has chosen to reveal them to you. I can say that it’s about a girl who reads A Wrinkle in Time repeatedly, constantly; that her best friend, a boy, abruptly withdraws from her; that her mother is a single, working mom hoping for a chance to shine on $20,000 Pyramid; that it’s 1979; that there’s a mystery; that there are characters I will never forget, completely fresh, completely believable; that I haven’t read a novel that nails the flavor of New York City so perfectly since, gosh, Harriet the Spy. But none of that tells you what I loved most about the book, or what makes it sing, or why I won’t soon forget it. I can’t tell you those things until you’ve read it—and then you won’t need me to, because you’ll know too.

calpurniaOr how about The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly? I loved it: this funny, tangy tale of an eleven-year-old girl, surrounded by brothers on a Texas pecan farm in 1899, with a mother yearning for a girly-girl, a fascination with the critters whose doings she records in her very important notebook, and an aloof, bewhiskered grandfather who has never, until now, seemed to notice her existence. I was delighted by the way Callie and her grandfather become acquainted with one another via their mutual interest in the natural world—he’s a correspondent of Charles Darwin and an amateur naturalist and scientist, ever on the lookout for a new species of flora or fauna that might add his name to the rolls of the distinguished discoverers of the day. At first he reacts to Callie rather as if she’s a curious new species herself, and the feeling is mutual. Slowly, they bond…oh, I loved it, the slow revelation of kindred spirits. And meanwhile, there are family antics, and wondrous new technology coming to town (a telephone! an automobile!), and Callie has to figure out how to carve out time for her burning interests when the womenfolk in her life demand piano practice and embroidery and cookery lessons. Certainly there have been many books tackling a girl’s struggles to define and defend her own identity as the people around her seem determined to squeeze her into a mold she isn’t sure fits—I’ve worked with that theme myself, in my Martha books—but I don’t think we’ve ever seen anyone quite like Miss Calpurnia Tate. It’s the setting, the context, that sold me on this book: I’d place it with The Great Brain and Ginger Pye on my mental bookshelf: episodic, comical, historically delicious novels full of eccentric and lovable characters, with that something extra that sets them apart from the crowd.

And I’ve ten times written and deleted a sentence of criticism about one of these two novels, which my what-if-I-hurt-the-writer’s-feelings cowardice will not allow me to keep intact. How’s that for some obnoxious ambiguity?

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21 Reponses | Comments Feed
  1. Sarah N. says:

    I finished When You Reach Me last night. I loved the characters, the mysteries, the chapter titles, the fact that I couldn’t put it down and that it’s going to linger in my mind for a long time. I’ve got Calpurnia Tate on my list to read. Hopefully I’ll get to it soon.

    I have trouble making any criticism of a book that might hurt an author’s feelings too. I tend to only talk in depth about books I liked, but I love to talk about books, to gush about them to people so they will read them to and to help others find reading gems they might never have heard of otherwise. Find those treasures is one thing I love about reading your blog and my other favorite kidlit blogs 🙂

  2. Penny in VT says:

    I finished Calpurnia Tate last night, and heartily agree with all you’ve said. I also love the chosen Darwin quotes and how they are woven into the fabric of the story. Genius.

    It also has some parts that made me laugh a LOT.

    That said, I did find it amazing that the grandfather was so absorbed in the natural world at the cost of his family world, and I was disheartened about what he said in the end. It seemed that even though he was an expert observer of the natural world, he was missing some pretty important “specimens”, namely his grandsons. He had some new species worth discovering right under his roof, imho.

    Still, I loved it. Reveled in it, and wished I was Calpurnia.
    Another great Lissa find – please *always* write about your reading life! It’s a gift to us all 🙂

    PS: I love the word “bewhiskered” lol!

  3. Karen Edmisten says:

    Not obnoxious at all … it’s quite familiar, actually. 🙂

  4. Tari says:

    The problem with me reading your posts is, after I do so, I immediately want to go on Amazon and buy everything you recommend. Even though my 9 year old BOY will look at me like I have 3 heads when I tell him “read about this Callie person. You’re afraid of girls – it will do you good.”

    Well, at least I’ll have something good to read.

    And thank you for recommending Swallows and Amazons! The aforementioned 9 year old boy flew through the first one and is begging for another. He said it ROCKED, which is his highest form of praise these days.

  5. Jessica Snell says:

    I love reading your writing about reading; I’ve found so many things I love because of it, like The Actor and the Housewife, and The Hunger Games.

    I have trouble keeping quiet about books right now too, but not because I’m scared of spoiling the story, but because I want to buy some of the books I’ve been loving for friends and family for Christmas, and if I tell them about my lovely discoveries now, they’ll beat me to the punch and buy them themselves!

  6. Barbara Williams says:

    Every time you write about books it makes me want to read them, too. I find myself reading your blog with another tab open to the library request page. 😉

  7. Lisa says:

    I devoured and loved Calpurnia! I’ve got “When you reach me” coming up on cd for the car. We’ve liked so many of the same books, and I was at a lose end about what to read, that I just checked your blog for ideas!! Calpurnia may very well become my “Must Read Book of 1010” this January. With my daughter back in public school, my blogging is mostly about my reading [or listening in the car].

  8. Linda Milligan says:

    I always check out the books you recommend. I figure, if I like the books you write, I’ll probably like the books you read! Never stop blogging about books. You are my online librarian! Thanks for all the time you give to us your online friends!
    Blessings to you and yours….

  9. Ellie says:

    “online librarian” — love it.

    Off to put Calpurnia on hold at the real life library for my Calli and me. Reading is still hard, but I am getting there. Oh, I’ve wanted to tell you — I’ve checked the Potato Peel Society book out of the library three times now and still haven’t read it. Ergh. On the other hand, I’m reading lots of scripture, so there’s that. *shakes head* The written word is such a powerful thing, hmm? (And yes, I mean that in more than one way).

  10. MelanieB says:

    Yes, yes, yes! You say it so well. Strangely, I hadn’t connected my own desire to write about books with Miss Mason and narration.

  11. Cathy says:

    I am so glad you write about the books you like. Please don’t stop! The Hunger Games and Catching Fire are 2 of the best books I have ever read and that’s saying a lot for this 45yo homeschooling mom! I credit you for introducing them to me. I had never heard of them before. I really like ‘what happens if the world as we know it ends’ books so I’m also glad that you recommended World Made by Hand.
    Thanks for all the hard work you do to make this blog so wonderful!

  12. Emily Cook says:

    What better way to create community than with shared reading! Thanks for the recommendations.

  13. Kay says:

    We so welcome your comments and bbook recommendations, they direct us in so many wonderful ways. Thank you. Loving your comments on Calpurnia, she becan real to us, a great character and your comments are spot on! You put into words our enthusiasm.

    We are currently reading The Underneath by Kathi Applelt and Scat by Hiaasen.
    Reading is leaving us breathless it’s so much fun.
    When You Reach Me andHunger Games are next!

  14. Lisa says:

    I finished, and enjoyed, WHEN YOU REACH ME…my daughter is listening to it now. She also grabbed DESTROY ALL CARS, so I haven’t gotten to start it yet. Now I want to read or listen to the rest of the “Wrinkle in Time” books…..

  15. DM says:

    What better way to create community than with shared reading! Thanks for the recommendations.

  16. MelanieB says:

    I just finished When You Reach Me.

    Thank you.

    My head is still spinning and I think I have to go back and read it all over again. I never do that. I usually have to wait for a while, a year at least, between readings. But this one kind of begs it.