Reading, Reviews

If The Hunger Games Left Them Hungry

We were catching up over coffee at a bookstore when my friend from before the dawn of my clear memories pointed to a book display and said, “Have you read The Hunger Games?”

“No,” I responded.

“I’m buying it for you right now.”

I was pretty surprised. Growing up, I was the bookworm of the two of us, but here my friend was practically forcing a book on me. So I asked her, “When did you become such a reader?

“You mean such a nerd.”

“Okay, when did you become a nerd like me?”

And she told me she first started to love reading when she picked up Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. The Harry Potter books are her favorite and she also loves The Hunger Games.

So I read The Hunger Games. And then I read the two sequels because who can stop at the first book? And while the series ended on a gory and startling note that made me wonder what the point was for Katniss, I have to admit they were gripping, addictive books. The truth is, that’s what the majority of young readers are looking for in books. It’s got to be fun and enthralling to compete with all the other media available. And I can’t deny that I enjoy being so completely caught up in a book/series, as well.

But I also can’t deny that when I look at book display geared towards young adult girls, I cringe a little, because here’s what most of the books consist of : zombies, vampires, werewolves, witches and wizards, and all kind of “paranormal” characters. Aliens seem almost tame  in comparison. I’m pretty sure that fifteen years ago when I was a young teenager devouring books, that wasn’t the case. And I’m not saying that all these books are bad. But I can’t believe that a complete immersion into this “paranormal” literature is good for anyone, young or old.

However, I know how important it is for teenagers (and everybody) to be reading something. It may seem like a victory to pick any book over movies, magazines, or games. I can’t speak much towards the teenage boy audience, but if you have (or if you are) a teenager girl, here are some books that I think are just as fun but not as dark.

Princess of the Midnight Ball (Princess #1)Princess of Glass (Princess #2)Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George is a fun re-write of The Twelve Dancing Princesses, and Princess of Glass was just as good.  I love reading fairy tales to my four-year-old daughter, but when you read them as an adult, you realize just how many plot holes there are. Last November I picked up a few novels that re-wrote some fairy tales, and thought they were so fun and inventive, even though they were based on stories from long ago. What’s especially nice about Jessica Day George is that her books are “safe” for girls who are ready to read longer books but aren’t ready for darker themes.  I think they’re fun for anyone who, like me, is a bit of a little girl at heart who loves fairy tales still. I haven’t read the third book in the series, but I hope to sometime when I’m in the mood for something light and simply fun.

Spindle's EndAlong the fairy tale retelling lines, Robin McKinley is my favorite fairy tale novelist. I read her book, Beauty, for the first time last winter and just loved it. Her more recent book, The Spindle’s End, is also a great yarn. The ending is a little crazy, but that’s how it goes with fantasy literature, I’ve discovered. But what’s even better than McKinley’s fairy tales are her novels The Blue Sword (Damar, #1)The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown. The Blue Sword is one of my favorite books, as of last October. It begins with Harry Crewe, a girl who has moved far from her native England to live near her brother after her father’s death. She is tall and strong in spirit and body, but she doesn’t know just how set apart she is until she comes in contact with the Hillfolk. Their legends become her reality as she learns more than she ever thought she’d want to know about Damar and its people. The Hero and the Crown is the prequel to The Blue Sword, and tells how the Blue Sword became a symbol and a legend in itself.  I appreciated the strong heroines who were also genuine and noble. I read Graceling by Kristen Cashores and wasn’t all that impressed by the characters; though they were kind of  intriguing they were also rather one-dimensional. The sexual tensions in that book were a bit much for a good Young Adult book, too. But I think girls who enjoy the heroines like the one in Graceling will like The Blue Sword a lot. Unfortunately, it’s not available on Kindles, but most libraries have it. If you decide to read Robin McKinley, I don’t recommend Chalice.  I haven’t read Sunshine as it’s about vampires and I’m not into vampires, but if that’s your thing, you may enjoy it

ArenaArena by Karen Hancock came out in 2002 but the story line is very similar to that of The Hunger Games. The main character, Callie, signs up for what she thinks is a psychology experiment but turns out to be very real and very dangerous. With a few friends (or enemies?) and some cryptic words, Callie tries to figure her way through the Arena to survive and maybe even thrive.

Classic Fun

While the above books are fun, these are really the ones I loved as a girl that played a part in shaping my reading tastes and my worldviews. The plots aren’t as action-packed as the first books I listed, but the stories and characters are timeless.

Emily of New Moon (Emily of New Moon, #1)Emily of New Moon is an oft-ignored series by L. M. Montgomery, but some of my friends have told me that Emily is actually more easy to relate to than Anne in Anne of Green Gables. I will always love Anne the best, but I think the Emily books are wonderful, too. If you enjoyed the Anne of Green Gables series, you should definitely read Emily of New Moon.

A Girl of the LimberlostGene Stratton Porter’s Girl of the Limberlost is about a girl who lives in the swamp with her mother. Her mother is a blighted woman inside and can’t seem to remember how to love her bright, ambitious daughter, Elnora. Elnora fights to give herself an education and to become a lady despite her harsh setting, while her mother learns to let go of the past. The book has been made into films several times, most recently by Wonderworks in 1990, but this is definitely a case where a movie can’t do the book justice. If I recall correctly, the movie leaves out the entire second half of the book. I loved the movie when I was a little girl, and one day at a family friend’s house, I found the book on her bookshelf. She found me reading it a little while later and gave me her 1944 copy on the spot. It sits in a place of honor on my bookshelf now.

Jacob Have I LovedJacob Have I Loved is by the same author as Bridge to Terabithia, but it doesn’t end up on the required reading list nearly as much. It’s a powerful story about sisters and finding an identity you can live with. This book makes me want to live on the coast and learn how to dig for clams. But hey, I always want to live on the coast. =)

Every list for kids and teenagers includes The Chronicles of Narnia. And so does this one. They’re a must read for every reader. That’s all I’m going to say about that.

I hope you’re able to find some great books this summer that will engage your imagination and give you a love of reading all kinds of books.

Everyday Life, Reading

Your Kids Have a Crush On You

“Where’s Mommy?”

“Where’d Daddy go?”

These are questions my two-year-old son asks at least once an hour.  He and his four-year-old sister have a Mommy and Daddy Radar. It beeps urgently when they realize they don’t know exactly where Mommy and Daddy are. If you have children, you know what I’m talking about. And you definitely know what I’m talking about if this scenario sounds familiar: It’s 4:30 in the afternoon, during the witching hours of the day.  You’re more than ready for a break, but really, your work has just begun. There’s dinner to cook, dishes to wash, and kids to bathe and put to bed and try your best to keep in bed until they finally, finally succumb to sleep. And then you have a few more miles to go in the form of piles of laundry or work you didn’t quite wrap up at the office, or maybe a phone call to return that you’ve been dreading all day. Not to mention that workout you had to put off all day/week. No, if you’re a mom or dad, 4:30 isn’t even close to quitting time.

Around 4:30 is when I desperately think, “I just need five minutes alone.” So I creep to the bathroom. And I’m in there about ten, maybe twenty seconds before I hear “Where’d Mommy go? Mommy!!”

I’m in here. Hiding.

4:30 is also about when my children get desperate for me to read books to them. “I wan’ read a boooook!” my always enthusiastic son proclaims, as he lugs a book beyond his age level to me when I walk into his room to see, again, why he’s yelling for me. Quiet, dancing Ella then says, “I want to read, too,” and I’m left with no choice, because how can I put silly things like sustenance and cleanliness ahead of the love of reading I and my children share? So we smush together on the couch and open up a book and let the rice boil over while we read about brave knights or dancing princesses. And I struggle to explain why the rice is dry again, but my husband doesn’t even ask why, because he knows. He knows how our children hit me at my weak spot and get me to hold to hold them in my lap when I think I need to be doing other things. He knows that frustration between wanting to say “yes” but always feeling guilty about whatever it is you said “no” to. He and I both struggle to figure out our “yes’s” and our “no’s”. Maybe you do to.

My kids aren’t trying to frustrate me, but I get weary of how unsettled they become when I’m focusing on something other than them. I can’t get mad at them (okay, I can, but I shouldn’t) because the truth is they want me to be present with them because they’re crazy about me. Me. The woman wearing the sweat pants that likely have snot (theirs) on them. The woman who really should’ve washed her hair this morning and who feels a little boring around other adults and who can’t remember to change the oven from “broil” to “bake” and serves her family crunchy cookies. The woman who forgets at least one thing on her grocery list every stinkin’ shopping trip. The woman who sometimes (often) loses her cool and speaks in harsh tones when she’s upset and clearly never, ever has it all together. That’s the woman they’re crazy about.

That’s why they act like a seventh grader with crush on someone. Remember those days? (Don’t pretend you weren’t like that!) You craved that person’s attention. You were envious of the people your crush talked to when he or she wasn’t with you. You performed crazy, nonsensical antics to get his/her attention. You thought about where they were when they were not around (yes, you did). You hoped the person would see past your imperfections and fall completely in love with everything about you that is good and unique and found nowhere else on earth but in you. Really, don’t we all still want that from the people we love? Isn’t that what our kids want from us? Here we are with our kids constantly wanting our attention, acting out when we’re trying to talk on the phone, and driving us crazy when all we want to do is get the dishes washed or the bills paid…and all they want is to simply be with us. Whether we’re having a bad hair/face/work/everything day or not. Yes, it’s true. Your kids have a huge crush on you.

And in all the books, movies, love songs, and all other forms of human expression, what’s sadder than unrequited love?

But of course, we all love our kids, more deeply than we can say. Our children’s love is not unrequited. I know there are parents out there who aren’t very loving, but I personally don’t know any. The parents I know are too crazy about their children to put it into words. But no matter how much I love my children, I’m going to get frustrated. I’m going to be tired of being needed. I may mess up and make them feel like I don’t appreciate their desire to be with me. But it helps to remember why they’re constantly seeking me out. It helps to remember it’s because they love me and they know I love and care for their every need. And though I tell my kids “I love you,” if I want them to believe me, I need to meet their love at the only place they know how to give and receive it–in spending time together. I need to gather them in my arms and laugh at their silly jokes. I need to read books and go with them on their flights of imagination. I need to make sure they know I love every single thing about them: the questions my four-year-old daughter asks, the exuberance my toddler son maintains every single day, the colors in their eyes and hair and skin, the absolute freedom they feel to snuggle with me no matter what. There are no barriers between us now, and I need to realize it’s not always going to be that way. Someday, I’m going to call out, “Hey, let’s read this book!” and I’ll get a groan for a response, or no response at all.  But for now, reading a book together is exactly the excuse they’re looking for to be near me. So I’m going to revel in the crush they have on me and I on them. There will always be days when I feel like reading by myself instead of gathering them up in my arms and reading Farmer John’s Tractor for the eighteenth time. Still, I hope to remember how much my arms and my attention mean to them, and I’ll try not to hide from them. At least not until after bedtime.

Communicating unconditional love through the sacrifice of time is my goal. Yes, I’m setting myself up for failure. But trying is still accomplishing goals as long as you’re still trying the next day. It just may mean those goals will take a lifetime.

God bless all of you on this Father’s Day. I hope you get the chance to spend lots of time with your loved ones and maybe even a little time to yourself. And be sure to tell the children in your life that yes, you will read them that book. =)

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Reading

Winter is for reading. But here’s my Summer Reading List.

I realized today that though I write a book blog, I am remiss in that I have not posted my summer reading list. My excuse is that I don’t have a reason in this era of my life to view summer as any different from other seasons when it comes to reading. In fact, if I had to pick a season during which I spend the most time reading, it would definitely be winter. I despise cold weather, and we had a particularly wet winter this past year. I loathed it, but I did get a lot of reading in. However, I love all the ideas floating around about what one should read during the summer. Some readers use the summer months to take a break from deep thinking and pick up lighter fiction. Some readers use the extra time to really dig deep into some breathtakingly impressive classic by Trollope like The  Way We Live Now. I don’t really have a summer reading philosophy, except to read what I think I’ll love reading. I also read, and sometimes even enjoy, a few non-fiction books in the summer because I do actually care about shaping my mind and character and all that.

So here’s what’s on my  list:

Redfield Farm: A Novel of the Underground RailroadRedfield Farm: A Novel of the Underground Railroad – The rave reviews of this book are killing me because I want to read it so badly but none of my local libraries even have it on order. I’ll have to break down and buy it.

The Wednesday Sisters – Books about writers always intrigue me.

Islanders – As I wrote in this post about Helen Hull’s Heat Lightning, I would like to read everything by Hull now that I’ve gotten started. One of my readers said I would probably like Islanders so I’m hoping to get a hold of it in the next few weeks.

The Light Between Oceans – Some of my favorite bloggers have really enjoyed this book, so I’m looking forward to The Light Between Oceansfinding out what all the love is about. The plot sounds kind of like a short story by L.M. Montgomery I read a long time ago. So it has that going for it.

The Princess and the Goblin – I’ve never read anything by George MacDonald, but I have read a lot by C.S. Lewis and the fact that MacDonald had a huge impact on Lewis is enough for me to know that I need to read at least some of his work. I’ve been told to start with The Princess and the Goblin but if you have other advice, please let me know!

Educating the Wholehearted Child – I am a little unsure of what a “wholehearted” child is but it sounds like a noble goal and I love Sally Clarkson’s book The Mission of Motherhood. I’m pretty sure we’ll be starting some homeschooling this fall with Ella, my four-year-old, so I think it’s important to start thinking through some long term goals for my children’s education.

The Hiding Place – I realized this year that I read an abridged version of this as a child but I haven’t ever read the real thing. With my recent and unintentional literary focus on WWII, I would be a terrible former history minor if I didn’t read this book, too. Also, the copy of the book we have is signed by the author. Trust me, I don’t have many books signed by the author.

The Homecoming of Samuel Lake – I don’t always love Southern Literature, even though I’ve lived here all my life. But that doesn’t The Homecoming of Samuel Lakereally mean anything–who can say they love all of a certain genre? I picked this book up at the library last week and read a few pages and I think it has potential. I hate how often reviewers of Southern Lit books say something along the lines of “Fans of  To Kill a Mockingbird will love this book,” because that seems like some kind of literary heresy, but I have to admit that statements like that do get my attention.

And that’s pretty much my list for the next few months. I will definitely read other books that are not on this list and I will probably not finish all of these books. Reading lists are more like guidelines in my world right now. Also,  I’m a quitter when it comes to reading for pleasure. If I don’t like it or can’t find some good reason for finishing a book, I simply don’t finish it. There is not enough time in the world to read bad books. Or even good books that I don’t like. But I like having  a list and I like seeing other people’s reading lists, too. So what’s on your list this summer?

Reading, Reviews

The Secret Keeper

The Secret KeeperI finished The Secret Keeper and now I would like to pick it up and read it again, cover to cover, in one sitting.  Kate Morton not only paints pictures with her words, she pulls you into the room with her characters and even pulls you into the characters themselves. At least that’s what happened to me while I read this book. There’s one scene in particular set in London during the blitz that I really do think made me feel the floor of the crumbling boarding house shake. You must read this book.  I think it’s Morton’s best work yet.

I’m not sure how to summarize the book; it’s so hard to give any details without giving this twisty plot away. The novel is set in England, mostly, and shifts between WWII, 1961, and 2011. There is also a brief chapter set in…well, I can’t tell you. Just like in The Forgotten GardenThe Secret Keeper begins with a daughter searching for answers about her family. Sixteen-year-old Laurel has a lovely family life, though she doesn’t always appreciate it, but when she’s on the brink of plunging into adulthood, she witnesses her mother commit a crime. The crime is completely out of characters and makes no sense to her. Laurel moves on with her life, but the past stays lodged in her mind until she finally decides to seek answers about her mother’s life.

I’m always a bit wary of the type of novel where the plot is unraveled by a present day character discovering the truth through digging up the past. The first book I read that used that format was The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey. Written in 1951, it’s a great detective story, but not necessarily a great work of literature. However, Kate Morton is masterful with this format–she knows how to keep the plot moving and seamless enough to keep her readers engaged through the changes in characters, settings, and times. I thoroughly enjoyed how the story line describes each character more fully as the plot thickens so that by the end of the book, you feel as if you really know them (if you’ve read more than one of my posts, you know character development means a lot to me).

Of all the characters in this book, Laurel’s mother is my favorite, and is also now one of my favorite literary heroines. She is the kind of mother I want to be: she plays with her children imaginatively, creates a home for them full of beauty and harmony (to the extent possible in a five-child family), and has a loving relationship with her husband/Laurel’s father. She has an inner strength that inspires and comforts her children. The historical journey Laurel goes on to discover her mother’s roots calls her mother’s entire character into question. Laurel doesn’t know what to think or how to feel about who her mother really is. She asks the question, “Who was my mother before she became my mother?” That question still resonates in my mind. How do mothers stay true to themselves while giving of themselves? Is that possible or even important? The struggle to maintain my identity while becoming the best mother I can possibly be baffles me at times. I used to be athletic, studious, organized…well, all I can say is (1) I stay in shape as best I can, (2) please don’t look in my closets, and (3) I put sleep above studying anything most days.  But I want my children to know who I am beyond their  own personal servant and the prince at every pretend ball. Okay, sometimes I get to be the fairy godmother. But she’s not exactly someone I identify with either. =)

The theme of mother-daughter relationships is very central to Kate Morton’s work. I’d love to sit down with her and ask her why she writes about it so often and what she hopes her readers gain from the relationships in her books. If nothing else, The Secret Keeper (I keep wanting to type The Secret Garden), made me think through setting some clear goals about what my children need to know about me. Even if it seems they don’t care now, it seems like grown daughters crave an anchor in who their mother was at all stages of life, not just the mothering one. I have a way better foundation for that than Laurel did, but there are still questions I should probably ask my mom now that I never thought to ask when I was younger. Kids forget that moms and dads are real people, too. =)

So make haste to grab The Secret Keeper and read it for fun or for perspective on parenting and mother-daughter relationships. Either way, you won’t be disappointed.

By the way, if you’re a fan of Kate Morton you may also enjoy The Thirteenth Tale by Dianne Setterfield. It’s a bit darker, but it’s similar in settings and style.

Happy summer reading!

Reading, Reviews

Bookish or Nookish?

Image from Lemuria Bookstore Blog

When the e-reader began to gain popularity, I was firmly staked in the “paper books are the only real books!” camp. As I wrote in a previous post, the crinkly pages of an old book are therapeutic to me, and the crispness of a freshly made book is delightful, as well. Just let me step foot in a used bookstore and I’m nearly transported to my own version of heaven. How could holding an electronic device compare? I was sure I voiced this deeply felt opinion to those closest to me. Didn’t I?

You can imagine my surprise when my husband presented me with a Nook on an ordinary summer day (not my birthday, or anniversary, just a dry summer day). Maybe he felt guilty that we were moving our family out of our house and temporarily into his parents’ house (which, by the way, was 25 minutes from the closest library and 45 minutes from a decent library) when our youngest was six weeks old. Or maybe (likely) he just loves me and thought I would enjoy an e-reader. I love books and his field is technology, so really, how could he resist? But here’s the thought that popped into my mind: “Holy cow, my husband doesn’t really know me.” Oh, but I was wrong.

I started figuring out the Nook. I downloaded my first book, which I think was either Book of A Thousand Days (enjoyable YA summer read) or The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake (not at all my piece of cake).  And I had to admit, the ease of getting a book from the library’s downloadable website without loading up my 2-year-old and infant in the car and actually going to the library was a definite plus. I love going to the library and taking my children with me has been a regular outing of ours since they were infants, but there are days when you just know taking a baby to the library isn’t a good idea. You know, the squallish days. Also, I tend to read big books like Little Dorrit and Les Miserables, so it’s no small thing that holding an e-reader while nursing a baby is way easier than actually holding Dickens. No, not the man, the volume. Speaking of Dickens, the best part of an e-reader, the one that really sealed my fate as an e-reader owner, was that I could download A Tale of Two CitiesWives and  Daughters, or any number of classics from Project Gutenberg and always have them at my fingertips wherever I am. Plus, I can just look stuff up when I’m curious about it without ever actually putting the book down. Oh yes, I’m sold. I have the Kindle app on my iPhone and I use my Nook for about 30-40% of my reading.

Here are some books I’ve enjoyed on my Nook recently.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

I don’t read very much French literature beyond Victor Hugo and (Gustave Flaubert in college), but I must say, The Elegance of the Hedgehog has made  me wonder what other French authors I’m missing out on. Muriel Barbery’s writing is stunning. Her characters are intriguing and likable if you keep reading past the prickly beginning. There are so many metaphors and images and symbols to ponder–it’s a rich book. It’s a bit short on the gripping plot side, so if that’s what you read for, this book may not be for you. Also, the parts narrated by the child character, while some of my favorite, were a bit of a stretch. It’s hard to write from a child’s perspective when you aren’t a child anymore and you aren’t writing for children. But if you love literature mixed with philosophy and beautiful wordsmithery, pick this book up. Or download it. Whatever.

Digging to AmericaDigging to America was my first Anne Tyler book. I have since read two others. It amazes me how her books can be so simple on the surface but ask so many deep questions. This one actually seemed to have a happier tone than the other two I’ve read. I have often thought about adoption and how I feel about it (mostly gung-ho), and this book is a searching comparison of two adopting families and the hard parts and good parts of international adoption. Even if adoption isn’t something you think about often, it is a great read, because, well, it’s Anne Tyler. I don’t see eye to eye with her when it comes to theology in some of her books, but I do enjoy her talent as a writer.

The Book ThiefAnd there’s The Book Thief. My husband read this one, as well, and we both were impressed with the unique narration and syntax. The words were just words, but they were arranged and chosen so carefully. This was the first in a long line of World War II novels set in Germany that I read in the last year. It set me on the trail of finding out what Germans endured during the war. Before this book, I’d read mostly French and English viewpoints. Also, I’d be interested to know what an atheist thinks about the narrator of the book, the Angel of Death. It was strange to me that the angel was the narrator but God was not often mentioned.

I still prefer paper books, but my husband proved he knows me better than I know myself when he gave me an e-reader. Words are words and I am truly an American word lover. If I can access them more easily and quickly on an e-reader, I’m going to do so. However, when I decide to buy a book, I pick the paper every time. =)

Reading, Reviews

Tell the Wolves I’m Home

When I see a book win a bunch of awards and garner lots of attention, I say, “hmm…I guess I’d better read that one.” Sometimes that works out great and I’m left thinking, “wow, they were right…that was a really awesome book.” But, if I’m honest, most of the time, it doesn’t work out great for me. After I read a new and critically acclaimed book, I’m usually glad I read it on an intellectual level, but something about the book doesn’t sit well with me. It’s like, in recent decades, critics only praise books that leave the reader feeling unsettled or disturbed. That’s what happened when I read Richard Russo’s Pulitzer Prize winner Empire Falls, and that’s what happened last night when I finished Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt. I can tell it’s a brilliant novel, just like Empire Falls was, but judging it on a “would I recommend it to a friend” level, I’m not sure how I feel about it. Did I like it? Did I hate it? Would I have read it if I had really known what it was about? To try it describe it or give a brief summary that accurately portrays the novel as a whole is impossible (which is the mark of a masterpiece, I think). And, whether I actually like the book or not, it is a critically acclaimed, well-written, startlingly honest book. And I don’t mean startlingly honest in a be-as-crude-as-you-want, uncensored kind of way, but in the honest realizations the main character makes throughout that she is willing to stare in the face.

Tell the Wolves I'm HomeThe book is set in the late 1980s and is narrated by  June Elbus, a fourteen-year-old girl who considers herself totally average on every level, except for the fact that her best friend is her extraordinary Uncle Finn. He is her godfather, as well, and  the only person June thinks can see beyond her average persona and who cares enough to show her how to be extraordinary. Well that sounds innocent enough, but it’s quite problematic, mainly because Uncle Finn is diagnosed with AIDS. I’m in my twenties, so I don’t really remember anything about the panic and fear surrounding AIDS when it was first recognized. I watched a documentary about it in history class in college, but that’s about all I know. So that’s what I thought this book would be like: a more personal representation about what it was like to live with that fear and panic and all the unknowns except for that one, unavoidable fact: if you had AIDS, you were going to die. Of course, that is what the book is about on one level, but then again, it’s not. It’s about forbidden love in a time when almost everything is permissible, and about how one’s thoughts can shock oneself but that doesn’t make them go away,  and it’s about sisters who love each other fiercely but can’t seem to get back to where they were when they were each other’s best friends (note: I have sisters, and there were parts of this book that just made me want to bawl). I probably haven’t even scratched the surface of all the themes. The book is also heavy in imagery and symbolism and parts of it have a medieval feel, believe it or not, which is definitely intentional. So much of the fear the characters in the book have of the unknown AIDS seems medieval to me, almost thirty years later.

I have a new understanding of that era and the people involved, so on that level, I’m glad I read Tell the Wolves I’m Home. The disturbing parts were in the thoughts that Jane had about her uncle, and the descriptions of her uncle’s magnetism, and also in the absolute hopelessness of it all. Here’s an example from the middle of the book:

“It seemed like life was a sort of narrowing tunnel. Right when you were born, the tunnel was huge. You could be anything. Then, like, the absolute second after you were born, the tunnel narrowed down to about half the size. You were a boy, and already it was certain you wouldn’t be a mother and it was likely you wouldn’t become a manicurist or a kindergarten teacher. Then you started to grow up and everything you did closed the tunnel some more. You broke your arm climbing a tree and you ruled out being a baseball pitcher. You failed every math test you ever took and you canceled any hope of being a scientist. Like that. On and through the years until you were stuck. You’d become a baker or a librarian or a bartender. Or an accountant. And there you were. I figured that on the day you died, the tunnel would be so narrow, you’d have squeezed yourself in with so many choices, that you just got squashed.”

June’s hopelessness about the meaning of life and the purpose of everything and why she should even live is her defining trait, in my mind.  And, on a side note, I had a hard time believing a fourteen-year-old was thinking like that. Half the time I was reading, I felt like I was listening to a fourteen-year-old talk, but the other half, I was listening to a fifty-year-old, disillusioned soul. I’m not really sure when June is supposed to be narrating this…if she’s a fourteen-year-old narrator or if she’s looking back from a long time ahead…but I do know that there is no hope in this book. When it comes to a book about AIDS, I guess that shouldn’t surprise me. AIDS was bewildering, it was condemning, it was and is a huge stigma. This book challenged me to think through what I believe and how that fits with what began in the 1980s and what is still happening today. I think, if you let it, it will do the same for you.

And if you’re wondering what I believe, I’m not like June. She claimed there is not a God because AIDS was proof that God could not exist. But I do believe in God. I believe in God who “so loved the world.” I don’t have all the answers, but I have that much. So I guess that’s why Tell the Wolves I’m Home left me feeling so sad. It’s well written, it’s beautiful, and it is for sure thought provoking and challenging, but without a meaning or purpose for life, the story is incomplete. Many, many books are like that–I’m not at all saying every good book should point you to true significance in this world. But this particular book that was so centered on the question “what is the point of all this?” and “why is there all this suffering?” felt empty without an answer, any answer, for readers to contemplate and think on as they mull over the book. There was a hole in the heart of the book to me.

Maybe that’s just me? Maybe June did find an answer she could live with in your reading of the book? If you read it, I’d love to hear what you think.

Reading, Reviews

A Few Great Mid-century Midwestern Books

Most of the posts I’ve written so far have focused on recently released literature (well, at least released in the last five years).  While I like to read new releases and be one of the first to discover great books, most of the books I really love have been around for 50-100 years. Or more. Just that smell of old pages between hardback covers makes me smile deep down inside.  Last fall, I read two great books written in the mid-1900s and set in the mid-west: Heat Lightning by Helen Hull and Winter Wheat by Mildred Walker.

photo Heat Lightning follows the journey of Amy Norton, a 35-year-old wife and mother of two, as she travels from her home in New York to visit her family and hometown in the midwest.  She is basically having a mid-life crisis.  Her kids are old enough to be independent (during the book, they’re at summer camp) and her husband has been distant and is camping while she travels. At the beginning of the book, you meet the Westovers, Amy’s family, who live in the small town where Amy grew up. I felt like I knew them as soon as they were introduced. Helen Hull did character descriptions and development so well.  Forgive me for throwing Downton Abbey into this post that really has nothing to do with Downton Abbey, but if you’re a fan of that show, Madame Westover will remind you of Dowager Countess. She is the book’s best character. As the plot moves forward, the Westovers and their endearing characters and family relationships becoming the heart of the book.  However, a careful reader can see Amy’s spirit returning as she figures her past and present out at the same time.

Rachel of the Book Snob blog wrote that Heat Lightning “certainly should be a classic of ordinary American life.” Now, take into consideration that she is British. =) But I enjoy her book reviews and share some of her book tastes, which is why I decided I had to read Heat Lightning. The only publisher currently releasing it is Persephone, but I got mine used on Amazon.   There are several themes, all well developed, but all very subtle. You could miss them completely if you’re just reading the book for its plot, which is, frankly, not exactly gripping (and that’s fine by me).  One theme pointed out in the Persephone edition’s preface by Patricia McClelland Miller is “how can women flourish when they are expected to make most of the adjustments in situations which really require the efforts of both men and women?” I don’t know if I noticed that theme as much as I noticed the theme of reconciling your childhood home with the home you set out to make with your husband and children.  However, I can think back on the number of couples introduced throughout the book and the life transitions each couple was navigating, and I think I’d like to re-read the book and focus on how Hull presents the husband-wife relationship. All in all, the book is both realistic and favorable when presenting marriage relationships. It kind of reminded me of Ilyrian Spring by Ann Bridge.

The theme that permeates almost all midwestern literature is that of town versus country. The characters are firmly planted in the farmland or rural town where they are born, but dream of something that they think must be greater (the city). Or they’ve been to the city but realize it’s not all it’s cracked up to be and there’s a part of them that will never be at home unless they’re in the rural setting they came from. The town vs. country debate is a part of Heat Lightning, but it is more central to the plot in Winter Wheat. 

Winter WheatEllen Webb is a girl on the cusp of something totally new and great to her: college in a big city. That is, if the winter wheat crop is good. She has lived on a wheat farm in Montana her whole life with her East Coast father and Russian mother. Her parents met in World War II and they don’t seem to have much in common from Ellen’s perspective. Their relationship is the crux of the book. Ellen tries to reconcile her identity and the direction of her life through her parents’ relationship. She wants to discover that her parents truly love one another, but the more Ellen learns, the more discouraged she feels about love in general and the love that created her. Also, Ellen has a hard time figuring out where she really comes from. She longs to understand and appreciate her roots, but she only knows Montana. I enjoyed following Ellen’s perspective as it went through different seasons of being completely attached to detached to her home and her family. She loves them, she hates them, she wants to understand them, she wants to get away from them.  Along with the importance of figuring out where you’re really from,  the responsibility of a girl to make her own way in the world in the post-war culture is a very prominent idea. Mildred Walker gave Ellen Webb a strong voice and character. Even when Ellen is troubled and directionless, I just knew she would fight her way through to be strong and ready to reach for a life she wants to live. The tone of the book was kind of lonely, as there are so few characters that really play into the plot or have much dialogue. I’ve never been to Montana, but I think the loneliness of the story and the setting are key to the book’s themes.

I enjoyed both of these books, but I liked Heat Lightning the best out of the two. Hull’s thoughtful, tender writing is beautiful and I can’t wait to find another one of her books.

The Magic of Ordinary DaysAnd if you’re not into “older” books but think a novel set in the midwest in the 1930s or 40s sounds like just the kind of book you want to read, check out Ann Howard Creel’s The Magic of Ordinary Days. Written in 2001 and made into a Hallmark movie in 2005, I think it’s a beautiful book. It also explores themes like the loneliness and simplicity of mid-western farming and the importance of relationships that are built and tried by hardships and how they hold up or break down. I have already read it twice and will probably read it again someday.

Happy reading!

Reading, Reviews

Coastal Reads

I don’t travel a whole lot (much less than I would like), but when I do, I love to have a book with me that’s set in the place I am visiting.  When I was in London several years ago, I was reading David Copperfield by Charles Dickens.  The feel of stepping into a place that has been set in a famous book and has been there for over a hundred years is surreal.  More often, though, my reading happens when I’m not traveling, but firmly set at home.  That’s why I love a book that describes a place so well, I can imagine being there.  There are some places I am dying to go see because I’ve read books about them.  In the past few months, I’ve read a couple of books set on two coasts that are now calling my name.

The Violets of MarchThe first coastal call came from The Violets of March by Sarah Jio.  Set on Bainbridge Island in Washington’s Pugent Sound, it’s one of those books that sucks you right into the setting.  I enjoyed how Jio described the area so vividly without going on and on about it.  She has the rare gift of weaving the setting into the plot seamlessly.  How many times have you read a book and gotten sick of all the descriptions?  I wouldn’t worry about that if you’re thinking of reading this book.   The plot started out a little shaky:  a 30-something woman dealing with a washed up marriage is living in New York but is forced to go back to her roots.  Sweet Home Alabama, anyone?  Thankfully, the plot is much more exciting than the kind of book that deals only with past emotions.  Yes, there’s some emotional baggage the main character, Emily, is working through, but there’s also a mystery to unravel.   And I love a well written mystery. I’m of the opinion they’re pretty rare.  Sometimes the tone reminds me of Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier, though it’s not quite so dark.   I’d recommend The Violets of March to just about anyone.

 

The next coastal book I read brought me back home to the East Coast.  Moon Over Edisto by Beth Webb Hart is about a woman who Moon Over Edistolives in New York City, is about to get married, and has to return to her hometown, Edisto, to take care of her family in a crisis.  Wait…am I getting these two books confused?  Because, hello Sweet Home Alabama again.  No, they’re different books, but I’m now realizing the starting premises of these books are fairly similar. However, Moon Over Edisto doesn’t turn into a mystery to be solved, but a story of how to forgive and the freedom and healing forgiveness brings.   The setting is very intertwined with the plot, as two main characters are artists.  A lot of the scenery is built on the description of what artworks these two characters are creating.   I wish I owned the real paintings and not just descriptions of their art, because it sounds beautiful.  Though I’ve lived in South Carolina my whole life and visit the coast often, I’ve never been to Edisto.  I know, it’s sad.  After reading this book, I realize even more it’s a problem that must be remedied soon.

 

I can’t embrace travel literature–I need a good plot and intriguing characters to keep me reading–but I think mental travel is one of reading’s greatest qualities.  And even if you’re not looking for a book to take you to a new place, these two books are pretty good light reads apart from their settings.  I’d love to hear what you think if you decide to pick one up!

Everyday Life, Reading

Book Messes and Real Life

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For some reason, book messes don’t bother me as much as other kinds of messes…

But life has certainly been messy around my place lately.  My progress on the books I’ve been reading lately has been slow.  One of my favorite authors, Ann Voskamp, often writes, “Life is not an emergency.”  As much as I appreciate and need that perspective, sometimes, life does feel urgent.  Sometimes your whole family gets a stomach bug; or you really do have to get those errands done before two birthdays and two anniversaries occur in one week; or your husband has to travel for work and it’s all on you, mama; or your first nephew arrives and (happily) other things get put on hold for a few days.

That’s been the month of May for us, so the book messes are some of the nicest messes that have been going on around here. I’ll spare you photos of the other ones.

Even in the frantic days, however, I have to read something.  A lot of times I find I turn to my old favorites; they’re kind of like comfort food for a bookworm.  When I’m having a hard time on the family and home front, reading the later books in the Anne of Green Gables series cheers me up.  (On a side note, if you’re one of those people who says, “Oh, I read Anne of Green Gables but I didn’t know it was a series,” I am jealous of you because there are EIGHT books in that series and they are wonderful. I have read them to mental shreds.  But I still love them).  If I can’t seem to think anything but negative thoughts, I re-read One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp or I Capture the Castle (because it’s just fun and strangely uplifting) or The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.  When I’m sick of life in the fast lane, I read Austen or Gaskell (usually Wives and Daughters) And if I feel like my brain is mired in the mundane, the Narnia books by C.S. Lewis or some other fantasy fiction is just what I need.

Those are just a few of my comfort books that come to mind.  I have to mention the Bible because I’m always reading that, and it is comfort and beyond.  What about you? Do you have books you turn to when your mind is troubled? I’d love to hear about them.

Reading, Reviews

Don’t Let The Dress Impress

I’ve been in a bit of a book slump lately.  It’s my own fault, because what can you expect when you pick up book after book with a cover featuring a woman in an elaborate, flowing, and frilly dress. Seriously, what was I thinking?

Here are some book busts for you:

The Typewriter Girl Edenbrooke The Time in Between

I don’t have much to say about any of these books except you really shouldn’t bother with them.  I couldn’t make it past the first few chapters of The Typewriter Girl. It was boring. That’s all. I blame Goodreads for putting these books on my recommended reading list. =)

The Dressmaker But I did enjoy The Dressmaker. It’s a light read, but it includes some intriguing history around The Titanic and the political aftermath.  The Dressmaker made me curious about what happened after the catastrophe.  Most of the characters are well done and the plot moves along at a nice pace.  The whole “independent woman” theme can get boring (how many times can readers enjoy a book about a woman going from nothing to success?), but the integrity of Tess, the main character, and the contrasts between characters throughout the book make it more than just entertaining.  I was pleasantly surprised to find it thought provoking. Weeks after reading it, I think of it as a delightful read. I appreciate how clean it was, too. If you’re drawn to books with beautiful, old fashioned dresses on them like I have been lately, pick this one over all others.

I’ve heard good things about The Shoemaker’s Wife by Adriana Trigiani, but look at the cover:

The Shoemaker's Wife

No, I can’t bring myself to pick that one up right now.  Maybe someday.

Right now, I’m enjoying The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain.  How is it that I have never read this book?  It’s wonderful.