Reading, Reviews

Some Old Fashioned Goodness

What do you do when you feel like you’ve read all the classics? That’s a problem I’ve been dealing with for the last few years. The real problem is of course, the large amount of pride I must have if I think I’ve exhausted the classics. Of course, I certainly haven’t read all the classics. Is that even possible? But I feel like I’ve exhausted my favorite Victorian era literature such as Dickens, Eliot, Gaskell, Hardy, and those types of writers. I just want a new Jane Austen book, you know? (yes, I realize I’m confusing my eras and she was in the Georgian era, but she was a trendsetter, no?).

If you’re in this boat with me, here are a few classics I’ve discovered in my feverish search for new old favorites.

The Semi-Attached Couple and the Semi-Detached HouseEmily Eden has been called Jane Austen’s successor, though she is not quite the master Austen is. However, her humorous satire of upper class England in the early 1800s is very reminiscent of Austen. Her two novels, The Semi-attached Couple and The Semi-detached House, were popular when first released in 1860. I thought they were entertaining and fun. They are lighthearted, while so many of the novels of the mid-1800s were tragic (consumption again? really?). The plot is love and marriage, but it’s not boring because true love’s course can’t run smooth or there’s no need for a novel about it. Here’s the opening lines of the novel:

“Well, I have paid that visit to the Eskdales, Mr. Douglas,” said Mrs. Douglas in a tone of triumphant sourness.

“You don’t say so, my dear! I hope you left my card?”

“Not I, Mr. Douglas. How could I? They let me in, which was too unkind. I saw the whole family, father and mother, brother and sisters–the future bride and bridegroom. Such a tribe! and servants without end. How I detest walking up that great flight of steps at Eskdale Castle, with that regiment of footmen drawn up on each side of it; and one looking more impertinent than the other!

“There must be a frightful accumulation of impertinence before you reach the landing-place, my dear; for it is a long staircase.”

So you see, this book probably won’t stir your soul, but if you’re looking for a good beach read but you’re not into modern literature, or if you’re dying for more Jane Austen and all the modern Austen mania literature is not your cup of tea, Emily Eden is for you.

The Making of a Marchioness (Part I and II)Most grown women heard of or read Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden and The Little Princess when they were young. I love those books, especially The Secret Garden. As soon as my daughter is old enough to handle words like “plague” and “crippled,” I’ll be reading it to her. But I didn’t know until recently that Burnett wrote some grownup books, too. The only one I’ve read so far is called Emily Fox Seton or The Making of a Marchioness. While the plot isn’t going to jolt you much, it’s a very pleasant read if you enjoy the writing style of Burnett. Our heroine, Miss Emily Fox-Seton, is a respectable lady but very poor. She runs errands and performs tasks for elderly ladies to make ends meet. One of the great things about her is she is not beautiful, but her “usefulness” makes her attractive to various characters throughout the book. When she is invited to one of her patron’s summer home, the direction of her life is forever changed.

My husband went on an Alexander Dumas kick a couple of years ago. He read The Count of Monte Cristo and thought it was great. I read it afterwards and couldn’t put it down. In the end I decided it was probably a guy book–grim heroics and all of that.  But there was so much more plot in it that never makes it even close to the movie version I saw in the early 2000’s starring Jim Caviezel.  I realize that always happens when books get turned into movies. But seriously, they left out over half of the book. And also, the movie plot is mostly about revenge, while the book delves into many more themes such as mercy and forgiveness and how there’s always more than meets the eye to playing God. The plot starts with the Count being falsely accused of a crime by a man who has designs on the Count’s fiancee. Of course at that point, the Count is not the Count, but lowly Edmond Dantes. Edmond spends his time in prison and the rest of his life creating a persona of greatness and a plan for revenge. I understand why they had to shorten the plan in the movie, because the book develops each detail fully and intertwines many characters into the plot by the time all is said and done. The book’s end is more satisfying in some ways and less in others. Now that I’m thinking about it, I’d like to read it again! The Count is the only Dumas I’ve read, but my husband says the one he really likes is The Three Musketeers. He tells me it’s whimsical and fun loving and kind of like The Pirates of the Caribbean movies.

My latest old fashioned find is Jean Webster, author of Daddy Long Legs and Dear Enemy. I can’t believe that I haven’t heard of Jean Webster until now! I love her characters. I read Daddy Long Legs on Friday and I just finished Dear Enemy today. I am saddened that Sallie McBride is no longer in my everyday life. Daddy Long Legs is told from the point of view of Jerusha Abbott, an orphan who has grown up in the John Grier Home, an orphan asylum in New York (FYI, asylum does not mean the orphans were crazy, that’s just what they called orphanages back then). She is blessed by a benevolent trustee with a college education on the condition that the trustee will remain anonymous and that she will write him letters letting him know how she fares in her studies. Jerusha changes her name to Judy on arriving at college, and begins to write the required letters. But she happens to be a writer and a writer without anyone to write letters to, so her letters are full of everything. They are a treat to read. Dear Enemy, however, is even better in my opinion. It is a sequel telling what happens to the John Grier Home after Judy’s life there, and it is narrated by Sallie McBride. I would like her to be one of my best friends. If only she weren’t (a) fictional) and (b) from the 1910’s. Otherwise, I’m sure we would be the best of friends. I am on a mission to read all of Jean Webster this Fall. I have been neglecting my summer reading plans because of my discovery of this new favorite author. If you like L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Windy Poplars, I strongly recommend Jean Webster’s novels to you. In fact, I’m off to go download Webster’s first novel When Patty Went to College right now. I’ve decided I can’t wait until Fall. You can download her books at Project Gutenberg for free or Amazon has several free Kindle versions. See? There’s no excuse! You must read Jean Webster. Unless, of course, you don’t like old fashioned goodness. Then you’re excused.

Let me know what your favorite little known old book is! I am always on the lookout for old books I can make into my new favorites. 

 

Everyday Life, Parenting, Reading, Reviews

Saturyet

Hello! Welcome to Saturyet. I know you thought today was Friday. Friday has been cancelled. Now we’re in the magical in between day when it’s definitely not Friday but Saturday is yet to come. On Saturyet, oil changes do not take all morning. On Saturyet, diapers do not leak at 10:00 a.m. and end what was supposed to be a full day of errands. Or at least if they do, on Saturyet, mothers remember to replenish the emergency set of clothing that should be in the diaper bag. Children play nicely together with little to no assistance from their overly busy mother. They do not beg for a mile when they’re given an inch. On Saturyet, the cupboards can be bare of anything that actually constitutes “dinner” and nobody feels like she has to rush to the grocery store. Aldi doesn’t exist when it’s Saturyet. Saturyet is for staying in bed when you feel under the weather. Or for skipping town on a day trip to the beach when the sky clears after a week of rain. Saturyet is a break from the existence that starts to feel so petty and mundane, it becomes bone crushing.

If only Saturyet existed. A break from reality. But this is reality, and in reality Saturyet’s name is Denial. Bummer. I liked Saturyet better.

Are you wondering if I am dealing with depression? I don’t think I am. From what I can tell, most mothers and pretty much every person has days when so many little things go wrong in a single day that it just seems like the day should be scrapped. There have been no real tragedies, but the day just doesn’t seem redeemable. You’ve snapped at your kids a few too many times. You’ve forgotten a few too many important details. You can’t unfurrow your brow.

Okay, maybe that’s just me. But if you are a mom and you’ve ever felt that way, I have some books you should read.

The one that most recently rocked my socks off is Desperate: Hope for the Mom Who Needs to Breathe by Sarah Mae and Sally Desperate: Hope for the Mom Who Needs to BreatheClarkson. Sarah Mae is a mother of young children and Sally Clarkson is her wise mentor. I really liked the blended perspective of someone who is in the midst of mothering small ones and someone who has four children who are nearly grown. So many times parenting books don’t seem to really “get it.” They’re too removed from the fray. Or maybe they just can’t be honest. But Sarah Mae is definitely honest. She banishes pride and shares weaknesses because she wants to truly encourage, not just exhort. She wants moms to know they’re not alone in their struggles. I, for one, really appreciate her honesty. And I appreciate her wisdom to know that things are hard but it’s all worth it and there’s a way to do your best. Your best is worth fighting for and pursuing. One of the greatest things about this book is that Sarah Mae and Sally Clarkson talk about the importance of being an individual as you are a mother and sharing your own delights and passions with your children. Parenting gurus always say that no two children are alike, but they don’t often say that no two parents are alike. If you put a completely unique child (or three) together with a completely unique parent or two, you’re going to get a combination that requires figuring out every time. Probably multiple times. So I appreciate Sarah Mae’s and Clarkson’s position that parents should come at parenting with the decision to do their very best while at the same time acknowledging their passions and quirks as part of who they are as a parent and not part of who they were before becoming a parent. And that’s just a tiny bit of the book. It’s great.

Loving the Little Years: Motherhood in the TrenchesWhen my daughter was about two years old, several of my friends said I absolutely had to read Loving the Little Years by Rachel Jankovic. I’m so glad I have such bossy friends. Just kidding. They weren’t bossy. And I really did love the book. It is made up of “vignettes” or small snippets of mothering days and weeks and years. Jankovic writes with humor, and we all know that humor is a must when it comes to parenting. She also is very perceptive, and seems to look through some of the issues that come up with children and see the underlying problem. I would approach some things as “just a phase,” but she sees it as an opportunity to build character and guide towards lasting salvation. All the while, she keeps it light and readable. The sequel, Fit to Burst, is more of the same delightful stuff. They’re both tiny books, ones that didn’t actually take me that long to read.

The Mission of Motherhood: Touching Your Child's Heart for EternityI found Sally Clarkson’s The Mission of Motherhood to be really helpful in that she is good at laying out a sort of road map for her mothering journey. Clarkson is big into planning and setting aside time to write goals down. Her form of mothering is very intentional and focused on the actual people and not the methods. And it was encouraging to see how much she could accomplish through setting concrete priorities. I have read three books by Clarkson now, and this is my favorite one of hers so far.

Sparkly Green Earrings: Catching the Light at Every TurnAnd if you’re looking for a book to just lighten your mood, you should read Sparkly Green Earrings by Melanie Shankle. I laughed my way through it in two days. There are some teary moments thrown in there, too. It’s almost like a gift to read a book that combines funny with thoughtful and doesn’t tear anybody down while doing it. Funny in our culture is so often delivered in the form of ridicule. This book is funny and encouraging.

Mitten Strings for God: Reflections  for Mothers in a HurryAnd here’s a book with a horrible title: Mitten Strings for God. Oh my. It makes you think you’re going to read a bunch of little daily quotes, ala Chicken Soup for the Freezing Soul. I never would have picked this book up, but a blogger who’s mothering style I really appreciate (Sarah from memoriesoncloverlane.com) repeatedly mentions in, so I decided it was worth a try. And it was! It was about quieting down our busyness and to do lists and focusing more on being present for our children. Katrina Kenison writes as someone who hasn’t forgotten what childhood is like. She recommends things like making sure your children have a secret place. Doesn’t that sound delightful? It’s a peaceful but inspiring book to reflect on.

What’s on your list of favorite mom books?

Reviews

I’m Still Wondering

State of WonderState of Wonder by Ann Patchett was released in 2011, and since then it has steadily gained in popularity. It’s one of those books you see on the Target book shelf, so you know it’s a popular read. =) In it, Patchett tells a story of white coat scientists who find themselves in the Amazon experiencing science in ways they never thought they would. The science part is that they are in pharmaceuticals, trying to develop a drug that will allow women of any age and stage of life to become fertile again. The bark that a certain tribe eats in the Amazon is the basis of the miracle drug. The company that the main character, Marina Singh, works for sends her colleague, Anders Eckman, to the site of the bark’s growth and tribal use to track down the elusive and brilliant Dr. Annika Swenson. They then receive a letter informing them that Anders has died. Marina is nominated to find out what really happened to Anders and also to find Dr. Swenson and nail down a release date for the drug she has been working on for years. Marina’s journey from the frozen tundra of Michigan to the Amazon takes Marina (and the readers) to a world that is totally new. At least it was for me, as I’ve never been to the Amazon.

The beginning of this book was a little slow, and didn’t really pick up until Marina leaves Michigan. Then, it kind of stalls in the city where she first starts her search for Dr. Swenson. But when she finally gets to the location of the research, it becomes fascinating. The tribal people and the land they live in is understandably scary and new to Marina, but also strangely inviting. She finds herself coming out of the straight laced researcher and into a more adventurous woman. And she sees first hand what the work she does in a lab can do for, or to, real people.

The book raises the interesting question of what society would be like if women could decide at what point in their lives they want to bear children. Would women wait until their careers are completely fulfilled? Until they find the perfect partner in parenting? Until they feel mature enough themselves to parent children? If there were no bounds to fertility, when would women choose to have children? What would life be like for children if the majority of, parents started parenting in say, their 50s?

Though Marina seemed a bit of a watery character, I liked her alright. Dr. Swenson, on the other hand, was very complex. She was cold and had a wry sense of humor (maybe kind of like Dr. House on the TV show? Or Doc Martin for you Brits?) She emotionally disconnected herself from the women she was doctoring in the Amazon, had doctored in the States, and could affect through her drug development. She doesn’t seem to care much about anything. But by the end we see that her not caring actually hides a person who may care a great deal, but only about herself. Is she a villain or not? That’s the question I was left with.

Some readers were miffed by the scientific inaccuracies in the book. I am not and have never been in the medical field, so maybe that’s why it doesn’t bother me that a novel doesn’t read like Gray’s Anatomy.  I wasn’t reading it to learn how to properly perform a C-section, or to make sure of how long an Ob-gyn residency is. If I were reading a book that was based on my profession, maybe I would be a little bit more upset about inaccuracies. The ones in this book didn’t upset me that much, but there’s your fair warning: don’t read this novel as factual.

I liked most of the book. I didn’t like the ending. The actions of the characters at the end were very disappointing. I know it sounds immature and harsh and real reviewers don’t say this, but I found myself saying at one point in the last ten pages “well that was dumb.” But leave off the last ten to fifteen pages, and it’s an intriguing book. The proof of that is in the fact that I still find myself wondering about it.

Everyday Life, Parenting, Reading, Reviews

Camping With Kids

My family and I spent this past weekend camping in the Blue Ridge Mountains. We had a great time splashing in cold mountain streams, hiking on little trails near our campsite, taking long walks to the bath house, and sleeping on our sleeping bags side by side in our tent. I didn’t carry my camera with me much, but I did take lots of mental pictures that I hope to carry always: three tired heads sleeping on their pillows in the early dawn light; my son cuddled in a hammock with an uncle or aunt (my kids have lots of great uncles and aunts); the warmth of campfire reflecting on happy, tired faces; and my four-year-old, usually very girly daughter in her pink jeans, pink shoes, and pink shirt intently learning to swing a baseball bat. Turns out she’s pretty coordinated and is crazy about baseball now, thanks to some really thoughtful friends who brought a new toy for our children. My son kind of tries to hit the ball with a golf-like swing, but he’ll get it right someday. Or maybe he’ll just stick to golf.

Image
The kids and I enjoying the icy cold stream near our campsite.

We had a lot of fun even if we didn’t sit around the campfire relaxing nearly as much as we used to before we had children. I always take lots of books with me when I go to the mountains. I took three books with me on this trip, but I only read a quarter of one. But here’s what I did read quite a lot of before we left:

The Down and Dirty Guide to Camping with Kids: How to Plan Memorable Family Adventures and Connect Kids to Nature
The Down and Dirty Guide to Camping with Kids

Laugh if you will. I am the type of person who always find a book to read on whatever topic I feel unprepared for. Childbirth? Read at least five different books on it. Parenting? Still reading books, and I’ve lost count on how many I’ve read so far. Preparing for job interviews? Two books (they didn’t help much). Cooking for children? Three books. You see? I buy into the theory that knowledge is power. So, yes, I read a book on how to camp with kids. And it was fairly helpful. I probably would have thought of a lot of the tips without reading that book (for instance, keep your children away from open fires), but there were some helpful hints. One of the ideas was to take some monster truck toys with you so your children can make trails at the campsite or on hikes. That idea was genius. I will probably read The Guide again when my children are older and I can do more of the games and activities suggested in the book. It’s a great book if you’re like me, and need a book to prepare you for life’s major hurdles, such as camping with children in the mountains.

We also love the book We’re Going to the Mountains by Steve Kemp. My husband and I bought it on a trip to Ashevillle, NC when our daughter was just a baby. Both of our children love that it’s a poem with pictures. It’s so lyrical, it’s one of those books that’s easy to memorize after you’ve read it a few times. We recited bits of it several times throughout our trip. I like how it sets some expectations for small children of what people usually do when they go to the mountains. The illustrations are gorgeous, too. I’ve only seen it sold at Mast General Stores, or Amazon, but if you’re going to camp with children, I highly recommend getting a copy somehow.

And Goldilocks and the Three Bears is a fun one to read in the mountains. It kind of takes the fear out of the fact that there may be bears around. This is my favorite version of the story because it’s the one my family had when I was little. My parents now have it in their living room for the grandkids to read when they come over, and I still think that this version has the cutest Baby Bear ever. Jan Brett has done a version that is breathtaking visually, but may be a bit too wordy for very young readers/listeners.

So that’s what I learned about camping with children. What books and ideas have been your favorite when camping with kids? We had a great time and plan to go again, so bring on all the suggestions you can think of!

Reading, Reviews

June Reading

How’s your summer reading going? Just as promised, my list is already not really a list anymore. I read The Light Between Oceans and really enjoyed it. I wrote about it in this post. I started The Homecoming of Samuel Lake but I don’t think I’m going to keep reading it. It’s one of those Southern Lit books that has characters in it who make me want to wring their collective neck. Oh, the backwoods, stubborn men that are so often featured in Southern Literature. They just make me mad. And I don’t read books to get mad. Who needs another reason to get mad? So I’ll give it another few pages later on today but then it’s probably going back to the library. 

The Fault in Our StarsI didn’t have The Fault In Our Stars by John Green on my original summer reading list, but I picked it up because Barnes and Noble basically hit me over the head with posters and displays that told me it was the only book that absolutely had to be read this summer. And that all the cool people are reading it. I don’t aspire to be a cool person, but I’d like to stay “relevant.” (On a side note, I really don’t like the word “relevant.” It’s overused so much, it hardly has a real meaning anymore. Oh the irony.) I’ve got to say, for a book featuring so many sentences that start with “Kind of” and “It was, like, you know…” it was pretty, like, deep. It was a strange combination of “teenager” talk and impossibly hard questions and circumstances.

The book is about Hazel, who is living with cancer. Her diagnosis is and always has been terminal, but her treatments are working miraculously well and she just keeps on living. The life she’s living is more of a half-life, however, until she meets Augustus Waters. He is witty and gorgeous and the book becomes a story of young love with the “interesting” twist of cancer.

At this point in the review, you’re probably wondering, “Why would I put myself through reading this book?” That is a very valid question. I read the book, because, you know, relevancy. Really, I do feel a burden to read the books that are shaping the minds of my generation and the generations younger than me. I would like to think that I could have a conversation with a teenager and actually have something to talk about. But I’m not sure this book will help me with that.  Here’s what I learned: teenagers are inherently and unavoidably self-centered. I was no exception. In fact, considering how I behaved in my teenage years when my grandmother and dad had cancer, I was exceptionally self-centered, even by teenage standards. The teens in The Fault In Our Stars are not exceptions either, cancer or no. Yes, they feel sorry for themselves. Yes, they feel separate from healthy kids. Mostly, they are struggling with the fact that they are young and haven’t done anything worth doing yet and they are awash in wanting their lives to have some kind of meaning. You learn through the book that each character has some ideal that keeps him or her fighting for life on earth. They feel if they don’t attain their one important goal, their lives won’t mean anything. One character’s ideal is that everybody deserves true love. He fights on because he wants to experience that one true love. Another’s ideal is that everybody has got to die, but it should be for a worthy, heroic reason, and cancer just doesn’t cut it. And Hazel’s is that the universe deserves to be  noticed and she is on the planet to notice it. Yeah, that one is a bit vague. I think it has something to do with the human need to worship. So each main character is figuring out how to reconcile their lives with cancer to the ideas they have on why they should live.

It was a very thoughtful book, but also confusing. There are no absolutes. Most of the characters think there is Something (God) and that there is Somewhere they go after they die. Or maybe they just haunt the earth. They’re not really sure. That sort of uncertainty is depressing to me.

If you liked My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Piccoult, you’ll appreciate The Fault In Our Stars. I can’t deny that it is a fairly heart wrenching story that has some pretty funny parts. But heart wrenching cancer stories are just too much for me. I didn’t really give myself up to be emotionally involved with the story or liking or relating to the characters. That’s a reflection on me, not the characters. I haven’t had cancer, but it’s hit pretty close to home so far in my life, just as it has for many people. Cancer is our black plague, our cholera, or “consumption” (tuberculosis in the 1800s). No one is untouched by it, but it’s a hard topic to address. Still, I know many people think The Fault In Our Stars is the best book of the summer.

Next up on my list is The Wednesday Sisters. I’m about 30 pages in and so far, it seems pretty similar to The Help in theme and setting. I’m not saying it’s anywhere near as awesome as The Help. But I think there’s potential. I’ll let you know in a few days. =)

Happy Reading!

Reading, Reviews

A Glimpse Into Pain and Why It Matters

There are times when I feel I’m not fit to claim the label “intellectual” because I honestly want every book I read to end happily. Books that end tragically, that make me cry, they are often strangely beautiful and stirring, but I don’t go in for “tear jerkers” as a rule. I live a very happy life and I am so thankful for this moment in which I can honestly say that. But I know that books or movies that open a window into someone else’s life and pain also open windows in my heart to simply feel, whether its through my own story or someone else’s. We all can attest to the fact that days pass by and string into apathy if we let them, if we don’t actively seek out the joy existing inside or the pain that needs healing in the people around us.

HousekeepingThe truth is, I can easily become the person who will judge instead of try to understand. I first realized that about myself when I read Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. It’s the story of two sisters, Ruth and Lucille, whose mother is gone and who are raised by various family members in a rather haphazard fashion. They finally end up with their Aunt Sylvie, who has a history of transience. I had to look up “transience,” but I learned through the book it basically means that she often chose to be homeless. The book was a hard read for me, a woman who was raised in a cheery and loving home and who is very much a homebody. How much I learned, though! I saw into the struggle of “housekeeping” in a person’s mind who is unsettled about so many things. I learned that when I see a homeless person in my city, it’s not a given that they are suffering from addictions or poverty, but that they could be suffering something much harder to define. Kindness of heart and of actions should not be so hard to muster for people I don’t understand, yet it’s true that’s easier now I have some understanding of a mindset totally foreign to me. Someone once told my husband “There’s plenty of work to be had if you want it. No one has to be homeless if they don’t want to.” I had no idea how he could say that until I read Housekeeping. On top of the amount of insight I gained, the novel is a classic in its stark beauty and detail. It was bleak, it was at times depressing, but it is an important book to me.

The Language of FlowersI found the same insights in the more recent The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh. I wasn’t expecting to be so confronted with a person’s inner turmoil in a book about flowers. The book is centered on Victoria Jones, an orphan who has aged out of the foster care system and is thrust into the world utterly alone. Her past is all pain that she doesn’t want to confront, but the future demands it. The wording of each chapter and the acute descriptions of childhood pain and loss and the pangs that never seem to end afterwards completely engrossed me even when I wanted to stop reading. My heart was broken for children born to mothers with the capacity to love who haven’t the capacity to act on that love due to the wounds still unhealed on their hearts. I know I’m bordering on gushy metaphysical hodgepodge, but I’m not sure how to explain this book without telling too much. The Language of the Flowers is one of the many books and experiences that led me to reflect on the blessings I have and what I’m supposed to do with them. I can’t say I’ve gotten very far with that question, but it’s one that I’m still working on and that was brought to the forefront of my mind by this book.

The Light Between OceansAnd just today, I finished The Light Between Oceans. The premise of the book is that a couple, Tom and Isabel Sherbourne, who live on a lonely lighthouse island off the coast of Western Australia, are longing for the family they can’t seem to have when one day a baby blows up onto their shore. They keep her, and their decision that they think will bring healing only adds links in a long chain of devastation. That description sounds totally hopeless, but there is a hopeful tone in the book, just as you would expect in a story centered on a lighthouse. I was conflicted about who to relate to in this book the whole time I was reading it. Of course, I’d never sympathize with kidnappers. Never, ever. But can I try to understand a mind unhinged by pain? Well, I guess I can try. The hero of the book, Tom, certainly did. His ability to forgive is humbling. In the end, I can and can’t relate to everyone in this book. But I can say that the words of Plato (or Ian MacLaren? The jury is still out), “Be kind, for everyone is fighting a hard battle” came to mind many times as I read the book. I enjoyed this book more than the other two I’ve mentioned in this post. It was more adventurous and less focused on the psychology of the characters, though that did make up a good part of the book. Stedman’s characters go through hard times, and I found them to be often infuriating and always endearing.  She created a world on Janus Rock, the lighthouse post, that will be alive in my mind for a long time yet. I want to visit there, if it actually does exist. =)

There are some books that aren’t entirely “fun” to read but that grip you with ideas and the people the book creates and make you cry or laugh or just sit and contemplate “What if? What if that were me?” I want everyone to be happy (hang being intellectual!) and I would choose all books to end at least mostly happy, but there are some books who mix the bitter and the sweet to show the reality of what life is for some people. I wish that I had the courage or even the awareness to look people in the face and try to understand what life is like for them more often. These books I’ve mentioned are a few of the books that, though fiction, have pushed me into attempting to put myself in the shoes of people who seem wholly different from me. I could think of more, but I’d love to hear which books have done the same for you.

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.

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.