September Recap

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The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd (Historical Fiction)

LOVED. The Invention of Wings was a really beautiful story that is based on the true story of the Sarah and Angelina Grimke, two sisters who were activists for Civil rights and women’s rights in the 1820s and 30s. The book also tells the fictional story of Handful, a slave girl who was given to Sarah on her 11th birthday. This story is beautiful and heartbreaking, telling the stories of two girls who have hopes and dreams of rising above the lives they are born into.

An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin (Fiction)

I was sadly not very impressed by this one. I saw it in the library and grabbed it because I love Steve Martin (yes, the actor), but it was not my favorite. An Object of Beauty follows Lacey, a young up-and-comer in the art world in New York. There are many, many descriptions of famous paintings and artists (which I don’t have a lot of knowledge about), and also, Lacey was a terrible person. I don’t always have to love characters I’m reading about, but there was not enough in the book for me to like to get past a very unlikable main character. I read to the end of the book, but it was definitely not one I would ever pick up again.

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion (Fiction)

This was my book club choice this month, and it was SO fun. A quirky, socially incompetent genetics professor comes up with “The Wife Project”, a survey that will find him a suitable partner. Around the same time, he meets Rosie, a wild, unpredictable girl enters his life. The both find that there are things to learn from the other and (SPOILER ALERT) find love in very unexpected ways!

Born Standing Up by Steve Martin (audio-celebrity memoir)

I have always had a really warm spot in my heart for Steve Martin, but I have realized that that is actually more about George Banks and less about the actual person of Steve. I still did enjoy this audio book, but it was not quite as good as I had built it up in my mind. I do not really know much about the world of stand-up comedy, so it was interesting to hear about Steve Martin’s journey from Disney World to magic shows to stand up to acting.

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach (Nonfiction)

One of my friends called this “an uncomfortably great read” and I think that is the perfect description. I never would have picked up a book about cadavers, but my good friend told me that it was super interesting and worth reading. For a book about dead bodies, it is surprisingly upbeat. Mary Roach does a great job of presenting facts and stories in an accurate, but not overly gruesome way. She explores the history of cadaver use in medical study as well as other fields. It was FASCINATING. This book is definitely not for the faint of heart or for the squeamish, but I learned so much! If you are into biology or science history, I think this could be a good book for you.

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne (Classic)

I am putting this book into the unfortunate “Overrated Classics” category. I’m sorry if you love this book, but I thought it was SO BORING. I think I could have enjoyed an abridged version of this book because each chapter seemed like about 15% plot and 85% descriptions of sea creatures. I suppose that may be interesting to someone interested in ocean life, but for me it was soooo hard to get through.

Red Rising by Pierce Brown (YA-dystopian fiction)

This is my favorite fun (if you can call a book about training teenagers the tactics of war “fun”) I’ve read in a while. I love a good dystopian story, and this one did not disappoint. It has a Hunger Games-y feel, but it may be a little bit darker. It has been a long time since I’ve read HG, but from what I remember, this one seems to have a lot more killing and violence. BUT. I loved. it. I will probably do a full review once I finish the last book of the trilogy. Red Rising is about a society that has a strict color caste system; each color has a specific place and role in their world, some more glamorous than others. A rebel group rises up from the lowColors and tries to infiltrate the system from the inside. It is dramatic and gripping and interesting and just so good!

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Peter Pan (J.M. Barrie)

In a word: Surprising

After I finished  Fitzwilliam Darcy, Rock Star, I decided that I needed to read a classic for a little mental palate cleanse. I settled on Peter Pan, which I had picked up for a steal at the same book sale as Darcy. My kids have been ob-sessed with the Disney cartoon of Peter Pan, so I had been planning to preview the original J.M. Barrie novel as a possible family read-aloud for this year.

I’d never read it before; the Peter Pan story never really captured my imagination because I was always that kid who couldn’t wait to grow up. (It wasn’t until I was an adult that the idea of childhood appealed to me!)

Barrie’s Peter Pan did not rock my world, but I was entertained by it, and I definitely enjoyed the way it kept catching me off guard. The narrator is cheeky and wry, and is as entertaining as any of the actual characters. The book is definitely funnier than I expected. At the same time, it’s darker than I would have guessed; Neverland is a creepy place full of real villains and danger.

Here are some of my favorite quotes:

One day when [Wendy] was two years old…Mrs. Darling put her hand over her heart and cried, ‘Oh, why can’t you remain like this forever!’ This was all that passed between them on the subject, but henceforth Wendy knew that she must grow up. You always know after you are two. Two is the beginning of the end.

Mrs. Darling first heard of Peter when she was tidying up her children’s minds. It is the nightly custom of every good mother after her children are asleep to rummage in their minds and put things straight for the next morning.

‘No, no,’ Mr. Darling always said, ‘I am responsible for it all. I, George Darling, did it. Mea culpa, mea culpa.’ He had had a classical education.

Every boy had adventures to tell; but perhaps the biggest adventure of all was that they were several hours late for bed. This so inflated them that they did various dodgy things to get staying up still longer, such as demanding bandages, but Wendy…cried ‘To bed, to bed,’ in a voice that had to be obeyed.

The difference between [Peter] and the other boys at such a time was that they knew it was make-believe, while to him make-believe and true were exactly the same thing. This sometimes troubled them, as when they had to make believe that they had had their dinners.

So, yes, all very charming, wouldn’t you agree? But then there are little passages   like this…

The boys on the island vary, of course, in numbers according as they get killed and so on; and when they seem to be growing up, which is against the rules, Peter thins them out; but at this time there were six of them.

[The eyes of Jas. Hook] were of the blue of the forget-me-not, and of a profound melancholy, save when he was plunging his hook into you, at which time two red spots appeared in them and lit them up horribly….

Undoubtedly the grimmest part of him was his iron claw. Let us now kill a pirate, to show Hook’s method. Skylights will do. As they pass, Skylights lurches clumsily against him, ruffling his lace collar; the hook shoots forth, there is a tearing sound and one screech, then the body is kicked aside, and the pirates pass on. He has not even taken the cigars from his mouth.

After a time [Peter] fell asleep, and some unsteady fairies had to climb over him on their way home from an orgy. Any of the other boys obstructing the fairy path at night they would have mischiefed, but they just tweaked Peter’s nose and passed on.

So at the end of the day, this was a worthwhile read, although it’s not one I’ll revisit again. I do think that I’ll hold off on reading it to my kids; I have a child with a vivid imagination who would surely never drift off to her own Neverland if I filled her mind with Pan right before bedtime!

June Recap

June was a really fun month of reading for me. I started in a little bit of a slump, but once I got going on a couple of these, I just couldn’t stop reading!

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1. Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear

The first of a long series of books following Maisie Dobbs, a detective/private investigator/boss lady in the 1920’s. She is smart and totally lovable. This first book has a lot of flashbacks to set up Maisie’s back-story, but I hear that doesn’t continue much through the rest of the series. I really enjoyed Maisie and can’t wait to continue with the series!

2. Ready Player One by Earnest Cline

Full post here. Surprisingly enjoyable dystopian YA nerd novel. Ready Player One takes place in dystopian future America and follows an eighteen year old boy who is trying to win a video game contest for the hope of a better life.

3. Still Life by Louise Penny

Louise Penny’s first Chief Inspector Gamache novel. I read a different Louise Penny book that comes later in the series before I realized that it was a series, so I finally got around to starting at the beginning. I loved it. The crazy characters, the quaint small town, the quiet confidence of Gamache–I can’t wait for my library to get me book 2!

4. Daring Greatly by Brene Brown

True confession: I did not finish this book. I had it on my kindle from the library, and I didn’t know my time would expire so quickly. I really enjoyed the parts that I did read (I highlighted and took screenshots almost every time I read), but I found it hard to pick it up and read for very long. Someday I would like to come back and finish this book, but I probably won’t right now.

5. The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander

Beautiful memoir about Elizabeth Alexander’s husband who passed away suddenly. Alexander is a poet, so her descriptions of her Ficre (her husband) and their life together were really beautiful. Lindsey did a full review of The Light of the World here.

6. Little House on the Prairie, Little Town on the Prairie, and These Happy Golden Years by Laura Ingalls Wilder

These books are just so classic. I read these three in preparation for our trip to visit Laura and Almanzo’s house in Missouri, and I laughed and cried through them.

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All the heart eyes for Laurmanzo

7. The Knockoff by Lucy Sykes

SO FUN. This might be one of my favorite books that I’ve read this year. It takes place in the fashion world of New York City and follows a seasoned editor-in-chief of Glossy Magazine through a transition into the new world of social media. I loved all of the name-dropping of famous designers and the commentary on the bads (and goods) of our instagram-obsessed culture. It was fun, thought-provoking, and just overall very entertaining. Definitely a great summer read.

8. Lizzy and Jane by Katherine Reay

I really enjoyed this one! It is the story of two sisters (named for the Bennets) who struggle to connect after years of bitterness following their mother’s death. One is a chef, one is a stay-at-home mom battling cancer, but both have some serious emotional baggage to sort through. Even though that sounds heavy, the book is quite lighthearted and full of quotes and conversation about Jane Austen, other classic literature, and food.

9. Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Marie Semple

Where’d You Go, Bernadette? is one of my favorite books. I reread it this month for my book club (I got to choose the book, so of course I picked this on), and it was just as good on my fourth read. The story is told through a series of memos, emails, flyers, and newspaper clippings, so it is really quirky. I LOVE it.

Eleanor & Park (Rainbow Rowell)

In [two] word[s]: Totes adorbs

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When I first started this book, I was not charmed. I found it annoying, overdramatic, and a little abrasive (This is often my first impression of high schoolers, so I should not have been surprised, given the two teenaged narrators.). But I was trapped in a rocking chair with a sleeping baby and nothing to read but my Kindle app, so I kept going… and I fell in love.

This story is just the cutest. The narration flips back and forth between the two main characters, giving us two insights into the events that are unfolding. Both protagonists are misfits in their own way: she’s the new kid, overweight and badly dressed, he’s half-Korean and nerdy. They share a seat on the bus. Although they don’t speak at first, they slowly bond over comic books and mix tapes. As their relationship develops, the sexual tension becomes the school bus in the room every time they’re together.

Somehow this novel manages to be sweet and overblown in all the right ways without being melodramatic or saccharine. Part of it is the matter-of-fact perspective of the characters themselves (there is no narrator to bog the story down with commentary or description). Part of it is the harsh setting: this sweet love story unfolds between characters who deal with abuse, poverty, bullying, and clueless parents.

I devoured this story and reached the ending in less than 24 hours. I hadn’t been watching my progress bar and was totally unprepared for the story to be over. I texted Leslie: “DROP EVERYTHING. BUY THIS BOOK AND READ IT TODAY. TELL ME WHAT DOES THE POSTCARD SAY???”

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from Leslie:

As I’ve stated before, I am very easily persuaded into reading things. I had read a book by Rainbow Rowell before (Fangirl-also a really fun read), so I was eager to try out Eleanor & Park. I completely agree with Lindsey’s assessment-it was a perfect YA book. Completely dramatic, but also adorable. I also read it in about 24 hours and immediately called Lindsey to chat about it.

After the abrupt ending, I did a little searching on Rainbow Rowell’s website, and I thought this quote was a perfect summary of why I loved the way she closed out the story:

I mean, I know it’s not really an ending; there aren’t wedding bells and sunsets. This isn’t the end for these two people. It’s just where we leave them.

But they’re 17 years old.

And I don’t believe that 17-year-olds get happy endings. They get beginnings.

How to Identify a Classic: The x100 Test

If you’re ever wondering if a book should be considered a “classic,” here is one simple test: read it one hundred times in quick succession and see if you still like it at the end.

I was reminded of the “x100 Test” recently due to Abby (age 5)’s sudden obsession with audio books.  She’s new to listening to chapter books, and I had been excited to get her started on The Boxcar Children, a childhood favorite of mine.  We listened to it from start to finish, and then I gave Abby free rein with the CDs and the player, and she listened to it in almost every waking hour for the next three weeks.  We kept it for a long time past the due date until I finally got a call from the library that our next request, Charlotte’s Web, had arrived and was waiting for us to pick it up.

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I tweeted this toward the end of our time with the Alden kids

Here is the thing: Charlotte’s Web is not even one of my favorites.  But it’s on all the lists as a good first chapter book, “They” say it IS a classic, and Abby was interested in it after watching the movie at church one time. So, I checked it out.

Thirty-plus listens later, I was convinced: Charlotte’s Web is incredible.

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The quality of the audio recording is part of this book’s appeal.  It’s read by E.B. White himself, and he has a voice I could listen to all day: it’s like having a gentle old uncle telling stories from the corner of the living room or the back seat of the car.  But the text of the book itself is exceptional.  Each sentence is like a string of pearls: carefully chosen details, advanced vocabulary, nuanced descriptions, and interesting and clever narration.

I love the story of the Boxcar Children, but every time I listened to a passage, the writing seemed more flat and stale.  I still liked the concept of the four kids on an adventure, but I grew tired of the characters and the details of the plot.

In contrast, I still don’t love the story of Charlotte’s Web.  I don’t like animal stories as a rule, I find Wilbur annoying and emotionally demanding, and I think Fern grows up too quickly in too short a time.  Yet the writing itself is such a pleasure that I happily turn the CD on–again– every time Abby asks.  With every listen, I hear yet another sentence that makes me smile: what perfection! what mastery! what delight!

I’ve lived by the x100 Rule in my adult life without ever really thinking about it.  Back in my pre-baby days when I read a lot more, I had a pretty long list of books that I’d return to once every year or two.  I kept a well-worn copy of The Chosen in my purse and when I’d get stuck at a doctor’s office or a traffic light I would pull it out, open it up at random, and enjoy a few paragraphs or pages.  (In these moments I now read Twitter, which I’m not sure is an improvement in my quality of life.)  The year I taught Julius Caesar, I remember the astonishing way the nuances of the text would leap off the page at me by eighth period, in what was my sixth reading of the day.  (Alas, my assurances to my students that they would understand their assigned passages if they’d just read it six times fell upon deaf ears.)

And every year when a precocious nine-year old (and there was always at least one) would eye my bookshelves on the first day of school and proclaim, “I’ve already read The Sign of the Beaver!“, I’d smile and respond, again, “So have I!  We’ll enjoy reading it again.”

I knew the secret I hoped they’d discover one day: Rather than getting stale, great literature reveals more richness to savor with every re-reading.

Goodness knows I have nothing against mindless reading; it’s most of what I do these days.  But it’s been refreshing to remember how deeply satisfying a great book can be.  I’ve been inspired to return to some of the trusted old friends on my own bookshelf and to be mindful of what kind of words and sentences and stories and characters I permit to occupy my imagination and my mind.  My soul will be stronger for it.

As for Abby, I’m trying to feed her a little more Charlotte and a little less Clifford, because I believe that E.B. White is right: “Children always hang onto things tighter than their parents think they will.”  I want to give her things to hang onto that will be strong enough to hold her up.

 

(P.S.  YES, of course I want to share some of my favorite Charlotte lines with you.  But this post is long enough, so I’m posting them in a separate commonplace)

 

This post was originally published at Running in Circles.