Category Archives: Thoughts About Books

Bookweek Day 6: Some Final Thoughts

Thought 1: Well, you all have convinced me. I have, once again, started The Scarlet Pimpernel. I am currently 3 chapters in and very confused as to the exact political beliefs of the various men in the bar. But I’m powering on, regardless.


Thought 2: Hamlet just does not have the rabid fan base that The Scarlet Pimpernell does, according to the oh-so-reliable sample size that is my blog comments. So why are people always referencing Hamlet?

Thought 3: I realized, as I read the comments, that I rarely talk anymore, on my blog, about my own plans to write books. So yes, if you’re curious, now that I’m out of school that’s what I’m working on. I’m nervous about blogging about my projects because I always think, “what if I decide to scrap it and then I’ll have to explain??”

Hmm.

Thought 4: My post about diaries had me thinking: most people keep a diary at some point in their life, right? So where do all those diaries go? Do people destroy their own diaries? Shouldn’t families all have heirloom diaries?

Thought 5: This week was such fun. I should do it again sometime.

Advertisements

Bookweek Day 5: The exclusive club of true bookworms.

B2

When I was a kid, I noticed a lot of weird tropes in the books I read. Like, the author would say “grown-ups don’t understand X,Y, and Z,” when the book was obviously written by a grown-up. Characters would say “this is just like something that would happen in a book!” when, duh, they were in a book. And all of the main characters loved to read. All of them.

Even if they were a medieval peasant, some random priest would have trained them in the art of reading and writing.

It forms an odd kind-of a self-perpetuating cycle. Sure the kids who love to read may find a relatable character and continue to love to read, but the kids who don’t love to read aren’t going to be converted any time soon if every book they pick up is about someone who’s completely unlike them.

As a kid who struggled to read and only managed to wade through about one book for every ten my sister Amy devoured, I always felt like the bookworm club was something that belonged to her, and to those characters, but not to me.

I was reminded of this self-perpetuating cycle when I took literature and writing classes in college, and once again felt like I was standing on the outside of some exclusive club. This was the club of literary fiction. Genre fiction, you see, was for the uneducated masses. True writers had to love literary fiction.

They’d give us “fantastically brilliant” short stories to read, bizarre plotless things overstuffed with similes. “I once had a class with this author,” they’d say, or “I heard this author speak once.” But I’d never heard of those authors, nor had I ever heard of my teacher’s published works, and suddenly I’d wonder if all the literary world did was pass stories around to each other and tell each other how brilliant they were.

In the last writing class of my college career, we were learning how to write linked collections of short stories. During the term we read three examples of linked collections: Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, and The Dew Breaker by Edwidge Danticat. A Visit from the Good Squad was the most fun to read, but in the end I had to settle for The Dew Breaker as my favorite. It explored the Haitian-American experience in the wake of the Duvalier dynasty, something I knew very little about. It also explored the concept of an unspeakably evil person deciding to become “good.” (Jesus’ Son was just a bunch of incoherent stories about a guy who drove around town listlessly and did drugs with his friends and watched people die.)

During our last class session, the teacher asked us which of the three books we’d liked best. And my jaw fell to the ground as every. single. person. said, “Jesus’ Son.”

“It was just…his way with words was amazing. I found myself underlining, like, every single sentence,” said Justin. Which was true. I know enough about writing to know that those were some gorgeous sentences about nothing.

“I agree,” said our teacher. “Honestly, a lot of Danticat’s sentences were kind-of clunky.”

Also true. But.

I’d rather live in an ugly house than in a pile of beautiful bricks, I thought but did not say.

Now, I will freely admit that that sentiment may have been my own brand of snobbery. Because if people love their beautiful bricks, what is that to me?

And yet, I firmly believe that reading is a magical form of storytelling that is accessible to all. We just have to stop telling kids that The Great Illustrated Classics aren’t worth reading because of how cringingly watered-down they are, or that they’re not true readers if they only like The Hardy Boys. 

And we have to stop telling adults that only the beautiful bricks are works of art and stories worth telling.

We have to stop excluding people from the bookworm club.

Bookweek Day 4: Should you finish reading a boring book just because it’s a classic?

I’ve started a lot of books that I never finished. In general, I feel zero guilt about this. There are so many great books in the world to read, so why waste time on the boring ones?

But there are a few books, such as The Scarlet Pimpernel and Hamlet, that I do feel guilty about. Because I assume that a classic must be a classic for a reason, so by not finishing I’m forfeiting the knowledge of some grand truth. Right?

Recently, though, I challenged that notion when I read The Vicar of Wakefield. Good grief, that was a boring book. I will admit that the Vicar himself was an interesting character with a unique and humorous voice, but that’s about where the merit of this book began an ended. Can we talk about the chapter where the Vicar goes on for pages and pages about how a Monarchy is the political system that benefits poor people the most? Or the ending, where (spoiler alert) the Vicar’s wife tells him that their daughter Sophia is dead, only to reveal later that, haha, she was only joking? Sophia isn’t dead after all?

I mean, I don’t regret reading it necessarily, but I can’t say that wading through the whole thing did me much good.

I’m actually of two minds on this topic.

On one hand, I think “good grief, just let people read what they want to read.” Everyone is going to have different tastes, and telling people they should read something just because it’s a “classic” by someone’s arbitrary definition is silly.

On the other hand, I remember the feeling I got when I reached the end of The Prince and the Pauper, the first classic I ever read all the way through. And I remember how it felt to wade through Gone With the Wind all the way to the end. And more recently, getting to the end of The Napoleon of Notting Hill. Like someone pressed the clutch in my brain and shifted into a higher gear. I suddenly saw the world, or history, or myself, in a way I hadn’t before.

I guess I have no real answer to this question.

But I discovered, during my short stint in the School of Writing, Literature, and Film (while getting my writing minor), that people are really snobby about what books people ought to read. It was frustrating and annoying. So I think, in reaction to their snobbery, I tend to come out more on the “read whatever you want” side of the fence.

Comments by a literature teacher would be very interesting right about now.

I may do a post about snobbery and literary fiction tomorrow. I realized that I’ve been covering a different genre every day, so maybe it’s time to do a literary fiction themed post.

Bookweek Day 3: Why are all the best fantasy writers British?


I don’t have much time today, so this post will be pretty short, but here goes: Why are all the best fantasy writers British?

I made a list the other day. J.M. Barrie, C.S. Lewis, Diana Wynne Jones, J.R.R. Tolkien, A.A. Milne, Lewis Carroll, and Susanna Clarke are/were all British. Eva Ibbotson and Robin McKinley were both born other places, Austria and America respectively, but then later moved to England.

Of my favorite fantasy writers, only one had no connection to England: Gail Carson Levine is still very American. However, an interesting note about Gail Carson Levine is that, unlike the other writers I mentioned, I just cannot enjoy her work in adulthood the way I could in childhood. Only “Ella Enchanted” really stands the test of time, in my opinion.

I have several theories on this.

First, maybe the British write better fantasy because they have a great cache of folklore to draw from. European Americans haven’t been in America long enough to develop a mythology, unless Paul Bunyan counts. Native Americans haven’t been very well-represented in the publishing world. So maybe the American writers that are getting published don’t have a deep connection to folklore and mythology that would enable them to write it well.

If this is the reason, it makes me wonder if there’s a lot of really good fantasy published in languages I can’t read. Because most civilizations are ancient enough to have really interesting folklore and mythology.

My second theory is that maybe the British are just more comfortable with adults reading positive, uplifting fantasy. American fantasy seems to be either strictly for children (not even young adults), or else really dark. On the other hand, a lot of British fantasy is more like what A.A. Milne wrote in his introduction to Once On A Time:

For whom, then, is the book intended? That is the trouble. Unless I can say, “For those, young or old, who like the things which I like,” I find it difficult to answer. Is it a children’s book? Well, what do we mean by that? Is The Wind in the Willows a children’s book? Is Alice in Wonderland? Is Treasure Island? These are masterpieces which we read with pleasure as children, but with how much more pleasure when we are grown-up. In any case, what do we mean by “children”? A boy of three, a girl of six, a boy of ten, a girl of fourteen – are they all to like the same thing? And is a book “suitable for a boy of twelve” any more likely to please a boy of twelve than a modern novel is likely to please a man of thirty-seven; even if the novel be described truly as “suitable for a man of thirty-seven”? I confess that I cannot grapple with these difficult problems. But I am very sure of this: that no one can write a book which children will like, unless he write it for himself first. That being so, I shall say boldly that this is a story for grown-ups.

Those are my theories. Feel free to insert your own. I’ll be over here trying to figure out if it’s feasible to move to England.

Bookweek Day 2: On Reading Diaries


This is my current collection of other people’s diaries. I find them at garage sales sometimes.

It’s absolutely fascinating to me what makes people choose to write down one thing and not another. A diary must be the closest thing to glimpsing the actual inside of a person’s brain.

Mostly, I’ve found, people write down astonishingly boring things about themselves. Linda came at 9:00 to clean house. We left at 1:00 to drive to Olympia. Beautiful day! Beautiful trip! Got to Stephanie’s a little ahead of time.

And then every once in a while you’ll find a humorous story, but not be quite certain whether or not the diary writer was trying to be funny:

Took my antibiotics and went to Dr. Wilde for a root canal. Debated with him whether it was the same tooth Dr. Parley had done the root canal on last  year. He had x-rays to prove that was a different tooth. I was angry and unconvinced but I guess I must have been wrong; so I paid $159.50 today. I think he must have been right but in my own mind I felt sure it was the same tooth. I was quite upset about it the rest of the day.

I was telling my friend Esta about my fascination with diaries, and she suggested that I read the diaries of Anne Lindbergh. She then loaned me Bring Me a Unicorn, the first one.

Anne Morrow began compiling her diaries and letters when she was in her 60s. In the introduction, she gave a very thoughtful explanation for why she compiled diaries and letters instead of going for the more traditional autobiography format.

Since autobiography has always been favorite reading for me, quite naturally I considered using this form. To write an autobiography would mean sifting, picking and choosing, shaping and cutting, and then putting the material into orderly chapters, finished portraits, and polished phrases. There is much to recommend such a process. …But there are certain drawbacks. What remains in the end is the point of view of a mature person only. At best–and its “best” is very good indeed–an autobiography reveals a glimpse of life seen at the end of a telescope, from a single stance, that of a woman in the last third of life. 

…Once started on the painful journey toward honesty, with the passage of time one has increasingly the desire not to gloss over, not to foster illusions or to create fixed images, inasmuch as this is humanly possible. One wants to be an honest witness to the life one has lived and the struggle one has made to find oneself and one’s work, and to relate oneself to others and the world.

So I decided on publishing some of the diaries, along with letters, as a more truthful presentation of those years. 

She later added,

Diaries are written for oneself and reveal the writer as he is when alone.

Fascinating, right?

Of course, Anne left a lot of the boring parts of her diaries out, and she really was a great writer who lived an interesting life, so there really isn’t any comparing her book to the diary of Beulah from Washington that I found at a garage sale. Except for that “diaries are written for oneself and reveal the writer as he is when alone” bit.

I’ve read Bring Me a Unicorn and Hour of Gold, Hour of Lead. And of course I’ve read classics like The Diary of Anne Frank and Zlata’s Diary. I don’t gobble up diaries the way I gobble up fiction, but I’m still very much interested in recommendations. I think I’ll do L.M.Montgomery next.

Bookweek Day 1: On Katherine Patterson, and layers of meaning in Children’s books

I haven’t posted in a while, but I’ve been reading an assortment of books, so why not make this week a book week? We’ll see if it lasts six days or five days or just today.

I’m not usually much of a nonfiction reader, but I’m discovering that nonfiction books by your favorite fiction writers are an entirely different ballgame. Because they write the back stories of the books you loved.

I read Katherine Patterson’s memoir last spring, and now I’m reading a collection of her speeches and articles called A Sense of Wonder: on reading and writing for children. 

In one of those two books–I don’t remember which, she wrote about her book Jacob Have I Loved. 

For those of you who haven’t read it, Jacob Have I Loved is about twin sisters growing up on a little island in the Chesapeake Bay. Louise, the slightly older twin, is strong but not that pretty, and just rather forgettable. Her sister Caroline is beautiful and talented, and pretty much gets everything Louise wants in life. The title comes from the Biblical story of Jacob and Esau. Louise feels like everyone, including God, loved her sister more than her, and like her sister got everything.

As a child/young teen I definitely resonated with this book, and I hated Caroline right along with Louise, the narrator. But I hadn’t read it in years when I started reading Katherine’s nonfiction. And Katherine let me in on a secret I’d never picked up on: Louise is an unreliable narrator. She thinks her sister is so awful, but her sister never does anything that terrible. Louise is just projecting her own insecurities about herself and growing up onto her sister.

While rooting through a drawer of books recently (small bedroom problems) I found my own paperback copy of Jacob Have I Loved, and decided to re-read. And oh my bunnyslippers, Katherine was right. This Caroline character I loathed didn’t really do anything that mean, ever, beyond just existing and happening to have beauty and talent. And pushing her sister’s buttons a bit.

For instance, near the beginning of the book, Louise came in from crabbing, nasty and smelly. Caroline said, “your fingernails are dirty.” Louise interprets this to mean, “I’m so pristine and perfect and you’re gross and inferior.” So Louise got angry. But all Caroline had done was to point out the true, if inane, fact that Louise had dirty fingernails. All the negative “meaning” behind her words was just Louise’s own insecurities.

I was just fascinated by this.

I’m still of two minds about it, though. As brilliant as it is, it makes me wonder if she expects children to actually pick up on it. I certainly didn’t.

What I did pick up on, though, was that it was a real story that just happened to be for children. I think that’s really important. I hated being condescended to when I was a child. So maybe the trick of not condescending to them is to purposefully place content in it that they won’t understand.

MOP April 27: A Few Notes

The thing about setting a lofty goal for myself like “I’m gonna post every other weekday in the month of April!” is that sometimes I post things that resonate with a lot of people and get lots of comments, and other times I barely have it in me to post at all.

Today is the latter type.

First: Thank you to everyone who commented on my last post. I read, loved, and appreciated them all. I wanted to reply to a bunch of them but then I got busy and tired and had lots of homework and gave up.

Second: Today I was going to continue on that theme and post about books I’ve read/enjoyed that are about people who are really “different,” and/or living in more than one culture at once, but I just want to go to bed so maybe I’ll post about that on Friday.

However, if you have any books to recommend on that topic I’d LOVE to hear it. Most of the ones I could think of are Middle Grade books.

Okay. Goodnight.