Category Archives: Thoughts About Books

Bookweek 2018 Day 4: Ahead of Their Time

emma-cover

There are two phrases that modern commentators often use when describing old books.

The first is “a product of their era.”

The second is “ahead of their time.”

In fact, after a while it starts to feel like anything we agree with in an old book points to it being “ahead of its time,” and anything we disagree with is labeled “a product of their era.”

Oh, Emma Woodhouse has disturbing ideas about class distinction? Well, she was a product of her era.

Wait, Emma Woodhouse decided she wanted to be an independent woman instead of getting married? She was ahead of her time.

Seriously, nearly every famous heroine from old books gets labeled as “ahead of her time,” or “unusual for her era.” Anne of Green Gables. Jo March. Jane Eyre. Even Meg Murry, from A Wrinkle in Time, which came out in the ’60s. It was actually my mom who pointed out this phenomenon first, and then I started hearing it everywhere.

I mean, yes we’ve got our Elsie Dinsmores. But for the most part, old books have interesting female characters who are a little feisty and do interesting stuff. Logically, this should mean that in the past, women like this were relatively common, just as sprinklings of racism in books logically indicate that sprinklings of racism were relatively common in the past.

Although I used the first phrase “a product of their era” in my post about problematic old books, I think it’s only useful to see old books as a product of their era as long as we see the whole book as a product of its era, not just the parts that are problematic. And as long as we also see new books as a product of their era.

Books provide a fascinating window into the thinking of the time they were written.

Bookweek 2018 Day 3: Stuff I HATED as a Kid

When I was a kid, there were certain tropes that appeared over and over again in my literature. Here is a list of some of the ones I detested.

1. When the book made statements about the way that “grown-ups” are silly.

Example: “Grown-up people find it very difficult to believe really wonderful things, unless they have what they call proof.” (From Five Children and It by E. Nesbit)

I guess this is intended to make children feel like the author is on their side or something, but I found it terribly annoying and condescending. Like, duh. Obviously you, the writer, are a grown-up, so why are you putting grown-ups down?

2. When, in the midst of some particularly interesting happening or another, a character would blurt out, “this is just like a book!”

Again, duh. I always felt like the author was insulting my intelligence. Of course it’s just like a book, because it is a book.

Both of the two annoying phrases mentioned above appeared with astonishing frequency in older books, but I don’t see them much nowadays. Maybe it was just a weird fad for a while, and then all the kids who had to grow up reading those phrases became writers and editors and quickly abolished the practice?

3. When a character tried to give themselves a make-over, or change themselves in some way, but by the end of the book they decided to just “be themselves” and go back to being the way they were.

I found this SO frustrating. Why weren’t these characters ever allowed to become beautiful and interesting and cool at the end?

And not gonna lie, of all the messages that the media hammered into me, I found “be yourself” to be the stupidest one. It was everywhere, and it made no sense. Like, how could you NOT be yourself? And how on earth could getting a make-over and wearing cuter clothes mean you’re suddenly not yourself? And if you have a chance to change yourself to make yourself awesomer, how could that possibly be a bad thing?

I get the concept now, and I do think a lot of young people struggle with just being their authentic selves, even if I didn’t, but I still think the concept is WAY overdone.

(Wow, maybe I shouldn’t have put the “as a kid” qualifier in the title. Even now as I write this, I want to put every other word in ALL CAPS to EXPLAIN the INTENSITY of my emotion about it, haha.)

4. People getting a chance for a grand spectacular life change and then not taking it.

Maybe this only happened in Caddie Woodlawn. Caddie and her family got a chance to be like, fancy rich people in England or something, right at the end of the book. And they decided to keep on being pioneers instead.

WHAT?!?

As far as I know, I am the only one that was upset by that ending. I just really thought it would be cool to be a fancy person in England, I guess.

5. Wishes that go wrong

In most books that involve wishes, the wishes don’t turn out very well. Like King Midas, wishing for everything he touched to turn to gold, and then accidentally turning his daughter to gold.

A version of this shows up in most children’s books where wishes come true. It frustrated me to no end. Couldn’t the wish just be amazing and fun for once?

In fact, these last three things I’ve mentioned have had a similar theme. It was almost as if the books I read were telling me, “be content with the normal and ordinary. The spectacular isn’t that great.”

But if I wanted normal and ordinary, I wouldn’t be reading a book, now would I?

And, finally, I got super creeped out and annoyed every time I encountered…

6. Younger girls who marry way older guys

This is something that came up when I wrote about the shady stuff in old books. A few people mentioned the way that Dean Priest had pursued Emily in L.M. Montgomery’s Emily series.

Oooooooh, suddenly I remembered how angry that pairing had made me, even though it all (thankfully) came to nothing, and Emily ended up where she belonged, with Teddy. I still remember being sick, on the couch, reading a paperback version of Emily’s Quest, and just, oh, the horrible misery of that book as it took her forever to get un-engaged to Dean, and even longer to finally, FINALLY end up with Teddy.

I hated the older-guy younger-girl thing every time I encountered it. Robin McKinley was particularly bad at this. And back to L.M. Montgomery, I remember starting to read A Tangled Web, because Mom loved it and really wanted me to read it, and starting to feel uneasy about Gay’s relationships.

“She’s not gonna end up with Roger, is she?” I asked Mom.

“Um, well, he’s really nice!” said Mom.

I hastily closed the book and refused to finish it.

I’m not exactly sure why this bothered me so badly. I think the older-guy younger-girl thing felt super manipulative to me. And also, I couldn’t imagine being attracted to someone who was that much older than me.

So, there’s my list. What did you hate reading about when you were a kid?

Bookweek 2018, Day 2: Men in Books

uneasy-money-26

Recently I heard someone say that men, in books that are written for women, are’t men. They’re women.

I don’t remember who said it, or where this idea came from. If this rings a bell please let me know. As far as I can recall, the reasoning behind this sentiment was that these fictional men sense a woman’s pain without out being told, and empathize in a way that’s actually much more like how a woman would respond than how a man would respond.

I found it an interesting concept. It did make me worry a bit about my own male characters, though. How can I write authentic male characters when I don’t understand how men think?

I began looking, in literature, for male characters that felt distinctly male. And then I started reading more P.G. Wodehouse, and found this this opening description of the main character in Uneasy Money.

He paid no attention to the stream of humanity that flowed past him. His mouth was set and his eyes wore a serious, almost a wistful expression. He was frowning slightly. One would have said that here was a man with a secret sorrow.

William FitzWilliam Delamere Chalmers, Lord Dawlish, had no secret sorrow. All that he was thinking of at that moment was the best method of laying a golf ball dead in front of the Palace Theatre.

It was his habit to pass the time in mental golf when Claire Fenwick was late in keeping her appointments with him. On one occasion she had kept him waiting so long that he had been able to do nine holes, starting at the Savoy Grill and finishing up near Hammersmith.

I laughed and laughed. This opening took the stereotypical male hero trope and turned it on its head, and suddenly the main character seemed like that guy you knew in high school.

Because he liked sports.

Most guys that I know love sports. Most male leads in books, particularly those written by women for women, don’t care two figs about sports.

As a writer, I love tips and tricks for how to make characters feel like real people. My writing teachers told us to make our characters want something. My friends told me to give my characters flaws. I’ve decided that from now on, my male characters are going to love sports.

What do you think of my theory?

Have you read any books by women for women in which the main male character loves sports? (Boxing and/or Bull riding as a way to release pent up anger stemming from his father’s abandonment don’t count.)

Do you have any other simple tricks for making male characters seem more male?

Bookweek 2018, Day 1: Shady Stuff in Old Books

Last year I did a casual series I called “bookweek,” where I spent a week posting my thoughts about books.

It was fun.

I decided to do it again.

Recently I read an old book I picked up at a garage sale, called The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, by John Fox Jr. I’d never heard of it, but apparently it was a bestseller when it was published in 1908.

If I’m gonna be honest, the book had some weird stuff in it. Like…

A. The main characters in the book are a man who has graduated from college and is working as an engineer, and a child so young she still plays with dolls. They fall in love with each other. It’s a little cagey on how old they are. At the end of the book, when they get married, the girl is 18. But he first kisses her several years before this. And their bizarre “friendship” prior to this is full of him buying her presents, arranging for her to be educated, etc, so that she is enamored by him, “good enough” for him, and indebted to him.

Is that not about fifteen levels of creepy????

B. Every once in a while these odd, slightly racist and/or classist tidbits sneak in. Like when the characters are setting up a police force in their newly-established town, and this is just tossed in there:

There had been gentlemen-regulators a plenty, vigilance committees of gentlemen, and the Ku-Klux clan had been originally composed of gentlemen, as they all knew, but they meant to hew to the strict line of town-ordinance and common law and do the rough everyday work of the common policeman (Fox 95).

Um, okay? You’re just going to casually mention the KKK as being “gentlemen-regulators” and move on?

Then, a couple pages later, we have this gem. (The “she” referenced is June Tolliver, the child love interest).

She was so intelligent that he began to wonder if, in her case, at least, another of Hon. Sam’s theories might not be true—that the mountaineers were of the same class as the other westward-sweeping emigrants of more than a century before, that they had simply lain dormant in the hills and—a century counting for nothing in the matter of inheritance—that their possibilities were little changed, and that the children of that day would, if given the chance, wipe out the handicap of a century in one generation and take their place abreast with children of the outside world. The Tollivers were of good blood; they had come from Eastern Virginia, and the original Tolliver had been a slave-owner (Fox 100-101).

This got me thinking. I think there is a prevalent myth that books are getting more and more immoral as time goes by. If your kid is reading above their grade level, you hand them old books so they don’t have to read about sex.

But issues like racism and child grooming are actually pretty prevalent in old books. Often they’re not really THAT overt, just kind-of lurking, vaguely troubling. Like The Magic Garden by Gene Stratton-Porter has that creepy female-child-is-romantically-befriended-by-much-older-boy element. According to Mom, several of L.M. Montgomery’s short stories have this plotline as well.

And then there’s the racism/classism, which I’m lumping together because they both come from the root idea that some people are naturally better than other people. Classism especially seems to be everywhere in old British literature. Take Emma by Jane Austin, for instance. Emma decides that Harriet Smith is “too good” to marry a farmer. Knightly reprimands her for this, but it’s definitely not an “everyone is equal” speech. More like a “Harriet isn’t as high class as you think she is” speech.

But by far the most troubling thing to me is the racism that shows up in old books, particularly in children’s books that depict American Indians. The ones that immediately come to mind are Five Children and It by E. Nesbit, Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie, and Centerburg Tales: More Adventures of Homer Price by Robert McCloskey, but I’m sure there are more.

These books present American Indians as silly caricatures, existing only to provide entertainment for the children in the story. Very much the way children’s books present pirates–as though American Indians were a profession of the past, not a vibrant culture of today. I think this one especially troubles me because I remember how these types of media shaped my friends’ and my view of American Indians. I remember, for instance, explaining to my friend that “did you know that Indians today live in houses, not teepees? My mom said!”

He didn’t believe me.

Now, Peter Pan is my favorite book, and I love Emma, and I obviously give writers from the past a lot of grace because they were a “product of their era.” And I try to give writers from today a lot of grace, as well, when they write things I view as problematic. Everyone is a product of their era, really.

However, I think we also need to accept the fact that we can’t just blindly hand children books from some other era and expect that they won’t find shady stuff in them.

Thoughts? What shady stuff have you noticed in old books?

April Giveaway Winner+8 Random Thoughts

The winner of my book giveaway is Celina Lynnette! Congrats, Celina!

Sorry, I am too tired to do the whole draw-a-name-out-of-a-hat-and-take-pictures-of-the-process thing.

That means that this post is super short and lame, and not really a proper April Blogging Challenge post. Maybe I’ll go all Emily-of-ten-years-ago and post some random thoughts.

8 Random Thoughts:

  1. Today I had a grand fight with the printer. The printer won. #secretarylife
  2. I’m reading “Franny and Zooey,” by J.D. Salinger. I wasn’t an enormous fan of “The Catcher in the Rye” (three stars), but am finding that I really enjoy his stories about the Glass family.
  3. Favorite line: “I’m sick of not having the courage to be an absolute nobody.”
  4. I used to be appalled when I saw people compare Obama to a monkey/ape. I thought it was extremely racist. But now I see people compare Trump to a pig, even photo-shopping a pig nose onto his face. Can we just not compare our leaders to animals? Thank you.
  5. How many seasons does Oregon have? I’m quite sure we don’t have four. I think we might just have two: Summer and Wet. Thoughts?
  6. I like to read magazine articles about really innovative artsy interior design ideas, but all I can think is, “how would you even dust that?”
  7. I actually wonder the same thing when people have stuffed animal heads hanging on their walls.
  8. There is nothing like the wonderful feeling of discovering another person that loves “The Blue Castle.”

April Book Giveaway (ABC Day 18)

Today I’m cleaning off my bookshelf and doing a little book giveaway. These books fall squarely in the camp of “I enjoyed them, but I don’t necessarily want them cluttering up my bookshelf forever, but someone else might LOVE them.”

At least, someone might love the first one. Not sure about the second. But I’ll get to that in a minute.

The first book I’m giving away is A Visit from the Good Squad, by Jennifer Egan

A Visit from the Goon Squad is a fun read that’s structured in a very interesting way. It begins with a story about a kleptomaniac named Sasha who is going on a date with a guy named Alex. During their date, she mentions this weird boss she used to have named Benny.

The next story jumps back in time, and is about Benny working as a music executive. The third story jumps back in time again, and is set during the time Benny was a teenager, but it’s told from the point of view of one of Benny’s friends/bandmates.

In this way, it’s more a collection of short stories than a novel, even though it says “a novel” right there on the front cover. But there are novel-like elements. You get to the end of each story eager to read the next one, and the questions that you have at the end of some stories are usually answered in other stories. And there are themes linking it together: mostly the theme of “time” and the theme of “music,” with the idea that music, in a way, transcends time.

(If you are wondering how I can state what the themes are so clearly and succinctly, it’s because I had to read this book for a class, and we analyzed it to death. If it weren’t for that experience, I may have decided to keep this book, haha.)

One caveat: While there are no graphic sex scenes or anything, it is a secular book written for adults, and adult themes crop up occasionally.

Okay. The second books is The Vicar of Wakefield, by Oliver Goldsmith.

The Vicar of Wakefield is an odd little classic that will look pretty on your bookshelf even if you, like me, don’t end up liking the story. Also, the ending is so completely bizarre that it’s hilarious. Furthermore, if you skip the boring political rants, it turns out to be semi-interesting, and the main character/narrator has a unique voice.

(If I’m gonna be honest, there were times when I wasn’t certain if the main character was supposed to be satirical or not. Sometimes it’s hard to know, with really old stuff, if it’s satire or serious. Like, I read once that Romeo and Juliette was a satire of how stupid teenagers are when they’re in love, and if that were true I would like the play much better, but how can you tell when you know next to nothing about the intricate culture of the time it was written?)

So anyway, if you want these two books, or if you want one of them and will put up with getting the other one too, please leave a comment either on here or on Facebook saying you want to be entered into the the drawing.

Optional: You can also tell me whether or not you think Romeo and Juliette is a satire.

The giveaway will close at 11:59 pm on Tuesday, April 24. (So you’ve pretty much got a week to enter.)

Final note: You can read the April Blogging Challenge Day 17 post here on Jenny’s blog, and tomorrow your can check out the Day 19 post on Mom’s blog.

February Book Winner

The winner of my February book giveaway is…

Natasha Yoder!

Congrats, Natasha. I sent you an email.

As for the rest of you unlucky losers, worry not! I shall give away another book at the end of March.

February Book Giveaway

I think I’ll start doing a book giveaway every month, at least until I run out of books to give away. Starting with this book.

Beverly Cleary was a favorite author of mine growing up. Throughout the years, my Dad read pretty much all of the Ramona Quimby books to me. Cleary is one of those rare authors that truly understands how children think. But it wasn’t until I was older that I realized she wrote some young adult (YA) as well.

I don’t know about you, but YA is very hit-or-miss with me. The universal appeal of YA is that while our teenage years are certainly not the best years of our lives, they’re certainly the most vivid. So diving back into that world can be a fun diversion. But all my life I’ve had a lot of trouble finding YA books I could actually relate to, or that even remotely resembled my own teenage experience.

Then, recently, I read this annoying article in which the author confidently writes, “sex, drinking and drugs are part of a teenager’s reality. This isn’t me suggesting every teenager has sex, or drinks, or does drugs — only that it’s there. It exists for them. And some adults may bluster — ‘Bluh, bleh, muh, not my teenager!’ — to which I say, even Amish teenagers deal with this. The Amish. The Amish. So, I’m always dubious of any young adult book that doesn’t at least address one of these three in some way.”

When I read this I rolled my eyes so hard that they were sore for days. If this is what people think the reality of every teenager is, it’s no wonder I could never find YA I could actually relate to.

Anyway. All that to say, I tend to collect YA that addresses what I see as the actual universal feelings of young people. Like when you like a guy more than they like you, or when you’re angry at your mom but can’t fully pinpoint where your feelings stem from, or when things matter enormously but you can’t explain why, or when you like the idea of a guy more than the actual guy, or when you start to discover how big and interesting the world really is.

This compilation by Beverly Cleary addresses all those feelings, and more. It is such a fun read. I recently found a second copy, and decided to give it away to one of my readers.

The compilation includes three books:

Jean and Johnny

Fifteen

The Luckiest Girl

If you’re interested in some fun happy reading, comment below or on Facebook saying you’d like to be entered. You can also mention what your favorite books were as a teenager, if you wish. If you share this post on Facebook or Twitter I’ll give you an extra entry. Just mention in your comment that you shared it.

That’s all for now. Happy Reading!

ETA: Giveaway now closed.

Cozy Books

“Is The Kite Runner good?” I asked Amy while perusing her bookshelf for something to read.

“Oh, you haven’t read it yet? You should read it!”

So I read it, and it fell vaguely short of my expectations. Which was somewhat of a feat, as I had very few expectations going into it. I guess I just expected to enjoy reading it more than I did.

Then I picked up A Tangled Web, by L.M. Montgomery, and thoroughly enjoyed it. Something in my soul filled up, making me feel beautiful and happy and content and thoughtful.

So then, of course, having read two books in a relatively short span of time, I had to compare them. I had to know why I preferred one over the other so strongly.

Some of the difference was actual quantifiable things that made one book better that the other. Hosseini wrote pages and pages about flat characters who only had one trait. “The sweet supportive wife.” “The kind, selfless friend.” “The evil sadistic villain.”

Montgomery, on the other hand, wrote characters that were only mentioned once in the entire book, but had distinctive and unique personalities. And she laughed when cousin Hannah from Summerside asked her if it could be true that she was going to marry “a certain young man.” Cousin Hannah would not say “a Gibson.” Her manner gave the impression that Gibsons did not really exist. They might imagine they did but they were mere emanations of the Evil One, to be resolutely disbelieved in by anyone of good principles and proper breeding. One did not speak openly of the devil. Neither did one speak of the Gibsons. 

But all technicalities of good writing aside, I discovered that an essential characteristic of the books I love, deep in my soul is coziness, abundantly present in all of Montgomery’s books, but not so much in Hosseini’s. This is also a difference I’ve noticed between British and American fantasy. Almost all my favorite fantasy writers were British, and they tended to infuse their books with coziness. Even a fantasy epic like The Lord of the Rings had these incredibly cozy descriptions of eating second breakfast in Bag End.

My three favorite cozy books are Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, and The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery.

Castle Books

Pictured is a foreign language (Portuguese?) edition of Howl’s Moving Castle, because I liked the cover art better than the English version. 

I think of them as my castle trilogy, as they all three have the word “castle” in the title. At first this seemed a grand coincidence. But later I reflected that books with “castle” in the title usually have a strong sense of place, as the castle is so present in the books that it is almost a character itself. And there is something very very cozy about books with a strong sense of place.

My friend Esta later mused that maybe it’s an introvert thing to be so drawn to cozy books, because we want this strong familiar sense of place to retreat to.

That was kind-of a round-about ramble, but all that to say I’ve been craving cozy books lately, and if you have recommendations for cozy books with a strong sense of place I would love to hear about them!

The coziest book I’ve read recently that wasn’t a re-read was Parnassus on Wheels by Christopher Morley.

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.