Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Betsy-Tacy and Betsy, Tacy and Tib

Reading to Know - Book ClubI've never read anything by Maude Hart Lovelace (nor really heard of her until my life as a librarian began) so I was pleased with an excuse to read more new-to-me children's books in conjunction with the Reading to Know bookclub. I read both Betsy-Tacy and Betsy, Tacy and Tib, the first two of what I believe I assume correctly is Lovelace's most popular set of books.
     After seeing how many five-star reviews Goodreads, Amazon and other bloggers give to these books, I wondered if I was missing something. I feel sometimes like I am the meanest book-reviewer around, never liking any books, especially childrens', and complaining about everything I read. (Perhaps I should revisit some of my own past favorites just to show that isn't the case - to myself, if no one else.) I didn't care for these books. It's not that I couldn't stand them, I just didn't find them to my liking. They are very...'cute.' This is how I summarized Betsy, Tacy and Tib to my husband:
     "It's about three little girls who decide to go on picnics, and their mothers always say, 'why, isn't it a good thing I just made this apple cake then! Be good and enjoy yourselves and of course your sister will do the dishes.'"
     I thought of the Ramona books (which I recently read for the first time - and loved!) and also of Ivy and Bean. (Linked to my review.) However, the difference between Betsy-Tacy and those others is hard to pinpoint. Is it the writing style? Is it the characters? Perhaps I am too hard on their imaginations - I was a little bored with the adventures they came up with. I wasn't much like these girls when I was their age - except I did make concoctions when allowed, mixing everything in the kitchen up into one big, intriguing, stinky mess. I was smart enough not to taste them, though. And I did have thick brown braids.
I will say, in their favor, that I love Lois Lenski's illustrations. And perhaps Lovelace is one of those authors that needs to be read as a child. As an adult, I haven't found a new favorite.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Scarlet Letter

I will bore no one here with a summary of a story you are already perfectly familiar with. These are just my reactions to rereading a classic American novel eight or ten years after my first encounter with it in my early teens.

Let me further preface the statements below with the confession that, while I read The Scarlet Letter at the guidance of the Reading to Know bookclub, I failed in my efforts to finish the book in the time given - and, even a week after the ending date, I am still 80 pages from the end. That being said, my thoughts thus far may be altered somewhat when I do finish it. But if my memory serves me rightly, I think my reaction will not be greatly altered.

In the Scarlet Letter, no character cares for anyone more than themselves. Roger Chillingworth is bent on exacting revenge on the man who seduced his wife; Hester wears her embroidered ‘A’ with pride, and Dimmesdale is too overcome with cowardice to join Hester in her punishment for their mutual sin. The townsfolk also are more interested in seeing Hester Prynne’s punishment brought about and in keeping themselves high above her status as a sinner, while they harbor any secrets of their own in their hearts.

There are, however, two instances in which a character attempts to make intervention on the behalf of another. The first, and lesser of these, is when the magistrate and townspeople consider whether it would be better for Hester’s child, Pearl, to be taken out of her mother’s care and given to more Christian parents to be raised and catechized – but Hester vehemently argues against this, and even calls Dimmesdale to speak for her. The two of them convince the magistrate that Pearl is best off with her natural mother.

The second instance is when Hester approaches her husband, Chillingworth, with regard to his treatment of Dimmesdale. She speaks out of a sense of duty to the tormented minister, feeling she is somehow responsible for his woeful circumstances. I would disagree with her, it is much more his own doing than hers – they sinned together, but he refused to stand beside her in receiving judgement and punishment. What does she owe him? Is it out of some remnant of romantic feeling she has for him – although, oddly, this is a point on which the book is entirely silent.

Nathaniel Hawthorne

This is one of those books where none of the characters are likeable. Least likeable is the cringing Dimmesdale, who is tormented daily in his spirit by his selfish and hidden sin, yet makes no step towards righting the wrong he has done. Instead he withers under the malice of his so-called friend and physician, Chillingworth, and at every resolve to make public his own adultery, backs down and loses his nerve.  Yet even though the characters are detestable, and the writing is rather difficult to process at times, I can’t say I dislike reading The Scarlet Letter. It is a book that provides much food for thought and it deals heavily with the consequences of sin and the various reactions that different people have to sins, both in themselves and in others. One thing that stood out to me in this reading is how little Hawthorne tells us about how we ought to feel towards the characters – should we sympathize with Dimmesdale when he is overcome with guilt? Or with Hester, when her prideful humility keeps her ever mindful and reminding others of the embellished letter she wears? Perhaps with Chillingworth, who in a past life was not a bad sort of person – just an old man who inadvisedly marries a young woman who he knows does not love him – and later becomes a fiend thirsty for revenge? Perhaps we should pity them all, and the atmosphere that places them in such anguish as each endures.    When Hester is speaking to Chillingworth about 2/3 of the way through the book, pleading with him to release his terrible hold on DImmesdale, she cries "There is no good for him, -no good for me, -no good for thee! There is no good for little Pearl! There is no path to guide us out of this dismal maze!" True enough for each of these characters - because, in all their distress, they don't turn in the one direction that could give them solace. Even Dimmesdale, who is closer to the source of comfort than the others by virtue of his profession, does not seek repentance and forgiveness of the One whom they have all offended. Now, Hawthorne is brutally harsh in his treatment of the Puritans - but they are the ones who are telling Hester and her unknown partner in sin to repent and lay their sins before God - yet this is never done, and so, there is never full redemption for these unhappy characters.  

Reading to Know - Book Club

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The One and Only Newbery Winner?

I like to read the new Newbery winners when they are selected. I'd also like to go back and read all the past Newbery's - the ones I haven't already read. The latter might be the better use of my time.

This year, The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate was the winner.

Here's a quote from the Newbery Awards  homepage: "The Newbery Medal was named for eighteenth-century British bookseller John Newbery. It is awarded annually by the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association, to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children."

Now, you would think that the 'most distinguished contribution to American literature for children" would be a pretty good read, right? I, with C. S. Lewis, believe that “No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally – and often far more – worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.” - not that I've experienced the age of fifty yet, but hey, I'm halfway there...almost...

Anyway. Most of the children's books that are written today, I would venture, are NOT worth reading again at age fifty, or, in fact, worth reading at all. However, now and then I'll come across one that surprises me with its ability to capture the audience, give them something to chew on, and do it neatly and with proper grammar. You would think any book worthy of the Newbery medal would fall into this latter category. After all, many past winners include books that remain my favorites - A Wrinkle in Time, Island of the Blue Dolphins, Sarah, Plain and Tall, and many other worthwhile titles. But apparently, at some point the members of the Newbery Medal committee stopped being the kind of people who know what children like and what's good for them, and became the kind of people in love with 'cute.'

What I'm really saying, in a roundabout way, is that The One and Only Ivan was not a book I'm happy to have spent quality break-time at work on. It was dull, trivial, uninteresting; it failed to captivate, to lure on, to teach, edify, or incite. It was nothing. Unless you are passionate about finger-painting gorillas. The only thing I liked about this book was that it reminded me of a book I was oddly fascinated with when I was small about Koko, the gorilla who learned some sign language and had a pet kitten who had no tail.

The One and Only Ivan was a book that I don't think children would like. Children would rather visit a gorilla in a zoo than distress about trying to get a gorilla out of a stationary circus and into a zoo. They might like a gorilla who paints. But they're not going to fall for a gorilla who makes a billboard sign and somehow gets a little girl and her father to actually put the billboard up. A little dog who is friends with a gorilla is cute, but a cute little girl who precociously calls herself an artist is not. Cute is an adjective that people have assigned to children, and have led themselves to believe that children like 'cute.'

To be fair, I haven't read any other new children's books from the past year, so I cannot definitely say that a better children's book that The One and Only Ivan was written this year. Maybe it really was the best that anyone wrote - I shudder at the thought. But if that were the case, and it was just the least of a great many evils, then why couldn't they simply not choose a winner, as they did with the Pulitzer last year? One must assume the committee really thought The One and Only Ivan was a great book.

Lately, my husband and I have become rather zealous about creating a quality library for our future offspring. Not all the Newbery winners will be included.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

My So-called Life as a Proverbs 31 Wife, by Sara Horn

So, I realized only when I was 87% finished with My So-Called Life as Proverbs 31 Wife that it's the first 'wife' book I've read since I became a wife two months ago. That's just a tidbit, it doesn't reflect in any way on what I thought of the book. (But I have a few titles in the wife-book category that I hope will soon follow it - whether I post on them or not!) 

I ended up liking this book more than I thought I would. The biggest turn-off for me was the author's writing style. Each chapter reads much more like a blog post than a book. Once I was able to get past it, and understood more about the author's background, the purpose of the book and its very real impact on the author's life came through clearly. She writes, "I’ve written other books. But this book was the first one that changed me, from the inside out, as I was writing it. It’s still changing me." (From the author's Proverbs31 blog

Sara Horn is the president of Wives of Faith, a ministry she started for military wives (her husband being in the Navy) and is also an author and speaker on the subjects of faith, marriage and military life. In the beginning of her book, she hears a sermon in church one day on what a Christian wife should be, out of that well-known passage Proverbs 31:10-28. At first she is very put off by the long list of this priceless woman's accomplishments, but as she reads and rereads the passage again later, she begins to wonder if it isn't so impossible to try and follow that role model, and if she couldn't be working at it a little harder. So, her year long experiment is sparked. For the next 12 months, Sara takes those eleven verses to heart and makes following their example her highest goal. 

There's a lot in her way. Her husband is in the Navy reserves with occasional work at a local radio station, and Sara has a few free-lance writing opportunities, but during her year-long experiment they face very slim times financially. During the year, her husband has a couple of brief deployments, and she works hard at being a mother to their third-grade son and a supportive wife while her husband is away. Later in the year, she ends up taking a full-time job in a different state, which not only forces them to uproot, but throws quite a wrench in her efforts to be who she refers to as Martha31 - the woman who seemingly can do everything, all with a cheerful smile. Throughout it all, Sara questions what the modern version of this woman looks like, how she would deal with being able to land a full-time job outside the home while her husband struggles to find work, how much she delegates, and more.
It was the honesty of Sara's writing that captured me. Not only are all the emotions there, but also all the insecurity and second guessing, all the frustration and discouragement felt when it seemed like yet again she was being thwarted in her good intentions. She doesn't meet it all with perfectly demure grace, but she does have the courage and humility to learn from all the bumps and trials that her family faces. While struggling with her passionate desire to minister to women and make a difference for good in their lives, she always puts her family first and does for them what must be done. 

I wouldn't say Sara and I are at all alike - quite the contrary. She expresses early on in the book how even when she and her husband were married while still in college, she never had a strong desire to be a homemaker, while I on the other hand have wanted nothing else. She puts her family first, but she also feels pulled to work and minister outside the home, wheras I am happiest on days I don't even have to go out grocery shopping. But we do have a few things in common - the knowledge that we are redeemed by God's grace, that we have been given families to love and serve, and that serving God and putting our families before ourselves and all else is the greatest ministry we can follow. 

Incidentally, Horn is at work on another book due out this August, which I will be looking forward to reading - if I remember it seven months from now.

Anne and I both have changed

When I decided to join the Reading to Know book club 2013 over at Carrie's blog, I thought January's reading challenge would be pretty easy. But honestly - it really was a challenge. Now, I hope my Montgomery-loving friends will not disown me after this post, but I really did not enjoy revisiting her books this time around. 

It had been quite a long time since I read Anne of Green Gables, so I checked out the audio CD. I do a lot of driving these days, and it worked out nicely. I didn't have to try and cram reading time in when I was home, and it made use of the hours of driving I put in each week. It wasn't the first time I've reread Anne of Green Gables - I lost count how many times I returned to that book when I was small. But this was the first time I haven't enjoyed it. Rather, I found it a bit annoying, and discovered some issues with Anne that my younger self never noticed. What struck me most is Anne's manipulative ways. Multiple times she looks soulfully up at her elders who are flustered by her mischief and antics, and opines 'How would you feel if you were a little orphan girl, and had never ______?," and she always wins them over. She props up her history book and then has a novel on her lap, "but she never once thought of being deceitful in what she was doing!" She refuses to go to school on account of hurt pride, and is allowed to, and for years is steadfastly unforgiving to the repentant offender. And it's all done in the name of imagination.

 Now, I'm not saying Anne is all bad - she is loves deeply and, for the most part, without reserve, and is loyal to the death to those she cares for. And of course, she is still a child, so I approve of the author giving her faults at all - there is nothing I like less than perfect child protagonists. But Anne's faults, while they are not really glorified, are not properly shown to be faults, either. Frequently an outburst from Anne is smoothed over by a dramatic apology from her, a "There now, that's all right" and a smile from the adult or adults involved, frequently joined with some justification of her wrongdoing - Rachel Lind deserved to be told off. It's true, the reverend's prayers were very dull. Gilbert had been quite rude. Perhaps the author did it to prevent from being overly moralistic, like Marilla's character so often is. But a good author can give their characters faults, know them and show them to be such, without being preachy and moralistic. Montgomery fails to do that. 
So, I'm left wondering what the point of Anne really is. It's a story of a girl with too much imagination who eventually grows up into a young woman ready to set off for college. She has grown up quite a bit over the course of the book, and many of her overtly manipulative ways have vanished. She even forgives Gilbert, at long last, and she is a likable character at the end of the book. (I cannot say so much for younger Anne.) But, on the whole, Anne of Green Gables is a book that I don't really get anything out of. It no longer interests me, it does not move or teach me or give me food for thought. I have no hard feelings against it - really, I haven't many feelings at all towards it. 

There was one other Montgomery book I attempted, Kilmeny of the Orchard. I got about 1/3 of the way through and then did not allow it to encroach upon my time any longer. 

Thursday, January 3, 2013

In which the author determines to read again

Time ebbs and flows. When you come to the shore and the tide is midway between the rocks and the wide sandy beach, it's hard to tell if it's coming in or going out. But if you've been standing by the sea and watching the moon drag it across its allotted piece of land, and seen it come in and felt waves on your feet, you almost begin to wonder if the current will pull you in and you'll lose all track of how time is rushing on and on.
And then it slowly begins to ebb again.
I've been busy. Now, with the getting-married business well taken care of, I do believe there may be calmer seas ahead for a bit. So I went ahead and made a New Year's resolution - Read More Books. The last book I read was Bleak House, and I didn't actually read it because I only made it halfway, and then for a month there was pre-wedding madness, and then for another month there was settling-in. Truly, I've had a wonderful time - I enjoyed almost every minute of planning my wedding and have enjoyed every single minute of being married. But it's time to get reading again! I feel a book-shaped hole inside that must be filled.
So, I logged into GoodReads again (We can be friends!
This is me.) and was dismayed that the books it said I was currently reading were in fact the last books I had read - and that was two months ago. A little updating was in order, though, and I am ready to set forth on my grandiose intent to read a minimum of 50 books in 2013 - without, as my friend Heather said, resorting to Beatrix Potter. Think I can do it?
I'll have help with accountability. The book club that meets in my mother's home is continuing, for which I am most thankful. Additionally, I am jumping on board with the book club at Reading to Know, hosted by my personal friend Carrie. In January, the reading material is any and all L. M. Montgomery. I'm having a hard time deciding which books to read, but I put Among the Shadows on hold at the library- tales of the supernatural by the creator of Anne?? I must know! Additionally, I am going to try Anne of Green Gables on audio CD. I'm not a fan of audio books. But I have an hour of commute time every day now, and if it means I can get some semblance of reading time in, so be it. And if I'm lucky, soon I'll be reporting back on my reading conquests!

Monday, June 18, 2012

84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff

Utterly Charming! You know, there are some writers out there who enjoy using words, and breaking enough grammar rules to keep things interesting. I think that especially in a book of diary or letter arrangement, grammar rules can be made a little looser. Whenever I read a book like this I want to dash off and pen a dozen witty, clever, interesting, happy, lively letters. I think my friends would tire of the copy-cat sentiment that would be produced by such a reaction, though.

Years ago I watched the movie of 84, Charing Cross Road. I didn't like it. Now I know why! Such a compendium was never, ever meant to be transferred to the screen – I don't care how many TV scripts the author wrote. Theses were letters, between a reserved English gentleman in a bookshop and a penniless girl writing from a New York apartment. Over about twenty years, Helene Hanff and Frank Doel wrote across an ocean as she sought books and he found them. Helene has a noisy sense of humor and a proclivity for uppercase letters when she is PARTICULARLY PEEVED. Additionally, her loving and vivid descriptions of the editions she secured are enough for any bibliophile to sigh, and the idea of an Englishman in a bookshop in England pulling books off shelves and wrapping them up and sending them off to America is something any buyer of old volumes would have to be envious of.

I was surprised by what great blocks of time were blotted out, silent between letters. There were obviously large sections of the correspondence missing, also. Reading the book feels distinctly like sitting in a somewhat noisy cafe and evesdropping on the very interesting conversation happening one or two tables over from you. You miss bits of it, and the bits you hear make you want to go over and barge your way into the conversation, making them start over at the beginning and repeat whatever you missed. Of course, you can't, not in either case – it would be terribly rude.

I picked this book up because my friend Teresa has made mention of it before and expressed her deepest admiration for the little book. On her trip to England last Spring she also stopped by the place where the shop used to be, and sent me a picture of a little plaque commemorating the spot. I am glad to have had the pleasure of reading it. It's very brief, lots of fun, and an absolute delight to either anglo- or bibliophiles, or both. 

I read the book in about an hour all told. Amazon has it for quite cheap!