4.06.2015

The (not-so)Mildness of March



Mosquitoland by David Arnold
Horten's Miraculous Mechanisms by Lissa Evans
Dinner: A Love Story by Jenny Rosenstrach
Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien
Gregor and the Prophecy of Bane by Suzanne Collins
Skippy Dies by Paul Murray

There are people out there for whom going to the beach on Spring Break would be a normal, even expected, occurrence. I am not those people. Funny to note, then, that March has been bookended (see what I did there) with trips to the beach. The first was with a school trip, and we went to Florida to learn to surf. We had a great time, and when I came home raving about it, the family suggested we go back during our Spring Break. So we did. We camped, saw ‘gators, went to Legoland, and the kids learned to surf a bit. We also listened to several audiobooks about rats (more on that later), and I managed to finish the book (Skippy Dies) I had started on the first installment of this trip.

On its face, March looks like a mild reading month. Only one real example of adult fiction, and four of the titles are for young readers? Many would consider that a failed outing. Those many would be wrong.

I started Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies at the very end of February, and I read it all month, and like the best long books, it never felt long. It is brilliant. May I say that and be taken seriously? Because it really is an unlikely treasure, especially (but not exclusively) for those who overlap regularly with high schoolers. Murray understands the high school experience, and he captures the youthful voice beautifully, and though there is plenty of slang and profanity and stuff you wish you didn’t know about high school students, it is always coupled with insightful commentary and the prose of a true craftsman. It is no spoiler to tell you that Daniel “Skippy” Juster dies at the beginning of the book - it’s in the title. To reveal more than that, though, would ruin the unsurpassed experience of wading into a book with the same tentative steps one uses with the ocean. You’re not sure of the water temperature, or of your desire to be wet, and you’re never sure what you’ll find beyond the first break or under that endless water.  Skippy Dies is about a group of friends and their teachers and administrators, and there are girls, too, and it makes me want to read everything Paul Murray has written. Thankfully, I already own An Evening of Long Goodbyes, so I have that to look forward to.

Last night, I was playing around with my Google Play and found a bunch of old songs that I used to listen to on my mom’s records. One of those records is seared in my memory - its red Smash Records label; the small, black print; and every word of every song. This morning, I wondered what my kids will remember listening to. I’ve mostly avoided traditional kids’ music with them, so they have a fairly wide musical vocabulary, but the most enduring listening experience in their childhood has been audiobooks. Every time we travel, and sometimes just around town, we listen to audiobooks. This trip, I downloaded three books, all of which feature rats in some way. Interestingly, we listened to them in order from good to (unfortunately) not-so-good. We began with Newbery winning Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. The kids loved it, and I was reminded once again of how important it is for young readers to get strong, intelligent writing and a good story. I was also reminded of how uncommon it is. I didn’t particularly love the first Gregor the Overlander book, but the rest of the family enjoyed it, so I got the second in the series, Gregor and the Prophecy of Bane. Like all the Suzanne Collins I’ve yet experienced, the story is better than the writing, and there’s lots of action. I actually slept through a good portion of this one, so I can’t really respond to it, but I can tell you that it frustrates me no end that one of the main characters is a two-year-old whom Collins has written like an 10-month-old. I understand the variation that comes with children, but I just don’t buy this two-year-old, and besides being inaccurate, the dialogue written for her is annoying. I also don’t prefer the reader, so I’m hesitant to finish the series. We shall see. After Gregor, we started (but didn’t get very far in) Chris Colfer’s The Land of Stories: The Wishing Spell. This series came highly recommended to us, but I was reluctant because I am a book snob, and I resist things written by people famous for things other than writing. Undoubtedly, their fame plays some role in getting the book published, so the quality of the writing does not fall under the same microscope as another emerging writer’s work would. And boy, does it show in The Land of Stories. My daughter is admittedly a seasoned reader, but even she was able to notice the bad writing. When describing the kids’ grandmother giving them an old book, he writes something like “it felt like someone giving you a family heirloom before they died.” Even the 10-year-old knows it’s not like that - it is exactly that. These pseudo-comparisons happened often, startlingly so. Also, words that don’t exist (and not in a good, fantasy-world-building kind of way). Also, a serious lack of editing. Also, well, suffice it to say I hope the kids don’t remember that we didn’t finish it now that we’re back to regular life.

Dinner: A Love Story was a fun, and even informative, cookbook experience. It has much to offer a beginner, but there’s good stuff here for even a seasoned cook. One thing I liked was the idea of starting a meal even if you weren’t sure what you were making. She says sometimes she just starts caramelizing an onion while she decides - it will enhance just about anything, and the smells get her inspiration moving. I haven’t tried any of the recipes yet, but I think there are several that will be a big success in this house. On the other hand, Horten’s Miraculous Mechanisms was not such a success - with this reader anyway. It was our Book Club selection last month, and while the girls all seemed to enjoy it, I found it decidedly meh. And that’s all I will say about that.

Finally, let me tell you about David Arnold’s Mosquitoland. I read Mosquitoland as part of my search for the perfect Summer Reading offering. Our school does a summer reading Book Group experience, where students pick a title from a large selection offered by the different faculty members, and then we meet in the fall to discuss. Last year, my group was not as successful as I wanted, and I blame my choice. This year, I wanted to make sure I had a winner, so I bought a big stack of titles, searching for just the right thing. Guys, I won. Or rather David Arnold wins. Mosquitoland is his debut novel, and it is amazing. I am so impressed with the characters, the pacing, the plot - everything. The main character, Mim, is one of the most unique voices I’ve read recently, and though she is quirky, she is also oh-so-familiar. I loved this book, and I cannot wait to share it with the high schoolers who pick it. Do read it. And love it. I promise you will.

2.28.2015

An Open Letter to Nick Hornby

Dear Nick,

I'm sure I'm not the first to behave as though I know you personally just because I've spent the last few weeks reading all the "Stuff I've Been Reading" columns from The Believer magazine, so I'm not going to apologize for addressing you as Nick. It's your name, after all.

Here's the thing, Nick. I added The Polysyllabic Spree and More Baths Less Talking to my Amazon.com wishlist December 5, 2012. I know because Amazon keeps track of such things for me. On February 3, 2015, I ordered these two - plus Housekeeping vs The Dirt and Shakespeare Wrote for Money and (because I couldn't bear to not own all the words) Ten Years in the Tub. If these books hadn't been so ridiculously entertaining, you would have owed me an apology. Instead, I need to ask your forgiveness.

Forgive me, please, for waiting so long to read your work. Forgive me, too, for not yet reading any of your fiction. Or watching any of your movies. I do have Lonely Avenue, but that might have more to do with Ben Folds than you. Sorry.

Forgive me for ripping off your monthly reflection idea for my blog. I promise it won't compete for your Believer readers. Or any other readers, really.

I have a list, Nick. It's called Books Nick Hornby Thinks I Should Read. Really. Here it is:
The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem
Moneyball by Michael Lewis
George and Sam: Autism in the Family by Charlotte Moore
Clockers by Richard Price
True Notebooks: A Writer's Year at Juvenile Hall by Mark Salzman
Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
Mystic River by Dennis Lehane
We're in Trouble by Chris Coake
Tony Hoagland's poetry
How to Live: Or, a Life of Montaigne in One Question and 20 Attempts at an Answer: Sarah Bakewell
The Broken Word by Adam Foulds
Book of Days by Emily Fox Gordon
The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film by Michael Ondaatje
Skellig by David Almond
Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer
Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense by Francis Spufford
The Interrogative Mood by Padgett Powell
I have chosen to exclude from The List those titles or authors I already wanted to read. You don't get to take credit just for increasing my interest in something. That wouldn't be fair.

I've ordered Moneyball (it arrived today) and asked the library to buy The Conversations. The rest are going to take some time, Nick. I can't afford you. But I can thank you.

Thanks for articulating such an understated evangelism for the books you've read. Thanks for agreeing with me on almost all the books we've both read (we depart on Junot Diaz) and for challenging me with books I probably won't ever read and for getting me to read books I really should read. About film reviewer Pauline Kael, you write, "But I loved her energy, her enthusiasm, her informality and her colloquialisms, her distrust of phoniness, even before I realized that these were qualities I wanted to steal from her." Would you accept a ditto?

One last thing, Nick. You write glowingly about Mohsin Hamid's How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia and conclude with this beautiful sentence:
If you can boil an entire life down to its essence, without losing any of the detail, shape, pain, or joy of that life, then it seems to me that you've done pretty much everything a novel is capable of doing. (Ten Years in the Tub 462)
It might also be true of a magazine column on the reading life. Here's to 10 more years.

Unflinchingly,

Sara



2.27.2015

February - it may not be the cruellest month, but it might be the most reviled. Hated for its brevity, for its still-winterness, for its confusing Leap Year uncertainties. But so far, February has been awfully good to me, at least as far as reading is concerned.

It started when someone recommended Karen Swallow Prior’s Booked to me, and I grabbed it one afternoon from the school library. In this book, Prior organizes each chapter around one of the books that have been most formative in her life and faith, creating a memoir of sorts. The chapter on Jane Eyre focuses on identity formation, especially in adolescence - which we all will agree is - as Prior writes - “a time of becoming” (78). Then she goes on to talk about nonconformity and continues to play with the word becoming: “I mistook nonconformity for freedom and in so doing found myself anything but free. For it is in conformity to one’s true nature that one is most becoming in both senses of the word: well-fitted and beautiful” (91). I love the wordplay - here and elsewhere in the book, but it is more than just play. It is an often intellectual, almost academic book, but it is not inaccessible. The life and the literature are well-balanced, and I fully enjoyed it.

While reading Booked, I was reminded of Nick Hornby’s “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” column that originates in The Believer magazine and is collected in several volumes, and one afternoon, I went home and just ordered them all. I had the completely ridiculous idea that I might use one of them as my Summer Reading selection. Why ridiculous, you ask? Because Hornby’s hilarious and oh-so-insightful thoughts are sometimes laced with profanity - not a thing that bothers me so much, but probably not what the parents at my school would be most interested in me assigning. Upon realizing their inappropriateness, I should have set them aside and picked up another Summer Reading possibility, but I couldn’t. In fact, I could hardly set them aside at all. February may be a short month, but I have read them all this month, and I couldn’t be happier about it. The column is (usually) a monthly thing where Hornby opens with two lists: Books Bought and Books Read. As I read (and read and read) these columns, I found myself making a list of my own: Books Nick Hornby Thinks I Should Read. Seriously. It’s a list I’ve actually made.

I’m going to write more about my joy over these collected columns in a bit, but besides The List, reading these pieces gave me an idea for the blog, and I thought I might steal the concept in just one important way. I can’t be as smart and honest and humble and straight-up funny as Hornby is, but I can write one longish piece on each month’s reading experience and maybe, just maybe, the blog might come back to life.