Archive for the '2006 Book Challenge' Category

Books Read 2006

Friday, January 12th, 2007

I read 69 books in 2006, an average of 5.75 a month. Many were young-adult titles and graphic novels, both of which tend to be fast reads. While I trounced my fifty-book goal, I slowed down considerably at the end of the year, reading less than just after Guppy was born. Making books a priority is a continuous process, not an event. When I have less time for myself, I need to put reading somewhere after sleep and food, and before just about everything else. I liked most of the books I read, so it’s time well spent. I’ve starred the dozen titles that I most enjoyed. I apologize for the lack of italics and links, but all reviews are listed in the 2006 Book Challenge category on the right.

I was disappointed by several sequels: Bangkok Tattoo, Batman Dark Victory, Catwoman: When in Rome, Magic Lessons, Tears of the Giraffe, Scott Pilgrim #3, and Second Helpings. The third book in Alexander McCall Smith’s Precious Ramotswe series was better than #2, though, so perhaps there’s hope for some of those other less-than-stellar sequels.

In addition to the lame sequels, I didn’t care for The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which I found precious and affected. I didn’t find Allende’s Zorro emotionally compelling, though I thought the history was interesting.

I liked four books enough to purchase after I had borrowed them from the library: King Dork, Reading Like a Writer, Black Swan Green and The Thirteenth Tale.

From the home shelves, I finally got around to Middlesex and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. I enjoyed them both a great deal, and will try to go “shopping” on my own shelves more often this year.

I re-read 18 books last year, several in preparation for the sequels. Bangkok 8 and Magic or Madness were fun to read again. And I appreciate Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, and Wuthering Heights more with each reading.

The Thirteenth Tale was an homage to the Brontes, as well as a fun read. Pete Hautman’s The Prop had good characters and a tight plot; I raced through it.

Intuition got a lot of good reviews last year, but I was more impressed by Sigrid Nunez’s The Last of Her Kind. Both were good stories well told, but I felt Nunez did a better job with POV.

Finally, Kathryn Davis’s Thin Place was probably the best modern book I read this year. Davis took some wild leaps in POV, and pulled them together into a lingering, unsettling whole.

A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby
A Christmas Carol and Other Christmas Stories by Charles Dickens
Baby by Patricia MacLachlan
Bangkok 8 by John Burdett
Bangkok Tattoo by John Burdett
Batman Dark Victory by Loeb/Sale
Because of Winn Dixie by Kate DiCamillo
*Black Swan Green by David Mitchell
Bungalow Kitchens by Jane Powell
Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
Catwoman: When in Rome by Loeb/Sale
Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace
Fall on Your Knees by Ann-Marie MacDonald
Goodnight, Nobody by Jennifer Weiner
Hicksville by Dylan Horrocks
Holy the Firm by Annie Dillard
*How to Read Like a Writer by Francine Prose
Hypnobirthing by Marie Mongan
I am the Cheese by Robert Cormier
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
Intuition by Allegra Goodman
*Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
*Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susannah Clarke
*King Dork by Frank Portman
Magic Lessons by Justine Larbalestier
Magic or Madness by Justine Larbalestier
*Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
Monkey Island by Paula Fox
Morality for Beautiful Girls by Alexander McCall Smith
My Sister’s Continent by Gina Frangello
Persuasion by Jane Austen
*Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Salvation Run by Mary Gardner
Satellite Down Rob Thomas
Scott Pilgrim v. 1 by Bryan Lee O’Malley
Scott Pilgrim v. 2 by Bryan Lee O’Malley
Scott Pilgrim v. 3 by Bryan Lee O’Malley
Second Helpings by Megan McCafferty
Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
Sloppy Firsts by Megan McCafferty
Tam Lin by Pamela Dean
Tears of the Giraffe by Alexander McCall Smith
The Abbess of Crewe by Muriel Spark
The Accidental by Ali Smith
The Elements of Style by Strunk & White
The Explosive Child by Ross Greene
The Film Snob’s Dictionary by Kamp/Levi
The Finishing School by Muriel Spark
The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells
*The Last of Her Kind by Sigrid Nunez
The Memory Artists by Jeffrey Moore
The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo
The Not So Big House by Sarah Susanka
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark
*The Prop by Pete Hautman
The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo
*The Thin Place by Kathryn Davis
*The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
The Tiger Rising by Kate DiCamillo
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Truth and Consequences by Alison Lurie
V for Vendetta by Moore/Lloyd
We All Fall Down by Robert Cormier
We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates
*Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
Zorro by Isabel Allende

The Elements of Style, Third Edition by Strunk and White

Sunday, December 31st, 2006

#68 in my reading challenge was Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. I don’t know how long this slender volume has been sitting on my shelf. A while, I suspect, since it is a third edition, published in 1979. (A fourth edition was published in 1999, and an illustrated edition in 2005.) More than once, a writing instructor has said it’s worth reading, not only as reference, but also cover to cover. I found it by turns perceptive, funny, and irritating. An example of the latter:

The use of he as pronoun for nouns embracing both genders is a simple, practical convention rooted in the beginning of the English language. He has lost all suggestion of maleness in these circumstances. The word was unquestionably biased to begin with (the dominant male), but after hundreds of years it has become seemingly indispensable. It has no pejorative connotation; it is never incorrect.

I disagree, for reasons detailed in the usage note on he from The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition:

Traditionally the pronouns he, him, and his have been used as generic or gender-neutral singular pronouns, as in A novelist should write about what he knows best and No one seems to take any pride in his work anymore. Since the early 20th century, however, this usage has come under increasing criticism for reflecting and perpetuating gender stereotyping. · Defenders of the traditional usage have argued that the masculine pronouns he, his, and him can be used generically to refer to men and women. This analysis of the generic use of he is linguistically doubtful. If he were truly a gender-neutral form, we would expect that it could be used to refer to the members of any group containing both men and women. But in fact the English masculine form is an odd choice when it refers to a female member of such a group. There is something plainly disconcerting about sentences such as Each of the stars of As Good As It Gets [i.e., Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt] won an Academy Award for his performance. In this case, the use of his forces the reader to envision a single male who stands as the representative member of the group, a picture that is at odds with the image that comes to mind when we picture the stars of As Good As It Gets. Thus he is not really a gender-neutral pronoun; rather, it refers to a male who is to be taken as the representative member of the group referred to by its antecedent. The traditional usage, then, is not simply a grammatical convention; it also suggests a particular pattern of thought. · It is clear that many people now routinely construct their remarks to avoid generic he, usually using one of two strategies: changing to the plural, so they is used (which is often the easiest solution) or using compound and coordinate forms such as he/she or he or she (which can be cumbersome in sustained use). In some cases, the generic pronoun can simply be dropped or changed to an article with no change in meaning. The sentence A writer who draws on personal experience for material should not be surprised if reviewers seize on that fact is complete as it stands and requires no pronoun before the word material. The sentence Every student handed in his assignment is just as clear when written Every student handed in the assignment. · Not surprisingly, the opinion of the Usage Panel in such matters is mixed. While 37 percent actually prefer the generic his in the sentence A taxpayer who fails to disclose the source of ______ income can be prosecuted under the new law, 46 percent prefer a coordinate form like his or her; 7 percent felt that no pronoun was needed in the sentence; 2 percent preferred an article, usually the; and another 2 percent overturned tradition by advocating the use of generic her, a strategy that brings the politics of language to the reader’s notice. Thus a clear majority of the Panel prefers something other than his. The writer who chooses to use generic he and its inflected forms in the face of the strong trend away from that usage may be viewed as deliberately calling attention to traditional gender roles or may simply appear to be insensitive.

The Elements of Style is a classic, and deservedly so. Much of it details the kind of common sense that is easily forgotten or confused. It is limited, though, both in scope and adaptability. I recommend The Chicago Manual of Style for the former, and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language for the latter.

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

Sunday, December 31st, 2006

#67 in my book challenge for the year was Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking. She chronicles the mysterious illness of her daughter and the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne. It’s beautifully written, and Didion uses repetition masterfully to illustrate the waves of grief. In the end, though, I felt her skill at writing blurred the emotional impact she was purporting to reveal. A hospital worker called her “a pretty cool customer”, and that coolness permeates the book. Her daughter’s serious illness was included primarily as it related to the husband’s death. I was left with many questions about the daughter, though. I kept returning to the image on the dust jacket, in which Didion stands alone, looking sidewise at her husband and daughter. Her narrative echoed the observing isolation of the photo.

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

Friday, December 29th, 2006

#66 in my reading challenge for the year, Diane Setterfield’s Thirteenth Tale rescued me from my reading slump. A friend called it something like a ripping-good read, and I agree. It’s full of juicy passages ripe for quoting about the love of reading and stories. This is a literary mystery that proudly displays its gothic roots. Setterfield isn’t coy about the books to which she’s paying tribute; she mentions Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, and Wilkie Collins’s Woman in White several times. The book is rendered timeless by the sparing use of modern detail, and the complete lack of brand display that many authors use as a shorthand for characterization. I was loath to put it down, and kept telling my husband “I MUST finish my book.” I don’t believe it is in the same class as its forebears, but it is an engaging and compelling book that earned one of my top compliments: I bought it for our home library after returning the library’s copy.

A Christmas Carol and Other Christmas Stories by Charles Dickens

Wednesday, December 20th, 2006

#65 in my book challenge for the year was this Dickens collection of Christmas stories. I find it interesting how thoroughly the tale has pervaded our lives that it was completely familiar to me though I’d never read it before. I found it well worth reading. The main points of the story are well known, but I was glad to experience the writing and the details. And though I generally avoid them, I found the introduction by the late Frederick Busch–a writer I admire a great deal–to be insightful and helpful. Marley’s ghost starts scary, then becomes sympathetic. A scene from Christmas yet to come echoes Shakespeare’s witches in Macbeth. On the surface, it’s more about the culture of the holiday than its religion. Yet there is a steady tension throughout between the joy of children and the inevitability of death that mirrors the bittersweet note in the joy of Christmas, that the death of Good Friday is not far off.

Zorro by Isabel Allende

Monday, December 4th, 2006

#64 in my book challenge for the year was Isabel Allende’s Zorro. A kind friend had an extra ticket to see Allende last month, so I moved Zorro to the top of my reading list. Allende was intelligent, political, and funny in person, so I’m glad I went. But not only could I not finish the book in time for the event, but it took me nearly three weeks to read. I’m not sure if it took so long because of life circumstances (holiday, family visit, nearly constant family viruses) or because I didn’t love the book. Reviews say it’s a page turner with great characterization. I didn’t find it to be either. It’s clear that Allende did a lot of research into the history of the Zorro legend and the time period. While I found the historical details interesting, especially about Spain and the Spanish treatment of the native Americans, I never felt very engaged with the characters. Is it history or coincidence that the clever girl in the story is named Isabel? Additionally, what struck me at the end was how much the character of Batman owes to the legend of Zorro.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Tuesday, November 28th, 2006

#63 in my book challenge for the year was To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Learn from my experience: do not re-read your high-school copy. Read an unmarked copy as an adult, and see how your experience of the book is different (or the same) from what you remember. My initial feeling as I read the book was that it was good, but obvious, and that’s why it’s taught in high school. At the end and after discussion, though, I did find the book had more depth than I’d seen at first. It’s overtly about race, but less obviously about class, gender, and the unpleasant, all-too-human tendencies most people harbor under the surface. It’s an indictment of public school education, and of conventional parenting. Its characters change and grow. This book was well worth revisiting, especially after re-reading In Cold Blood.

Morality for Beautiful Girls by Alexander McCall Smith

Thursday, November 2nd, 2006

#62 in my book challenge for the year was Morality for Beautiful Girls, the third book in Smith’s African detective series. I enjoyed this book far more than I did #2, Tears of the Giraffe. Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni finally became less than perfect, the apprentices became less worthless, and Mma Makutski very quietly became more complex. There were three mysteries: a boy found in the desert, a possible poisoning, and an investigation of the integrity of beauty pageant candidates. All three were used as backstory to the much more interesting development of the series’ characters. One mystery was left purposely unresolved, another was resolved unexpectedly, and the third was predictable, but so charming in its execution and resolution that I can’t complain. This book was a more worthy follow up to the first book. While it still had some of the sexism and romanticisation of the simplistic that I disliked in the second book, it was a more balanced and thus enjoyable story.

Tears of the Giraffe by Alexander McCall Smith

Monday, October 30th, 2006

#61 in my book challenge for the year was Alexander McCall Smith’s Tears of the Giraffe, the sequel to his wildly successful novel, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. A kind friend gave it to me ages ago, and it languished on the shelf because I bought new books, or something came in at the library. But after re-reading In Cold Blood, I felt the need for a sustaining book, and thought this might suit my mood.

Alas, I found the book uneven. The main characters from the earlier book were back, and I found them aggravatingly unnuanced. Precious Ramotswe was so insightful she barely had to do any detective work. Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni was kind. Mma Makutsi was clever. In fact, there were no complex characters. Each person had one defining characteristic, and that’s all there was to them, and it identified them as either bad (e.g., the wife-beating ex-husband Note Mokoti) or good (e.g., Precious’s late father Obed).

The main mystery, the fate of an American boy who disappeared ten years before, seemed to turn on a mistake. When Mma Ramotswe investigates, she finds “a newspaper photograph–a picture of a man standing in front of a building. There had been a printed caption, but the paper had rotted and was illegible.” (p. 93) She puts the fragile paper in her pocket.

Yet twenty pages later, the photograph includes multiple people, and has names on it. Mma Ramotswe determines that one man in the photo is evil, and traces him easily by the name on the paper. While the mysteries aren’t critical to one’s enjoyment of the books, this inconsistency was surprising and sloppy.

One of the strengths of the book is the small details of daily life in another culture. Sometimes these are incisive, as when the characters muse on the futility of revenge, the connectedness of people, and the meaning of family and place. At other times the author seemed to be making clowns of his characters, as when they wondered at Freud (since all men should love their mothers) or Madame Bovary (who should have been content married to a boring man, who would provide for her.) Many of the comments were sexist, e.g., that men are disorganized and women are hard working. There was also a great deal of nostalgia for a past that supposedly had better manners and values, yet no insight into why things changed, or ironic awareness that some of what was good about the past might have been a result of otherwise unlamented colonialism.

This book gave me some things to think about, but at the end, its flaws outweighed its merits. It provoked my critical consciousness repeatedly. While I understand it was trying to champion simplicity of life and values, I think instead it was too simplistic in character and narrative, and this undermined for me its message of culture difference and appreciation.

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

Sunday, October 29th, 2006

#60 in my book challenge for the year was a re-read of In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. I read it six months ago after I saw the film Capote, and read it again for a book group. It’s a compelling and frightening read, even the second time. What impressed me again was the glimpse into a writing past. True crime and creative non-fiction did not exist as genres until Capote wrote this book. This time, I was strongly reminded of Joyce Carol Oates’s We Were the Mulvaneys, which also centered around a tight-knit, small-town family undone by an act of violence.

Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose

Tuesday, October 10th, 2006

#59 in my book challenge for the year was Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose. A brief reminder that these mini-reviews are part of my annual book and movie challenges, which I initiated to remind myself of their importance in my life, and to let others know parenthood doesn’t preclude books and movies.

I enjoyed Prose’s novel A Changed Man last year, and was surprised to find her non-fiction book was also a compelling page turner. I had trouble stopping at the end of chapters. Prose harks back to a time when learning literature was done with close readings that largely eschewed the biographical details of the authors. Her approach embraces the study of literature before postmodernism, which came along and shook everything up with its inclusion of Foucoult, Lacan, and the insistence that we look at everything through different “lenses”. Her approach also harks back to a time and an approach that were more about loving literature than taking it apart and tearing it down, as discussed in this article by a professor of English.

Each chapter focuses on an aspect of fiction, such as character, sentences, paragraphs, and more. For each topic, Prose offers many excerpts and analyses of famous works. The book finishes with a list of “Books to be Read Immediately”, though I did miss an index that would have tied each work on that list to where she cited it as an example in the book. I found her writing and the book both accessible and challenging. In the wake of it, I feel both discouraged (how am I ever going to write as well as the writers she named?) and encouraged (nothing for it but to practice).

Interestingly, Prose even took a book I’d recently not enjoyed, Sense and Sensibility, and pointed out a skillfully done aspect of it that made me better appreciate that book. While Prose’s book is directed to writers, it will also be appreciated by those who love literature.

The Last of Her Kind by Sigrid Nunez

Sunday, October 8th, 2006

#58 in my book challenge for the year was The Last of Her Kind by Sigrid Nunez. It is the carefully crafted tale of Ann Drayton, an heiress with a conscience, who gets in trouble during the 1970s. Told by Ann’s college roommate, Georgette, the narrative takes several interesting and unexpected diversions, which all contribute to a satisfying whole. I re-read many passages as I went, because they offered up more with each new encounter.

I have been blamed by others for my timidity; I have heard my passionate love of reading denounced as an addiction, a vice, a cowardly avoidance of the challenges, dangers, excitements, and even duties of real life.

A few things troubled me about the book. Part Five makes a daring switch from first person to third, and nearly pulls it off, except that there are too many things that the author couldn’t have known. Otherwise, I thought the varied points of view in the novel were extemely impressive. A segment near the end written by a prison inmate was too long, and varied too much in voice. Finally, the last two paragraphs are a quote from The Great Gatsby, and a comment on it that didn’t flow well for me from what went before, which was an interesting critique of that great book.

These things are small, though, especially compared to the richness of the story and the characters. The voices are strong, and their lives are compelling. It was a fascinating history lesson as well.

Bangkok Tattoo by John Burdett

Monday, September 18th, 2006

#57 in my book challenge for the year was Bangkok Tattoo, the sequel to Bangkok 8, by John Burdett. While I loved B8 both times I read it, I found Tattoo less deft and engaging. I still whipped through it and could hardly wait to get to the end. But there were myriad bumps along the way: infelicitous sentences, mixed-up characterizations, too much going on, and a narrator who was somehow less present and engaging than he was in the first book. Worst of all, the story centers around that most wretched of cliches, the hooker with the heart of gold. As with B8, the sense of place is wonderful, the cultural divide is lovingly detailed, and Sonchai’s past-life and Buddhist insights make for a singular main character. Yet there were too many traffic-jam talk-radio interludes, a dead-end subplot with Sonchai’s new partner, and more information about other characters that Sonchai is privy to than is believeable.

Bangkok Tattoo
is the third sloppy sequel I’ve read recently, after Second Helpings by Meghan McCafferty and Magic Lessons by Justine Larbalestier. All three books were less well plotted than their predecessors, and included a distracting and unnecessary number of details. All three would have benefited from more severe editing and at least one more draft. I suspect they were rushed to publication based on the success of the former books. I found all three disappointing in comparison to the first books, on whose merit I bought them. I will not be buying the third installments without having read them from the library first.

Persuasion by Jane Austen

Sunday, September 17th, 2006

#56 in my book challenge for the year was Persuasion by Jane Austen. I’m slowly working my way through the six major novels by Austen. Persuasion is her last, and was published posthumously. Anne Elliott is a typical Austen heroine in that her father is fiscally irresponsible, she has one vain sister and one self-involved sister, and she becomes involved with a man who is not as good as he seems. Her particulars are interesting, though. She regrets that a family friend talked her out of an engagement in her youth, and the novel does a credible job of maintaining doubt as to whether they will get together. Anne is a sympathetic and likeable character, even as she is maddeningly reticent. There are three women in the novel who aren’t entirely good or bad: Mrs. Russell (the widowed family friend), Mrs. Clay (the possibly widowed friend of Anne’s older sister), and Mrs. Smith (an ailing, poor, widowed school chum of Anne’s). There were three other characters who were also widowed: Anne’s father, Captain Benwick, and Anne’s cousin Mr. Elliott. The novel is much darker than the other Austen novels I’ve read, and dwells much on illness and death. It’s filled with regret, and has sharp judgment rather than gentle humor for its minor characters. In constrast with Price and Prejudice and Emma, this is the work of a more mature, less happy writer.

The Film Snob’s Dictionary by David Kamp and Lawrence Levi

Wednesday, September 13th, 2006

#55 in my book challenge for the year is The Film Snob’s Dictionary by David Kamp and Lawrence Levi. A slim volume packed with definitions of key phrases, films, and people beloved by so-called Film Snobs. The book not-so-gently mocks Film Snobs, and takes pleasure in knocking down some of their sacred cows. It’s a weird conceit, since it’s not a compendium of actual good things, but rather things that some people think are good and that authors sometimes agree with, or sometimes not. For example, there is no Truffaut entry but there is one for Office Space, a film that only snobs “get”. While of dubious utility unless you’re soon to be attending a gathering of Film Snobs, it is clever, entertaining and informative. Its short entries make it an idea bathroom book.

Bangkok 8 by John Burdett

Friday, September 8th, 2006

#54 in my book challenge for the year is a re-read of one of my favorites from last year, Bangkok 8, in preparation for the sequel, Bangkok Tattoo. I have the mistaken impression that re-reading will help me slow down and savor books. Knowing the ending helps me recognize all the clues are in place, but I think it also abets me in going through a book faster, since I don’t pause to puzzle things out. It’s a Buddhist noir murder mystery about a Thai policeman out to avenge his partner’s death. The atmosphere and sense of place are stunningly well drawn, while the asides about Buddhist practice and Thai culture are fascinating and mind-opening. I’m sure some could argue convincingly that the author goes light on the sex trade and its implications for women. My guilt over enjoying it in spite of its unPCness may lead me to track down a book on prostitution in Asia, Casting Stones.

The weird thing that bothered me about this book was the page numbers. Not only are they in a barely legible font, they’re at the top only on odd pages that don’t start a chapter. I would much prefer to have legible page numbers in the bottom margin on every page.

Another weird thing is that Drake loves to pull this book off the shelf. I don’t know if it’s the bright pink cover, or the snake, or the big number 8, but he goes after this book all the time.

The Explosive Child by Ross Greene (2005)

Friday, September 8th, 2006

#53 in my book challenge for the year was The Explosive Child, which our pediatrician recommended at Drake’s 3-year checkup after observing his interactions with us, and noting he had an “oppositional” personality. I like our doc; his approach is very factual and scientific. He’s definitely old school, though, so I take his advice with that in mind. From other parents and my own observation, most three year olds are oppositional, with low flexibility and frustration points. They’re testing boundaries, and learning how to share and compromise. I think the book is directed at parents of older children who still exhibit the type of tantrums more typical at three. As the doc warned, the parent and child examples in the book are extreme. Nonetheless, I found the book useful for its advice and reminders. One of its themes is that children do well if they can, so if they’re not doing well, it’s likely a lack of ability to handle frustration, not an unwillingness to behave. That’s why sticker charts and timeouts are not universal solutions. It also broke down parent/child negotiations into three types: parent enforces will, parent and child collaborate on problem solving, parent decides not to pursue issue. The case studies were a good reminder that many blowups happen when both parent and child are being inflexible, or when a parent is rushing a child through a transition faster than the child can adapt. The book’s focus is for parents to learn, and teach their children, collaborative problem solving. This requires both parties to bring a concern to the discussion. While I can certainly lay the groundwork for this, getting my 3yo to articulate his concern is far beyond where we are right now, which is largely just “No” on his part. The book was quick to read, and it made some good points that I still recall a week later, so it was worth the investment in time, even if it’s not exactly suited to where our family is right now.

Summer 2006 Reading Challenge Recap

Monday, September 4th, 2006

At the start of the year, I gave myself a book challenge–at least 50 books, with most of them from the backlog at home, instead of new purchases or library whims. At the start of the summer, I gave myself a challenge within a challenge, since I thrive so well on these arbitrary goals. I joined the forum at Amanda’s Weekly Zen, though I was too late to join the official group on her site, fantasized about a big goal, then whittled that down to a more realistic one that centered on young adult novels, and I started to read.

Between June 1 and August 31, I read 28 books. I read the twenty books on my original list, plus eight extra. I learned a few things from this summer challenge. If I set a reasonable goal, I can stick to it and keep focused. Without it, I would have gone down different reading paths. That wouldn’t have been bad, but it wouldn’t have contributed to my dual hopes of reading some of my home library and reading a lot of YA. In the end, I read twenty children’s/YA novels, and eight adult novels. I found that good children’s and YA books differ mainly from their adult counterparts in length and vocabulary. Bad YA is poorly written, or plotted, or has a contrived or unearned ending. There’s a publishing boom in YA right now, and I think the prevalence of trashy, poorly written,or even just slightly sloppy, books contributes to the incorrect perception of YA as an inferior subcategory of novels. I also learned that while it’s fun and interesting to join in different online book discussions, it takes up time and diverts me from my goal of reading more of the unread books gathering dust on my shelves.

Post summer, I’m going to cut back on the YA, and I’m going to re-commit to reading things already on my shelf. I’m also going on some of the reading tangents I wanted to this summer, like Jane Eyre-related books. At bat: re-reading Bangkok 8 by John Burdett. On deck: Bangkok Tattoo, the sequel. In the hole: Persuasion by Jane Austen. Pinch hitter: The Last of Her Kind by Sigrid Nunez.

Here is the Summer 2006 list. All have reviews listed in the 2006 Book Challenge link at right. I have starred my favorites. The two I disliked most were The Finishing School and The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

*King Dork by Frank Portman
Sense and Sensibility by Austen
Catcher in the Rye by Salinger
Scott Pilgrim, Vols. 1-3 by Bryan O’Malley
The Abbess of Crewe, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and The Finishing School by Muriel Sparks
*The Prop by Pete Hautman
I Am the Cheese, and We All Fall Down by Robert Cormier
Tam Lin by Pamela Dean
*Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Because of Winn Dixie, *The Tiger Rising, The Tale of Despereaux, and The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo
*Magic or Madness, and Magic Lessons by Justine Larbalestier
Baby by Patricia Maclachlan
*Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
Intuition by Allegra Goodman
Monkey Island by Paula Fox
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Steven Chbosky
Satellite Down by Rob Thomas
Sloppy Firsts, and Second Helpings by Megan McCafferty

The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo

Sunday, September 3rd, 2006

#52 in my book challenge for the year, and #28, the final book of my summer reading challenge, was The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Twin Cities author Kate DiCamillo. I re-read her first three novels earlier in the summer. I am pleased to have read them in order, because I see a clear progression in her work, from the bittersweet, rather slight story of a girl and her dog in Because of Winn Dixie, to the concentrated sadness tinged with darkness of The Tiger Rising, to The Tale of Despereaux, which was longer, and true to fables in its darkness and its addresses to the reader. Despereaux had several complicated characters who were neither entirely good nor bad. It went beyond sadness to show aspects of evil. The story did not end happily ever after. But it did end much more happily than it began, and with growth and increased self-knowledge for most of the characters.

Edward Tulane is DiCamillo’s saddest, darkest book yet. Like all her books, the writing is lyrical and the ending redemptive. Edward is a china rabbit and the favorite plaything of his owner. Proud and vain, he has no idea of his good circumstances until he loses them, when he goes overboard into the sea. Edward’s fortunes rise and fall, and he is found by a series of people who give him different names, and from whom he learns different lessons. The circumstances of some of his owners are terribly sad, and even worse are some of the things done to them by others. Yet what sustained me as a reader, and Edward, through the story was hope. And both Edward and I were rewarded in the end.

I admire that with each book, DiCamillo is stretching. In Edward, she created a non-sympathetic main character, who is transformed through adversity. Just as Desperaux could be read as both a story and a fable, Edward Tulane is both a story and an allegory with religious undertones. Edward’s tale is marvelously complemented by Bagram Ibatoulline’s detailed paintings and pencils; they set a tone of depressed realism different from the calculated make-believe of Desperaux. Edward Tulane is not a story for the very young, or for someone looking for a light read. It is a book that respects its readers by showing a range of human behavior and experience. Like some of the other well-written books for children I read this past summer (like I am the Cheese and We All Fall Down by Robert Cormier, Baby by Patricia MacLachlan, and Monkey Island by Paula Fox), Edward Tulane does not pretend the world is happier or less challenging than it is. But it reminds readers that happiness and meaning often are learned, not given.

Interestingly, DiCamillo has also recently written chapter books about a pig named Mercy Watson. Mercy Watson to the Rescue and Mercy Watson Goes for a Ride are easy readers that are funny, and decidedly silly. My three-year-old son Drake loves them, and we’ve read them many times. I wonder if perhaps the humor of the Mercy Watson books helped DiCamillo to counter some of the darkness required in the writing of Edward Tulane. So if a tale of suffering redeemed doesn’t sound quite right at the moment (or ever), check out the Mercy Watson books for an entirely different reading experience.

Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings by Megan McCafferty

Friday, September 1st, 2006

#s 50 and 51 (woo hoo! I hit my goal of 50 books) in my reading challenge for the year, and #s 26 and 27 in my summer book challenge (so I read more than half my books for the year this summer), were Megan McCafferty’s first two Jessica Darling novels, Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings. McCafferty is most notorious lately because several sections of these books were plagiarized by Kaavya Viswanathan. I have decidedly mixed feelings about these books. Some parts I love. But other parts nagged at me, and made me feel guilty for tearing through the books at a breakneck pace, and putting off other things. (”Mom, play with cars with me.” “In a minute, honey.”)

Jessica is a smart high school girl who is devastated when her best friend moves away. In Sloppy Firsts, she tries to come to terms with this, as well as with her growing crush on bad boy Marcus Flutie. She also navigates the typical American high school obstacles like nagging parents, friends who aren’t friends, and a demeaning summer job. Second Helpings continues the story, picking up the relationship between Jessica and Marcus that ended so abruptly in the first book, and continuing the story through high school graduation.

What doesn’t work: While the first book has a satifying story arc for Jessica and her absent friend Hope, it leaves the reader completely hanging about Marcus. This is not an ending, but an open door for the sequel. The second book is not plotted as tightly as the first. Her sister coming home for her pregnancy was not explained and seemed to be a plot device, as was the commitment of her grandmother to a retirement home, which was stereotypically full of sassy, smart seniors. Jessica and Marcus, over the course of the two books, follow a predictable relationship arc: good girl and bad, experienced, older boy meet cute, tension builds, they fight about something stupid, the separation is drawn out because of misunderstanding, and they get together in the end. And while these books are shelved with adult books in a bookstore even though they are young adult novels, when Jessica finally does have sex with Marcus, the details are coyly omitted, though there has been frank talk about the sex life of others throughout both books. The device of writing monthly letters to her friend wears thin over the two books. I, like her friends in the book, just wanted her to get over Hope’s departure and move on.

What works: Jessica’s voice is strong, smart, and funny. The romance between her and Marcus may be cliche, but I liked it anyway and was glad to see them get together. Jessica grows and changes over the course of the book, most notably in relation to her parents and to some friends at school. The inclusion of a brother who died of SIDS provided good grounding for the characters. These were believeable and complex characterizations and didn’t feel gratuitous. Her acerbic observations are dead on, whether she’s analyzing herself or others, especially at a summer program for “gifted” students. Her resurrected friendship with a childhood friend, her changed friendship with a footballer, and her encounters with her crush Paul are all funny, touching, and real. There is a great deal of sharp social commentary as well on high school life.

In the end, they felt more like guilty pleasures than substantive reads. I will read the third book, but I’ll get it from the library first.