Sunday, May 29, 2011

Summer Reading

Summer is an absolutely blissful time for those of us who are fortunate (?) enough to work in the field of education.  The old joke, what are the two best reasons for being a teacher (July and August), is quite true!  For me, as well as for those of you who live in countries where a two-week vacation in August is practically mandated, summer is a great time to catch up on the accumulated tasks we've not had time for all year.  One of these things is reorganizing closets.  Another is baking complicated pastries.  A third, as I'm sure you've guessed, is reading all the books I haven't had time to get to as yet.

Most summer reading occurs in one of three places:

  • at the beach
  • at the pool
  • on a lawn chair on the lawn, porch, or deck
Of course, it may occur elsewhere, such as the plane you are taking to your summer destination, or your boat, if you're that type.  I have tailored my selections for this post to the needs of these locations.

A summer book should ideally be a paperback; failing that, it should be relatively small and light.  You don't want another heavy thing to lug around in your beach bag.  If you prefer audiobooks, that is optimal, as it necessitates only an MP3 player.  A reader such as the Nook or Kindle is good as well, as long as you don't drop it in the pool or bury it in the sand.  
I don't really recommend buying books for the summer, unless they are very inexpensive.  Summer books often get wet, left on planes, or very sandy.  Another factor to consider is what you are meant to be doing as you lie poolside and read.  If you are supposed to be paying attention to the aquatic feats of your children (or someone else's children), you should not bring a book that will so monopolize your attention that you will fail to respond.  Let me also note here that if you are meant to be a lifeguard, or the sole supervisor of children near water, you had better not be reading anything if you intend to bring them home safely.

A summer book should also be light in its content.  One doesn't really want to read something heavily philosophical or profound during vacation time, especially if supervising children is one's task.  It's better to read a book that is easily picked up and put down multiple times without losing the thread of the story.

Now to the recommendations:
I recently finished reading The Wilder Life, a nonfiction book by a Little House on the Prairie fanatic.  Apparently there are a lot of people like her, who loved the books, loved the show, and want to live in "Laura World."  If you have no idea what I am talking about, this book is not for you.  It's mildly amusing, easy to leave and come back to later, and relatively light (in every way).  One comes away with an impression of a slightly loopy narrator, but not unlikeable.

Chick lit always works very well at the beach or pool; you can refer back to my chick lit post.  Mysteries work well also if they're not the terribly suspenseful type that make you sweat in panic.  Best of all, I think, are those relaxed, pleasant stories that help you believe that the world is a good place.  A book like this is The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a historical and epistolary (written in the form of letters) novel set in the Channel Islands after World War II.  I'll bet you didn't know that the Channel Islands were the only part of England occupied by the Germans.  It's a lovely story, and easy to get through.

I'm not sure if this fits into the historical fiction genre, but Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe is exactly the sort of book to read in a deck chair, preferably with something to eat on a table next to you.  This book will make you hungry.  The author, Fannie Flagg, wrote a few nice books of this type; I also liked Welcome to the World, Baby Girl.   If you like these, you might also like Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, part of a genre I call "women against the world."  It's by Rebecca Wells, and she's also written some other nice books of the same type.

If you have any suggestions for this post, please comment.  Also appreciated would be suggestions for short, inexpensive vacations for a family with several children.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Laughter: The Best Medicine

As one grows older, those occasions in which a good, long belly laugh occurs grow fewer and farther between.  As children, so much of what we saw and read and experienced was just so funny! Like the knock-knock jokes we told endlessly, to very very patient parents who concealed their rolling eyes and giggled politely.  Where did the humor in life disappear to?

It hasn't gone anywhere, but if you are normal (or approximating normal) you have matured to the extent that what seemed hilarious at age 7, or 12, or 16, seems gross, or dumb, or sophomoric in your 20's or 30's.  This is a bit of a disappointment, in a way; kids have it so easy when they need a laugh.  Pick up a volume in the My Weird School series, and they're laughing all the way home.  Whereas mature adults such as ourselves will seldom find that kind of satisfaction in a book anymore; hence, this post.

Donald Westlake has been around for years; I haven't read all of his books yet but I've read most of the Dortmunder series.  These books, centering around a group of bumbling thieves, is as close to slapstick as one gets in literature.  Dortmunder is just so pathetic -- but the situations he falls into are ridiculously amusing, and so are his friends.  I especially like Stan.

If you want to be amused in a useful sort of way, the nonfiction of Bill Bryson is the way to go.  Whether expounding on hiking the Appalachians (A Walk in the Woods), the English language (Mother Tongue), or the history of the home (At Home), he is relentlessly funny.  The only one that disappointed me was the one about the Royal Society; unfortunately he is capable of writing serious nonfiction when called to do it.  I, however, was unprepared for it; expecting a funny book I hurled it at the wall in disgust.  It didn't deserve that kind of treatment, as it was an excellent book of its kind, but it's all about expectations, you know.

This would really fall under the fantasy genre, but it's just too funny to leave out:  A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams.  Some people actually think this is philosophy, so that's funny too.  Another fantasy author who is belly-laugh worthy is Terry Pratchett; his books are mostly based in the Discworld, a sort of parallel universe.  My favorite is Monstrous Regiment; I also loved The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents, which is a young adult book.  It's actually the Pied Piper with a talking cat and some genius rats.  Just fabulous.

The difficulty here is that once one has read this supremely amusing book, it's never as funny the second time around.  So now it's your turn -- can you recommend any funny books for me?

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Fantasy and Sci-Fi Post

I think that this genre is very "love it or hate it."  Readers who like fantasy can't get enough of it, will try practically any kind, and sometimes even write their own.  Those who don't can't stay far enough away.  There's a small, small subgroup in the middle, consisting of those who dip a toe in very cautiously and seldom:  that's where I fit in.  I'm not talking about juvenile fantasy a la Harry Potter -- adult fantasy and sci-fi is a completely different kettle of fish.  Being asked as a rational grown-up to suspend your disbelief and bear with the author for a while is a lot more difficult than whiling away a couple of hours with what is essentially a fairy tale.

I'm going to single out Mistwood, by Leah Cypess, not simply because it's a good read, but because I've known Leah practically forever and it tickles me to know a published author.  This is actually a Young Adult book; I enjoyed it and I'm waiting to buy the next book, Nightspell.  The books deal with shape-shifters, and have just the right amount of suspense and creepiness minus the gore you might find in an adult book of this kind.

I'm not sure how Tolkien would feel being relegated to second place here, but here he is:  The Lord of The Rings.  Somehow, TLOTR doesn't seem like fantasy to me -- it's almost like historical fiction.  Tolkien was, in fact, a historian, and he even created languages (with grammar!) for the different races he dreamed up.  The writing is absolutely beautiful, though I will admit the length is off-putting -- I would recommend getting it volume by volume rather than in the single book form.  I also recommend the movie, which I normally would never do, as movies based on books tend to completely ruin the book for me; this one, however, is terrific.

Isaac Asimov is always an easy choice.  He's written the same book about a hundred times, but always quite competently.  I prefer the Foundation series; also good is Caves of Steel.

One aspect of sci-fi that makes it a classic (or not) is the degree to which it actually anticipates the future.  I think that one element that keeps the classic Star Trek episodes constantly in reruns is the fact that so much of the technology used in the show is actually reality today.  On the other hand, books written years ago which failed to anticipate today's way of living tend to disappoint.  For example, The Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis, published in 1992, describes a near future in which time travel is possible, but fails to predict the wide usage of cell phones.  The first time I read this book I enjoyed it tremendously; one of the protagonists goes back to the Middle Ages and gets stuck at the time of the Black Death (also, sort of historical fiction).  I read it again and found it ridiculous -- back at Oxford, where they are desperately trying to retrieve the lost character, the other figures in the story race each other all over town, missing vital phone calls as they chase their tails.  The absence of something that is today ubiquitous seemed obvious and totally ruined the book for me.  Don't let it hold you back, though, if you want to try it.  Willis recently published two companion books which take place during WWII; some of the same characters time-travel back to the Blitz:  Blackout and All-Clear.  They're poorly edited and full of errors; don't bother.

Any opinions here?

Saturday, May 14, 2011

A Confession

Sometimes I read my kids' books.  Yes, that apostrophe is correctly placed -- I don't mean that I sometimes read books to my children (though I do, sometimes interminably) -- I sometimes find myself riffling through their piles of library books in search of a guilty pleasure.  Occasionally it's the result of a very dry week at the library, or a slew of incredibly depressing picks, read one after the other.  Other times, I'm just down in the dumps, and there's nothing like a couple of Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books to lift one out of that state.  Very rarely, I spy a book that really looks interesting, and I squirrel it away to read it myself; I recently read the I, Q books,  which feature children + famous singers + terrorism.  Quite a good read, even if it is written for middle-schoolers.

By far the best books to read when one is blue, or bored, or desperate, are the books one is most familiar with.  I often go back to those I loved as a pre-teen; the ones I read over and over and formed so much of who I am today.  One of these is The Long Secret, the not-so-well-known companion novel to Harriet the Spy.  Another is The Night Journey, by Kathryn Lasky, which I don't know if I'd give my pre-teen daughter to read, but I still love to dip into.

Also good when I'm in that kind of mood are books that are so predictable one can figure out from the first page what the denouement will be, and one forgets the whole story within minutes of completing the book.  Often, these are books penned by authors who can only write one kind of story, so all their books are pretty much the same -- but so comforting, like hot soup.  One whose adult novels are now out of print, but is experiencing a renaissance as a childrens' writer is Eva Ibbotson.  Her adult novels used to be shelved with the bodice-rippers at the library I patronized as a teenager, but her books couldn't be more different.  They're all at some point before 1940, and tend to wander around Europe a bit.  There's always a nice female protagonist who's rather special in some way (this varies); a man or two is involved, and one is really nice.  Even the one who isn't nice isn't especially nasty.  My personal favorite is Madensky Square, but the others are just as good (and just the same, I might add).

I can't sign off without mentioning Rosamund Pilcher.  Her books are so comfortingly written, and her characters so likeable, that the reader finds herself (sorry, really not "guy" books) condoning the most immoral behavior on their parts.  I must have read The Shell Seekers fify times; it's a great beach book because it's set in Cornwall. 

So now it's your turn -- what are your guilty pleasures?

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Brave Mom Writes "Brave Girl Eating"

This is, emphatically, not the type of book I typically select.  In fact, I've been seeing it on the library new book shelf for the last couple of weeks, and passing it by.  However, this week I took it out, and read it, and now I'm writing about it.  In part, this is my way of marking Mother's Day on my blog (why not?), but the impetus to actually read this book came from the fact that I was recently touched, quite indirectly, by the death of a friend's friend who was rumored to have suffered from anorexia most of her short life.
What I know about anorexia is fairly limited -- it's taught in the Abnormal Psychology class that was a requirement; nowadays most schools try to educate their female students about eating disorders, but this was not something that was talked about -- not out loud -- when I was a teenager.  It is also poorly understood; not just by the layman, but by experts as well.  The theories I learned in college are no longer in vogue and have been replaced by a new set, perhaps more valid, perhaps not.
Harriet Brown pens this memoir of her experiences with her daughter, Kitty, with remarkable aplomb.  What must have been a gut-wrenching experience for her comes through so remarkably and believably, the reader wants to reach through the pages and hug her.  Once Brown comes to the realization that her daughter has this terrible illness, she casts around for ways to help her.  Her choices at the time boil down to sending her away to a specialized residential clinic, or keeping her hospitalized on an outpatient basis.  Brown, helped by her sympathetic and ultra-competent pediatrician, decides on another path -- Family-Based Treatment, or the Maudsley approach.  This entails the support of the entire family, and their goal is to get Kitty to eat, whatever it takes.  This is much, much harder than it sounds.  At times, Brown writes of anorexia as a demon that has inhabited her daughter; she tries desperately to take her daughter's aggressive anxiety and separate it from the daughter she loves so much and whose life she actually saves.  Yes, saves -- this painful and wretched ordeal, calorie by calorie, saves Kitty's life, and gradually she begins to emerge whole again.
As a mother, I cried for Harriet Brown as I read her book, because (although I pray that I will never be tested) any mother should hope to do the right thing, as she did, even though it was so desperately hard.  The FBT was hard on Brown, it was terrible for her husband, it was traumatic to Kitty's younger sister, and it almost completely shattered any semblance of normal family life.  However, as a mother, she knew that this was her job, and that Kitty's mother, father, and sister were the ones to bring her back and rid her of the demon anorexia.  Anorexia has cruel statistics -- close to 20 percent of anorexics die, according to Brown, half of those from suicide.  Harriet Brown and her family continue to battle these statistics, as anorexia can be a lifetime disease, and they refuse to allow their child to become one of the 20 percent.

Gosh, what a downer.  I'll get a bit more cheerful now, and introduce another new book that I read over the weekend.  A Jane Austen Education:  How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter is pure fun for the Austen lover.  One of the only negative things about Austen is that she wrote only six books, and Janeites who finish all six are left with a craving for more.  This has led to a small industry in Austen copycats, mysteries featuring Austen characters (cringe), Austen sequels (gag), and Austen spoofs (actually, some of these aren't bad).  This isn't one of the above list.  This is the nonfictional account of William Deresiewicz, who started off his adult life as an immature, obnoxious pseudo-intellectual.  Forced to read Austen in college, he slowly comes to the realization that it is not chick-lit, it is quite relevant, and it helps him gradually reorient himself and become, in a word, a mentsh.  This is an entertaining and light read, and it has a lovely happy ending.  What more could you ask?

Monday, May 2, 2011

Asperger's in The Kitchen Daughter and The Way Things Look to Me

I've noticed an odd phenomenon -- occasionally, I'll take out a load of books from the library's 14-day bookshelf (new and bestseller list), choosing quite randomly because I'm rushed.  Then, I'll read my new stash, and gradually I'll find some odd similarity -- for example, all the books might feature abductions, or addictions, or dead pets.  Sometimes the connection is even more odd, and most of the books will feature a combination of events (Jews living in Northern Italy during the German occupation).  These similarities are never noted by me before I read the books; they're usually not notable enough to be included in the jacket blurb.  This week I read two books, actually quite dissimilar (both in quality and in plot) which shared one important characteristic:  both featured a prominent character with Asperger's Syndrome, and the plots both revolve around this character.

I read The Way Things Look to Me first; I've read Roopa Farooki's previous book, Bitter Sweets, and I thought it was excellent.  Her books feature characters who are Indian or Pakistani in ethnic origin, but who no longer live there.  The character in The Way Things Look to Me around whom the whole story (and all the characters) revolve is Yasmin, a teenager with Asperger's Syndrome.  Having lost both parents, Yasmin lives with her brother, Asif, who gave up his Cambridge education to return home and care for her after his mother dies.  Her sister, Lila, is more distant but also deeply tied to Yasmin; she bears the emotional scars of growing up in a home where the other siblings were sacrificed to the one with special needs.

I found this book to be very moving.  The characters aren't always likeable; at times Lila comes across as downright unbearable and Asif pathetically stuck in his role as martyred caregiver.  But it is a story that rings true, from Yasmin's narrated selections, which really do sound like those of a person who has great difficulty connecting to other people, to the raw pain and bitterness of her siblings.

The Kitchen Daughter did not provide the same experience.  In this book, the narrator has Asperger's Syndrome, which the reader is not made aware of in so many words.  Also, it seems that neither the narrator nor the narrator's family have any idea why she is different, which I find unlikely -- she apparently made it to adulthood with no diagnosis at all, even though she periodically hides in her parents' closet and has tantrums in public if people touch her.  The pivotal event in this book is the death of both her parents (yes, another coincidence) and Ginny turns to cooking for solace.  As she cooks from the recipes of her dead relatives, they appear to her on her kitchen stool with messages from beyond the grave, none of which make too much sense.  This story does not build up to much of anything, and it just did not ring true to me.  I did enjoy reading about the food she cooks, but she just doesn't come across as the character she is meant to be.