Love’s Labor Found

So, what’s on tap for this year?

I’ve decided to go back to my roots. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love reading, when I didn’t love books. That started in childhood, so this year I am going to focus on children’s literature. Hopefully, quality literature.

By definition, most things are average. So, most things would earn a “C” grade. That means that most of the books out there (children’s or otherwise) are only worthy of a C. The sheer glut of children’s books available today means that in my quest to find quality literature I’m likely to kiss more frogs than princes. In order to minimize my amorous amphibians, I’m going to dedicate myself to the Newbery Award this year.

The Newbery is awarded every year by the American Library Association (of which I am a proud member) to the “author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.” For years I’ve had a goal to own and read the entire list. I’m well on my way, but I intend to make serious headway this year.

There have been 95 books to win the award thus far. I currently own 77, 66 of which I have read. My goal for the year is to own all 95 and to read 15. Why not read all I have left, you might ask? I don’t intend to give up my other reading. I will continue to pursue my nonfiction interests, work my way through my collection at school, try to find grownup fiction that I like, indulge in some comfort reading, and stay in my Jane Austen loop (her works as well as commentary). If I can read 12 classics in one year while reading all these other kinds of books, I think I can manage 15 children’s books.

At least I hope so.

Now I realize that just because they are in the Newbery list does not automatically make them what I would consider wonderful books. Out of the 66 that I have read, I thought 27 were delightful, with 6 of those being exceptional—those 6 on my list of all-time favorites (A Year Down Yonder, The Giver, Number the Stars, Bridge to Terabithia, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, and Johnny Tremain. Most of these are from the 1990s—a very good era for me.). However, I also thought 10 of the winners were truly awful, and 4 of those among the worst books I’ve ever read (Jacob Have I Loved, The Slave Dancer, Sounder, and Shadow of a Bull. So much for the ‘70s.). So my opinion and that of Newbery committee don’t always coincide. Consider also the era in which most of the remaining books were written. I’m talking about from before I was born, and children’s literature was a different creature then. It was often pedantic, condescending, and out of touch with reality. Not to mention that I’ve looked at synopses of several of these older books and quite a few are survivalist—a genre I absolutely despise. But perhaps I’m being pessimistic. Witch and Tremain are from the ‘50s and ‘40s, and I still have crushes on Nat Eaton and the eponymous Johnny. There is hope.

I am wishing for some pearls, but I have a feeling that I’ll be mucking about in the sand a good bit this year. If that turns out to be the case, meeting my goal this year will truly be a labor of love. But after all, what better way is there for me to spend my time?

Newberys Read This Year: 0

Newberys Left for Goal: 15

Newberys Left for Total: 29

Accounting 101

So, for the record, I did read more than just those 12 classics. In fact, I read 148 more books. Yep, a total of 160 books this year. Still not up to the 2013 standard, but I don’t know that I’ll ever see that again.

Out of that 160, 61 of them were rereads. Perhaps a bit more than I’d like, but whenever things get a little crazy (and crazy they did get at times this year) there is no comfort like a well-loved book. It’s healthier than junk food, although I indulged in that too much last year, too.

So, 63 of the 99 first-time reads were children’s books, leaving 36 new grown-up books. Of the children’s books, about 30 percent I considered very good indeed.  I found about 10 percent to be on the awful side (one very much so) and the remaining 60 percent or so to be OK. Not quite a bell curve, but I was left with the unmistakable conclusion that most of the books I read were indeed average.

What did I like? My number 1 book was Fish in a Tree by Linda Mullaly Hunt. Two and a half years ago I loved her One for the Murphys, so she is fast becoming one of my favorite  authors. Why did I love it so much? In reading this book I got realistic, authentic characters, confirmation that good triumphs over evil, and a great attitude about bullying. Miss Hunt bucks the literary trend of trying to gain sympathy for the bully when she has my hero Keisha say to bullied protagonist Ally, “Uh-uh. No way. Don’t be feeling sorry for her. It’s not an excuse to go around doing terrible things to other people.” I was a sobbing (with joy) mess by the end of this amazing book. Yeah, that’s tops with me.

There are 5 other children’s books that are noteworthy, 4 in a positive way and one not so much. I thought The War that Saved my Life was an excellent book. When I first got into it, I was not impressed, but as I read on, I got totally caught up in the characters and their surrounding events and ended up speeding through to see how they would all end up. Absolutely Truly and Graceful were two offerings by two of my favorite authors, Heather Vogel Fredrick and Wendy Mass respectively, and these ladies did not disappoint. I was a little surprised that Miss Mass added another volume to her Willow Falls series, but I thoroughly enjoyed it, even if it wasn’t quite as wonderful as the other installments. I was also quite relieved to know that the series has come to an end. I love it so much I don’t want to see Miss Mass jump the shark with it. The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place was just pure British Victorian melodrama fun, children’s lit style. I’m hoping for more books by its author. My final reflection is on Finding Gossamyr, Volume 1. This was a BES graphic novel and it was pure torture to get through. It was typical graphic novel genre—confusing, save-the-world fantasy plot, underdeveloped characters, and bewildering creatures and magical powers. I hated it—watch it win the award this year. For my complete new children’s reads and ratings, see below.

As for the grown-up books, I read an additional 5 fiction titles along with my classics. Only one of them was noteworthy, The Bookman’s Tale by Charlie Lovett. It combined a love of books, England, Shakespeare, and a mystery and I thoroughly enjoyed it—so much so that I have another book by Mr. Lovett in my to-read queue.

That leaves 17 new grown-up nonfiction reads last year. My topics, for the most part, were typical for me—British history, American Revolution history, historical women, and Jane Austen are well represented in my list. My favorite book, however, was about books. When Books went to War was about the effort put into supplying troops in WWII with books to read. It was a fascinating tale and I have never been prouder to be a librarian. In fact, Miss Manning praised librarians so highly I thought she must be one (she is not—she’s a lawyer). The next two books on my list are by women for whom I have great respect. I have long been a fan of Betty Rollin—her disarmingly honest, slightly humorous take on things made reading two of her earlier books (Last Wish and First, You Cry) wonderful experiences for me. Am I Getting Paid for This? was no different. In this chronicle of her various careers, Rollins’ trademark candor and wit combined with just enough self-deprecation to make this bound to be a repeat read for me. The same can be said of Miranda Hart’s Is it Just Me? I won’t go into details since I’ve already reviewed it in this blog, but I will say again that Miss Hart is one seriously funny lady.

That was then, this is now. See the charts below for a complete accounting of my literary year.

Children’s Fiction

Rank

Title

Author

Rating

1

Fish in a Tree Linda Mullaly Hunt

5

2

The War that Saved My Life Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

4

3

Absolutely Truly Heather Vogel Frederick

4

4

Graceful Wendy Mass

4

5

The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place Julie Berry

4

6

Half a Chance Cynthia Lord

4

7

Hidden Loic Dauvillier

4

8

Dogs of War Sheila Keenan and Nathan Fox

4

9

Dog vs. Cat Gall, Chris

4

10

Hope is a Ferris Wheel Robin Herrera

4

11

What’s Your Favorite Animal? Carle, Eric

4

12

Lost and Found Harley, Bill

4

13

I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew Dr. Seuss

4

14

The Stratford Zoo Presents: Macbeth Ian Lendler

4

15

Peanut Butter & Cupcake! Border, Terry

4

16

The Tooth Fairy Wars Coombs, Kate

4

17

Carnivores Reynolds, Aaron

4

18

Phoebe and Her Unicorn Dana Simpson

4

19

The Qwikpick Papers: Poop Fountain! Tom Angleberger

4

20

The Twelve Dancing Princesses Marianna Mayer

3

21

Navigating Early Clare Vanderpoole

3

22

Echo Pam Munoz Ryan

3

23

Gabriel Finley and the Raven’s Riddle George Hagan

3

24

Julia’s House for Lost Creatures Hatke, Ben

3

25

At the Same Moment, Around the World Perrin, Clotilde

3

26

El Deafo Cece Bell

3

27

The Most Magnificent Thing Spires, Ashley

3

28

Joy in Mudville Raczka, Bob

3

29

Double Dog Dare Lisa Graff

3

30

Betsy in Spite of Herself Maud Hart Lovelace

3

31

The Forget-Me-Not Summer Leila Howland

3

32

Adventures with Waffles Maria Parr

3

33

Cardboard Doug tenNapel

3

34

Splendors and Glooms Laura Amy Schlitz

3

35

The Secret Garden Frances Hodgson Burnett

3

36

Silver Six AJ Lieberman

3

37

Centaur Rising Jane Yolen

3

38

Half a World Away Cynthia Kohdata

3

39

The Fourteenth Goldfish Jennifer L Holm

3

40

Antything but Typical Nora Raleigh Baskin

3

41

A Plague of Unicorns Jane Yolen

3

42

Cloudy with a Chance of Boys Megan McDonald

3

43

Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes Jonathan Auxier

3

44

Betsy Was a Junior Maud Hart Lovelace

3

45

Odd Weird & Little Patrick Jennings

3

46

If the Shoe Fits Sarah Mlynowski

3

47

Absolutely Almost Lisa Graff

3

48

Middle School: How I Survived Bullies, Broccoli, and Snake Hill James Patterson

3

49

Hiding Out at the Pancake Palace Nan Marino

3

50

Amahl and the Night Visitors Gian-Carlo Menotti

3

51

Lowriders in Space Cathy Camper

2

52

Words with Wings Nikki Grimes

2

53

Flunked Jen Calonita

2

54

Bravoman Matt Moylan

2

55

Mission Unstoppable Dan Gutman

2

56

Bliss Kathryn Littlewood

2

57

Finding Gossamyr David A. Rodriguez

1

 

Continue reading »

My Year of Reading Classically

Yes, it’s been a while. Let’s get over it and into how I spent 2015.

My goal was to read 12 classics, one per month. I did indeed achieve that goal, with a week or so to spare. There were some wonderful highs, an abysmal low, and a whole lot in between.

So, let’s start with the low and work up to the high.

Numbers 12 and 11 I just don’t get. For Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (#12), I suppose I need to attend a lecture or read some authoritative commentary on this book to understand its worth. I know I am an extremely character-driven reader, but often when I don’t like the main character I can see some other value to the book—perhaps not enough to like it, but at least enough to appreciate its merit. This was the case with To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (#11). I didn’t like any of the characters in Miss Woolf’s book or the stream of consciousness style, but I can acknowledge her skill and talent in the way she crafted the novel and see it as a work of literary worth, just not my taste. There is nothing about Mr. Garcia Marquez’s tome that does not sicken me. I was so glad that I found someone who wanted a copy for a friend (thanks NH) so I could purge its existence from my home. Enough said.

The character problem was an issue for me with books #10 (Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote) and #9 (Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray). I’ve seen the Tiffany’s movie and thought the romance was sweet, even if I didn’t get the appeal of Holly Golightly. My appreciation of the film is due largely to Miss Hepburn’s performance, presenting Holly as kooky and selfish but ultimately with a heart of gold. In the novel, however, Holly has no allure at all. In fact, she just might be a sociopath—outwardly charming (at least, apparently, to men), but someone who uses people for her own means with absolutely no conscience about the consequences of her actions. But at least here there were some supporting characters for me to like. As for Dorian, I can’t say I liked any of the characters, but the morality of the story gives it merit. While I often felt as though I needed a shower after reading about Dorian’s descent into degradation, his loss of decency and ultimate end is the price he paid for his vanity. Dorian and his friends disgusted me, and Mr. Wilde was extreme in his point, but there was a point to it all. That’s good writing. I’m still looking for the point in Cholera. (I’m moving on, I promise.)

On to #s 8, Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh and 7, Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. I can’t really say I liked or disliked either one of these. They were OK. I think it’s interesting that they both ended up in the middle of my list because they sit at completely opposite ends of my comprehension and understanding spectrum. I totally missed the point when I read Revisited. I found it a little off-putting, good Catholic girl that I am, because it seemed to me to be a bit anti-Catholic. Only after doing a little research about the book did I get what Mr. Waugh was trying to do and did I realize that it was actually a vehicle to promote the classically Catholic themes of faith and divine grace. So while I admired the book’s (and author’s) mission, I didn’t particularly admire the story. When reading Uncle Tom, however, I got the message without additional help—how could I not? It was so heavy-handed I needed to check for black-and-blue marks after reading the book. This one also had an admirable message, but there was some plowing involved in getting through the book. I did like the story and some of the characters, but it was so pedantic that I can’t say I truly enjoyed this one, either.

I can honestly say I enjoyed the next two, but not wholeheartedly. Book #6 was Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons. I think this was supposed to be the quirky adventures of a perky female meddler and while I ultimately liked Flora, her surroundings were a little too repulsive for me to unequivocally embrace. Fortunately, the sordidness was confined to minor characters, leaving me able to relish Flora and her intrigues. Relish is not the word for anything about #5, Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. This one was an act of redemption for me—to actually read a book I had always, and fallaciously, claimed I read. I was slightly ambivalent about the story and characters, but what interested me was trying to analyze the author’s craft. Coming up with theories as to why Mr. Hemingway made the literary choices he did was quite fun for me. I came up with no definitive answers (as indeed, I think we as readers can never be sure of an author’s intent unless we have it in writing from the author himself) but the questioning process itself was quite satisfactory to me.

Now we approach the good stuff. I truly liked the main character of book #4, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. I loved seeing Janie triumph after so many years of such heartbreaking struggles. But I wonder if I’m alone in thinking which hardship was her greatest. I think most people would claim that it would be the death of her beloved Tea Cake and the incredible circumstances that surrounded it. I, however, would argue that the worst thing she endured was the one time Tea Cake betrayed Janie’s, and my, trust. I was devastated not only by what he did to her, but by the reason for it. Yes, I was so disappointed in him, but that fact just shows what a wonderful writer Miss Hurston is. She created a universe so engaging that I ceased to be an observer and became a participant. That’s talent.

Reading Book #3 was a bit of an odd experience. As a librarian, it seems natural that at some point I would read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. It is, after all about censorship through book burning, something every self-respecting librarian should oppose. Except that this book really isn’t about censorship. As I was reading it, there were a couple of things I didn’t understand (the walls in Montag’s house, for example), and I kind of felt like there was a bigger issue involved. In doing a little research, sure enough, there was. Mr. Bradbury himself said that the theme he most concentrated on was an “illiterate society infatuated with mass media.” With that one sentence, I suddenly “got” the book. It is sci-fi, a genre I don’t really care for, but the theme and message were so powerful and so prescient (Apple people, in particular, I’m talking about your) that I had to greatly admire Mr. Bradbury’s work.

I think I first came to Excellent Women by Barbara Pym (book #2) in A Reader’s Book of Days, which I read in 2014. However I came across it, I am ever so glad I did. The intensity with which I identified with Mildred was downright scary at times. The style, plot, and humor were typically British, so I was predisposed to enjoy it. I would have liked a little more definitive closure, but I think that is my inherent American-ness at work. I did have one quibble with the edition I read. On the cover it called Miss Pym a twentieth-century Jane Austen. That does credit to neither of the ladies in question. No one is like Miss Austen (Janeite erupting, here). And Miss Pym is funny, fresh, and entertaining in her own way. I will grant that the types of novels they write are superficially similar, but that’s about it. This was my December book and it was a great way to end the year.

And then, finally, my #1 book, Harper Lee’s masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird. I’ve already enthused over the book, so I won’t get into that again. My only concern about the book was that I read it in January. I wondered if I’d set the bar too high for the rest of the year, and that might have been the case. Certainly nothing came close until Excellent Women. And while I identified so with Mildred, she cannot possibly compare with my beloved Atticus. I’m so enamored of Atticus and the book that I have no desire to read Go Set a Watchman (admittedly, in part because there is doubt to the authenticity of Miss Lee’s authorship). I am content to leave near perfection as it is.

So that was my year. I chose to read classics because I don’t seem to like much of the contemporary grown-up fiction that I read. As someone who loves history in general and whose favorite books and authors (Will and Jane, I am talking about you) are from the past I sort of figured that I would like classics more than contemporary novels. In evaluating my reaction from these classics, I don’t know if that’s true. Two I hated, two I didn’t like, two I were indifferent to, two I appreciated, two I liked, one I loved, and one I adored. Authors are authors and books are books, and I just need to keep searching for good books that appeal to me. In one of my favorite books, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a character says something to the effect that reading good books spoils you for reading bad ones. I just need to remember that and read on.