Books You Can Skip and A Few to Keep

Although my inclination is to not publish reviews of books I did not like, I seem to have collected quite a few lately.  Just because I did not find these books compelling does not mean you won’t.  The first is by an author I follow and usually anticipate reading, the second is a classic with history painfully repeating itself in the present, and the third is from LibraryReads –  the site with picks from library staff nationwide.

The Confession Club by Elizabeth Berg

A group of women have regular meetings to reveal secrets and offer support to each other. Although reviewers have called the book uplifting, I found it disappointing and tiresome.  Maybe I wasn’t in the mood for angst and empathy.

 

It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis

This classic came to me by way of Libby, our library’s online service.  At first, I laughed at the ridiculous scenarios, until they came too close to current political reality.  Although Lewis was targeting the 1930s American government, I found a 2017 essay in the New York Times titled “Reading the Classic Novel That Predicted Trump.”  Sadly, history does repeat itself.

Nothing To See Here by Kevin Wilson

Liar, liar, pants on fire!  In Wilson’s book ten year old twins can spontaneously burst into fire, burning everything around them but not themselves.  Lillian is summoned by her former class mate Madison to act as their nursemaid, while Madison prepares her husband to become the next Secretary of State. Although the story line is outlandish, Wilson’s symbolism is hard to miss, and the snarky comments on parenting and politics are contemporary.  I read the whole book, wishing it would burst into flames.

Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker

If you read all sixteen chapters of Walker’s information dense material, it may actually put you to sleep – as you are reading it.  The author gives you his permission:  “Please, feel free to ebb and flow into and out of consciousness during this entire book. I will take absolutely no offense. On the contrary, I would be delighted.”  Go straight to the Appendix – “Twelve Tips for Healthy Sleep” with reminders you have probably read elsewhere: stick to a sleep schedule, exercise, avoid caffeine, alcohol, and large meals before bed, and one I often apply – “If you find yourself still awake after staying in bed more than twenty minutes, get up and do {something}.”

 

Keeper Books:

Dumpty: The Age of Trump in Verse by John Lithgow

Best Christmas present ever,  Lithgow’s satirical poems are hilarious.  The targets include anyone connected to the American President, from Rudy Giulianio to Betsy DeVos, with Lithgow’s line drawings adding to the fun. In her review for the New York Journal of Books, Judith Reveal notes: “A prolific writer and award-winning actor, Lithgow has penned a laugh-out-loud picture of American politics at its worst. And yet, through the laughter comes a sense of despair.”  

The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse by Charlie Mackesy

Cartoonist and illustrator Charlie Mackesy’s children’s book for adults is probably one you should give as a present to someone. When I read about it, I gifted it to myself, and now am reluctant to part with it. One of my favorite quotes from the book:

“Is your glass half empty or half full?” asked the mole. “I think I’m grateful to have a glass,” said the boy.  

The Shortest Day

Perhaps you won’t notice but the sun will appear later and disappear earlier today. The winter solstice on December 21st is the shortest day of the year. In a short poem Newbery Medal winner Susan Cooper explains the magic of the day in a picture book with illustrations by Caldecott Honor winner Carson Ellis.

The Shortest Day, written for a theatrical production by the Christmas Revels based at Harvard University’s annual celebration and performed in nine cities across America, may be a children’s picture book but its message of hope and peace is for everyone. Cooper explains at the end of the book how “this celebration of the light (is) a symbol of continuing life” across all religious observances from Christmas to Chanukah and many other faiths.

She ends the poem with…

“This shortest day

As promise wakens in the sleeping land.

They carol, feast, give thanks,

And dearly love their friends, and hope for peace.

And so do we, here, now,

This year, and every year.

Welcome Yule!    

Louisiana’s Way Home

9780763694630  The openng lines of Kate DiCamillo’s new book for middle schoolers – Louisiana’s Way Home – reminded me of a resolution I have yet to complete:

“I am going to write it all down, so that what happened to me will be known, so that if someone were to stand at their window at night and look up at the stars and think, My goodness, whatver happened to Louisiana Elefante? Where did she go? They will have an answer. They will know.”

I usually avoid reading memoirs, assuming the writer’s memory will have been embellished and cleaned up. But writing my own story for posterity is appealing, especially because I could embellish and clean it up. What has been stopping me? Probably the suspicion of my story being only interesting to me.

Louisiana’s story begins with the curse her grandfather set in motion; mine would mirror it with my grandmother’s power of bestowing a curse, passed through generations.  Be assured, I have not tried wielding her power – not consciously, anyway – and not yet.

Louisiana’s story is “discovering who you are – and deciding who you want to be.”  For fans of DiCamillo, Louisiana may bring back thoughts of Raymie Nightingale, and Raymie is mentioned, but Louisiana has a more compelling story, leaving her friend behind in Florida and starting over in Georgia with a new friend, Burke, who can climb trees and outsmart the vending machine to get free peanuts.

After Granny and Louisiana drive off for a new life, so much happens: Granny loses all her teeth, tells about finding a baby on a pile of rubbish, and deserts the twelve year old. Nevertheless, Louisiana’s steady and optimistic outlook leads her to a new family, a new life, and a happy ending.  The story is at once a sad lesson in hope and a caution to not wallow in fate.  Destiny is what you make it.   Louisiana is abandoned by someone she trusts, tries to work things out on her own, consults with a minister, and finally chooses forgiveness with a new family.   Burke’s grandfather sums up the point of the story when he tells her to  “Take what is offered to you.”

The curse?  Turns out Louisiana never really had one –    only Granny has to contend with that problem.

And DiCamillo delivers another poignant tale of a brave little girl who gets the support of friends from unlikely places and in unexpected ways.  We all need that now and then.

Related ReviewRaymie Nightingale

Mark Twain Unfinished – The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine

61q+5s8-QzL._AC_US218_In the spirit of great unfinished work – Schubert’s unfinished symphony, Charles Dickens’ unfinished novel (The Mystery of Edwin Drood), Gaudi’s unfinished Sagrada Familia – an unfinished children’s story by Mark Twain, now titled The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine, was discovered among Twain’s papers in 2011.  Like other unfinished art, contemporary masters often take up the task to finish; in this case, the Newbery Medal winners Philip and Erin Stead provided the art and supplemental text to Twain’s scribbled notes and skeletal outline of a bedtime story he had created for his young daughters over several days.

The story has a little boy on a quest with a chicken and a skunk named Sally. A magic flower when eaten has him able to communicate with animals. The King with a short man complex has banned anyone taller than he is, the willowy Queen sits knitting below his high throne, and someone had kidnapped the Prince. Conversations between Philip Stead and Mark Twain interrupt the action periodically, and Twain’s story ends with the Prince in a cave guarded by dragons.  

Erin Stead draws a beautiful assortment of animals in muted watercolors with the chicken and skunk taking on special roles.  Her moving portraits of the queen and the boy will remind you of someone you care about.

Recently watching the Mark Twain Prize presented to David Letterman, I thought about Twain’s role in American humor.  Twain was well known for mixing his humor with truth; reading Twain can be fun for children and philosophical for adults.  Although the action seems a little slow, the Steads completion of this unfinished story adds another piece to Twain’s impressive canon.

The satisfying ending the Steads provide is timely and poignant.

“…the words that could save mankind from all its silly, ceaseless violence, if only mankind could say them once in a while and make them truly meant…

I am glad to know you.”

If only…

The 2017 Newbery Books

Each year I anticipate the winner and honor books for the Newbery Prize. Past winners have included authors I regularly seek out, like Kate DiCamillo  (Flora and Ulysses). Among my favorite winners are a book about a gorilla (The One and Only Ivan) and Jacqueline Kelly’s The Evolution of Calpernia Tate.  One quote from that tale of an eleven year old budding scientist still rings true: “It was too bad, but sometimes a little knowledge could ruin your whole day…”

This year’s winner and honor books include a fantasy – The Girl Who Drank the Moon -magic is often a theme in Newbery books.  As a fan of “The Canterbury Tales,” I look forward to reading the Honor Book – The Inquisitor’s Tale: Or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog, written by Adam Gidwitz.  Another honor book, Lauren Wolk’s Wolf Hollow found its way into book club discussions, as its theme of bullying and discrimination mirrored present-day angst.  Finally, Freedom Over Me: Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams Brought to Life by Ashley Bryan, completed this year’s winners, with the music of poetry and the rhythm of song telling a story of history.

Read them all – it won’t take much of your time – and you will find satisfying tales written well.  Sometimes a good children’s book can be better than one written for adults.

9781616205676_p0_v4_s192x300   The Girl Who Drank the Moon

This year’s winner of the Newbery Prize – Kelly Barnhill’s The Girl Who Drank the Moon – delivers other worldly magic – we all need some right now. In a world similar to Shirley Jackson’s famous short story “The Lottery,” one person is sacrificed each year to appease an evil witch and keep the rest of the village safe – for another year.  Unknown to the villagers, the baby is rescued each time by a good witch of the Forest, who safely whisks the child off to a new family in a safer place, while the evil witch, disguised as mother superior in the local convent, thrives on the sorrow and despair of the sacrificing town.

One year the good witch, Xan, who shares her home with an ancient Swamp Monster and a Perfectly Tiny Dragon, keeps the baby.  When Xan accidentally feeds the baby girl light from the moon, instead of the usual fare of stardust, Luna becomes enmagicked with amazing powers.  Xan subdues Luna’s powers until she is thirteen, when she joins forces with her mother, imprisoned all these years in a tower, whose magic changes paper birds into lethal weapons,  and Antain, a young man from the village with a good heart whose baby would be next on the list to be sacrificed.  Of course, evil is defeated and a new world order of hope replaces the misery.

Each minor character has notes of the familiar in everyone’s life.  Antain disappoints his mother’s ambition for him by leaving the head Council and following his own yearning to be a carpenter.  The little dragon never seems to grow up, until a crisis tears away his youthful outlook and forces him to deliver.  The old Swamp Monster offers steady and sage advice and comfort when needed.  But, my favorite character in this story is Ethyne, who knows the evil witch from her days as a novice, before she left to marry Antain.  Ethyne’s outlook is always positive and cheery, with a steady sense of self which she uses to steer both her husband and the despairing villagers as well as her former subservient connections in the Convent.  Ethyne is that voice of common sense who might bring you a cup of tea when you are down, or suggest a plan to overcome your inertia when you need motivation.  She is someone everyone should have as a friend.

Related Review:  Wolf Hollow