Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Stories Discovered This Summer


I have a weakness for stories, though when someone asks me what kind I like to read, I’m a little perplexed how to answer.  As long as it’s a good story, I don’t really care about genre.  I simply love good stories.  And by good story, I mean it has to ring true, it’s not at all contrived, the plot draws me in, the characters I feel for, the setting is richly described, the story is saying something important without being flat or moralistic, and it has enough appeal of its own that it doesn’t need to resort to lurid violent or sexual details.  That’s not too tall of an order, is it :)?

I’m always on the lookout for good stories, and this summer while nursing Elanor I’ve discovered lots.  I’m a little hesitant even to write this blog post, because I know in the few moments that my children are still napping, I won’t do these books justice.  I got my B.A. in Literature, have a little bit of an idea what good literary criticism looks like, and am pretty sure this blog post will not be it.  For one thing, I have far too great an admiration for writers for simply getting a story written and published; I like to give them the benefit of the doubt and find the good in their stories.  Maybe I’m a little too easily pleased to be a true academic.  But these books pleased me, so here you go:

I’ll start with the children’s books.  I teach children’s literature, and that’s my excuse for loving good children’s stories just like I love Pixar movies.

The Penderwick series by Jeannie Birdsall wins the award for making me laugh out loud the most.  Delightful, intelligent, innocent, and fun—just what a playful series about four sisters should be.  I loved how each of the sisters is developed into such a thorough, thoughtful character.  Here is one good series to recommend to preteen girl readers—it’s not contrived feminist propaganda, but at the same time the girls are intelligent and ambitious.  I can’t wait to recommend these to Elanor one day.  Thank you to my friend Carolyn for recommending them—and these books remind me of Carolyn, everything from the random hilarity to the occasional quotations in Latin.

The Percy Jackson & the Olympians series by Rick Riordan—yes, I read all five books of the series, and one of these days I hope to begin the second series.  I read the first book with the excuse that I wanted to know what my students were reading, and I wanted to know if we should allow David to read these books when he’s older.  (I think I started the Harry Potter series with the same excuse.)  Well anyway, I got hooked and read the entire series purely for my own fun.  I would give these the most irreverently creative award.  I can see why middle school boys love them.  They are to Greek mythology what Veggie Tales is to the Bible, for better and for worse … I think from here on I’ll imagine Hermes carrying a cell phone, Aphrodite checking her mascara in the mirror, and Ares riding a Harley.

These books aren’t as deep or complex as Harry Potter, but at the same time they throw around a number of important themes.  Percy Jackson as a character is developed so well—sympathetic, sardonic, and a consistent first-person voice through the entire series.  He is morally superior to all the Greek gods (and the Titans they are fighting against), staying fiercely loyal to his friends, continually valuing life, defending the weak, and choosing responsibility, so middle school boys wanting to emulate him is probably all in all a good thing.  The action is a bit contrived at points—the most glaring example in my mind would be pinning a character under a statue simply so her presence wouldn’t muddy up an upcoming important scene.  And the books are sometimes surprisingly juvenile—I had a hard time understanding why, when the world was going to fall apart in a matter of days, the plot suddenly swooped down to games of Capture the Flag or cleaning inspections at summer camp.  But, good fun, suspenseful action, hilarious twists on mythology, and pretty solid morals.

Okay, now moving up a bit in maturity: the Hunger Games wins the most suspenseful award.  I made the mistake of getting the first book from the library, fully intending to dislike it and return it.  Instead, I devoured it and needed so much to know what happened next that I ::gulp:: ordered the boxed trilogy set from Amazon.  The only way I could reconcile this with our current tight budget was planning to sell them back hopefully for a profit … haha.  So many thoughtful reviews have been written for and against the Hunger Games, so let me just say quickly: I think the author is brilliant.  Her imagination in coming up with the idea of the hunger games and developing her characters to be so sympathetic against such a harsh background—masterfully done.  It is no wonder her books are bestsellers.  Themes of love, freedom, identity, value of human life, are brought out all the more boldly through the stark contrasts.

The worldview in these books is a bit murky, raising philosophical questions without thoroughly answering them.  The Harry Potter books are, perhaps ironically, more Christian, I think.  The third book, Mockingjay, I found especially murky in its themes … is this revolution more like the American or the French?  Are they overthrowing the current tyranny to replace it with something better?  If they fight like the enemy, are they really any better than the enemy?  The book asks these questions, and moves toward answering them, but is ultimately unclear.  In the last few chapters, Katniss votes to continue the hunger games (I was unsure whether that was her sincere opinion, or a cover for what she was actually thinking), but then her assassination decision makes a clear statement perhaps to the contrary.  (Trying to avoid spoilers here.)   Maybe there was more clarity here that I missed, but I’m thinking that if I missed it, a lot of the books’ middle school/high school audience are going to as well.

I didn’t think I would like these books because of how dark and violent I heard they were.  They are that to some extent, but like I said before, the themes are brought out by contrast—the humanity and compassion of some of the characters becomes all the more remarkable against such a dark background.  I don’t have much stomach for violence, but these books I didn’t mind.  I will say the third book was perhaps my least favorite in being more violent and angsty than I think the other two combined.  And final comment—I think this was a love triangle done well.  It forwarded a lot of the suspense, it didn’t seem at all contrived, I sympathized with Katniss all the way through, and her final decision clicked with the rest of the story.

All right, now moving toward more adult stories.  A very different book: The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton.  This book wins the award for affecting me more than any other.  I simply couldn’t stop thinking about it.  I finished it near midnight, solely because Elanor was up until then, but long after she fell asleep, I lay in bed pondering the story.  Haunting, beautiful.  I love the sense of time in this book—two and at times three plot lines, occurring in the early 1900s, the 1970s, and the early 21st century, are told concurrently, yet without being confusing.  Echoes between the past and present intensify the mystery.  This book has more than a little Gothic influence but never loses its realism and artistry.  Maybe it affected me so much because I read it while nursing my baby daughter, and central to the plot is a tragic mother-daughter relationship.  I don’t know.  It’s beautiful and wrenchingly sad yet strangely fulfilling.  I would highly recommend it.

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen wins the award for the most calming book.  I read this the week we brought Elanor home, chose it because of the main character Elinor, and in my sleep-deprived state, Jane Austen brought a much-needed dose of sanity, calmness, and gentle irony.  I kept closing the Baby Whisperer, helpful though her advice is, and fleeing the confusing world of baby-routines and up-all-night and what-am-I-doing-wrong to escape to a courteous English countryside.  I found myself hoping that Elanor will grow up a bit like Elinor.  My stormy emotions tend more toward Marianne (hopefully a more mature Marianne), and we could use some Elinor in the family.

Emma by Jane Austen wins the award for the most polite book.  I loved Emma.  I remember reading once that she was the most brilliantly developed character in any novel ever written, and I may well believe it.  Reading Emma and tracing her character development actually convicted me that I should be more polite—not just in manners but in heart.  Somehow in our age of texting we have lost the courtesy that should shape our communication.  I cannot believe how pointlessly rude comments on the internet can be.  I think we all need a Mr. Knightley to scold us.  Ben reminds me of Mr. Knightley.

Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier would win the most artistic award.  I watched the movie a year or two ago and liked it, but the book conveys more artistry in its language than a movie ever could.  For a book inspired by a painting, it does well.  I will say I think the author was a bit overly influenced by Freud.  Sometimes when reading a story, I need to remind myself that this isn’t necessarily a true picture of reality (or history), but rather the author’s perception of reality.  In this case, I think she overemphasized the theme of desire suppressed beneath the surface, and I wish she had avoided sexual detail in a couple places.  Her view of marriage, at least as represented in the book, was also pretty bleak—no real concept of oneness.  But that said, the themes of beauty and identity are well developed.  I don't know that I would recommend this book per se, but I would give it three stars out of five.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern would win the most imaginative award.  Wow.  I got this book from the library after it was recommended by a Facebook friend of a Facebook friend … yes, not a very close connection!  To be honest, after reading the first couple chapters, I was wondering what I was getting myself into and considering stopping.  The f word used once (only once, and it fit the context, but still I do not like wading through any obscene language) and a lot of references to magic (use of tarot cards, fortune telling, etc.).  I thought about it and kept going, and am glad I did.  Its use of magic makes it almost like an adult version of Harry Potter.

The story is a true fairy tale.  The description of setting is beautiful.  So many themes are explored—the nature of reality, the relationship between body and soul, and past and present and future, the difficulties and temptations power brings, the strength of love.  The conversation between Widget and the man in the gray suit at the end—excellent.  Would definitely recommend this book, especially to my literary friends and anyone who appreciates fairy tales.

So yes, I’ve spent a lot of time with Elanor in the rocking chair these last weeks—can it really be almost ten weeks?—and I’ve read a lot of fiction.  I’m realizing now I need to balance my reading diet with more nonfiction, and my upcoming reading list features a biography of George Muller, Shepherding a Child’s Heart by Ted Tripp, Satisfy My Thirsty Soul by Linda Dillow, and Orthodoxy by G. K. Chesterton.  I’ve been loving Relationships: A Mess Worth Making by Timothy Lane and Paul Tripp, and I’m looking forward to starting a Bible study on 1 Samuel in the fall.  I want to find a good book or two on preschool education as more of my thoughts are tending in that direction, and I really should pick up Healthy Sleep Habits Happy Child again.

I know from practical people I’ve talked to (or read) that the value of reading fiction at all can be questioned.  We are busy with so many immediate demands, and there are so many lessons to learn and information to gather through reading.  The Baby Whisperer can help me get Elanor on a better routine—what can The Night Circus do for me right now?

Again, I need more balance between fiction and nonfiction—but I do think fiction is practical, just indirectly so.  It’s not just for fun—good fiction should shape our understanding, grow our perspective, enlarge our experience, deepen our sympathy.  I hope I’m a better person, and a better wife and mother and friend, from reading these books.  They’ve definitely given me some fun hours, and a lot of characters and themes to think about.  So if you have a moment, comment and recommend to me another story I might like (or tell me what you think of the ones I’ve already read).

4 comments:

  1. Preschool education...Mommy, Teach Me by Barbara Curtis. She was a Montessori trained/certified teacher who ultimately pulled her kids out of Montessori to homeschool them. She has 12 kids, several of them adopted, several of them with special needs. She writes to encourage moms that they can teach their children and also kind of promotes the Montessori method (which, I honestly, find really intriguing). I have that one and her second book, Mommy, Teach Me To Read if you want to borrow them.

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  2. I so enjoyed reading this! And yes, I agree that fiction has great value to us. To escape to different times and places....to see things from a pair of eyes so different than our own! I'm interested in checking out some of the books you reviewed since I haven't read all of them. I read some Jane Austen while nursing too. Lol. I love her!

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  3. So, after reading your review, I immediately reserved a copy of The Penderwicks from the LCPL.

    Percy Jackson is a favorite, and definitely one that is goin on my "must reads" for kids. The newer series is also proving enjoyably clever. I can't say as much for Riordan's Egyptian series, though. It smacked too much of spiritism.

    Another series I recommend are Timothy Zahn's Dragonback series. I can see David enjoying those books when he is 10-12. A fun sci-fi series with some interesting discussions of honor and responsibility.

    As for adult fiction, have you read Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451? That is one of my favorite dystopian books, to date.

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  4. The Penderwicks was indeed a delight -- reminded me of the less fantastical end of Nesbit's writing (The Railway Children, perhaps; which I also recommend, by the way). Although the third Penderwicks book seemed to lack a bit of the lightness that the first two had.

    Percy Jackson is sort of like the pagan version of Harry Potter. (So much fun, saying that... try it on your friends! It has the secondary advantage of being true.) It really is pagan -- where Harry Potter, for all the questions it raises, is obviously Christ-haunted -- and not quite as carefully woven as Rowling's stories, perhaps, but fun. The first book annoyed my with Percy's whininess, but he improved. I've read one book into Riordan's next series, and his style has gotten stronger. Not great literature, but dashed fun to read.

    Wasn't really interested past the first chapter of Hunger Games so I can't comment on that. Austen is one of the greatest writers in English, and always worth a reread. You have me intrigued at your description of The Night Circus; I'm nabbing it from the library sometime soon. :-)

    Agree with Daughter of Grace that the Dragonback books are fun -- not Zahn's best writing ever (that would be Blackcollar, perhaps, or more likely the Thrawn books... Ben's predilection for The Icarus Hunt notwithstanding), but surprisingly good in their moral vision. A clear rejection of utilitarianism in favor of something like virtue ethics. Also, it's Zahn. Usually worth a spin. :-)

    And Fahrenheit 451 is beautiful. So is Wangerin's The Book of the Dun Cow.

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