Tuesday, November 30, 2010

A Girl from Yamhill by Beverly Cleary

A Girl from YamhillTitle: A Girl from Yamhill
Author: Beverly Cleary
Pages: 352
Published: 1996 HarperCollins
My Rating: 4 stars

It could be that the difference between Junie B. Jones (Barbara Park) and Ramona Quimby (Beverly Cleary) is simply a generational preference, although I--being from the older generation--would beg to differ. 
Ramona Quimby, Age 8 (Avon Camelot Books) Junie B. Jones and the Stupid Smelly Bus (Junie B. Jones, No. 1) (Book & CD)
Certainly, there are similarities: young, sassy, misunderstood girl goes through a series of humorous, humiliating circumstances.  I own both series, my daughters have enjoyed both series, and I'm pretty sure my mom has disliked both series.  

The generational quandary enters because I think my mom views both Junie B and Ramona as I view Junie B (but not Ramona): impertinent, disrespectful and irritating.

Before Sara Crewe (A Little Princess) or Laura Ingalls became my friends, there was Ramona: showing me that I wasn't the only misunderstood one out there.  No, I didn't get myself into quite as many scrapes as she did, but there was something comforting in the fact that other little girls were good, but misunderstood.

I mention all this because your feelings on Ramona Quimby will absolutely affect your feelings on Beverly Cleary herself.  A Girl From Yamhill is Beverly Cleary's memoir, from her earliest memories on her father's farm, to graduating high school during the Great Depression.  As in her children's books, Cleary's writing is simple and easy to read.  It was fun to learn about all the experiences that influenced her writing, and was also a great account of life in the early part of the 20th century.  
My Own Two Feet: A MemoirThe account of Cleary's life is continued in My Own Two Feet, which immediately went on my TBR list after finishing the first installment.  If you are, or ever have been, a fan of Beverly Cleary (or Ramona Quimby, or Henry Huggins, or Ribsy, etc.) A Girl From Yamhill is a must-read.  It is quick reading, but full of such wonderful memories that it has a lasting effect.

Friday, November 26, 2010

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's Tale (Everyman's Library)Title: The Handmaid's Tale
Author: Margaret Atwood
Pages: 311
Published: 2006 (orig. 1985)
My Rating: 4 stars

Do you use LibraryThing?  It has this fun little "Will You Like It?" predictor that will judge how likely it is that you will enjoy a book.  Since I rate and review the books I read pretty consistently on LT, it tends to be fairly accurate.  Until it comes to something like The Handmaid's Tale, which leaves it completely befuddled.  My typical aversion to utopian/dystopian novels outweighed my love for well-written literary fiction, and the prediction came out as: "LibraryThing thinks you probably won't like The Handmaid’s Tale (prediction confidence: very high)"

LibraryThing was wrong--I really enjoyed this book. Despite the dystopia, despite the heavy environmental, political, religious, and sexual themes and messages, despite some skepticism at the validity of the dystopia that Atwood created, I thought that the statement made about what it is to be human was powerful.
This is the kind of touch they like: [...] A return to traditional values.  Waste not want not.  I am not being wasted.  Why do I want?
The writing style was so much fun to read.  Sparse to the point of simplicity in places, it was nevertheless deeply considered and effective: "dull...like the word thud".  Through this writing style we get to know the personality buried beneath the handmaid's masked exterior.  The story is told through bits and pieces, previous life remembered and pondered, detached observations of the new regime, fears and longings quelled for the sake of survival.
I want Luke here so badly.  I want to be held and told my name.  I want to be valued, in ways that I am not; I want to be more than valuable.  I repeat my former name, remind myself of what I once could do, how others saw me.
I think what I really appreciated about the book was how thought provoking it was.  The fact that it tends toward simplicity allows you time enough to ponder the circumstances you are reading about.  Also amazing to me is the sheer volume of Margaret Atwood's published works!  Where does one go next after The Handmaid's Tale?

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Predicting Timelessness

Literary Blog HopI love the conversations that the Literary Blog Hop has initiated.  It has been so much fun to read everyone's opinions about these literary topics, and this week looks to prove no different.  Please don't hesitate to join the conversation!

This week we are discussing the elusive term "Modern Classic".  What makes a contemporary novel a classic?

First of all, I have to agree with Olivia @ The Independent Book Review that it does seem that classics are made when they join the conversation of people outside all the literary, academic people.  Dickens is classic in part because he was read by everyone.

Also, I like the point that Ben @ Dead End Follies makes about social issues being a key ingredient in the relevance and importance of a novel becoming classic.  We remember authors like Alexandre Dumas  in part because of the historical details.

So, part of being a classic (either a traditional/time-tested 'old wrinkly' classic, or modern/contemporary 'old soul' potential classic) is its wide spread appeal as well as some sort of artistic expression of the times, something that touches our core being.  These are easy to identify in the traditional classics because we have generations of opinions to judge against ours.  How do we identify a modern classic though?  The truth is that they should be read and judged in the same way.  The only difference that we are the first tier of readers to log our opinions among the ranks.

So we ask: Does the book appeal to a wide range of people? Is it well written or artistically expressed? Does it make a statement about something of social relevance or an impact on our inner selves?

While I chose The Road (Cormac McCarthy) for my "Book you think should be a 21st Century Classic" for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2011, I haven't read it yet and so can't speak for its merit.  The book I'd like to suggest is a Modern Classic is Snow by Orhan Pamuk.  It is internationally renowned, a beautifully poetic look at Turkey and the huge differences between radical Islam and western ideals, and what it means to be happy.  This book has that long-lasting old-soul feeling that will lend itself to timelessness.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Handmade Literary Holidays

Get a jump on the "Black Friday" madness by shopping from the comfort of your own home. Have you heard of Etsy? If you value the handmade and the artistic, this is a wonderful place to hunt down that perfect gift item. Here are some things I'm liking right now:

You Must Allow Me to Tell You...

A Festive Literary Ornament

Bronze Letterpress Necklace

Bridges and Balloons Moleskine

What will you hide in a hollow book?

Multifont Buckle

Blue Bells Flower Bookmark

Bookish Crane Mobile

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Thinking Ahead: 2011 Reading Goals

I love lists and goals.  Well, making lists and goals.  Actually accomplishing those goals is much lower on my list of fun-things-to-do-in-my-spare-time.  It's only fitting, then, that instead of thinking about my current challenge responsibilities (which is changing from "Fall into Reading" to "Falling Behind in Reading") I start talking about the next set of goals...we can talk about my failures some other time.

This is the direction I think I'll take for next year's goals in reading:

BACK TO THE CLASSICS CHALLENGE 2011: (hosted by Sarah Reads Too Much)
1. A Banned Book: Lolita (Nabokov)
2. A Book with a Wartime Setting: Gone With the Wind (Mitchell)
3. Pulitzer Prize winner/runner up: One of Ours (Cather)
4. Children's or Young Adult Classic: Watership Down (Adams)
5. 19th Century Classic: Daniel Deronda (Eliot)
6. 20th Century Classic: Mrs. Dalloway (Woolf)
7. A Book you think should be a 21st Century Classic: The Road (McCarthy)
8. A re-read from High School/College: Native Son (Wright)

- Jane Austen (Sanditon, reread Persuasion)
- Irving Stone (Men to Match My Mountains)
- Elizabeth Gaskell (Ruth or Mary Barton)
Jubilee Trail (Bristow)
Dr. Zhivago (Pasternak)

Willa Cather: Chronological
Pulitzer Prize Winners
Newbery Award (or Honor) books

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Peace and Calm

I'm home for this holiday week, and it feels wonderful.  I'm a mountain girl at heart, and I so miss living here in Tahoe: the land of trees and snow and bright sparkling blue.  Even the 8-hour drive (that turned into a 10-hour drive filled with downpour and lightening, freezing temperatures, mini-avalanches and white-outs) that had us arriving at midnight couldn't squash my joy at arriving in this beautiful piece of Northern California serenity.  The view greeting me today was a mix of snow and blue, the mountains in the distance obscured by more snow and clouds.
I love snow.  I don't even mind driving in it and shoveling it.  It fills me with creative inspiration and a saturating peace.  This may be the first time I've really unwound and fully relaxed since September.  I've finished reading The Handmaid's Tale (which was wonderful) and I wrote a short story (which was fun) and am even inspired enough to put Our Mutual Friend on the front burner.  Being in the mountains, with snow on the trees and good books on hand, ahh--this is my idea of a good time.  Is this a peaceful holiday for you? Are you planning on getting any extra reading done this week?  

Friday, November 19, 2010

Deconstructing Penguins by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone

Deconstructing Penguins: Parents, Kids, and the Bond of ReadingTitle: Deconstructing Penguins
Author: Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone
Pages: 204
Published: 2005 Ballantine
My Rating: 4 stars

Analyzing literature, at whatever age, needn't be a dreadfully boring, confusing process.  If peeling back the layers of a book in the attempt to discover the underlying meaning has ever struck you as a meaningless, mystical quest, you may be happy to know that Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone have developed a simple way to go about figuring out what a book is all about.

Their method evolved while running a parent/child book group, and though it is geared towards discussing children's books, it is simplified enough to be useful regardless of the application.  In fact, some of the books that they discuss with their 5th grade groups might surprise you: Lost Horizon by James Hilton, The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle.  Regardless of what you are reading, the dissection process begins in the same way.

You see, regardless of what genre of book you are reading, you can approach each one as a mystery: What is this book really about?  To aid in that discovery, the Goldstones lead the parents and children in their book groups through a simple process of identifying the protagonist (who is moving the action forward?) and antagonist (who is trying to slow down or stop the action?) as well as the setting, plot, and conflict.  After the mystery is solved, the discussion moves into a courtroom setting where the author goes on trial.  Did the author play fair? Did the characters and plot agree with the underlying message?

Deconstructing Penguins is filled with more tips on how to help guide these thoughts and discussions, and includes real examples from their groups.  They go through quite a few books in detail, giving ample illustrations of how the process works, as well as a chapter focusing on poetry.

While I was very happy to find an effective way for efficiently teaching and practicing literature analysis, I do think that this book relied too heavily on examples, avoiding a concise layout of their method.  I took notes while reading, to make the information more usable for me.  The book could be improved by including some sort of outline or checklist for someone wishing to put their method into practice, but that's a small complaint compared to what I got out of the book.

I especially enjoyed their thoughts on challenging children with some of the great books:
What makes great books great is that these moral questions are posed in a fair and thought-provoking way, whereas in lesser books, the characters or the story is structured so as to make resolution easy and obvious.
I'll be putting this book to practical use with my kiddos after the first of the year.  Has anyone heard of another book on this topic?  I want to know more!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Categorizing Nonfiction

Literary Blog HopIs there such a thing as Literary Nonfiction you ask?  I must admit I've never thought of separating my nonfiction into categories in the same way I do with fiction, although that doesn't mean that those delineations don't exist.  Nonfiction categories tend to be more along the lines of topic (history, biography, self-help) than quality or prestige (like literary fiction or classics) likely for the simple reason that nonfiction is less read for pleasure than fiction is.

I enjoy nonfiction, and am always pleased to find well-written nonfiction.  I've read 21 nonfiction books so far this year in topics from gardening and writing to memoir and history.  Some of those were definitely more on the literary side than others (putting real emphasis on writing quality as opposed to simply relating the facts.)  So far this year, these have been the real stand-outs in writing style in nonfiction:

Thunderstruck Angela's Ashes Mere Christianity The Glass Castle: A Memoir

Don't those look exciting? Makes me want to go find more nonfiction.  Lucky for me then, that numerous high-quality book blogs await my perusal at the Literary Blog Hop.