Thursday, February 25, 2016

Of giant beets and monkey print dresses

A couple of years ago, a friend posted about revisiting Beverly Cleary books with her kids and I jumped right in with my own memories of Ramona.  At the time, my oldest boy and I had read the Ralph Mouse books together and were just getting into Ramona, and I just couldn't wait to share the story of Ramona's winter underwear, monkey print dress with the sash, and most especially, pulling up that giant beet in the rain. My friend responded with: "Huh??"  Yeah, those are all from the Ramona the Pest book, right?  Apparently not.

All those very vivid scenes I can recall in my memory seemingly as if they happened to myself?  Not so clear after all.   I had somehow transposed onto the first Ramona book scenes that are actually from a different, earlier Cleary book Ellen Tebbits.  This is clearly not the book that most people remember from their childhood.

Curious about the extent of my faulty memory, I finally checked a copy out of the library a month or so ago to share with my kiddos, and finally convinced them to let me read it to them.  We were a on a bit of a Wonder and Wonder related stories binge there for a while, rightfully so.
When I started Ellen, I worried it was far too old fashioned for them, and almost abandoned it as a read aloud because I feared I couldn't handle their criticism.  However, after a pretty superficial explanation of woolen winter underwear they went with it.  While I wouldn't say it was their favorite book we've read together, it was a perfectly pleasant reading experience.

A question I've asked myself a lot lately as I share childhood favorites with my kids is "does it hold up?"  When it comes to films, I'd say winners so far are the Indiana Jones series, Back to the Future series, and Goonies.  On the "not so much" side are A Princess Bride (sad, sad sad for me.  I still love it, but the kids just thought it was weird and not that funny.), and Time Bandits.  I'm still not 100% sure I ever actually saw Time Bandits as a kid and may be confusing it with something else completely.  The version we watched a week or so ago seemed entirely new to me.  I seem to be sensing a trend in my apparently swiss cheese memory bank.  Flight of the Navigator is a push.  Good story but the dated-ness of the technology was super distracting.  Good candidate for a remake, if you ask me!

So, does Ellen Tebbits hold up?  On the whole, I would say yes, though it was a little boring to me this time around.  The chapter where Ellen and her friend go horseback riding dragged even for me.  And it seemed to take entirely too long for Ellen and her best friend Austine to get over the squabble at the heart of the plot the second half of the book.  But that section of pulling up the giant beet from the vacant lot in the rain rang just as true as a hard won triumph to me as I remembered. And I was devastated and strongly annoyed with dumb old Otis Spofford and his Mexican jumping beans for taking away the classroom's attention on that, of all days.
A browse of goodreads shows that Ellen isn't the favorite of many who go back to read her story as adults.  It gets criticized as Cleary's starter story, and labeled old fashioned, slow, and quite a bit too tame.

It's true, Ellen Tebbits is no Ramona Quimby. She doesn't have the high spirits or gleeful recklessness to get her into scrapes nor even the disarming charm that causes a reader to cheer her on as she bumbles her way out of them.  What I discovered, though, is that I see a lot of myself as a child in Ellen.  She's a quiet, reserved girl who longs for a little excitement and for someone who will see her as someone worth sharing a (quiet-ish) adventure with.  Just like Ellen, I wanted teachers to like me and to ask me to clap the erasers outside.  I wanted a friend I could always count on to bake brownies with after school and who maybe would want to dress up in a matching print.  Beverly Cleary often got straight to the heart of children, especially in their disappointments and fears.  It is in those ways I can relate to Ramona Quimby, especially as a parent.  But I would never have been the kind of girl to pull another girl's curls to hear their "sproing", much as I might have imagined it.

No, it's no surprise that decades later it's Ellen's story that's the one I have pictures for in my head.  But perhaps knowing that Ramona was the more universally beloved child, I transposed that story on her name.  Whatever the case, I'll always have a tender spot for dear Ellen.  I'm glad I had the chance to get her story straight and revisit her world for a little while.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Best Books (I read in) 2015

According to my goodreads challenge, I read 44 books in 2015.  I believe a few of those titles I didn't actually finish, and I also try to include the books I read to my kids, but I am overall pretty impressed with my reading situation last year.  Considering I spent most of the month of November devouring the entire series of The Walking Dead on Netflix, and lost out on all reading opportunities (and a lot of the rest of life, if I'm honest), that's a pretty good showing.
One of the best things I did for my reading life in 2015, and for life in general, actually, was to finally start a book club of my own.  Since its membership consists of women I know will actually read the book, and who also are capable of amazing discussion, it has made it a priority for me to read at least one book a month. Because I am the kind of person who holds herself to dumb internal standards, I can't allow myself to only read the book club book each month, so the "required" reading has actually increased the number of books I'm reading by more than you'd expect.
Perhaps it's beginner's luck, or the fact that we are so excited about the group, but the reading choices my book club has made this year have been outstanding.  Or maybe it's just that having the opportunity to discuss a book makes them more memorable.  Either way, four of the books that found their way onto my top ten reads of 2015 were book club titles, and we only started meeting in June.

So, here are the books that I leave 2015 still thinking about.  There were different reasons to like each one, some for their beautiful language and images, a few for the unforgettable characters or setting, others for the sheer pleasure of losing myself in the experience.  I've started with the ten that are jumping out to me as I look back on the year of reading. I read a lot of YA books last year, and for some reason none of them appear below. I don't have a good explanation for why, except perhaps those don't have the same resonance to my own experience to hold a spot in my lasting reading memory, as much as I enjoy reading them in the moment.  It's not that I don't think YA is as well written as adult/literary fiction, because much of certainly is.  I think maybe I just didn't make great choices this year.  That, for me, continues to be the joy and agony of the reading life: so many wonderful choices, with the certainty you will never get to all that you'd like to experience.  One can only hope to make strong choices, and feel no guilt about abandoning those that don't speak to you at the time.  I'd rather miss a gem with the opportunity to come back to it when I'm in a different frame of mind, than to spend precious reading time trying to force myself to like something when I could be experiencing another delightful option.  (This is a hard lesson learned via Goldfinch, which I have started and stopped reading on three separate occasions.  Each occasion has sapped a month of my time, in which I didn't land in anything else good.)

For the most part, the brief reviews that follow are the ones I posted on goodreads at the time I finished them.  I've filled in the ones I didn't write about at the time with a few brief thoughts.

The "Top" Ten:

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
I actually finished this in 2016, but since I read two Moriarty books over the Christmas break, I'm counting it for 2015.  This is the kind of book I yearn to find -- easy to get into, hard to put down, characters that are both likable and honestly written, with humor and a mystery thrown in as a bonus. I had not figured out all of the wrinkles in this book until they all unfolded at the end. For a book that was basically light reading, it had a surprising amount of depth: subject matter that got me thinking, some biting social satire and humor, and characters I recognized from my daily life. I also read and enjoyed The Husband's Secret this month, and need to revisit What Alice Forgot, which I couldn't get into when I tried to read it a year or so ago.

Tattoos on the Heart by Gregory Boyle
It is not often that a book with as serious and important a message as this one is as beautifully written and compellingly readable as this one. Boyle's stories will break your heart wide open and fill it back up with the possibilities of stubborn patient love. Absolutely stunning.  I got so engrossed in this book that I couldn't stop reading it standing in the customs line to enter Mexico while on vacation with my husband. Not exactly what you'd consider beach reading, but it was exactly the kind of light my heart needed at the time.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Gorgeous. Unusual for a book with writing this beautiful to be this readable, with short chapters and shifts to keep the action moving. I loved the scientific imagery and evident fondness for detail. A WWII book, but also not because it seems so concerned with these particular characters. Or perhaps the reason it didn't rise to five stars to me is that it wasn't able to pull off a meditation on what these characters' stories mean in the grand scheme of the war. But perhaps that is expecting too much of our literature, to do and say it all? This book has such a specific feel to it. I am surprised that I like returning to it in my mind.

Us by David Nicholls
I was so moved by the protagonist of this book and his earnest and bumbling attempt to piece together the truths of his love story, marriage and family. A realistic and sweetly funny account of marriage and its difficulties and pleasures. Douglas takes on his version of a hero's journey to try to save all of it, and is rewarded with perhaps the first clear eyed look at his wife, his child, and himself in a while. There are no villains here: just flawed, well meaning people trying their best to find ways to love each other and find happiness amid life's disappointments and triumphs.

Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint by Nadia Bolz-Weber
Comparisons to Anne Lamott are valid, though she is not the writer that Anne is (and probably would not claim to be). Really interesting look at her faith transformation and journey. Honest, humble and fascinating wrestling with important ideas. Will be up to the reader to determine if where she lands in her discussion of those ideas is a stance you can get behind, but you certainly will not fault her for not thinking her positions through.

Peace Like a River by Leif Enger
4 1/2 stars. Maybe a bit hokey in places, but perhaps that is the point. An old fashioned sort of book in the best possible ways. It's a cowboy story, a redemption story, a battle of good vs. evil and some of the shades in between. Best of all, a story of the miraculous. Lots of play with the tropes of verse and storytelling, and plenty of surprises. I was sad to see it end. 

Americanah by Chimamande Ngozi Adichie
A book I would not have expected to enjoy but got me seriously thinking about race in America in ways that led me to other meditations on the subject.  Unlike anything else I've read in a while, and I'd like to read more like it.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
There were parts of this book that were maddening and predictable and the way it connected characters was nonsensical in places. If you had asked me right after I read it whether I liked it, I'm not sure I would have said yes.  But the post apocalyptic world it renders has haunted me throughout the months since I finished it.  There are scenes in this book in my memory that are fully realized, nearly as if I've already seen it on film.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin
Delightful story. Maybe a little too uncomplicated and light to pull it all the way up too 5 stars, but really enjoyable. I love reading about people who love books. The short story conceit made me want to go digging around in my remaining bins of classroom books to revisit some old favorites. I can imagine a whole book about Ismay and Daniel and might have liked to hear more from them. A book I would recommend to others without hesitation or qualification.  

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
Listened to this one but think I would have enjoyed the writing even more on the page. Jewels of description throughout. Keep me thinking and my heart aching. So much misunderstanding. This was the first book I read all year and the one that echoes the most for me in my memory.  

The following didn't make the top ten, but definitely stuck in my head and are honorable mentions for the year.

Delancey: A Man, A Woman, A Restaurant, A Marriage by Molly Wizenberg
Big fan of Molly Wizenberg and all her projects:books, blog, podcast. I loved A Homemade Life. I think that book benefitted from something this book could not: distance and perspective on its events. I enjoy her straightforward, thoughtful tone, but felt like some of the emotion was lacking from this book because she's still in the thick of this phase of her life and still sorting out what it all means to her. This isn't the most writerly of books, and I am actually refreshed by that, but still felt like there was a bit of depth missing here that I enjoy in her other pursuits. This account of opening a restaurant confirmed that though I love food culture, the restaurant life is certainly not for me. 

One Plus One by Jo Jo Moyes
Fun, fast: liked it more than me before you. Likable, flawed characters that were less stereotypical than it at first seemed. Really liked Jess and also the math Olympiad angle.

Home Cooking by Laurie Colwin
Devoured this in the car yesterday. She writes about food in the casual, yet passionate way that I love to read. Published in 1987, I thought it would be more dated than it was. In fact, for a person of my parents' generation, she seems to be ahead of her times in terms of seeking out quality, organic ingredients and enjoying simple, real food. Her voice is quick, sharp, and welcoming. Recipes here I would like to return to, and added encouragement to start entertaining more with food. 

A Little Salty to Cut the Sweet by Sophie Hudson
Sweet and funny with some thoughtful biblical applications woven into her stories. I don't often laugh out loud, even at books I think are quite hilarious. But her chapter about helping her mother in law learn to use a kindle had me giggling all throughout. 

Dreaming Spies by Laurie R. King
After the last two disappointing entries in the series, I was worried that there were no more satisfying adventures left for Russell and Holmes, two of my most beloved characters. However, this title restored my faith in King's abilities. I believe this one skips back in time chronologically in the series, though she does not make mention of this, so perhaps I'm mistaken? Anyhow, this is much more a self contained mystery/adventure for the duo, this time mostly in Japan. It is light hearted in tone, with enough twists and diversions to keep a reader involved. I love how much this couple seems to enjoy spending time together. I really can't get enough reinventions of the Holmes genre, but this is one of the better ones.

Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger
I love a coming of age story for sure.  This one had some good twists, some thoughtful meditations on faith where you wouldn't expect them, and a solid setting in a time period that felt real.

The World Made Straight by Ron Rash
Beautifully written with an ambitious structure that paid off.  Bleak in places, a hard to look at view of life amongst ingrained poverty and generations of difficult choices and characters you didn't necessarily want to sympathize with but ultimately do.

Missing from this list: 
Go Set a Watchman
by Harper Lee, because I still can't bring myself to review it, even though it was one of the most heartbreaking and thought provoking reads I had this year for many reasons.  I can't in good conscience really recommend it, but I also can't leave 2015 without at least mentioning it.  Perhaps someday I'll take another look and write out some of my thoughts.