Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Co-Review: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

It's shameful to admit how much I drug my feet about reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. First, Caren suggested it and I made up some reason not to read it. Then, my mom wanted me to read it with her and I grumbled about it. I had no good reason except that it was about World War II and books about WWII depress me. Not a virtuous reason, I know. I finally picked up a copy and was delighted to find out that everybody was right and I was wrong not to read it.

Guernsey is written as a collection of letters from author Juliet Ashton to the inhabitants of the island of Guernsey in the English channel. During the war, Guernsey was occupied by Germany and as the letters continue back and forth to these different characters you get a pretty clear picture of what that occupation was like. In an act of defiance and because of a need of hope and connection, some people on the island form a reading society named the same as the title of the book. Juliet mostly communicates with the members of the Society, but there are a few colorful additions from other islanders. After some time Juliet decides she must go to the island in order to be able to write an accurate book about the island's occupation, but that's only an excuse. By then she loves the people and loves their stories.

As always with our co-reviews, we don't hold back about characters or plot. I promise you you'll wish you had read this book, so if you'd like to wait on some of the surprises, come back later.

Jenny: One thing that surprised me in this book was how funny it was. This is a book about war and starvation, cruelty and despair. But it wasn't really about those things. I mean, those were parts of these people's lives, not only the islanders but Londoners like Juliet. The book is more about happiness and connection between people despite war and all the horror that comes with it. By the end of the book, I knew these people. I was friends with them and loved them and cried over them. The characters had such a strong connection with each other, but they also formed a bond with me.

I loved how much the characters loved books. Juliet's poor collection underneath rubble from a bomb hitting her flat broke my heart. The islanders discovery of books, especially those characters who were reluctant to join such a silly thing as a literary society, brought joy amidst all their trials. Their choices of books sometimes cracked me up, like the one women who only read a book she wrote herself and was about delicious food that none of them had access to. Her reading of the book to the group nearly caused a riot.

Caren: I am not a big war novel reader either, but this book came with such high recommendations that I figured it was worth a shot. And like you, I was delighted with the lighthearted humor and the very human characters portrayed. I was also amazed at how well the story could be crafted within the limitations of letters. A story is much stronger when it's told with immediacy, and the letter style put the reader in danger of being too far away from the story to get really wrapped up in it. But Shaffer and Barrows did an admirable job of using dialogue and strong character voices to really invite the reader into the story and make it hard to put down.

I, too, loved hearing how literature had changed the Society member's lives. Whether they were touched by a certain passage, committed to a certain work, or just learned poetry to try to woo the woman they loved, their lives were brightened by their exposure to the classics. One of my favorite passages is when Eben Ramsey is first writing to Juliet and tells her that his favorite sentence of Shakespeare is "The bright day is done, and we are for the dark." He says,
I wish I'd known those words on the day I watched those German troops land, plane-load after plane-load of them -- and come off ships down the harbor! All I could think of was d---- them, d---- them, over and over. If I could have thought the words "the bright day is done and we are for the dark," I'd have been consoled somehow and ready to go out and contend with circumstance -- instead of my heart sinking to my shoes.
What a beautiful description of the power of language!

Jenny: You put it perfectly. It was horrible circumstances that made the Society come into existence, but at least it did! At least the members had this in their lives! They were given power and beauty through those books.

The one character who is kind of a mystery and a source of fascination by Juliet is Elizabeth McKenna. As you read the letters, you start to put together a picture of the person and what she did for the people on the island. Love her or hate her (like one pernicious letter-writer was determined to do) you can't doubt she made an impact. She helped people at every turn, she loved someone that deserved it, and she left behind a precious little girl. She was obviously loved by members of the Society and Juliet came to love her too, despite never having known her. That made it so much harder to find out that she had died.

Juliet wrote to Sidney about her death and, if I still had my book on me I could quote it exactly, said something along the lines of how ridiculous it was to weep over someone you had never even met. Juliet felt like she did know her because because of the Society members and took it hard when she learned of her death. I was holding out hope that she was still alive in the prison she was shipped off to and we would soon get to meet her. I felt much like Juliet, that I had lost someone without ever having met them.

Caren: Yes, I felt that way about Elizabeth too. I was really hoping that with such a strong spirit and commitment to life that she would have survived the war, and it broke my heart to learn of her death. Though at the same time, I couldn't help but wonder what Elizabeth would have thought of Juliet. Would they have been great friends? Or would Guernsey have been too small for two such women? While I hated that she died, a small part of me was glad that we would never have to find out the answer to that question. Juliet could continue to love Elizabeth almost like a sister without the possible pain of someday being disappointed if Elizabeth didn't feel the same way toward her.

So, did you see the romance with Dawsey coming? All along I was rooting for Sidney since they clearly shared such a great friendship and respect for each other. So when she started developing feelings for Dawsey I wasn't very enthused. Until Sidney revealed that he was gay, and my hopes for him were completely dashed! But that made it easier to get over him and then I thought the developing romance with Dawsey was a sweet ending to the story. Very Jane Austen!

Jenny: Amen and amen. I was totally rooting for Sidney but then when he was deemed ineligible, I realized that Shaffer had been kind of hinting around about Dawsey. I loved loved loved the ending and how she and Dawsey ended up together. And Isola's involvement in that was hilarious. I didn't really buy anything between Dawsey and Remy but Juliet's despair over their possible romance sure gave away her feelings.

Isola had it right when she said "reading good books ruins you for enjoying bad ones”. This definitely qualifies in the good book category and makes it into my list of the best books I've read this year. Maybe in the last few years.

Caren: Isn't that the truth? I loved that statement too! This is definitely a book for people who love books. But even if you're just a casual reader, you'll get hooked on these people and their stories. While some of the war details are disturbing, it's not because they are graphic, but rather because you come to feel so deeply for these people that you hurt for them over even the slightest indignity! It really brought out the human element of the war, including portraying the Germans as something more than just the vile enemy. While there were certainly those who fit that description, I was most intrigued by the accounts of German soldiers who went out of their way to be kind and friendly to the islanders, and the friendships (and even romances) that developed as a result. How fascinating and complex human relationships can be!

And speaking of relationships, I couldn't help but mourn the decline of the letter after reading this book. Don't get me wrong, I love email and think texting definitely has its perks, but there was a certain eloquence conveyed in the written word when people communicated long distance via letters. And even now, doesn't a handwritten note just give you a little thrill that doesn't translate quite the same to your inbox? My sister-in-law recently decided to write some letters to people who have touched her life over the years and had some amazing experiences as a result. Even though she hadn't had any contact with them in years, they all wrote back with wonderful accounts of how much her letter meant to them and how it was the perfect antidote on a particularly hard day, etc. I was so moved by the stories she shared that I wanted to try it too. But so far my letter count is.....well, zero. But I felt newly motivated after reading this book!

Jenny: That's funny you mention letter-writing because I've been trying to convince my children of the virtues of writing letters. If I can credit myself with one good quality, it's writing letters. Before e-mail I was a great correspondent, and since e-mail I'm even better. My kids will never have to hand-write a letter if they don't want to but I'd hate it if they never take that opportunity. The only thing that makes me sad is that even if you write a letter, there's no guarantee you'll get one back. It's a lost art, that letter-writing business, and people don't feel that obligation to write back any more.

On that topic of letters and books, there's another great book written as a series of letters called The Enchanted Chocolate Pot by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer. I read it for a book club some years ago and it was fascinating, especially how the two authors put the letters together. Definitely worth reading.

Caren: Oh, I'll have to write that one down. Funny that it was a co-author project and so was Guernsey. Maybe you have to have two different perspectives to get the different voices right. Whatever it is, they did a fantastic job and I'm recommending it to anyone who appreciates a moving story, clever humor, and happy endings!

Jenny: I'd have to fully agree there. Give it a try!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Commitment issues

I'm not even close to posting anything I've read lately and I'm totally going to blame it on my pregnant brain. Just like my fickle stomach, my fickle brain cannot commit to one book. I've read a few chapters in like, four books, and they are all wonderful and interesting, but I cannot seem to stay put. I decided the only way to get some reading done would be to put the question to you, dear readers. I'm going to give some summaries and try to be a cheerleader for each book so you can make an informed decision.
  • Stern Men by Elizabeth Gilbert. Two islands twenty miles off the coast of Maine have been warring with each other since before the Civil War. The islands' industries have evolved over time but since around 1900, it's been lobster. The men are jealous and crafty in guarding their territories. The book centers around Ruth Thomas, whose father is one of the most ruthless of fishermen. In the first three chapters I've read, she seems much too clever and smart for this island. The story seems like it's quite proud of it's quirkiness. It's fraught with quirk. But I love Maine and I love quirk.
  • The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley. I haven't read a good mystery in a while and this one won some award that's plastered on the cover. It's about Flavia de Luce, an 11-year-old girl living in 1950s England who's obsessed with chemistry and torturing her mean older sisters. When a body appears on her family's land, she's fascinated by what could have happened to him. I've read the first few chapters and Flavia reminds me of Harriet the Spy, who I wanted to be like when I was young. I even carried around a notebook and tried to spy on my neighbors for one summer. I discovered that my neighbors were boring. Anyway, she's spunky and fearless and fascinated by poison.
  • Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman. I recently posted about how much I like Neil Gaiman and how much I'm looking forward to future books but I'm lukewarm about this collection of short stories. If he can't commit to a novel, how can I commit to a bunch of short stories? Someone please remind me of how much I like his writing.
  • The Help by Kathryn Stockett. Takes place in 1960s Mississippi and is about black women who take care of white children. It follows a recent college graduate, Eugenia, who decides to collect the stories of these women who are trusted with white children, but finds that their stories are probably too disturbing for white eyes. My best friend, Abby, recommended it and I lived in Mississippi for six years, so I think I'll enjoy it. It makes me wish I could read it with a book group that's never lived in the South, so they could have something to think about that they probably never did before.
  • Julie and Julia: My year of cooking dangerously by Julie Powell. If you've seen the movie trailer, then you have an idea of the book that the movie is based on. Julie is sick of her job and is fearing the dreaded age of thirty, so she decides to mix things up by cooking every single recipe in Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child. I'm a little irritated that someone would be traumatized by turning thirty, but I love books about cooking. I'm game. Seriously, thirty is not old.
  • North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell. If my friend Rachel would just quit going on and on about how much she loves this book and how its the best book ever and how she wished she could laminated every single page of it and spend the rest of her life memorizing it in its totality, I wouldn't need to read it. Sheesh. Why don't you just marry it already, Rach? Wait, were you gushing about the movie or the book? Now I can't remember. Shoot, maybe it was the movie and I don't have to read the book after all. It's in England and has to do with the industrial north and the pastoral south and it's kind of Dickens-esque. It's about the middle class women in the Victorian era and looks like something I'd enjoy. I don't know if I would enjoy it to the degree that Rachel does, but it looks worth the time.
There you go. After writing all that, I'm still not sure which to start with. Go vote on the side panel there and then make a comment about why you voted for what you did. I want to be convinced here so make it compelling. The vote ends on Tuesday so make it snappy, will you?

Friday, July 17, 2009

Resources for parents of readers or future readers

Tell me if you've ever been in this situation. Your child has recently become addicted to The Magic Tree House series by Mary Pope Osborne. She's read #1-12 but wants to see what happens with Jack and Annie so she must, absolutely must read #13 next. Or say your son is obsessed with insects and you'd love it you could find an adventure series with insects as the main characters. Or you'd love to collect all the Curious George books and are curious (har har) about how many there are. If you've ever been in this position, then boy howdy, are you going to be glad you read this blog today.

If you don't have this blog in your reader and you have children, you need to sign up. These ladies know their stuff and you can read the contributors' biographies here. Plus it's PBS, so it's like educational or whatever. Anyway, I've gotten hundreds of ideas from the Booklights blog's inception. So many ideas I cannot even use them all. I have two voracious readers and with these summer days leaving us with a lot of down time, we have to make great use of our city library. My girls would like it if I went to the library three or four times a week, but that's not happenin'. So when we do go, I like to make sure they're making it worth the time we're there.

One resource I got from the Booklights blog is the series books database. The post about it is here, or you can just go straight to the database here. When my kids are hungry for books, we go to the database, search either by subject or author or title and find some books to put on hold or look for while we're at the library. They love cruising the database, trolling for books. Each book or series is categorized by being either Juvenile Easy, which usually means picture book but is listed as birth through 2nd grade, Juvenile which is 2nd through 6th, and Young Adult which is 6th through 12th. It really depends on your child's interest and reading ability which category to go with. My older girls are Juvenile category types, while my younger two girls are definitely Juvenile Easy.

Thank goodness for Booklights so I can read up on series books that feature adventurous girls, or good audiobooks for roadtrips, or whatever else. Try it out and love it.

The other resource I've rediscovered lately is a book I reviewed a while back, Honey for a Child's Heart by Gladys Hunt. I was getting tired of my oldest daughter's book choices that included Goldie the Sunshine Fairy by Daisy Meadows. Please let that be a nom de plume. These kinds of books are the literary equivalent of cotton candy and I figured it was time for something a little more healthy. I think it's good for her to be reading and not to get too picky on her choices, but I sat her down with Honey and asked her to write down five titles of books from each of the chapters for intermediate readers. "Just find some books that have interesting summaries," I told her. I didn't tell her which books to pick or give her suggestions, but on her own she picked Caddie Woodlawn, Where the Red Fern Grows, The Call of the Wild, A Wrinkle in Time and other classics. I'm going to try to read each one along with her, which I don't often do because she reads so much more than I can keep up with. But I'll make the time for these books.

Honey also has lists of picture books, easy reader books, and some young adult novels. Hunt published a book for adult women readers called Honey for a Woman's Heart, which I have vowed to select some books out of for myself. There's also Honey for a Teen's Heart, but I'm going to wait a few years on that one. It's more full of tips on how to communicate with your teen through literature, which sounds awesome to me. I've got a few years to work up to that. My next project is to find some other moms who are interested in forming a mother-daughter book club. Doesn't that sound like fun?

Hope these resources help and either motivates your readers or keeps them occupied for a few hours at a time on a hot summer's day.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

A couple of books by Neil Gaiman

I figured it was timely to read some Neil Gaiman books, considering The Graveyard Book just won the Newbery Medal for this year's most outstanding contribution to children's literature. He doesn't just write children's books, so I picked one of his novels for adults along with The Graveyard Book. First, I tried reading American Gods, but boy howdy there was enough sex in the first two pages to make me think it wouldn't get better past that. I returned that book and grabbed Anansi Boys. Much cleaner. Phew.

First I'll tell you about this book that was deemed super awesome by a committee of teachers and librarians. The Graveyard Book starts out pretty scary, with a family being murdered by a mysterious and lethal man, Jack, who is meticulous and methodical in his treacherous deed. Somehow, the toddler of the family manages to escape the house and venture his way over to the graveyard next door. The man Jack discovers the little boy's escape and follows him to the graveyard. The ghosts that inhabit the graveyard have taken the boy in and ask the caretaker, Silas, to give him protection. Jack is thwarted and the boy is safe.

The ghosts Mr. and Mrs. Owens are assigned as his adoptive parents and they give him the name Nobody, Bod for short. Since Bod has been given the protection of the graveyard, he can act sort of like a ghost, even if he isn't one. Each of the ghosts who live there contribute to Bod's education and Silas acts as a mentor and guardian. The ghosts cannot leave the graveyard, so Silas, in his special capacity as not-ghost-yet-not-mortal state can get the boy food and books and other needs. Bod is not safe to leave the graveyard since the man Jack is on the lookout for him, so he remains isolated, but at least surrounded by friends. For the most part.

I can see why this book won the Newbery. It reminds me of The Underneath, which I think won a Newbery Honor last year. Maybe those Newbery folks like the spooky stuff. That's okay by me. It's a bit too scary for my eight-year-old, what with the family being murdered at the beginning and her very low tolerance for scariness, so I think I'll wait a few more years to introduce it to her. Anyway, the plot is thick, the suspense intense, the characters entrancing, and the villain deliciously bad. One of the best parts of the book was how Bod dealt with the bullies during his short attempt at going to school. Here is Bod, dealing with ghouls and the man Jack and then snotty little girls. One of the girls insists on calling him Bob and for some reason that made me laugh every time. His curiosity and kindess, his devotion to the ghosts that raise him all make him so incredibly likeable. It helps that the adventures he has keeps the reader riveted.

Gaiman's Anansi Boys takes a different direction. Which is good. If you've read any African folk tales, you're familiar with the prankster Anansi, the Spider. Gaiman takes Anansi, along with the other creatures from those tales and puts them into modern day. "Fat Charlie" Nancy is a timid man who lives in London, but was born in the States. When his father dies in Florida, he goes to the funeral with much hesitation. His father was always embarrassing him and even his death in a karaoke bar is too embarrassing for Charlie to contemplate. After the funeral, he encounters the women who lived near Charlie when he was young and were friends to his father. They inform him that his father is the god Anansi and that he was a trickster, but with a good heart. They also warn him of his brother, Spider. Charlie thinks they're joking since he has no memory of a brother and goes home thinking everybody in Florida is nuts.

Charlie is engaged to Rosie, a delightful girl, but you gather that their love is tepid at best. Rosie's interested in Charlie because he's essentially a good guy and being engaged to him drives her mother nuts. Her mom is one of the best written characters in the book and every moment spent with her spindly, critical self is a treat. She's a hoot. When Charlie summons his brother on a lark, his brother is the fun-loving, popular, dynamic person Charlie has never been. And he wins Rosie's heart. Spider also has all the powers of his father that Charlie lacks and goes about turning Charlie's life upside down.

Another great character beside Rosie's mom is Charlie's employer, Grahame Coats. While Spider is impersonating Charlie, Spider discovers that Coats is embezzling from his clients, points out this fact to Coats, and inadvertantly starts a plot by Coats to implicate Charlie and disappear to the Caribbean with his riches. Coats is a sleeze characterized by his blatant overuse of cliches. Never before have cliches been so despicable.

The story sends the characters to the Caribbean, to the world of the African gods and all over Florida and London. Charlie is a bit of a weenie, but he starts to come into his own in defense of his love, Rosie. There's also a detective, Daisy, whose appearance suddenly has you rooting for her and Charlie's future instead of with Rosie. You cringe with Charlie as he remembers all the embarrassing things his father did to him growing up. Your mouth drops open with shock at what Grahame Coats is capable of doing. And you laugh out loud when Rosie's mother steps up to save the day. The image of her bony bum is seared into my mind. I'll leave you with that.

In all, I think Gaiman is worth reading again. He can weave a scary, suspenseful, interesting story, but have humor throughout. I laughed outloud several times reading Anansi Boys. I love to be scared and I love to laugh, so books that combine the two are a rare treat for me. I'll be on the lookout for Gaiman books in the future.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Running with Angels

It's been almost three years since I started running. Before that time, I hated it. Loathed. Abhorred. I'm talking great enmity, folks. I was convinced that God made certain people to be runners, and I was not one of them. But after years of childbearing and not taking care of my body, I desperately needed to get more fit and lose the excess weight I was carrying. Needless to say, this was a huge lifestyle change for me!

Soon after I was peer-pressured into running my first 5K, a friend told me about Running with Angels by Pamela Hansen. After it was recommended several times from different sources, I finally sat down to see what it was all about.

Running with Angels (I'll leave out the very long tag line) is the personal true story of a young LDS mother who suffers one tragedy after another, including burying two infant children. Through the years she turns to food to cope with her stress and grief, which in turn leads to an ongoing battle with obesity. She tries repeatedly to turn her life around, but fails each time and sinks deeper into her destructive cycle. After some 15 years of this, the indefineable and elusive missing piece finally clicks into place and she begins to change. Through exercise and a drastic overhaul of her destructive eating habits, she manages to lose over 100 pounds and fulfills her lifelong dream of running a marathon. The story is told with the marathon serving as a backdrop for reflections on her journey to lose weight and adopt a healthy lifestyle.

I commend her for her journey and I commend her for putting these very personal things out to share with the public in hopes of helping someone else make the changes they need to. But I was disappointed because I thought it would have more to do with her running, and less to do with her weight. While the weight struggles were very serious and evoked compassion, the stories reeked strongly of catharsis and a little of that went a long way. I actually started skimming (!) towards the end, and then perked up again when she started going into more detail about her marathon. I wish she could have explored more thoughtfully what that missing element was that finally made the difference in her success, because that is the key that eludes so many people who desperately want to change. A more experienced and skillful author could have done that in a powerful way without relying so heavily on sentimentality and cliché.

Okay, I admit that it probably wasn't fair to read this right after The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. Hansen is not a writer, and that fact is evident in every word just as Wroblewski's skill is evident in his. The strength of her message was hindered by her weak, inadequate prose, and the discriminating reader should be prepared to be unimpressed. But it was still a worthy message, especially for someone who feels trapped in an unhealthy lifestyle and doesn't know how to change. While my experience doesn't match hers in intensity, I think everyone who has made similar changes can relate in some measure to her story.

Six weeks ago I ran my very first marathon and it was an amazing, defining moment in my life. I am still not a lithe natural runner and am definitely not shaped for speed. But I know the thrill of accomplishing the impossible, the awe of discovering my body's untapped potential, and the victory of overcoming obstacles to finish a race of ultimate endurance. It was a surreal experience that I'm still trying to fully dissect and absorb. I could go on (and on), but I'll spare you lest I become guilty of publicly indulging in self-catharsis of my own!