Friday, July 2, 2010

5 x 5

As a child, I didn't have that many books that were assigned reading in school. Looking back I find this rather surprising, and it makes me wonder what some of my teachers were thinking. (Of course, I wonder what they were thinking for some of the books that were assigned.) However, this did enable me to read at whim, and I read a lot. A great deal of it was junk, but just as much of it was outstanding. This week's 5x5 reflects on childhood reading.

Five Children's books that I hated. (All were assigned reading)
1. Across Five Aprils by Irene Hunt. I was subjected to this horrible book not just once, but twice. First in fifth grade and then again in 7th. Why do I say it is horrible? For starters, it is painfully dull. Secondly, she wrote in southern vernacular which is fine for adults, but not at all appropriate for a children's book. Thirdly, nothing about it is memorable at all, except that it is ungodly boring.

2. Z for Zachariah by Robert O'Brien. Lovely, a book about a nuclear holocaust and a paranoid murderer. Seriously. Of the potentially last two people on earth one of them is a murderer and our heroine has to steal the nuclear fallout suit to save herself from him, thus leaving him alone in the valley with no way to escape which condemns him to a long, slow and lonely death. In a book for sixth graders? I think not! I know it is by the same author as Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, but come on! Thanks so much Mrs. Brundage.

3. House of Stairs by William Sleator. This one was not exactly assigned in the traditional sense since the rest of my class didn't have to read it. It was the book I chose from a selected list in 7th grade. A group of orphaned teenagers are selected for an experiment that confines them to an inescapable house filled with stairs. Ultimately they are conditioned to abuse first themselves and then each other in order to get the food dispenser to give them food. Our heroine refuses to participate and almost starves to death before the experiment is halted. WTF?!!!

4. Dear Mr. Henshaw by Beverly Cleary. I love Beverly Cleary's work, but I really did not like this book. It utilizes epistolary writing, which in and of itself didn't bother me. It was the concept of who Leigh was writing to that bothered me. He is originally writes to his favorite author ONE time, and ends up writing letter after letter to this man. For FOUR YEARS. (Second grade through fifth). I asked the reading teacher, Mrs. Fox, why he thought the author would be interested or even bother to read his letters when they had never met, and why didn't he just write in a journal? She didn't give me a good answer. Additionally, I read this book because I was selected to participate in the "Great Books" program because I was a strong reader. What this meant was I got additional homework. I did learn the word hors d'oeuvres from this book, though I asked Mrs. Fox why he didn't just write appetizers, since it didn't seem realistic to me that someone his age would use that expression. Eh, she probably thought I was a serious pain in the ass.

5. The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Patterson. I know most people who are into children's literature worship the ground Katherine Patterson walks on, but I'm seriously ambivalent towards her. This is another one that I was assigned to read for the Great Books program. I couldn't understand why we were given this book to read in 4th grade. Gilly is not likable at all. She steals, she swears and is verbally abusive and cruel to her foster mother and the other foster children. Yes, she is a dynamic character (although I wasn't aware of that description at the time), but even at the end of the book she still isn't the type of person I would have invited over to my house after school. I remember asking Mrs. Fox about that too, I'm sure she wanted to throttle me. I get that teachers want to expand children's horizons and expose us to things we aren't exposed to during our day to day lives, but still. I guess it could have been worse, we could have been assigned Pinballs by Betsy Byars which is also about foster care. Thank goodness I was spared reading a book in which a father deliberately runs over his son's legs with a car. (The made for t.v. movie staring Kristie McNichol filled me in.)

Five Children's books that I loved!
1. Ramona Quimby, Age 8 by Beverly Cleary. This was not assigned to me to read, but was read out loud by my all time favorite teacher, Mrs. Primoli, in first grade. I read this book so many times that I practically had it memorized in third grade. Not even the ironic incident of one of my classmates throwing up right after Mrs. Primoli read "it was too late. Ramona threw up." could mitigate my joy of this novel. In my opinion, it is the best of all the Ramona books, which is saying something.

2. A Cricket in Times Square by George Selden. Finally, one from fourth grade that I loved! I loved the dynamics between Chester Cricket, Tucker Mouse and Harry Cat, and Mario's devotion to his pet cricket was very endearing. I would classify this book as magical realism since it isn't quite fantasy. Just a great read.

3. Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh. I was assigned this one in fifth grade, and it immediately captured my imagination. I find my love of this book to be a tad surprising, since Harriet is also not especially likable, but she won my sympathies quite early, and any meanness she dished out in her private notebook she was repaid for. Again, I'm surprised that I wasn't filled with righteous indignation at the treatment she receives from her classmates since they had no business reading her notebook, and everyone is entitled to their own thoughts, however awful they might be. Don't get me wrong, it made me mad, but not infuriated like I was when I read Ramona the Brave.* Now that I think about it though I'm irritated on Harriet's behalf. Fortunately, Harriet rallies and things right themselves in the end. I read the companion novel Sport which was also really good, but couldn't even make it halfway into The Long Secret.

4. Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan. At the end of each school year my parents would take me and my sister out to a fancy dinner and give us books as presents. I received this book at the end of third grade and I loved it. I'm really surprised how much character development and plot takes place in a book that is only 64 pages long. Stay away from the Hallmark Hall of Fame adaptation. Christopher Walken plays the father and it is just wrong.

5. Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild. This was not assigned in anyway, nor was it given as a gift. My sister read this book as well as Dancing Shoes and Movie Shoes and when I got old enough to read them I read them too. I've subsequently read Theater Shoes and Party Shoes as well, and none of them compare to Ballet Shoes. (Dancing Shoes is a close second). It shocks me that after the very prominent mention of these books in the film You've Got Mail that they weren't all reissued in hardback. All in all there are 11 books that would be considered part of the Shoe series (although they aren't all interconnected like a true series), and only five are in print. Despite the title, very little dancing actually takes place in Ballet Shoes, it is much more about the relationships between the three Fossil sisters.

*In Ramona the Brave her first grade teacher is a piece of work and the favoritism she displays riles me up every time. Not as bad as the teacher's actions in Little Town on the Prairie, but bad enough. Sadly, this teacher was based on Beverly Cleary's first grade teacher.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010


Hopefully you all know the drill by now!

What have you recently finished reading? Since last week I have read Cat of the Century by Rita Mae Brown, and Screen Doors and Sweet Tea by Martha Hall Foose which was a wonderful cookbook that I found at my public library. I started writing down which recipes I wanted to copy and filled up an entire sheet of paper, so I decided I would buy a copy of the book instead. However, it appears to be out of print! Since I still have the library's copy at home I may par my list down and copy off the ones that are my absolute "gotta try" recipes.

What are you currently reading? I did start the Invisible Man by H.G. Wells and am about halfway through it, but all of the books I had put on hold from other community college libraries arrived and I also started Dinner at Miss Lady's by Luann Landon. And of course, I still have Homer P. Figg going as well. Poor Homer. I may have to return him, or else simply skim the section where he gets grifted.

What will you read next? After I finish these three (or two depending on how things go with Homer), I will start one of the following: Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, A Monstrous Regiment of Women by Laurie King, Animal, Vegetable Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, Headless Males Make Great Lovers by Martha Crump, A Bad Day for Sorry by Sophie Littlefield, The Vitamin D Cure by James Dowd, or Still Life by Louise Penny.

Monday, June 28, 2010

From the Shelves: Cat of the Century

Cat of the Century is the latest in Rita Mae Brown's murder mystery series that is "co-authored" by her cat Sneaky Pie. The series, overall, has been quite strong, although not every book is equally good. Occasionally, the motive for the murders has been very disturbing, and every now and again the method of murder rates high on the squeamish factor. However, Brown does a great job of letting her characters change and develop over time which is the key to longevity in a series.

Lately though, Brown has really started to use her characters as a way to express her political opinions, which are pretty liberal. Normally this doesn't bother me because 1)I tend to agree with her, 2)the opinions that are expressed are in keeping with the characters who express them, and 3)it is incorporated into the plot so as not to be jarring. That is, something has occurred that makes the character voice his or her opinion. However, in this particular novel, there seemed to be A LOT more of it than normal. Additionally, she chose to set a large part of the action at a real university in Missouri, William Woods University, for the express purpose of drawing her readers' attention to its existence. (She says as much in the afterword). Brown is an avid horsewoman and champion of animals, and William Woods offers a highly respected equestrian science, and she has formed lasting friendships with some of the professors and administrators. You get the idea.

The mystery was sound, and as I read the majority of this in one morning, it certainly kept me engaged. I did find the use of William Woods to be quite forced, especially since the rest of the action takes place in Crozet, Virginia where almost all of the other books are set. I also found the amount of politically infused dialogue to be over the top, making the characters more like mouthpieces instead of the characters I have come to love over the years. Not a bad read by any means, just distressing at times. If her next novel in the series follows this pattern, or worse, increases it, I will have to give up reading them altogether. Subtlety is our friend, and in this book, Brown passed right on by and got chummy with hit you over the head.