I Read: A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett

You ever find an unread book on your shelf that has been there so long you can’t even remember how you got it? As an avid reader, I don’t have many of them, but this was one.

It’s been with me so long the page edges are browning and the cover has faded, as I’m sure it’s shifted into various sun-bleaching positions as it’s followed me. I’m thinking it was a gift, probably from a grandparent when I was a little girl. It has a 1987 copyright, and I could tell from the un-ridged binding it had never been fully read.

I do remember attempting to read it when I was young, but something stopped me only a few pages in. As a kid, it could have be as simple as the total number of pages or the tiny print or the lack of pictures. But whatever it was, it didn’t grab me. Surprisingly so.

Because I really enjoyed it. It’s about Sara, a young, rich, and extremely kind girl who is left to attend an all-girls boarding school. She’s prone to telling imagined stories, both to herself and any classmate that will listen. At first, they’re fanciful and fun, making the other girls laugh and stare at her in mesmerized wonder. But when her father unexpectedly passes away, leaving her penniless, her stories almost become necessary for surviving her new life, filled with labor and void of much food.

Let’s just say, as a writer, while I can’t identify with her, I can understand.

I think for most kids, it’s second nature to tell stories. Playing “pretend” is something you’re never taught how to do. It just happens. Your room becomes a castle or a cave, your toys loveable friends or inscrutable villains, depending on what your story needs. And finding friends that will follow you on your dreamed adventures is an amazing gift.

For me, when I wasn’t creating solitarily on my parent’s computer, I jumped between playing Barbie’s with the neighborhood girls and War with the boys. Believe it or not, the Barbie storylines took more deliberate, concentrated telling. The war stories, imagined while crammed behind a rock wall in preparation for battle, came much more naturally.

Then, as a kid gets older, physically or mentally, the stories become harder to believe but even more important to tell. For Sara, she struggled to see the point in continuing with her stories when life continued to remind her they weren’t, and would never be, real. Inevitably, though, she kept dreaming and eventually found joy again in her wasted life.

For me, my stories can become harder to believe because I must criticize and dissect and analyze every decision and element. As I imagine it is for most writers, every word I put to paper must be second-guessed. And while I live to tell stories, writing them sometimes seems like a pointless chore.

So I could wax poetic about this book, this story of a girl who wants desperately for her stories to be realized, finding me now when I’d appreciate it most, but that all sounds too corny to me. It really was just sitting on my shelf, and I needed something to read, so I grabbed it. But I’m glad I did. It was a good story of perseverance and strength. I really enjoyed it and the little girl who was obsessed with “make believe.” I enjoyed it even more that it all worked out in the end.

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I Read: Stuart Little by E.B. White

This book had been on my ‘to-read’ list for a long time, and it did not disappoint. It’s also not like this book needs another great review, but that’s what I’ll give it.

It’s not a traditional novel, in the sense that it doesn’t follow one narrative path. Rather, it’s a series of stories in the life of Stuart Little, beginning with his beginning. They’re all tied together by the reoccurring characters but are not all directly related.

And they’re all delightful. They make you laugh and completely forget you’re reading about events that happen to a mouse-sized boy. Most of the time, he’s just a boy on daring adventures. They were entertaining to this adult, but through the eyes of a child, I have to think they’d be enthralling. Whether he’s racing boats or zooming around in a real, Stuart-sized car, or even getting thrown out with the trash, his life comes across as ever exciting, if not ideal. I also like how the novel doesn’t end with all the ties perfectly complete, just the hope that they will be one day.

Definitely a classic for a reason!

I Read: Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister by Gregory Maguire

Now this book is closer to my style, if you couldn’t tell by the fact that I read it in a matter of days, not months. And while I didn’t love it, at least I liked it. Definitely getting closer.

It was an entertaining retelling of the classic Cinderella fairytale. I wasn’t wowed by it, though. And I hate to be that person to compare an author’s work to what will probably be what he/she is best known for, but I didn’t enjoy it as much as Wicked.

It had many of the same elements of Wicked I enjoyed: taking the fantastic and making it realistic, showing the reader a new perspective on an old tale, and practically forcing you to fall for the “villain.”

But for me it wasn’t as nuanced a novel. I was really impressed with how Maguire created an entirely new political layer for Wicked that added so much more depth to the entire story, making Dorothy’s appearance somewhat secondary to the story. With this novel, that wasn’t there for me. It seemed to me like the same Cinderella story with some additional mystery and a few new motivations revealed, but at its heart, the same story.

I still liked it. I rooted for the main “evil” stepsister and wanted her to end up with her love. I also appreciated the twist at the very end. But I don’t think it’s a story that will stick with me for very long.

On to the next one!

Why Do I Insist On Finishing Books I Don’t Like?

Once I start a book, I can’t stop reading it. You might think, ‘Yeah? Me too! I love to read!’ And I do too! But it isn’t that I love a book so much I can’t put it down. It’s that, whether I like the book or not, I must finish it. And I can’t tell if that’s a bad thing.

The latest example of my forcing a disliked book down my brain happened this year. And pretty much all of this year. For beginning on start date January 28th, in the year of our Lord, 2013, until this very day (dates courtesy of good reads), I read The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco.

Yep, it took me over nine full months to read that book. And that’s fine. I’m a slow reader, generally, and this book is quiet long, so I suppose it’s to be expected. But more than that, it is an extremely dense novel. And one that I did not like, apologies to Mr. Eco.

At its core, The Name of the Rose is a murder mystery that takes place over a seven day period in 1327 at an Italian abbey where every day a monk is murdered. The main character and his master are investigators tasked with determining who is responsible.

Seems straightforward enough and, to me, as if it could be told in 200 or so pages. However, the novel is over 500. This is because there are pages and pages of religious, philosophical, and historical discussion in numerous sections that, while fascinating, do little to move the plot forward. Don’t get me wrong, they are beautiful pages with sentences that would make Joseph Conrad beam, but they are mind-numbingly detailed. For example, a character might see a tapestry of an apocalyptic scene and that moment becomes an eight page history on how the church has presented the end times up to that moment. Want more illustration? There are sections of dialogue that contain parenthesis. Parenthesis. In dialogue. Apparently Italians circa the 1300s could speak parenthetically. Who knew?

Now, I know and understand why it is considered a great work of literature, and why my Italian professor in college considered it the “great-Italian novel.” The language and prose are magnificent, and the simple ability of the author to sit down and compose that much minutiae on such rich topics is awe-inspiring to me.

But I’m a story girl. I like plot. And while this book might have vivid imagery and provide a thorough history lesson, to me it lacks plot. Or the plot it does have is buried under its parenthetical context mountain. Just too much to wade through to get to the story, which is why it took me nine months to read. I just couldn’t get excited to pick it up.

But, back to my original question, should I have forced myself to? Should I force myself to read a book I don’t like?

My entire life, the answer has been, ‘Yes. You started it, you should finish it, come hell or high water.’ I don’t know why, but that has always been my mentality. If I start something I finish it.

Nine months, though? I keep thinking about all the valuable time I could have been spent reading something else instead of wasting it on crawling through this book at a pace of two pages a day. There were times when I chose to clean and do laundry over reading this book, and reading is possibly my favorite pastime. I mean, that’s almost sacrilege for me. Why not just stop reading it and start something else?!

But then I finished it. And I felt awesome! I felt like I had slayed a dragon. ‘You didn’t get the best of me, you long, boring book! I conquered you and your 500 page dissertation on metaphysics!’

I won’t lie. There are definitely some pride feelings mixed into all this. Two kinds, really. First, pride in my ability to pick a good book. If I choose a book and don’t finish it, what does that say about me? Secondly, I have some pride in my perceived intellect, some snob-like characteristics. And now I can confidently say I’ve read Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose and hold my chin up as I do.

More importantly for me, the reason I force myself through these books is that I hate leaving things unfinished. There is a glint of hope that it will get better, which happens sometimes. (However, with this book I knew it was going to be rough from the start.) But more so, it’s the knowledge that I set out to do something, and I did it, even if that means sacrificing valuable reading time to the washing machine to do it. Maybe that makes me sound silly or crazy, but I guess I’m just one of those people that has to finish what they start. Come hell or high water.

Worthless Review: Percy Jackson and the Sea of Monsters

(Worthless becase you’ve likely heard much about this already.)

Percy Jackson 2: Electric Boogaloo

Just kidding.

Percy Jackson: The Sea of Monsters

I’m really enjoying this series. In this second book, Percy and Annabeth set off on another quest, this time to save Grover and the Camp. There’s more action, more terrifying and evil monsters to challenge them. More twists. More turns. More mishaps.

I can’t say I liked it better than the first book, mainly because I rarely think a sequel is better in any media. Even if it’s as entertaining as the first one, it doesn’t have that surprise element that new discovery brings. At least for me. And it’s certainly not just this series, but any series. When you read a first book, you’re not just meeting the characters and learning the rules of their world, you’re also meeting the author and reading what he can do. So, with any second book, for me, there’s a little sheen knocked off by expectation and a sense of pre-existing knowledge.

But I digress. For the target audience, youngsters that want to be enthralled with what their reading, it’s another success. It’s full of adventure and easy to cheer for heroes. And, as series go, does a nice job answering enough questions to satisfy the reader, while posing even more, making it nearly impossible to not continue on to the next book.

Highly recommend.

Worthless Review: The Lightining Thief by Rick Riordan

(Worthless becase you’ve likely heard much about this already.)

Finally got around to reading Rick Riordan’s The Lighting Thief. It had been on my to read list for a long time, ever since a fellow kid-let enthusiast and friend had raved about the series, probably three years ago. And, I have to say, it was worth the wait.

Really enjoyed this book. I think it’s a great one to get kids excited about reading. The action is never ending, and even the exposition is fast paced. The dialogue is entertaining and witty and smart. The characters are admirable if flawed, and I think easily identifiable with kids.

But mostly the story is terribly exciting. Can this misfit of a boy, who happens to be the half-god son of Poseidon, successfully complete his arduous adventure, literally to hell and back, to save his new found Olympus-based family? (And can that question get any longer?) Like any great Odyssey tale, the obstacles are seemingly insurmountable until they’re cleverly disposed of.

While it won’t win any literature awards or earn great recognition as an example in character study – simply because it isn’t meant to be – it is a book that can challenge and teach children even as it entertains them. It is simply a great story, in the same vein as Harry Potter, it’s a fantastic adventure, and I fully understand why kids are drawn to it. Endlessly entertaining.  

Worthless Reviews: Holes by Louis Sachar

Worthless because, let’s be honest, it’s not like this book’s a new one.

 

This is going to be a quick post. Why? Because, what can I say about Holes? It’s one of my favorite books. Has been and always will be. I’ve read it many times and each time manages to extract authentic reactions from me, ranging from joy to excitement to anxiety. And for me, that’s one of the signs of a really good book, when it has layers I can pull back with each read, yet I always respond to it like I was discovering it for the first time.

Holes is about a young boy named Stanley Yelnats who is wrongly convicted of stealing a pair of shoes, a pair of shoes he claims fell out of the sky while he was walking home. As punishment for his crime (of unluckily being in the wrong place at the wrong time), he is sent to Camp Green Lake where he must dig holes everyday under the watch of his erratic, determined Warden and her various henchmen. Soon after his arrival, it becomes apparent he is not there just to build character through digging but is really searching for something.

It’s an endearing book with a lot of heart. The language isn’t fancy. Sachar’s prose doesn’t dance pirouettes around the English language. Instead, he tells a direct, honest story about a boy growing older, stronger, and wiser as he maneuvers through life-changing (and threatening) situations. There are a few twists and turns, but nothing too shocking. To me, Holes is a character driven story, an example of a writer creating a character that readers become effortlessly enthralled with. Stanley is a kid you pull for and care deeply for without being tricked or pulled into his story. All of Holes is effortless. That’s the best word to describe it. Sachar makes writing Newberry Medal winning fiction look easy, as if anyone could do it – including myself.

Holes was certainly one of the books that inspired me to write. I finished it and thought, Hey, I can do this. I don’t have to be a literary genius to tell a good story. I don’t have to have an obsessive command of the English language or find new, poetic ways to describe the disappointed look on a child’s face. I can just tell my story in a straightforward way and people will like it, assuming I’ve done my part to make the character memorable.

And that’s why Stanley Yelnats continues to be one of my favorite characters in all of fiction. (By the way, how great is that name? Stanley Yelnats. Stanley spelled frontways and backways. A simple, yet ingenious idea. Something that makes you think, why didn’t I think of that? Yet another example of how Sachar makes this writing thing look easy.) It’s also why I read Holes whenever I’m in need of a reminder of how to make characters truly attractive – the same way I read A Wrinkle in Time for plot development. I love Holes and definitely think everyone should read it.