The Book Beat - January 17, 2021
Happy weekend, book friends! Although I didn't get as much reading done this past week as I would have liked, I did read some and, as always, found some fun book news and book-ish stories that I wanted to share. But, first, a question for all of you...
When did you start reading? As my kids fight me about reading (I don't have a bookworm yet, sadly, but I'm going to keep trying...damn electronics!), I keep thinking about how I was a reader pretty early on and grew my obsession from there. While I loved video games, TV, and movies, books were the one form of popular culture that I gravitated towards most often. I've been thinking a lot about the books I read as a kid/teen lately and how much I enjoyed them, learned from them, and how much they contributed to the reader and person I am today. I put a list of some of my favorite early teen/tween/teen books below. Feel free to send me yours (or post on my FB if you get to this from there). And do share if you weren't a big reader as a kid but became more into it as you got older. I'd love to hear stories like that so it will give me some hope with my own kids.
First Book that Made Me Cry: I'd say Charlotte's Web, but as I've said before, I lied to my mom about finishing it and, instead, cheered its "happy ending." I will say, when I read it with my son last year, I did cry. Ah, Charlotte, you selfless, strong-willed spider of the 50-cent words. What a character--and an insect at that. The book that really applies here is Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls. I read this in sixth grade and I vividly remember bawling my eyes out when I came to the end. I wasn't a huge dog person, but the love between a boy and his dogs and the natural lifecycle of that cherished relationship got me. I hope to read it with my son soon.
First Library Book That I Borrowed More Than Once: The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. This book! I adore it. I credit it with not only getting me into reading but striking the match that lit my lifelong interest in learning. This book has it all! Math. Science. English. Philosophy. Art. Humor. Looking back on all of the books I read as a kid, this one is the standout. I borrowed it monthly from my middle school library until I finally bought a copy. Funny enough, I think I was originally intrigued by the teal cover--yes, my affinity for teal has been a lifelong love--but after I read it once, I needed to read it again and again. With every re-reading, I noticed something new. And, frankly, the world would be a much better place if EVERYONE read it. The "final showdown" between math and English facilitated by Rhyme and Reason is a lesson in resolving conflict that everyone could benefit from. This is one of my top five books of all time.
P.S. Jules Pfeiffer, the book's illustrator, is still drawing in his 80s! Hit up Google and find some of his recent drawings.
First "Romance Books: Between the Junior High series by Kate Kenyon and M.L. Kennedy and Francine Pascal's Sweet Valley High, I fell in love with reading about love and the drama of romance pretty early on. After years of searching, I recently got my hands on some copies of the Junior High Series. Nora, she of the homemade granola and goal of being a mechanic, is best friends with Jen, a girl who loves Laura Ashley florals and the color pink. These opposites attract and a BFF duo for the ages is born. I loved reading about their junior high and romantic trials. But the true heart of the books is the friendship between two very different girls. I think I gravitated toward them since no matter what type of "girl" I was on a given day, it was represented in these books.
And Sweet Valley! The dramas of the Wakefield twins, Jessica and Elizbeth, were absorbing. As a twin myself, I loved how different they were, but also how much they supported and stood by each other. Elizabeth is the quiet, studious one who's in a chaste, sweet romance with Todd Wilkins and Jessica is the social butterfly whose on-and-off-again relationship with dashing bad boy Bruce Chase (I wouldn't be surprised if Cobra Kai's William Zabka was the cover model for Bruce) is a trainwreck you can't turn away from. Special shout-out to Book #7, Dear Sister, where Elizabeth--waking up from the coma she was in due to a motorcycle accident with her boyfriend Todd in Book #6--has amnesia and acts way more flirty than the normally flirty Jessica. It's the book where "Bruce touched Elizabeth's breast" and young Diana was appalled/fascinated. It wasn't until I read my mom's copy of Star by Danielle Steel that I got the full scoop on the birds-and-the-bees...and then some. Books. Entertaining and "educating" impressionable teens about so SO much.
First Horror/Mystery Book: When it came to the 1980s' battle between authors Christopher Pike vs. R.L. Stine, I came down firmly on the Christopher Pike side. Chain Letter hooked me, while Remember Me freaked me out so much that I saw ghosts around every corner. I graduated to Stephen King and was terrified but completely enthralled by Cujo, Pet Sematary, Christine, and--the one that truly scared the living crap out of me--It. I know with the recent movies Pennywise has gotten a 20th-century makeover, but the 1990 mini-series that starred Tim Curry as the deranged clown terrified me. I was so scared of clowns after viewing it (Pro-tip: fear of clowns is a legit affliction. It's called coulrophobia) that my family mercilessly mocked me with clown pictures, Christmas ornaments, etc. for years.
Other Books That Fed My Love of Reading:
Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen, natch.
To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee
Little Women - Louisa May Alcott
A Wrinkle in Time - Madeleine L'Engle
The Westing Game - Ellen Raskin
A Summer to Die - Lois Lowry
Are You There God, It's Me Margaret - Judy Blume
Ramona the Pest - Beverly Cleary
Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte
Let me know what books contributed to your love of reading! Links below give you descriptions of all the Sweet Valley books (soak up the memories!) and more fun info about the authors/illustrators/books I mention above.
Book-to-Screen Trailer Alert!
Always and Forever by Jenny Han
The third part of the All the Boys trilogy lands on Netflix on Friday, February 12. Lara Jean Covey and Peter Kavinsky forever! I cannot wait!
Writing Royalty: The Duchess of York's Romance Novel
Why yes! That is me with the Duchess of York, Sarah Ferguson, when she came to QVC to sell a blender and diet program in 2018. She now seems to have branched out to romance novel writing. A fictional, historical romance novel--based on the real-life story of her great-great-aunt--is coming out in August 2021.
Although I only interacted with her for a brief moment, she was lovely. I'm looking forward to this book and will definitely check it out!
Calling All Female Authors! Get Writing...
Melinda Gates is donating $250,000 to underwrite the recently announced Carol Shields Prize for Fiction (awarding a female writer a $150,000 prize, the second-largest purse to the Nobel Prize in Literature). A big reader, Melinda decided to invest in this award since she says women have fewer advantages than their male counterparts when it comes to what they earn for their books, having their books reviewed, and winning literary prizes. If you have a novel percolating in your head now, get writing! The first award will be announced in 2023.
Youth Poet Laureate to Read at Biden/Harris Inauguration
Amanda Gorman, named the National Youth Poet Laureate in 2017, is a Harvard graduate and literary shining star who will be reading at the inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris on Wednesday, January 20. I still get goosebumps thinking of Maya Angelou reading "On the Pulse of the Morning" at Bill Clinton's 1993 inauguration. Amanda's poetry is eloquent and powerful. I've put links below that discusses her work and videos of her reading some of her poems. I'm really looking forward to watching her read at the ceremony!
Short Story Review: "The Office of Historical Corrections" by Danielle Evans
I read this book of short stories and one novella a while ago, but after the events of the last few weeks, the novella part of it--the same name as the book's title--resonated with me even more; and I loved it the first time I read it.
Cassie works for the Office of Historical Corrections, a division of the federal government that corrects historical records that are inaccurate. Everything from a sign in a bakery celebrating the Emancipation Proclamation to a plaque in a Wisconsin town--that recognizes the location of the murder of a Black man by white residents who burned down his store with him in it because they wanted his land--are fair game. Cassie, an ex-history professor, took the job to try and make a difference.
Since she is Black, Cassie's office sends her to Wisconsin to investigate the sign. You see, an ex-Office employee--and childhood friend of Cassie's--has changed it on her own to name the white townspeople who committed the crime and were never charged (there's a picture of them posing and smiling by the rubble). One of the white townspeople's descendants found information that implies that the Black man who was supposedly killed, may have survived. Another of the white townspeople's descendants is a member of a white supremacist group and he's threatening Cassie and anyone else who is involved with erecting and changing the sign. Cassie's on the case to find out the truth.
Even though this novella is fictional, it's still so timely. In today's world, the topics of historical accuracy regarding official information about racism in America, the concepts of cancel culture versus suffering consequences for your actions, and the scourge of white supremacy groups committing violence are prevalent and widely discussed and debated. The idea that the government would create a group whose job it is to go in and "correct" depictions of history is controversial, in and of itself. But add to that a particular plot point (that I won't spoil!) that's both intriguing and shocking and you've got yourself one amazing novella. And for me, as a white woman, reading it from the point-of-view of a Black character was eye-opening, too. A must-read, especially if you've tasked yourself with reading more stories and books from the POV of characters who are different than you in race, ethnicity, or gender.
All the stories in this collection are terrific ("Alcatraz" is another favorite), but the whole book is wonderful. Highly recommend.
Worthy-of-a-Highlight-Quote: "I watched video after video of white boy and “white” boy, cherub-faced and angular, blond and brunette, sharply styled and scruffy, all mangling their country’s history in its purported defense, promising to fight for the return of an America that, as they described it, was as real as Narnia."
Poem of the Week:
"The Cure of Troy" by Seamus Heaney
With Martin Luther King, Jr. Day tomorrow and the inauguration of a new president and vice president later this week, I've been thinking about our country in relation to his famous quote, "Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that."
Couple that with the beginning of our Constitution, "We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union..." and the hope for a better nation always seems to be the unspoken mantra threaded throughout our still relatively young nation's history. Sometimes history seems like a pendulum that just goes back and forth and sometimes it seems to rise for a long time and sometimes it seems to fall for too long. The question remains, will we ever rise to absolute perfection? Or, at the very least, to as perfect as fallible human beings can get?
In the op-ed published after his death, Rep. John Lewis also spoke of this hope. He said, "Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself."
This idea of a Beloved Community has been rattling around my head for a while now. Believe it or not, it even came to mind when I recently watched the terrific Apple TV+ show Ted Lasso. It follows a Premier League football team and they discuss the popular British sports phrase, "It's the hope that kills you." Meaning, don't bother to have hope, because when that hope is inevitably crushed, you'll hurt less because you expected the destruction. Or, as we say in America, "Lower your expections."
Is hope for better truly hopeless? Is the perfection of a Beloved Community even possible with an electorate as diverse, different, and divided as the United States? Or the entire world, for that matter? Is ultimate peace achievable?
As a sensitive (sometimes overly) and literary type, I like to think so. Succintly put, I'd rather spend a life hoping for better than plagued by thoughts of despair, anger, or hopelessness.
Irish author, Seamus Heaney wrote a verse adaptation of Sophocles' play Philoctetes. In it, are the below lines which voice this hope in relation to justice (much more eloquently than I ever could). Below this lovely poem are links for a video of Seamus reading his poem, John Lewis's op-ed, and a review of the funny, optimistic joy that is Ted Lasso (which EVERYONE should watch). Enjoy!
The Cure of Troy Human beings suffer. They torture one another.
They get hurt and get hard.
No poem or play or song
Can fully right a wrong
Inflicted and endured.
History says, Don’t hope
On the side of the grave,’ But then, once in a lifetime The longed for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up And hope and history rhyme.
So hope for a great sea- change
On the far side of revenge.
Believe that a further shore Is reachable from here. Believe in miracles. And cures and healing wells.
Call miracle self-healing, The utter self revealing
Double-take of feeling. If there’s fire on the mountain
And lightening and storm And a god speaks from the sky
That means someone is hearing
The outcry and the birth-cry Of new life at its term. It means once in a lifetime That justice can rise up And hope and history rhyme.
Keep me posted on what you're reading! And I'll be back next week. But, before I go, here's the Cover of the Week!
Cover of the Week:
Austen Years by Rachel Cohen
Thanks to my days in college and the proliferation of Claude Monet-ish posters for dorm rooms, I'm a big fan of the Romantic art showcased on this amazing cover. The painting featured here, "A Landscape with an Old Oak Tree" by Joseph Mallord William Turner is stunning in and of itself, but add to that the intriguing sketch of a chair on the front. Together they create a cover that evokes calm, contemplation, and serenity amidst a painting done during the time Jane Austen wrote her novels. It's the perfect depiction of this memoir's framing--author Rachel Cohen's struggles with grief, family, and life are recounted through the novels of Jane Austen. It's an inventive way to frame a nonfiction narrative and one I'm very much looking forward to reading. A longer write-up of the novel is below.
"About seven years ago, not too long before our daughter was born, and a year before my father died, Jane Austen became my only author."
In the turbulent period around the birth of her first child and the death of her father, Rachel Cohen turned to Jane Austen to make sense of her new reality. For Cohen, simultaneously grief-stricken and buoyed by the birth of her daughter, reading Austen became her refuge and her ballast. She was able to reckon with difficult questions about mourning, memorializing, living in a household, paying attention to the world, reading, writing, and imagining through Austen’s novels.
Austen Years is a deeply felt and sensitive examination of a writer’s relationship to reading, and to her own family, winding together memoir, criticism, and biographical and historical material about Austen herself. And like the sequence of Austen’s novels, the scope of Austen Years widens successively, with each chapter following one of Austen's novels. We begin with Cohen in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she raises her small children and contemplates her father’s last letter, a moment paired with the grief of Sense and Sensibility and the social bonds of Pride and Prejudice. Later, moving with her family to Chicago, Cohen grapples with her growing children, teaching, and her father’s legacy, all refracted through the denser, more complex Mansfield Park and Emma.
With unusual depth and fresh insight into Austen’s life and literature, and guided by Austen’s mournful and hopeful final novel, Persuasion, Rachel Cohen’s Austen Years is a rare memoir of mourning and transcendence, a love letter to a literary master, and a powerful consideration of the odd process that merges our interior experiences with the world at large.
, but as I've said before, I lied to my mom about finishing it and, in by Norton Juster. This book! I adore it. I credit it with not only getting me into reading but striking the match that lit my lifelong interest in learning. This book has it all! Math. Science. English. Philosophy. Art. Humor. Looking back on all of the books I read as a kid, this one is the standout. I borrowed it monthly from my middle school library until I finally bought a copy. Funny enough, I think I was originally intrigued by the teal cover--yes, my affinity for teal has been a lifelong love--but after I read it once, I needed to read it again and again. With every re-reading, I noticed something new. And, frankly, the world would be a much better place is EVERYONE read it. The "final showdown" between math and english facilitated by Rhyme and Reason is a lesson in resolving conflict that everyone could benefit from. This is one of my top five books of all time.
, but as I've said before, I lied to my mom about finishing it and, instead, cheered its "happy ending." I will say when I read it with my son last year, I did cry. Ah, Charlotte, you selfless, strong-willed spider of the 50-cent words. What a character--and an insect at that. The book that really applies here is