February and March Book Log

It’s been a hard couple of months for reading. Not pictured: The Piano Lesson

Well, you try to get a website going again and then all of a sudden you have to return to school in person and there are a million meetings and tons of planning to do and things just get pushed to the side. And you barely even get to read, it feels like.

So here we are. A pretty light two months of reading, but such is life. April is looking pretty good so far.

  1. Mermaid in Chelsea Creek by Michelle Tea (4/5) – This is the first book of a series I got Simone for Christmas. She declared them the greatest thing she’d ever read and begged me to read them to. So I am. Even reading it from an adult perspective, they’re pretty enjoyable so far. And great books for adolescent girls. All the themes and messages you’d want, while also not shying away from the way the world really is. And also, you know, magic and stuff.
  2. The Ancestry of Object by Tatiana Rickman (2/5) – Blah. The first book from Deep Vellum press I’d ever not liked. It reads like something that was finished, but only at novella length, and then padded out to make it publishable as a stand alone. It would have been great if it was only 80-100 pages. Alas.
  3. The Piano Lesson by August Wilson (5/5) – I FINALLY got to teach this (I was about to last year when COVID happened). It’s a genius work. This part of Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle, which chronicle’s the black experience in the 20th century. This one is set in the 1920s and looks at the generational effects of trauma. I really need to read everything he’s ever written, I think.
  4. My Year Abroad by Chang-rae Lee (3/5) – Man, I love Chang-rae Lee, but he wasn’t quite firing on all cylinders here, sadly. There are two parallel narratives that only barely intersect. Both of the narratives are interesting and compelling, but they don’t quite come together, and there are a few too many strings left hanging. This feels like it should have been two shorter novels instead of one long novel.
  5. The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw (4/5) – I really enjoyed pretty much everything about this story collection, which really does largely focus on the lives of church ladies (who really do have some secrets). There are perspectives here that are very different from what I’m used to reading and all the stories were interesting. My only quibble – and it is minor – is that, like many story collections, some of the later stories felt just a tad repetitive. Still, it’s excellent writing and worth checking out.

Now or Never: Reading Big Books

I’m going to try to read one of these every month for the rest of the year.

Back several years ago, I got tired of thinking about books I wanted to read “some day.” These were invariable gigantic doorstops and often classics. They were books that I felt pretty confident I would enjoy, but I never read them, because it’s daunting to pick up an 800 page something when there’s a 200 page something right there next to it.

I did actually WANT to read those big old books, though, so I started making myself lists with the idea of reading one big book per month around whatever other smaller books I was reading. Now that I’m getting fully back on the reading train, I want to return to that (as you can see from the picture). But, in the interest of providing something interesting for people reading this, I give you the following list of long books I’ve read that his a variety of different spots. And none of these are classics either (though I could do that, too). All are reasonably contemporary with only one (I think) going all the way back to the 20th century).

Book that is ostensibly about baseball, but also not reallyThe Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach. I don’t generally read baseball books. People find this surprising sometimes. I get my baseball elsewhere, but this novel is fantastic. It uses baseball to give all kinds of interesting insights into what we expect from ourselves and where those expectations some from. Lots of Moby Dick references, too.

Old-style domestic-fiction but, you know, contemporary and stuff The Neapolitan Quartet by Elena Ferrante. I am actually about to read the final installment in these books, but I feel comfortable recommending them all the same. These were all the rage a few years ago, and for good reason. Though technically four books, Ferrante apparently considers them all one big novel. You will not always like the characters (often, you will not like any of them), but you will be completely immersed in their world. And, I don’t know about you, but right now, I really don’t mind being immersed in a different world than the one we are currently inhabiting.

Extremely weird kind of sci-fi thing The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell. Speaking of worlds that are different from the one we inhabit. Cloud Atlas was the Mitchell book that got all the attention, but I like this one just as well. It’s more linear in its narrative, but no less odd. And some things will happen – seemingly out of nowhere – and it will be shocking. But then you get used to it.

A unique perspective on America (among other things)Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. First, Adichie is a genius and if you haven’t read her, you should. This book deals explicitly with race at times, but also with foreignness and its varied potential impacts. The central character is a Nigerian woman who comes to the US for college and becomes somewhat famous for writing a bout race in America as a black person who is also not American. I don’t know anyway to write a paragraph about this book and not sell it short. Go read it.

Historical fiction plus mystery novel The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood. Probably because it’s long and not especially sci-fi (there is a little), this doesn’t get as much attention as some of Atwood’s other work, but it is her best novel, and I really don’t think it’s especially close. The narrative is skillfully and brilliantly constructed using, at times, a story within a story within a story within a story. A construction like that shouldn’t be possible, and yet it isn’t even distracting, it just happens, seamlessly. Set in Canada all throughout the 20th century, but mostly in the neighborhood of WWII and with a pretty compelling mystery at its core, it manages to be both great literature and – I think – quite a bit of fun.

Fantasy that is also the most interesting telling imaginable of Arthurian legendThe Once and Future King by T.H. White. Lots of people know The Sword and the Stone thanks to Disney, but that’s just the first part of four and the other three are much more adult, but manage to maintain the same humor and willingness to mock the legend a bit while also making sure you still care about the characters.

On Kids Who Read and the Books They Like

My eldest child’s bookshelves

Books are an inevitable part of growing up with a dad who teaches English. Both of my kids have become able readers who probably qualify as precocious. Also, in my job as an English teacher, I come across lots and lots of people wondering why these kids just won’t read! So, consider this an experience-based explanation of how to get kids to read.

  1. You have to read. This is the biggest and most obvious one. It’s also one people like to ignore when it’s inconvenient. Kids mimic their parents. If they see you reading, they will want to read. There are studies that show that this is even more important than reading to children yourself.
  2. Make it fun. I like reading. Don’t you? It’s great. And yet, it often gets treated like a chore. “You have to read at least 30 minutes a day at home” is common homework for elementary schoolers, probably based on studies that show kids who read more are better at reading (duh). But the key isn’t getting them to read more. It’s making them want to read more. To that end:
    • I have never (and I mean this) made my kids read because it was homework. We all read together before they go to bed. That used to mean picture books and funny voices. Now it means all of us sitting int he same room with our own books. I also have a rule that has been in place forever: No matter what bedtime is, you can stay up as long as you want if you’re reading. This both makes reading a fun bonus for kids AND it gets you lots of cute pictures of your children who have fallen asleep with a book hanging open.
    • Let them read stuff that seems a little beyond them. I mean this both in terms of what some people would call “mature content” and in terms of reading level. Reading level is easy. It lets kids challenge themselves in a low-stakes way. If a book is to hard, it’s no big deal and they can feel good about they fact that they pushed their limits. And it can always be returned to later. Content is what freaks out some parents. I recently read a book called Mermaid in Chelsea Creek. I’d gotten it for my daughter for Christmas and she loved it (and the other two in the series and asked me to read it). I thought it was delightful and a fun read. I was, however, surprised at some of the mediocre reader reviews I saw. Turns out a bunch of them were mad because it uses the “f-word” and acknowledges that sex exists and so on. Listen, I promise you that if you have a child in the 6th grade, they have heard every word you can imagine (do you remember being 11 or 12) and they definitely know what sex is – whether you’ve talked to them about it or not. This isn’t to say that you should give kids completely free reign, but there comes a point when you have to realize that their experiences widen, and it’s good to let them read books that acknowledge those experiences and don’t try to sanitize their lives.
  3. Let them pick books for themselves. We have a monthly book night here, where everyone gets a book from the bookstore (or, for the last year, where dad calls and places an order that we pick up curbside later), but not everyone has the means to do that. Libraries, fortunately, exist and are generally very good at doing everything they can to make themselves accessible. Let your kids run wild (not literally, be nice to your librarians). Yes, sometimes they’re gonna bring home stuff you hate. Oh well. You irritated your parents once, too.
  4. Read stuff they suggest to you. I guess a little more than a year ago, I told both my kids that if they ever read a book they thought I should read, they should tell me, and I’d read it. God knows I’ve given them enough suggestions. They don’t do it often, but they have done it (see the aforementioned Mermaid in Chelsea Creek), and it’s nice. Kids like to be on equal footing with their parents some times, and it creates a culture where their opinion is valued and where reading becomes a genuinely shared experience.

So there we go. I’m still getting back into the swing of this writing about books thing, and hopefully future posts will be less of a ramble, but at least you got to see a cool bookshelf.

I’m Back! (January Book Log)

I’ve had an itch to talk more about books lately. But I didn’t know if anyone wanted to listen. I asked around (ran a twitter poll) and it seems like people maybe do. So here I am again.

I’m going to try to write something about books once a week. Putting it up on Mondays (cut me some slack this time). The first post of the month will always be a book log to run down my reading from the previous month. We’ll see how it goes.

  1. To Have and Have Not by Ernest Hemingway (3/5) – It had been a long time since I read any new Hemingway. While he never treats his material with kid gloves, this novel is remarkably brutal. That said, I do enjoy that despite what the Hemingway stereotypes might lead you to believe, he’s pretty much a socialist who is disgusted by the abuse of power and disregard of people who only want the chance to go to work and live a decent life. The main character here isn’t especially decent, however. He’s reminiscent of Okonkwo in Things Fall Apart. An unlikable character who nevertheless highlights the injustice taking place around him.
  2. Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin (5/5) – I had read various Baldwin essays, but I’d never read one of his novels. I now understand what a glaring oversight that was. This book is remarkably brilliant. The prose is so gorgeous, I’m afraid to diminish it by trying to compare it to someone else’s writing. And though the characters in this book are all white, to be a black man writing a love story about gay men in the 50s. I just… I don’t have words. This would be a stunning work of art absent all the social aspects, but they enhance it all the same.
  3. Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill (4/5) – This book might suffer by comparison. Giovanni’s Room is a tough act to follow. It was lean and quick while maintaining a lot of nuance and depth. Not unlike the best Hemingway (speaking of comparisons). Offill manages to convey with an almost uncomfortable accuracy the ways that being a new parent can be both enriching and derailing at the same time. And the ending is particularly moving. I love honest ambiguity.
  4. Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead (5/5) – I read this with an eye toward teaching it. And it will be taught. Having read two of Whitehead’s books, I now feel like I need to read all of them. This is genius in a way that is completely unlike The Underground Railroad. It’s so funny and captures adolescence perfectly. This should probably replace Catcher in the Rye and Perks of Being a Wallflower in high schools looking for a good coming of age novel. It is every bit the equal of those books (and I would argue it’s better than both of them) in terms of its writing, while also showcasing an entirely black cast of characters in a context many of us aren’t remotely used to seeing – spending their summer comfortably on Long Island.
  5. McSweeney’s #60 (4/5) – I do enjoy McSweeney’s. Like all quarterlies, there are ups and downs, but this issue was just so solidly enjoyable. I liked every single one of the stories and the big glossy magazine layout they went with was fun and a little nostalgic. They also continue to be a quarterly that can be counted on to publish a genuinely diverse mix of writers.

Start Again

This is fitting, isn’t it? I wrote not long ago that I was changing how I did things blog/website wise and then, poof, away it goes. I’ll start again. I’ll fiddle with this as I go and put some stuff back up and not put other stuff up. So it goes.