What happens when two thirtysomething siblings relive the summer reading programs of their youth in an all-out battle of the books? The race is on as they read by the rules and keep tally on their logs to see who will be the ultimate reader by Labor Day 2011.

Monday, June 27, 2011

On the Board with "The Great Night"

I found out about "The Great Night" via one of those summer reading lists to which I too easily fall prey (helpful hint to magazine editors: if you want me to read your book, see your movie, or listen to your album put it in a list of "Thirty Things You Must Do/See/Read Right Now!"). And while these lists have led me to read half of well-publicized, yet poorly written, novels in the past, this one did not lead me astray. "The Great Night" is a fantastic book crammed with long sections of gorgeous passages that punch you in the solar plexus.

Now for the difficult part. "The Great Night" is a modern retelling of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," set in San Francisco's Buena Vista Park. I know, I know - it sounds lame, but it's THE EXACT OPPOSITE. The way Adrian has the fairies (stay with me) interact with the human world is so poignant and heartbreaking that it causes you to view your surroundings through different eyes. I don't know if I'm ever capable of looking at a squirrel the same way again.

I'm not big on giving plot descriptions, especially for a book where so much of the fun is seeing how he slowly unveils the characters' interconnectivity. But suffice to say that the three lovers, all heartbroken for different reasons, are endearing and it's relevatory how he can make their very unique stories of pain so relatable. Molly's childhood was excerpted in the "New Yorker" a while back, causing Adrian to be named one of their "20 Under 40" (I was named "Most Improved" in my Freshman Kayaking class, so I too know what it's like to be acclaimed.)

Would it help or hurt if I said it's like if David Cronenberg directed Shakespeare's comedy? Because some of the fairies are so grotesque that I was literally biting my fist, eyes scrunched up in horror, while reading sections. Or that the Mechanicals are a group of homeless people putting on a musical version of "Soylent Green?" Okay, my trump card: there are a couple of group sex scenes. Did I lose you? Or just add fuel to the fire?

Sleep Neglected

I awoke last night to the wondrous sounds of nature: a fox capturing its midnight feast. Grabbing a book from my library bag, I came upon "Left Neglected", Lisa Genova's most recent novel. So much for getting back to sleep...

Her debut novel, "Still Alice", captivated me with the detail of emotions that Alice felt as Alzheimer's took over her brain. In her second book to focus on a neurological problem (Genova, herself, has a PhD in Neuroscience), Sarah is a stereotypical high-powered business executive in her late 30s who is caught up in the craze of breaking through the glass ceiling while parenting three young children with her equally career-and-status focused husband. The couple squeeze all they can out of each waking moment, multi-tasking to the nth degree to send one more email, close one more deal, and complete one more project. This all comes to a terrifying halt when Sarah suffers a brain injury in an entirely preventable car accident, resulting in a condition called Left Neglect where she has no recognition of the left side of her body. Sarah's brain doesn't recognize the left of anything, making it difficult to read, dress, eat, track action in a room-- most every simple action is a challenge.

As a scientist, Genova provides very precise examples of this very real medical condition. As a writer, her descriptions make you ache for Sarah as she struggles to make progress with her rehabilitation. For me, Sarah was not a likable character in the beginning. Her choices in how she raised her children, especially with her son who is experiencing his own difficulties, made it hard for me to care whether she was good at her job or that she tried to make it home for a soccer game (to be fair, I felt the same way about her husband, Bob). It's sad that it required a traumatic brain injury for Sarah and Bob to question the direction and path of their lives.

Without revealing too many facts, it's Sarah's mother who most captured me. Sarah's adult life is very much defined by a horrible event that happened to her family when she was a small child, after which her mother spiraled into a terrible depression. Her mother returns to help with the aftermath of Sarah's own devastating accident, and it's the evolution of this relationship that most interested me of all the other storylines.

(Brendan, we need to talk about awarding points for books in which tragic things happen to young children. And, seriously, are you stockpiling posts again? Some would say you're eerily silent.)

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Sometimes You Can't Judge a Book by its Cover

On Friday, I took my kids to the library to sign up for the summer reading program, six days after it began (we are so far behind). While I'm not sure my memory is entirely accurate, I remember registering on the very first day of the program (ok, sometimes two, as we visited two libraries regularly) to ensure that every book I read during the summer went toward my final tally so I could win! It's unfortunate the librarians in my world didn't want to make their library a competitive arena.

In any event, we went to the library, took care of business, and searched for books. I gave myself three minutes to choose my titles (which included walking time from the children's room). I limited myself to the new releases, figuring there would be a decent mix of "point worthy" books on the shelf. In my final seconds, I grabbed a colorful spine-- yellows and blues, funky lettering, and a drawing of a summer hat-- to counter some of the denser selection already in my bag.

And this is where karma paid me a visit.

Title ("The Hunchback of Neiman Marcus") and cover (drawings of popcorn, a fan, and a thong) aside, I recognized the author, Sonya Sones, as a recognized writer for young adults. Well, to be completely honest, I remembered that she had been involved in some censorship issues with one of her YA books. That was about it. The cover sold me, so in my bag it went.

It should come as no surprise that I chose to read this book first. I had perfect reading conditions: the house was quiet; kids were conked out; husband busy with work. I settled in, opened the book...and discovered that Sonya Sones is more accurately described as an author who writes in verse. Page after page after page of verse. Now, I do read poetry and actually find it admirable that Sones' writes YA novels in verse. It just wasn't what I was expecting...or wanting.

But I continued (both because I don't like reading multiple books at a time and because I was already cozy). Holly is at a transition in life: she's 50; her only child is heading to college; her mother's health is declining; her husband seems distant. Holly's world is changing and she's struggling to keep pace. Verse actually helps define the emotional chaos in Holly's life, how she segments each problem in her life. She seems incapable of looking at her life as a whole, that perhaps she's so overwhelmed she can only handle snippets of her challenges (and occasional celebrations) at a time. By the end of the final poem, I knew Holly pretty well (it was like reading a really, really long diary). I had a passing knowledge of the other characters, although arguably less than I would have had in prose form.

Curiosity will bring me eventually to Sones' YA titles, but Brendan will probably blow a gasket if I attempt to log any of them, regardless of their length. And, speaking of book length, Hunchback was 420 pages...two points!

Thursday, June 23, 2011


I tried. I really and truly tried. I made a few notes about what profound literary tomes I'd read this summer. I picked up a few titles honored in recent book awards. I had high, high hopes of astounding you (and if you're reading, I mean you) with my change of pace. This would be proof that I do, in fact, read books other than pink, glittery odes to the life of a single girl. Or divorced girl. Or recently married, not-sure-if-she-wants-to-have-a-baby girl.

But, I wanted to read a book that recently consumed the evenings of my almost-double-digit daughter and it just so happened to be the first book I began upon the start of this summer's challenge. If you're an adult mystery fan or the parent of an elementary school reader, you've probably heard of Rick Riordan. Riordan is the king of the authors for reluctant readers, offering plots that go beyond the humor and science fiction genres usually popular with these kids. He has equally strong male and female characters of all ages. He mixes fantasy with history, magic with mythology, really smart minds with nice, solid average kids. There's practically a character for any kind of student, but they all have a compelling role in his stories. Above all, the writing is strong, the plots complex, and the series go on and on. What's not to love?

Last year, my daughter and I read through his Percy Jackson series and became immersed in the 39 Clues. I'm usually not a fan of abject commercialism, but I loved the idea beyond the books in the 39 Clues series, how readers could join in the quest through a website and trading cards. It brings the plot to life in ways that Harry Potter fans could only dream of (until today). While Riordan only wrote one of the books, he conceived the overall story and other authors have written the subsequent books (under their own name, in an attempt to broaden reading interest).

His latest series, The Kane Chronicles, follows a similar trajectory, beginning with the first book, The Red Pyramid. Between the numerous characters and the references to Ancient Egypt, I should have used a character list to track them all (and just discovered one on the series' website). However, and this is important to a younger or more reluctant reader, all of these characters didn't muddle the plot. The twists and turns of the story, and its reliance on ancient times, make for some complex plot jumps, but Riordan nicely repeats important tidbits throughout to remind the reader of salient points. I read this book over the course of one week (at 500+ pages, it's a hefty challenge to any reader) and, I have to admit, I'm ready to delve into the second book in the trilogy. Now that it's officially summer vacation, I might turn this into a read aloud book with my daughter, who is just as eager to start learning again about the future of Sadie and her brother, Carter.

Family time. Wholesome entertainment. It's worthy of one point, don't you think?

Too Quiet on the Eastern Front

The contest has been going on for a week, during which I've managed to read 80 pages of "The Great Night," or approximately 14 pages a day. This has caused me to remember an offhand comment my mother made my senior year in high school about how 40 pages a night is a reasonable expectation for an English teacher to ask of her students.* So it's nice to have spent the last week in not only a mild state of paranoia that Kerry has been effortlessly stockpiling books by women named Plum but also knowing that I''m not even meeting standards set for kids half my age.

In any case, I have vowed to be more strategic this year, and not let Kerry steamroll me as effortlessly as she did last summer. When I've told friends that we're resuming the contest,** their faces scrunch up in a mixture of pity and anguish, knowing full well I am pursuing a goal for which I am woefully ill-suited. Have I thought about giving Ultimate Fighting a shot, they gently inquire? Wouldn't my time be better spent learning Dutch?

Well, the joke's on all of you! This summer I will triumph! I will scour the Young Adult section of my library looking for large print copies of 301 page books. I shall snag celebrity memoirs and slim anthologies of poetry.

And I will read more than eight books this summer.

*The remark was probably in direct response to me complaining about my slog through "Crime and Punishment," yet another of the classics that I started and never finished. The pawnbroker fakes her own death for insurance purposes, right?

**Or, as they refer to it, "that stupid contest." One friend was kind enough to point out that our twitter handle, "SiblingsWhoRead," could also be read as "Siblings Whore Ad." I have surrounded myself with a nurturing support network.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Summer 2011: Let the Reading Begin!

Did you miss us? Have you wondered what we've been reading lately? Could you just not wait until the reading program season began again?

Brendan and I have agonized (if it's possible to do that in three minutes) over this summer's rules and challenges. For those of you who don't have total recall over last summer's challenge, Kerry is a super fast reader whose page turning is only impeded by the occasional need to sleep and raising three kids. Brendan absorbs and savors every single word on the page, which is fitting for his career as an actor and wordsmith...but makes him an unlikely reading contest winner. In reviewing the book tally of the 2010 Challenge, in which Kerry read three times as much as Brendan, we decided to tweak the 2011 rules:

1. The Summer 2011 Reading Adventure begins on Saturday, June 18 (in keeping with the schedule of our hometown library) and ends on Labor Day, Monday, September 5.
2. Kerry can only include books that she begins on or after June 18. Brendan can record anything.
3. Any adult book can be considered, provided it has an ISBN.
4. Any young adult book can be considered, provided it is over 300 pages.
5. Any genre of writing counts! We are not reading snobs.
6. Each contestant enters his/her reading log through this blog and is responsible for updating the count total and submitting a post.
7. Each contestant will suggest one title (that s/he previously has read) that the other contestant must read.
8. The contestants will agree to reading one title in common.
9. Each contestant must read at least one non-fiction title.
10. Keeping with the circa 1982 requirements of our hometown library's summer reading program, each contestant must create an artistic rendering of a favorite scene from one of the logged books.

This final rule is probably our most exciting change to this summer's challenge, and one that will keep all our readers in great suspense until the final hours of the adventure. (Yes, I'm totally serious.)

11. Each book will be awarded points based on a sliding scale.
And, finally:

12. The Summer 2011 Reading Adventure will be celebrated in the fall with, of course, an ice cream party.