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.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Books by Beths

OK, so I packed my travel bag with some heartier reads, but panicked just before we left for New Hampshire. It's a vacation, shouldn't I have something simple and sweet to read after spending the day at the Granite State's kiddie amusement parks? I didn't have time to Amazon browse, but I recalled hearing that Beth Harbison had a new book out. I had read her "Shoe Addicts Anonymous" series with some interest and thought that I couldn't go wrong.

Oh, but I could. Yes, I could.

"Always Something There to Remind Me" (I know the song is already in your head, so here's the video) is the story of first love and what happens when you revisit that relationship years later. Erin and Nate had that typical high school relationship that ended dramatically. Fast forward 23 years and Erin is a single mother raising a teenager and dating a decent guy who wants to marry her. This proposal causes her to think about Nate, and there we go: story time.

Now, maybe I'm not the target reader for this book. I met the guy who is now my husband when I was 18. I don't need to Googlestalk him in order to find out where he lives or what he looks like or if he's on Facebook or LinkedIn. (And, since I just did that out of curiousity, I now know that it's a fairly tedious task to find him on the Interwebs, unless you search his name and college). But we all have people in our past who were, at the time, vitally important and have since fallen from our lives. If we've learned anything from Facebook, it's that it's fun to see where life has taken these people, but that reconnecting with them isn't going to drastically alter life as we know it. Harbison takes this to inconceivable levels with her tale of Erin and Nate. Page after page (or click after click, since I read it on a Kindle), my mind wandered off. I gladly stopped to fold some laundry. Unload the dishwasher. I even watched a few minutes of the local access cable channel's rebroadcast of a school committee meeting. (We're renting a condo this week; can you tell? It kind of stinks to have ready access to all the comforts of home, when those comforts=chores.) Completing the book was a triumph.

I felt cheated out of a good vacation read, so I took to Amazon again to find something more suitable. I was feeling pressed for time, and selected a book that I thought was also by Beth Harbison. Turns out, it was by Beth Kendrick, someone with whom I've had a Kindle affair over the past six months.

Let me explain about the Kindle. My mother bought one last fall to bring on an extended vacation. Upon her return, she declared her preference for reading physical books and offered to let me borrow her Kindle. I've since sullied it with some low-brow reads and free e-books, mainly under the guise of semi-limiting my 9-year-old daughter's ability to read my books (Hasn't worked, as I just realized she's been reading my copy of Emma Donoghue's "Room". Oops. We might need to make this into our very own mother-daughter book club to avoid any later therapy needs.) Beth Kendrick's books were on major discount this spring on Kindle, and I passed many a long night with pneumonia this March with her earlier works.

"The Bake-Off" met all of my expectations for a fun vacation read. Amy and Linnie are sisters who have lived very separate lives until their grandmother intervenes with the request that they replace her in a weekend getaway/baking competition. Both sisters have traits that endear them to the reader: Linnie was a child genius who hit an academic wall and now makes ends meet by working as a card dealer in Vegas; Amy was the shadow sister who perhaps enjoyed her teenage years a tad too much, but now is a dental hygenist and mother of twins. They are both fallible and immensely human. Best of all is Grammy Syl, an active woman in her later years who has maintained a relationship with each granddaughter, despite their problems with each other. She's a fun character, herself, and a great representation of women her age (i.e., not the stereotype). As implausible as the plot details might be (spending a night in jail for editing graffiti?), this was a very fun read, if only to imagine what I might choose to do if given three nights away from reality and responsibility.

Two Beths. Two books. Two points!

Now I See Another Book Kerry Probably Wouldn't Enjoy Reading

I spent the first half of S.J. Bolton's Now You See Me going through the motions. Everything about it seemed familiar: plucky female detective with a tough past, copycat serial killer, chapters from the victims' point of view right before getting killed, defiantly gruesome crime scenes. Even the scenes detailing my beloved Unsolved Crime From the Past and How that Crime Ties Into The Awful Events of the Present weren't pulling me in. But about halfway through the book, Bolton reveals how the past intersects with the present, and it caused me to reevaluate all that I had read prior and appreciate how ambitious her thriller is.

Lacey Flint is the plucky Detective Inspector who gets pulled into the web of a Jack the Ripper wannabe after his latest victim dies in Lacey's arms. The killer's seeming interest in Lacey plus Lacey's knowledge of all things Ripper thrust her into the center of the investigation. From there, we get a very compelling portrait of modern day London as all the disparate puzzle pieces begin to interlock. Bolton keeps things moving at a clipped pace; chapters are usually only a couple of pages and dispense enough information to keep you reading more, each chapter bringing you to a closer understanding of the killer's ultimate goal.

I've read enough mediocre serial killer novels that I'm now bored with the formulaic plot of profiling the killer, discovering the psychological trauma that created him, the killer fixating on the lead detective, lead detective using him/herself as bait, etcetera. Enough writers rely on threadbare characters of Wounded Cop, Potential Love Interest/Source of Cop's Salvation, and Paternal Supervisor that I mentally check out while reading. Pretty much every one ends the same ways as Silence of the Lambs anyway, so why sweat the details?

At first, I thought Bolton was just playing catch-up with her peers, trying to match them grisly detail for grisly detail. But she's actually doing something much more challenging. By the book's end, several tough moral questions had been posed and I was surprised at how skillfully Bolton transferred my sympathy to pretty much every character. The background explanation of how the killer came to be is deftly handled and Bolton throws enough twists to keep you on your toes until the end (I should note that I'm the world's least critical thinker when it comes to mysteries and am always surprised at their end, no matter how poor the writing). While some of the characters are on the thin side, ultimately Bolton's novel leaves you pondering the truly awful events within and their ramifications on all of the characters' lives.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Worst Father Ever?

Carl Ott and our father have two of things in common. They are both married Caucasian men and they both own a tool set.* That, I am glad to say, is where their similarities end. While I haven't read everything, I feel confident in saying Carl Ott is probably the worst father in the history of American Literature. If you ever feel bad over missing your kid's t-ball game or forgetting to pick up your daughter after her violin lesson, read Tom Franklin's Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter. Unless you are an abominable person, you'll finish feeling pretty okay about your own mediocre parenting skills.

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter concerns the friendship of two boys, one black and one white, in late 70s Mississippi. They're friends for three months before circumstance pulls them apart (understatement of the year, but I don't want to spoil anything). Later in high school, Larry Ott, the white boy, takes a girl out on a date in high school and she is never seen again. No crime is ever proved to have taken place, but the small town gossip imprisons him more neatly than any jail cell could have. He slowly transforms into one of the sad loners who populate his beloved Stephen King novels, staffing his family's garage (once run by the aforementioned Carl, now dead) that the townspeople avoid like the plague. Meanwhile, his former friend Silas blossoms into a star athlete in high school and later a police constable. Silas moves back to their small town just as another girl disappears and attention turns back to Larry and the girl who disappeared twenty-five years earlier.

First of all, my favorite genre is probably Mysteries Involving the Unsolved Crime From the Past and How that Crime Ties Into The Awful Events of the Present (see also The Thirteenth Tale, In the Woods and Case Histories), so I am an ideal reader for this book. But here the mystery is secondary, as Tom Franklin plumbs what it means to be all those important things: a good friend, a good child, and a good citizen of your world. His writing is gorgeous; a scene where a carburetor is removed from the car is so meticulously described you want to throw the book across the room and give a slow clap. Fair warning, the scene where Carl Ott earns his Terrible Father Award is so devastating that it would test Kerry's Brave Reader Status (although, truth be told, I don't know how she's going to get through Dark Places).

I should mention that one of the great joys of this book is how awesome the dialogue is. Franklin captures the individual voice of its disparate characters, regardless of age, race, class, or gender. I had forgotten how much I enjoyed going around asking for a "Co-Cola" after reading The Help last summer. Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter reminded me of that simple pleasure, and also added saying "Enjoyed it" after every meal to my lexicon.

*Carl Ott's tool set is neatly arranged and cleaned daily. Our father taught us that a butter knife was preferable to a screwdriver and that when wood glue somehow ends up coating the tool box and most of the work bench in the basement, don't freak out about it. Wood glue never hurt anything. Chill out and let it be.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Reason #396 that I'll Never have a Pool

Have you heard how daring and brave I am?

Despite the titles beckoning in my library bag, I opted to read a book that I bought months ago and put aside because of a d-e-a-t-h in the first pages. I'd be able to conquer "The Girl Who Stopped Swimming". Why? Because I am a fearless reader. (If I keep repeating it, surely I'll start believing myself.)

I'd never read Joshilyn Jackson before, and I'm fairly certain that I first bought this book solely due to the book jacket blurb by Sara Gruen. This story centers around Laurel and her small family (husband, David and daughter, Shelby) who live in a wealthy southern neighborhood. Laurel has made a good life for herself, but is unsettled by several childhood memories (One of them being the accidental shooting death of her uncle, while hunting, in her presence. You know, pretty much your average childhood experience. Oh, and this uncle, Marty, had exposed himself to her just before the hunting trip.) Laurel's determination to live a "better" life has, in part, led her to have infrequent contact with her parents and sister...until her daughter's friend winds up dead in their pool and appears as a ghost to Laurel. Then it's time to bring in the family crazies and get to the bottom of this whodunit before the police (just in case it's Laurel's daughter who did it).

The family and socioeconomic dynamics of this book overshadow any of the mystery surrounding the death of the friend, Molly. No one is as happy as they seem, regardless of age or status. Neither is anyone as clueless as they may act. Laurel discovers unpleasant truths around her, both from her present life and past, and faces some of her own demons in the process. Unfortunately, it takes the deaths of two young girls and more lies for her to do so. While Laurel's life is on an upswing at the conclusion, you can't help but think of the lives that were harmed in order for her to get to this happy place.

One thing is for sure: Jackson gets a vote for "Best Use of Watership Down in an Adult Novel" for her references to Cowslip, and making the name into a verb. This use might stick in my lexicon.

Friday, July 22, 2011

I am the Bravest!

OK, I'll admit it: I've grown a little tired of reading fluff. I decided that this summer would be the perfect time to delve into something weightier, perhaps even pick up a book on topics that I've avoided (with hands clasped tightly over my eyes, humming mindless tunes). I didn't want to waste time (or bravado) on just any piece of writing, so I took to Goodreads to check out what some of my reader friends have been recommending. Then, with list in hand, I went off to the library.

Clue #1 that reading dark books in the summer is a solitary occupation: every single title of the six books I sought was available to check out.

Silly me, I thought I was just in great luck. I was at the library during prime check out hours (first hour of opening, when all returned books have made their way back to the stacks). Of course I was going to find everything I needed!

Clue #2 that I was in trouble: the librarian who checked me out took my selection, looked at the titles, and began to quake.

(OK, that's an exaggeration, but she did make a comment that I'll share in a moment).

Last summer, Brendan taunted me by saying he'd force me to read a book where bad things happen to children, citing Gillian Flynn as a perfect example. He flaunted this in last summer's blog, as well. Then, a few months ago, Brendan interviewed Flynn. I just couldn't get past the fact that he kept throwing my weakness in my face recommending a writer that was so completely off-limits to me. At the library yesterday, I took out both of Flynn's books, which resulted in the librarian pausing, grasping one, and saying, "This book is so...so...so..." I then had to share Brendan's comment to Flynn that her books are awfully hard to recommend to others, since you basically have to admit that you like reading graphic images of murdered children. Said librarian readily agreed.

I like to read in order (yes, I know, of course I do), so I started with Flynn's first published book, "Sharp Objects". I really don't know what to say. I guess first, I'd say that this is not a book to read while eating a snack, drinking coffee, or catching a quick bite. It really doesn't go well with food in any form, so maybe you should just brush your teeth before sitting down with it. I'd also recommend planning your reading time well, because once I started I did not want to put this book down (Yes, I brought it to swimming lessons and read while lifting my head every 10 seconds to give an encouraging smile to my new swimmers). And definitely, certainly, do not do what I did and read the final chapter at bedtime. I closed the back cover, visions of sadness and horror clouding my brain, and immediately reached for my literary sedative of choice (last night, a few chapters of Claire Cook, which is about as far away from Gillian Flynn as you can get).

I don't dare give details for fear of ruining the reading for someone else, but there were enough plot twists and turns along the way to keep me reading (Although, at the end of chapter four, I wrote down who I thought was behind the murders of little girls in the small town of Wind Gap. I guessed correctly, but still was interested and committed in reading to the end). Camille is a compelling main character, as are the other adults central to the story. The teenaged characters felt a bit contrived to me, which only added to the overall creep factor as the plot unrolled. For a first novel, this book is amazingly intricate and will stick with readers for a while.

We're heading off to New Hampshire for a week of lakes, small amusement parks and hiking...and some serious reading. My bag of books is packed!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

If You Like To Hold Back Tears on the Train. . .

I like reading books set in other eras of history mainly because it confirms that I'm a gigantic wuss with no practical survival skills. Reading Lonesome Dove last summer led to a particularly candid discussion with Kerry about how long each of us would have lasted in Reconstruction Era Texas. Kerry decided I would have succumbed to diptheria or the measles as a baby and she would have perished giving birth, probably around seventeen or eighteen. The astute reader will notice that even in Hypothetical Lives, Kerry wins.

Which leads me to A Long, Long Time Ago And Essentially True, by Brigid Pasulka. The novel skips back in forth through time, detailing the blossoming romance between two Polish youth, Anielica and the Pigeon, and their granddaughter fifty years later as she finally leaves her village and moves to Krakow. It's important to note that the grandparents fall in love in 1939. In Poland. Which begs the debate of the summer, how long would 1939 Kerry and Brendan last in Nazi-occupied Poland?*

Pasulka takes what could have been rote tales (Love in the Shadow of War, Country Mouse Becoming City Mouse) and infuses them with complexity and moral shadings. Anielica and the Pigeon are full-blooded characters who more than rise to the challenges the war offers, yet are still recognizable human beings. Their granddaughter, who is known only by her nickname "Baba Yaga" through most of the book, is so sweet and endearing that it's all you can do not to find some way to transport yourself into the book so as to protect her from any of the dangers of life.

The stories begin to bleed into each other, with themes repeating over the span of years, and snippets of family lore one hears about in Baba Yaga's section is filled out in detail in the grandparents'.

Pasulka's book is, in a lot of ways, a love letter to Poland, a country which up until now I had no opinion about ever visiting. More importantly, it's a love letter to grandparents. Even if you have a luke-warm (at best) view of your parent's parents, you'll be a sniveling mess by the end as Pasulka reveals the full extent of Anielica and the Pigeon's love for their granddaughter. Pasulka hints at how we can never fully know the depth and complexity of our grandparents' lives (apparently they did stuff before I was born? Huh.) and plays at what family stories can't capture and leave out. Needless to say, I have spent the last week since reading the book and walking up to random eighty-year-olds and thanking them for all they've done.

Yet perhaps the greatest gift Pasulka gave me was the fact that her book won the Pen/Hemingway Award. Two points!

*Answer: Kerry would have become an active leader in the Resistance, cutting off German supply lines and risking her life to communicate with the Allies. Brendan would have stood very still in a fountain and pretended to be a statue for fifty years.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

This Book is about What??

With the title, "A Married Man", I thought I knew the whole plot from the first page. Lucy Fellowes is a young widow struggling to begin the next chapter in her life, four years after the sudden death of her husband in a car accident. A man catches her eye, and she begins to hunt him down in the neighborhood shops, grocery stores, and cafes. When her mother-in-law offers the family housing at the family estate, Lucy jumps at the chance to move closer to this cute mystery man, Charlie. "A ha!" I thought. "He's a married man. I know where this is going."

200 pages later, I was certainly swept up in the dysfunction of the extended Fellowes family, but wondering when exactly Lucy and Charlie were going to have their moment. Things on that front were progressing slowly, but predictably. In the meantime, Lucy tried to understand her place within her in-law's family, make new friends, and find a job. With such realistic characters and circumstances, I was very committed to discovering what was in store for Lucy. It no longer was about Lucy and the married man...just Lucy and her life.

It became suddenly apparent that I had let the title lead myself astray from the actual plot. Married men are everywhere in this book: her late husband; Charlie; her father-in-law; her new boss; single men who want to become married men. Which married man did the author, Catherine Alliott, mean? Where is this all going?

It would be so easy to simply say this book is chick-lit and leave it at that. The plot, however, takes so many unexpected twists and turns in the final 100 pages, becoming at times a mystery and a drama. While the book did, ultimately, end the way I anticipated, the scenes leading to this conclusion were far from what I predicted.

This is the second Catherine Alliott book I've read this summer, and I'm beginning to wonder why her books aren't more widely available in the U.S. market. Has Jodi Picoult saturated this market?

Monday, July 18, 2011

Things Our Father Taught Us

Jim Brozina and our father have a lot in common: they're roughly men of the same age; both educators; love reading and sharing books with children; like bikes; and...and...and...are fathers. There, that's the best I can do to draw comparisons between our Dad and Jim, the father and co-creator of the father-daughter reading streak that led to the book, "The Reading Promise".

As a sixth grade teacher, Dad not only had firm knowledge of classic titles to share with us, but also kept pretty current with new authors and releases. We often went to the library as a family, and Dad was just as likely as Mom to suggest a title or offer a recommendation. Dad's reading corner in his classroom contained, I believed, the world's largest collection of thrillers for kids: books like "I Survived A Grizzly Attack! (and other tales of survival)". Looking back, there may have been only two or three of these books(and I'm paraphrasing the titles), most probably freebies from Scholastic Books, but I was riveted. A chance to peruse these books was one of the main reasons I so readily agreed to help with the summer cleaning and classroom prep (also: games; reading notes from kids; discovering graffiti; and lunch at McDonalds).

I give you these details because working together on a reading streak is precisely the kind of thing we would have done with our father, had it ever occurred to us. We're a competitive family, we like challenges, we like games...why not? As I made my way through the opening pages of Alice Ozma's literary account of her reading challenge with her own father, I couldn't help but wonder how our family would have made this our own. Popcorn and ice cream would have been involved somehow. We probably would have read a lot more in the morning (picture a parent reading while children are listening and dusting or weeding...we are also a family who multitasks). There would have been endless reminders not to dog ear the pages. (I'm of the mind that paper was meant to be folded. I've been somewhat rehabilitated, but we're all flawed. Right?) We probably would have taken turns being the reader, or at least switched sometimes. We might have also interrupted the reader to comment on the plot...a lot.

But, this is the story of a newly single dad who, whether by design or happenstance, helps his 9 year old daughter through this transition by reading aloud to her every night. Not that this was a new schedule for the pair, but they challenged each other to read for 100 consecutive nights, then 1,000, leading to a grand total of 3,000+ nights until she left for college. Told from the perspective of the daughter, Alice Ozma, their nine years of reading together are chronicled through tales of favorite titles, memorable moments, and slightly embarrassing times. Yet, this isn't a story of a happy father and happier daughter who become even happier by reading together. Ozma writes quite bluntly of her father's emotional distance; her mother's suicide attempt and later abandonment of the family; her much older (9 years) sister who fends for herself by making a life elsewhere; major financial hardship; and feeling like an outsider throughout most of her teenage years (more so than the rest of us). The book doesn't close on a happy note: the father is forced out of his job as school librarian and is in the process of figuring out the next chapter; the daughter is now a college graduate (and published author!) looking for a job through her personal website (as a former career counselor, this made me cringe).

While I loved the idea of this book, I wanted it to be so, so different. 9 years of reading together is certainly worthy of its own book. It could have been instructional, as so many parents need to be taught how to read to their children. It could have been more collaborative (the father does contribute a foreword), because I strongly wanted to hear the perspective of the adult in this reading duo. It could have been a young adult tale of survival, the kind of sensationalism I craved as a pre-teen ("My mother emailed her boyfriends, drank, and tried to kill herself...while my emotionally distant father read his books. I survived and you can, too!"). Instead, the publisher went with a 20 something writing autobiographically, using books as the anchor. This is very much a (well-written) personal diary that found its way to the printer's press. It's an interesting read as it stands, but could have been so much more so if Ozma had another 10 or 15 years of perspective on these very recent years of her life.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

My (Literary) Life as an EMT

According to my usual rules of literature (among them, bad things can't happen to children), I should have left "Rescue" in the stacks for some other, tougher reader. But, it's written by Anita Shreve, who is such a great teller of true-to-life stories, that I couldn't pass it up. Plus, I've taken her on before with no ill effects. I could handle this.

A little back story: I was in car accident last week. No injuries, except to cars, but it's been on my mind a lot ever since. This is a prime time for escaping into a book for a few minutes...and I go and choose one that starts with a car accident. Excellent.

Peter Webster has been raising his daughter on his own for over 15 years, following the departure of his wife, Sheila. Webster, an EMT, first met Sheila at the scene of her first DUI accident and her ensuing alcoholism and second DUI (with daughter, Rowan, in the car) makes Webster give up and send her away. Shreve tells a compelling story of Webster's attempt to rehabilitate Sheila, his tireless determination to be there for his daughter, making the best of his life in a small, isolated town. Readers can foreshadow life unraveling for Webster as Rowan's world becomes complicated with typical teenage angst with a side of why-did-my-mother-abandon-me emotions. Webster's such a nice, hard working guy that you want to reach in and shake him into action, into a different direction with his daughter.

But, for me, I had to focus on the EMT talk to get through the bad-things-can-happen-to-kids parts.

I love when an author really researches the setting well, whether it's the landscape, a profession, or a location. Based on my own strong knowledge of the medical world (you know, from ER and Grey's Anatomy and such), I fell right into the reassuring motions of a medical professional: assessing the scene, barking out orders, calmly taking action. Shreve pulls you into the life of an EMT, how Webster absolutely needs to be right there in the moment with his patient instead of wondering where his daughter might be drinking that night. The medical calls are a careful side story to the mini-breakdown going on in Webster's family, but weighty enough on their own that one gets invested in the outcome of each call. By the time that Webster, inevitably, is called to the rescue of his own daughter, readers are ready for it. I, for one, was grateful that Shreve glossed over the little bit of sadness at the end. Leave that story line for Jodi Picoult.

Another one down...but now I really need to find a Calgon-take-me-away book for a little literary R&R.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Mayflower Descendants Make the Best Authors

I am the book marketer's dream because I so easily fall for shiny colors, fun fonts, quippy comments and snazzy stock photos. I have selected books for any number of reasons, but this is a first: I fell for the first line in the author's bio: "Abby Drake is a Mayflower descendant".

Of course I had to plop "The Secrets Sisters Keep" in my library bag.

Alas, there was no talk of John Alden, Myles Standish, or Remember Allerton (Don't know that last one? My daughter studied her this past year in third grade and will tell you all about her). No sly references to a plantation, Plymouth Rock or Thanksgiving. The author, Jean Stone writing as Abby Drake, is even a Massachusetts resident, but there were no allusions to the Bay State. This was just a straight up book about four sisters and the secrets and misunderstandings between them.

Now, I don't have a sister, but the literary world has led me to believe that there is something inherently different and special in the relationship between sisters ("My Sister's Keeper"; "Beezus and Ramona"), and that the more, the better ("Little Women"; "Pride and Prejudice"). My brother and I have had our share of secrets with each other*, but that can't compare to sisters.

So, I was ready to unlock the secrets of sisterhood, or at least debunk the myth a little. The story goes that the four sisters (Ellie, Amanda, Babe, and Carleen) are to be reunited after twenty years at the 75th birthday party of their uncle/benefactor, Edward. The youngest, Carleen, accidentally set fire to the family house as a teenager, resulting in the deaths of their parents and the ensuing wrath of her sisters. Despite being cleared by the courts, she is sent from the family by Uncle Edward and told to make a better life for herself elsewhere. Babe leaves for the West Coast, becoming a semi-famous actress. Ellie and Amanda lead fractured lives closer to home. Two decades later, they are brought together again.

As the secrets unfold, it becomes abundantly clear that this family has never been well. We learn that the sisters' failures are the same mistakes their parents made (and, in the weekend in which the story takes place, we watch the grandchildren repeat the cycle as well). I can usually find something in one of the main characters to like, but I grew tired of the selfishness, narcissism and just plain meanness of the characters. I hung on to one minor character, Ray, who, at the conclusion, holds the promise of redemption and renewal for one of the sisters-- and I desperately wanted him to run out of the book, away from these sisters who are bound to turn his life for the worse.

By the final pages, it's clear that this isn't really a book about secrets between sisters. It's secrets between adults, secrets that are kept regardless of the pain or harm they cause to children or other bystanders. It's a sad story of what happens when secrets become lies. The attempt to make a happy ending out of sharing the secrets felt, to me, just like putting a band aid on a surgical site. This just didn't work for me.

Lesson learned: Mayflower descendants don't necessarily tell the stories I want to read.

* That's obviously a lie. My brother is an open book, and I'm the one with a slightly translucent cover.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Arts and Crafts

Last summer, knowing Kerry's fondness for visual representations of books she's read and both of our sentimentality for summer reading programs, I made her a beautiful construction paper pirate ship. It said something like "Sail the Seven Seas With Reading!" and there were construction paper doubloons for her to attach for every book she read. I'm pretty sure this piece of art was left, ignored, at our parent's house for several weeks.

Realizing that the best presents are the ones you give yourself, I decided to make my own construction paper motivator for myself this year. The above frog represents the result of ninety minutes of work (don't let anyone tell you that kitchen shears can't be used for arts and crafts projects - they force you to cut more attentively and everyone appreciates the traces of salmonella on your project). Sure, the time could have been better spent reading, but every time I pass by Froggy, with his rejoinder to "Hop into Reading," and see the dead flies of my books clinging to his flaccid tongue, I am reminded of the importance of reading as its own reward (and also beating my sister).

Don't Mock the Mockingjay

Two years ago I read "The Hunger Games." I don't want to be melodramatic, but it was one of the most traumatic experiences of my life (and I include the time when my lung collapsed). Collins managed to take things I had previously considered benign aspects of our culture (reality television, beauty pageants, food shortages) and made them seething forces of evil. My memory of the reading experience was reading it till I got too tired, falling asleep, having nightmares involving what I had just read, waking up, and then picking up the book again.

Not wanting to disturb my sleep cycle any more than I needed to, I was slow to pick up its sequel, "Catching Fire." I liked it fine, perhaps because friends who read it had lowballed it. Sure, it wasn't as gripping as THG, but the bar had been set pretty high, in my opinion. Plus, it provided significant back story about supporting characters (Haymitch's experience in the games, the mayor's wife's illness, the meaning of the mockingjay pin), which is my cardinal rule for any sequels.

So reading "Mockingjay" dovetailed perfectly with the Summer Reading Challenge. I knew I would read it quickly so it would give me the requisite numbers, plus I was anxious to see how the series ended. I would say it was totally satisfactory, tying up all loose ends and taking its characters into unexpected developments. The last fifty pages, in particular, brought the characters in such unexpectedly morally ambiguous predicaments that I was faced with the "Toy Story 3" conundrum: not knowing what the right decision for the main characters to make.*

I think some of the disappointment in the latter two books of the trilogy lies in that nothing can match the initial spectacle and shock of THG. I was conscious of how often Collins referred to events of the first book to maintain her street cred. The third time she referenced The Most Horrifying Death Scene Ever** from THG I wasn't sure if she was doing it to illustrate Katniss' mental state or just remind the reader just How Awesomely Horrifying that scene was. Once the fighting kicked into overdrive, the novel succumbed to "Armageddon" syndrome, where peripheral characters who I wasn't even aware existed started dying. And while I've never seen or read "Battle Royale, " "Series 7," or "The Running Man," I know the debt THG owes all of them. To add to that list of influences, it was hard not to read the end of the book without echoes of "Cold Mountain" and "A Very Long Engagement" running through my mind.

That being said, I enjoyed reading it and would certainly recommend it to anyone (except Kerry, since it breaks one of her Cardinal Rules of Literature: killing children) interested in a fast-paced and thought provoking read. I anxiously await the movies so I can only talk loudly about how terrifying they are in front of Kerry (and then watch them through half-closed eyes).

*Seriously, "Toy Story 3" messed me up. I mean, the attic's not a terrible place, right? And that day care center seemed like a perfectly reasonable fate. I mean, it's not like you can just waltz into a situation and expect to go to be king of the hill, right?

**I don't want to spoil it for people who haven't read it yet, but I of course am referring to the part when Collins brutally kills off your favorite character and you realize you aren't reading your father's Young Adult novel.

For what it's worth, Cherry Jones is my pick for President Coin for the eventual film adaptation. Maybe that's because I've watched too much "24?"

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Road Trip #1

Ours was a road trip family. While I'm sure we spent time packing clothes and toothbrushes, what I really remember is the book prep. Getting ready for vacation meant at least three separate trips: 1) 2-3 days before departure, to the library for some books; 2) a bookstore, for a special book or two; and, 3) a second trip to the library minutes before closing the night before departure, where I'd return the books I'd already ready and take another dozen out. Many of our summer road adventures were in our maroon Omni. That hatchback may have given our parents loads of storage, but didn't offer much room in the back. Between the cooler taking up the leg space and the library books spilling out of their bags, Brendan and I hardly had elbow room. But, with the windows rolled down (no AC, of course) and our bodies firmly affixed by heat to the vinyl seats, we were plenty comfortable to read and read and read.

I just returned from our first road trip of the year with my kids (4, 4, and 9) and, while I followed the traditional three rules of preparation, I simply did not get enough reading done. Now sitting shot gun, I have loads more room, but having to play navigator to the driver and negotiator to the kids sucked up all the best car reading time. I was reduced to simply reading at night in the hotel room, and we all know those are the best hours to pilfer bathroom sundries and watch cable channels you can't get at home. I had packed three books and a loaded Kindle, and only finished one. Pitiful.

I had grabbed Catherine Alliott's "A Crowded Marriage" from my mother's library bag just before leaving town and had already slogged my way through the first 100 or so pages before the car backed out of the driveway. This would have been the perfect book to read during the car ride, had I the chance to read. A tried and true plot line (woman questions whether husband's friendship with ex-girlfriend is more than that), one doesn't have to expend much energy to remember plot twists while also retaining what exit the driver needs to take next. The characters are typical, but have a few quirks and details that make them fun. While the ending was nice and neat, it wasn't the conclusion you'd necessarily anticipate; the fast moving final 50 pages brought the characters to their own happily ever after.

So, even though I read the majority of this book late at night while trying to unwind after ten hours at an amusement park, I still count this as a strong contender for your road trip book bag this summer. I'd read more of Alliott's work, but it's somewhat limited in the U.S. market-- leading me to leave this post and commence researching why a title that has a Kindle option on Amazon UK can't be downloaded in the U.S. Can't we all just get along?