Monday, December 19, 2011

Reading Roundup: Holiday Picks

If you’re looking for a holiday read in the next couple of weeks, I’ve got a couple of suggestions for you. These are both quick, lighthearted stories that you can squeeze in before the end of December!

Wally Lamb’s Wishin’ and Hopin’ is something that’s been on my list for months because a) I love stories told from a childhood perspective and b) I love stories set in the 50s/60s. However, I held off on reading this until the holiday season, because it is described as a Christmas story.

Wishin’ and Hopin’ tells the story of Felix Funicello, distant cousin of the famous mouseketeer Annette, who is getting through his fifth-grade year at St. Aloysius Gonzago Parochial School. After Sister Dymphna, Felix’s teacher, suffers a mental breakdown at the beginning of the year, she’s replaced by the eccentric Madame Marguerite, who emphasizes French culture over religious studies. When preparations for the annual Christmas program begin, everything that could go wrong does, resulting in the most memorable Christmas program in recent years.

Wishin’ and Hopin’ is similar to Jean Shepard’s infamous A Christmas Story in tone—a lighthearted story of nostalgia that contains situations and incidents that are so unique to childhood in a particular time and place. The characters don’t have oceans of depth, but are developed enough to interact (and often clash). Anyone who grew up in this time period is sure to enjoy this walk down memory lane. The story is amusing more than anything else, which may just be perfect for a quick holiday read.


The Flavia de Luce series is one I have been enjoying for the past couple years, because Flavia is a really fun, unique character to read. She’s intelligent, precocious, and entirely mischievous. The latest in Alan Bradley’s series, I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, is now my favorite since I met Flavia in the first in the series, and with a holiday theme, it’s perfect to read right now!

Christmas isn’t the only thing coming to Buckshaw; the Colonel is hard up for cash and has agreed to allows Buckshaw to serve as the backdrop for a sure-to-be mega hit film starring the famous Phyllis Wyvern. The film crew has rolled in and made themselves at home, while the film’s star has been busy charming the house staff, even winning over the skeptical Flavia. Of course, in a small town like Bishops Lacey, any news is big news, and the Vicar is quick to enlist the movie stars’ help in a performance to fund a new church roof. But when a snowstorm traps the entire town at Buckshaw and a body is found strangled with a length of film, chaos ensues and, naturally, Flavia is on the case.

The reason I love these books is because they’re multi-faceted and can’t easily be defined by one genre. The plotlines are all mystery, but the characters add a light-hearted, juvenile dimension. Flavia’s investigations are always fun to read, especially as we follow her deductive skills that lead to her crime-solving conclusions. KEEP WRITING, BRADLEY.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Reading Roundup: Not What I Expected, Part 2

As I mentioned last week, I’ve recently read a couple of books that ended up a complete 180 than what they had begun. The first was Edward P. Jones’ The Known World, which started off boring and convoluted but I ended up really liking. Sadly, Part 2 does not have such a happy conclusion. This commentary will probably be a little spoiler-y, so read with caution.

Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! has seen a lot of list placement lately, including a spot on the New York Times’ 10 Best Books of 2011. I discovered it on a book blog (can’t remember where) and it was one of those books I immediately thought I would love, and hoped that sentiment would be confirmed.

The premise of this book just sounds so great. Set deep in Florida’s Everglades, Swamplandia! introduces us to Ava Bigtree, the youngest of an alligator-wrestling dynasty. Swamplandia, an old-fashioned tourist attraction, is the Bigtrees’ livelihood. Ava’s mother is the park’s headliner, but she’s just died and the theme park is dying with her. Ava’s father, Chief Bigtree, has headed back to the mainland on “business” while a mountain of debt threatens the family’s home; older brother Kiwi has run off to the mainland, partly out of frustration and partly to earn money for his family; and older sister, Osceola, has lost herself in the world of the occult, chasing after a ghost boyfriend. Left alone, Ava embarks on an adventure with new friend, the Bird Man, to find her sister before she gets lost in the Underworld.

There were just so many things I liked about this book in the beginning.

  1. The setting: I grew up vacationing in Florida, and those tourist-trap sideshows are just so quintessentially Florida and have always piqued my interest. Who runs those? Do people actually visit them? 
  2. The plot: A little bit quirky, a little bit weird, a little bit of magical realism to create a tone oozing creativity and intrigue. 
  3. The main character: As an eleven-year-old Ava is just on the cusp of understanding things in the adult world. She shifts from having the perspective of an adult to the perspective of a kid, and it’s exciting to see how these perspectives influence her actions. 
  4. The writing style: Once the characters have been separated in the story, Russell focuses on Kiwi and Ava in alternating chapters. However, Ava’s chapters are written in her first-person perspective, so we experience Ava’s story as she is.

So, for the first 200 pages or so, I absolutely loved this book and was certain I would love it in the end. Then we’re hit with a major WTF plot point that was totally out of sync with the story and completely unnecessary. And to me, it just sort of lost its sparkle after that. The story had just seemed to be building up and building up, and after the WTF moment, I realized that in the end, the awesome beginning was never really going anywhere in the first place—a case of high expectations that fell flat. I can’t even remember how it ends now, because it just felt so unfulfilling. That BIG AWFUL THING signaled the end of the magical realism as we suddenly saw Ava’s story in the harsh light of adulthood instead of the muddle ambiguity of immaturity. Unfortunately, it also signaled the end of the story’s magic for me. So while I think it was intentional, I found it very disappointing.

I did so enjoy about 80% of this book, but I so SO wish it had ended on a more satisfying note as a whole.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Judy Blume on NPR, and helping the YA audience

“I’m afraid today everybody thinks the sexiest, smartest thing to do is write for YA, and I worry about the middle grade readers, because if they don’t learn to love books when they’re middle graders, when are they gonna learn to love them?”

This, in a nutshell, is why I want to be a youth librarian.

Early on in my quest for Master Level Librarian (aka grad school), I was mostly undecided about where to focus in the public library realm. First off, MLS programs are incredibly expansive. Do you know how broad the library field is? Technical services, records management, digitization, preservation, archives, academic libraries, School Media Specialist, and yes, public libraries. I’ve known, since day 1, that I want to work where the people are. I love books, and I want to share that, not be closed up alone in a room with them. This pretty much leaves academia, public libraries, and school libraries, but academia bores me and it seems to me primarily information retrieval. I want to be an information guide and promote a love of reading, and I want the diversity of a public library.

Once you get in a public library, though, it’s still divided—adult services, children’s services, YA services. Do I go Adult where I can share what I myself enjoy reading? Do I go Children’s because they’re so cute and inspiring? Or the YA group that is probably the most challenging and the most reluctant?

Here’s what I’ve decided. If adults are in the library to read, then they’re readers. You just hit a point in life where you’re either a reader or you’re not. And kids have people encouraging them to read from every angle. Parents reading to you at home, read-alongs in class at school, summer reading programs, Accelerated Reader requirements—things that just encourage you to READ, doesn’t matter WHAT you’re reading. Then you hit the middle school/high school years and it just seems to drop. You’re done with programs like AR; you’re done with class visits to your school library to pick out some books; you’re given six books you must read for English class that are usually “classics” and therefore pretty boring. And because you have to do it, you don’t want to do it. So you start to resist reading. It’s not fun; it’s boring; books suck. You Google everything, and books are outdated. You develop poor research habits based on what’s quickest and easiest, not the most thorough or accurate. Maybe, by some act of divine intervention, you’ll pick up reading again in a few years before your adulthood habits and priorities are solidified. But most likely, if you lost interest once, it’s gone.

And that’s why I want to work with this fragile and underserved group. Yes, YA is the rapidly-growing hot reading genre, but you can’t just produce the material. Spending time with teens, teaching them good research strategies and habits, inspiring in them a life-long quest for knowledge and love of learning, using their individual interests to motivate them—that is what I think teens need, and that’s where I want to help.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Reading Roundup: Not What I Expected, Part 1

This is going to be a story of two books I recently read and how they turned out to be entirely different than what I had expected at the beginning. I can’t honestly say that happens very often in my reading adventures; I guess I’m usually just a pretty good early judge of my opinion, but these both surprised me.

The first was last month’s book club selection, The Known World by Edward P. Jones. At first encounter, I thought, “Oh boy, it’s a book about slavery. What an upper.” And then I saw it won the Pulitzer, and I thought, “Oh boy, it’s gonna be boring, too.” And yes, it was. For a bit. The structure is non-linear and there’s about a billion characters, which requires some time and dedication to fully grasp and get into. But somewhere just past a third of the way in, I got into it, and it turned out to be really stunning.

So yes, The Known World is about slavery, which I unfairly judge as a boring topic I’ve encountered one too many times, thanks to high school English. But, it’s not really about the white vs. black theme of slavery predominant in American literature; it’s about free blacks (specifically, a freed slave) owning slaves. The man around which all revolves, Henry Townsend, has had his freedom since he was a boy, when his free parents bought Henry’s freedom from his master, William Robbins. Henry had an atypical upbringing as a slave under Robbins, who took Henry under his wing, made sure he was educated, and treated him more like a son than property. As a result, Henry adopted Robbin’s belief system as an adult, which caused conflict between his parents, his plantation, and the Virginian society directly outside his realm of reign.

In this Virginia town that upheld slavery as an acceptable institution in society, free blacks owning slaves contradicted how things “were supposed to be.” What Jones did—he made slavery less about race and more about class, invalidating all the rules from slavery that put blacks below whites. Naturally, this caused chaos that slowly, but surely, caused the town to essentially implode, as the rules of society and morality were called into question.

Jones’ characters are complex with all the grey areas left open to explore. A single action can quickly shift your opinion, because no one is ever fully good or fully bad enough to have warranted permanent placement on either end of the spectrum. On a similar note, the scattered, time-jumping structure of the story can leave you wishing for more on some characters while other important ones reach their fate abruptly. The Known World keeps you on your toes, and you need focus while reading it. As I learned, it’s not a book to be read in short snippets on your morning and evening subway commute. But it is very satisfying by the end, when you feel like you were plopped down in this specific place and time with these people and rules and you watch it all unfold and figure out what it all means.

By the way, there’s a list of characters at the END of the book. Yeah, no one in book club realized that one until it was too late, either.

For brevity’s sake, I’ll post my second review at a later date. That turned out to be a lot longer than I expected, and I don’t want to bore you to death…