Friday, October 29, 2010

Reading Notes: After one cup of tea, we’re still strangers.

Photo Credit: Flickr

My reading experience of Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea (my October Afghanistan pick for the World Reading Party) is taking a lot longer than expected. I’m sure it’s partly due to moving and that when I get home from work, I spend time unpacking or straightening up rather than reading. Also, my commute is shorter, so I have less time to read on the subway (not gonna lie…kind of a bummer; never thought I would want a longer commute). But mostly I just can’t seem to get into it.

A friend’s husband recently read this book and raved about it. I thought I’d feel the same in that do-good warm and fuzzy kind of way, while also getting a thrill out of enjoying a good nonfiction work. But you know the thing? I’m a little more than a third done, and the real author, David Oliver Relin, just won’t shut up about Greg Mortenson. Seriously, with the detail and descriptions he gives, it’s like hero worship here. And all these descriptions would be fine if you felt like it was Mortenson writing his first-hand experience, but it’s weird reading someone’s story, the someone who gets top billing in author credits, and it’s written from another person’s perspective. Why not just write it from first-person, Mr. Mortenson? It is your story.

Also, he hasn’t even started building the damn school yet, and I’m on page 130 out of 331. I get that it’s a process. I get that you went through a lot of trouble and many setbacks to fulfill your dream. And I have so much respect for your motivation and dedication. But at the same time, in all these pages, I’m finding out more about the specific materials needed to build a bridge and build a school, when I’m not a contractor and I don’t care about that stuff. I want to know, in depth, about how the people of Korphe felt, how Mortenson interacted with them, what exactly drew him to this village over all the others. I’m reading words, but I’m not feeling anything yet. And this is the kind of stuff that could make me bawl just from sheer overflow of emotion. So far, I think it’s the writing’s fault.

Hopefully we’ll become friends after another cup of tea.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Umm…this isn’t autobiographical, is it?

I must say. I was a little wary of Hummingbirds after reading the synopsis in conjunction with the author bio. I will present both to you, in edited form, so you understand.


“…Seasons change and tensions mount as the students, longing for entry into the adult world, toy with their premature powers of flirtation. The deceptive innocence of adolescence becomes a trap into which flailing teachers fall, as the line between maturity and youth begins to blur.”


“Joshua Gaylord has taught at an Upper East Side prep school for the past ten years.”

A story about teacher/student flirtations written by a teacher just seems a little…too close to home.

But fortunately, that’s not all it was about. Hummingbirds peeks into the private life of a few conflicting characters. Two senior students—Dixie and Liz—who couldn’t be more opposite; and two male teachers—Leo Binhammer and Ted Hughes—who share the status of the only male teachers in an all-girl prep school. Dixie and Liz can’t stand each other because they’re so different. Dixie is more the superficial queen bee, while Liz is the intelligent type that sneers at Dixie’s lack of depth. But really, they each just feel threatened by the other as each sees characteristics in the other that she lacks. And Leo and Ted…well, the thing is, Leo’s wife once had an affair with an academic dude at an academic conference. Turns out, it was Ted, and Leo puts the pieces together and realizes this. But Ted doesn’t. So our Mr. Binhammer—the real main character of this novel—feels really threatened and inferior but forges a bond with Mr. Hughes in that self-torturing, sadistic kind of way. And it’s like you’re just waiting for things to explode.

I only had one real problem with this. Thanks to the author’s bio being so similar to the characters he was writing, and the big picture of him featured on the back cover, I had a really hard time picturing anyone other than Joshua Gaylord as Leo Binhammer. It’s like when you the film version of a book and the image of the actors are afterwards inextricably linked to the characters they play.

It’s clear Gaylord is such a literary nerd, and I would’ve killed to have him as an English teacher in high school (my high school’s English department was embarrassingly weak). He peppers his novel with literary references to novels and authors and poems…such a booknerd’s dream! The characters he crafted are interesting because…well none of them are really interesting. They’re just insecure individuals who inevitably dwell on details—meaning, they’re self-centered in that way in which they’re concerned about how they appear (to others) in any given situation. And in each duo, the conflicting characters were kind of the antithesis of each other. Such a lot that could be analyzed in Mr. Binhammer’s English class.

Bottom line: solid literary fiction. And hopefully not autobiographical.

This is a stop on Hummingbirds‘ TLC Blog Tour. For a list of its other stops, visit here.

Thursday, October 21, 2010


Why yes, that was a howl. A howl in honor of The Mysterious Howling, the first book in The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place series by Maryrose Wood.

I can’t quite figure this book out. It’s only 160-odd pages and has several cute illustrations, but it also has all kinds of literary references that most children would not know. Is it a children’s book? A childrens-esque adult book? Or does it belong somewhere in the middle? (Officially, I see the publishing world officially classifies this as ‘children’s,’ but I don’t quite believe them.)

Anyway. You know that little phrase about kids who are so wild, they must’ve been “raised by wolves?” Well we’re all pretty sure that’s what happened to the three children known as “the Incorrigibles.” Found as three scraggly, beastly children in the woods by the wealthy and newlywed Lord Ashton, the Incorrigibles—now known by the proper names of Alexander, Beowulf, and Cassiopeia—are living in the enormous Ashton Place under the guidance of Penelope Lumley. Miss Lumley—or Lumawoooo, as she is affectionately called—just graduated from the Swanburne Academy for Poor Bright Girls and has taken on her first governess job at the whopping age of fifteen (yes, fifteen!).

My only complaint is….(highlight to read text)

BOO to a ‘to be continued’ ending! TV shows are allowed to do that because the next episode is only 7 days away, but not in a BOOK when it could be a year until the next one is published. I really hope she’s trying to redefine the ‘series’ template by concluding this story in the next one, while also starting another ‘to be continued’ mystery…otherwise it just seems lazy!

However, on top of having some awesome illustrations by Jon Klassen, this story is just too cute to not like. It’s the 19th century governess story told with a twist and lots of howling thrown in. Penelope is the resourceful, spunky hero stories like this need, and the situations have just the perfect amount of outlandish thrown in. Definitely a book I would’ve liked as a kid and, because I’m still a kid at heart, also enjoy as a super-old twenty-five year old. (It was just my birthday on Saturday. I’m still a little bitter I’ve officially reached my ‘mid-twenties’.) If I had a kid, I’d make him/her read this. And that’s what my future children have to look forward to—mommy forcing books upon them.


Thursday, October 14, 2010

Where was Betsy-Tacy during my childhood? Part 2

I know, I know. It has been a while. Both in terms of blog posting and reading Betsy-Tacy. That’s just what happens when you get a promotion and move apartments at the same time.

So yes, it only took me three months, but I finally moved on with the Betsy-Tacy series, many thanks to the fine people at Harper Perennial who sent me Heaven to Betsy (packaged with Betsy in Spite of Herself) and zero thanks to the NYPL for not having it in their collection.

Last we left off, Betsy, Tacy, and Tib had just made it downtown as twelve-year-olds. Downtown! What a big world it is! Now, though, Tib has moved back to Milwaukee, and Betsy and Tacy have started high school at Deep Valley High. Betsy has also turned into quite the googly-eyed boy crazy teenage girl. She’s quite unlike her old self, though I guess that’s the relatable part about her—what teenage girl doesn’t become unrecognizable when she hits high school? Tacy, on the other hand, is completely unfazed by boys  and serves as a nice balance to Betsy.

Moving on to sophomore year in Betsy in Spite of Herself, our lovable Betsy finally becomes self-aware. She has decided that she’s on a mission to change herself, and a trip to Milwaukee to spend Christmas with Tib seems like the perfect opportunity to do so. Except two weeks pass, and Betsy isn’t really any different. Disappointment with herself finally leads her to believe, maybe it’s better to be true to yourself. Or something cheesy like that.

  • Starting with Heaven to Betsy, Vera Neville took over Lois Lenski’s illustration job to give the Betsy-Tacy books a bit more of a grown-up feel, and that’s pretty much how you could sum up the progression of the series. As the characters age, so do the writing and illustration styles. It’s almost like the illustrations are more candid shots than posed photographs, if that makes sense. 
  • Like always, Maud Hart Lovelace based her characters and events on things that happened in her real life. One great thing about these Harper Perennial editions is that the backs of the books include tidbits of info on the author and her life, including photos!
It is so fun to see how teens amused themselves 100 years ago. But you know what’s also fun? It doesn’t seem like it was 100 years ago. Riding in buggies, playing the piano and singing at parties, and riding the train don’t seem that odd, and I think for that, I have the world of literature to thank. I grew up reading Anne of Green Gables, Little House on the Prairie, and dozens of other books that took place long before my time, so this “old-timey” way of life seems perfectly familiar. It’s kind of the same reason I was never at a loss as a kid when the power went out, or why I currently have zero need for a phone that can basically tell me how to live without ever looking up from the screen—I can deal with a technology-less life (well, somewhat) because I know that millions of people have lived without these modern technological amenities and survived just fine.
It’s a little eerie as I read these two books, because I can fully remember how similar my mindset in high school was to that of Betsy’s. She forced herself to wear perfume and walk with a “Barrymore droop.” I tried to drink coffee and read biographies on movie stars that were long dead before I was even born (I still think coffee is gross, though the old movies were a legit interest). It’s all these phases you go through as you mature and experience more, as your world grows bigger, just as Betsy’s is. And it’s interesting to see how the world overall is expanding—or rather, “getting smaller”—throughout these novels, just like with Betsy’s own insular world. Trains and automobiles and telephones…Betsy’s living in the middle of it all, gaining freedom in a world that is allowing more of it.