Is It Me? The Book? Or the #@*&! Pandemic?

I’m guessing I am not the only one who’s experienced a weird new inability to stay engrossed in a book. Or maybe I am? In any case, I can never quite tell if it’s me, the book, the situation. I know that the level of stress the whole pandemic is putting everyone under feels like it’s steadily eroding my higher functions, and I am not sure how to manage it. To me, falling deeply into a book is one of the best things there is, and I miss it.

Some things work: like with exercise, I guess, starting really light. I mean really light, a very frothy silliness. But that’s not foolproof. Going with something really good can help (thanks, The Glass Hotel!), but I don’t think that means it always works. Because I don’t really think it’s the book’s fault—it’s not you, Mexican Gothic, it’s me.

It’s a weird and scary feeling, how I imagine the beginning of losing any skill feels. Something like, Wait—I can’t throw a baseball anymore? (Note: I never could throw a baseball. Or football. Or anything.)

I’m wondering if something drastic is needed. A purge, a fast, a feast—something. Does anyone have any brilliant ideas?

Do You Wanna Have…Fun?

So, I went out and bought…well OK, that’s not really true. Ahem. Let’s try that again.

So, since my beloved local bookstore allows curbside pickups but nothing more these days, given our collective Covid-19 trauma, I went online and bought a bunch of books, thinking that since my workload is generally lighter in August (no Faulkner jokes, please!), and we were going to try to vacation, a pile of books was the way to go. Here’s what I got:

The Only Good Indians

City of Girls

Whisper Network

The Need

Beneath the Rising

I managed to hold off on reading ANY of them until we arrived at the appointed relaxation place (relaxation ended up something we had to really work for, given some unexpected cancellations of campus living, sharks, sudden illnesses and so on). I started with The Need, which was smart and creepy and clever, but not…profoundly engaging.

Even so, I still had the rest, which I splayed out on the couch with my accomplices. We deployed the old “page 101 technique”* and started with  The Only Good Indians. Which was really, really strange and good and well-written, but it turns out I can’t go with the horror for real. I am, it seems, more of a “horror-lite,” person, which sounds terrible and probably is, but I wanted to give it to you straight. The book took one dark turn, and I went swimming and took a few deep breaths. And then I came back, and I was OK, until it took another dark turn and…that was it. It’s on the shelf in my house, waiting for me to become stronger. This may never happen.

But we knew, from our page 101 test, that the other book that passed the page 101 test, that flew along swiftly on the wings of powerful prose, was City of Girls. Which I did not read next. Why? I think, probably, it had to do with the title. And it’s by Elizabeth Gilbert, who wrote Eat, Pray, Love. She wrote a smart and lovely novel called The Signature of All Things. Which I enjoyed! So why did not go ahead and read it? I think there is some deeply ingrained misogyny in me, telling me to read something that was not about girls.

Sigh.

All of which is to bring me to: I began reading City of Girls once I was back in my regular house, sweating unpleasantly in my living room while we tried to figure out how we were going to make everything work even though nothing works, and…it was wonderful. So much fun. Delightful! Fizzy and fast and knowing, just a pleasure. How long has it been since I read anything that was such a pleasure? I don’t even know, but I do know that I stayed up reading late late in bed, and I wish us all that kind of lovely distraction from all the ills and sorrows of this poor old world.

I know my former readers are scattered to the winds, and that the blog has changed its time and place and address. I hope to be here for a while, and for those of you still here, I hope you are all well.

And if you have ANY books that are a pleasure, let me know in the comments! We could all use them right about now.

* The page 101 technique, about which I once wrote a blog post that I can no longer locate, involves reading page 101 of a book as a test to see whether you will enjoy it. Skips the sometimes misleading polished prose of page 1 and the spoiler situation of the back cover. Try it! (And I will try to find that post.)

How Is the Pandemic Like a Middle Grade Novel? (Shocking story below!)

 

(Image courtesy Etsy BuyTheDress)

So. It’s been a summer, hasn’t it? Truly, I have felt moved to post a whole bunch of times. There’s something about that old Covid-19 that really connects to children’s literature for me. It feels invented out of A Wrinkle in Time, but slant: a dire threat, and the only way we can survive isn’t to fight for our own lives, but to try to save others from being sick—except humanity might not up to the task if it means thinking about other people.

I hope any and all of you reading this are relatively healthy, relatively sane. Here at blog HQ in Brooklyn, NY, it’s been a ride, and will continue to be one.

What else can can I tell you? It turns out that the level of stress is a magical way to figure out what kinds of books you truly love. Like a magical stone (that I, of course, can’t remember the name of right now) it will reveal all. Here’s how:

Try to read a book. If you keep putting it down, it cannot save you, and you must let it fly free. But! If you fall deeper and deeper in, until the ceiling hangs with vines and the walls become the world all around (thanks, Maurice), then it is the kind of book you must continue to seek out, because it is the only thing (as far as I can tell) that will save you. Quarantine reading must be without shame or showing off, only with the hope of sanctuary (or at least, you know, a bit of fun).

So, some books you might think about:

The Broken Earth Trilogy, by N. K. Jemisin (Chestnut, for you old-timers, LOVED it.) Crazy feminist sci-fi, apocalyptic but not our particular apocalypse.

The Last Widow by Karin Slaughter This was just the kind of silly hero action I needed—like a blockbuster movie but without the toxic masculinity.

The Blessing Way by Tony Hillerman I thought I had read all the old guy mysteries. But I had not, and this was perfect and strange and wonderful.

The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel Oh, so mournful and quiet and compelling. I wish I could unread it so as to read it again for the first time.

I hope you are all fine. I hope you are finding ways to support your bookstores and each other. I hope I write again soon with more books that are transporting.

A Note into the Void

It probably LOOKS like I’m not posting as the pandemic deepens into a terrifying miasma of despair. Not at all! Well, OK, I am not posting, but that is only because a very smart and capable human is revamping the blog! And the website! And other stuff maybe, like the way it connects or something! And I don’t want to ADD and ADD and ADD to all of the stuff that will have to be ported over. So I have kept mainly mum.

I can tell you that I just finished reading The Glass Hotelby Emily St. John Mandel, and it was lovely and extremely mournful. Dare I say elegiac? I do! And you can buy it here, and help support independent booksellers, which you probably want to do.

How are you? Here in New York City, life is generally pretty terrifying, but we move ahead with guarded hope. I also hope, less guardedly, that any and all who read this are well and surviving as best you all can.

I am still navigating the narrow “engaging but not too taxing or terrifying” strip of literature I can bear reading right now. But soon there will be a pretty new website/blog/”online presence,” and I hope to see you there. And by then, it is just possible the sugar snap peas currently unfurling will be producing excellent peas, and we will all be less afraid and able to see one another once again.

A Guest Speaker With a Book List for Coronavirus Sequestration!

My illustrious sister has a beloved friend Carol Van Strum—who is also the author of A Bitter Fog—and has contributed this ode to the wonders of reading aloud, along with a list of books that lend themselves to it.

 

Here’s a revolutionary and truly subversive way to stay home with kids during this pandemic: start reading aloud.  People used to do this all the time, so it’s nothing new, just an outdated custom suddenly very useful again.  As today’s kids may not be experienced in being read to, best to start small and don’t read directly to them.  Any of the books below are such fun to read, you can read them to other adults in the household or over skype or the phone to a friend or relative, doing so in the hearing of your kids but not directed at them at all.  Before you know it they are listening in, wanting to hear more, and the fun begins.

If you’re not used to reading aloud, start with short chapter books, picture books or rhymes – the most important thing is to read something you truly enjoy, and never anything smacking of morality or life lessons!  The point is to have and make it fun, with no other redeeming value.  

Books for little kids and others:

Arnold Lobel, Frog and Toad series

Margaret Wise Brown, Goodnight Moon

Hildegarde H. Swift, The Little Red Lighthouse

Marjorie Flack, The Story About Ping

Virginia Lee Burton, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel

Robert McCloskey, Make Way for Ducklings Blueberries for Sal

Dr. Seus, The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins; Bartholomew and the Oobleck; The Lorax; and others.

Janette Sebring Lowry, The Poky Little Puppy

Tasha Tudor, Corgiville Fair and others

Beatrix Potter, Peter Rabbit; Jemima Puddleduck; Jeremy Fisher; and all the rest

Maurice Sendak, In the Night Kitchen; Where the Wild Things Are; and others

Hank the Cowdog series by John Erickson

Custard the Dragon by Ogden Nash and almost everything else by him

Books for kids 9-113

These are all books I still go back and reread every year or so and never get tired of them.

I'm presuming your librarians can recommend any current books such as Harry Potter, so these are older books that have never lost their appeal when I've read them to kids.  All of these are great for reading aloud, as we did without fail up until my youngest son left for college.  He's now a biology professor but is the most current “kid” I have, and these are all books he loved both to listen to and to read himself, though he's not exactly typical — I don't know what reading skills public school kids have any more.  There's a great range here, though.  Some of these are out of print or only published in England, but I list them anyway because they're well worth searching for, and some enlightened libraries or even e-book publishers might still have them.

Freddy the Pig series, by Walter R. Brooks – Freddy is a Renaissance Pig, well versed (or at least trying!) in every possible activity – detective, cowboy, poet, politician, space traveler, football player, magician, etc.  There are 26 books, which I think were recently all reissued in paperback, and they are priceless, the humor and satire as fresh today as when they were written in the '40s & '50s.

No Way of Telling by Emma Smith.  This is an oldie, but well worth the trouble to find.  It's one of the most exciting, well-written, and provocative books I know: the story of a young girl in snowbound Wales, forced to choose between saving a terrifying injured foreigner or betraying him to two elegant skiers claiming to be police.

 

Books by Robert Lawson: Rabbit Hill; The Fabulous Flight; Mr. Twig's Mistake; Ben and Me; Mr. Revere and I; Captain Kidd's Cat, etc.  These are all-time favorites.  Lawson's love for animals and his portrayals of human folly and kindness appeal strongly to kids (and others who never grew up).

 

The Children of Green Knowe, series by Lucy Boston.  These are incomparable, haunting and thrilling tales that incorporate deep issues of death, racism, friendship, ageing, etc. subtly and unforgettably.    Tolly, a small boy feeling abandoned by his father's remarriage, meets his ancient grandmother and through her shares the adventures of the “ghosts” of children who lived in her house hundreds of years ago. 

 

The House at World's End series by Monica Dickens (who is Charles Dickens's grand-daughter and well lives up to the name).  These are sadly no longer in print in this country but might be in England – especially wonderful and realistic adventures of four children living on their own while their mother is hospitalized after a horrible accident.  Their attempts to deceive dreaded school authorities and social workers, their unexpected allies in the countryside, the bizarre collection of animals that come to live with them, and especially the older kids' refusal to allow their extraordinary little brother to be treated as retarded, are hilarious and exciting. 

 

The Island of Adventure series and Famous Five series by Enid Blyton: two series about kids plunging into hair-raising adventures in gloriously portrayed locales – from the coast of Cornwall to mountains in Wales, the Adriatic Sea, and North Sea islands.  I don't know if these are in print in this country but they definitely are in England.  I couldn't get enough of them as a kid and still love them.

 

Swallows and Amazons series by Arthur Ransome.  More all-time favorites (well, I do have a lot!).  These I think are all reissued and still available in Godine paperbacks in this country.  I grew up reading and re-reading them, always finding something new, and still do today.  Like the Monica Dickens and Enid Blyton books, Ransome allows kids to venture into the world on their own, making their own mistakes and fixing them, blundering into danger, and learning when and how and whom to ask for help.  The Swallows and Amazons are the crews of two small sailboats on a huge lake in England's Lake Country; their adventures and encounters with the “natives” — farmers, charcoal burners, doctors, houseboat captains, native (and wonderfully independent) children  – are superbly realistic and exciting. 

Discworld and related series (Amazing Maurice; Wee Free Men) by Terry Pratchett.  There is simply no end to the ingenuity and humor of Pratchett's alternate universe, a looking-glass world that parodies every foible of humanity from politics and economics to music, sex, religion, and crime.  Pratchett deservedly has won the Carnegie Medal and just about every other award for both children's and adult books, and he was knighted for his lifelong work.  His books are laugh-out-loud funny, but as with the best humor, we're laughing at ourselves.

 

Biggles series by W.E. Johns.  These are also only available in England, I think, but some were published in the U.S. at one time.  These are adventures in the Boys' Own tradition, and truly exciting as well as infinitely informative.  Biggles lies about his age to join the Royal Flying Corps in World War I, and is sent into the air in wood-and-canvas planes to fight over France with only a few hours' flight experience.  The books span both world wars and peacetime flight adventures in between, and are extraordinarily detailed and accurate portrayals of both the aircraft and the battles of those times.  They are thrilling without glorifying either war or killing, and bring history vividly to life.  (It was these books that inspired my son at a young age to learn – or devour – the entire history of aircraft and the geography and tactics of two wars, making him impossible to watch war movies with!)

 

And two series that I always refused to read aloud because they are graphic (cartoon) novels that inspire even the most recalcitrant readers to persevere because they are so funny:

 

Tin-Tin series by Hergé: these are all available in English translations in this country, I think.  Tin-tin, the boy reporter, has hair-raising adventures all over the world from London and Tibet to North and South America and China, as well as the moon.  The adventures are vehicles for outlandish characters and humor enough for a lifetime, and the language is unforgettable.  

 

Asterix the Gaul series by Goscinny & Underzo.  I don't know if these are available through U.S. distributors, but they are available in England and worth the expense of importing!  Like the Tin-Tin books, the translations are magnificent, the characters vivid, and the humor timeless.  In 50 B.C., a single small village of indomitable Gauls holds out against the might of the Roman conquest.  These books present ancient history from the underside, and the Roman Empire will never seem the same again!

Mistress Masham's Repose by T.H. White (better known for his The Once and Future King, but Mistress Masham is far far better!).  Today Maria would be labeled abused and sent to therapy, but back in her day, her abusive guardians were all-powerful.  They are, however, severely handicapped by being adults, and Maria escapes their tortures with the help of an absent-minded professor and the small but extremely Civilized population of Lilliputians-in-Exile that she discovers.  I've been rereading this book since I was a kid and discover something new in it every time.

Blitz Cat, by Robert Westall:  Lord Gort is a pilot's beloved black cat who leaves home to find her master when he flies off to fight in World War II.  Her travels take her from doorstep to doorstep across England, befriending the lonely and comforting the grieved, but always moving on.  Tracking her master to an airfield, she becomes mascot of a bomber crew, flying missions over enemy territory until she and her rear gunner pal bail out over occupied France.  Passed from one clandestine group to another in the Spanish and French resistance, cat and man make their way back to England, where Lord Gord finds her master at last. Just by being what she is, Lord Gort brings out the best in people during the worst of times.

Jip: His Story, by Katherine Patterson.  Jip is a mixed race child running from bounty hunters in the days of slavery, befriended by a crazy old man and helped on his way by a variety of good but frightened people.  Like her other historical novels (Lyddie; Bridge to Terabitha; and others), Patterson's Jip is a hair-raising, historically accurate portrait of likeable children in desperate times.

 

Chronicles of Prydain (The Book of Three; The Black Cauldron; The Castle of Llyr; Taran Wanderer; and The High King) by Lloyd Alexander.  These lively tales – based loosely on the Welsh Mabinogian myth cycle – are as full of magic and adventure as the Harry Potter books but far better written and with much more humor.  (Lloyd Alexander has written many other books and I've never read one I didn't like – he's truly a writer to cherish.)

 

Dragons in the Waters and Arm of the Starfish by Madeline L'Engle (author of the Wrinkle in Time series, of which these are later extensions).  L'Engle's great gift is to weave science and spirituality into truly thrilling tales, with vivid characters confronting both physical dangers and moral dilemmas. 

 

Athletic Shorts by Chris Crutcher – and anything else by Crutcher, whose work with kids as teacher and therapist gives his writing a strong immediacy.  With great humor and a sensitive touch, his stories freely and bluntly raise issues – racism, sex, cruelty, abuse, competitiveness, loneliness – that are too often hidden away to fester. 

Hoot; Flush; and other books by Carl Hiaasen.  Hiaasen's books for kids are almost too insanely funny to be allowed.  Like the best kids' books, they're subversive as hell, pitting the wit, common sense, and ingenuity of ordinary kids against adult greed, stupidity, and violence. 

Bud, Not Buddy, by Christopher Paul Curtis.  Bud, a 10-year-old black orphan in Depression-era Michigan, runs away from abusive foster homes and sets out to find the man he believes to be his father, jazz bassist Herman Calloway.  In truly Dickensian fashion, Bud encounters the best and the worst of both people and places, finally finding his “father” and being rejected by him but welcomed by the rest of the band. A compassionate and hopeful look at a time we may be destined to repeat. 

The Hungry City Chronices (Mortal Engines; Infernal Devices; A Darkling Plain; Predator's Gold)  series by Philip Reeve.  For all ages, these are impossible to put down: as if Ray Bradbury and Ian Fleming collaborated on thrillers set in a horrifying future where mobile cities devour each other in the reign of Municipal Darwinism. 

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase series by Joan Aiken (and all her other books!).  We've never tired of re-reading these tales set in an invented historical period sometime before Queen Victoria.  The language alone is a feast, the settings vivid, the adventures hair-raising, and Aiken's characters – 9-year-old street child Dido Twite, goose herd and forest sprite Simon, the evil Miss Slighcarp – find their way into family lore forever.