Yesterday, I saw a tweet from Harvey Freedenberg (@HarvF), with a link to this New York Times article, “All Blurbed Out“, which was written by author Jennifer Weiner. The opinion piece—which I found quite interesting—talked about the blurbs you see on books. You know, those short statements of praise you see on book covers to try and lure you into buying the book. One particular passage from the piece stuck out for me:
But does all this praise actually sell books? Surprisingly, no one I’ve talked to in publishing can say with certainty whether even the most extravagant endorsement has sold a single copy.
Hmmm. I thought about that for a minute. Do I buy books based on these blurbs? Well, usually no, it turns out. With one exception,* I can’t think of a time where I was specifically swayed one way or another because of a blurb. To be honest, I am not sure whether I really care what some person from this Herald or that Tribune says about a book. Maybe I care slightly more if an author whom I already love gives some book love for a new release, but I am certainly skeptical about it too (as in, did that person really read the book?).
I am more of a “judge a book by its cover” and “what is the story about” kind of gal, especially if I am new to a particular author. And, especially now with Twitter and some really wonderful bloggers out there, I find myself listening to reports from these sources, and increasingly so. I follow these people because I detect a very similar interest in certain kinds of writing and/or a level of rigor in critiquing books that assures me that I will not be led astray with a book that the person highly favors. As an aside, thanks to another tweet later that same day (via @SarahBrentyn) to this Slate article, I found a bit of validation about something I’ve been sensing on Twitter as of late (and not in a good way) that seems to indicate every book ever read or written by people in my Twitter feed/blog lists is the Best.Book.Ever.Written. Some weeks the praise churning through these sources feels slightly suffocating and repetitive, and, in a few cases, almost lacks authenticity. Sometimes it feels almost like fawning, maybe most especially when it is clear that there is a personal connection between reader and author. I’m not saying that bloggers/tweeters should waste their time writing about bad books. No wait, I am saying that. I think those critiques count too, and can be done respectfully without personal attacks on the author. I hope to see more of them. I think it makes us better readers and, for those of us who write, better writers too.
But back to the blurbs. Despite my non-reliance on them whatsoever pre-purchase, in the past month I realized I had, in fact, found myself comparing my take on three particular books to what the blurbs said, just to see if I agreed. I did this only once I finished them, or in the case of one book, to put it down as a DNF. I’m not sure if this is the strategy that the publishers are aiming for, but I started doing it for some unknown reason recently.
Here are the three books, and my brief thoughts about their accompanying blurbs.
Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, Anne Fadiman (essays) – I picked this book up while on a short trip to South Carolina a few weeks ago. It’s not a new release; it was originally published in 1998. But since I really like books about books, and increasingly favor essays, I picked it up anyway because good writing is timeless. I also wanted something easy to pick up and put down with only pockets of free time during our time away. It did not disappoint. This collection of eighteen essays is just so wonderful and a must read for any bibliophile. If you have a passion for books, you will see yourself in many of these essays. Two of my favorite essays were, “Marrying Libraries” (where she chronicles, with much humor and wry observation, how she and her husband commingled their sometimes overlapping collections upon marriage) and “Never Do That to a Book” (describing, tongue in cheek, the travesties and abuse books often take, like, gasp, dog-earing and annotations in the margins). This is a book where you get exactly where Fadiman is coming from, and you nod your head in total agreement. A lovely homage to books.
BLURB COMPARISON: The blurbs on the outside of this book did less for the book than did the ones inside, I think. The cover’s blurb (“A terrifically entertaining collection of personal essays about books…Heartening, tender, wise and hilarious,” Patsy Baudoin of The Boston Book Review) is spot on, but the ones on back? Boring. Glad I didn’t look there before buying this book. The inside blurbs (some repeat from the covers) are more accurate, especially the one from Entertainment Weekly.
In Between Dreams, Iman Verjee (novel) – Upfront caveat: I did not finish this book. It had nothing to do with the actual writing of the book. In fact, I am wondering if that is what made me, ultimately, put it down about a third of the way through. It was too real and insightful. Verjeee is a decent writer, insofar as I can tell from the portion of the book that I actually did read. But I just could not take the subject matter woven throughout the story. As a parent now, there are just some topics that I can’t stomach anymore. [SPOILER ALERT: it features a good dose of incest, and it is not just over and done with in an opening scene. The theme permeates throughout the book (at least from what I gathered by flipping ahead several chapters to see if I could possibly just skim quickly the parts that were hard to take).] So, I had to give this a DNF. I feel bad about that, but it’s just not something I can read. I guess I did not read between the lines enough on the jacket flap to see that this is what the book would be about.
BLURB COMPARISON: There are only two blurbs, but from one person, a short one on the cover and a paragraph on the back. From what I read, I think the back cover blurb is fitting to the extent that the subject matter does “continue to haunt the reader’s thoughts long after the last page is finished”, except in my case it wasn’t the last page of the book, sadly. I am wondering why there is only one “blurber” . . . is that a sign? I’m not sure.
Acts of God, Ellen Gilchrist (short stories) – I read this over the course of a day and a half this weekend. Gilchrist is a new to me author, and I really did enjoy her storytelling. I am increasingly being drawn into the short story format as I work on some of my own. As a result of this book I will be seeking out (eventually) other things by her. If I had to describe these ten short stories, only two of which are connected to each other, I would say that they read like personal narratives, even when not told in the first person and even though they are fiction. They felt real. For me to say that is a big compliment because until about the past year or so, I have almost always read far more non-fiction than fiction. I like things to feel real (which is why I don’t read fiction that is about vampires or science fiction). And these stories do. I love how Gilchrist taps in to a particular moment in time for these characters, often without a lot of background, and almost immediately you get a sense of their character, what they sound/look like, and their internal thought processes. There is a clarity in the stories that lends itself to familiarity, like I already know these people. I feel, in most of them, wedded to their story and the outcome. That is hard to do in a short story unless you are someone who can tap into the central vein of a person quickly and convincingly, AND craft a story (versus just a description of what’s happening). She also has a knack for having something profound happen in the story, but also weaving in the mundane thoughts and actions that also fill even the most tragic of moments. That’s how life really is, and she captures it well. I really liked this collection. If I had to pick three favorites, I think they would be the opening story, “Acts of God”, “The Dissolution of the Myelin Sheath”, and “The Dogs” (which has an interesting format via letters among various neighbors).
BLURB COMPARISON: This is where, perhaps, blurbs irritate and confuse me a bit (listening, publishers?). It seems as though there are only two blurbs for this actual collection of stories, and then five blurbs for the author herself. Now, in my experience, most good writers stay good writers, but that is not always the case. Once in a while they write a clunker, plain and simple. So, blurbers, tell me about this book. That’s great if she wrote ten other amazing books. What about this one that I am about to fork over $23.95 for? This is the one I’m investing in now. OK, anyway . . . the scant blurbs about the book do align with what I read: the stores are “deliciously wise” and have a “humorous voice”, and her stories do “reflect a lifetime of observing, writing, and living.”
* A few weeks ago I reviewed (and loved) Out of the Woods: A Memoir of Wayfinding, by Lynn Darling. This book was the exception to my “not relying on the blurb before buying” rule. When I turned the book over in the store, I saw that Geraldine Brooks, Dani Shapiro, and Katrina Kenison (among others) each wrote blurbs. Since I happen to really like these three authors, and was happy to see them all cheering for the same book, I read what they had to say. Their blurbs certainly sealed the deal for me buying this book. But again, that is so against my general book buying tendency I consider it a serendipitous aberration.
Lastly, if you see any typos, my apologies. I wrote this with a migraine, which I am now going to rectify with a short nap in lieu of editing.
Copyright (c) 2014 Kristen M. Ploetz
The cold month and lots of sickness in our house lent itself to long stints of book reading for me in April, and I was able to finish three books.* I review them chronologically here, but to be perfectly frank, it was the last one that took my breath away.
Without further ado . . .
Living With a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth About Everything, by Barbara Ehrenreich (memoir). Perhaps it helps if you know the why of me wanting to read this: I’m an atheist who virtually always favors rational, analytical, science-based thinking. I was raised Roman Catholic early on, but pretty much dumped that whole train of thought around sixth or seventh grade and never looked back. I am a bona fide non-believer. Sounds warm and cuddly, right? And yet, after reading some blurbs about this book before its release date, my interest was quite piqued to learn that another self-proclaimed atheist/rational thinker (and a great writer at that) had some mystical “experiences” when she was a teenager (note: she actually talks about the use of the word “mystical” and others like it in her book, and her ambivalence toward them, but I use it here for simplicity). I wanted to know about that. And, more to the point, did it change the way she thinks in any capacity? Is there room for doubt about the unexplained experiences like hers, or is it something simply to be chalked up to a mental illness (or temporary short-circuit), altered consciousness, migraine, or even low-blood sugar? I wanted to read this book because I trusted her to be honest, straightforward, and rational about it all.
From a memoir writing perspective, Ehrenreich is a great storyteller and includes several salient details. If nothing else, this book is good for that. I really got a sense of her upbringing and her relationship with her parents, who were tough folks and staunch atheists (in contrast, I came to atheism completely on my own). There is some dysfunction within the home that she describes as well. I think this all added an interesting dimension to her story because it inevitably informs her whole mystical experience, much less about gods and religion generally, and how to parse it out. Here are two passages that give you a sense of where her head was at with her parents:
But could they be trusted, these rationalist, atheist parents of mine? You might think my father would have been a touchstone of truthfulness, with his insistence on logic, on always probing further with the question why, but on small matters he was a habitual liar, as we were reminded almost every day. [p.29]
If you can’t trust your parents and they are intelligent, apparently rational, and au courant, then you can’t trust much of anything, and that goes for science as well. Electrons, planets, genes—all these were made suspect, at some deep ontological level, by my parents’ endorsement of them. [p. 35]
She also details quite a bit about her educational background (which was science based), adding another layer to the whole premise of her mystical encounter . The science nerd in me (I majored in biology) really liked those portions of the book, but I can see where that might be a turn off for some because it does get a bit heady at times, particularly with chemistry and physics. For me, I instead got more bogged down and skimmed a little bit more through the passages about solipsism.
So did this book resolve anything for me? No, not really. I now wonder if I thought it would (at least subconsciously) because I finished it feeling a little flat and let down. But, overall, I did enjoy this book and read it almost nonstop because of the way she describes her observations, both of the mystical event and of life in general, especially in the natural, physical world. I underlined several passages in the book that were so in line with some of my own thinking, it was jarring. Here are a few of my favorites that will make sense without the context:
I have known people who are duller than trees, as well as individual trees that surpass most people in complexity and character. There are cloud formations that are more riveting than the shifting expressions on an ambivalent lover’s face. And if you want a companion whose range goes from gaiety to brooding menace, consider the surface of the sea. [p. 92]
And in what no longer seemed like a cringing surrender to the reproductive imperative, I became a mother. You may equivocate all you want about the autonomous consciousness of other humans, but when two of them arrive in your life out of nowhere, or out of what had seemed to be fairly inert material, two total strangers, and take up residence in your arms—well, the metaphysical question is settled. [p.195]
I have no patience with Goethe when he wrote, “The highest happiness of man is to have probed what is knowable, and to quietly revere what is unknowable.” Why “revere” the unknowable? Why not find out what it is? . . . It is not unscientific to search for what may not be there—from intelligent aliens to Higgs bosons or a vast “theory of everything” underlying all physical phenomena. it is something we may be innately compelled to do. [p.229]
And, perhaps the passage that best sums up this book,
Do I believe that there exist invisible beings capable of making mental contact with us to produce what humans call mystical experiences? No, I believe nothing. Belief is intellectual surrender; “faith” a state of willed self-delusion. I do not believe in the existence of vampire-spirit-creatures capable of digging deep into our limbic systems while simultaneously messing with our cognitive faculties, whether we experience the result as madness or unbearable beauty. But experience—empirical experience—requires me to keep an open mind. And human solidarity, which is the only reason for writing a book, requires that I call on others to do so also. [p. 232]
Overall, I trusted Ehrenreich as a writer inasmuch as an observer of her own experiences. It didn’t feel exaggerated or evangelical, thankfully. In the end, it’s hard to really know what someone else experiences, but I trusted her account. I am not necessarily sure I fully accept the “why” of it all, at least not the way she comes around to it, but keeping an open mind, who am I to say anyway?
The Rooms are Filled, by Jessica Null Vealitzek (fiction). The reason I chose this book is because somewhere long before its release date, I had heard someone describe this book as a “quiet” book. It might have even been the author herself; I follow her on Twitter and read her blog occasionally, so maybe I read that there? Anyway, I liked that notion of “quiet” so I picked it up. It’s Vealitzek’s first novel and it’s a good one. It kept my interest the entire time and I essentially read it in one sitting. Set in the 1980s, it chronicles two lives that eventually intersect for a time: that of Michael, a nine year old boy who’s just moved to a new town following his father’s death, and that of Julia, a young woman (the boy’s teacher) figuring out her sexuality, also newly relocated to that same town. Both face their own kinds of conflict and figuring out just where they fit in to society, school and other relationships. The boy’s mother is also a character that gets a lot of time in the book as well, which I appreciated because I loved her sensibility and sweetness, all in the wake of her husband’s death.
I think Vealitzek does a wonderful job with dialogue in the story, both with pacing and authenticity. I really got the sense that I was listening to other folks talk and it didn’t feel forced. You really felt like you were seeing some private moments unfold between real people. I felt an enormous amount of empathy for each of the characters, but especially Michael. I really felt for him and what he was going through. I also had compassion for Julia, facing her own struggles, but it was hard to like her sometimes. I wanted her to be a stronger woman in the face of what she was going through, but that would have made an entirely different story and so I understand why she was written this way. Vealitzek does a great job of weaving the two stories together, chapter to chapter, scene to scene, also with a lot of flashbacks to when Michael’s father was alive. My heart ached for this boy throughout the entire book, but eventually we learn that things will be OK. The other characters that appear in the story are also wonderfully written, a testament to a solid piece of writing where no character feels superfluous or gratuitous. I will say one tiny nit-picky thing: there were a few words/references that felt a tad anachronistic given the 1980s setting. For example, in one passage a character says something would be kept “on the down low”, and in another Julia is talking about bullying policies with the principal; to me, these feel like terms/concerns from the new millennium so they felt slightly out of place. Again, nit-picky, I know, and something a closer edit might have caught.
I sincerely hope that Vealitzek is working on her next novel soon because she is a wonderful storyteller. The length of this book was spot on (though I do wish I know what ultimately happens to Julia!) and it seems like a genre that suits her heartfelt writing. Well done!
Out of the Woods: A Memoir of Wayfinding, by Lynn Darling (memoir). I just finished this book yesterday. I haven’t even had time to fully process the truly wonderful, moving book that this was. It is the kind of writing and storytelling that will leave me unimpressed with anything else that I read, at least for a time.
Darling is already a widow at the time when her only daughter leaves for college, which is where this story opens. I must be honest: I wanted to read this book because she has an only daughter, just like I do. It seems that there are very few stories/memoirs written from the perspective of a parent of an only child, and so I latched on right away. I wanted to be able to see what that experience of finding out what one’s true self is like; that is, whom she was now that she was without her daughter, much less her husband, in her daily life. I felt compelled to read this book now while my own daughter is just 6.5 years old because I sensed that I would need that kind of temporal detachment in order to not be in utter shambles while reading it (didn’t work). Meaning that, when I read the dust jacket, I thought that I wouldn’t be able to read this book at the same time my own daughter was nearing or at her college age years (though having now read it fully, I know that I will read it then for guidance and solace).
The other reason I was drawn to this book is because of it’s primary setting: Woodstock, Vermont. My husband (who is very much alive, thankfully) and I have stayed there multiple times, even celebrating our engagement that same day in a restaurant right in the heart of Woodstock. Vermont is a place that holds so much magical appeal for me personally, and it is likely someplace that we will end up one day after our daughter moves on.
I cannot even do the book justice with anything that I write here. It’s a book about solitude and strength, and what it is like to be alone versus what it is like to be lonely. It’s about finding things and getting lost. It’s about letting go of what holds us back. It’s about a woman in the middle of her life (she was 44 when her husband died; 56 when her daughter entered college) dealing with a sense of loss, certainly, but also the newly found freedom to find new directions, to find herself. When you put so much of who you are into a spouse, career and/or child, and those things go away (which, inevitably, they usually do), what’s left? What about when, as Darling says so herself, your child “was the only thing I ever did right?” How will you define, or redefine, yourself then? That’s what Darling sets out to accomplish by leaving NYC and moving to rural Vermont alone. She figuratively, and quite literally, learns about finding direction in the woods. Like with most good stories, and life itself, her new life in Vermont is met with a challenge that she must learn to cope with, trudge through, and come out the other side of alone. But she does it, and it is quite inspiring to witness through her words how she does.
The metaphors she uses in this book are nothing short of spectacular. The prose and vocabulary are equally beautiful, like when she recalls being “unbuckled” from her daughter for the first time for camp, or when she’s listening to the “soft susurrus of the trees” in her new Vermont residence. This kind of writing, especially for someone like me who favors the woods and the natural world, and happens to also love maps (though my sense of direction and orienteering falls far short of what she ultimately learns), was like kryptonite: I could not put this book down. Darling hits you with her astute observations early in the book:
We all live by different lights—success, for some, desire for others—and take our bearings along different dreams. Some of us fly west with the night, into the unknown, urged on by adventure; others look only for the harbor lights, and stay safely in sight of home. But whichever way we choose, we come to rely on the sameness of our days, on the fact that for years at a time the road ahead looks much like the road behind, the horizon clear, the obstacles negotiable. And yet from time to time we stumble into wilderness. [p.4-5]
Or consider this passage:
Middle age resonates with so much loss, profound and superficial: expectations die, friendships fade, hairlines recede, looks change, and health and hope are no longer givens. It becomes easy to forget the fullness that has come before; self-pity, while a dreary threadbare flannel when worn by others, has a luxuriant silky feel when we wrap it around ourselves. [p. 55]
And how many of us will be able to relate to this one?:
Just as the woods are more intricate than any map could indicate, so, too, was the past more complicated and less drenched in emotion than my crude line drawings—this is where it all went south, this is where my luck turned—would indicate. Wander around in your memories long enough and you begin to realize that the maps you’ve made to the person you were and the life you lived can become outdated; my personal map was based on a set of narrow and harsh coordinates: all that I didn’t do or failed to accomplish, everything I meant to be and wasn’t, all the good things that had been and were no longer. The result was a map that failed to account for most of the country it covered. [p. 266]
This book is utterly lovely, if not heartbreaking throughout most of it, but in a profoundly insightful (and not depressing) way. Darling infuses educational bits—I’m so happy to have learned about “wolf trees”—as well as measured, dry wit. You will root for her during her low points, and cheer her on. You will find strength, as I did, in reading about someone who has walked the path before you, especially if you have children. You will feel like you have a friend by your side telling you how it’s going to be—between you and your spouse, between you and your child, between you and your own mother, between you and yourself—and that it will be OK regardless. This is a must read.
* I read fairly quickly, but it’s rare that I finish even one book in a single month. That’s primarily because I usually have about 5-8 books going at once. I used to be a linear reader, but going to law school at night changed that. Having to read multiple books in short, get-’em-when-you-can pockets of time flipped some kind of switch in my reading brain many years ago. Some people don’t understand how I can read like this, but to me it’s no different than watching a different show on TV each night.
Copyright (c) 2014 Kristen M. Ploetz
In November, I reviewed the first two books in the Fairy Bell Sisters series, written by Margaret McNamara and illustrated by Julia Denos. We just finished books 3 and 4 in the series (Book 5 is due out in May), so I wanted to give a brief review of those two books.
As a reminder, these books are for the 6-10 age range (at least according to the cover). I’m reading these books to M (she’s six years old). M really wants to believe in fairies and most days, it seems, she thinks they are real. She’s never actually asked about whether fairies (or mermaids) are real; she just assumes they are. This is unlike many other things that she has specifically asked us about (and to which we give her the age-appropriate truth). I admit that I am not always certain of which side of the line I should be walking on here: her seeming desire and wish for hope in this kind of fantasy, or her—and definitely my—strong preference for concrete truths. Aside from all that, she loves these stories. Thus, we read them.
The third book, Golden at the Fancy Dress Party, was a story much like the first two, where one of the Fairy Bell sisters is the main character for the book (though the other sisters appear with frequency too). Golden is chosen to go to the mainland to participate in a fancy-dress making contest and party. She goes alone, which means that she does not have her sisters there as moral support. Some of the other fairies who are present for the party are threatened by Golden’s costume and dressmaking abilities, and try to thwart her ability to win the contest. I won’t give away the ending, but suffice it to say that Golden makes do with what she’s been given, and ultimately kindness and good intentions prevail. I admit: I didn’t like the premise of the dressmaking contest and the idea of there having to be one winner (there’s too much of that in our culture, I think), but I do like the fact that it shows an interpersonal conflict that an initially uncertain Golden must resolve on her own. M needs to hear more of these stories, I think, because she is often so unsure of herself in similar situations. I liked the story for that reason alone.
The fourth book, however, I had a little more trouble with thematically, at least with respect to one of the subtexts and the age of my own daughter. Clara and the Magical Charms tells the story of Clara and her developing ability to use magical powers (in this case to heal an injured animal). She struggles with how to harness it and goes against the wishes of Queen Mab who had cautioned about using such powers before one was truly ready. I am OK with that part of the story and how it ultimately panned out.
The part that I was not really prepared for, and didn’t like, honestly, was the romantic undertones developing between Clara and Rowan (a male gnome who, with other gnomes, is visiting the fairies’ island for the Valentine’s Day games). It was subtle, but certainly noticeable. At the age of six, my daughter has not really seen too many movies (or read any books, insofar as I can remember) that involve romantic love. When compared to her friends of this age, she has seen far less of the Disney princess movies where these themes come up regularly (the reasons for not watching these movies are many, and not all of them are because of our prohibiting them at one time or another; she’s just not that interested). Of course, she sees us, her parents, loving each other in a romantic way, but outside of that, it’s just not on her radar.
I’m not prudish or afraid of her knowing about these kinds of relationships, but I got a little sad when this theme entered the book. Whether it would be appropriate for the ten year old reading in the recommended age group? Possibly. But it didn’t seem to fit for the six year old set. It just seems like an all too common default plot line, and one that you do not see in books geared more toward boys (though I try to avoid gender specific books, I don’t want to censor books she likes either, and so I don’t). Plus, because romantic love, crushes, and flirting are not on her radar, I had to explain what was going on between Clara and Rowan. She really didn’t understand why he was in the story. These are not concepts I necessarily want to discuss right before bedtime due to the number of other questions it leads to. I’m not saying I wouldn’t have read it had I known beforehand, but I guess I should have paid more attention to what was forthcoming so that I was better prepared. I will make sure I am more clear about what Book 5 is about before we decide to read it.
In a nutshell, these are fairly easy lifting kinds of books. They encompass the fun fluff of young children’s literature, but perhaps not likely among the ones she will remember many years from now.
Copyright (c) 2014 Kristen M. Ploetz
I don’t have too many regrets in life, but one regret I do have is not taking any humanities classes while in college, save for one photography class. I was a biology major with hopes of becoming an ecologist (didn’t happen), and so I focused all of my attention on those kinds of labs and classes. At the time, I did not appreciate that the whole point of a liberal arts education is to actually take part in the diversity and range of classes available, including those outside your major. For this reason (and because I certainly didn’t pay attention during English classes in high school either), I often feel woefully lacking in an understanding and appreciation for literature and poetry. I have not read most classics. I have only a vague knowledge of some of the famous, long dead poets. Suffice it to say, you do not want me on your trivia team.
Yet, I find myself increasingly drawn to poetry lately, both writing and reading it. I’m not sure if it’s because of my 40th birthday (a month away) and having more clarity of what interests me, succumbing more to the writing life or even just my slow immersion into Twitter (saying so much with a pithy 140 characters!). Though I want to read more poetry, I often just don’t know where to start looking. Only certain “voices” and topics seem to speak to me yet there is just so much to sift through.
So, imagine my delight when, while at the Boston International Antiquarian Book Fair in November, I stumbled upon Urban Nature: Poems About Wildlife in the City, edited by Laure-Anne Bosselaar (2000). Even more exciting? It’s a signed copy (Ms. Bosselaar and several of the poets). Even more exciting than that? The bookseller personally knew (and has stayed with while on vacation) the editor. This kind of “closeness” to the players forces me accept the limits of my iPad and ebooks.
Aside from any regrets I have about not taking classes about poetry, I also live with a certain sense of occasional melancholy about living in an urban area rather than the wooded rural type of environment I grew up in as a child. Indeed, I think much of my appreciation for trees, birds and the awesome interconnectedness of ecosystems stems from living in upstate New York for the years that I did. I am equally drawn to the urban life as I am to solitude in the woods. At the moment, the city wins.
So for me this collection was, in a word, perfect. It introduced me to several new poets that I likely would not have otherwise come to know. The poems focus on subjects—cities and wildlife—that are near and dear to me. I often find myself looking for the wild in our built environment. It’s harder some days than others, but there is a whole world thriving right before our eyes. But we have to be receptive to it, just like these poets.
The poems are separated into several categories: Cityscape; Streets, Highways, Bridges, Rivers; Seasons and Skies; Backyards, Gardens, Parks, and Zoos; and Animals in the Cities. There were several that resonated with me and provided much beautiful imagery. Like the collage that Gerald Hausman describes in “September City” and the changing of foliage by Lloyd Schwartz in “Leaves”. In “Nocturne”, Ellen Bryant Voigt has a way of describing, if not pardoning, the violence that inevitably occurs in cities and nature alike.
In “Going Home Madly”, Brooke Wiese describes the night sky like this:
The moon was new, a sliver rising over
Queens. The sky was plush as crushed velvet—
a midnight blue wedding lapel purpling over
the East River like the inside of a clamshell.
I must have read “Outlook” by Crystal Bacon at least four times on the first pass. It seems to so aptly describe a feeling I often have about living in close proximity to other people and all that comes with it, including the sights and sounds. You hate it on the dreary days—the clutter, grey and detritus of modern life—but then you are in awe of the sunset or trees that also fill that vista. The first stanza is just beautiful:
I’ve begun to love the cold, the slick, bitter seed
of this life: brittle, brilliant. Even the bare trees
have embraced the ice: arms and fingers shelled
in diamond, in glass, and still they wave and click,
bend and freeze in the chill kiss of the wind.
Loving trees as much as I do, I felt the sense of loss and sorrow described by Robert Ayres in “The Neighbor’s Elm”, which had been cut down due to disease. Birds also permeate throughout many of these poems and they are another living species to which I feel connected on a deep level. I love the description of the owl taking flight in “A Death in Larkspur Canyon” by Richard Garcia:
Going out that evening with the garbage
I saw something crouched below me.
Then it rose—an owl, dark, silent
billowing like a silk scarf thrown in the air.
“Brave Sparrow” by Michael Collier is just lovely, and gives a much needed acknowledgment to one of the most ignored urban birds, the lowly sparrow. Cardinals are one of my all-time favorite birds, so I understood and appreciated “Red Bird” by Gerald Steen. The tenderness and mystery of eggs and nests are so apparent and heartbreaking in “The Nest” by Carol Moldaw.
I could go on. Indeed, there are many, many good poems in this collection. It seems like a book that is best read across different seasons or city vantage points, though so far I’ve only read it in the fall from the comfort of my living room. If you’re a city person who likes to notice the “unnoticed” among the bustle, this book will speak to you. If you’re a nature lover who happens to live in an urban environment and you feel the tug of a more pristine world that you cannot access right now, this book will give you a bit of hope and comfort that there is an abundance of beautiful wildlife even within the concrete jungle.
Copyright (c) 2013 Kristen M. Ploetz
This past summer M (just shy of six at the time) was interested in reading longer books like early chapter books. It can be a bit challenging, at times, to find the right books for her right now. She’s reading a few dozen sight words on her own, but the stories in books for early readers using many of those words are not that engaging to her. They have their importance in learning how to read (i.e. decode), but it’s really not what she wants. She wants a story. Picture books still hold a large part of her attention, but many of them are much shorter than she’d like. Comprehension and attention span wise, she is quite capable of listening to some pretty complex stories, and so we seem to be drifting into chapter book territory more and more. Though, quite honestly, I think the recommended age range for some of the books we’ve been reading has been for 6-8 or 7-9 year olds, and I’m probably pushing the envelope sometimes (more so with the subject matter than the language; sometimes you just don’t know until you’re halfway through a book that it probably could have waited another 6-12 months). She turned six on the first day of Kindergarten so, in many cases, she’s been having books read to her almost a full year more than many of her classmates, and has already gone through some that others might just be getting to. It’s a balance to find something that interests her but that is not inappropriate for her age.*
But, in an effort to start reading longer stories that appealed to her, we gave this book a try over the summer: The Fairy Bell Sisters: Rosy and the Secret Friend, written by Margaret McNamara, illustrated by Julia Denos. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it’s actually the second book in the series, though it didn’t ultimately matter that we read it out of order.
Here’s the skinny. This series, which I now see has four books in total (the fourth will be released on 12/31/2013), tells the story about Tinker Bell’s five younger fairy sisters, one of which is toddler-aged, whom all live together on Sheepskerry Island. Each book in the series, it seems, highlights a predicament of one of the older, school-aged sisters and how they work it out. In Rosy and the Secret Friend, it tells the tale of Rosy befriending a human girl, which is a no-no for fairies. I won’t give away the story’s ending, but the book did hold M’s attention throughout the entire book and she begged often for “just one more chapter, please?”
Last week we started and finished the first book in the series, Sylva and the Fairy Ball. This one features Sylva, who’s about to turn eight (which, it so happens, is the age that a fairy must be to be invited to the Fairy Ball hosted by Queen Mab) and really wants to attend the Fairy Ball with her older sisters. The Fairy Ball, naturally, is the day before Sylva is supposed to turn eight, and so she is upset that she cannot go. You will have to read for yourself whether the age limit ultimately stops her from trying to attend.
The books are, in a word, cute. The story lines are pretty straightforward, with a conflict that must be resolved. As an adult, I knew exactly where the stories were headed, but M really did not. This tells me they are good for her age because they were interesting, entertaining and not predictable. The only minor hurdle for M, at the very beginning, was keeping the characters’ names straight because there are five speaking characters (which is a lot more than most books that kids at this age read up until this point). By the middle of the first book we read, she was able to keep them straight.
At the tender age of six, M is completely into the idea of fairies and I think this is why these stories ultimately appeal to her. Unlike Santa or the Easter Bunny, M has not once questioned whether fairies are real. Even if she has any doubt, she has not expressed it to us. I think this is because she really wants them to be real. Though I’m not sure how much longer that innocence and belief in fairies (and their magic) will last now that she’s being exposed to older, wiser kids in elementary school. We tell her the truth if she asks questions about these kinds of things, yet I think that even if the fairy myth becomes exposed before we finish the series (which we will), she will like these books nonetheless because the characters are very likeable and good-hearted. They are the kind of girls that I am positive M would love to have as friends.
The sketch illustrations are good but not anything remarkable because of how they are presented in the book, which is quite minimally. At best, they give the chapters and text a little break here and there, and let young, fairy-loving readers see that there is more than Disney’s version of a fairy out there (which I think is a good thing to let kids see in this Disney-loving culture). But, to be honest, they are hard to see very well under bedtime reading light. I really wish they were more substantial or in color in the book because I think this illustrator has some talent that is not being featured as it should be.
All in all, a nice beginning, so far, in a series that features fairies and stories about doing the right thing. The perfect kind of read for the colder, shorter days ahead.
* Full disclosure: we’ve read her five of the Captain Underpants books, which, I know, are totally geared toward slightly older kids. I also know that there has been some discord about these books, at least among some parents, but I personally just don’t buy into many of the arguments that those opponents have made. I think I will save my thoughts on those books for another post.
Copyright (c) 2013 Kristen M. Ploetz
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