Thursday, February 02, 2017

Book Log: January 2017

My youngest sister has been doing an annual post of books completed, and I always enjoy looking through it. I do keep a log of my finished books, so I thought cataloging my completed books at the close of every month would be a good way to dust off this blog and encourage me to jot down a few lines -- or a few paragraphs -- with my impressions (a compiled list will appear at the close of the year). I don't like spoilers, so while I put some initial thoughts after each title, when possible I'm purposely vague regarding plot specifics so as not to dissuade any of you from reading them. This is my second year doing this; here is a page containing the 2016 posts (or here is a list of all 2016 books, without the commentary on each one).

The included Amazon links are affiliate links; many of these titles I check out from the library or already own, but should you be inclined to purchase one, these links only mean Amazon will give me a small percentage of the cost, at no additional expense to you.

1) 1/5: Chicken with Plums by Maryjane Satrapi
A friend from my neighborhood book club sent me home with this book after our last meeting. It's a graphic novel (my first?), so it's a relatively quick read. The author is Iranian, and the story follows a skilled tar player.

There are flashbacks (and scenes that take place in the future) as the protagonist is waiting to die. We gradually learn why he feels depressed and why he has lost his ability to play as well as how suffering can actually be channeled into the creation of great masterpieces. The ending is very bittersweet.

2) 1/5: Same Kind of Different as Me: A modern-day slave, an international art dealer, and the unlikely woman who bound them together by Ron Hall and Denver Moore with Lynn Vincent
I don't recall where I first heard of this book. It was late in 2016, and a library copy was available, so I picked it up. Now I see repeated mentions of it and key positioning in the bookstore, likely due to the fact that a movie of it is coming out this year.

It's a non-fiction work, and the narrative switches between Ron and Denver. They both started life in lower-class situations; Ron, who is white, became quite wealthy and he and his wife started volunteering at a homeless shelter. Denver, a black man who grew up sharecropping, ended up homeless, and their paths cross at the shelter.

Ron's wife is the one who brought them together initially and encouraged their friendship. A true friendship does develop between the two men. There are some moving insights and it raises some interesting questions and reflections on faith, but I don't think this is one that will stick with me.

3) 1/7: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J.K. Rowling
I read this script very quickly. Having read the original seven-volume series (by the last 2-3 books, I was waiting for them in bookstores at midnight), I wasn't sure what to make of this play when I learned of its publication, but after talking with my youngest sister after she had read it, I added it to my list.

I wasn't surprised at who the "cursed child" was, but it reminded me how much enjoyment I derived from the Harry Potter stories. The Tri-Wizard Tournament is revisited because of the plot circumstances, further making me want to reread the books. I didn't anticipate how excited I would get in the story-line (I may have dreamed of using a time-turner in my own life while reading this). If you enjoyed the series and don't mind reading a script, I think you'd enjoy this.

4) 1/11: This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett
I have decided I really enjoy reading Ann Patchett; her writing style is one I find very natural and easy to read. You may recall I read her book Commonwealth a couple months ago (see my reflections on it within this post), which had me searching out other works of hers.

This book is a representative collection of essays over her decades of writing. They range on a large number of topics (detailing her writing process, describing early book tours, ending her first marriage, marrying again, applying for the police academy, opening a bookstore, encountering protests when her memoir on friendship is chosen as a college freshmen-wide read, and on and on). They offer a comprehensive picture of her non-fiction work.

5) 1/13: My Father's Dragon by Ruth Stiles Gannett
The genres of books I read might give others whiplash - going from screenplays to essays to literature to young adult and middle readers. It's not for the faint of heart, but it's how I find rhythm in my days - when my time is constrained and mental ability is at a minimum, I am drawn to simpler works, and as my mind wants to be challenged, I delve into a meatier piece.

This book was a simple read, not as much because I felt overwhelmed but more so because some friends with first graders recommended it for our young ones. It is a simple read of a boy describing an adventure his father went on to rescue a dragon.

The author illustrated the book; I read it on my Kindle Paperwhite, but I suspect they're more engaging in a physical book. My rule of thumb is to default to reading on my Kindle unless it's a cookbook, craft book, or children's book. As I was just investigating this title for its potential, though, I jumped on the electronic library copy.

It's a pleasant read, and as I learned it's the first in a trilogy, expect to see me make quick work of them (the books can be bought individually or in a volume together). My reading daughter is obsessed with the Boxcar Children, but if I can wrench her away, perhaps I'll show her this title. I think she'll enjoy Elmer's industriousness in outsmarting the dangerous animals he encounters, and I suspect her toddler sister will enjoy the story as well, especially with the frequent illustrations.

6) 1/13: Betsy-Tacy by Maud Hart Lovelace
I'm embarrassed to admit how long it took me to read this volume. I bought it late in 2012 at my youngest sister's recommendation. The first couple chapters charmed me, but I set it aside unfinished with visions of reading it aloud to Brennan; as she was only two at the time, I knew I needed to wait. As she got to the point where we began reading chapter books to her, I did begin this one. She enjoyed it, but then she was introduced to the Little House books, and those took precedence.

As she is caught up in all-things Boxcar Children, I decided I would just read this title without her. It's a pleasant, somewhat meandering read about friendship between two girls and all the imaginative play they enjoy. There are some author illustrations throughout.

This book was originally published in 1940. The internet tells me this book began as semi-autobiographical bedtime stories told to the author's daughter that were based on the author's childhood and, later, her journals (thanks, Wikipedia!). There are quite a few of these semi-autobiographical books in the series, so expect more mentions of them throughout the year.

Knowing this book is based on childhood reflections helps me make more sense of it. The sorts of details you have of a childhood memory are in contrast to how you could write about an imaginary adventure two young girls have. But the ways these two girls process the death of a young sibling, for instance, gives a greater insight to how these little girls processed loss.

7) 1/14: Elmer and the Dragon by Ruth Stiles Gannett
After finishing My Father's Dragon, I continued on to the second volume. The first book described the dragon's rescue, and now Elmer needs to return home. The grateful baby dragon offers to fly him home; a storm forces them ashore an island, where some shenanigans take place, but Elmer is able to make it home in time for his father's birthday.

It's hard to reflect on this one without mention of My Father's Dragon - there is a distinct story within these pages, but it picks up immediately where the first book ends, so that I find them a natural pairing (who wants to read about the end of a journey without also reading what brought them there in the first place?).

8) 1/23: Staggerford by Jon Hassler
This was the January book club read; it was actually my recommendation. I first encountered this book during my first year teaching; Hassler is Minnesotan and the Minnesota high school I taught at used this novel in the College Prep Writing class.

This book covers one week in the life of Miles Pruitt. Take a middle-aged English teacher feeling in a bit of a rut, add in the elderly friend Agatha McGee whose house he lives in, as well as interactions with students, colleagues and administrators, and some walks down memory lane, and it all makes for an engaging read.

When I taught, even before students approached this book, we assigned a "What I Wish" paper assignment, to mimic the assignment given to the students in the book. There were few parameters, as it was a low pressure way for students to share something they wish for, however flippant or serious, and for us to learn about their interests and writing skill in the process.

Two "What I Wish" essays that were submitted still stand out for me after more than a decade removed from teaching.

One was a bittersweet reflection done by a boy whose grandmother lived in their house for a couple years before she died. It was a touching tribute to inter-generational living, as well as a heartfelt reflection to processing her death in their house and all he lost with her passing.

The second essay, the one that I recall most vividly, was by a student who wrote achingly about the current estrangement from her beloved older sister; the sister had become pregnant and moved in with her boyfriend, writing off her family in the process. Her essay was raw in its pain, and in my first semester of teaching, I didn't know exactly how to provide comfort.

After assigning a grade, I wrote a postscript, something to the effect of how I couldn't fully understand her own situation, but I could empathize; how I also had a sister become suddenly pregnant after high school, and although it created a temporary rift, having a child was the best thing for her - the transformation was astounding, relationships were repaired, and I wished my experience might offer her some measure of hope for future restoration in her own family.

I handed the papers back and never heard a word from that student about my personal comment. Fast-forward to parent-teacher conferences, though, and while sitting down with her parents, the mother reached out her hand to grab mine. Her daughter had shared the postscript with her mother, and when she did so, they dissolved in hopeful tears that their situation would, too, work out in time. We teared up again at conferences as we relived similar pains, and I was forever grateful I didn't ignore the urge to write that personal note.

So now you know my personal feelings surrounding this book as I encountered it with my students. I've been wanting to revisit this book, but I worried my nostalgia surrounding this book made me view it in a different lens, perhaps making it better than it really is. I need not have worried. Everyone in my book group spoke of how well they enjoyed it and how well Hassler wrote, and while I remembered the bare skeleton of the book, enough specifics had faded, making me relish it again.

Throughout the book, Miles is working through his own students' "What I Wish" essays, facing his own tension as he reads through weighty stories:
No wonder the briefcase was so heavy, thought Miles. He should have known better than to collect all 114 papers at one time. The wrongs and losses and near misses of 114 people, when packed together in one briefcase, took on the heaviness and solidity of rock. So it wasn't the poor penmanship after all that made reading these papers so difficult. Nor was it the futility of trying to teach English grammar. It was the way these papers teased him off the road of hope into the gulch of despair.
This reflection has gone on long enough, but the book held up to another reading, and it has made me want to dig out another one of his books that I picked up at a library sale so that I might visit it sooner rather than later.

9) 1/26: The Dragons of Blueland by Ruth Stiles Gannett
This was the conclusion to the My Father's Dragon trilogy; they're short reads, so it was natural to fit them in close together.

In this book, the dragon, on his way to being reunited with family, learns they are about to be captured. He asks Elmer for help, knowing he can't coordinate a rescue on his own. A sweet conclusion to the trilogy.

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