Friday, May 29, 2015

Dear Corn Syrup: Adventures on the Summer Slide

I wasn’t planning on doing another Dear Corn Syrup column so soon, but some questions are time sensitive! This one is for all you parents out there.

Dear Corn Syrup, 

How can I get my 11 year old kid to read a book? The screens are so alluring and the summer so long. What would be irresistible to him? He was a huge Harry Potter fan at one point. A year ago, he tore through the whole The Giver series. Can't find anything that captivates him these days.


The Momster

Dear Momster,

I am sorry to report that medium sized children are not especially lovely. They are too old to sit in your lap but too young to drive to store and get you a pint of Ben and Jerry’s when you need one. They need to be reminded to change their underwear. They consistently smell like armpit and roll their eyes.

I’m sure that there’s a mother on your Facebook newsfeed who built a “reading castle” in her backyard out of recycled crystal. She is claiming that her children are in there right this very minute reading Proust.  Please realize that she posted that picture to make the rest of us feel badly about our parenting. I bet you all the money I make from this book blog that as soon as she got onto Facebook to brag about it, her children snuck off to play video games. No matter what you hear, most of us do not spend our summers with kids who look like this:

As a caveat, I do need to mention that I am not a reading teacher or a librarian or even a particularly successful parent. But something that I do know is that the most irresistible thing for your eleven year old would be to get into a battle with you over reading. One way for him to become the center of your universe and to suck up all the family’s attention is to raise the concern that he might someday be an illiterate adult man living in your basement.

Some kids prefer reading to doing just about anything else. You probably know some kids like that.  She might be sitting on the playground with a book. Sometimes he gets into trouble at school for reading novels instead of doing class work. I’m sure her parents worry that she doesn’t run around outside enough, but they are likely relieved that the worst thing that will happen is that she will grow up be an academic or a book blogger.

But there is another kind of reader, and both of my kids fall into this camp. They enjoy reading when they do it. They read well. They can answer you when you ask them what books they like. But their idea of a really good day doesn’t involve reading. They would certainly rather play video games than read, and they can get derailed when reading at school is too much about this:

If you are a person who was the kind of kid who would rather read than do just about anything else, it is difficult to accept that reading won’t be the same kind of pleasure for your kid as it was for you. But I do think that it can be a different kind of pleasure. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing.

Still, I totally appreciate that you don’t want to spend your summer doing this:

Here are some strategies (that I’ve used!) that might make your summer mothering just a bit easier:

1)   Don’t make reading the antithesis of screen time. Your kid thinks of screen time as fun, and you don’t want reading to be the opposite of fun. Maybe reading could be part of screen time. Read the book, then watch the movie! Your kid can decide if the movie representation was faithful to the book, or if it deviated. 

      Here's a list of middle grade books that were turned into movies. And you can find a similar list of movies that came from YA novels here and here and here

2)   You and your son could read at the same time. I’m sure you have your own leaning stack to tackle, right? What if you made summer reading a time that you and he spend together rather than something he has to do alone? Plus, you'd be modeling the idea that reading isn't a punishment inflicted on children by nagging mothers. Instead, he'll see it's what happy adults do for fun.
3)   Add sugar (corn syrup?). Nothing makes a book go down more smoothly than a tall glass of lemonade. The pinker the better. There is no better way to make reading feel like a treat than to...make it a treat!

For what it’s worth, my kids were game for just about every dystopian Hunger Games-esque spinoff at that age. Maybe the sugary drink will entice your son to read the first in one of these series? (Plus, see #1 above. All these books turn into movies eventually).

If he’s into middle grade books rather than dystopian teen tragedies, there are some good suggestions on this middle school librarian's blog. He could scroll through and find three books that he'd be willing to try. Note that the blogger has category lists at the top (sports, adventure, etc.)

The good news is that everything’s going to be OK, no matter what kind of reading summer you have. Your son has made it to the age where he does enjoy books that he chooses on his own. He might not tell you that he enjoys them, and his choices will probably annoy you. But anyone who can "tear through" a series is already a reader.  That means that if he ends up living in your basement as an adult, at least he will be literate.


Corn Syrup

Monday, May 25, 2015

Review of The Obituary Writer by Ann Hood (And Thoughts About Lady Books)

After I graduated from college, I worked at a large chain bookstore for a short time. I learned many things about bookselling, including The Customer Is Likely Crazy and Strollers Are Used For Stealing. One thing I learned that offended my bookish sensibilities is that when mass market paperbacks (the little ones) don’t sell, many bookstores rip off the the covers and return them for a refund. The books themselves go into the trash.

(As a side note, this process is called Book Stripping. I wondered if the employees with this responsibility were called Strippers.)

Since this chain bookstore was huge, there was a dumpster full of books going into the garbage weekly. Sometimes I would fish out some of the more appealing ones for myself, which was technically theft.  Something Blue, Ann Hood’s fourth novel, was one of the books I dug out of….er…stole from the trash.

I just recently sat down with another Hood novel, this one acquired legally.  The Obituary Writer has been sitting in my leaning stack for years, and I decided to read it as part of the 2015 TBR Pile Challenge. I’m glad I did, because this was a quick and easy read at a time when I feel mired in enormous books that never seem to end.

This novel offers a close look at the grief experienced by two characters – Claire, a 1960s suburban housewife, and Vivien, whose true love vanished in the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco. Hood is masterful at writing about the texture of grief. Her characters show us different forms of grief: grief at the loss of a lover, the loss of a parent, the loss of a child, and the loss of the self. They also allow us to consider different questions: What role does hope play in survival? What is the difference between hoping and pining? If the truth is terrible, would you rather be ignorant?

One of the things I most appreciate about this novel is the historical detail (Mad Men fans, take notice!). Hood has decorated her novel so precisely that we see the pattern on Claire’s living room wallpaper and we taste Vivien’s salad. These details give a time-specific quality to some of the characters’ experiences of grief (e.g. spiritual death via suburban ennui; death from an influenza epidemic…). But Hood is also exploring the universal idea of grief, as a ritual and as a potential trap.

There were many good things about The Obituary Writer. I genuinely liked it. But it skates on the edge of a literary phenomenon that drives me crazy: it is being marketed as “Women’s Fiction” (I say that it “skates on the edge” because we DON’T get a glass of chardonnay and a pedicure when we buy it. Too bad??). Women’s Fiction is a commercial category, a box, and I think the box constrained Claire and Vivien. In this case, Hood took these wonderful, well-drawn characters and tried to place them into the plot of a Lifetime Movie of the Week (i.e. “something good” has to come of tragedy; loose ends must be tied up within two hours; the audience sheds “good tears,” preferably in a community of other women). Once the book was in the Lifetime Movie box, the publisher added goofy reading group questions. I’m surprised there weren’t roses and chocolate, too.

The Lifetime Movie strategy at play here involves the “mystery” of how Vivien and Claire are connected. This is a mystery that is solvable at the outset, especially by anyone who has watched a Lifetime Movie of the Week. Rather than being a natural and surprising plot element, this connection serves to wrap up the novel in a bow at the end (foreshadowed by the question, “What does Vivien have to teach Claire…?”). For me, the problem with the neat bow, the “lesson learned,” is that it presumes that female readers can’t handle the real messiness of living life.

It is interesting that male authors’ readers don’t seem to require the same coddling. Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín is another book about a woman’s grief and the impact it has on her family. Tóibín, like Hood, focuses on the small details of life after a loss. But the publisher doesn’t attach questions to the end of that novel. Readers aren't asked, “…[D]o you find that sharing stories helps people process emotion and come to terms with grief?”

Clearly, the correct answer to that question is “yes.” Hood herself might be best known for sharing the story of the death of her young daughter and her experiences with adoption. Her nonfiction writing is searing. You can find an essay she wrote about those events here.
*The photo of books coming out of the window is from the Hague's Meermanno Museum. 

Monday, May 18, 2015

Dear Corn Syrup: The List Around My Neck

Some of you know that author Cheryl Strayed (Wild) was also the anonymous writer of the "Dear Sugar" column on The Rumpus (She is back doing the Dear Sugar Podcast, without anonymity). In that column, readers would write in with desperate problems and Strayed would answer with long, exquisitely written, comforting answers.

A few months ago, I asked you readers to send me questions. This is the second installment in what will be an occasional column called “Dear Corn Syrup.” All you have to do is send in a question, and I will respond with a long, exquisitely written, comforting answer (but which might be of questionable nutritional value).  You will note that the one for this week is book related, which is appropriate. I will answer any kind of question, however, provided that it entertains me. PG-13, please! This is a family show.

 Dear Corn Syrup,

How do you pick books to read?  Where do you get recommendations? (FYI - I have lists of books to read but rarely consult them, I tend to just read what ever crosses my path.)


 Searching For Reading Love 

Dear Searching,

I can’t tell from your question if the books that are crossing your path are fulfilling you. That is the only issue that matters. But since you add in that "FYI" to your question, I’m thinking that one of two things might be happening. There might be a gap between your desire to read good books and your easy breezy approach to finding them. Or, perhaps, you’re thinking that you “should” be reading things that you don’t actually want to read. Either way, I think it’s important to remember that there is no single Right Way to have a reading life.

I’d like to know a bit more about your lists. We certainly live in a list-driven society (e.g. 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die), but those lists often box us into a reading plan that doesn’t tap our genuine interests or creativity. On the other hand, lists can tell us something about what we find compelling. They can pave a line of inquiry. They can help us keep track of our own thinking or keep us anchored to a goal. Which is it for you?

If you are happy with stumbling upon books as they cross your path, please unchain yourself from your lists! Be free! Unless you are in school, reading should not be homework.

But if you do want to more deliberately create a working reading list, here are some of the ways that I discover new titles:

1) Blogs! I read several regularly. River City Reading and The Gilmore Guide to Books are current favorites for literary fiction. Brain Pickings is great for discussion about nonfiction or Big Ideas.

2) Book review sites! I like reading The Millions, Shelf Awareness, and I love the Guardian’s book section.

3) Podcasts! In my efforts to become more fit – fittish, perhaps – I spend a lot of time walking and running. Mostly walking, because…pain. I have found that listening to podcasts about reading is my favorite way to make that time pass more pleasantly. My favorites these days are The Readers (two guys talking about bookish things -- they call it “book banter”); Books on the Nightstand (two people who both work in the book industry talking about book issues and making recommendations); and The Book Riot Podcast (two people talking about book news – with a strong focus on reading and technology).

4) Bookstores! They have tables full of books (and, often, cookies!). If I’m honest, I learn the most about what’s available by being out in the world and getting my hands on new books.  And don’t forget all the new book smell….

I’d be curious to find out whether “crunchy bacon” would be a good kind of smell to encounter in a bookstore. I'm guessing yes.


Corn Syrup

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Seeking the Dysfunctional Sweet Spot: Review of Adult Onset by Ann-Marie MacDonald

When my kids were little, there was a flood of shows on TV featuring British nannies that helped ineffective parents improve. Remember these shows? The allure was that the families in question were just a little bit more insane then the average family (mine). The parents’ decisions were just a little bit more questionable. The kids’ sleep issues were just a little more pronounced. The tantrums were just a little bit louder. The nannies’ advice was usually straightforward (“Don’t give your kids so much candy!”), but my main takeaway was, “At least my parenting isn’t as bad as that!”

For me, a good novel about a dysfunctional family has the same payoff (“At least my family isn’t as bad as that!”). The reader gets to live a while under the roof of a house where things are familiar but just a little bit crazier than life under her own. However, if the dysfunction goes too far – where events are too painful – the novel can be oppressively sad. At the same time, if the dysfunction doesn’t go far enough – where events are too common – the novel can be dull.  I guess I’m saying that there’s a dysfunctional sweet spot, a reading experience that is riveting but that doesn’t break my heart all the way to pieces.

Adult Onset by Ann-Marie MacDonald features a solidly dysfunctional family, but it doesn’t quite find the sweet spot. The novel features Mary Rose, who is a successful Canadian author with two beautiful little kids. But she feels that she’s coming unhinged – she’s forgetting things and finding herself inexplicably filled with rage. On top of that, she is feeling some significant pain in her arm, at the site where she had surgery years before.

The story lasts a week, and, slowly, the reader learns that all was not right in Mary Rose’s past. Her parents had several children who died at birth, but these tragedies were rarely talked about. Her mother was sent away for a while, and when she returned she seemed disconnected. Mary Rose wonders if the source of her current unraveling might lie in childhood experiences she can’t clearly recall. The catch is that her mother, who should hold the answers, is in early stages of what seems like dementia. She is forgetting just at the moment that Mary Rose is trying to remember.

MacDonald has an amazing way with words. Individual paragraphs are gorgeous and witty. But this book suffers from too little plot – we watch Mary Rose walk back and forth to the preschool and the park. We watch her buy flowers, twice. We go with her to Starbucks. All of these little events are important (e.g. putting on boots becomes a meaningful thing), but they pull this much of this book into the realm of “too common dysfunction.” The other part – the part that she can’t remember – is more gripping (and also possibly more terrible), but the reader can mostly see what’s coming from the outset.

I have noticed recently that I have been reading bundles of books with similar themes. I was struck by the commonalities between this book and Toni Morrison’s God Help The Child, which I finished last week. Both of these stories concern the replication and endurance of childhood wounds. But Morrison’s novel has the benefit of connecting to larger cultural trauma – racism and its legacy – to give it relevance.

Oprah Winfrey chose MacDonald’s first novel, Fall On Your Knees, for her Book Club in 2002. Here's an interview from back then. Her current book is largely autobiographical, and you can find a current interview with her here.

Monday, May 11, 2015

It's Monday, New Facebook Page Edition

It’s been a while since I’ve done a Monday update. I thought I’d revive the practice since I’m welcoming all my vast Facebook fans. Hello, Facebook!

To initiate you newbies, my Monday posts are where I lay out all of the reading I’m going to do and apologize profusely for not fulfilling last week’s promises. That sums up two parts of my personality --- AMBITIOUS and GUILTY!

Here’s this week’s stack:

Last week, I reviewed two books – Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House and Toni Morrison’s God Help The Child. This week, I plan to add Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration to this set. This book has been on my leaning stack for years, and I added it to my 2015 TBR Pile Challenge in January. I also have a square in mind for this title on the Leaning Stack of Books Diversity Challenge Bingo game.

Here’s the summary on Goodreads:

In this epic, beautifully written masterwork, Pulitzer Prize–winning author Isabel Wilkerson chronicles one of the great untold stories of American history: the decades-long migration of black citizens who fled the South for northern and western cities, in search of a better life. From 1915 to 1970, this exodus of almost six million people changed the face of America. Wilkerson compares this epic migration to the migrations of other peoples in history. She interviewed more than a thousand people, and gained access to new data and official records, to write this definitive and vividly dramatic account of how these American journeys unfolded, altering our cities, our country, and ourselves.

I also plan to read Ann Hood’s The Obituary Writer. I picked up this title at the Friends of the Seattle Public Library book sale years ago, and it is also on my 2015 TBR Pile Challenge. I am trying to make some headway with this challenge, because I have only read 2 of the 12 so far (again, AMBITIOUS and GUILTY).

Here’s the summary on Goodreads:

On the day John F. Kennedy is inaugurated, Claire, an uncompromising young wife and mother obsessed with the glamour of Jackie O, struggles over the decision of whether to stay in a loveless marriage or follow the man she loves and whose baby she may be carrying. Decades earlier, in 1919, Vivien Lowe, an obituary writer, is searching for her lover who disappeared in the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906. By telling the stories of the dead, Vivien not only helps others cope with their grief but also begins to understand the devastation of her own terrible loss. The surprising connection between Claire and Vivien will change the life of one of them in unexpected and extraordinary ways. Part literary mystery and part love story, The Obituary Writer examines expectations of marriage and love, the roles of wives and mothers, and the emotions of grief, regret, and hope.

And finally, I really need to finish Adult Onset by Ann-Marie MacDonald. I have enjoyed this writer’s other novels, and this one started out so great! I thought I would knock it off in a few days, but I have stalled. I'm still searching for a PLOT to pull me through to the end. 

Here’s the description on Goodreads:

From the acclaimed, bestselling author of 2 beloved classics, Adult Onset is a powerful drama about motherhood, the dark undercurrents that break and hold families together, and the power and pressures of love. Mary-Rose MacKinnon--nicknamed MR or "Mister"--is a successful YA author who has made enough from her writing to semi-retire in her early 40s. She lives in a comfortable Toronto neighbourhood with her partner, Hilary, a busy theatre director, and their 2 young children, Matthew and Maggie, trying valiantly and often hilariously to balance her creative pursuits with domestic demands, and the various challenges that (mostly) solo parenting presents. As a child, Mary-Rose suffered from an illness, long since cured and "filed separately" in her mind. But as her frustrations mount, she experiences a flare-up of forgotten symptoms which compel her to rethink her memories of her own childhood and her relationship with her parents. With her world threatening to unravel, the spectre of domestic violence raises its head with dangerous implications for her life and that of her own children.

So that’s my week. I will be back next Monday to apologize for not finishing. I hope you stick around – and follow this blog in whatever way suits you ("Like" on Facebook; Follow on Twitter; Subscribe or Follow by Email above…). Happy reading!

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Review of God Help The Child by Toni Morrison

I went to Europe when I was 19, with a Eurail Pass and a backpack full of paperbacks I haphazardly chose from my family’s bookshelf. One of those books was Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. I think this is the actual copy I dragged across the ocean (note the $2.75 price tag!).

I won’t tell you what year it was, but it was well before Oprah picked that book for her Book Club. I chose it because it was small and easy to carry. Little did I know that it would transport me in a way that no other book had. And the ironic thing was that I was buried in that book as Europe rushed by outside the train. My trip to the other side of the world brought me, through a book, back to America.

Honestly, I can’t remember the specifics of that novel now, and I don’t want to re-read it with new eyes. Re-reading disappoints me.  But I do remember that it was such a captivating story, and the characters were so vivid and real. I lived in the book with them.

Toni Morrison is an author on a political landscape. It’s important that she is a lauded African-American writer, when major awards still rarely recognize writers of color. It’s important that she is writing about African-American characters, and African-American women in particular, at a time when books featuring African-American characters are still few and far between. But, honestly, that’s not why I picked up Song of Solomon all those years ago, and that’s not why I loved it. I loved it because it was a really, really good novel.

I imagine that one of the challenges of having such a full knapsack of celebrated books is that everything that you publish gets compared to the rest. Everyone is looking to you to put out the Next Big Thing. Morrison’s most recent book, God Help The Child, came to my nightstand with the glitter of high expectations. And, unfortunately, this was not a novel that blew me away.

Don’t get me wrong -- it is good. I imagine that it will fit nicely into a class on Toni Morrison’s work (and I took one of those in college, after my Europe trip). The story is about the legacy of pain experienced in childhood – physical, emotional, and cultural. The reader follows Bride, who, as a child, helped put an alleged child molester behind bars. But that event has a context. We learn that Bride’s mother felt deep shame over the dark tone of her child’s skin and refused to touch her (and as an adult, Bride only wears white). She grows up to be beautiful, to invent her own beauty, but the reader watches her shrink throughout the novel. Why is that happening? There are several interconnected characters and veins of trauma for the reader to explore in order to understand Bride’s history and to imagine a future for her.

This is compelling territory, but this book is like a sketch. There are the outlines of characters, a smudge of magical realism, a skeleton of a setting. I did not sink deeply into it, and it did not make me travel. It’s worth noting that this is a tiny novel – fewer than 200 pages – and I wonder what it would have been like if each character had been developed (the mother, especially) and if Morrison had filled in all the contours of the story.

Just recently, there was an interesting interview with Morrison in the New York Times Magazine.  And here is another much-discussed interview, where Morrison talks about race and justice.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Review of The Turner House by Angela Flournoy

I don’t mean to keep reading about big family houses. I’m honestly not searching for house-centered domestic dramas, but The Turner House by Angela Flournoy is the fourth in two months. In addition to this one, I’ve tackled Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread; Ann Packer’s The Children’s Crusade; and Garth Stein’s A Sudden Light (review forthcoming). In each case, adult siblings have to make a decision about whether to sell or keep the home where they grew up. The Turner House, in my opinion, is the best in the bunch – and it’s a debut novel!

The book involves the thirteen Turner siblings, whose Detroit home sits abandoned and falling into ruin. The family patriarch, Francis, has died, and the matriarch, Viola, is frail and living with her eldest son in the suburbs. The story follows Francis and Viola’s path from the South to Detroit in the 1940s through 2008. We see several of the siblings negotiate their own failings – in particular, Cha-Cha (detachment from his marriage) and Lelah (gambling) – and find the empty house both a safe haven from and a reflection of those failings.

What I liked about this novel is that it is at once a story about a typical American family (secrets and longings and misunderstandings), a story about an African-American family (with southern cultural roots and a racialized history), and a story about a changing city (which has witnessed a Black migration, White Flight, economic abandonment, and potential rebirth). In an essay about writing the stories of Black neighborhoods, Flournoy says,

"[This novel is] set in Detroit during opposite ends of a community’s lifespan: from the initial struggle for homeownership in the 1940s, to the latter days of foreclosure and abandonment in the early 2000s. Of course, what makes Detroit’s story different from Brooklyn or say, San Francisco, is that the disappearance of neighborhoods is starker than one population moving in while another moves out. Houses, businesses and even people have vanished from parts of the city and nothing has replaced them. I hoped to capture what it felt like to be aware of the dynamic as a resident of such a community."

The layers of the book make it stand out from the others I have read recently, but this is not a perfect novel. I wished that the Turner family were smaller so that we could learn about each sibling in equal measure. It was also difficult for me to jump through time with the characters, especially in the beginning when I was having trouble keeping everyone straight. It took a while for me to invest in these characters, and this is a very character-driven story. But still, this is a very strong first novel, and I can only imagine how fantastic this author’s books will be as her career develops.

I grew up in the Detroit area and have a keen fascination with its transformation(s). I’m sure that curiosity and familiarity is part of what drew me to the book. Though it has been more than twenty-five years since I called Detroit my home, the internet keeps me watching -- especially through stories of regeneration. Here’s a link to a list of books about or set in Detroit. And here’s a link to King Books, which is a truly fascinating bookstore (in its size, scope, and general weirdness).

Speaking of the internet, here’s a great interview with Flournoy from the Kirkus Review.