Monday, December 12, 2011

Books of 2011, Part 2 - & another giveaway!

The giveaway for this post will be... the wonderful 2008 Newbery winner, Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village by Laura Amy Schlitz, with illustrations by Robert Byrd. Just comment for a chance to win. & yes, you can leave comments on more than one post. Comment on all 11, if you like!

Books of 2011, Nos. 6-10

6. The Wheel on the School, written by Meindert DeJong and illustrated by Maurice Sendak (1954)

Two of my book quests overlapped with the acquisition of The Wheel on the School: to own all of the Newbery winners & to own all books Maurice Sendak wrote &/or illustrated. & I'm glad they did, otherwise I might never have come across this gem. This is an incredibly delightful, unique story about a girl named Lina who wonders why the storks no longer come to Shora, her village in Holland, to nest. Her curiosity sends waves through the village, & soon everyone has joined together in an attempt to get the storks to come back. There are numerous great messages woven though this timeless story: cooperation, friendship, the value of asking questions, the idea that everyone has something to contribute - young, old, rich, poor, tall, short, regardless of physical ability. The longer I think about this book, the more I find to appreciate about it.

Rating: 5/5 stars
Recommended for: Anyone who appreciates a really good story

7. The Secret of Platform 13 by Eva Ibbotson (1994)

I picked up this book after hearing more than once that J. K. Rowling plagiarized from it; it was published three years before Sorcerer's Stone. This claim comes mostly from the fact that both books are about magical portals on train station platforms in London. After that, the theory pretty much falls apart. & what children's fantasy novels don't resemble each other in at least one way? In Platform 13, the portal in the station - which opens onto an Island filled with all manner of fantastical creatures - is only open nine days every nine years. The baby prince of the Island was kidnapped nine years earlier, & now it's up to a wizard, a fairy, an ogre, & a hag to go to London & try to save him. The humor is a little cheesy, the surprises are pretty predictable, the "bad guys" are pretty tame & the suspenseful situations pretty low-risk - but this book is fun, completely enjoyable.

Rating: 4/5 stars
Recommended for: Young fantasy readers, adults who'd like to jump back into a Harry Potter-esque world for a minute

8. A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway (1929)

Oh boy. I'm going to catch some flak for this one. Confession (I think I confessed this last year): I just don't get the fuss about Hemingway. I can't say I haven't tried. I've read The Old Man & the Sea, The Sun Also Rises, & this year, A Farewell to Arms. I found some of his writing really sharp & poignant, but only in spurts. Thoughts of "What a lovely passage" would follow with "Do I seriously have to spend a hundred more pages with these insufferable characters?" I guess that's what my frustration with Hemingway boils down to: the characters. I know he's known for his misogynistic "man's man" protagonists who describe women by nothing more than how they look in a skirt, but I can't get behind that. It's not that I'm offended by it; it just isn't interesting. A guy like that gets old after about a page, & the ditzy child-women he chases get old after less than a page.

In A Farewell to Arms, Frederic Henry is only interesting & dynamic when he's talking about war. In all matters of love - enter sexy nurse Catherine - he is an asshole, & she is a needy, confusing, not-very-intelligent doormat. Neither are thinking, feeling beings. Neither enjoys the other; they are both so damaged that they just need something. & the end? (SPOILER ALERT!) Good god. I saw it coming from 20 miles away, but was hoping against hope that he wouldn't go there. Why, Hemingway? Did you think, "Well, I haven't managed to dredge up any sympathy for these characters yet. I guess I should kill one of them." Or maybe you were just particularly drunk & morose that day. Or maybe you just hate women that much. What a cheap move. That is a Nicholas Sparks move, Hemingway, or as I sometimes like to refer to it, an Upton Sinclair in The Jungle move. When enough awful things happen to miserable people, I stop caring.

I'm just ranting now. I really didn't like this book. I'm starting to wonder why I keep reading his books; suppose I just keep hoping I'll "get it," but I think I've about come to the conclusion that I just don't like Hemingway. Yeah. I said it. & I'll say it again next year when I inevitably will read another of his books.

Rating: 2/5 stars
Recommended for: Manly men? I don't know. Appreciators of flat characters & overrated American lit? I'm just being mean. Some people really love Hemingway & that is just fine with me.

9. On Writing by Stephen King (2000)

How you feel about Stephen King's fiction has literally nothing to do with the usefulness of this book. I've had to say this a number of times to people to whom I've recommended this book, who told me "Stephen King's writing sucks. Why would I take writing advice from him?" It doesn't matter how good or bad you think his writing is (I've only read The Shining, & I loved it), this memoir/writing guide is immensely beneficial for any aspiring writer who needs to learn how to get the job done. It is frank & true. He pulls no punches. In a nutshell, he says: "You want to write a book? Then stop talking about it, get off your ass, & write. & don't stop writing until it's done." Further, don't expect any of it to be easy. It will be tough, you will want to quit, you will encounter a thousand distractions, you might never get published, but keep doing it because you love it, & because you want it that badly. He does include technical advice as well, & it's good stuff. All fairly basic (e.g. cut out useless adverbs), but great advice.

I will never forget his assertion that you can't turn a good writer into a great writer, but you can turn a competent writer into a good writer. Some starry-eyed wannabe writers out there might disagree, but as a cynical person who knows she will never be the next Eudora Welty, it is incredibly helpful for me to keep that statement in mind anytime I write. Always strive to be better, but don't get discouraged by comparing yourself to the greats. & speaking of Eudora Welty, for writing inspiration of a different kind, read her One Writer's Beginnings. It's brilliant.

Rating: 5/5 stars
Recommended for: Any aspiring writer who needs some honest writing advice, & any fan of King's who's curious about his writing process

10. The Tiger Rising by Kate DiCamillo (2001)

Oh, this book... I was kind of hoping it would disappear so I wouldn't have to badmouth Kate DiCamillo, beloved children's book writer by virtually everyone in the industry. I've read three books by her to date:  The Tale of Despereaux (fine, but not Newbery-worthy), The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane (fine also, but elevated to good by the beautiful illustrations by Bagram Ibatoulline), & this one.

The Tiger Rising is one of the most obvious books I've ever read. Twelve-year-old Rob (who has some strange leg disease) & his dad have moved into a run-down motel after the recent death of Rob's mom. Rob befriends a fiesty girl named Sistine. (Yes, as in the chapel.) Both kids are fairly unpopular & angry. There's a big woman named Willie May who's a cleaning lady/prophet, & a tiger in a cage in the woods that the hotel manager gets Rob to feed. Does it sound like too much? Because it is. The symbolism is so blatant & heavy-handed I just kept groaning under the weight of this miniscule, 128-page book. I know I was supposed to feel shock & sadness & perhaps a kind of vindication at the end of the book, but I didn't. I was just glad it was over.  

I know how mean this sounds & I honestly do feel bad for saying it, but this book reads like some overachieving writing exercise out of a very self-important MFA student. & yet, it won a Newbery Honor? I can only guess it's because of DiCamillo's name, though I don't know why any of her books have received the accolades they did. Any big DiCamillo fans out there? If so, I'd really love to hear why you love her work. Like Hemingway, I will keep reading her books, hoping to get it.

Rating: 2/5 stars
Recommended for: Perhaps children coping with grief? Or creative writing students who need a really obvious example of how symbolism works. "So what does the caged tiger represent, class?"

Next time, books 11-15, & another giveaway!

1 comment:

  1. i remember reading a farewell to arms in high school and loving most of it. maybe because it felt like my first great lit adult book. maybe because i thought some of the quotations were really powerful. maybe i was full of crap in high school and should reread it now. who knows, but i have enjoyed hemingway ever since. i really liked the sun also rises (i remember writing down several passages). that one also makes me want to visit pamplona though, so that could have something to do with it. i recently read the old man and the sea and found it just so-so. i don't know how i will fully feel maybe until i read for whom the bell tolls.

    dicamillo is fine, though i have only read the tale of desperaux. i thought it was nice, and appropriate for grade 3 or so. her writing was too obvious for anything past that.

    i like your review posts - keep em comin!