Links of Interest July 15, 2011

  • NPR’s list of new book releases for this fall.  I’m very excited for Blue Nights and The Marriage Plot.
  • A hidden bookstore in New York City.  Though the “shop” looks temptingly chock-full of interesting, worn books — and even comes complete with the smell of pipe tobacco (an aroma that brings me back to my childhood) — the idea of a secret bookstore saddens me.  It’s very Fahrenheit 451. Bookstores should be on every street corner, public and accessible, with affordable rent for the owner.  What kind of city is this that we are running the bookshops underground?
  • Happy Birthday to Winnie the Pooh, who turns 90 this year!  The New York Public Library will celebrate his birthday on August 20th.  I’d like to take my sons to visit the original Pooh figurines when they get a little older.
  • “After all, one can’t write with abandon if one is worrying about the consequences. And to have children is to always, always worry about the consequences.”  An interesting essay by Dani Shapiro on motherhood and writing.
  • Design Mom is running a fabulous giveaway for the blog’s 5 year anniversary — a library of 50 amazing children’s picture books!  Even if you don’t win the giveaway, the list of books she includes in the collection is a good reference for books to add to your own child’s shelves.
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Books I was supposed to like…but didn’t

I hesitate to give negative reviews.  I often choose books because they have good buzz, and supposedly a lot of bookish people out there liked it.  Then, when I read the book and have only a lukewarm reaction, I wonder if I’m missing something.  Did I completely overlook the magnificence of the novel in my haste to read it while the kids are napping?  Am I too distracted with potty training and crying babies to appreciate the quality of a book? Has motherhood completely fried my brain and eviscerated my good judgment?  Further, as a writer myself, I don’t want to criticize.  I have no real qualifications to critique books other than that I’ve been reading voraciously for some thirty-odd years and I studied literature in college.  But, try as I might, some books just don’t move me the same way they seem to have moved other readers out there.

The first novel I’ve read recently that I wasn’t particularly crazy about was Swamplandia! by Karen Russell.  I had, of course, heard of Russell, since she is one of the 20 up-and-coming authors under the age of 40 as selected by the New Yorker, and I usually trust their taste.  So I picked up Swamplandia! expecting to be blown away.  However, I struggled through it.  Everything about it was odd to me.  The novel takes place on a swamp island in Florida, inhabited only by the Bigtree family (Chief and his kids Kiwi, Osceola, and the narrator and youngest daughter, Ava) and their alligator wrestling theme park.  I have no point of reference for this environment.  When reading fiction, that shouldn’t matter, since the prose should evoke even unfamiliar surroundings, but I simply could not get a picture in my mind of Swamplandia.  Furthermore, I couldn’t get behind the characters.  I’m not the type of reader who minds imperfect characters.  In fact, I prefer them that way since they are more interesting and complex if they are flawed.  But I often found myself thinking about each and every main character in this book, “What are you thinking?”  For instance, Chief Bigtree, leaving his children behind for weeks without even checking on them once; Osceola, communing with ghosts; Kiwi, who is completely socially challenged, and never thinking to check in on his family even though he continually gets a busy signal when trying to phone them; and Ava, not knowing better than accompany a weird stranger out into the wilds of the swamp.  I guess there’s also supposed to be some magical realism at work here, with lots of ghosts inhabiting the lives of the Bigtree family, but it didn’t work for me.  It wasn’t magical when Ossie fell in love with a ghost.  It was confusing.  Sure, the Bigtree children were almost completely isolated from regular society, but I felt like a regular teenager would have simply run away to the mainland to real people, rather than imagine a ghost boyfriend, like some sort of imaginary friend of a preschooler.

The second novel that didn’t quite work for me was The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown.  Though I didn’t love the book, I did like it.  It was perfectly enjoyable.  The Shakespeare references were cute (the father of the three “weird sisters” is an eminent Shakespeare scholar), and the bookish habits of the sisters were endearing.  However, I wanted something more in the character development of the sisters.  They became caricatures of themselves.  Rose is the uptight sister!  Bean is the slutty sister!  Cordy is the free spirit sister!  And sure, the sisters change as the book progresses, but we can see the changes a mile away.  Will Rose end up with her true love, Jonathan, even if it means leaving her parents and her beloved midwestern hometown?  Of course.  Will Bean change her loose, city slicker ways and reform herself?  Certainly.  Will Cordy settle down once she has the baby?  Yep!  I would have liked to see something bad happen to the ladies.  Perhaps that is just evil of me, but even in fiction, I don’t believe that everything should resolve perfectly.  In real life, Rose wouldn’t have had the guts to leave the comforts of home, Bean would have continued her ill-advised affair with a married man and wreaked havoc in their tiny community (though I was gratified she didn’t enter into a relationship with the Episcopalian priest), and Cordy probably wouldn’t have had the baby.  However imperfect, The Weird Sisters is readable, and would make for a decent beach read during these hot summer months.

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Links of Interest

  • Books by Richard Scarry, a favorite author in our house, have been changed in modern editions to reflect more equitable gender roles.
  • Favorite novels of the writers of the New York Times Magazine.  Each writer polled listed their top five favorite fiction books of all time, and Lolita won as overall favorite.  My top five are:  Jane Eyre, Middlemarch, Bleak House, Winter’s Tale, and I’m still deciding on the last one.  So hard to narrow it down!  [via The Sixth Floor]
  • One Story Blog‘s Top Ten Short Stories of all time, plus the long list.  I’d like to work my way through these.
  • “A library is a good place to go when you feel unhappy, for there, in a book, you may find encouragement and comfort. A library is a good place to go when you feel bewildered or undecided, for there, in a book, you may have your question answered.”  Upon the opening of a library in Troy, Michigan, the librarian solicited letters from famous authors that explained to the young patrons why books are so important.  E.B. White, quoted above, penned my favorite letter of the bunch.  [via Letters of Note]

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Our New Little Reader

Apologies for the radio silence on this blog, but I have a pretty good reason for not writing lately.  We welcomed our newest little reader into the family:

He’s a great baby, but unfortunately between him and his brother, I have very little time for reading.  So posts are likely to be sporadic for a while, but I hope to get back into the swing of things in a few months.  In the meantime, I will be building up my TBR queue over on Goodreads and mainly skimming completely trashy books because that’s all my sleep deprived brain can handle!  Happy reading to all.

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The TMN Tournament of Books Has Begun!

As I have mentioned previously, I am geekily excited for The 2011 Tournament of Books by The Morning News.  This week, the tourney starts.  I have proudly read eight (plus part of a ninth) of the sixteen books in the tournment.  These include the six I listed here plus Bad Marie (which I reviewed here) and Bloodroot.  I am currently in the middle of reading Skippy Dies.

Looking over the brackets, I really cannot predict which book might win the overall competition.  There is still too much I haven’t read in order to make an educated guess.  However, there are two Opening Round lineups in which I’ve read both the books competing against one another: March 9, which is Room versus Bad Marie, and March 17, which is The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake versus Bloodroot.  I’ll also throw in March 11, which is A Visit From the Good Squad versus Skippy Dies (25% completed as of this writing).  I will hazard predictions on these pairs.

3/9:  Room versus Bad Marie

This is a tough one.  Both of these books feature young children: Jack, the young boy who narrates Room, and Caitlin, the young girl Marie cares for in Bad Marie.  Both novels are also about women making the best of bad situations: the mother in Room, who creates a rich life for her small child in the confines of one small room in which they are imprisoned; and Marie, who has spent time in prison and now, without many options, has found herself in a dead end job as a nanny for her wealthy and successful childhood friend.  The similarities end there.  The mother in Room is a highly sympathetic character, having demonstated ingenuity and courage in the face of a terrible situation.  Marie is not at all sympathetic, having made numerous poor choices in her life, but she never fails to be interesting.  The choice between these two books is difficult for me because Bad Marie happens to come across as a bit more sophisticated, with its European adventures and sexual exploits; but the voice in Room comes across as much more unique, given that the narrator is just a five year old boy, and yet we are totally captivated with his story.  Though it is close, I choose Room as the winner due to the distinctive narration, and for Donoghue’s skill in capturing Jack’s voice.

3/11:  A Visit From the Goon Squad versus Skippy Dies

I have professed my love for A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, and I would love for it to win the tournament.  However, it has some stiff competition from Skippy Dies.  Though I haven’t finished the book, I am thoroughly enjoying it thus far.  It is smart and sharp, shifts voices in between chapters with authenticity and ease, and has left me wanting to read more to find out what’s troubling Skippy.  It does, however, have its faults.  I’m finding it a bit macho (which makes sense, since it takes place at a testosterone-charged all-boys school), and I drift off a bit when Ruprecht is going on about his various theories of the universe.  Otherwise, I believe this is going to be another close one, and is really going to depend on the tastes of the judge.  However, were I judging, I would pick Goon Squad.  Nonetheless, I would be happy to see either of these books reemerge in the Zombie round.

3/17:  The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake versus Bloodroot

This is an easy choice for me.  The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake was not a favorite of mine.  It was perfectly fine, but as I have mentioned before, I just didn’t fall for its magical realism.  I recently finished Bloodroot, and I certainly enjoyed it more than Lemon Cake.  Bloodroot also utilized mystical powers (sort of healing powers/mountain mama/herbs and magick/family curses type of stuff), but you didn’t have to fall for them in order to enjoy the book.  The novel was grounded in the gritty everyday lives of an Appalachian family over the generations, told from different perspectives of various family members and friends, young and old.  I like that Bloodroot seems a bit different than the other books in the tournament: it is a domestic drama, it doesn’t really delve into politics, doesn’t really have a message, it is a rural novel, and it is woman centered.  I wouldn’t go so far as to say it should win the tournament, but I do hope Bloodroot prevails in this round.

I will be watching over the next month to see which book wins, and perhaps I’ll chime in here from time to time to comment on the tournament.  In the meantime, I’ll be trying to finish Skippy Dies.

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Review: Bad Marie by Marcy Dermansky

We all read through the lens of our own unique experiences, informed by our upbringings, our travels, our cultures, our genders, our emotions, etc.  Though this is inescapable, I do like to think of myself as a “human” reader first rather than a “mom” reader (despite the name of this blog) — first, because I am many things other than a mom; and second, because I would guess that books marketed towards a stereotypical “mom” demographic are not particularly interesting to me.  Nonetheless, I sometimes find that my mom lens really affects my judgment of the novels I read, for better or worse.  The first time I noticed this was when I read The Road by Cormac McCarthy.  I was hugely pregnant with my first child, and though I could intellectually appreciate that the book was well done, I could barely stand to read it.  My heart ached for the poor boy in the novel, and I couldn’t imagine having to put my own child though the trials that the boy in The Road had to endure.

I found that I had a similar sort of reaction to Bad Marie by Marcy Dermansky.  Certainly the child in this novel, two-year old Caitlin, isn’t subject to the same post-apocalyptic tortures as the boy in The Road.  Nonetheless, I couldn’t help but cringe at Marie’s treatment of Caitlin, which made it difficult for me to enjoy this novel as a whole.  Interestingly, my copy of the book contains a short section at the end entitled “About the Author,” where Dermansky explains some of her motivations for writing Bad Marie.  She notes that she did not have a child when she wrote the book, but she does now.  “Now that I am a mother, I wonder if [sic] would write the same book.  It’s impossible to say,” she muses.  I think it is possible, since Dermansky so fully inhabits Marie’s psyche, but (I’m guessing here) it might have been more difficult for Dermansky post-motherhood to have a child involved in Marie’s wrongdoings.  However, Bad Marie would not have packed the same punch without Caitlin along as baggage.

The eponymous protagonist of this novel has recently been released from prison after a six-year sentence for acting as an accessory to a bank robbery committed by her now deceased ex-boyfriend (he killed himself in prison).   Marie has been hired by an old childhood friend, Ellen, as a nanny.  Marie enjoys the nanny gig.  Her charge, Caitlin, “was bossy, but that suited Marie fine.  Marie often felt herself in need of a leader.”  Marie seems to enjoy the slow pace of a two-year old’s life, as she and Caitlin visit Manhattan parks, partake of Ellen’s fully stocked refrigerator, and take long baths together (while Marie swills whiskey, no less).  This arrangement quickly unravels, as Ellen and her husband, the French author Benoit Doniel, arrive home one evening to find the pleasantly buzzed and naked Marie asleep in the bathtub with their young daughter.

At this point, most mothers would have fired Marie on the spot and thrown her out of the house, but not Ellen.  Ellen and Marie have a complicated history together.  Ellen grew up rich, Marie poor, but Ellen’s family tried to help out young Marie whenever possible.   Marie enjoyed this largesse, but never felt it was enough.  Perhaps this is why she cavalierly slept with Ellen’s high school boyfriend, Harry.  Years later, when Marie showed up on Ellen’s doorstep fresh out of prison, it seems that Ellen could not resist lording her privilege in Marie’s face.  Even upon discovering Marie’s bathtub transgression, she cannot let go of her need to use benevolence to condescend to her wayward friend, much to the detriment of Caitlin. Ellen gives Marie a week before she has to leave.

This is a huge miscalculation on Ellen’s part, besides for the obvious reason that Marie cannot be trusted with children.  Ellen’s husband, upon observing the naked and nubile Marie in the bath, has taken a sudden interest in his soon-to-be-fired nanny.  Marie has a covert interest in Benoit as well.  In prison, she read and re-read Benoit’s novel, Virginie at Sea, and loved it.  She strongly identified with Virginie, a suicidal girl who falls in love with a sea lion.  Marie simply could not believe her good fortune that her childhood friend happened to marry the author of her favorite book.  Accordingly, her next step is to seduce Ellen’s husband before her last week as Caitlin’s nanny expires.

Marie finds Benoit quite amenable to her advances, and together the two leave Ellen and travel to Paris, Caitlin in tow.  Marie quickly discovers that Benoit is not a stand-up guy (as if leaving his wife for his nanny didn’t already indicate this). On the flight to Paris, he runs into an old lover, Lili Gaudet, and drags Marie and Caitlin to Lili’s apartment.  He then proceeds begin relations with Lili right in front of Marie.  Marie tries to ignore these enormous red flags and enjoy simply being in Paris, but the situation continues to deteriorate.  Ellen is hot on their trail, there’s a warrant out for Marie’s arrest, Benoit has no money, and Caitlin is proving to be less agreeable than Marie had hoped.  Most importantly, perhaps, a sudden revelation by Benoit concerning Virginie at Sea persuades Marie to abandon Paris altogether.  Marie and Caitlin travel to the South of France, and then to Mexico, embarking on more misadventures and near-disasters before settling in comfortably for a shared bath in a suite at a posh Mexican resort paid for by a stolen credit card.

Bad Marie reminds me a bit of Madame Bovary, as both concern the sexual adventures of bored women trapped by their unfortunate circumstances.  Both Marie and Emma desire freedom and believe they deserve the finer things in life.  Both women are terrible with children and both attempt suicide (though Marie is unsuccessful).  Both stories take place primarily in France.  Emma Bovary is perhaps a bit more crafty and ambitious, having to plan ahead and expend more effort to push forward her love affairs, whereas Marie simply seems stumble along without a plan, doing whatever suits her at the moment.  Nonetheless, both are hedonists, devoted mainly to their own creature comforts.

Though these Bovary-like traits make Marie interesting as a character, it makes her a cringe-worthy caretaker.  On one hand, like Ellen, I can envy Marie.  She is beautiful and does whatever she feels like doing, whenever she wants to do it, without thought of consequences.  Mothers do not often get to escape the burdens of responsibility, but Marie does not let Caitlin get in the way of her own wants and needs.  Perhaps this is because Caitlin is not her own child, but I doubt Marie would act much differently with her own flesh and blood.  Thankfully, Caitlin survives Marie’s care unscathed, but I think this is because, outside of the sex and the booze, Marie and Caitlin’s needs (food, baths, a comfortable place to sleep, entertainment) are remarkably similar.  Marie is hardly more than a child herself.

Somehow, though, I cannot feel sorry for Bad Marie.  The scene on the Mexican beach finally did me in.  Up until that point, Marie had kept Caitlin in relatively good health and spirits, despite kidnapping her and generally providing her with lackadaisical care.  However, she feels out of options at this point and moreover, Caitlin is not being very nice to her.  The child, of course, wants her mommy.  Marie can’t understand this, having only been rejected by the mother figures in her life.  “Your mother is never going to leave the office.  She isn’t,” Marie tells Caitlin.  Then she abandons Caitlin on the beach and tries to drown herself in the ocean.  Instead of feeling despondent for Marie, I was horrified that she would leave a two-year old that she had stolen away from her parents to suddenly fend for herself.  I read on only to make sure Caitlin would be alright.  Marie, I knew, would be perfectly fine.

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Momreads is Here for Women Readers & Writers (and their friends and supporters)

VIDA recently released “The Count 2010,” which sets forth the number of women reviewers at certain magazines and journals (like The Atlantic and The New Yorker), and also the numbers of women writers reviewed by these magazines.  The results, displayed in a series of pie charts, are disheartening but ultimately not surprising.  These publications have far more male reviewers than female reviewers, and they review far more male writing than female writing.

I started this blog a few months ago with no conscious feminist mission; I just wanted a record of what I have read and of my own thoughts on those books.  But as I thought over my reading choices, I realized that perhaps I can help promote women’s writing in my own small way.  For example, I have reviewed the following adult books:

You might notice a trend here:  of the five adult books I have reviewed, four are by women.  Moreover, of my personal Top Ten Books of 2010, six of the ten books  were written by women.  And further, I don’t review all the books I actually read, and yet it turns out that many more of my recent reading selections, like Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand or Just Kids by Patti Smith or A Map of True Places by Brunonia Barry, are written by women.

For some reason, unlike many others, I am clearly drawn to women’s writing and I am interested in what women have to say.  Now, I certainly can’t claim that my humble and few reviews are anywhere near as sophisticated or influential as those appearing in Granta or the New York Review of Books.  However, I do think I can use this blog as a platform of sorts.  I’m a woman who reviews women’s writing.  This is apparently a rarity.  Any little knock I can give to the system is fine by me.  I’d like to show that busy, thinking women appreciate quality writing that reflects their own experiences.  I guess that’s why I named this blog “Momreads” rather than “Personreads.”  It says, hey!  I’m a lady and a mom who, despite being knee-deep in poopy diapers and playdates, likes to read and wants to talk about books.  People like me exist!

This does not mean I am not going to read and review writing by men.  I read what interests me.  If a man writes a book I want to read, I’m going to read it.  Furthermore, I’m not going to read a book just because it is written by a woman.  Nor am I looking to read books marketed specifically towards women and only women; call this chick lit if you like, but I’m just not interested in reading bodice rippers or books about shopping.  I’m looking for solid writing and interesting subject matter.  I’m looking for inspiration for my own writing.

Unfortunately, I do read book reviews (many from the publications studied by VIDA) for ideas on what to read, and since we know these reviews are skewed towards men, I’m afraid I am missing a lot.  There must be so much quality writing out there by women that is totally passing me by.  So please, share your thoughts on good books I should check out, especially those by women; and if you are a female writer, please draw my attention to your underappreciated work of literary fiction.  I’m here to help!

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