Back to School Reading

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As kids head back into classrooms, they will undoubtedly be given plenty of reading assignments as well as suggestions for educational and wholesome titles to read on their own. But I’d like to recommend some slightly edgier children’s literature that will appeal to kids’ more devilish, irreverent side.

Everyone is familiar with Maurice Sendak’s classic misbehaving kid, Max, in Where the Wild Things Are. But there are plenty of other literary children who give adults – and readers – a run for their money. Even the youngest of preschoolers will appreciate the high jinks of the title character in David Shannon’s David series. Starting with No, David, Shannon portrays a high-spirited toddler who is perpetually getting in trouble. With minimal words, Shannon shows kids that they are loved no matter how exasperating they may be to their parents. Another less than perfect preschooler for young ones to relate to is Kevin Henckes’ Lilly of Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse fame. In a series of picture books, Lilly learns about boundaries and how to deal with sibling rivalry.

But the queen of high-maintenance children has to be the irrepressible piglet Olivia, the creation of artist Ian Falconer. Olivia’s mother is continually sighing to her eldest, “You wear me out” while Olivia tries the patience of not only her parents but her beleaguered teacher. Being the mother of an Olivia myself, I’ve really appreciated reading about the challenges of her precocious literary doppelgänger.

Slightly older children will love the Miss Nelson books by Harry Allard. In Miss Nelson Is Back, the sweet Miss Nelson’s absence inspires her students to act up – until her alter ego, Viola Swamp, shows up. “The Swamp” also makes an appearance in Allard’s other Miss Nelson books, always as the perfect antidote to naughty behavior.

School age kids also have plenty of inappropriately funny literature to choose from. One of my son’s favorites was the Captain Underpants series by Dav Pilkey. Pilkey is a seriously underrated children’s author because he writes comic books about two best friends making their way through elementary school while being the bane of their principal’s existence. Of course, the presence of a superhero in “tighty whities” doesn’t help (or hurt!).

Another author who creates school-themed havoc in his books is Louis Sachar with his Wayside School series. Crazy antics and strange teachers abound in this school that extends vertically rather than horizontally. Sachar has also written numerous books for middle school children, most notably the Newberry- and National Book Award-winning Holes, in which troubled kids get sent to an ominous place called Camp Green Lake.

For generations, some of the best children’s authors have recognized that there is a dark side to the world of childhood. From violence-tinged nursery rhymes to the original very Grimm fairy tales, children’s literature gives voice to many childhood issues and fears. A master of that kind of literature was the great Roald Dahl, whose Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was sanitized in the Seventies with the movie Willy Wonka. Dahl’s young characters are relentlessly plagued by mean or downright evil adults, even witches. Their heroic efforts to escape are a regular theme of his works.

More recently, Lemony Snicket (pseudonym of writer Daniel Handler) has created a world of peril for the Baudelaire orphans, rich children whose guardian, Count Olaf, constantly schemes to get his hands on their inheritance. And of course, it goes without saying that the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling are destined to become classics.

Sure, there are many inspiring works about good and wholesome children for our kids to read, among them Heidi, Anne of Green Gables, The Secret Garden, and the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. But for a change of pace, these slightly more jaundiced or sometimes harrowing views of childhood can be fun to explore. And in their own ways, they can teach kids valuable life lessons.

 

 

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Class Act

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I just finished the hilarious Kevin Kwan trilogy that began with Crazy Rich Asians and ended with Rich People Problems. In the satirical series, all kinds of filthy rich people jockey for social standing and look down their noses at others who might have billions but lack class.

There are the old money Singaporeans who disdain vulgar displays of wealth such as gaudy jewels, Rolls Royces, or opulent ball gowns. This old guard is considered the creme de la creme of society. Then there are the nouveau riche billionaires from mainland China, some of whom don’t care at all what others think of them while others spend billions of dollars searching for acceptance into the upper stratosphere.

Class consciousness has been part of all societies for millennia, even the so-called egalitarian country in which I reside, the United States. Having money is part of that equation, but how one acts in public, one’s manners, and one’s taste in everything from fashion to art to wine often determine one’s social standing.

The Crazy Rich Asians trilogy humorously skewers social climbers whose atrocious behavior belies their desire to be thought well of in society. Their religious and philanthropic activities are not genuine but come from an effort to position themselves among the “right” sorts of people. Without giving away any spoilers, I enjoyed the comeuppance many of these phony strivers receive by the end of Rich People Problems.

In his novels, though, Kwan shows that real class has no socio-economic boundaries. His main characters, Rachel Chu and Nicholas Young, are level-headed, intelligent, warm, and caring people whose views of others and themselves stem not from how much money or possessions someone has, but from how that person treats others. Rachel, the daughter of a single mother, has never known great wealth, yet she is rich in family and relationships that sustain her. Nick, born into the utmost wealth and privilege, is mystified when his family turns up their nose at his “common” girlfriend, Rachel. To Nick, Rachel has far more class than most of his well-bred, English-educated family will ever have.

Like other great satires, Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians and its sequels expose the hypocrisy behind people’s efforts to think of themselves as better than others. He proves that true class cannot be bought or bred into us, but that it comes from an intelligent and open-hearted effort to view individuals according to their innermost merits, not their stock portfolio or the family into which they were born.

 

Summer Reading List

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With the waning of the school year and the lengthening of days comes a desire to relax and destress. What better way to do so than with a good book? Here are some recommendations for your 2017 summer reading list.

  1. The Crazy Rich Asians trilogy by Kevin Kwan. Kwan writes hilariously about the exploits of the very rich in Singapore and mainland China. His first novel, Crazy Rich Asians, exploded on the scene in 2013 and spawned the equally brilliant continuation of the series, China Rich Girlfriend and Rich People Problems, the latter of which just came out in time for my own beach reading. So do start the trilogy before Crazy Rich Asians, the movie, comes out.
  2. The Bruno, Chief of Police series. Author Martin Walker is a serious man. But his mystery novels about the Perigord region in France are delightful excursions into the wine, cuisine, and idiosyncrasies of small town France – all with a mystery thrown in to keep the plot humming.
  3. The Cormoran Strike thrillers by Robert Galbraith, aka J.K. Rowling. When Rowling published The Cuckoo’s Calling under a pseudonym in 2013, her cover was blown and the novel became an instant best seller. But deservedly so. Her deeply flawed but somehow lovable detective Strike and his assistant Robin solve troubling and sometimes gruesome murders in The Cuckoo’s Calling and subsequent thrillers The Silkworm and Career of Evil. If you are looking for Harry Potteresque fantasy, these are not for you. But for heart pounding thrills and intriguing characters, you can’t go wrong with this series.

While I love book series, there are also some great stand alone novels to consider adding to your list.

4. Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding. My husband complained that I laughed out loud too frequently while reading this novel during a beach vacation. Bridget’s haplessness, terrible track record with men, and general knack for embarrassing herself help make her an endearingly flawed character any modern woman can relate to.

5. The Saving Graces by Patricia Gaffney. I picked this book up off of my sister’s coffee table some years ago and could not put it down. It’s a story of female friendship and the hardships such friends can help us get through.

6. Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple. Semple lampoons upper middle class life in Seattle, Washington, as well as the corporate culture of Microsoft, while at the same time giving us an eccentric but sympathetic middle-aged character in Bernadette, an artist and mother who is coming apart at the seams. Semple has written a newer novel that I have not yet read titled Today Will Be Different. Indeed.

Lest readers think these works lean toward women-only interests, I must also reiterate my fondness for all things Harlan Coben. Start with Deal Breaker, and make your way through the entire Myron Bolitar oeuvre in one summer.

And for male middle-aged angst, look no further than the novels of Jim Kokoris. My favorite is still his very first novel, The Rich Part of Life, about a widower and Civil War re-enactor who wins the lottery.

So get thee to a bookstore or a library and pick up some fun summer reading. It’s the perfect escape.

Race Relations Could Use “Help”

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The other day I turned on my television and saw that the movie The Help was on. Abandoning my chores and plans for the morning, I sat down and sank into this compelling drama about race in Jackson, Mississippi, in the 1960s.

The movie is based upon Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling novel of the same name, and it chronicles a young white female journalist’s attempt to tell the story of race relations from the perspective of the town’s black maids. Some reviewers criticized the conceit of yet another white character being the “savior” of blacks. Those critics missed the point of The Help.

During the course of interviewing the black character Aibileen, the journalist, nicknamed Skeeter, comes to see the plight of the people who serve her and the other whites in town through one black woman’s eyes. Herself a misfit in a world of strictly proscribed roles for women of any color, Skeeter is first horrified, then determined, not only to tell the story of  the black maids around her, but also to find out the truth about her beloved Constantine, the black nanny who had raised her.

As I watched the story unfold, the many indignities suffered by blacks in the film – separate bathroom facilities, seats on the back of the bus, condescension and threats from their white employers – I had the sense that in many ways we’ve come so far, but in other ways we have a long way to go. In particular, I was struck by how frightened the black characters are about reprisals from whites for standing up for themselves. The entire book Skeeter writes is done under cover of darkness and published anonymously against a backdrop of civil unrest and the murder of black activists. Today this fear plays out in African-American neighborhoods, where young black males are afraid to get on the bad side of a white police officer.

The message of The Help is that the only way to improve race relations is for blacks and whites to know each other, to see each other as fully human and filled with inalienable dignity. The friendship that develops between Skeeter and Aibileen, as well as Aibileen’s sassy friend Minny, is one born of hours sharing food, tea, and stories in Abilene’s kitchen.

Ignorance breeds fear; knowledge brings understanding. Let’s try harder to see things from the other side of the racial divide to bring hope and healing to race relations in America.

 

Penny for Your Thoughts

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The line outside Pfeiffer Hall in downtown Naperville, Illinois, wound around the block. Those queued up, my sister and I among them, excitedly chatted as the line inched forward. What were we all so eagerly standing in line for? A concert? A great sale? A glimpse of an A-list celebrity?

We were all there to see and hear a rock star of the crime novel world: Louise Penny. Penny was making an appearance to launch A Great Reckoning, her latest in a series of best-selling books about Armand Gamache, Chief Inspector of the Sûreté du Québec, and the tiny Canadian hamlet of Three Pines, a fictional town that readers around the world wish they could move to.

A few years ago, another of my sisters had introduced me to the charm of that world by recommending Penny’s first novel Still Life. Like many readers, I was hooked by the other-worldly setting and the carefully drawn characters that inhabited that world. I consumed the subsequent novels in relatively quick succession and now find myself in the position of eagerly awaiting each new book.

To call Louise Penny a mystery writer is to minimize the literary quality of her books. For me, the murder and its solution are almost beside the point. What Penny is really portraying are the secrets of the human heart. All of her novels are about human emotions gone wrong, about integrity and courage, about love and steadfastness in a world gone bad. The characters are not just a bunch of eccentric villagers but well-drawn individuals with their own flaws, yearnings, hopes, and fears.

Last night, the author explained that each book hinges on a few lines of poetry that form the core theme of the work. She talked about the difficulty of becoming a writer and described a bit about her process, all of which I find fascinating as a would-be novelist myself. In person, Penny is as intelligent, funny, charming, and real as I would expect her to be based upon the strong narrative voice in her novels.

Upon returning home from the book launch, my sister and I sat on the couch with a glass of wine and talked about all of Penny’s 11 previous novels, trying to remember which one involved which complex story. We checked out websites to refresh our memories and found that Louise Penny has inspired a Harry Potter-like passion on the part of her avid (if slightly older) fans.

As fall approaches, I can think of nothing cozier than curling up in front of the fire with a strong cup of café au lait or glass of wine and diving into the world of Three Pines and the humble genius of Louise Penny.

Move Over, Gone Girl

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There’s a new girl in town. The Girl on the Train is a riveting new thriller by first time novelist Paula Hawkins.

With alternating points of view, plenty of twists and turns, and the sense that things are not quite what they seem, this Girl bears some resemblance to the blockbuster best seller Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.

The story centers on a lonely woman who peers into the life of a young couple she sees from the train she takes each day to and from her home on the outskirts of London.

Is her interest in these strangers just a way to pass the time, or is it an obsession that will lead to harm?

Reminiscent of a Hitchcock thriller, The Girl on the Train takes the reader into the lives of seemingly ordinary people and asks:

How well do you really know someone?

Be forewarned. Once you pick up this novel, you won’t be able to put it down.

Those Ubiquitous Book Lists

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The internet is filled with lists: top 10 places to retire, 15 life hacks you will love, the 12 worst fashions making a comeback etc. I find these lists kind of interesting, but the ones that bother me a bit are the ones related to books.

Recently on my Facebook news feed, I have seen such lists as 23 Books You Didn’t Read in High School but Actually Should, 32 Books That Will Actually Change your Life, and the 18 Greatest Books Ever Written (or something to that effect). My reaction to all these lists was, Really? On whose say so?Purporting to know the greatest or most life-changing books strikes me as a bit on the arrogant side. Some of the choices seem so arbitrary.

Aside from the fact that people have their distinct preferences and tastes in types of literature, is there a way to determine which books throughout history are the best? When I was teaching at an elite girls’ school in Los Angeles, we in the English department would have disagreements about what works to include in our curriculum. One of the teachers asserted that there are certain “chestnuts” of literature that all students should be required to read. I disagree.

Often this attitude is used to justify a canon of literature that includes only “dead white guys,” so to speak. In the 80s in particular, so-called reformers like Bill Bennett took aim at more inclusive reading lists that featured writers of different colors and ethnicities. They revealed a clear bias in favor of a Eurocentric, Western approach to studying literature. I’m not saying that works like The Scarlet Letter or Plato’s Republic are unimportant. I just think there are so many different works that are rich in meaning and language that it is wrong to narrow our lists into those “chestnuts.”

So how do you judge a book? Not by its cover, certainly. As an example, a best-selling author named Kristin Hannah publishes novels with romantic-looking covers that make the books seem like light fluff, a beach read, if you will. Yet Hannah tackles serious issues, such as an injured pilot returning from Iraq, and detailed historical accounts of such events as the siege of Leningrad. Her books are deep, well-written, and anything but fluff.

I do think there are literary standards one can use to decide whether a book is good. (Hint: Fifty Shades of Grey doesn’t meet these standards.) But a book’s greatness can only really be judged by time. A good example is To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee’s only novel (though as I write this, news has come out that a second novel is to be published after all these years). Generations have loved this deceptively simple tale of a young girl growing up in the South and experiencing the narrow-mindedness and prejudice, along with the moral courage and kindness, that can exist in a small American town.

Still, if TKAM doesn’t float your boat, that doesn’t mean you are a literary heathen. There are numerous “classics” that I, a former English teacher, have no intention of reading. I find Herman Melville’s writing to be hopelessly dull and James Joyce’s to be impenetrable. I don’t think this makes me a philistine.

I guess there’s no harm in this never-ending parade of book lists. At least we’ve got people who spend a lot of time on the internet talking about books – and, I hope, powering down the devices and picking up one of them.