Once upon a time, I was The Smart Kid. I have a good memory and, since regurgitation is a huge part of school success, I was good at school. I was also a really big reader, the stereotypical kid who hid a novel behind a textbook. (How did they always know?) When you read a lot, and also can memorize, you end up picking up on a lot of stuff. I have some nice stories of middle school in between the stories of mean girl bullying (mine and other people’s; it was pretty much across the board where I went). One is that a teacher once threw me the keys to his car when I knew the definition of “somnambulist.” He said, “If anyone knows what THIS word means, I’ll give you my car!” We loved his car, because it was a RABBIT. We had very specific requirements for cars to be cool in eighth grade. The only reason I knew the word was because I’d been reading Dean Koontz’s Strangers, which has a somnambulist in it. I remembered the word being in the book, I got the definition right, I got the keys–even though I did have to give them back later. I did, however, just have to use spellcheck for the spelling of somnambulist. I’m smart, not a genius. I have a good memory, not a great one.
But the other kids thought I was a genius, I guess lacking a real one. Well, maybe this one kid, but he was kind of a jerk about it, and I wasn’t. In French class–memorizing!–I got to give makeup tests outside the classroom so the teacher didn’t have to find another time to do it. Sometimes I helped the kids taking the tests, because learning a new language is hard. Once I got past the memorization part, when I had to UNDERSTAND, I quit taking French, in part–and I only realized this years and years later–because my English grammar was so lacking that I had nothing to connect it to with French. I liked helping people. I still do; that’s why I’m a librarian.
When I got to high school, though, there was always this feeling I was letting people down. Not just my mom, although I was certainly doing that, but my classmates. I was learning to use my smarts to skate through classes with a B- or C+ when I could’ve applied myself and gotten As, but 1) I didn’t realize that because I was so used to thinking of using my smarts as being the most potential I could achieve and 2) I liked reading fiction more than I liked learning. I went to a pretty nice school where almost everyone was headed to college, and most of the kids couldn’t understand why I was wasting my time, why I wasn’t in AP and/or Honors, why I didn’t CARE about school. After all, I was so good at it, and naturally too. So why did I scribble my homework down at the last minute, if I did it at all? Why did I rely on tests to get me through? And, the weirdest part, why did I leave the classroom through the window? Why did I argue with the teachers so much?
I think I confused them when I went from bookworm to rebel. They expected me to stay that one way, and instead I was an administrator’s nightmare and most of my classmates couldn’t figure out how and when that had happened. Most of the teachers liked me, but found me “difficult.” I was a know-it-all, and I knew that the system was stupid. Actually, I still think most of the system is stupid, but at least I’ve got some distance now. I suppose that makes me more authoritative.
Part of it was that I had hit puberty. Acting out the storylines in books was far more interesting than Algebra especially since, like most big readers, I thought I must be a disaster at math. (As an adult, I realize that my math skills are average, maybe slightly better than that. I did well in my college math courses, but some of that was my memory–I actually remembered knowing all this stuff, even though I had been out of school for a decade! Go, my brain!) Part of it was that I had a lot in common with my mother, who was a feminist in a time when feminist was a thing you were by default, and something you were because you were passed over for promotion again and watched the under-qualified and incompetent guy get the job instead and you lived the unfairness of it. My mother was big on righting wrongs, and school was full of wrongs. It started when I little and got pneumonia right before winter break, as I would end up getting pneumonia almost every year of my life until high school. I asked to see the nurse, and the substitute teacher said, “You just have cabin fever.” I was five or six. I didn’t know what cabin fever was, but I had an idea from her tone that it was something stupid, like believing in unicorns. When my mother took me to the doctor and–surprise!–I had pneumonia, so she called the school and told them what a jerk the sub had been. I was a few days late back from vacation–also common, since I was sick a lot–and my mother told them my doctor explicitly said that I couldn’t go out for recess. It was too cold and I was too likely to relapse. Sooooo they sent me outside the first day. I told her after school, and she called again. The next day they put me next to the main doors, so every time someone walked in or out for lunch or to drop off something for their kid or to be dropped off after a morning doctor’s appointment, I got the whoosh of cold air. My mother didn’t like that either. On the third day, I was put in a conference room. It was pretty lonely in there.
Then we had more health-related nonsense in my next elementary school. As a kid, my reaction to foods with a lot of sodium was to feel feverish. But I had no sign of a fever, so almost every day, I’d have my plastic Thermos of Lipton soup, and almost every afternoon, I’d feel like I had a fever. Since fevers usually meant pneumonia, bronchitis, or something along those lines, I went to the nurse. She was sure I was faking it. My mother, knowing I was never a faker, finally figured this one out with the help of my doctor. I had to wait until after school to have my soup.
I never really did warm to any school nurse until my daughter reached high school. The less said about my high school nurses, the better, but I will never forget their fake-sympathy after two years of being jerks to me. Ugh. If there was one thing I hated more than a broken system that no one seemed to be willing to fix, it was phonies. (And yet I still hated Holden Caulfield. Go figure.)
There were a lot of other stories I could relate but I think you can sort of see how I got to the point where I didn’t like this system and I wanted it and the people involved in it to change, although I liked the social aspects of school and I did like learning most of the time. I just preferred to learn by picking stuff up from fiction. In books, as in life, teachers could be awesome or suspect, so my favorite books where school plays a big part aren’t the ones where a teacher helps a down-and-out class reach their potential, or someone puts on an amazing school play, or other positive things (although I read and enjoyed those too especially, for a while, novelizations of “teacher” movies I wouldn’t see for years, like Stand & Deliver and Dead Poets’ Society). My favorites were the ones where teachers can be unfair, administrators are the enemy, and sometimes things just don’t make any sense.
Sideways Stories from Wayside School by Louis Sachar is an exercise in surrealism. The school is built up instead of out, there’s a missing floor, and I think one of the students is actually a dead fish. But the book captures that out-of-control, we-run-the-madhouse feel of children trapped in a system they can’t understand, because the system makes no sense.
Wow, as an adult, I’m seeing a lot in this book I never have before.
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle pits heroine Meg against the administrator Mr. Jenkins, a dandruffy, unhappy man who didn’t understand Meg and didn’t want to try. Later, I would acquire a copy of The Wind in the Door, where Mr. Jenkins plays a larger role, gets to know the children, and Meg must learn to love him for his faults, and I felt cheated. But it was probably the right thing to write. Mr. Jenkins gets to be a person too.
The Cat Ate My Gymsuit by Paula Danziger gave us the wonderful Ms. Finney, and the awful parents and administrators who don’t like her unorthodox teaching methods, despite how well they work. This book broke my heart, both for Ms. Finney’s story and the main character, Marcie, dealing with her weight and her unhappy home life.
Finally, there’s Dicey’s Song by Cynthia Voigt. The second Dicey book in the Tillerman Cycle, this one features an unusual kid trying to navigate a normal life and failing miserably. She’s accused by one teacher of plagiarizing and fails an assignment from a home ec teacher even though her answers about living within a budget are correct–she knows because she fed her siblings after her mother abandoned them. But Dicey’s pride gets in the way of her being able to articulate the unfairness of these situations. At least in the first one, we have Dicey’s friend Mina to speak for her, in a wonderful scene that made me want to literally stand up and cheer. It still does. My inner child still rails at school and teacher unfairness, it seems.
Later, I would add Annie on My Mind to this list, a YA book by Nancy Garden about a lesbian struggling with a conservative administration, and of course there’s that scene in Anne of Green Gables where her teacher refuses to spell her name with an E! Oh, and the Evil Principal from the Losing Christina series! It’s so funny that I almost always read about teachers being the bad guys, and yet until I was in high school, I wanted to be a teacher myself. I guess I liked the challenge.
I’m working in multiple directions to make sure I don’t forget too much about books by the time I post them, like I’ve been doing lately.
It could work!
First I read Linger, the second book in Maggie Stiefvater’s The Wolves of Mercy Falls series. I got the “companion” book/4th book? at BEA, and I’ve heard so many good things about her writing. This series and her Raven Boys books. So I picked up the first two books. The problem was, they stunk. No, I mean, they actually smelled, leading me to write this post. The second wasn’t as bad as the first, thankfully, so I read it a bit quicker. It’s not as intense as the first book, and that’s okay with me, but I didn’t feel like it was filled with filler, either, which is nice. The books are progressing, adding interesting characters, and the end–yeah, that hurt. I usually find that when an author writes multiple perspectives, you still see everyone the same, but like Richelle Mead in Gameboard of the Gods, how the characters see each other skews how we see them. Grace narrating is not the same as Sam narrating and telling us about Grace. I’ll discuss the series’s premise when I talk about the first book soon, but I think it’s enough to say here that the second book is good on its own, and makes me excited for the third book.
Then I tried reading Larry Niven’s Ringworld for my speculative fiction book club. That did not happen. I made it until the rape joke around page 144 and I couldn’t take it anymore. As I’ve said before, rape references don’t usually bother me, but it was just the icing on the cake for me quitting this book–and I don’t like cake. I can handle sexism, and expect it from a book that was published in 1970. I don’t mind the whole woman-child thing that was popular back then, or the focus on barely-legal girls that shows up with several authors. I don’t even mind that the only woman in the book to the point that I read, Teela, was a giggling moron who brought nothing to the excursion but “luck.” I don’t mind technobabble. But put all these together with an extremely high level of technobabble, throw in a casual rape joke from the lead, and I’m out.
Finally, I read The Storied Life of AJ Fikry for another of my book clubs. The best word to describe it is charming. It’s Gabrielle Zevin’s little book of book-love, and I was with her for every page, through every little turn and big turn and cliche she turned on her head and cliche that was so well done that didn’t feel like a cliche anymore. AJ Fikry is a crabby, snobby bookstore owner whose curmudgeony attitude would make you guess his age at twice what it is. In another author’s hands, he’d be quirky for the sake of quirky, as would all the other characters, but he never falls down that pit. When bad things happen to him, you feel bad. When good things happen to him, you feel good. This is a quick, short read that’s structured like a short story in many ways, and its literary references sneak up on you. It was given the thumbs-up by every person in the book club. I’m excited to see what her young adult books are like, if this is her adult offering.
Next up: either March or August, who knows?
I realize that I’ve got a lot of book posting to do, but for the past couple years I’ve been really getting into board games and board game groups. My board game group back home got me through my husband being in boot camp, and I miss the friends I made there all the time. I <3 you guys! But I’ve got a good group going on here too. I <3 you guys!
In this time, I’ve played party games and “adult” games, word games and strategy games. I thought I’d use the nights where I’m just not up for a big review post and talk about a game I like. I’m using the BoardGameGeek.com definition for board game, which also includes card-based games like the one I’m about to discuss.
I’m going to start with a word game because that seems the most appropriate for this blog.
Quiddler is basically word rummy. You play progressive hands, 3 cards to 10, and make words and acquire points. What I really like about it is that it’s a word game for people who aren’t great spellers, because you can use short words as well as long without taking a penalty. In fact, you can even gain a bonus for it, as “longest word” and “most words” both net you an extra ten points. So even little guys just learning their words can potentially do well in the game. (For emerging readers, I would suggest maybe playing with house rules like “two- and three-letter words only” or something like that.)
The cards themselves are lovely, with the font reminiscent of the Book of Kells, and printed on each is a letter or digraph and its point value. You use the cards to make words of two or more letters, and when you can use every card you go “out” by placing your cards face up on the table. Even if you end up with the cards QU, Q, and Z for your first hand, it’s not a big deal, because your score can never go in the negatives; you just take zero points for the round. Like rummy (whichever rummy; I can’t remember which is which after all these years), you may draw the top card of the deck or discard pile, and must discard one of your own. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought I was out, but then realized I had to discard. Oops.
For word lovers, the game can be very quick. After years of playing Scrabble with my friends online and off, I can pretty much take any small combination and immediately tear them down into parts. Not everyone can do this, though, and they play a bit slower. When we play Quiddler, we always help each other out no matter who’s in the lead.
To me, Quiddler will always remind me of the weekend of my wedding. We had such a great time playing it during the downtime between events.
I highly recommend the game for pretty much everyone. I’ve never met anyone who actively disliked it, and I’ve met several people who want to play nothing else after they’ve been introduced to it.
Ooh, look at me, making it to another month.
Five books in a week! What is this craziness?
First I read True Blood: Shake for Me, which I couldn’t figure out the time period, then probably spoiled myself, but I can’t even remember because it’s been so long, so why am I reading this comic book anyway? One story was better than the other, and at this point I couldn’t tell you which was which. Maybe the second story was a bit confusing? I think that’s what it was. I kind of miss watching True Blood, but not enough to find someone with the DVDs. So.
Next was Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures by Kate “I don’t understand your hair” DiCamillo. (I don’t understand her hair, okay? I can’t tell if it’s Southern big and white-blonde or gray or what. Maybe she’s hedging her bets? I have no idea what’s going on there.) For a book about a superpowered squirrel, you’d think I’d have a better time, but I never love anything this woman writes. I barely even like it. I find almost everything she writes to be a slog, and afterward I’m like, “Winn-Dixie? Eh.” “Desperaux? Eh.” This is my third book by her, I think, and I’m done. I’m just done with her. I don’t like the way she writes. I don’t mind the big words–because some smart kids fixate on big words–and I don’t mind the cutesy or the sap, but there’s something else I hate and until I’m reading it, I completely forget what it is because I leave every book with the impression “Eh.” And that’s it, which is why I’ve read more than two of her books. But no more!
Mo Willems is pretty much my favorite children’s author right now, so when a neighbor offered to lend me a copy of his “grown-up” book, You Can Never Find a Rickshaw When It Monsoons: The World on One Cartoon a Day. I guess this is a book you give your Brooklyn hipster who has a little kid. It’s not bad, but it really is just a little sketch a day, and not all of them have much depth. If I were not grossed out by the idea of a “bathroom book,” this might be a good choice. Oh right, and also: the boobs are weird. No wonder he sticks to kids’ books.
James W. Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me is a must-read. Even if you don’t always agree with him, it’s important that at least the introduction of this book is read. In school. Loewen takes a selection of high school American history books and shows how they are biased, shows how they lay out American history as a progressive series of “wins” that inspire patriotism. It is incredibly eye-opening, especially the part on textbook “writers,” who are often there only to revise and aren’t experts in the field. yeah, if I was going to go with a non-fiction must-read for the year, this is it.
Finally, I reread the last of the “middle” Jennifer Crusie books, Bet Me.
Next up: Rainbow Rowell! David Levithan!
I’m going to call Julianna Baggott’s Pure the biggest let-down of the year. I don’t care what else I read, nothing will be this much of a disappointment. After truly enjoying the first two books–the story of a society where people inside the dome live perfect little lives, and people outside the dome are living in the world’s most horrifying apocalypse (seriously, bomb that attaches things to other things is worse than zombies)–this book made me want to scream. I’m surprised I even finished it. The writing is terrible. Was it always this terrible? The characters thinks the same thing so many times in every scene they’re in for the first third of the book. It’s so repetitive I was pretty sure I was reading a first draft. And then there was something else too; I want to say question marks. There are SO MANY questions marks in the third-person narration. It was as if the author wasn’t even sure what she was doing. I also want to say there’s either too many times where you’re told sort of what happens and then it jumps backward, or–it’s all very fuzzy by now, but at the time I was enraged.
Also, the ending was bad.
Seriously, that book annoyed me on too many levels. It took days and days for me to read in a series where the other books had been devoured in a day or two.
Next, I read The Phantom Tollbooth, which everyone forever had wanted me to read, especially my kid and/or husband, so I did, and it was really good. I would’ve liked it better when I was a kid, though. I felt that it was easy to see why it was as good as an adult, but that’s not the same as truly enjoying it, you know?
Finally, I read Dreams of the Golden Age, a sequel or companion or whatever you want to call it to Carrie Vaughn’s After the Golden Age. Vaughn hits her stride here and Dreams is a much better book in terms of pacing and characterization. The story follows the daughter of the first book’s lead, and we’re not just following a good story, we’re also seeing the former lead relegated to Mom, and Control Freak, and that was fascinating without taking away from Anna’s narrative. Is the book more teen-friendly, YA-like? Sure. But it flows so much better than After, and I really enjoyed it.
Next up: I want to like Kate DiCamillo, but I never do.
“I think you might be too literary for this book club,” someone once said to me.
When I related this rather hurtful statement to a member of a different book club, she told me, “There are two kinds of book clubs. The ones that analyze the book and the ones where everyone talks about how they feeeeeeel.”
You can probably guess which kind she likes best.
I think she’s right, mostly, although I picture it as more of a spectrum/line graph. On one end you have “visceral reactions,” aka “feeeeeelings.” On the other, you have “literary analysis.” I have to admit, I like to be closer to the right side of the spectrum than the left, but not all the way. Feelings matter, too. A book that evokes no response hasn’t done its job, no matter the genre.
I wonder if I could chart the reactions of the people in all my book clubs and figure out where they go on the spectrum. That is totally a thing I could do.
I’m not sure I would, though.
Anyway, I think almost all my book clubs skew toward the right side of the spectrum but for one: the one I “might be too literary for.” The person who said this wasn’t trying to get me to leave or anything, but pointing out that I was coming to the book club from a different angle, and it was obvious to the point of feeling awkward. I’d already noticed it, but what do you do in that situation? But do I bring a balance to the group, or am I a bad fit?
[Look, I'm spoiling Bridge to Terabithia, okay? You kind of have to, to talk about it.]
I read Bridge to Terabithia for the first time in February. I don’t remember it being in my childhood library. I had Jacob Have I Loved, and read it until it fell apart for all that it was “weird,” but that’s where my Katherine Paterson knowledge began and ended. However, I will always remember the time my dad took my daughter to the movies to see the adaptation and my daughter came home distraught. “A kid DIES. Kids shouldn’t DIE in movies! Movies are supposed to make you happy!”
Bridge to Terabithia was written by a mother whose son was grieving over the loss of his friend, and it was hard to get through towards the end there. I had believed, until the movie was about to come out, that it was very Narnia-like (not one of my favorite series growing up), and that’s not what it is at all. Jess just wants to be the fastest runner in his grade. Leslie is unhappy she’s moved to the small town. The two of them bond, and become dear friends. Then tragedy strikes, and Jess has to deal with the loss of Leslie. It’s a great book, and I recommend it strongly. Not every book can be escapism. Sometimes bad things happen.
To balance the sadness of Terabithia, I read the third book in the Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer, Cress. The cast grows as Cinder, the cyborg Cinderella, and Scarlet, the delivery girl in the red hoodie, are joined by a Rapunzel trapped not in a tower, but a satellite. This series has only gained strength as its gone on, and Cress delivers the–oops, mixing character metaphors. But–goods. I wasn’t sure if I was going to love or hate a series that began with the premise “cyborg Cinderella,” but after Scarlet, I was firmly in the love camp, and haven’t left since. This is a great YA series that manages to balance sci fi and magic without annoying me–me! The person who hates sci fi mixed with magic. Also: that cover. My god, that beautiful cover.
Next up: Why I only read two books the whole week this week. (Spoiler: I didn’t. It’s just that the third one took forever because it sucked.)
Three books this week. That’s crazy.
Uh, speaking of crazy, my first selection was Rat Girl, a memoir by Kristin Hersh. I interviewed Hersh in 2006, and found her to be one of the if not THE most fascinating person I’d ever met. I pretty much wanted to be her when I grew up, except without the mental illness. Rat Girl focuses a bit on the mental illness, because it can’t not. The book covers an important year in Hersh’s life, 1985: the band she started with her sister gaining buzz, a possible record deal, her illness and bipolar diagnosis, and then pregnancy. As with the interview, I could’ve taken in her words for so much longer. I could read a memoir of Hersh’s life year by year, no matter the length. She’s a storyteller above all other things; listening to her talk between songs is worth the price of admission to one of her shows, and reading her words is just as thrilling. I’m glad I got Rat Girl but I was sad when it was done. I’m not usually a non-fiction reader, although I’m getting better at it, but my fascination with Hersh and the way she sees the world kept me rapt. Highly recommended for Zee, if she hasn’t read it already.
I read and reviewed Faking It by Jennifer Crusie.
Finally, I reread The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman (original review here), and there was a lot I’d forgotten: mostly, the middle. I’d forgotten how serialized the story is. The kind of book you can read chapter by chapter, night by night. But otherwise, everything else stands. It’s creepy, it’s good.
Next up: still not reading much. Only two completed because of a bad one finished the week after.
Sounds like a Big Bang Theory episode title.
I once knew a guy whose wife would never, ever take a book out from the library. The idea that multiple unknowns had touched the book before her utterly freaked her out, and so she spent money on buying books she ended up not enjoying–and many she did, but really, it could go either way.
I am incredibly cheap (having been a poor single parent for a long time), and I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea of paying serious money for something that’s available for free or cheap. For something you’re not even sure you’re going to like, let alone love. I have a lot of books, but looking at my shelves I’d say maybe 10% tops were full-price. And of that 10%, almost all were gifts or bought over the course of three decades of reading. Most of the Jennifer Crusies were bought new. Well. Yeah, maybe. I won that one and my friend gave me those two, and that one was a library discard I picked up for $1, and some are originals, not reissues, which were found in book sales…but okay, so 50-60% of those were bought new, maybe. And even then, I’m pretty sure Wild Ride or Maybe This Time were bought with gift cards, during times where they were 30% off. That’s how I roll.
Using the library is likely better for the writer than buying used, though. Some people think that all library books are donations, but they are wrong. The library, even with bulk discounts, can end up paying more than you would on the cost of hardcovers. (And don’t get me started on audiobooks.) The number of times a book is taken out can determine whether the author’s next book will be ordered, and how many copies. It’s not unusual for a library to order multiple copies of an upcoming work with lots of buzz, whether the author is James Patterson or a newbie, if the funds are available. But if the funds aren’t available, they’re going by circulation numbers. But you are definitely helping the writer when you’re taking those books out even if, yeah, people have touched the book before.
My friend’s wife’s problem with library books always comes to mind during the one time every year or three I come across a book that stinks. The stink might be of animals (although I barely notice that anymore because of my cats; I’m mostly desensitized now), perfume, or–the worst for me–cigarette smoke. I’m reading a wonderful book right now that I’m going through at about a rate of I-should-have-been-done-two-days-ago because I keep putting it down due to the reek of cigarettes. I’m very sensitive to the smell because I grew up with a lot of smokers, and then got my own smoke-free place. Suddenly, my nose smelled all the smoke I’d been used to living in, and it was disgusting to me as a lifelong non-smoker. Now, I’m the one in my family who says “Ugh, the people in the car ahead of us are smoking” and my husband and daughter are like, “What?” and then, two minutes later, “Oh yeah.”
So I turned to the experts about my problem: two staff members at my local library, a librarian and a library aide. Their solution? Kitty litter. Apparently, if you put a smelly book in a sealed container with kitty litter, the litter will absorb (most of) the smell. They also said baking soda might do the trick. I did get the impression, however, that they prefer this to be done with one’s own books, not library ones. The best thing for me to do is to let them know when I return the book, and they’ll deal with it themselves.
My friend’s wife story does not have a happy ending, by the way. She happily got a job at a bookstore–all the new books!–and quickly found out the real story of how many hands books go through before they reach the consumer. She was, again, horrified.
I bet she buys ebooks now.
Only four books this week!
The first was Little Miss Contrary. I have no idea how I ended up with this book, but it was a quick jump into the past for me. I had a handful of these books when I was little, and the cute factor exists to this day. Little Miss Contrary is like Amelia Bedelia and Bizarro wrapped into one!
Then I read Christopher Golden’s Snowblind. I really feel like Golden should be more famous than he is, but he’s mostly known for Buffy the Vampire Slayer novels. I’d say this is the book R.L. Stine should’ve written instead of the awful Red Rain, but the weak ending almost ruined my enjoyment of an otherwise creepy, interesting book. Seriously, what happened there? Was it The Power of Love? I can’t remember because it was so vague.
Next up: three books. What was going on with me? Was I watching Arrow?