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Recent Reading - Mo's Journal
October 30th, 2007
01:02 pm

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Recent Reading
Some books I've enjoyed of late:

I sometimes read YA books (for those not in the know, "Young Adult" books are really those written for older children and teenagers). Partly this is because I have kids. Partly this is because I like children's literature.

I read two recently that I really enjoyed:

First was The Outcasts of 19 Schuyler Place by E.L. Konigsburg. She's a children's writer I've enjoyed since my own childhood and I loved reading her books to my kids when they were younger. This one is relatively new and I picked it up in Zara's classroom while waiting for Curriculum Night to start (I returned it after I read it). It's got a spunky and resourceful heroine, a fun plot, lots of really engaging characters, the very funny moments that you can count on with Konigsburg but a serious story to tell. Margaret Rose Kane is 12 years old, an only child, going to camp for the first time while her parents are in Peru for the summer. She wanted to spend the summer with her great-uncles and was hurt and disappointed when they turned her down. Miserable at camp, she acts out sufficiently that one of her uncles comes to get her and brings her back to the uncles' place after all. There she finds out why they didn't want her for the summer: the beautiful towers they have been building in their garden for the last 45 years are going to be demolished, the neighbors considering them an eyesore and a safety issue. She launches a one-kid campaign to save them, aided by an artist who doubles as the handyman at the loathed camp and two of Margaret's mother's childhood friends, who have fond memories of the towers. The characters are really well drawn and realistic and I wanted to know how it all comes out. It's billed as a companion novel to Silent to the Bone, which Zara has read but I haven't (what is the difference between "companion novels" and sequels anyway?)

The other is Jerry Spinelli's Love, Stargirl. It's a new book, sequel to his Stargirl, which all of my kids really enjoyed, as did I. The first book tells the story of an iconoclastic addition to Mica High School in Mica, Arizona - Stargirl Caraway, previously home schooled, with all sorts of unconventional ideas on how to behave. The book is told from the point of view of a boy named Leo, with whom she falls in love, although ultimately he cannot accept being with someone so different. She leaves town at the end of the book.

In the sequel, told from Stargirl's point of view, we find out what happened after the end. It's an epistolary novel, in the form of one long letter to Leo. It's just full of well-drawn and fascinating characters and I cried through much of it. I love that Spinelli says Stargirl is based on his wife of many years.


I'm not only reading YA books. I enjoyed the following recently, too.


Michael Tolliver Lives by Armistead Maupin is great fun and about an hour or two of reading. It's not quite a sequel to the Tales of the City books (maybe it's a companion novel). It features some of the same characters, many years later, but is not as episodic and has a much smaller character set and less of a soap opera feeling. It focuses on Michael, the character always most like Maupin himself. Like Maupin, Michael is now in his sixties and has a much younger lover. The plot centers around Michael's relationship with Ben, the new lover, and with Michael's family of origin, who are undergoing trauma of various kinds as Michael's mother becomes sicker. It's not as serious or as multi-layered a book as The Night Listener but it's fun and funny often and an easy light read. If anyone in the NYC area wants it, my friend David passed on his copy to me and doesn't want it back - he said to just pass it on to someone who would enjoy it.

Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl. It's a first novel and a really impressive one imo. Pessl tells the story of Hannah, an intellectually precocious teenager being raised by her itinerant professor father who gets involved in solving the murder of a teacher at the private school she is spending a year attending. It's very cleverly plotted, often funny, interesting characters and the mystery is good, too! I read this one for my book club.

The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham. A reread of a book I enjoyed as a teenager. It sounds dated in a lot of ways, but holds up well in general. All the women of childbearing age in the village of Midwich, in England, are mysteriously impregnated at the same time and give birth to identical children. Over time it becomes clear that the children are superintelligent aliens with mind control capabilities bent on taking over the earth. It's in the grand tradition of paranoid Cold War novels, where Godless Communists are replaced by aliens (as opposed to current Republican politics, where they're replaced by gay men and lesbians) and was made into a not-very-good-movie called "Children of the Damned."

I'm taking a course on Wednesday nights called Meah. It's 100 hours of Jewish Adult Education, with lots of reading as well, and it's great fun. The first semester is Bible - not just text, but also historical and geographic context and I'm enjoying the reading that goes with it a lot. Among the books I've read are:

Friedman's Who Wrote the Bible? He lays out the Documentary Hypothesis very clearly and backs it up well. Simply put, the Documentary Hypothesis says that the Torah is composed of several different works, written by different people and at different times, that were woven together by an editor (known as the Redactor, or R) who tried to make them into one coherent text by interspersing them. That explains why there are often two (sometimes repetitious, sometimes contradictory) tellings of the same story, e.g. people are created male and female together in one version, Adam is followed by Eve in the other; Noah brings two of each animal onto the ark in one version, and seven pairs of some animals in another. Friedman identifies which portions were written by the different authors, known as J, E, P, and D. He takes what could be pretty dry material and turns it into a kind of mystery story - who is the Redactor? And has an exciting answer to that question!

The Bible Unearthed Don't remember the author offhand. It's a book describing what archaeology tells us about the historicity of the Bible. I found it fascinating and just full of Fun Facts to Know and Tell. For example, those of you who have read Breshit (Genesis) might remember that the patriarchs are always riding around on camels, and that there are camel caravans of traders described as well. So... a clue to when those stories were written is that at the time when the patriarchs lived - if they did - camels had not yet been domesticated. At the time when the stories were likely written, 9th-7th century BCE, camels and nomads went together like ham and cheese :-). I have this vision of some guy writing down these stories (because I do think the stories themselves were extent long before they were written) and saying to himself, "You know what this story needs? Camels. They were nomads; they ought to have camels." It's like someone now writing a story about the Knights of the Round Table and having Arthur driving around in a car.

As a Driven Leaf by Milton Steinberg. I got this as summer pre-reading for Meah and then they decided to change the reading list, but I'm glad I got it. It's an historical novel of the period during which the Talmud was being written. It tells the story of Elisha Ben Abuyah, one of the writers of the Talmud, about whom very little is known except that he was one of the very few Jews of that period who was excommunicated, in his case for heresy. Steinberg gives him a whole life story and has him struggle with issues of science and faith, assimilation and separateness, tradition and innovation, while painting a rich picture of Ancient Israel after the destruction of the Second Temple. At times I find the characters a little too modern, but mostly in a way that amuses rather than detracts, as you see Steinberg injecting American cultural types into the story. Sort of I, Claudius for American Jews.

So what are you all reading?

The icon is my son reading to my nephew, Ian, last fall. I'll be in the Twin Cities in a couple of weeks and will get to read to Ian myself!

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From:rae_1985
Date:October 30th, 2007 06:03 pm (UTC)
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I'm currently reading some Tamora Pierce. My sister and I lover her books, and I can't help reading them over again every couple years when I need some fun reading. It's really hard to explain these books in a few sentences. They are fantasy novels set in a world where some people have magical gifts, and there are immortals like dragons and basilisks. They also have a historical fiction feel, because there are Knights, kings, and castles. My favorite quartet of Pierce's is the Alanna series. It's all about a girl who wants to become a knight so bad that she disguises herself as a boy for her years of training. They sound very simple, but there is so much packed into these books. Assassination attempts, castle politics, wars, love stories, to name a few plot points. If you enjoy YA I would suggest checking these out. :D
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From:mofic
Date:October 30th, 2007 06:09 pm (UTC)
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I read those with my girls when they were younger! We all really enjoyed them. I had heard Pierce interviewed on NPR and she sounded really interesting - she started by writing fanfic, she wrote fantasy with female protagonists - and I figured I'd try one of her books. We were all hooked for a while there.
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From:talktooloose
Date:October 30th, 2007 07:39 pm (UTC)
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Recent reading:
Room With a View by E.M. Forster. This right after watching Passage to India. His books seem to be about casting off one's stifling Britishness (read, outdated rules and modes of behaviour) in favour of true emotional connectedness.

Tehanu by Ursula K. Leguin. The fourth book in the excellent Earthsea series. This one really celebrating the lives and roles of women and the choices they make around power, family and living in a male dominated world. Interesting territory for a wizard-filled fantasy novel.

Safe Area Gorazde by Joe Sacco. Graphic novel journalism about the war in Bosnia.

Mike Carey's run on X-Men up to the present, courtesy of lux_apollo. Carey can really spin a yarn. I recommend his Lucifer series which is now complete.

Weight by Jeannette Winterson. A short but extraordinary retelling of the legend of Atlas featuring a wonderful characterization of Hercules and other mythical figures.
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From:mofic
Date:October 31st, 2007 10:25 am (UTC)
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Interesting assortment. Forster is for me the unusual case where I like the movies better than the books.

I loved Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit but then didn't like whatever it was that Winterson wrote after that. This one sounds intriguing, though.
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From:talktooloose
Date:October 31st, 2007 09:20 pm (UTC)
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It's a short book so not much of a chance to take. Actually, I listened to it as an audiobook.

I enjoyed Forster's literary voice a lot. He was quite experimental and playful in the book. A very intrusive narrator. When I was in Vermont visiting briseur, I spent a pleasant morning reading a Forster biography that he had by his bedside. Interesting man who lived out most of his dreams on the page rather than in RL.
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From:candrawest
Date:October 30th, 2007 10:44 pm (UTC)
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I think the issue with companion novels vs. sequels is that the plots have nothing to do with each other, they just share characters. I have a signed copy of Silent to the Bone that Ms. Konigsberg sent me after I wrote her a letter telling her how much it affected me. She credited me with getting her writing again. It's a prized possession.

Silent was written first (I believe), is set some 14 years later when Margaret's half-brother, Connor, is about 12. Silent is really about Connor's best friend Bran, though Connor is the narrator. Margaret and Connor's father is a peripheral character, the uncles are mentioned only that Margaret inherited her house from them. So essentially a companion novel in this case likely means that Ms. Konigsberg liked Margaret so much that she wished to spend more time with her and felt there was a compelling story to tell there, but that really had very little to do with the events of Silent to the Bone.
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From:mofic
Date:October 31st, 2007 10:27 am (UTC)
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Wow! on being Konigsberg's inspiration. And your explanation of companion novels makes sense. I did know the connection between the two books and mean to read that one.
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From:candrawest
Date:November 1st, 2007 10:31 am (UTC)
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I was completely blown away by it. The note she sent with the book said that several months of difficult personal circumstances had prevented her writing, but that my letter gave her hope and optimism that her writing means something to someone. I didn't think the letter was that stunning, just painfully honest about why the book touched me as it did. Obviously, however, to her, it was much more profound.
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From:mofic
Date:November 1st, 2007 02:21 pm (UTC)
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You never know how you affect people - until they tell you.
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From:libgirl
Date:October 31st, 2007 03:05 am (UTC)
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what is the difference between "companion novels" and sequels anyway?)
Essentially, a companion novel occurs in the same universe and uses some or all of the original characters (but usually has a different narrator or something like that.It has it's own story to tell that may or may not have anything to do with the original. A sequel continues the original story/sticks with the same characters and is generally sequential.

I *adored* Stargirl, I'll have to check the sequel out!

I read a lot of YA lit myself, partially because I enjoy it so much, partially because that's my specialty, teaching wise.

I've never read any Maupin, but I know I should. I didn't really know what to expect and if it's really heavy ready, I need to be a bit better prepared.

I'm going to be doing a book post this week so I'll tell you then what I'm reading ;).
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From:mofic
Date:October 31st, 2007 10:32 am (UTC)
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Thanks on the explanation on companion novels. You agree with candrawest :-).

Maupin is the antithesis of heavy reading, generally. The Tales of the City stories were a newspaper serial - very light and funny, albeit sometimes with a serious kick underneath. I used to read them when I was in SF on business when he was writing for the Chronicle. He later packaged them as books.

His only really *serious* book - and it's still fun reading and not heavy - is The Night Listener. It's sort of veiled autobiography and concerns his involvement in the Anthony Godby Johnson fraud (as one of those who was defrauded) as kind of the public story and the breakup of his longterm relationship as the private one. I think it's the best thing he's written but it's not as fun or funny as the Tales of the City books, which are really book candy.

I like your reading icon!
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