Once upon a time, I earned a Master's Degree in Literature and was a Professor of Literature and Composition. I had a wonderful time writing my Master's Thesis about Children's and Young Adult Literature, and I considered earning a Ph.D. so that I could continue to pursue the written word, including British, American, Latin American and other Global Literatures, Children's and Young Adult Literature, all types of genres and occasionally even poetry. But life takes you in unexpected directions, and so now I am working for a non-profit agency (you can read about that on my other blog, A Little Bit of Wonder). Although my job keeps me too busy to post as many book reviews as I would like, Recommended Reading is a place where I can continue to share my literary discoveries and knowledge as time allows.

Please note that I post reviews for books that I recommend reading, just like the blog title says. This means that I typically won't post a review for a book that I completely dislike. This isn't because I shy away from making negative comments, but rather because I don't want to waste your time or mine (I won't even bother to finish a book if it's not any good). For more on this, see the explanation of my Rating System.)

Monday, September 5, 2011

Book Review: The Borrowers

I have always been fascinated by dollhouses, especially when I was a child but even now as an adult. They are each like perfect little individual worlds, with their Victorian settees and tea sets, little lamps that light up and tiny embroidered pillows. Everything seems so much more charming when it is in miniature, and with a dollhouse, you are able to explore the world of another family – in a way that you are unable to do when you visit someone else’s home. Similarly, I’ve always said that I enjoy reading because books allow me to explore so many other worlds – each novel is like a world onto itself, and to me, a well-written novel is a well-imagined world that details both people and places without growing tedious in its efforts to describe.

The Borrowers by Mary Beth Norton appeals to my fascination with exploring miniature worlds, tiny secret places within our own large and sometimes frightening world. This classic of children’s fantasy literature is about a miniature race of people called Borrowers who live under the floorboards and between the walls of our houses, constructing their homes out of items that they “borrow” from the human residents. With furniture constructed out of chess pieces and match boxes, or borrowed from a forgotten dollhouse, and postage stamps to decorate their walls, their world will be a fascinating place for those who share my interest in secret places and tiny, cozy homes. Foraging for food from the leftovers on the tea trays and from the pantry upstairs, the Borrowers survive quite nicely without attracting the attention of many residents. If a Borrower is “seen” by a human, however, then they are in great danger.

Norton’s novel is the story of a lonely little boy who discovers and befriends a family of Borrowers, becoming familiar with their miniature world in such a way that no other human has before. He begins to “borrow” items for his new friends and spend happy afternoons reading with them. But although the boy’s friendship is genuine, his relationship with the Borrowers ultimately puts them in danger when the adults begin to notice that so many things have gone missing from around the house.

The Borrowers seems to me to be about the desire to discover other worlds and the particular desire of lonely children to become a part of those other worlds. So many children’s fantasy novels are about the discovery of a secret place, a more fantastic world that allows the characters and the reader to escape the drudgery and the loneliness of the everyday world in which we live. Norton’s novel does this especially well, describing the Borrowers’ home and tactics for moving through the house – climbing up curtains and tunneling under the floorboards – in clever detail. I felt as though I was exploring a fancy dollhouse, an entire world that posed its own set of problems and dangers. I recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys discovering and exploring secret places and other worlds, whether they are through a wardrobe door or just underneath the kitchen floorboards.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Book Review: Little House in the Big Woods

Although I did not read a great deal of historical fiction when I was a child, the Little House books were once series that I remember enjoying (although I was never a fan of the television series). I’m sure it has been almost twenty years since I read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s novels about life in the vast woods and prairies of Wisconsin, Kansas, Minnesota, South Dakota and Missouri. I knew the pioneer life wasn’t something that I was cut out for, but even so, I was fascinated by the descriptions of how the Ingalls family sustained themselves out in the wilderness – and always had plenty of good things to eat.

As I re-read Little House in the Big Woods, I found all the descriptions that had made such an impression on me when I was seven or eight years old: accounts of how Laura’s Pa had cured venison in a little smokehouse made out of a hollow tree, how Pa and Grandpa Ingalls had collected the sap from the maple trees and the family had made syrup and maple sugar candy, how Laura’s Ma made cheese and butter from their cow’s milk, and how Laura and her sister Mary would play up in the attic amongst all the piles of pumpkins and meats hanging from the rafters. I’m always drawn to descriptions of food, since I love to eat so much.

There were other scenes that I remembered as well – scenes that had to do with the family’s happy existence despite their isolation. Laura describes being cozy and snug in their little log cabin in the Big Woods of Wisconsin during the bitterly cold winters. With contentment, she describes how her father would tell them stories while they sat by the fire, then play them to sleep with his fiddle. The wolves were howling outside in the yard, but Laura knew she was safe with Jack the dog and her Pa with his gun to guard their family, and so she always fell asleep feeling warm and happy.

Apparently one editor turned away Wilder’s manuscripts because the stories don’t contain too much drama – even the tales of Ma, Pa, and Grandpa encountering dangerous wild animals somehow don’t feel threatening because Laura’s memories of early childhood are imbued with that feeling of safety. Despite the leisurely pace of the novels, however, I have found them equally engrossing at age seven and age twenty seven. I think that the descriptions and stories appeal to be when I am in a certain mood because the labors and pleasures of the Ingalls family’s lives are so physical, so tangible and so simple. After living in several different metropolitan areas and working very demanding jobs, I sometimes long for that kind of simplicity. She may have only been four or five years old when she was living in Wisconsin, but the beauty and the pleasure of so many aspects of life made an impression on her. Because she was such a content child, when I read Little House in the Big Woods, I felt happy and content as well. I hate to use the phrase “heart-warming,” but this is one of those novels that can actually make you feel as though you’re snuggled down under the covers near a blazing fire on a cold winter evening, and someone is playing you to sleep. Five stars for a novel that can make me forget the fast pace of daily life, at least for a little while.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Book Review: Peter Pan and Wendy

When I was young, my family had a video recording of the stage version of Peter Pan, which starred Mary Martin as the title character. I didn’t have a particular dislike for the movie, but neither did I find it very compelling – I wasn’t so entranced with the story to remain a devoted fan the way I have with C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. I was not all that impressed with Mary Martin herself, at least when I was a child, and you could clearly see that she was hanging from wires, even on the video recording. Apparently I considered even the giant puppet Aslan in the 1980s BBC version of Lewis’s Chronicles to be making better use of technological invention – I suppose I was ever the movie critic at heart. After seeing the Mary Martin version, I even thought certain that aspects of the Peter Pan story were rather stupid, such as the giant dog Nana who was supposed to be the nanny of Wendy, John and Michael; the fact that the giant dog was even less convincing than the Aslan puppet didn’t help to lessen my dissatisfaction with Martin, her cohort and the production team. Somehow, I don’t think I ever saw the Disney version of Peter Pan – at least until I was much older, and at the age that I was immune to its charms – and sadly no adult was thoughtful enough to share J.M. Barrie’s original book with me. While I enjoyed Robin Williams and Julia Roberts in Hook, I think I had by that time basically lost my ability to understand the innate charm of the story of Peter Pan and Wendy.

As an adult reading Barrie’s novel for
the first time, I find myself quite saddened that I did not discover Peter Pan and Wendy as a child. Yet I’m also unsure that if I had read the story when I was six or eight, or even twelve, that I would have fully understood the brilliance of Barrie’s satire. The novel is charming on two levels: its whimsical flights through children’s fantastic imaginary worlds and its scathing commentary on adult society and their aloof, condescending attitudes toward children and fantasy. Somehow, Barrie seems to convey both an extraordinary sense of wonder and excitement about all the adventures that Peter initiates and/or invents for himself and his Lost Boys, while at the exact same time managing to be critical of the way that adults (particularly those of a certain "British" attitude) look down upon the desire to have adventures and believe in magic.

In fact, Barrie’s portrayal of British society makes me wonder about the way that the British managed to establish such a presence around the world. The great colonizers with an empire upon which the sun never set, you might imagine that these were people with great imaginations, a robust curiosity about the world, and a strong taste for adventure – and no doubt some of them were keen on exploration. But the way that Barrie tells it, all adult males are quite content to put on their suits, uniformly tuck an umbrella under their arms, and head off to the office, while their wives have tea with the other ladies, give their children a nightly draught of all-purpose “medicine” and tuck their children into bed by seven o’clock. British children, it seems, were the only members of society who wanted anything to do with the faeries, pirates and Indians – or, as so crassly Barrie calls them, “Redskins.”

But even Barrie’s scathing commentary on the adult world is expressed with humor that makes the medicine go down. Here is my favorite example of the novel’s satire, in a passage explaining how Captain Hook won a battle with the Indians by defying the commonly accepted rules of warfare:

To what extent Hook is to blame for his tactics on this occasion is for the historian to decide. Had he waited on the rising ground till the proper hour he and his men would probably have been butchered; and in judging him it is only fair to take this into account. What he should perhaps have done was to acquaint his opponents that he proposed to follow a new method. On the other hand, this, as destroying the element of surprise would have made his strategy of no avail, so that the whole question is beset with difficulties. One cannot at least withhold a reluctant admiration for the wit that had conceived so bold a scheme, and the fell genius with which it was carried out.

Here, Barrie pokes fun at historians and military strategists, who put great stock in the famed method of simply lining up facing each other in a field and firing away until one army or the other ran out of men. (Ah, those Redcoats.) In particular, Barrie highlights the European’s tendency to set themselves up as sitting ducks to be unvaryingly attacked by the Indians “just before the dawn.”

But least you think that his novel is all social satire and would be inaccessible to children, let me assure you that he maintains an extra- ordinary sense of wonder about the world and the children’s adventures throughout the novel as well. It is as though in explaining to adults the way that children live thoroughly and wondrously through their imaginary adventures, he opens the world of imagination even wider to children themselves:

I don’t know whether you have ever seen a map of a person’s mind. Doctors sometimes draw maps of other parts of you, and your own map can become intensely interesting, but catch them trying to draw a map of child’s mind, which is not only confused, but keeps going round all the time. There are zigzag lines on it, just like your temperature on a card, and these are probably roads in the island, for Neverland is always more or less an island, with astonishing splashes of color here and there, and coral reefs and rakish-looking craft in the offing, and savages and lonely lairs, and gnomes who are mostly tailors, and caves through which a river runs, and princes with six elder brothers, and a hut fast going to decay, and one very small old lady with a hooked nose… Of course, the Neverlands vary a good deal. John’s, for instance, had a lagoon with flamingoes flying over it at which John was shooting, while Michael, who was very small, had a flamingo with lagoons flying over it. John lived in a boat turned upside down on the sands, Michael in a wigwam Wendy in a house of leaves deftly sewn together.

And so on and so forth, Barrie describes the “Neverlands,” the individual worlds that children create within their minds that are so obviously and infinitely better than the world into which they must grow up and enter. And Peter Pan and Wendy is ultimately a book about the ways in which the adult world invades the Neverlands, and the strange pull that we feel when we “must” grow up and give up our ties to that other, better place that we have created for ourselves. I’m sad that I didn’t discover this novel when I was a kid, but I’m thrilled that I’ve discovered it now and I can’t wait to share it with my own children because this is one of those brilliant stories that is magical no matter how young or old you might be when you read it.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Book Review: The Hidden Staircase

Back before cell phones existed and women were apt to sit anxiously at home by the phone waiting for news, Nancy Drew went zipping through her Midwestern town in her sporty blue convertible – from the scene of a burglary or a supposedly haunted house to the local police station – to deliver the evidence she had found in person. Refreshingly, the police appreciated her independent, take-charge nature: “The way you’re building up clues, if you were on my force, I’d recommend a citation for you!” Captain Rossland of Cliffwood tells her in The Hidden Staircase.

And though at the beginning of the mystery, he is apt to tell Nancy things like, “I doubt that there is anything you can do. You’d better leave it to the police,” Captain Rossland soon learns to take advantage of Nancy’s many talents, imploring the “girl detective” to question the suspects that the police have been able to break. “You may not know it, but you’re a very persuasive lady young lady. I believe that you might be able to get information out of both Harry and Greenman, where we have failed,” he tells her.

Of course, Nancy responds with modesty but agrees to try – and succeeds in obtaining a confession from each of the suspects within minutes. She’s both humble and shrewd – both a proper lady and a feminist, in other words. The popular concept of feminism today would consider that to be a bit of a paradox, but I don’t see why intelligence and heroism can’t be paired with good fashion sense and a “feminine” appreciation of beauty. If Nancy Drew (and Buffy Summers, of Vampire Slayer fame) can be both a hero and a traditional “girl,” why can’t we all?

And this is one of the reasons that I love Nancy Drew novels – because somehow, Nancy manages to be it all and makes it look easy. Of course, the ease with which Miss Drew stumbles upon clues, receives the indulgence of the police, and obtains confessions is a bit difficult to swallow if you’re older than ten or eleven. When I reread the Nancy Drew novels now, I have to adopt a determination to ignore all the unlikely scenarios and plot holes, not to mention a willingness to accept all the one-dimensional characters. But when I’ve had a hard couple of weeks and I need a break from “real literature” – stories about people living in poverty-stricken parts of the world or dealing with heartbreak of one kind or another – I pick up a Nancy Drew. She’s at least as good as a super-hero, and maybe even better – she has time to don a gay party frock and attend sorority dances and other high society events in between excursions to haunted mansions and exotic locations. She’s Bruce Wayne (Batman) for the feminists out there who are looking for a good time.

In The Hidden Staircase, which is the second Nancy Drew mystery story and was originally published in 1930, Nancy even gets to solve a case for her father, who is a prominent lawyer, and rescue him after he has been kidnapped by his enemies! After she traipses all over an American Colonial estate, searching for hidden passages and burglars, she discovers where the swindlers have hidden her father. And after he recovers from being drugged and held prisoner, the supportive Carson Drew isn’t embarrassed that his daughter has had to save his skin: “It’s a real victory for you!” Nancy’s father praised his daughter proudly. So you can see that Nancy is lucky enough to live in a world where men respect her and acquiesce to her higher intelligence and innate capabilities. Forget romance stories -- this is my kind of wish fulfillment novel!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Book Review: Boy by Roald Dahl

In You’ve Got Mail, one of my favorite movies, Meg Ryan plays a Manhattan Children’s bookstore owner whose shop is a treasured part of their neighborhood until a chain store moves in around the corner and puts her out of business. Ryan’s character is a sweet, whimsical woman who holds a reading hour for the children in her shop; dressing up in a princess hat and calling herself the Storybook Lady, one Saturday she reads to them a passage from Boy by Roald Dahl:

It was I and I alone who had the idea for the great and daring Mouse Plot. We all have our moments of brilliance and glory, and this was mine. “Why don’t we,” I said, “Slip it into one of Mrs. Pratchett’s jars of sweets? Then when she puts her dirty hand in to grab a handful, she’ll grab a stinky dead mouse instead.” The other four stared at me in wonder. Then, as the sheer genius of the plot began to sink in they all started grinning. They slpped me on the back. They cheered me and danced around the classroom. “We’ll do it today!” they cried. “We’ll do it on the way home! You had the idea,” they said to me, “so you can be the one to put the mouse in the jar.”

Although several people had recommended that I read Roald Dahl’s childhood memoir, I was finally inspired to order myself a copy when I was rewatching You’ve Got Mail just a few weeks ago – and I am so glad that I did! This passage is one of many in Boy that make the reader shiver with the deliciousness of childhood, a subject for which I have a very soft spot. The memoir details Dahl’s idyllic summers spent at home, the horrors of English boarding schools, and several traumatic experiences with doctors in a time before the regular use of anesthetics. Consequently, the reader is constantly experiencing either the elation of adventures in the local candy store, the satisfaction of a perfect day spent swimming in the Norwegian fjords, the terror of several childhood operations, or disbelief at the ways in which British schoolmasters and prefects were allowed to mistreat and abuse the pupils at these fine institutions of learning.

These details aren’t part of any particular plot, but rather a series of musings about childhood – but even so, Dahl had my riveted attention and I finished the 160-novel in a single day. There is something about the descriptions and details of someone’s magical childhood that make me exceedingly happy, and I spent the larger portion of the day with a huge grin on my face (except when my mouth dropped open in shock at the descriptions of the removal of Dahl’s adenoids or the car accident in which his nose is almost “cut clean off!”). I would recommend this novel for most adults, as well as many of the children who are perhaps a bit older and have already read a few of Dahl’s novels. The way in which he tells about them, it seems as though the author had several real-life adventures that are just as entertaining to the reader as his many amusing characters.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Early Impressions: Conversation in the Cathedral

I’m told that Section One of Mario Vargas Llosa’s novel Conversation in the Cathedral is the most difficult to read, and I have to admit that I’m relieved to hear that. I’ve enjoyed the novel thus far, but I’ve also found it quite challenging – although it’s not as obscure and opaque as James Joyce’s Ulysses, the narrative style is extremely confusing until you get the hang of reading Vargas Llosa’s particular brand of stream-of-consciousness. For those of you faint-hearted readers who find Virginia Woolf's writing to be too taxing, I wouldn’t recommend Conversation in the Cathedralthis is stream-of-consciousness writing on steroids. But for those of you who are willing to spend a few hours (or more) in a state of confusion, I’d say the novel is worth the time and effort, at least based on my feelings about the first section (and the first fifteen pages or so of the second section).

Let me explain a little bit about Vargas Llosa’s narrative style in Conversation in the Cathedral, which differs from the way that he uses stream-of-consciousness in some of his other novels that I’ve read. In Storyteller, I seem to remember that the narration often moves fluidly from one thought to another inside a character’s mind, much like the narrative style of Modernist author Woolf and Vargas Llosa’s contemporary and fellow Nobel Prize winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez. When reading stream-of-consciousness writing, the reader must pay very close attention in order to understand the character’s train of thought, separating individual ideas and thoughts from the uninterrupted flow of language. The reader must also pay attention to whether the narration of one character has suddenly given way to a whole other character’s train of thought, which sometimes happens with very few clues or indications that this has happened. In Conversation in the Cathedral, though, Vargas Llosa’s two main characters are recounting the stories of their lives to each other while drinking in a bar – and in each chapter, several different scenes are interwoven as the memories of the drunken men blur together.

My experience reading these chapters, with Santiago and Ambrosio’s memories interwoven and blurred together, has followed a particular pattern. First I would experience utter confusion as Vargas Llosa would introduce approximately six to nine characters at the beginning of the chapter (there are usually at least two or three characters in each interwoven scene, and seem to be an average of three scenes that overlap with each other at any given time). Then, I would start to understand the relationships between the characters and the overlapping scenes – a conversation between Santiago and his friends from San Marcos University might be interwoven with a conversation that with his father, and then also with his present-day commentary about his friends directed at Ambrosio. In each section, each of the scenes illuminates the others in different ways. Once my confusion had mostly subsided, I would become engrossed in the storyline of the particular chapter. But then, inevitably, the chapter would end and another would begin – and at the start of each new chapter, I felt as though I was hitting the reset button. I felt a little frustrated, since I had just put in all the effort to decipher the rules and context of the previous chapter so that I could enjoy the story – and now I must do the same thing for the next section, and the next.

Let me emphasize, though, that I think it is worth the effort – once I become absorbed in each chapter’s story, I again find that I am glad that I struggled through the first five pages to figure out who was who. There are many interesting and sympathetic characters in this novel, all of whom seem tied together in loose but important ways. I am most interested and engrossed in the narrative threads about Ambrosio’s former girlfriend Amalia, young Santiago’s love triangle with fellow university students Adia and Jacobo, Santiago’s life-long struggle to pull away from his father, and his search to find something in which he can truly believe. These relationships are complex and compelling, and they also serve to illuminate much of the corruption present at all levels of Peruvian government and society. I am not as drawn to the narrative threads about the government officials Don Cayo Bermudez and Colonel Espina, except for the fact that they have dealings with Santiago’s father Don Fermin Zavala which then effect both Santiago and Ambrosio, as well as Santiago’s friends and peers.

Overall, I like the intensely personal nature of many of these smaller interwoven stories, and although the narrative style of Conversation in the Cathedral is extremely challenging to read at times, it plays an important role in conveying many of the character’s emotions in an intimate way. In particular, Santiago’s disappointment and disillusionment bleed through the layers of the narrative as he offers a straightforward commentary on his own life and as he inadvertently recalls emotions and sensations that unavoidably effect the way that he describes a scene to his old friend Ambrosio.

But while I am enjoying the novel, I am also relieved to know that the reading experience will get a little easier starting with Section Two of Conversation in the Cathedral. I am interested to see exactly why Vargas Llosa might want to switch narrative styles mid-stream, so to speak – and since the interwoven stream-of-consciousness scenes help to convey the intimacy of emotion in Section One, I can only guess that a different technique must also help Vargas Llosa convey something else that is integral to the story.

Note: As I read longer novels, I will sometimes post thoughts about the book before I finish reading it, then still write a separate review. Since these are some of my initial thoughts from as I read the first section of Conversation in the Cathedral, I haven’t yet included a rating. Check back over the weekend for more thoughts, and a full review of the novel is coming some time next week (the novel is four parts long…).

This post participates in my Reading Focus on Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa. For more info and reviews, check out my other posts on the author.

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