Category Archives: Blog Post

Post-turkey update: three titles

BUDDHA BOY, by Kathe Koja. Upper MG/YA. Short and *very* sweet. The moving story of a high-school friendship–SO believable–as well as a tale about bullying with a victim who fights back without fighting back. I really admire how this writer accomplishes much with so few words.

HOW I LIVE NOW, by Meg Rosoff. YA. The beginning of this book seems to draw from every YA cliche you’ve ever read: troubled teen, dead mother, remarried father, evil stepmother, eccentric cousins. But the voice of the 15-year-old girl protagonist was so compelling that it carried me right into the heart of the story: war in our time. Daisy is sent by her family to live with her aunt and cousins in England, where unidentified shadowy factions are waging a terrorist takeover. A war story; a love story; a survival story; transcends its stock opening and becomes something truly memorable. Even a rather confusing ending didn’t spoil it for me: I hope this one wins a Printz.

THE MURDER ROOM, by P.D. James. Adult. Sleuth Adam Dalgliesh of New Scotland Yard is at it again, James still in command after all these years. Nothing special about this one, unless you like terrific writing and thoughtful examination of current social mores in the form of a very British murder mystery. As well as entertaining me, James always makes me think. I’d read anything with her name on it.

HOLDING AT THIRD, by Linda Zinnen

OK, so I have a soft spot for baseball books. But I’m also harder on them: The baseball depicted has to be accurate, and better yet, it should show me–a lifetime fan–something new about the game. HOLDING AT THIRD (older midgrade) does both. I’m guessing two things: that the author is also a lifelong fan of the game, AND she most likely played baseball (or softball) seriously at some point in her life, which would put her one up on me. I doubt I could hit a giant-size beach ball if it were slow-pitched to me, but I loved being with Matt in the batter’s box, some impressive subtleties explained there.

Matt’s beloved older brother Tom has cancer. Baseball links them, separates them, helps and hinders, as Matt tries to come to an understanding of his life now that the vicious disease is part of the family. Moving, funny, baseball. My kind of book.


The award list for this book is truly impressive: *Every* major children’s literature award committee has bestowed on it some kind of accolade. ALA (American Library Association) Newbery Honor. ALA Sibert Award for best informational book. Boston Globe/Horn Book Award for nonfiction. National Book Award finalist. James Madison Book Award for a book about American history. The list goes on. I don’t have the stats in front of me, but if I were betting on ‘most decorated’ title in the history of children’s literature, I’d put my money right here.

And the book walks the walk. An account of the yellow-fever epidemic in Philadelphia, 1793, nonfiction that reads like the most compelling novel. Murphy’s style is ‘invisible’, which means he has accomplished the kind of writing I most admire: The story seems to tell itself.

There is stuff within these pages that I will never forget.


…that’s my excuse. I watched a good many of the division series games, all of the ALCS, most of the NLCS, and every single minute of the World Series. Which left alarmingly little time to read, but what terrific baseball it was!

Although I read far less than usual over the past three weeks, I still have a few titles to report:

Both by E.L. Konigsburg.

Last week I spoke at a conference at which Mrs. Konigsburg was another speaker. She gave one of the best speeches I have ever heard–one that made me feel thrilled and honored to have been present at. GIACONDA is an older title I hadn’t read before; OUTCASTS is her latest. I liked the former, although I’d choose A PROUD TASTE OF SCARLET AND MINIVER as my favorite historical-fiction book of hers.

And I LOVED the second book. I’m a huge fan of Konigsburg’s work; FRANKWEILER; JENNIFER, HECATE…; SCARLET; and FATHER’S ARCANE DAUGHTER are all on my mental best-books-ever list. I think OUTCASTS is right up there with those titles–a real ‘comeback,’ in my opinion. (I liked THE VIEW FROM SATURDAY and SILENT TO THE BONE, her two previous titles, but did not feel they were up to the admittedly stratospheric standards of the earlier work. OUTCASTS is.) Margaret Rose Kane is a memorable character, as are those in her supporting cast as they battle demons that range from summer-camp cliques to urban bureaucracy.

Kitchen-table title: A FEAST MADE FOR LAUGHTER, by Craig Claiborne. Memoir by the New York Times food writer, whose career paralleled the development of a foodie nation. Good stuff if you’re interested in recent food history, although the writing style doesn’t do much for me.

And while I’m here, I may as well recommend my favorite baseball title: WAIT TILL NEXT YEAR, by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Dodger fan-dom in the 1950s, wonderful writing.

Airport reading

I’ve been on the road for a couple of weeks, and my usual airport-and-hotel-room reading is mysteries. Two of them this time around: THE VANISHED MAN (a Lincoln Rhyme novel), by Jeffrey Deaver, and BLACKLIST (V.I. Warshawski), by Sara Peretsky. Both good reads for dispelling the impatience/boredom quotient peculiar to airports… Of the two, the Deaver book was the more intriguing, delving into the world of the professional magician. Peretsky’s characters came from two family trees whose tangled roots and branches I found confusing, but I did like the way she explored current issues (the post 9/11 backlash against Arabs and Arab-Americans, the Patriot Act) in her story.


Midgrade fantasy that tracks the time-traveling adventures of a boy and his dog.

While I haven’t read ALL the Redwall books, I did read several of them and especially liked the badgers in SALAMANDASTRON…perhaps because of echoes of Grahame’s Badger. CASTAWAYS shares many strengths with the Redwall series–admirable heroes (both boy and dog); unambiguous villians; bright moments of comic relief; and page-turnability.

I had something of a pacing problem with the story. The first two episodes are short and snappy, so I was unprepared for the much longer third section that takes up the rest of the book; it seemed to drag by comparison. Still, the book had plenty of Jacquesian charm, and Redwall fans (of whom there are legions…) will not be disappointed.

MISS HAPPINESS AND MISS FLOWER, by Rumer Godden. Plus, thoughts on being a re-reader

I’m a re-reader. That seems to be yet another of those either / or characteristics: My husband reads a lot, but can’t understand the re-reading impulse. He feels that he’ll never be able to read everything he wants to read as it is, so why would he spend valuable reading time on something he’s already read?

Very reasonable. But my rationale for being a re-reader begins with exactly the same thought: I know I’ll never be able to read everything I want to read…so why would I even pretend to try? Instead I regularly return to books or passages or poems that were favorites in the past. They’re a kind of marker or measure: Sometimes I find that I love them as much as I did when I first read them. Other times I discover that while the words haven’t changed, my response to them has.

In the latter category, two writers I adored when I was in my twenties, and whose work was a powerful influence on my own…but whom I can no longer read with the same intensity of pleasure: Joan Didion and MFK Fisher. I will forever be grateful for what I learned from the work of these two writers, yet these days their words fail to move me as they once did. I’ll have to think some more about exactly why this should be…

On the flip side: I just re-read MISS HAPPINESS AND MISS FLOWER, a book I loved as a child (originally published in 1961) and have re-read several times since then. It is a quiet, gentle book in which very little happens…the kind of book that people like to say ‘would never get published today.’ A girl, two dolls, and the girl’s foster family. It’s quite a short novel, but the character development is remarkable–real people everywhere, even those who are only onstage for brief moments.

Kitchen-table titles: I always have a book on the kitchen table. I usually eat lunch on my own at home, and I read–mostly re-read–while I eat my sandwich. The kitchen-table books are those I can depend on to provide satisfaction in twenty-minute snatches, and quite often they are food books. Two weeks ago, SIMPLE COOKING by John Thorne was on the table; last week it was Thorne’s OUTLAW COOK. His books are very often table-titles because I never tire of the way his prose combines clarity with genuine respect for his subjects.

This week’s kitchen-table title: YOUNG AND HUNGRY, by Suzanne Taylor. A used-book find (probably out of print now)–a memoir with recipes, Taylor’s girlhood in Norway. Delightful.

GIFTS, by Ursula LeGuin

Too cool: A *short* fantasy–how does she do it, build such a convincing world in so few pages? A boy with a literally devastating talent must learn to live with this ‘gift.’ Beautifully written. If you liked Peter Dickinson’s THE ROPEMAKER, read this one…or vice-versa.

KRISTIN LAVRANSDATTER: Vol. 1, ‘The Wreath’, by Sigrid Undset

OK, to explain how I came to be reading this one, I have to back up about a year or so. That was when I discovered a collection of essays titled THE BOOK THAT CHANGED MY LIFE, edited by Neil Baldwin. It was published out of the National Book Foundation: Winners of the National Book Award were asked to write an essay about, well, the book that changed their lives, natch. Each essay was followed by a list of other books that the author also found influential.

Katherine Paterson was one of the authors included. The book that changed her life was Alan Paton’s CRY THE BELOVED COUNTRY. And in her list at the end of the essay, I saw a title and author I’d never heard of: KRISTIN LAVRANSDATTER, by the Swedish-born Norwegian writer Sigrid Undset. (I later learned that Undset won the Nobel Prize for Literature in the 1920s, in large part on the strength of the Lavransdatter trilogy.)

So far I’ve read Volume I, which covers the years from Kristin’s childhood through her marriage at age 17. You can bet I’ll be going on to II and III. It’s historical fiction about a well-off rural family in medieval Norway–a fascinating setting and characters that are so real I can almost…smell them! If you like novels of epic scope, you gotta treat yourself to KRISTIN. It reminds me of ANNA KARENINA, except that Undset’s style (or at least the English translation…) is as clean and limpid as the reflection of a mountain in a fjord.

Learning the title of a great book I never might have come across otherwise is like being given the BEST kind of present. Thanks, Katherine Paterson!

THE CHOCOLATE WAR, by Robert Cormier

Somehow I never got around to reading this one before. I’ve read other Cormier titles, and this one served to reinforce what I already knew–that his was a powerful and unique voice in literature for young people. Think bleak if you want; for me, I found Jerry to be a character of great resourcefulness. Still a must-read after all these years!