Archive for the ‘Books About My 2011 Reading Challenges’ Category

The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie

Wendy McClure

New York: Riverhead, 2011.

(reviewed from a review copy)

This summer, after our annual two-day drive from Ontario to Nova Scotia, I climbed out of our mini-van and into a flu.  In the roof-top carrier of the mini-van was a banker’s box full of books I’d brought on holiday (because it’s just not a vacation unless you bring along enough reading material to last until the apocalypse), but on our first night at the cottage, we did not unpack that box, and I was left without bedtime reading material.  I went, instead, to the cottage’s shelves and found an old Dell paperback copy of The Little House on the Prairie.  Perfect.  In spite of my exhaustion, I read late into the night, and when I woke up feeling less than well the next morning, I put it down to the long drive and the short sleep.

Not long after, I was back in bed and there I would stay for a few days.  The banker’s box sat in the corner, untouched.  Not one of the books was suitable for flu reading, but Laura Ingalls Wilder was, and I made my way through two of the Little House books while shivering and sweating and coughing it out.  (Not to be too melodramatic here, but I could identify when the family all had malaria.)

As I read, I was paying as much attention to the books as I was to my response to them: attraction and repulsion.  Ma’s racism was something I had not remembered at all, and it disgusted me.  It’s always an odd sensation to revisit a book from childhood, but this was particularly jarring.  I found the narrator a tad cold, too.  But then there was the wonderful catalogue of things and deeds, of blessings and curses, of a world contained and enumerable.

How delightful, then, to read Wendy McClure’s book and find my ambivalence so precisely and humourously mirrored.  I am nowhere near the Little House fan McClure is, but her book is so well written, so amusing and richly textured, that she takes us along on her own (re)discovery of the world of the books without our having to match her level of devotion to them.

McClure, who is a children’s book editor and who tweets as HalfPintIngalls, begins by describing the appeal of the books:

Since I edit children’s books for a living, I get asked a lot about my favorite books as a kid.  When I tell people I loved the Little House books, I know it’s a perfectly respectable answer, the sort of thing folks expect me to say.  Then sometimes they go on and ask me whether I also loved various other Important Children’s Books, like Where the Wild Things Are and The Little Prince and The House at Pooh Corner, and I’ll do my best for a while, trying to play along, and then at some point I have to hem and haw and shrug because, well, you know what I really liked?  I liked books that had pictures of toast in them.

Well, not just toast, but, you know, cups and ladles and baskets and hats, lovingly rendered, all in their places in a room or even just in little vignettes, but at any rate, things, in all their thinginess.  (3-4)

I do know!  Things in all their thinginess is my thing too!

She re-reads the whole set of Little House books, researches the biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, and begins to plan trips to the creeks, sod houses and towns in which her fictionalized biographies are set.  She buys calico sun bonnets.  She buys a butter churn.  And makes butter with it.  Her boyfriend, bless him, puts horehound candy in her stocking.

I flipped through the pages of [The Little House Guidebook] and mentally subtitled it Everything You Wanted to Know About Driving Out to Remote Locations in the Upper Midwest to Find Your Childhood Imaginary Friend but Were Afraid to Ask.  And I was still afraid to ask: what kind of a person would I become if I just went with this, let my calico-sunbonnet freak flag fly? (26)

What happens when she lets her freak flag fly is a wonderful book, full of humour.  Equal parts memoir, biography, picaresque and cultural studies, McClure’s book attempts to reconcile her childhood love of the books with some of their darker undercurrents.

As part of her attempt to live “La Vida Laura,” McClure and her boyfriend go on a homesteading weekend, encouraged by the host’s mention of the Little House books on her website.   She is encouraged to bring her butter churn so that she can show the other participants how to churn butter.  The other participants turn out to be Christians preparing for the apocalypse.

I was keeping an open mind.  And I had gotten used to encountering people of a somewhat more evangelical bent in the Laura Ingalls Wilder fan world—plenty of homeschooling moms blogged about the Little House books, for example, and I’d noticed more than a couple fish symbols on the cars in the museum parking lot in Mansfield, Missouri.  They were all nice folks who shared my love of Laura but maybe not my support for legalizing gay marriage. …

From everything I’d read, End Timers were waiting for the collapse of the civilization the way fans of the Twilight series awaited the trailer for Breaking Dawn.  They were bracing themselves to endure the myriad destructive ordeals that would wipe out infidels, atheists, unrepentant sinners, industrialists, government officials, and Salon.com readers, with the expectation that they, the prepared ones, would be among the worthy few who would be raptured to Heaven….  (191, 194) 

This wonderfully humourous clashing of worlds is an opportunity for McClure to investigate the darker side to the homey nostalgia of the books:

I had been searching for Laura Ingalls Wilder and I’d gotten Hippie Half-Pint instead, half full of her crazy, crazy Kool-Aid made from foraged berries.

But that wasn’t the only thing that was making me uneasy.  Deep down, I was starting to wonder if the Little House books had more to do with this sort of worldview than I’d been willing to admit.  Not the end-of-the-world stuff, of course, but that “simple life” mind-set and all that it rejected.  … I thought about the moms who bragged online that their homeschooled kids were not only reading the Little House books but were learning from reprinted editions of the same McGuffey’s Eclectic Readers that Laura and Carrie used, as if all of twentieth-century pedagogy simply didn’t exist.  (196)

It is this layered approach that I most liked about McClure’s book.  Memoir and biography, nostalgia and honest examinations of the racism in the book, humour and skepticism about the commercialization of Laura world.

On the banks of the real Plum Creek, McClure has a moment of clarity:

I was going to wade in the creek.  Others were doing it—both adults and kids were seeking out clear spots along the bank where it was easy to step into the water.  I found a place where the dirt was smooth from the feet of other visitors.  I took off my flip-flops and stepped awkwardly down the slope of the bank.  The water felt nice.  A little cloud of silt rose up with each step, just like On the Banks of Plum Creek had described.  Or it was just like each step I’d taken in the creek at the campground where my family spent weekends when I was a kid.  I don’t know which had come first, my own experience or the book, but either way, that smokelike swirl that wavered in the water was how I know the book was true. (232)

I love this passage.  The visceral layering of here and there, now and then, experience lived and experience read; the sudden awareness of truth.  Isn’t that what the complexity and clarity of re-reading old loves is all about?

This book was a joy to read, and I recommend it highly, not just for fans of Laura Ingalls Wilder, but for any book lover who loves a good read.

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An Uncommon Heroine: Scarlett, Edna, Sula and More Than 20 Other of Most Remarkable Women in Literature

Jamie Cox Robertson

Avon, MA: Adams Media, 2010.

Reviewed from a review copy.

Like Stephanie Stall, author of Reading Women, Jamie Cox Robertson had occasion to revisit the books of her youth after having a daughter.  For Robertson, the book that sent her on a re-reading spree was Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s

In my twenties, I thought of Holly as a self-centered girl who dated entirely too many men.  But reading Capote’s novel again so many years later caused me to see Holly Golightly in a completely different way than I did back then.  Now I see a necessary rite of passage to her outrageousness and self-centeredness, and I think a woman’s twenties is the perfect time to be whimsical and unpredictable. … I got to thinking–would I see other women I had read about in a different light now that I was older, married, and had a daughter of my own?

The result of her re-reading the heroines of her youth, and of meeting some new ones, is this collection of excerpts from the classics of books by and about women.

Each chapter is named for the heroine and has brief sections on “her story,” “what makes her so memorable,” and “the life and times” of the author who brought her to life.  Those brief sketches are a useful reminder of the character’s back-story, and the context of the authors’ biographies helps to situate the memorable women they created. 

Because this book began as an experience born of revisiting the heroines and revising her opinions, I would have liked to have heard a lot more from Robertson, but her voice all but disappears after the short introduction.  I would have liked much more lengthy discussions of how her perspective changed, about what having her daughter did to colour her perception of many of these women’s maternal ambivalence, for example.  For me, the joy of books about books so often lies in the personal narrative, in how authors’ lives have been shaded by their reading.  I am also not a big fan of excerpts, but I did enjoy the brief visits I had with these uncommon heroines, some of whom I met for the first time.  (I have gotten this far in life without reading My Antonia.  Summer seems like a good time to change that.)  This book is a gateway to others and an invitation to question her choices: Is Anne Elliot your favourite Austen heroine?  Is Little Dorrit worthy of inclusion?  Does Dorothea Brooke prevail as a heroine?  Many of the women on these pages also appear in The Heroine’s Bookshelf, and I’ve added some titles to my list for that reading challenge.  (Sometimes, “challenge” is just not the right word.  It’s just too easy to read and read and read books with these marvellous, complicated women.)

Ultimately, the book did what good books do: it sent me to my bookshelves. I pulled down Mrs. Dalloway for a re-read, and I will spend the summer solstice roaming through the streets of London and through the minds of Clarissa and Septimus, listening to the birds speak Greek.

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Scout, Atticus & Boo: A Celebration of Fifty Years of To Kill A Mockingbird

Mary McDonagh Murphy

New York: Harper Collins, 2010.

It’s interesting, the word “classic.”  A phrase I come across often when reading reviews of children’s books is “an instant classic,” as if sales alone could invest a book with the aura of story long and well-loved.  

The Atlantic has gone into its archives and unearthed its reviews of “12 classic books.”  To Kill a Mockingbird is one of them, and you could not hope to read a more nonplussed review of what the reviewer calls “respectable hammock reading.”  Certainly nothing here to indicate a future classic:

A variety of adults, mostly eccentric in Scout’s judgment, and a continual bubble of incident make To Kill A Mockingbird pleasant, undemanding reading.

Neither Harper Lee nor this reviewer knew what kind of an impact the book would have on America, and its impact was huge.  The Pulitzer Prize, sales of more than 30 million, and year after year it tops lists of best/most loved/most influential books of all time.  

It is neither a “pleasant, undemanding” read, nor is it the best book of all time.  (As if “best” was quantifiable.)  Richard Russo stakes the middle ground perfectly when he says about it that “masterpieces are masterpieces not because they are flawless but because they’ve tapped into something essential to us, at the heart of who we are and how we live.  …  Great books are not flawless books.”

Scout, Atticus & Boo does not set out to anoint the best book of all time, it is about sharing love and admiration.  Part One of the book is an essay by Mary McDonagh Murphy, whose documentary Hey, Boo is the source material for Part Two, the two dozen commentaries by friends of Harper Lee and famous admirers of her book.  Part One is much, much more readable and enjoyable because it originated as a written piece.  The author covers the political and biographical contexts of the book, its reach and influence, and the privacy and silence of Harper Lee in the wake of her book’s enormous success.  Part Two is simply not a comfortable read because these are not essays, they are the transcripts of interviews for the film, and read as choppy and scattered.  I would suggest seeing the interviewees come alive on film rather than reading the transcripts in this book.


I re-read To Kill a Mockingbird this week because it was the book for my book club, and we had a delightful night of discussion.  The week before Father’s Day was the perfect time to meet Atticus Finch again. He is so unruffled, so positively adoring of his children even without the demonstrative behaviour of today’s doting and high-fiving parents. 

It is interesting that many of the people interviewed by Mary McDonagh Murphy also focus on parenting in their recollections of and comments on the book.  Reverend Thomas Lane Butts says, “you don’t worry so much … about children not listening to you.  You worry because they’re watching you.”  Richard Russo expands on the same point:

Atticus Finch, in some ways, was the father maybe that I longed for.  But when I became a father, I found it very difficult to be that kind of father.  I have found it impossible not to tell my daughters how much I love them at every juncture.  Atticus is reserved.  He trusts his daughter.  He trusts his daughter to understand what is essential about him and about herself and about their relationship.  I could never have gone about it that way, and yet there was some part of me that knew as a father that less would have been more.  I think Atticus knew that and was able to act upon it as principle.  That great ability to trust a child and that great ability to understand that a child will know in the fullness of time what it is that you’re trying to get across.  And that what you do, even more than what you say, will be all that that child ultimately will need.

Roseanne Cash sums up his greatness for me when she says, “Atticus is a real grown-up.”  It’s hard to be a grown up, and, like Russo, I admire Atticus’s reserve even if I cannot reproduce it. 

Atticus struggles with being a single parent, and we are to understand that his sister, Aunt Alexandra, with her ladies’ teas and her insistence that Scout wear dresses, is an unwelcome reminder of his unsuitability as a parent to a growing girl.  She wants Scout to behave like a lady, and we know that’s just plain wrong. 

But, but, but who could fail to swell with pride when, at the end of their harrowing night, Scout demonstrates all of her father’s quiet courtesy and will not lead Boo Radley back home, but takes Mr. Arthur’s arm like a real lady?

I led him to the front porch, where his uneasy steps halted.  He was still holding my hand and he gave no sign of letting me go.

“Will you take me home?”

He almost whispered it, in the voice of a child afraid of the dark.

I put my foot on the top step and stopped.  I would lead him through our house, but I would never lead him home.

“Mr. Arthur, bend your arm down here, like that.  That’s right, sir.”

I slipped my hand into the crook of his arm.

He had to stoop a little to accommodate me, but if Miss Stephanie Crawford was watching from her upstairs window, she would see Arthur Radley escorting me down the sidewalk, as any gentleman would do.


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Book Ends: A Year Between the Covers

Naomi Beth Wakan

Hamilton: Poplar Press, 2010

Read from a review copy.


This book is deceptively simple.  Organized in 12 chapters named for each of the twelve months that the book covers, Wakan’s book strolls through a year of reading, but also of gardening, hosting, teaching, running errands,  and minding the world.  Her narrative pace is slow and her essays meander, but they belie a breakneck reading pace.  I don’t know how the library on Gabriola Island keeps her stocked because she and her husband go through 20 books a week.  The island, its library and her book box, the old milk crate in which she keeps her books to be read, become characters in their own right, and the books she reads are always firmly tethered to the context in which she reads them.  These are familiar essays, and while the pace of the individual chapters may be easy, Wakan, in her late seventies, has more than 30 books of poetry and non-fiction to her credit.  She reads and writes at a fantastic pace, but none of that urgency appears here.  On the pages of this book, she is relaxed company.

What I like best about Wakan’s book is that she knows that there are more prolific writers, more voracious and up-to-date readers out there, and, after acknowledging that there are other ways of being, she is unapologetic about the kind of writer and reader that she is. 

I have been reading a book entitled 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (general editor–Peter Boxall) and, of course, it filled me with guilt and remorse.  What have I been doing with my life that I have probably not read more than one third of the books included? …  Reading [it] left me with the feeling that I would like to have written a novel. … But that is not to be, for here I am, yet once more, turning out yet one more little essay about books and writers and, do you know, having recovered from reading the summaries of one thousand and one books by triumphant (and often alcoholic and suicidal) authors, I am quite content to have my life running this way.

I was pleasantly surprised by how many books about books she discusses.  My beloved Ex Libris  and 84 Charing Cross Road are among more than 30 books about books and author biographies and autobiographies.  It’s a veritable goldmine of bibliophilic reading.  I had seen the title of Pierre Bayard’s book, How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, and dismissed it as flippant, but she calls it the best book of her reading year.  I’m sold.  I am doing a reading challenge based on 1001 Books to Read Before You Die, the 1% well-read challenge, so Wakan’s book also had the added bonus of being a book about my reading challenges. 

Wakan gently points me to the truth that not all the books we bring home have to be fiction or bibliophilic.  She reads books about math and makes them sound compelling.  This is not an easy thing to do.  Lots of books about gardening, too, as she and her husband attempt a zero-mile diet by growing almost all of their own food.  Also not an easy thing to do. 

As you will have noticed from my April entries, I often prefer reading about gardening to actually doing it, so while making my garden to-do list, I began to once more think about garden writing and folks who do it.

Michael Pollan points out so nicely that writing and gardening are both ways of rendering the world in rows.

I’ve just wandered home from the bookstore with Merilyn Simond’s A New Leaf: Growing with My Garden tucked under my arm and am looking forward to its rows on rows.

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Now I think it’s merely

a matter of emphasis,

like the Globe & Mail

and the National Enquirer.

They’re both the same, really;

they both line words

like bars across the pages,

making you want to squeeze

between them into the white

where you think the truth is.

from “The Town Where I Grew Up”

Common Magic

Bronwen Wallace

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Books about My 2011 Reading Challenges II

The Heroine’s Bookshelf: Life Lessons, From Jane Austen to Laura Ingalls Wilder

Erin Blakemore

Toronto: Harper Collins, 2010.

Oh, dear.  I am not at all the right reader for this book.  No, not at all.  This is a particular blow because I agree in principle with much of what Blakemore says, but I am so disappointed that this passionate book lover is not speaking to me.  We are not a good match, this book and I.  The tone is all wrong, though I might agree with the substance of what she says. 

Blakemore’s book is divided into 12 chapters, each giving a biographical sketch of an author and a summary of the plot for her protagonist.  Each chapter is focussed on a theme like ambition or simplicity, and each ends with a suggestion of how to match what ails you to the book balm.  For example, the chapter on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice ends with the suggestion that you read this book

  • When your mom complains that you’ll never give her grandchildren
  • When your inner people-pleaser threatens to drown out your gut instinct
  • As an antidote to deathly seriousness (17)

Well, accuse me of deathly seriousness if you will, but a list like this shuts down much of the magnificence of these books.  I also bristle at the idea of my favourite books as self-help guides, because I don’t sit down with Pride and Prejudice for a “life lesson.”

“Heroine” designates both author and protagonist, and Blakemore does make a convincing case for why these authors and their creations are the timeless touchstones that they are.  My favourite aspect of the book was the biographical sketch of the author in each chapter.  Blakemore gives an efficient and concise summary of the writers’ personal and professional lives, without ever being reductive about biographical readings of the fiction, and I was grateful for the overviews.  The twelve chapters discuss 

  • Jane Austen and Lizzy Bennet
  • Zora Neale Hurston and Janie Crawford
  • Lucy Maud Montgomery and Anne Shirley
  • Alice Walker and Celie
  • Betty Smith and Francie Nolan
  • Colette and Claudine
  • Margaret Mitchell and Scarlett O’Hara
  • Harper Lee and Scout Finch
  • Laura Ingalls Wilder and Laura Ingalls
  • Charlotte Bronte and Jane Eyre
  • Louisa May Alcott and Jo March, and
  • Frances Hodgson Burnett and Mary Lennox. 

Each chapter also ends with a list of three of the protagonists’ “literary sisters,” for further reading.  Since I have read and re-read all twelve books, it was for the literary sisters that I took up the Heroine’s Bookshelf Challenge.

The book gets off to the most awkward start, though, with an introduction that seems to be addressed to people who don’t read, which is odd, because, well, this is a book.  Not only people who don’t read, but who actively argue that there are better things to do and it’s a waste of time to read. 

Writing a book about reading at a time when the practical is the popular has been a rare challenge.  Surely there’s always something better to do than revisit women who’ve been dead for centuries. (xix)

Well, yes, but choosing to read in spite of life’s other pressures is precisely what makes us book lovers, isn’t it?  Blakemore makes exactly that point, but I do wish she had taken a different tone.  Why be pre-emptively defensive?

In times of struggle, there are as many reasons not to read as there are to breathe.  Don’t you have better things to do?  Reading, let alone rereading, is the terrain of milquetoasts and mopey spinsters.  At life’s ugliest junctures, the very act of opening a book can smack of cowardly escapism.  Who chooses to read when there’s work to be done? (xi)

Again, I scratch my head in wonder.  If those who hold this opinion aren’t reading other books, they likely aren’t reading this one, so why address them and their arguments?  Here is a book about the timelessness of books, and it is mired in its own time: mid-recession, belt-tightening, grouchy-about-frills-like-reading time.  I wish she had dispensed with all of the pre-emptive defense about why books matter and just gotten on with the job of extolling the heroines. 

With her choice of twelve heroines I have no quibbles at all.  These books have given me many hours of comfort and joy, and I was pleased to have been reminded of old friends.

Immediately after putting this book down, I picked up one of the literary sisters.  I’ve had Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle on my TBR pile for ages, and Cassandra Mortmain is named as one of Jane Eyre’s literary sisters in steadfastness.  I devoured the book, gorging on its delightful wit and whimsy.  For giving me the nudge to read I Capture the Castle I am profoundly grateful.  Dodie Smith and I, we are a good fit.

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Books About My 2011 Reading Challenges: I

P.D. James

Talking About Detective Fiction

Toronto: Knopff, 2009.

Before I began my mystery reading challenge, I decided to knock this book about mystery books off of my TBR pile.  I’m glad I did, because in addition to offering a useful overview of the genre, James has strengthened my resolve to catch up with some mystery writers from the Golden Age that I’ve not read yet.  (Nicholas Blake and E.C. Bentley.  And because of the TBR Dare I won’t be able to read them until April 1!  No matter.  Plenty to keep me busy until then.)  If you are looking for a quick read, a well-informed historical overview of the genre of detective fiction, and an impassioned discussion of the value of great writing, this book will do it.

Talking About Detective Fiction was first published by the Bodleian Library; in 2006, the Library approached James to write it as a fundraising venture.  Not only, then, is there a wonderfully apt conjunction of author and subject, but also of patron.  Oxford is up to its eyeballs in fictional detectives, including, of course, my favourite curmudgeon, Inspector Morse. 

I thoroughly enjoyed James’s “talk,” but it is in a bit of an odd spot, rhetorically speaking.  There are several notable tensions.  Here is an expert on the topic—as researcher, consumer and practitioner—but her objective is to offer an overview. 

Given that she is writing an overview, it is odd that she also assumes that her readers are already familiar with the sub-genres of detective fiction.  She refers offhandedly to the “dons’ delight” and the “cozy.”  It is a pinning down of these sub-genres that I’d been hoping to find when I read the book, so I was disappointed with her ready assumption that I already knew their names and definitions.

The most striking tension, though, is that she assumes her readers’ familiarity with many of the books to which she refers, even, on occasion, spoiling the plot, a cardinal sin of any reviewer of mysteries.  The most overt example of a plot spoiler is her discussion of Agathe Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, so shut your eyes when you get to that bit if you don’t want to know!  (As it happens, I already knew the identity of Roger Ackroyd’s murderer, even though I have not yet read the book.  My husband read it last summer and exclaimed when he got to the end, and, over his protests, I told him that it was alright to tell me whodunit, fully assured of the frailty of my memory.  I was sure I’d forget.  I haven’t.)

The reader, then, is supposed to be a novice in need of an overview, but already in on the secret of whodunit in more than one case. 

I forgive James her rhetorical awkwardness, though, for including a marvellous quotation from Dorothy Sayers about how detective fiction is as much a form of escape for the writer as the reader.  In a letter to her American publishers about her amateur detective, Lord Peter Wimsey, she wrote:

Lord Peter’s large income (the source of which, by the way, I have never investigated) was a different matter.  I deliberately gave him that.  After all, it cost me nothing, and at that time I was particularly hard up and it gave me pleasure to spend his fortune for him.  When I was dissatisfied with my single unfurnished room, I took a luxurious flat for him in Piccadilly.   When my cheap rug got a hole in it, I ordered an Aubusson carpet.  When I had no money to pay my bus fare, I presented him with a Daimler double-six, upholstered in a style of sober magnificence, and when I felt dull I let him drive it. (107)

Marvellous!  Just look at how she paces that last sentence!  “A style of sober magnificence”: a perfect description of the escape offered by expertly written detective fiction. 

I let James’s book be my first book about books for the year and be my guide to my first novel, Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone.  Technically, it is a re-read, but my frail memory was happily dependable in this case, and I not only forgot the all-important solution to the mystery, I forgot how deliciously bookish it is.  Gabriel Betteredge, the butler, reads his Robinson Crusoe like a bible.  He treats the novel as a kind of oracle, and Collins plays with his readers’ probable compulsive reading and attempts to divine the future of his own text.  It was a delightful read, cunning in its humour and plot.  The Moonstone ticks boxes in about six of my reading challenges, too, so I’m off to a great start.

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