Monday, March 22, 2010

Recent Books I've Enjoyed: The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt and Sing Them Home by Stephanie Kallos

I am an avid reader and enjoy recommending books to my friends and family, but have reservations about writing "critical" book reviews which suggest a more scholarly approach to reading and judging books.  I'm now reading primarily for pleasure, and I can tell within ten or fifteen pages whether or not a book will fulfill that requirement.  If it doesn't, I'll move on to the next book in my reading pile or my reserve list.  (Nancy Pearl, author of Book Lust: Recommended Reading for Every Mood, Moment, and Reason, recommends the "rule of fifty", whereby you give a book about fifty pages to decide whether or not to continue if your age is fifty or under; if you're over fifty, you should subtract your age from 100 for the number of pages you should read.  That means that I'm short-changing my books; I should be reading about 37 pages.  Pearl is a former librarian and can probably understand my reasoning; if I have ten or more books waiting for me, ten pages to "audition" a book is plenty!)

I do understand that pleasure reading for me may be entirely different from that of my family or my friends (even good friends, whose reading tastes may entirely escape me).  With that in mind, I'll share some things that lead me to the books I read.  Again, I am doing this so that anyone who reads my book recommendations will remember that they are based on my own personal preferences.
  • I enjoy books that are "character driven" as opposed to "plot driven".  This is not to say that I don't think a good plot is important, but I can read about an interesting character for quite a while, but the best plot with cardboard characters won't keep my interest.  Also, really interesting characters seem to draw action to them, and their reactions to whatever life throws at them are the basis for great reading.
  • I enjoy books about relationships (again, it's that "character" preference), especially between friends and family members.
  • I love books that cover several generations of a family or long friendships, especially between women.  
  • I enjoy "multilayered" books, where different subplots are germinating beneath the surface.
  • I love long books that I can enjoy over several days or weeks.  They keep me going on other, less enjoyable tasks; I can always look forward to going back to my book.
  • I enjoy books that teach me about history or geography or culture through their characters and settings.
  • I love southern literature and authors, but not to the exclusion of other great books and authors.
  • I love to read books by Oklahoma authors.  It's my homestate and boasts of dozens of wonderful writers, many of whom I have had the pleasure of meeting. 
  • I love young authors, because they will probably be around to write more.
  • I love old (and deceased) authors, because their work is limited and all the more valuable.
Today, I am recommending two books about two different families; one is set in England from the Victorian era through World War I and the other is set in Nebraska from 1978 to the present.  I am writing about these two books together not because they are similar, but because I read them one after the other. They do, however, illustrate the range of titles you can find about family relationships, or friendship, or personal tragedy, etc.

The family in The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt lives in a rambling country home during a time of great cultural change; the children are exposed to new artistic expressions, socialism, women's suffrage, and sexuality through the lives of their father, a political crusader and their mother, an author of children's books.  Through the writing of a book for each of her seven children, Olive Wellwood tries to shore up their personalities against the inevitable; the revelation of the secrets that children must learn to see their parents and each other as they really are.  The Children's Book is lengthy and multi-layered and took me through a fascinating cultural and political era with a story about family -- meeting several of my personal criteria for a "best" book.

The family in Sing Them Home by Stephanie Kallos would seem to have no secrets.  They live in a small Nebraska town and the children are locally well-known through their physician/mayor father, and through their mother, who "went up", never to come down, in a 1978 tornado.  The three children, now adults, are still defining themselves by what happened to their mother and how the townspeople see them as her offspring. The death of their father by a lightning strike opens the book and finally leads to their own self-knowledge and rebuilding of their lives.  This book will also be on my list of personal favorites for its wonderfully quirky characters and the fascinating setting of a tiny town with Welsh traditions (from which the title comes: the town closes down for a week when someone dies and there is a three-day period of nonstop singing in Welsh for the laid-out deceased, culminating with "There is No Place like Nebraska").

You may find these titles at your local library or through the links to Amazon.com.

                                                                 

7 comments:

Teri Lynne Underwood said...

Oh,Judy, I do hope you will keep adding lots of book recommendations! I am always on the hunt for new books ... especially fiction. I tend to read mainly non-fiction and then find myself overwhelmed in the library and/or book store because I am clueless about where to begin.

I too love character-driven books and those that cover multiple generations. I have read a few series where each book is primarily about a different member of a family but also shares the story of all family members and I love that sort of book as well.

Annie Joy said...

Thanks, Teri Lynne! I will look forward to reading your booklists as well. I checked your library's website and found that they have online tools called NoveList and Overbooked. Our library system also has NoveList and I love it! You can enter books that you've enjoyed and ask for more books like them, or you can enter search terms like "family" or "sisters" and even have it narrowed to certain times and places, such as California in the 1950's. It's a wonderful tool to help you find that next book that you won't be able to put down! I also have "BookPage" on my computer's Favorites bar. Our library leaves out a printed edition, but I also like to go there to learn about new books -- you can also get a daily e-mail with a book recommendation. Happy reading to a favorite niece!

Rhondi said...

Hi Annie Joy
Is that your real name? I saw your name when you commented on Carol's blog and just had to ocme and see who had such a delightful name. I love to read too and our criteria for what constitutes a good book are very similar. I'm going to see if out library has those books. They sound good. Our library system is closing down 12 of our 24 libraries due to lack of funds and so my two nearest ones will be closed as of aPRIL 3RD. Everyone is in an uproar about it so I'm hoping something can be done to keep them open.
Nice to meet you today :)
Rhondi

Annie Joy said...

Hi, Rhondi! I'm so happy you commented on my post, because I checked out your blog and will want to be come a follower. I love your post about doing laundry; I actually love doing laundry and my husband says that I'm the world's best folder! (He's never said that about my cooking! lol)

My real name is Julia and I chose the name Annie Joy because there have been so many beloved Anne's in my life, plus it's my middle name. I just like the name (and the word) "Joy" and try to live up to it.

So sorry to hear about your library closings. As a former librarian (and reader and one who appreciates all that libraries bring to a community), it hurts to hear that library services are cut. I will wish for your community that they will be restored soon.

I look forward to sharing books and other good things with you!

Carol said...

Hi Annie Joy!

Thanks so much for coming by for a visit & leaving a sweet comment! I see you are from Shawnee. Hope you'll be a regular visitor. I'll be coming back often to visit you!

Smiles,
Carol

Nancy said...

Hello Judy! Thanks for visiting my blog. My Dad is from Shawnee! He's a District judge in Muskogee now! What a small world! I'm in Tulsa. So nice to meet a fellow blogger from OK.

Sing Them Home sounds like a great read. I think I'll have to put it on my list or just go buy it from your link.

Your profile is very interesting and I look forward to reading your future posts.

Nancy

Ceekay- Thinkin of Home said...

Thank you for visiting. I would have loved to have heard that speaker....I just love antiques like from the 30s and 40s. Hope to see you again soon!

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