Summer Reading: Kids, vacations, musicals

One of the best parts of summer is having more time to read. It’s never enough time, but it’s something.  Here, in no particular order, are some of my summer book highlights.

Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult by Bruce Handy is an utter delight for anyone who loves kids’ books. Goodnight, Moon, Charlotte’s Web, Dr. Seuss, the Beverly Clearly classics: all of them are discussed with wit and soul. I learned a great deal about these books and their authors, but what I loved most was the chance to revisit these great stories from a new perspective. It’s laugh-out-loud funny in places, too, such as when Handy writes about the absentee mom in The Cat and the Hat (who, you might recall, goes out and leaves her kids ALONE for hours) and observes that her house will likely be the one that all of the high school kids go to to smoke pot someday.

Rilla of Ingleside by L. M. Montgomery. I re-read the Emily of New Moon books recently, and ensuing conversations with a friend (thank you, Viki!) made me think that I just might give this one a try, too, even though I haven’t read most of the Anne books that precede it. It was so enjoyable: the setting was lovely (as expected with Prince Edward Island!) and Rilla is a charming heroine who goes on a believable journey of maturation over the course of the book. What was most fascinating was reading about World War I from the perspective of the families waiting at home. There are a lot of “home front” books about WWII, but not about the Great War, so that was a valuable perspective and one I won’t forget.

The Fortnight in September by R. C. Sheriff is British novel from the thirties about a family vacation to the seaside. It’s one of those books that is impossible to summarize because “nothing happens” — it’s not a plot-driven story, but a character-driven one, and yet somehow it was unputdownable. I love it when authors can recreate the little details of daily life so faithfully and insightfully.  And the family in the book are at their core such empathetic people that I ended up loving them. There are so many moments in life when we can choose selfishness or kindness, and this family chooses kindness; it was very moving, and inspiring.

Greensleeves by Eloise Jarvis McGraw is not a recent read, but I haven’t yet blogged about it, so here we go. I was familiar with the author from her historical classic Mara, Daughter of the Nile, which I’ve read I don’t know how many times since I was a tween (and if you’ve never read it, GO READ IT NOW).  Greensleeves, written in 1968, is technically a young adult novel — it’s about a young girl after high school, trying to figure out who she is while assuming another identity for purposes of exploring what might be a con game — but it’s sophisticated, nuanced, and so well-written. It’s also one of the first young adult novels I’ve read to address the fact that you can be totally physically attracted to someone who you don’t even like, which is a pretty confusing thing to navigate when you’re eighteen. But the book is lots more besides: funny, insightful, moving.

Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway Revolution by Todd S. Purdum. I’m a major R & H junkie, so I  picked this up thinking it would be a great way to revisit some of my all-time favorite musicals. And it was that, but it was more besides. I was utterly fascinated to read about the process of crafting these shows.  We see them in their finished glory, but the author talks about the creative process that went into making these shows — sometimes R &H had to scrap entire musical numbers that just didn’t end up working, or had to restructure acts or scenes for maximum impact. It’s a helpful reminder that creativity is messy. But wow: it can sure result in something wonderful.

Oh, and bonus anecdote: in July we were going through some of my late mother-in-law’s things. We found piles of Broadway playbills from shows she saw in the fifties and sixties. She saw the original casts of R &H shows like Flower Drum Song and Pipe Dream (their only real flop), along with Bye Bye Birdie, The Pajama Game, and others!  How I wish I’d had the chance to ask her about those experiences.

What have you been reading (and loving) lately?

The rainbow in my garden

I’m not an in-your-face kind of person,  but when it comes to my garden, all bets are off.  I just want to grab people by the lapels and go, “Look at my roses! Look at that fuschia!  Look at those delphiniums!”  And since I can’t do that in real life, I’ll do that here.

Let’s start with the red sweet peas:

 

And we’ve got my orange Just Joey roses.  Even though the rose pests have been legion this year, it’s doing really well.


I am madly in love with this yellow flower, which I bought last summer.  For the life of me, I can’t remember the name; I think it’s a kind of rudbeckia.

I’ve got delphiniums on steroids this year.  I’ve had to stake them, which I didn’t have to do last year.  Oh, they are heart-stoppingly gorgeous!

I also have this Mexican bush sage, which is growing robustly in a large pot.  It was grown from a tiny little slip my grandmother gave me, maybe eight or so years ago.  Grandma is no longer alive to see it, but I suspect she’s smiling on it from that garden in the sky.

And I’ll close with this Bewitched rose, just to add a little pink to the picture.


What is YOUR favorite color to have in the garden?

Sorry, Anne of Green Gables fans: Here’s Why I Prefer Emily of New Moon

I’ve been on a real L.M. Montgomery kick lately.  Immersing myself in the world of Prince Edward Island is a pretty nice way to usher in the summer.

And as I re-read old favorites and dive into new titles, I find myself consciously acknowledging something I’ve suspected for a long time.  It’s an inconvenient truth, one that I think verges on blasphemy to many of her fans.

I have realized that I like Emily of New Moon more than I like Anne of Green Gables.

If you haven’t read the Emily books, you’re missing out.  There are three of them, starting with Emily of New Moon, first published in 1923.  They start when Emily is a young child, dealing with the death of her beloved father (which happens almost immediately in the story) and adjusting to the experience of being taken in by her late mother’s family.  She has two maiden aunts named  Elizabeth and Laura, a martinet and a sweetheart, respectively.  They share a home with Cousin Jimmy, a middle-aged man with a child’s spirit, a developmental quirk which is widely attributed to the fact that he fell into a well as a child…or was he pushed? (Anyhow, remember that about the well.  Wells play a surprisingly sinister role in this book.)  Emily immediately falls in love with their beautiful old Prince Edward Island farmhouse of New Moon, with its gardens and orchards and fields and family lore.  She suffers the typical growing pains of any sensitive child: loses a fake friend, makes a close friend, makes mistakes, deals with the inflexibility of the adult world and its often irrational demands, and reaches womanhood in the subsequent books, Emily Climbs and Emily’s Quest.

I first came upon these books in sixth grade.  It’s perhaps a sign of their influence on my life that I can still vividly recall the mall bookstore (long since vanished) where I bought Emily of New Moon, and I can remember that I started reading it in the car on the ride home, and didn’t look up until about half an hour later when we pulled into our driveway.

I love it when that happens.

Not too long after that, the Anne of Green Gables miniseries was first broadcast on TV.   I taped it (back in the days of VHS tapes!) and watched it countless times and adored it.  Likewise, I loved the sequel, Anne of Avonlea, which was broadcast a few years later.  And I read the book Anne of Green Gables, too, and found it just as charming as the TV series.

But I have to say, looking back, I haven’t returned to Anne too often.  I’ve read Anne of Green Gables maybe three times over the past thirty-plus years.  The Emily books?  I’ve read them at least ten times, by my best reckoning.  That tells me something.  It’s clear that when it comes to Montgomery heroines, Emily has an appeal for me that Anne somehow can’t quite match.

There are a few reasons for this.  I’ll try to explain them here in such a way that I don’t spoil anything in the Emily trilogy for those of you who have yet to read them.

1) Emily has dark hair, like mine.  I know that sounds pretty shallow, so hear me out.  I grew up in the seventies and early eighties, long before the Disney Beauty and the Beast, with its refreshingly brunette heroine.  In my childhood, every Disney fairytale heroine had blonde hair (except Snow White, but I mean, who can like Snow White?), and all throughout my tender years I was hungry for a heroine who looked like me.  If redheads can identify with Anne, I can identify with Emily, and identify I did.

Montgomery constantly writes about Emily’s appearance: her dark hair, her violet eyes, her slightly pointed ears, her tall, queenly bearing.  I have only one of these four traits, but it was enough. And unlike the Little House on the Prairie books, where we are told ad nauseum that Laura’s brown hair is really ugly compared to Mary’s blonde curls, the Emily books make dark hair part of the heroine’s unconventional, mysterious beauty.  That’s affirming for a kid.  And an adult, too.

2) Emily is a writer.  Anne is too, I know, but in Emily, it runs deep.  There’s a part in the second book where her pragmatic aunt Elizabeth, who wants to cure Emily of her scribbling habit, offers her a chance to pursue her education as long as she promises to stop writing.  Emily doesn’t even need to think about it; she immediately turns the offer down.  Writing is so much a part of her that she literally can’t give it up, not even for something she longs to do.  I can relate.

3) Emily is an introvert.  She has some close friends and is fiercely connected to her family, but she spends a great deal of time alone: wandering in the woods, thinking, pondering, and – delightfully – writing. My favorite parts of all three books are the journal entries that she writes, where she processes her feelings alone.  Anne, with her delightful garrulousness, makes a charming heroine and would be, I imagine, a fun person to hang out with (more fun than Emily, maybe).  But as an introvert myself – something that was even more pronounced when I was a child – it’s gratifying to see a heroine who is fascinating even though she isn’t the life of the party.

4) The Emily books have a certain intensity and darkness to them.  Not that the Anne books are all sunshine and rainbows (sniff*Matthew*sniff), but the Emily books venture a little further into topics that are not comfortable.  There is a mysticism to Emily as a character that is fascinating and, at times, a little unsettling (for her as well as the reader).  In the third book, she ends up in what we today might call a toxic relationship – all the more unsettling because it is in some ways an affirming friendship that gets warped into something that the astute reader can tell is not going to end well for her.  It’s a far cry from Anne and Gilbert.  And though I like sunny happy stories as well as the next girl, there is something in the Emily trilogy that has always struck me as being more … substantial.  More like real life, maybe.

I should add that there are things about the Emily books I don’t like.  The character of Dean Priest is one that absolutely NO editor would allow in a child’s book today; there are troubling aspects to him that escaped me as a tween but make me blanch as an adult.  I also think the third book, Emily’s Quest, is not entirely successful as a finish to the series.

And I should come clean and admit that, if we’re talking about series, I’ve never read past the third book in the Anne of Green Gables series.  I’ve tried, more than once in fact, but I always get bored and abandon it.  I used to feel bad about this, but then I read Nancy McCabe’s book From Little Houses to Little Women and realized why I don’t keep reading: Anne grows more conventional as she ages, and therefore less interesting as a character.  The conflicts become less about her struggles to define herself against a society that doesn’t understand her, and more about her involvement in the lives of the people she knows.  Emily, by contrast, is always the center of struggle in her books.  Though she does grow and change throughout the books, her fascinating self – creative, mystical, a little prickly, stubborn – remains mostly intact throughout the series.  I’d rather read about her inner life than about Davy and Dora.

So I remain resolute in my affinity for Emily over Anne.  Maybe you agree, or maybe you disagree; either way, I’d love to hear your thoughts.  But though Anne may be, as Mark Twain once said, “the dearest, most moving and delightful child since the immortal Alice,” I get something from Emily that I don’t get from Anne.  And even at age forty-five, it keeps me coming back.

Make Today Matter by Chris Lowney, as seen by an introvert

Spring’s a busy season.  These days, when it comes to spiritual books, I’m looking for something of substance that I can read in short bursts of free time: between work and picking up the kids, say, or during breaks from grading my towering stacks of papers.

Make Today Matter: 10 Habits for a Better Life (and World) by Chris Lowney is just the ticket.  I’m loving this book: it’s short and sweet, well-written and wise.

As the title indicates, the book looks at ten habits that can improve your life. These habits do not involve drinking more water or planking (both of which, I should add, I’m still trying to do more of).  This book is about your spiritual and emotional life, not your physical life … and yet if  we work on living the best life we can, Lowney demonstrates, everything else – our work, our relationships, our world – will benefit.

Lowney’s a thoughtful guy with quite a resume:  a former Jesuit seminiarian who now chairs the board of one of the country’s major hospital systems. You can tell he walks the walk.  This book is written with heart and conviction and even people who don’t like overtly “religious” books will like the practical, conversational tone of this one.  There’s lots to chew on here, and all sorts of great stories.

For example, Chapter Four is titled “Give Away Your Sneakers: Help Someone Today.”  Lowney opens the chapter with the story of an emergency room doctor who one day treated a homeless patient, a man who had no shoes.  Just as the patient was about to be discharged, the doctor took off his own sneakers and gave them to the patient, so he would not have to go out into the night barefoot.

Lowney cites this as an example of the fact that throughout our day, we have so many little moments where we intersect with people who are in need.  Maybe they need shoes, spare change, a hug, a listening ear, someone to hold the door open for them, or just someone to look into their eyes and see them.  And yet a lot of us – myself included, ahem – don’t take these opportunities.  “Some inner demon – a fear, an insecurity, a bad habit – holds us back,” Lowney writes.  This even happens when what we are called to give is far less than the shoes off our feet.  Sometimes, we don’t take the opportunity even to give a simple “hello” to another person.

This chapter resonated with me and made me think.  I realized that my missed opportunities often have to do with something fundamental to my nature:  my introversion.

I often say that I’m an introvert who does a good job of pretending to be an extrovert (this is not uncommon among teachers, I’ve learned).  But since I give so much energy to my students  – and as a mom, to my own children – I sometimes don’t want to give it to anyone else.  There are days where all I want to do is go hunker down alone and not talk to anyone … even someone who looks like he or she needs a little recognition or affirmation.

I like how Lowney’s book challenges me to look squarely at this tendency, and to consider its role in the little choices I make and opportunities I don’t take.  How much does it cost me to pause and greet, say,  the substitute teacher who is in the lunch room sitting alone?  Not much, and yet it can mean a lot.  A few minutes of chat – “Who are you subbing for?  How is it going?” – is a way of providing welcome to someone who may be feeling like the odd woman out in a group of clubby teachers who all know each other.  It doesn’t cost me much, really, but it can change the mood of someone’s day.  Mine too, honestly.  It’s a little habit I’m trying to adopt lately.  I’m grateful that this book helped get it on my radar.

Anyhow, if you’re looking for a quick but rich read, check out Make Today Matter It’s a gift to all of us — introverts and extroverts alike.

Sock it to me

After a long day of work, I love kicking off the heels and putting on a comfy pair of socks.  It’s one of those little things that always makes me ridiculously happy.

And when they are socks like this?  Even better.