WHIRL (What Have I Read Lately) Books is a site for readers to find books for themselves and their book clubs. Liz at Literary Masters runs book groups and literary salons where we "dig deep" into literary treasures.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Story of Holly and Ivy

The Story of Holly and Ivy by Rumer Godden (illustrations by Barbara Cooney) is a wonderful book to kick off the holidays! But, is it good for a Mother/Daughter Book Group? Where the daughters are in second grade? Well, I think so, as all the girls enjoyed the story--and the pictures!--and we had a great conversation about it, with everybody, including the moms, joining in.
Importantly, it meets my three criteria:

The Story: This story captures the attention and the imagination of the girls because it is, as the narrator tells the reader right away, a story about wishing. A doll in a toy store is wishing for a little girl to come and take her away. (Even the setting makes the story interesting!) A little orphan girl is wishing to spend Christmas with her grandmother, even though everyone knows she doesn't have a grandmother. And Mrs. Jones, the policeman's wife, is wishing for a little girl of her own to share Christmas with. How these three characters go about getting their wishes makes for a charming and heart-warming tale.

Questions: This story generated many questions, but what I loved were some of the answers the girls had. For example, when asked why Abracadabra is so mean--why does he tell Holly no one will buy her and she will be put in a box--one little Bookclub Buddy responded that perhaps Abracadabra had been put in a box at one time. Hmmm, pretty astute, if you ask me. This reader, at this young age, already can see that there is a cycle in our treatment of each other--that many times we learn how to treat others through how we have been treated.

The girls explained wonderfully how wishes work, and we discovered that: sometimes wishes come true later than we would like, sometimes they don't come true at all and we move on to other wishes, and sometimes we just have to never give up on our wishes--we have to keep on wishing!

We did a little critical thinking exercise and tried to put ourselves in the heads of our bedtime stuffies; we tried to see ourselves from their point of view. And I learned a critical thinking lesson myself, as I saw how much the illustrations in this story meant to the girls. It occurred to me that, as we get older and read books without illustrations, we may be losing our ability to gather meaning about a story from its pictures. The girls, however, are still expert at interpreting the artwork (in this case done by a Caldecott Winner); they think nothing of taking meaning about the story from the illustrations. I think this is terrific, and I will never breeze by the pictures in a book again--I'd like to thank my Bookclub Buddies for that!

Life Lessons: I think the big take-away (I hope, anyway) is that we should always have wishes--they really can't hurt and they just may help us get what we want. But more important than wishing is doing something about it. We can wish, and we should wish, but we must act and go after what it is we are wishing for.

So, The Story of Holly and Ivy meets my criteria and I can thoroughly recommend it for a Mother/Daughter book Group. First, second, and third-graders will enjoy it.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Wrapping Up Heart of Darkness

Love it or hate it--Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness generated a lot of fascinating discussion. One of my groups surprised me, though, as every single person in it disliked this book. And one member is still wondering why it is considered a classic or important piece of literature. I thought I would take a stab at answering him via this blog post, and please feel free to weigh in!

In one of my recent book groups the question came up "just what is a classic?" There is no definitive answer, and to try to address it today would take up more time than I have, so let me direct you to a helpful link here.

The above link takes you to an NPR discussion of this very question, and you may find it illuminating.

Regarding Heart of Darkness and whether it is an important piece of literature, almost all my groups' members agreed that it is, indeed, a very important piece of literature--for its own time and for ours. (Thus, a "classic" also?) But I hear you asking "why?" and to answer, I'll recap some of the discussions below. This is, I must stress, a very brief summary (I have to wrap up Heart of Darkness so I can move on to The English Patient!), but maybe it will help.

Many felt that the multiple layers of meaning open to interpretation in Heart of Darkness make this book quite exceptional. Most members spoke of the story as representing a psychological journey--one that everyone can relate to. The journey that Marlowe takes into the darkness to confront Kurtz (the embodiment of evil) is the same journey that the reader, that we all, take on a psychological basis. The lack of names in the book (instead we have the Director, the Accountant, the Intended) underscores the fact that any of us could step into these roles; it's a sort of Everyman story we can all relate to.

Most members agreed that there is the potential for evil (as expressed not only by Kurtz but also by the Belgian ivory traders) in each of us, and that, for some reason we are fascinated by and drawn to this potential. Certainly this describes Marlowe as he searches out Kurtz. So, we must ask ourselves, when face-to-face with that evil, how does each of us react? Do we, like Kurtz, succumb? Or do we, like Marlowe, resist? And more importantly perhaps, how and why do we resist? For Marlowe it seemed to be his Victorian restraint and his work. Remember the rivets? And you can, today, ask yourself this question. What saves you from going over to the "dark side"? Is it your work? Your religion? Your morals? Fear?

Speaking of religion, we discussed the role of ideology and its impact on Marlowe. When Marlowe, happily going about the Company's business in Africa, sees what the 'noble cause' has done there, his belief system is destroyed. How does he react? Does he, as he proclaims he always does, tell the truth? Or does he, like many who are confronted with a reality that isn't pleasant, tell himself and others (e.g. Kurtz's Intended) lies to get them through it all? One member rather astutely pointed out that Marlowe preferred not to think about all he was witnessing, and so he channeled his energy into work. Another pointed out that Marlowe's lie to Kurtz's Intended represents the ongoing denial that Marlowe will adopt in order to survive. He will pretend rather than be truthful. Again, you can ask yourself today, what would you do should your own beliefs be proven false?

One member commented that it's amazing how we can lower our own standards or rationalize our own bad behavior when other people around us are doing the same (or worse) thing. This is compounded, of course, when there is a government or company or other authority sanctioning the bad behavior on some sort of ground, be it noble or otherwise. One member really disliked Marlowe, accusing him of ignoring the terrible human suffering surrounding him while concentrating on getting the Company's work done. Again, we can ask ourselves today, are we complicit in the world's suffering by our lack of action?

In almost every group the book The Lord of the Flies came up, and almost everyone agreed that this is basically telling the same tale: when all the societal niceties or cultural laws and rules are removed (as in the wilderness for Kurtz), every individual is capable of becoming savage. The members felt that this is relevant today; look at how people behaved during Katrina. And then the discussion got a little depressing as we worried about the fragility of life, and how an earthquake or terrorist attack could change everything, including "polite civilization," in a moment.

All the groups discussed whether the book is racist or an indictment of imperialism, and that generated a lot of heat. The opinions were very divided; many felt that Conrad was racist and misogynous also. Then the question was asked: "Wasn't he just a product of his time?" In answer, another question: "Is that a good excuse?"

One rather erudite member pointed out that F. Scott Fitzgerald was heavily influenced by this novel, and suggested we all re-read The Great Gatsby with this in view. I am totally up for that!!!

Many of us swooned over the sheer poetry of Conrad's language, but some members disagreed. Different strokes, as they say. Hey, Germaine Greer wrote an article claiming that a person would be better off visiting a demented relative than reading Proust. How's that for iconoclasm?! Click here for the link if you're interested.

Rightey-ho, this post is "blonging" on a bit (to coin a word!) so I will sign off. I'd love to hear from you, though!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH

Wow! What a wonderful discussion! My fourth-grade lit-lovers are good little readers! I was worried that this book would be too challenging because it's rather complicated, but the girls had no problem at all; they followed the plot, picked up on many of the themes, and most importantly, they enjoyed reading the book.

So, bearing in mind my three criteria, is this a good choice for a Mother/Daughter Book Group? You bet!

The Story: Mrs. Frisby, a perfectly ordinary field mouse, must move her entire house to a new location so it isn't run over by Farmer Fitzgibbon's plow. The dilemma: her son, Timothy, is recuperating from a near-fatal illness and cannot be moved. What to do? If only Mr. Frisby hadn't died and could help solve this problem! Maybe he does help, though, because isn't it he who had told Mrs. Frisby, "All doors are hard to unlock until you have the key"? Mrs. Frisby, determined to save both her home and Timothy, embarks on an adventure to find that very key (metaphorically speaking!) and she is aided by a charming crow, a grumpy old owl, and a pack of highly intelligent rats. The rats are in the midst of their own adventure--and in search of their own "key"--and you will want to turn over every page of this book to find out how these creatures solve their own, and each other's, problems.

Questions: This book is so thought-provoking! I love literature that is multi-layered, and this story certainly is. I think that's why it appealed to the moms as well as to the girls. Part of our discussion focused on the secrets everyone was keeping in the story, and what type of secrets they were. We compared these secrets to those that were kept in From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, and determined that the main difference was that in Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, many secrets weren't even known to exist until they actually came to light.

Among other things, we also discussed hard choices, bravery, the "soft life" versus a life with more work (I LOVED the girls' solution to this one: live and work in a place like Thorn Valley, but make sure to have a vacation home where you can go and have the "soft life" as often as you like!), prejudice against certain creatures, animal rights, and searching for the "key" when problem-solving.

Our discussion could have gone longer, but time was up--a sure sign of a great book for a Mother/Daughter Book Group!

Life Lessons: Two of the (many) take-aways from this story are 1) keep searching for that "key" when you have a problem to solve, and 2) sometimes a question doesn't have one answer that is right for everybody, but we must still ask the question and think about it. The girls were very excited to discuss whether we should use rats or other animals for scientific research, and we determined that it is very hard to find the "right" answer to that one.

Bottom Line: Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH rocks!

Friday, October 30, 2009

Gooney Bird Greene by Lois Lowry

Gooney Bird Greene by Lois Lowry is not only adorable; it's also a book that will appeal to both adults and children--not a easy thing to find. Adults will like the meta-fiction aspect of it; this is a story about telling stories. And kids will love Gooney Bird! She is as unique as the outfits she chooses each day (well, actually, she lays out her clothes the night before) and she tells the most wonderful stories. Each one has a surprise in it, and each one is terribly suspenseful. The fact that she interjects a lot of "Suddenlys" helps to keep her audience on the edge of their second-grade seats.

We read this for my second-grade Mother/Daughter Book Group, and it was a winner! What about my criteria? Let's see:

1. The Story: Gooney Bird Greene is new to school, and she enters with a flourish. She regales her classmates and her teacher with a different story each day, and along the way the students, the teacher, and we--the readers--learn a different aspect of story-telling from each of Gooney's tales.. We learn what makes a great story, where to find ideas for a great story, and how to tell a great story. And, best of all, we see that we should accompany every happy ending with a group dance!

2. Questions: This book generates lots of questions about story-telling, but it also brought up questions about language. One mom mentioned that a lot of Gooney's stories are surprising because she uses language in an unexpected way, much like Amelia Bedelia. Quite true, and a wonderful inter-textual connection!

3. Life Lessons: Well, learning how to tell a good story is a lesson and a skill to take through life, and our book group decided not only to talk about Gooney Bird; we also stepped into her character and became a story-teller. Each girl stood up and told a story--trying to incorporate as many elements from the book that she could. It was fabulous! And I, for one, whenever I am losing anyone's attention, am going to insert a "Suddenly!" just to get that person to focus and pay attention to what I have to say!

Gooney Bird Greene by Lois Lowry is a great choice for a Second-Grade Mother/Daughter book Group. Enjoy!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

From The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler

Mother/Daughter Book Group for Fourth-Graders! Our book: From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg. An excellent discussion with a most excellent group of little lit-lovers today! We covered so much, but what really got me excited was my Aha! Moment—the reason I do what I do!—when I saw, from our group conversation, something in the story that I hadn’t seen when I read it on my own: Secrets! And how very hard they are to keep!!!

Remember my criteria:

1. The Story. Well, who couldn’t love this story about two suburban schoolchildren who run away from home—in style! They don’t just run anywhere; they run away to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, and they live there without anyone finding them!

2. Questions. Lots of them! We stayed in the book, and came out of it. One of our favorite out of the book questions was “if you were to run away (NOT recommended), where would you go?” This is a harder question than at first it looks!

3. Life Lessons. Well, we really dug deep and came up with the realization that secrets, of which there are many in this story, are very hard to keep. Why do you think that is? We determined that we feel special when we know a secret. We feel different from everyone else. Why, then, do we feel compelled to share the secret? (I wonder…do we always need an audience, someone to tell us that “yes, you are special”?) We also realized that you can look at the entire book as Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler revealing her secret to Saxonberg! I think that if you really think about it, you’ll agree—secrets are hard to keep secret!

There are many other lessons to take away from this story, but my favorite comes from E.L. Konigsburg herself, written as an afterword in 2002 (for the 35th anniversary of the book). She says, “ ‘Angel’ became part of Claudia’s story about finding herself, about how the greatest adventure lies not in running away but in looking inside, and the greatest discovery is not in finding out who made a statue but in finding out what makes you.”

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Book of the Month: Heart of Darkness

October's book of the month is Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. In this transfixing novel we hear of Marlowe's dreamlike (or should I say "nightmare"?) journey down the Congo River from the anonymous narrator to whom he has related his tale. Marlowe's quest? To retrieve ivory trader extraordinaire Kurtz, whose recent behavior has had tongues wagging--all the way back to the White Sepulchre (aka Brussels?). Kurtz--is he a hero? Or a madman? Or is he Everyman?

I've sent my "Points to Ponder" to all my book groups and I know we'll be having some riveting discussions coming up. (When you join one of my groups, I'll send you my "Points.") However, I am wondering what you think of this fascinating novel:
  • Has Heart of Darkness stood the test of time? Is it important that we read this book today?
  • Can you relate to Marlowe? Can you relate to Kurtz?
  • Remember, this book was published in 1899. Do you see it as an indictment of European imperialism or is it a eurocentric racist portrayal of Africans as an inferior people?
  • Is there any uplifting message we can take away from this book, or it it a complete downer?
  • Does it remind you of Lord of the Flies?
  • What is the heart of darkness, do you think?

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

When You Reach Me

When I was a child, A Wrinkle in Time was one of my favorite books. But here's my problem--I rarely remember a book. I just remember--quite clearly--how I felt while I was reading it. And I remember feeling wonderfully enthralled while reading Madeline L'Engle's tale of time-travel. Now I've just read When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead, a book that is getting lots of "buzz"--Newbery is often mentioned in conjunction with the title--and I enjoyed it so much, I want to go back and re-read A Wrinkle in Time. Stead acknowledges the "astonishing imagination and hard work of Madeleine L'Engle" and When You Reach Me often refers to A Wrinkle in Time, so I think it would be fun to read one right after the other. I might suggest reading L'Engle's book first, though.

When You Reach Me is chock full. It's chock full of adventure, of plot and sub-plot, of characters, of themes. The narrative device is unusual and there is a mixing of genres. Best of all, there is mystery and the story is written with enough suspense to keep the reader turning the page. So, what about my three criteria when choosing a book for my Mother/Daughter Book Groups?

1) The Story: This is one of those books that I think the moms will enjoy reading as much as the daughters, especially if they have already read A Wrinkle in Time. Miranda, the protagonist, is a likable sixth-grade girl living in 1979 New York City with her single mom. Miranda's mom has just been selected to be a contestant on the TV show The $20.000 Pyramid. This would be exciting enough--they could really use that money to buy all sorts of things they need--but Miranda also is confronted with the fact that someone--she doesn't know who--has predicted that her mom would be chosen. And this isn't the only prediction that the stranger has made, and that has come true. In mysterious and secret notes, this stranger has told Miranda about things that will happen before they do, and he's been right every time. Now he says it's a matter of life and death that she help him--and keep it secret from her mom and her best friends. But who is he and how can she help?

This book has a lot going on, but the author ties it all together in the end, and I think it works. The girls will have to be thinking while they are reading, which I always see as a good thing, but they may not even realize how hard they are thinking because the story is so gripping!

2) Questions: This book poses a lot of questions, both the little and the big kind. I hadn’t thought much about time travel until I read this book, but now I find it fascinating to ponder!

3)Life Lessons: My favorite theme of the book is connections, the thread that connects every action to every other action and every person to every other person. And every time to every other time. It’s very thought-provoking, and worth reminding ourselves of. Remember E.M. Forster?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Hundred Dresses

Mother/Daughter Book Groups. Hmmm…for second-graders. Hmmm…which book to choose? I have the perfect one for you: The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes.

There are lots of readable books out there, but when choosing a book for a Mother/Daughter Book Group, I keep three things in mind:
  1. The Story: No matter what, at the end of the day, what a reader of any age wants from a book is a great story. We want to enter the book, fall into the story, run around with the characters, even become one of them. We want to escape this world for another. Or…if the story is a scary one, we huddle close to each other while reading it, grabbing our stuffies, sooooooo glad that we are not in that world, but rather safely in our own!
  2. Questions: I love novels that get me wondering, get me thinking, get me asking questions. Some of these questions are the unanswerable kinds—you know—the mysteries of life kind. I don’t think having all the answers is as important as searching for them. Reading, to me, is a continual journey of searching…it’s kind of like life in that way.
  3. Life Lessons: If I can learn something valuable from a story, well then, all the better. It’s not a requirement; it’s more like a nice-to-have. Then again, what great literature is out there that we don’t learn something valuable from? The wise reader learns from the experiences of the characters in books, and avoids a lot of life’s pitfalls that way. There is so much truth in fiction, more than in non-fiction, but that’s a subject for another blog post, another day.
The Hundred Dresses meets all three of the above criteria. The story is wonderful, and my adorable seven-year-old group took to it with gusto. The story is packed with different layers, and the girls were tuned into most of them. It’s a story of friendship, of prejudice, of cowardice, and of hope, to mention a few themes that came up in our conversation.

We asked each other lots of questions, too. Was Peggy, the rich girl who had “fun” with poor Wanda each day, really a mean girl? Was she a true friend to Maddie, her “best friend”? Did Peggy really think she had helped Wanda with her “game,” or was she just telling herself a story so she wouldn’t feel guilty? Did Wanda know she was being made fun of? These are just a few of the topics we bounced around, and we didn’t definitively answer all of them. I love it that way; perhaps the girls will re-read this book at a later date and see the questions, and some of the answers, in a different light.

There’s a huge life lesson in the book, too. What would you do if you saw someone—your best friend!—making fun of someone else? Would you stand by in silence, relieved that someone other than you is the target? Or would you say something in defense of the victim? All the girls agreed that they would stand up and say something to stop the teasing, even if they were risking their friendship with their best friend. And all the moms agreed that this would not be an easy thing to do!

I highly recommend The Hundred Dresses for your Mother/Daughter Book Group, for grades first through fourth.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Book of the Month: A Mercy

Toni Morrison considers her writing in this beautiful book to be at its height, and I couldn’t agree with her more. Whether you are new to Morrison or a devotee, or somewhere in between, you are in for a treat when you read this captivating and poetic story about the early days of America- before ‘slavery’ and ‘black’ became inextricably entwined, when there were slaves of varying colors and names, and when the Europeans and Africans colluded in bringing about what Margaret Atwood has described as “one of the most viciously anti-family institutions human beings have ever devised.”

Told from different perspectives, the story asks universal questions, requiring reader participation in answering them. Some of the themes running through this novel are: community versus individuality, the responsibility of each of us for our fellow human beings, and the fictive nature of religion and history. A Mercy offers the reader much to ponder and it will offer any book group much to discuss.