First Day of the Year…Completed Nine Books

You know something is up when I post nine reads and it is day one of the year.

Yes, the truth is that these are books I finished today. I was at the nice round number of 165 books read for 2007 and I didn’t want to add to that.

So I start 2008 by listing…uh hum…nine reads.

Book Smart1. Book Smart by Jane Mallison

Ah, what to read, what to read? I’m always in search of books suggesting good books to read, so I was happy to see this book.

Author Jane Mallison proposes a list of ten books a month, with each month having a common theme. Themes include award winners, the human condition, biographies.

I was encouraged to think Mallison might be a kindred reader by noting that many of her recommended reads are books I’ve already read and loved, such as A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, In Cold Blood, Animal Farm, and Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry.

Mallison sold me on A House for Mr. Biswas and Farewell to Arms, so much so that I have already sought them out and procured copies.

A good choice for my first read of the year.

The Pepins and Their Problems (Horn Book Fanfare List (Awards))2. The Pepins and their Problems by Polly Horvath

The Pepins are always having problems that are so difficult they cannot solve them by themselves. The author, consequently, has to resort to asking for help from the readers. And do the readers ever have solutions!

The book opens with the Pepins facing a difficult problem:  The family has woken up to find their shoes filled with toads. They have no idea how to deal with such a problem and so they ask their neighbor. He, unfortunately, is as clueless as the Pepins, and so the author must turn to the readers. Among the many solutions sent in to the author is the correct one:  The toads have run out of toadstools and have been forced to sit inside the Pepins’ shoes. The Pepins are urged to run to the woods and find more toadstools in order to lure the toads out of the shoes.

Problem solved. But is the end of problems for the Pepins? Certainly not. In fact, the solutions often lead to further problems.

A zany read I can’t wait to share with the kids at school.

What People Told Us3. Books that Made the Difference by Gordon and Patricia Sabine

My husband ordered seventeen books for me for Christmas from my wishlist. This one cost one penny. What a well spent penny!

Authors Gordon and Patricia Sabine interviewed 1,400 Americans, asking two questions: What book made the greatest difference in your life? What was that difference?

Responding were not only celebrities including Studs Terkel and Baroness Maria von Trapp, but every day people like a Dallas doorman and a Southern store clerk. Books often cited included the Bible, classics, biographies, and novels. Books were said to have changed lives by causing readers to switch vocations, enlarge perspectives, deal with tragedy.

It’s an older book (1983). It would be interesting to see a new survey, twenty-five years later.

The Transmogrification of Roscoe Wizzle4. The Transmogrification of Roscoe Wizzle by David Elliott

Another Christmas book (probably another purchased for one cent!) led me to acquire this children’s book from the library last week. Roscoe Wizzle leads a quiet life; his father needs quiet after a day testing cymbals and his mother needs quiet because she is an orphan. Supper preparation becomes too much for the parents, leading them to send young Roscoe down to the new fast food Gussy’s each night for dinner. After six months of eating Jungle Drums (a semi-hamburger) for dinner each night, Roscoe becomes aware that he is transforming (transmogrifying) into a bug.

A Memoir of Africa5. When a Crocodile Eats the Sun by Peter Godwin

Zimbabwe during the past thirty years seems to have been a miserable place to live. Inflation caused prices of even the most basic items and services to soar. The government instituted a program where white-owned farms were taken over by black farmers, leaving the white farmers without a home and without a job. Looting was commonplace. Riots were commonplace. Medical services were overwhelmed, especially with AIDS patients. Election fraud was rampant.

Despite all these problems, Godwin’s parents continued to hope that things would change for the better. They did not.

Godwin’s memoir of the years he spent outside Zimbabwe, yet with close Zimbabwe connections, tells the story of a bleak world. It left me thinking about decisions people make to stay or to go when the world around one seems to be steadily spirally down. How does one decide? And if one does decide to stay, are there things that can be done to improve the situation?

How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read6. How to Talk about Books You Haven’t Read by Pierre Bayard

Catchy title. Was it a parody? Was the author writing in earnest? I heard an interview with the author on NPR and realized there might be more to this book than I’d initially thought.

Bayard defintes “books you haven’t read” broadly, including the obvious “books never opened”, but adding “books skimmed”, “books you’ve heard about but that you’ve never read”, and “books you’ve read but that you’ve forgotten.” Whew! That doesn’t leave much to put into the book log for the year, does it? How many books, read cover to cover, remain vivid in one’s mind, long after the book has been returned to the shelf?

I took away from this book what I found to be Bayard’s main thought: Don’t let anything stop you from talking about books. Reading, he says, is imperfect. A reader won’t take away from a book the same things another reader will nor the same things the author might have hoped his readers would take away from the book. It is okay, Bayard assures us, to skim books. It is okay to misunderstand books. It is okay to forget books. But, Bayard continues, don’t let any of these things stop you from reading books, from talking about books, from writing about books, from thinking about books.

But, then again, I may have misunderstood the whole thing.

Olivia Kidney7. Olivia Kidney by Ellen Potter

Another children’s book I sought out based on BookSense recommendations. Strange little story. Let’s see if I can summarize the plot. Olivia moves with her father, a building super, to yet another apartment building. This building is populated with a wacky assortment of inhabitants, including a woman who thinks she is royalty, a woman who has turned her apartment into a tropical rainforest, a vast number of lizards (who, Olivia is told, are really men who have been changed into lizards), a woman who can contact the dead, and a ghost or two. Olivia, we discover, is seeing a psychiatrist who is trying to help her deal with her brother’s recent death. A quirky little book.

How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy8. Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy by Donald B. Kraybill and others

In 2006, a gunman went into a one-room Amish schoolhouse and shot ten girls, killing five of them, and then killed himself. What is the immediate response of the Amish community? The Amish instantly voice their forgiveness of this man and his actions. They visit his widow and children and go to the killer’s funeral. It almost feels superhuman. The authors investigate this incident and the forgiveness that followed and look into the origins of Amish forgiveness in the Amish culture, how it is cultivated in young children, and how forgiveness works to heal.

A Novel9. The Trick is to Keep Breathing by Janice Galloway

The main character in this novel, ironically named Joy, is as deeply depressed as any character I’ve encountered. Joy has lost her mother to suicide and has broken off her long-term relationship with a boyfriend. She started an affair with a married man who unexpectedly dies as well. Reviewers say the novel is full “of great warmth and energy”, that “the wit and irony found in moments of depair prove to be Joy’s salvation.” It didn’t feel that way to me. The novel closes with Joy drinking heavily (again) while bemoaning her life (again). I didn’t see any salvation for Joy; Joy felt destined for suicide. We ought to check on Galloway, too, while we’re at it.