Reading

The Dark Month

I bought a copy of Louisa May Alcott’s novel Little Women for my daughter a couple years ago. Because if you’re a literary mother, it’s the kind of thing that you do. Before I gave it to her, I read over the first chapter, and I was kind of surprised at how not-very-engaging it is. Basically, the four March sisters are hanging around the house, whining about Christmas and how crummy it’s going to be.

Tell me, again, how did this book get to be a classic of American girlhood? How does anyone even make it to Chapter Two?

I mean, clearly I loved it enough that I made sure to pass it down to my daughter. She tells me she’s even read it. And I know I’ve read it more times than I can count. It’s one of those cultural literacy things, I think. In Jean Webster’s book, Daddy-Long-Legs, Judy shows up at college with no knowledge of Little Women, and is forced to read it in her spare time so that she knows what her friends are talking about when they mention pickled limes.

You know what, I don’t think we own a copy of Daddy-Long-Legs. Must fix that, and soon.

I don’t know, maybe hanging around the house and whining during the dark month of December is so central to the human condition that we can all relate to it. I know that’s where I am myself right now. I don’t feel like cooking dinner at night.  I don’t feel like being cheerful. Neither did the March sisters, and believe me, I get it.

Unfortunately for me, I’m no longer a teenage girl who gets to hang around whining and refusing to knit stockings. At my time of life, I’m supposed to be Marmee, whose brisk and cheery presence pulls the girls out of the abyss of bitching and moaning about how awful their lives are.

Man, I don’t know. Marmee sets the bar kind of high, you know? Do I have that in me? The ability to pull myself together and be an adult and not whine when the weather is dark and the days are short?

Well, I’ll tell you what, that’s going to involve some teeth-gritting on my part. But you know what might actually help? I think my family should go out and get our Christmas tree this Saturday. Having a tree with lights on it in the house always cheers me up.

All right, Marmee. Even though you are a fictional character, I accept your challenge.

Dark December, get out of the way. We’re getting our Christmas tree.

Also, how do you pronounce Marmee?

Love you & leave you,

Hobbie DeHoy

Book People

So I’m exploring all these new-to-me authors who fall under the category of “literary fiction,” according to the Adult Reading Round Table. I have this handy list from a fellow librarian, and my, am I having fun with it. For some of the authors, it’s clear to me that reading one book is more than enough. However, I’m amazed and energized by the number of authors whose work inspires the reaction, “Where have you been all my life?”

Chris Bohjalian, where have you been all my life?

Marisa de los Santos, where have you been all my life?

See? See what fun I’m having?

I’m even doing the second-chance thing with some authors. For instance, my book club read Geraldine Brooks’ novel March a couple of years ago. Except that I didn’t. I don’t know if I’ve read Little Women too many times or what, but I just could not get going with March. And then, lo and behold, Geraldine Brooks  came up on my handy book list, and I wanted to get her checked off my list, so I tried again with People of the Book.

And my gosh, am I glad that I did.

Geraldine Brooks, where have you been all my life? And why, oh why, didn’t I appreciate you before?

People of the Book is a fantastic read. Ms. Brooks has a gift for moving her settings back-and-forth between contemporary culture and centuries past. And each story from the past has a link to the eponymous book in the title.  It’s sheer craftsmanship, I’m telling you.

And I love that the contemporary setting is in Sarajevo. I never knew much about Sarajevo, except from the news stories back in the 1990’s, about the violence and the ethnic cleansing and the other unhappy events that were newsworthy. I’m grateful for a more thoughtful, literary view of an Eastern European city, particularly this one.

Well, I’ll tell you what. I’m going back to try again with March.

Except I’ll have a terrible time getting through this author list, if I keep falling in love with the authors and passionately pursuing and reading every book they’ve ever written.

And that, my darlings, is a beautiful problem to have.

Love you & leave you,

Hobbie DeHoy

 

Falling Down

I live in the Midwest, and it seems like everybody loves fall. The leaves turning color! The crisp air! The pumpkins, the apples, the squash! Whatever weird autumn flavor Starbucks has come up with! Time to get the sweaters out!

Well, not me. My birthday is in September, and I always hated having a birthday close to the beginning of the school year. A birthday that has nothing to do with school? Now that would be a cause to celebrate!

Crisp air means dry air, which means I’m constantly rubbing lotion into my hands. My sinuses hurt all the time, and I’ve got this ongoing, mildly-distressing feeling that even though I’m not sick right this minute, some dread head cold is stalking me down. It’s only a matter of hours, or possibly days.

Crisp air also makes me sleepy. And cranky, too, because I feel like I should be out there hiking around, glorying in the changing leaves, soaking in some of the last remaining sunshine as the year is waning. But I’m too sleepy to get excited about undue amounts of hiking around. I just want to nap the autumn away. Except I don’t really, because all too soon the sky will be gray and the sidewalks will be slushy and possibly snowy and I won’t be *able* to take nice long walks. And then I’ll regret all those sunshiny autumn afternoons that I spent napping, because crisp air makes me sleepy. This is the very definition of a no-win situation.

My family does go apple-picking every autumn, and that I do enjoy. Pick-your-own apples are crispier and sweeter and an altogether more optimal experience than store-bought apples. But, you know. That’s one afternoon out of a season that lasts for months.

Pumpkins are pretty. Mums are pretty. Gourds are pretty. Some people are very imaginative with their Halloween lawn decor. There are, of course, plenty of things to like about the fall.

But you know what fall really is? It’s the tunnel that leads to winter. It’s the season when the days get shorter and flowers and leaves are dying everywhere you look. It’s the season that inspired a holy day called the Day of the Dead.

Yes, I view the fall as a melancholy time of year. And it’s even more melancholy because I feel alone in my low spirits. All my Midwestern neighbors are reveling in this annual frenzy of hay mazes, hay rides, apple butter festivals, and haunted houses. I just feel sort of sad all the time.

Well, there’s nothing actually morally wrong about hunkering down a little early. Give me a cardigan, a quilt, and a whole stack of library books to enjoy.

And, since it’s that time of year, maybe some hot apple cider to go along with that.

Love you & leave you,

Hobbie DeHoy

The Slacker Express

I’ve been noticing lately that a lot of the bloggers I follow are talking about Current Projects. She’s working on a short story, he’s on the second chapter of a draft for a novel, and so forth. And National Novel Writing Month is coming up in November, so I imagine I’ll be hearing even more on these topics as we journey further into autumn.

I am feeling like a complete and total slacker. Why?

Guys: This blog is my writing project. It’s really all I’ve got. I’m hoping that plodding along writing blog entries will improve my writing somewhat, but who really knows?

My bar is low: either I’m writing blog entries, or I’m not writing at all. That’s how it is for Hobbie DeHoy, who occasionally suspects that her passion for reading crowds out all other passions, especially writing. You know the piece of writing advice that tells you if you want to write, you should read? Well, I seem to have that part down. It’s moving on to the actual process of writing that seems to be the problem.

There are some things that make me feel better. One is, some writers don’t become published until way later in life than I have yet achieved (I just turned 43. A prime number! I love those.). For example, Laura Ingalls Wilder was in her sixties when her Little House books came out. Another feel-better is, my friend Sandy who published a book after her kids went to college and told me that she never could have done it while her kids were living at home. And Sandy is brilliant, so there is yet hope for me. A third feel-better is reading the blogs of the admirable Jenny Lawson and John Scalzi and realizing that they have been blogging for years.

So who am I to be hard on myself after a mere six months of blogging?

Oh, right. Being hard on myself is something I do even more often than reading. It’s very easy to do. Very.

Aw, maybe I’ll get a writing project going one of these days. Maybe not. When I do, you all will be the first to know.

Because you can bet I’ll be too self-conscious to tell anybody else.

Love you & leave you,

Hobbie DeHoy

Three New Books

Last week, our public library’s hold shelf held the mother lode for me… a whole bunch of new books that I had reserved and been anticipating for weeks. I’ve read three of them, and here is what I think.

The first one I read, Lucky Us by Amy Bloom, is the one I was most excited about. I’d read a couple of reviews and was very much looking forward to it.

Lucky Us wasn’t quite what I was hoping it would be. Maybe those glowing reviews raised my hopes up to unrealistic heights. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a very interesting story. It’s not just another book set during the Depression and World War II. The tales of Iris, the adventurous aspiring actress, are original and fresh. The physical details of some (not all) of the settings are lush and add a lot to the narrative.

I think where this book falls flat, though, is in the first-person voice of the sidekick sister, Eva. Even though I would expect to know her best of all because she is the narrator in alternating chapters, there is a definite distance there. She just seems to drift along, an outsider in her own story. She’s surrounded by these charismatic characters and interesting plot lines, but none of them ever seems to reach her at a deep level. It kind of makes me wonder if the stories in this novel would function better as short stories, eliminating the flat narration of the character who is outside looking in, and is literally left with the baby as other characters pursue their ambitions.

Also, I didn’t like the ending at all. The pacing was forced, and I could not believe in the relationships that came together at the end of the book. Flipping back and experiencing the energy of the earlier scenes in the novel, it makes me sad that that energy wasn’t sustained until the end for me.  You should still read it. It’s different from any other book I’ve read that’s set in this era, and that’s an important distinction.

After this mild disappointment, I was set to dive into The Miniaturist, by Jessie Burton. And, oh, what a luscious dive it was. Complicated characters, fascinating setting, ambiguous plot line… yes, I loved the story of young Nella arriving from her small village in Delft, poised to experience the bustling, international flavor of Amsterdam. Yes, I could see the major complication in her marriage coming from about five miles away, but watching the drama unfold seemed to make up for that. It’s interesting to watch an author create a setting in historical fiction that deals with social issues that would not have been spoken about at the time. If ambiguity bothers you, this book will truly drive you crazy. I loved trying and failing to figure out what on earth was going on in this book. I am definitely going to read it again, and you should read it too.

I wasn’t so sure I knew where I wanted to go from here, so I chose the book I thought I should return to the library sooner rather than later because it had a long reserve list. This book is The Rosie Project, by Graeme Simsion. This is a book I never would have chosen for myself, but I applied for a job at a library that was holding a book discussion based on this novel, and I thought if I made the interview it would look really good that I had read it. At this point, I’m doubting I made the cut for the job interview, but I’m certainly glad I read this book.

This book has been described as a romantic comedy, and I guess the story fits that description. But it’s so much more than that. The narrator, Don Tillman, could be described as someone who is on the autism/Asperger’s spectrum, but he never quite is, even though there are some hints. When I realized where the hints were leading, I groaned inside.  I hated Al Capone Does My Shirts. I hated The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. When this story was being set up as yet another plot line with an autistic protagonist, I prepared myself to hate it too. Not that I have a problem with an autistic protagonist. I don’t. I have a problem with unsuccessful attempts to work with this kind of character in fiction, and in my view neither of the other books were successful. They were stilted, stumbling, and stereotypical.

However, this author succeeds where the other ones failed me. Don misses social cues, fixates on details, and is rigid in his routines, all of which we’ve seen in other characters in other books. I’m trying to figure out why this story is different. I think it’s because Don has figured out how to successfully navigate the world around him. He’s not being protected from it by other characters. His actual problems, job satisfaction and his love life, are universal to the human condition. I love it that the lobster vendor is waiting for him every Tuesday and that he’s earned special privileges as an airplane passenger. Also, Don is able to let go of his rigid plans when it is most important to do so. This book is funny and a real roller-coaster ride. The other characters are strong, amusing, and well-drawn. I think that whoever the librarian is who chose this for a book discussion is very, very good at her job. It’s a feel-good book that also feels like something wholly new. You should read this one, too, and suggest it to your book club if you’re in one.

I’ve still got some books in my new stack. Can’t wait to get to them.

Love you & leave you,

Hobbie DeHoy

All She Ever Does is Read

Did anyone ever say this about you when you were growing up? Lots of people, both adults and other children, said it about me, and let me tell you, this was never, ever uttered in anything like a supportive or admiring tone. The subtext always seemed to be “because she has no friends. What a loser.”

Well, ha-ha, boring other people, I led a richer inner life than you, a truth which you failed to appreciate at the time and probably still wouldn’t understand.

Now that I’m an adult and a parent myself, I simply can’t fathom any adult with any maturity or perspective or compassion commenting in this way and in this tone about a child, let alone within her hearing.  One of my favorite parenting moments ever was when my friend Kay hosted a party, and Kay saw that my highly-introverted daughter needed a little bit of quiet space, and she said, “Let’s find her a book to read.”

No harsh judgment. No hint of any sentiment that my daughter had to go play with the other kids even though she’d been doing that for the past two hours and badly needed a break. My friend Kay thought it was perfectly fine that a child would spend some time at a large party, sitting in a quiet corner with a book.

I love the place and time where I live, where it’s okay for a quiet child who has done her social duty for a while to read during a party. Love it.

I’m bringing this up because the topic of screen time seems to have become quite a discussion among parents, both online and in the real world. How much time should children spend on the internet? How much time online is too much? What kind of limits should there be? Should the limits depend on how old the child is?

I don’t limit my children’s time on the internet. When they were in elementary school, we had the five o’clock rule, which was that they had to wait until five o’clock for any screen time, whether that was television or computer time or whatever.

Now that my daughter is thirteen and my son is eleven, they can do whatever they want. Every time I consider setting limits, or forcing them to spend their free time doing something else, I hear those voices in my head, those voices who let me know in no uncertain terms that my favorite activity wasn’t good enough for the people around me, and that my choices during my free time were not acceptable choices.

Do I wish my children would read more? Of course I do. But my own mother wished I would play outside more. She wished I would join in with other children more. She made me join the Girl Scouts and the high school choir, when I would rather have been home with a book.

It won’t surprise you to hear that we have books all over the place at our house. They are waiting to be discovered. But I want my children to discover them on their own, not because I’m making them do it.

I guess I’m not willing to subscribe to the idea that spending a lot of time on the internet is harmful for young teens, just because I didn’t do that myself and I don’t want to do it now. My son is learning something through video gaming, and my daughter is learning something by being a fangirl and following video bloggers. They aren’t the same things I learned, but the world is a different place now. They spend a lot of time in school or doing homework, and at their age I want their free time to be their own.

And I also know that sometimes I reached my saturation point and I put down my book and went and climbed a tree or something. I’ve seen both my children walk away from screen time when they have had enough. They are learning to self-regulate, and that’s a good thing.

Pursuing a passion, whether it’s books or fangirl culture or Minecraft. That’s what it’s all about.

Love you & leave you,

Hobbie DeHoy

Mansfield Park: Jane Austen’s Upside-Down Town

It’s time for my second Jane Austen-related post! Because 2014 is the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mansfield Park, which I (and probably many others) consider to be Jane Austen’s “problem novel.”

I’ve been thinking about Mansfield Park quite a lot recently, in part because of another blog I follow, called sarahemsley.com.  I’m grateful to Sarah for posting thought-provoking essays in celebration of Mansfield Park this year.

Fanny Price is the Jane Austen heroine whose character and actions inspire the most debate, in my opinion. If you’ll allow me to over-simplify (and you will, because this is my blog), the debate tends to fall sharply into two camps, consisting of “Fanny’s a wimp!” versus “No, she’s not!”

I, as a quiet, soft-spoken person, fall into the latter camp. No surprise there.

I think that Jane Austen felt that she had already done the spirited, witty, extroverted heroine with Lizzy Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. I am sure that she made a deliberate decision, in Mansfield Park, to try an entirely different kind of heroine. Moreover, I think she also decided to try an inversion of the hero/heroine relationship she had created in her previous novel.

Fanny Price is unlike Lizzy Bennet in many ways, not the least of which is her “quiet, passive manner.” However, Fanny is unlike Lizzy in another, more significant way. Fanny is an observer. She can see what is happening right in front of her, and succeeds in drawing accurate and meaningful conclusions about people and relationships around her. Consider how different this is from Lizzy, who upbraids herself for being “wretchedly blind” when she realizes the value of Mr. Darcy’s affection for her. In contrast, Fanny says to her cousin Edmund, “I was quiet, but I was not blind.” At the conclusion of the novel, we see that Fanny is invariably spot on in her observations of other people. She was right to refuse a marriage proposal from the unprincipled Henry Crawford, and she was right when she saw that Mary Crawford was no matrimonial catch for her cousin Edmund.

However, there is a blind person in Mansfield Park, and that is the hero, Fanny’s cousin Edmund Bertram. He believes himself to be in love with Mary Crawford, when in reality he is infatuated with her charming manners and witty conversation. He dismisses Fanny’s observations about the Crawfords. And most of all, he is blind to the merit of his cousin, Fanny Price, who has been in love with him since childhood.

Just like Lizzy (“wretchedly blind”) and later, Emma Woodhouse (“I seem to have been doomed to blindness”), Edmund isn’t punished for his earlier failure to see and value what was right in front of his nose. He is rewarded with the love of and marriage to his cousin.

So, we see that in Mansfield Park, Jane Austen turns the hero/heroine relationship upside-down. Her heroine, Fanny, is the astute observer, just as are Mr. Darcy and Mr. Knightley; and the hero, Edmund, is the blind one. I am grateful that Jane Austen achieved something completely different in Mansfield Park, giving us a heroine who is as morally uncompromising and keenly observant as the gentlemen who wield much more power both in the novels and the society they depict.

I just don’t know why we can’t forgive Fanny for being observant and morally righteous, when we are happy to accept that in Darcy and Mr. Knightley. I don’t know why we can’t forgive Edmund for being blind to what’s happening around him, when we are happy to have Lizzy and Emma rewarded for the same fault. Maybe, 200 years later, we’re still uncomfortable with flipping gender roles in this way.

And that, my dears, shows the extraordinary power of Jane Austen.

Love you & leave you,

Hobbie DeHoy

It’s All About the Books

Well, here we all are, back from a holiday weekend. I use the term “back” loosely, though, because I traveled in my favorite way: through books.

Yes, I read at least one book a day this weekend. I did not go to a county fair. I did not go to an airshow. I did not go to an all-day barbecue.

I read. And read. And read. I also did laundry and went to church, but I suspect nobody cares about that. Except possibly my husband and children, who will wear clean clothes this week.

I finished The Light in the Ruins, by Chris Bohjalian, who is now a New Favorite Author of mine. I read Fin & Lady, by Cathleen Schine, and I am definitely finding more of her books the next time I go to the library. I read We Are All Welcome Here, by Elizabeth Berg, and I am probably finding more of her books the next time I go to the library. I read a romance novel, Too Good to Be True, by Kristan Higgins. And you know what?  I think I just may enjoy romance novels more than I thought I did, as long as there is an element of humor and the plot is treated lightly. I read The Orphan Train, by Christina Baker Kline. I enjoyed it. I liked the way the plot elements came together and it was certainly a page-turner. However, sometimes the voice was off. A character in a prairie town in the 1920’s would not have described children in a schoolhouse as having “hit puberty.”  This, and other errors like it that probably nobody notices except me, prevents me from offering unqualified approval. Niggling imperfections are hard to let go of.

I think that’s all. I read really fast, and I don’t get out much. Both of these are, I imagine, glaringly obvious.

But I still feel that I’m back from the holiday weekend. Because when you think about it, I went a lot of different places.

Love you & leave you,

Hobbie DeHoy

Upstairs/Downstairs

No, I don’t mean the television show. Which I’ve never watched, by the way, even though I’ve been told that I would like it. But I always just like reading better than television, you know? So why choose more TV?

I mean that right now I’ve started a new reading pattern. I have one book that I’m reading when I’m upstairs and one book that I’m reading when I’m downstairs.

I started this in the hope that I will spend much less time wandering around the house trying to remember where I put my book down. It seems to be working fairly well in that way. I know my upstairs book has to be somewhere upstairs and my downstairs book has to be somewhere downstairs. I seem to have cut down on my “wandering around feeling lost without my book time,” which is definitely good.

Now that I’m thinking about it, though, this division seems to indicate that I’m feeling a lack of passion about either of these two books. I’m not experiencing that total immersion in either one. I’m not simply dying to get home from work and read one or the other. Of course, it is the first week of the school year for my kids and transition times always make me feel tired and hollow inside while I try to cope with the anxiety that transition times inevitably bring. Still, the passion seems to be missing.

Also, both of my books have long lists of characters and a lot of complicated shifts in time, place, and voice, and I’m starting to get confused.

You know, now that I’m writing and thinking about this, I don’t think I like this upstairs/downstairs idea very much. What’s the point of reading if the passion isn’t there?

I should finish one book, then finish the other, and then go back to wandering around again.

Which book should I finish first? Oh, dear. I know if I put one down I’ll forget who is married to who and who is in what city for what reason in the other book.

You know what? I don’t care. I’m picking the one set in Italy. There.

Back to wandering.

Love you & leave you,

Hobbie DeHoy