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Celebrating Books Every Day

World Book Day is celebrated this month in the United Kingdom (here it is World Book Night in April). School children are urged to dress up as a fictional character. Apparently one little boy has already been sent home for coming in a “Christian Grey” suit. (If he was in my class, I’d have him go back to the hall and re-enter as Willy Loman. Problem solved.)

So, while it’s not OFFICIALLY World Book Day here, it did get me thinking that ANY day is the perfect time to celebrate books.

In that spirit, let me celebrate the books I am reading right now, or have recently finished. I don’t usually read 5 books at a time, but I am just now, all very different, and for different reasons.

station 11STATION ELEVEN by Emily St. John Mandel 

You might have heard that I’m not a big fan of end-of-civilization novels (scroll down to the post, “Hi-tailing It Out of Distopia” for an explanation). But my husband went out of town and left me this book with a note saying, “I think you’ll love it! Enjoy.” Now, my husband is sparing with his exclamation points, so I took the note seriously. The book is about a time in the not-too-distant future after a pandemic thinned the population by, well, almost everyone.

The story follows a small travelling company of actors and musicians who perform classical music and Shakespeare in the small settlements that remain. Granted, I haven’t finished the book, but the characters are interesting and real, and the book does seem to celebrate the good in humanity and even the “magical” everyday things we current readers take for granted.

DEAD UNTIL DAWN by Charlaine Harris

Yes, I realize I’m about 10 years behind everyone else, but there was a copy left by the bathtub and dead until Darkwhat is a girl to do? Isn’t it great that once books are written, they continue to exist and be unique? I’ve met Ms. Harris, she is a down-to-earth person who is nice to other writers and willing to dish about Alexander Skarsgard. I’d heard the Sookie novels were “episodic,” and the series was a little much for me. But what the heck?

Here’s the what: Sookie jumps in on the first page, a fully-realized character with a clear eye, a sense of humor and a big chain. There isn’t much she isn’t afraid of, and her crazy Southern world is introduced as normal-wacky. Vampires? Shape-shifters? Southerners you recognize and a town that feels like a real place? Obviously, a kajillion people read these books because they’re just plain fun. So what if the plots aren’t exactly tightly woven? And my best guess about the series is that somehow the men–the showrunners, the producers, writers, directors–co-opted Sookie and struck out on their own. Obviously they were successful, but it’s not the same thing.

Kaiulani Crown Princess WebbKAIULANI: CROWN PRINCESS OF HAWAII by Nancy and Jean Francis Webb

This one might strike you as kind of odd, after all, I did write a biography of Princess Kaiulani myself (that won the Carter Woodson Award, yay), and this biography was written back in 1962.  But here’s the deal. During the time my husband and I honeymooned in Hawaii, we saw a small newspaper article about Princess Kaiulani, and I fell in love with her.

I found the Webb’s book (and every other book on Hawaiian history in print) and then, we found the Webbs. They lived in Manhattan, as we did. By then, Nancy was battling Parkinson’s, but they welcomed us, time and time again, into their apartment. We would sit and talk for hours. A lot about Kaiulani and their journey to write the book, but also about their journey(s), period. They wrote radio dramas in the Good Old Days and had wonderful stories of a New York and a writing life not long gone. There is a new edition of their book out now, in paperback. My copy of their book is the hardcover, and it is signed. It is also falling apart. It is a prized possession.

Why did I pick this book up to start reading it? It was the beginning of a long journey, and I hadn’t read it in a long time. Some of the language used in 1962 sounds outdated now, even a bit insulting, but back then it was the politically correct speech of the day. But, they were a step closer to 1899, when “our princess” died. When they wrote, people who remembered Kaiulani were still alive. Honolulu was different 50 years ago, as it had been 50 years before the Webbs. But I’m loving it. Like a visit with old, beloved friends–and I mean both the Webbs and the Kalakauas.


Every year, our church reads a book collectively during Lent. We are a church of people who love to learnListening for the Heartbeat and to discuss ideas. This is a book about Celtic Spirituality, and it is fascinating. Oftentimes we Christians don’t realize how much of what we find in the Scriptures has to do with the lens through which we read the text. For example, the idea of Original Sin was pretty much plunked whole into Church theology by Augustine, who did us some mighty favors and some mighty disservices.

It’s interesting to hear the argument for the theologians who lost the argument at that one specific time in history. “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.” Suppose that theological statement is actually fact?  Wonderful, necessary discussions. I LOVE ideas. I LOVE discussions. I LOVE books.

Here are two books I just finished, and I found them interesting counterpoints to each other.

Boston GirlTHE BOSTON GIRL by Anita Diamant

The Boston girl is a grandmother who is telling the story of when she became herself to her granddaughter. It’s a very workable conceit. The main character came from a family of Jewish immigrants who arrived stone poor to live in the tenements of New York’s Lower East Side. Times were tough. Money was tight. Loved ones were lost. Marriage prospects were not happy ones. The possibility of education for girls was a far-away thought. And yet.

YET. Our heroine has pluck, she has hope–but mostly, she has friends. Her world broadens. Her thinking broadens. Her prospects,–finally–broaden. It is a specific person’s story, but in many ways, it is every immigrant’s story. It is a fast read, and it is wonderful.

WE ARE NOT OURSELVES by Matthew Thomas

Another immigrant saga, this one of poor Irish in the mid-to-late 20th century, it takes place in the Wwe are not ourselvesOuter Boroughs of New York City. Our heroine is also from a family who arrived stone poor (actually, drunk poor). Times were tough. Money was tight. Loved ones were lost. Marriage prospects were not happy ones. She managed an education. And yet.

YET. Our heroine is stoic, not plucky; without hope that things will get better (not because they couldn’t, but because, well, wherever you go, there you are), and most trenchantly, she has no friends. She is completely self-contained and self-absorbed. Friendship is dealt, like cards, not fallen into. It was the kind of book you admire greatly and don’t enjoy for a minute.

At least, that’s me. But the great thing is, there are books out there for everyone! There are new worlds and new ideas and new ways to think and to view the world and make us appreciate what we have, and then, on to the next. It’s quite the most marvelous thing.

julia-child-my-life-in-franceOkay, last one up: My Life in France by Julia Child

Very possibly, one of the most wonderful books, ever. And not because it’s Dostoevsky or even Mary Stewart. Simply because Julia Child is an  indomitable woman, who can find delight in any situation. If you have trouble sleeping at night, keep this book by your bed. When you wake up, start reading. The phantoms of the night will fade into the France of the 1950s, your worries will fade into butter (it is Julia), and you will soon drift off, with a smile on your face.



How Female Novelists (quietly) Change the World

For many years, novelists fought the marketing hurdle that nonfiction gives you something (information), while fiction takes something away(your time). Many of us always knew that to be untrue, but it’s hard to explain to someone who wants “just the facts, ma’am.”

Now we’re finding out that isn’t  the case at all. Researchers have found that reading fiction changes your brain’s ability to function and make important interconnections for days after you finish reading a novel.


But I believe fiction does something else important, albeit less quantifiable.

Fiction changes us. It changes how we think, how we view the world, what we expect, what we believe we’re capable of.

Let me note that I’m specifically not talking about the purposeful troublemakers, God bless them, such as Harriet Beecher Stowe (“the little lady who started this big war”), George Orwell or other political novelists. How they ignite arguments and change the world, for better or worse, is front and center.  Instead, I’m considering the instances of just darn good storytelling, of people spinning a yarn that involves and entertains the reader, and seems to be happening to a hero or heroine with whom the reader identifies: a normal person, just like us.

MStewart-1-Obit-master180Much of this thinking on my part has been triggered by the recent death of Mary Stewart. It’s hard to believe, at this point in time, how very different things were in the world of genre fiction in the mid 20th century. How women–even the smart ones–were “stand-by” characters who pushed the male hero forward and occasionally fed him important information. That’s if they were smart. Much more often, they distracted him with their “feminine wiles.” In either case, they didn’t exactly move the action. Or they were fully fleshed out characters, like Rebecca in the novel of the same name–but they were trapped in a world defined by men (and really mean women). Then came Mary. She purposefully wrote the kind of mystery/suspense novels she wanted to read: where the women were the active protagonists, marching into the fray.

Her heroines weren’t superheroes. In her obituary in The Guardian, she’s quoted as saying she would “take conventionally bizarre situations (the car chase, the closed-room murder, the wicked uncle tale) and send real people into them, normal, everyday people with normal, everyday reactions to violence and fear; people not ‘heroic’ in the conventional sense, but averagely intelligent men and women who could be shocked or outraged into defending, if necessary, with great physical bravery, what they held to be right.”

Stewart called her books “light, fast-moving stories, which are meant to give pleasure, and where the bees in the writer’s bonnet are kept buzzing very softly indeed,” saying she was “first and foremost a teller of tales, but I am also a serious-minded woman who accepts the responsibilities of her job, and that job, if I am to be true to what is in me, is to say with every voice at my command: ‘We must love and imitate the beautiful and the good.'”  You GO, woman!

Now, I don’t want to slight men here; I love men; they face their own challenges that are not easy. But I have to say, Mary-Stewart_2912427bgrowing up in the 20th century, girls were taught, nearly universally, that even if we were capable of doing something and the opportunity had presented itself, we had to first get permission. Being proactive without first getting someone to sign off on our decisions  is still a fearful thing to many of us. Mary’s heroines were scared, but they did it anyway. And if they could, darn it, so could I.

Mary Stewart’s book that rocked my world was The Crystal Cave, the story of the young Merlin–but told with a modern sensibility, not as a medieval bard’s tale. “The day my Uncle Camlach came home, I was just six years old.”  OMG. The fantastical and the every day married in such a way that made the everyday holy and magic, and made the stakes of being yourself so costly and dangerous but profoundly worth it. Life could be like this. Writing could be like this. This was the path that called me, and once I’d taken the first step onto it, there was no turning back.  Thank you, Mary. Thank you very much.

Many of the writers I most admire follow Mary’s advice that “the bees in the writer’s bonnet are kept buzzing very softly indeed.” To me, this is a very important part of affecting change in a person, and eventually, in society. By picking up a novel, you get to walk a mile (or ten) in that person’s shoes. Try on a new level of courage, of action, of thought, of living in a larger world, just to see how it fits. Perhaps before you would be comfortable with those changes in your skin, you will be comfortable with them, by proxy, in the character’s skin. And that’s how the possibility takes root.

Many, many writers have taken us forward down Mary’s path of “the beautiful and the good.” Here are some of my all-time favorites. Let me just note that the number one qualification for being on this  list (in my mind is a very long version) is that you are one hell of a writer, who takes the craft very very seriously!

astrid-lindgrenAstrid Lindgren. Seriously, was their ever a girl who needed less permission than Pippi Longstocking? She was stalwart, courageous, a fast friend and a defender against pirates. She was also hysterically funny. Apparently, she caused all sorts of trouble with those who are grand proponents of doing as your told and following the rules. Astrid wrote many other books, and none of her heroines  asked permission.

Fannie-FlaggFanny FlaggFried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe is a tale of women with lots of troubles in their lives and lots of folks telling them what they can and can’t do. You get so involved, it’s not even a question about who it’s proper to love. Love is always proper. Heart, hilarity, and really good barbecue.

Anita DiamantAnita Diamant. In The Red Tent, Ms. Diamant tells the familiar biblical story of Jacob and his children–or, more specifically, Leah, Rachel, Zilpah and Bilhah and their children–through the eyes of daughter Dinah. Turns out men and women tell the same history very differently, and it’s about time the other voice was imagined and heard.

Montgomery_LL.M. Montgomery. Lucy  Maud Montgomery lived a life uncomfortably like those of her heroines Anne Of Green Gables and Emily of New Moon. After her mother’s death, she was given by her father to be raised in a loveless home by stern aunts. Instead of bemoaning her lot, she lived in her imagination, and wrote stories about young girls who, through force of their personalities and knowledge that they belong to “the tribe that knows Joseph,” are able to transform the world around them. Her books  have transformed the lives of many many girls the world over since.

The Crystal Cave pippi longstocking red tent Friedgreenbook harry potter emilyofnewmoon__span

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