The Windy Hill

Well, as I finished this book a few days before Thanksgiving, it’s really time I reviewed it, no?

Firstly, how great is it that it didn’t take the Newberry committee decades to honor a woman writer? Cornelia Meigs won the Newberry Honor a few times, and finally the Medal in 1934 with Invincible Louisa (which I cannot WAIT to read, as I probably read Little Women a fifty times over as an adolescent).

The Windy Hill is, firstly, a mystery. Young teenagers Oliver and Janet stay with their cousin Jasper for a summer, and befriend Polly and the Beeman. Jasper behaves strangely and erratically when a stranger intrudes on Jasper’s house, and Polly is determined to find out why. Through the Beeman’s fantastical stories and Oliver’s dogged curiosity, the siblings solve the mystery and save the town. It’s all very neat and adorable, but I must admit I was quite taken with The Windy Hill. Perhaps it was because Meig’s narration was far less stiff than her 1922 medalists’ counterparts. Perhaps it was because her story seemed more contemporary and far less historical. But I think it was more because the storytelling was good. The Beeman’s stories (chapter-length stories within the story) were simply transportive. The setting was quaint and the drama engaging. And yes, the story ended neatly and didactically, but isn’t that an expectation of literature written for children? We’re supposed to teach the little buggers a lesson, aren’t we? And somehow, Meigs manages this gracefully.

Why don’t grown-up people tell us things? It is miserable to be old enough to notice when affairs go wrong but not to be old enough to have them explained.

2011 Books

What I read in 2011. 55 books. Here’s to 60 in 2012!
  1. (Jan. 1) The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Prisoner’s Dilemma, Trenton Lee Stewart
  2. (Jan. 2) American Girls: Kirsten (Meet Kirsten, Kirsten Learns a Lesson, Kirsten’s Surprise, Happy Birthday Kirsten!, Kirsten Saves the Day, Changes for Kirsten)
  3. (Jan. 2) It’s A Book, Lane Smith
  4. (Jan. 3) Fever 1793, Laurie Halse Anderson
  5. (Jan. 5) Ninth Ward, Jewell Parker Rhodes
  6. (Jan. 5) A Patient’s Guide to PCOS, Walter Dutterweit, MD with George Ryan
  7. (Jan. 7) Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, Anthony Bourdain
  8. (Jan. 22) The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Sherman Alexie
  9. (Jan. 23) Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer
  10. (Feb. 6) American Girls: Molly (Meet Molly, Molly Learns a Lesson, Molly’s Surprise, Happy Birthday Molly!, Molly Saves the Day, Changes for Molly)
  11. (Feb. 10) Speak, Laurie Halse Anderson
  12. (Feb. 18) Copper Sun, Sharon M. Draper
  13. (Mar. 10) The Vagina Monologues, Eve Ensler
  14. (Mar. ?) A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Bad Beginning (#1), Lemony Snicket
  15. (Mar. 26) A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Reptile Room (#2), Lemony Snicket
  16. (Mar. ?) The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison
  17. (Mar. 27) A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Wide Window (#3), Lemony Snicket
  18. (Mar. 28) Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life, Bryan Lee O’Malley
  19. (Apr. 3) A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Miserable Mill (#4), Lemony Snicket
  20. (Apr. 5) Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, Mary Roach

  21. (Apr. 7) The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot
  22. (Apr. 10) A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Austere Academy (#5), Lemony Snicket
  23. (Apr. 14) Beloved, Toni Morrison
  24. (Apr. 26) A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Ersatz Elevator (#6), Lemony Snicket
  25. (May 1) Bossypants, Tina Fey
  26. (May 2) A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Vile Village (#7), Lemony Snicket
  27. (May 3) A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Hostile Hospital (#8), Lemony Snicket
  28. (May 4) A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Carnivorous Carnival (#9), Lemony Snicket
  29. (May 8) A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Slippery Slope (#10), Lemony Snicket
  30. (May 11) A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Grim Grotto (#11), Lemony Snicket
  31. (May 25) A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Penultimate Peril (#12), Lemony Snicket
  32. (May 25) A Mercy, Toni Morrison
  33. (June 7) Anya’s Ghost, Vera Brosgol
  34. (June 11) Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Year 7), J.K. Rowling
  35. (June 23) A Series of Unfortunate Events: The End (#13), Lemony Snicket
  36. (June 28) Chocolat, Joanne Harris
  37. (July ?) The Secret Life of Bees, Sue Monk Kidd
  38. (July 12) I Will Teach You to Be Rich, Ramit Sethi
  39. (July 14) The Magician’s Nephew, C. S. Lewis
  40. (Aug. 8) Chains, Laurie Halse Anderson
  41. (Aug. 25) Forge, Laurie Halse Anderson
  42. (Aug. 26) Go Ask Alice, Anonymous (Beatrice Sparks)
  43. (Aug. 27) Island of the Blue Dolphins, Scott O’Dell, ill. Ted Lewin
  44. (Sep. 9) It’s Kind of A Funny Story, Ned Vizzini
  45. (Sep. 10) Coraline, Neil Gaiman
  46. (Oct. 26) The Story of Mankind, Hendrick Willem van Loon
  47. (Nov. 22) The Golden Fleece and the Heroes that Lived Before Achilles, Padraic Collum
  48. (Nov. 23) The Windy Hill, Cornelia Meigs
  49. (Dec. 7) The Walking Dead: Volume 1, Robert Kirkman, ill. Tony Moore
  50. (Dec. 15) Keeper, Kathy Appelt
  51. (Dec. 23) Death’s Acre: Inside the Legendary Forensic Lab Where the Dead Do Tell Tales, Dr. Bill Bass and Jon Jefferson
  52. (Dec. 25) Olivia, Ian Falconer
  53. (Dec. 27) Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, Ransom Riggs
  54. (Dec. 29) The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins

Hit It and Quit It

Do you guys watch The Big Bang Theory? Raj and the guys decide one “Anything Can Happy Thursday” that they’re going to go pick up women at a bar. They’re going to hit it and quit it. Except they’re Raj and the guys, so the end up back at the comic book store.

That’s kind of how I am with the past few books I’ve started. I just haven’t been able to commit.

First, I started The Old Tobacco Shop. It’s is (yet another!) 1922 Newberry Honor book. I got about 30% through it, and just quit. It’s kind of annoying, and the plot is kind of aimless (and not in the quirky-fun Alice in Wonderland kind of way). I’m going to give it another go for Big World, Young Feet, but I’m definitely not excited about it.

When The Old Tobacco Shop fizzled, I picked up Shane Jone’s Light Boxes, thinking maybe I just needed a break from books older than my grandmother. But even though this (annoyingly) postmodern novella is only 150 pages, I could only manage half of it. The story sounded interesting enough–a town in consumed by endless February, and they try to rally against the evil being causing endless winter (also named February) to rescue their stolen children and bring sunshine back. But I just can’t get past the distracting page breaks,  weird “artistic” interjections, and the fact that each character is narrated with exactly the same tone.

I don’t like not finishing books, and I’ll almost definitely pick up both of these to finish them, however begrudgingly. My dad and husband, on the other hand, don’t worry about finishing books if they’re not liking them. “If you’re not enjoying it,” my dad says, “why waste your time?”

What about you? Do you finish books no matter what? Or do you jump to something you’ll enjoy more?

In Which Magic Men Do Really Cool Things

I wanted to like The Golden Fleece and the Heroes Who Lived Before Achilles. I really, really did. It had everything a good story should have–adventuring men, strong women, cool monsters, surprise and suspense and even a little bit of moral didacticism. 

Or maybe, it almost had these things.

Padriac Colum’s The Golden Fleece is a retelling of the mythology surrounding Jason and the Argonauts in their quest for the Golden Fleece, a task that would reclaim Jason’s father’s kindgom from a cowardly, illegitimate ruler. You remember that from high school, right? Because I didn’t. I remember very little from Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, which, I’m willing to bet, is most people’s experience with Greek mythology. The Golden Fleece isn’t as comprehensive as Mythology, or many other compendiums I’ve seen, and I really appreciate that about the book. Colum seems (to me, anyway, but like I said, I remember very little Greek mythology) to be taking several disparate mythologies and weaving them together in a cohesive narrative. Sure, the novel’s about Jason and his quest, but because he has all these other beefy dudes with him, we get to hear about their feats, and some of these beefy dudes love to tell stories, so we get to hear all about other quests and feats and failures, too. 

And there are a lot of cool stories here. Orpheus reclaims his love from Hades. Heracles (Hercules) does tons of well-toned badassery.  Atalanta beats man after man in a footrace, and is defeated only when someone cheats. And yes, Jason gets the fleece, but his dad dies before he can reclaim the throne, Jason gets exiled, he marries a woman who wasn’t Medea (who helped him win the fleece in the first place), but eventually gets to come back as king. What?

There’s a lot of that “and then-but then-and then again” happening. It’s easy to lose track of who is who and who is doing what. And though so much cool is happening in the narrative, it somehow manages to fall flat in too many places. So you may have a hero conquering a beast of unfathomable terror, but the writing is so passive, the tone so flat that you forget why you should care. At times, there are simply too many narratives. Perhaps that’s a result of my being a sloppy, inattentive reader, but there were several occasions in which I’d finish reading a story, only to remember that the story I’d just read wasn’t actually happening within the timeline of the Argonaut’s narrative.

And I wish I could have loved the characters more. I’m not sure if it was just a lack of character development, or a further result of a completely neutral tone, but I found it incredibly difficult to engage with these characters. And I wanted to, especially the women of this novel. They weren’t, by any means, flat characters or objects. Women definitely had a place in this story–they fought right alongside the men, and many of them earned their own stories-within-the-story. But ultimately, the characters fell as flat as the story did.

One thing I really liked about this book, and this is going to be really silly, were the illustrations. They were simple line drawings that somehow managed to echo both a vision of ancient Greece and the 1920s/art deco style. The simplicity of them allows you to fill in the details present in your own imagination. 

So in the end, as much as I hate to say it, I was aching to be done with this one. And after two books set entirely in the past, I’m quite looking forward to the present.

What’s your experience with Greco-Roman mythology? Who’s your favorite hero?

An Everlasting Story?

I did it. I finished The Story of Mankind. The first Newberry Medal winner. 

In many ways, The Story of Mankind embodies so many of the things the Newberry Medal has come to stand for: a celebration of where we’ve come from, a look to the future, the exploration of relationships between events and people, and perhaps most of all, the hope that we can learn something to make our world a better place.

The Story of Mankind certainly reaches for those things, and in many ways, delivers. As a history, Hendrick Willem van Loon’s book of course looks backwards, but at every turn, he works to make connections to the present and to the future. van Loon seems genuinely hopeful for America’s future, despite that the history he’s accounted is full of war, death, and despair. van Loon believes in heroes, adventure, discovery, and justice, and his celebration of these things echoes even the earliest of American literature.

Perhaps the most successful aspects of The Story of Mankind  is van Loon’s constant reminders to the reader that though they read a history, they live in the present. Granted, van Loon’s “present” for most of the book is at the lastest, 1921 (I read a later edition, but still, the author’s “present” didn’t extend much past WWII), but his goal seems to be to remind his readers to learn from their history rather than simply judge it. My favorite examples of this comes in his Napoleon chapter:

‘Here I am,’ he writes, ‘sitting at a comfortable table loaded heavily with books, with one eye on my typewriter and the other on Licorice the cat, who has a great fondness of carbon paper, and I am telling you that the Emperor Napoleon was a most contemptible person. But should I happen to look out of the window, down upon Seventh Avenue, and should the endless procession of trucks and carts come to a sudden halt, and should I hear the sound of the heavy drums and see the little man on his white horse in his old and much-worn green uniform, then I don’t know, but I am afraid that I would leave my books and the kitten and my home and everything else to follow him wherever he cared to lead.’ (van Loon 352)

van Loon also encourages his readers to recognize the mistakes we make in the present as simple reincarnations of mistakes made decades or centuries earlier. For example, in his chapter about the tendency of scientists to be scorned and their work feared, van Loon mentions the Scopes Monkey Trial, in which “Mr. Bryan is addressing a vast multitude on the ‘Menace of Darwinism,’ warning his hearers against the errors of the grate English naturalist” (van Loon 429). He explains the cause of the American Great Depression as because “few of the men who had waxed prosperous and influential in [the 1920s] ever found the time to read their history books. If they had they would have learned that those who wish to enjoy greater privilege must also assume greater responsbility. Otherwise the national apple-cart overturns” (van Loon 487).

But despite The Story of Mankind‘s many successes,  van Loon’s tome fails to satisfy wholly. It starts out as a history of the world, but even after only a quarter of the way through, it becomes only a history of Europe (and by extension, the United States). Smaller, non-European countries are only mentioned if they were a European colony. The Story of Mankind is largely a male history, and I think this might be as much a product of its time as it is anything else. The history’s length is also problematic. I’m a very fast reader, and The Story of Mankind took me nearly 8 weeks to finish. The chapter-length, language, and tone were quite approachable, but the text simply didn’t offer anything completely unique to keep me engaged. In many ways, The Story of Mankind is simply a well-written history text, showing its age and prejudices to its modern audience.

What old book have you read that still feels relevant? What new favorite of yours should stand the test of time?

Reading Lately

I scoured our going-out-of-business Borders last week, and got some great books to read when I’m not trying to plow through the last 200 pages of The Story of Mankind.

  • Coraline, Neil Gaiman
  • Milkweed, Jerry Spinelli
  • The Sign of the Beaver, Elizabeth George Speare (got this one for Big World, Young Feet!)
  • Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, Tom Franklin (I studied at the University of Mississippi–Tom Franklin teaches creative writing there. Never took a course from him, but this novel has gotten lots of praise)
  • The Goat: or Who Is Sylvia?, Edward Albee (LOVE this play. Dustin and I saw an amazing production of it on Valentine’s Day a few years ago, and yes, it was exactly as weird for Valentine’s Day as you think it would be).
  • It’s Kind of a Funny Story, Ned Vizzini
  • Reality Is Broken, Jane McGonigal

I finished Neil Gaiman’s Coraline and Ned Vizzini’s It’s Kind of a Funny Story on a roadtrip a few days ago.

Coraline was…  engaging. It was definitely a wonderful book, and a truly imaginative story. I didn’t connect with it as much as I would like to, but I’m definitely glad I read it. It’s a little spooky, at times funny, and the characters certainly well written.

It’s Kind of a Funny Story was delightful. So uplifting and funny and memorable. I fell in love with Craig and his friends at 6 North. And it was such a relief, a joy, to read a happy story. I loved Vizzini’s ability not to overdramatize teen depression. Obviously, it’s a serious matter, but Vizzini didn’t try to hype up the emotions when it wasn’t appropriate. The story was powerful and hopeful, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

What have you been reading lately?

The Story of Mankind, So Far

First thoughts: this book is LONG.

I’ve read long books before, and 540 pages is shorter than Harry Potter. But somehow, Hendrick van Loon’s The Story of Mankind seems so much longer than 540 pages.

The book begins with the concept of infinity–an illustration not usually used in history texts, but I liked it.From there, the progression through The Story of Mankind is pretty standard. It takes readers from prehistory through contemporary events, in this case, through the development of the United Nations. It’s my understanding that the author periodically added chapters after its original publication; I’m reading the 1954 edition. 


The chapters are short, which I find so helpful in getting through a dense history. And the writing style is so, so great. Van Loon writes clearly, concisely, and in such a way that I finally understand the battles over Mesopotamia. Van Loon’s history strikes the balance between thorough and succinct, nuanced and digestible.

And there are pictures! Drawn by the author himself.

Illustrations help you imagine what things looked like. Maps and diagrams help you understand battles, movements, and geography when text might not be enough. I’ve read van Loon’s history up until the beginnings of the Renaissance so far, and I’m looking forward to finishing up the rest of his book. Favorite excerpt so far? “The history of man is the record of a hungry creature in search of food” (van Loon 22).

Would you read The Story of Mankind?