June reading roundup…of sorts.

read2

One of the reasons I don’t post monthly reading summary posts is because the number of books I am reading in any given month are many, but the number of books I complete from beginning to end are fewer.

My books read often overlap months, which means I only read a few books per month in their entirety. Nevertheless, I’ll list the books I finished in June, since I don’t review every book I read. In sum, I have completed four books during the month of June:

  • I’m Too Young for This, by Suzanne Somers, which I didn’t review because the content was so similar to a book I reviewed before on the subject, but with much more emotive interjections than I would prefer. More than that, it wasn’t something I’d planned to read.
  • Otherhood, by Melanie Notkin, which I reviewed here.
  • Captain Wentworth’s Persuasion, by Regina Jeffers, reviewed here.
  • My man Jeeves and Other Early Jeeves Stories, by P.G. Wodehouse, review in draft and coming soon.

It is standard for me to complete four books a month, or an average of about a book per week. Some books, like Wentworth’s Persuasion, are quick reads, but when I read any faster than about a book per week, I invariably find that I miss out on the depth of what I am reading.

Despite having completed only four books this month, I have read quite a number of books besides, and anticipate completing and reviewing those as the month of July progresses.

THIS is why I don’t generally do reading round up posts.

I don’t read enough volume or at sufficient speed to justify it.

But I thoroughly enjoy reading other book bloggers’ reading roundups. They give me something to aspire to.

Little House Books victim of woke hysteria.

There have been, throughout history, many great books written; books which have rightfully earned their spot on shelves as timeless classics. If we took a microscope to each and every one of those books with the express intent of removing any and all books with language in them which offends any particular group of people, we would have to remove the vast majority of books from the shelves.

If there was ever a set of books which finds me incredulous at the idea that they are harmful, it’s Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House book series. Our children love those books, and we have no intention of removing them from our shelves, despite being well aware of the “offensiveness” found within their pages. The Association of Library Services to Children cannot abide Wilder’s handling of Native Americans in her stories:

Laura Ingalls Wilder was on the brink of having an award named in her honor, from the Association for Library Service to Children, when in 1952 a reader complained to the publisher of “Little House on the Prairie” about what the reader found to be a deeply offensive statement about Native Americans.

The reader pointed specifically to the book’s opening chapter, “Going West.” The 1935 tale of a pioneering family seeking unvarnished, unoccupied land opens with a character named Pa, modeled after Wilder’s own father, who tells of his desire to go “where the wild animals lived without being afraid.” Where “the land was level, and there were no trees.”

And where “there were no people. Only Indians lived there.”

Although the complaint didn’t spark action at the time, the American Library Association has decided to make things right:

Now, after years of complaints, the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association, says it voted Saturday to strip Wilder’s name from the award.

The decision makes Wilder the latest target of efforts to purge from the cultural landscape symbols that honor historical figures who owned slaves, espoused racist views or engaged in racist practices.

Books, as well as their authors, are products of the time and place in which they are set and in which the author lives. All of these elements are an important part of what makes books rich and interesting, providing depth and context of history. If we strip away all evidence of cultural and linguistic markers which are out of step with our modern sensibilities, we lose far more than we gain.

In exchange for the temporary and shallow pride of being able to signal our postmodern virtue, we miss out on the opportunity to discuss the why, hows, and wherefores of the cultural past. We miss out on the opportunity to explain to our children cultural and linguistic evolution, including the things which we find objectionable today.

In our home, we do not shield our children from books which contain derogatory racial terms, including or even especially terms which may be personally offensive to us as a black family. Why should we forgo an opportunity for them to learn, grow, and acknowledge the amount of progress our country has made in its treatment of black Americans, something we believe is generally true against the recent backdrop of inflammatory headlines?

When reading the Little House books, or Peter Pan, or any number of books which refer to Native Americans in ways that our current cultural iteration finds offensive, our children inevitably ask questions. These questions open the door to dialogue and understanding.

Further, I find it offensive to hold authors or anyone else who lived 100 years ago to a standard of behavior which didn’t exist when they were alive so as to retroactively smear their work and exact punitive redress. Laura Ingalls Wilder was a product of her time, and her books reflected that.

To publicly flog her for a series of books which have an imperfect presentation of current ideology, while ignoring the virtues and morals within their pages is just another example of how “wokeness” is killing our humanity, our ability to enjoy life and our ability to enjoy truly great literature.

More than that, to emphasize a cultural negative at the expense of all the hard work, family togetherness, faith, charity and community the Little House books offer does more than shield us from the bad. It shields us from the good as well.

 

Otherhood.

Otherhood: Modern Women Finding a New Kind of Happiness, by Melanie Notkin. Originally published in 2014. 320 pages.

The cognitive dissonance is strong in this one. However, we’ll start with an overview of what the book is about as opposed to what it purports to be about, which is how the increasing number of childless women in our culture can live fulfilling lives of contribution.

Otherhood, a title I ran across while reading an article somewhere, piqued my curiosity for reasons that have little to do with being a modern woman longing for a new kind of happiness. Perfectly content with my old-fashioned kind of happiness, I sought this book out because of my intense interest in what it takes to build community across all lines. Community, of the real life, flesh and blood variety, is something I think a lot about.

In our current culture, where marriage rates are plummeting for all kinds of reasons, how can families integrate single, childless people into our lives seamlessly in ways that increase cohesiveness, and perhaps even create opportunities for people of like faith and values to meet and form families? The fact that this author is reportedly a devout traditional Jewish woman came back to bite me because the tone of the book was anything but that of a traditional religious woman.

This tome was a big, long lament about the treacherous and unfriendly water that the New York City sexual marketplace is for a single woman looking for love and marriage. True love of course, and nothing less, and how her refusal to marry a man she doesn’t want to have sex with after 20 years of looking makes her a victim of “circumstantial infertility”. Mind you, however, none of this means she is looking for a Prince Charming (language alert):

“I mean, is Prince Charming really the kind of man who seems like he knows how to have great sex? Because he doesn’t seem like that to me.” He seems like a great-looking guy who got lucky being born into royalty. I’m not attracted to lucky. I’m attracted to hard work. Hard work is much more f*ck-able than luck-able.”

Not being aware of the latest authority on cultural hot topics has come back to bite me on many occasions, and this was another one. If I had taken the time before reading this 300+ page whine-fest, I would have been fully aware of what I could expect from Otherhood and its author’s schtick.

Of the 28 chapters in this book, fully 19 of them were about the heartbreak and hazards of dating in NYC. Does the state of affairs in NYC surprise anyone besides the author and her friends who contributed stories to this book?

The only chapter which even began to touch on the subject I was interested in was near the end, titled “Savvy Aunties”. That particular chapter was about the ways that women whose maternal instinct was never allowed to give physical birth could be manifested in myriad ways to the children they know and love and even those they don’t who just need love.

To Notkin’s credit, she steadfastly refused to take the advice of her friends and colleagues who implored to either have a baby on her own, or marry a man with whom she had no desire to build a life whatsoever for the sake of having a baby. Unfortunately, she was so obsessed with first date chemistry that she dismissed a lot of men with whom she might have been able to build a beautiful traditional Jewish family.

In the end, despite all her protestations to the contrary, she wasn’t as traditional as she thought she was. And while I am fully convinced that there truly are women -and men!- out there who are “circumstantially infertile” in this culture does everything in its power to dissuade, marginalize, and isolate the very people who would be best equipped to pass on religious morals and values to the next generation, Notkin did not persuade me that she was among that number. She wasted a valuable opportunity.

Traditional Judaism with a side of Sex in the City is not a recipe that encourages family formation nor strong families.

Like said, the cognitive dissonance was strong in this one.

2 out of 5 stars.

content advisory: Smatterings of frank sex talk, but nothing overly graphic or over the top.

Kindle strikes again.

I am an avid library patron. I try more often than not to read books with pages, patronize bookstores, and generally be a good little bibliophile. Books are important. Despite imagining myself fighting the good fight against a digital takeover of reading for myself and for my kids, I just – like 5 minutes ago- downloaded My Man Jeeves onto my Kindle for 0.99. I am not beyond a great deal.

I recently re-blogged posts (here and here) which illustrate the education I’ve been obtaining on Amazon’s book sales pricing and practices. There is definitely cause to pause and consider alternatives to Amazon when purchasing books. I’ve been more careful about taking those things into consideration. I even bought a Barnes and Noble membership which isn’t a complete waste because I buy almost all of our kids’ assigned literature books from Barnes and Noble to the tune of about 12 books a year.

Nevertheless, I own a Kindle. Kindle makes it very easy to download and store a boat load of books at reasonable prices, which makes it very easy to open it, shop, and click my way to a great read in a convenient and inexpensive format.  I often find good books there for free, such as a book I recently reviewed, Miss Maitland Private Secretary.

The downside is that is very easy to nickel and dime my way to spending too much on books when it would be easier to go to the library and check them out. Thankfully, my genuine love of the library creates a very low risk of that happening. When it comes to the value of local libraries, I am a true believer. As such, I rarely purchase a book to download on the Kindle more than once a month.

My Kindle library still isn’t as big as my physical library, but the ease with which I can amass books to read later means the Kindle library could rival the book shelf in the near future. Ease of use, an extensive list of titles and rock bottom prices makes it easier to buy books from Amazon.

I always buy our kids books with physical pages to turn, or check them out from the library because the last thing they need at this point is another screen, even if it’s for a good use such as reading good books. That also keeps me in libraries and books stores more often than I might be if we encouraged them to read digital books. However, I am not a paper book purist, nor even on an all out boycott of Amazon books. I do however, like to consider these things when I spend my money.

This bibliographic stream of consciousness brought to you courtesy of Kindle, My Man Jeeves, and the fact that I am a sucker for a 0.99 book, which together inspired these thoughts.

Captain Wentworth’s Persuasion

wentworth's persuasionCaptain Wentworth’s Persuasion: Jane Austen’s Classic Retold through His Eyes, by Regina Jeffers. Published in 2010. Kindle edition.

A few years ago a bibliophile blog friend recommended that I check out this book, but I forgot about it until recently when I had occasion to re-read the post where she made the recommendation. As I was on the lookout for a light summer read, I decided to give it a look.

Captain Wentworth’s Persuasion is exactly as its title describes: a retelling of Jane Austen’s Persuasion from the perspective of the Captain Frederick Wentworth, the man whom Austen’s heroine Ann Elliot eventually weds eight years after they first fell in love and were separated by Anne’s family.

I went into this book with measured, but hopeful expectations. Captain Wentworth is, after all, one of my favorite of Austen’s lead male characters and I was curious to see what this shift of focus from Anne to the captain might look like.

There were parts of the book that were very believable and engaging, though I suspect the best parts were those the author lifted out of Persuasion for the purpose of keeping the stories parallel. The tone, timing, and value systems of the two books simply didn’t line up at other points. As I considered the reasons for that, I concluded that Jeffers simply couldn’t resist imputing postmodern values and sensibilities onto Austen’s characters.

While Jane Austen was certainly sometimes romantic in her delivery, her male characters were rarely as openly rapturous as Jeffers paints them. Austen also had a hearty respect for English social stations and respectability. Her characters did as well, as even her books’ most mismatched pairings were presented as reasonable concessions due to extreme circumstances. The only notable detour that Austen took from this principle was in the case of Lizzy Bennett and Mr. Darcy. It is also the most unrealistic pairings of all Austen’s books, in my opinion.

In this retelling, the author seemed to trounce all over these social status realities by having Frederick and Anne disdain these traditions in a way that Austen never would have had them do. She respected the limitations and boundaries of English society even when they seemed in some way oppressive to her characters.

I was pleasantly surprised that this author refrained from graphic sexuality in the book. Since Anne and Frederick were married, I expected her to take licenses that were unwarranted. She didn’t go quite that far, but the book was still far more sensual than anything Jane Austen would have written. This is not Austen’s book of course, but these are Austen’s characters, and given the author’s clear efforts to make the language somewhat similar -with mixed success- I thought she should have also done the same with regard to the sensuality.

The next fiction book in my queue is in fact, Persuasion. I haven’t read it in a few years and an honest comparison demands that I refresh my memory of it mainly because of the way Wentworth is presented here. He is sentimental, sappy and not a little bit petty. None of these traits are present in our original introduction to Captain Wentworth. Granted, given that this story is told from his perspective and in the aftermath of the deep pain Anne caused him in Persuasion, it possible that I am miffed at having my image of him shattered by Jeffers’ attempt to lay bare the  depth of his love for Anne and extent of his pain at being kept from marrying her and the 8 years they were separated.

The ending chapters were quite bizarre and unnecessary. It was almost as if Jeffers suddenly decided to start writing another book: Frederick the Spy. I am still not quite sure what to make of it. Nevertheless, I wasn’t bored, and it was an easy read. Not high praise, but enough to keep it out my “below average” grading.

3 out of 5 stars.

 

On morals in children’s books

In addition to books we are reading individually, I like the idea of having something we are reading aloud together. Over the years, we’ve had some very memorable experiences reading aloud. The Wind in the Willows was a particular favorite, as well as Mrs. Piggle Wiggle, and more recently Peter Pan.

Currently, our read aloud book is Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Little Women is interesting in that the morality and lessons to be learned from the daughters’ struggles are laid bare; often complete with a sermonette from their mother.  I myself am not particularly fond of what is known as “preachy” entertainment, but in this book, I have determined that the detours are a net advantage to the story. I and my children rather enjoy the brief, overt moments in the book which extol virtue, but not everyone does.

In recent weeks I have had the opportunity to muse on this issue of “preachy” or overt morality presented in children’s books as writers far more articulate than me have tackled the subject. First, Krysta at Pages Unbound makes the very astute point that despite any protestations, most people do prefer children’s books with moral. Indeed, the problem most people have with the older children’s books is not that they are overtly moral, but that the morals presented are out of step with our postmodern sensibilities and current morality.

However, moral messages are not relegated to books of the past.  Indeed, moralizing remains alive and well in children’s stories.  It’s simply that many of our moral messages have changed.  While books of the past may have emphasized virtues like honesty, cheerfulness, humility, and a good work ethic, books today often focus on themes of confidence, individuality, and inclusion.  Perhaps some readers do not see these books as moralizing because they agree so whole-heartedly with these themes that they see them as self-evident and not as lessons to be inculcated.  However, a good many readers actively expect such messages–and are disappointed or offended by stories that do not include them.

She is absolutely correct. In fact, our moral lessons of today actively discourage cheerfulness, humility, and a good work ethic if those virtues in any way conflict with our ability to be a confident individual. Hence, it’s not particularly hard to see why Little Women’s overt moral lessons might be offensive to contemporary readers.

Additionally, there is the presumption that Marmee, the mother of Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, offers her lessons and sermonettes in a way that is unrealistic or stilted. I find the assertion curious as it is not at all unusual in our home for events to evolve into teaching lessons complete with reminders of what our faith and the rules of our family demand. Our children seem to connect with, enjoy, and be enriched by those moments. we do our kids a disservice when we project our hardened resistance to being influenced to a higher standard onto them. The teachable, open hearts of children are much more receptive to such messages than adults tend to be.

In addition to Krysta’s post, there is another well presented argument in defense of preachy children’s books by Lindsay Brigham Knott at Circe Institute. One of the thoughts she offered is our error in presuming that children’s books are to be read solely for entertainment in the first place:

As near as I can tell, the arguments against preachy children’s stories range from shallow to significant. On the shallow end is the argument that children will, by nature, “tune out” anything that smacks of a sermon. The following excerpt (again, compliments of Google) typifies this argument:

Adults patronize kids almost all day, so as an adult ourselves, it is too easy to make this mistake. The key here is to make your point without going too preachy or didactic. Nothing can turn children off faster than a lecture, or worse, a moral lesson. Kids want to be entertained and delighted. The first thing you can do is erase the words moral, teach, message, and lesson out of your vocabulary. Instead, trust your readers to figure it out through the storyline and actions that your characters take. Another tip is to keep authoritative figures, like parents, teachers, or older siblings, in the background. Lastly, never let the adults in the story tell what the main character should do. Remember, it is a sin to preach in fiction.

I shall let that argument stand for itself, and not belabor a rebuttal; anyone already committed to classical education likely does not need to be convinced that kids’ desire for entertainment should not determine the content of their reading, nor that authoritative figures ought to be honored rather than stuffed in the closet.

Over the course of the recently ended school year, our 11-year-old, in her fulfilled assignment of writing a short story, was admonished by her teacher that her story didn’t direct the reader to draw a conclusion with regard to the behavior of her characters. Because I was stuck on my concern that it sounded so much like a Disney movie, that particular aspect of her presentation eluded me.

Rather than ask her what she wanted to convey, I read the story again, and again was struck with the notion that the problems inherent in the behavior of the characters was evident because of the troubles their decisions wrought. The fact that there was no overarching, ultimate consequence could certainly be perceived as problematic.

However, on the heels of having read Rudyard Kipling’s Captains Courageous, which was also very matter of fact in its presentation of behavior and consequences, I was prepared to accept my daughter’s presentation as valid. What to do about the canned plot development is another issue.

It left me wondering what positions others general have when it comes to presenting morality and life lessons in children’s books.

What say you?