Thursday, October 1, 2009

Good books, September 2009

September’s reading went mostly like this:

-A couple of nonfiction books that looked interesting but turned out to be fairly boring.
-Several books that were mildly entertaining, but not enough to encourage others to read them.
-At least three very good books that I haven’t finished yet.

This wouldn’t give me much to write about, but luckily Shakespeare, Edith Wharton, and Megan Whalen Turner saved the month. Oh, and Gilbert and Sullivan made a surprise appearance too.

The Fabulous Feud of Gilbert and Sullivan by Jonah Winter, ill. by Richard Egielski, 2009, 40 pages.

W. S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan are not getting along. Despite their past successes in the “kingdom of Topsy-Turvydom,” it’s starting to look as if they won’t be working together anymore. Then Gilbert gets a wonderful idea from a Japanese exhibition. This picture book about the origins of The Mikado has just the right level of detail for upper elementary ages. A. and M. both enjoyed it, and I enjoyed looking at the pictures and finding references to other Gilbert and Sullivan plays.

Even better, after A. read this, she wanted to watch The Mikado. My liking for Gilbert and Sullivan has not been widely shared in my family. Putting my DVD of Patience into the player is usually a good way to get the living room to myself. But we all sat down – even Mike! – and watched The Mikado. T. left after a few minutes. He is still not trained properly in music appreciation. But A. enjoyed it, and I caught Mike smiling at some of the jokes. The version I own is the 1982 Opera World production with Clive Revill as Ko-Ko. Not all the characters are perfect, but Ko-Ko and Pooh-Bah are hilarious and make this my favorite of the versions I’ve seen.

The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner, 1996, 304 pages.
The Queen of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner, 2000, 368 pages.
The King of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner, 2006, 432 pages.

I re-read this series this month when M. had them checked out. The books are just as good as I remembered. I can’t summarize the plots without giving things away, though! The Thief is the story of Gen, a young man pulled from the royal prison to go on a journey and steal a magical artifact. I love Gen’s character, especially the depths you discover as the story progresses. There is a lot of humor as well as some mystery, and the plot is not as straightforward as it seems at first. The other books in the series are similar. My favorite is The King of Attolia, probably because of the characters and the emotion mixed in so expertly with the humor. And next year a fourth book is scheduled to be published! The series is marketed for ages 9 to 12, but because of some violence, some swearing (mild), and especially a couple of intense plot points in the later books, I would suggest it for ages 12 and up.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, 2008, 384 pages.

I wondered whether to write about this book. It’s a popular one right now for young adults, but it’s one of those books that I would not want my child reading without me there to discuss it. And I would never recommend it without some clear warnings about its content. On the other hand, many teens probably will read it or hear about it, so parents should know about it too.

The book is set in the future, when the United States is gone and instead there is a central, privileged city ruling outlying “districts” of less-privileged people. Because of a long-ago rebellion by the districts, the government requires that each year, a boy and a girl from each district must be sent to participate in the “Hunger Games” – a hyped-up, televised, to-the-death competition where 24 teens enter and the winner is the one survivor. This provides entertainment for the privileged classes, a life of wealth for the lucky winner, and the hope of extra food for the winner’s district. Katniss volunteers to enter the games in the place of her younger sister. At first she assumes she will lose, but as she starts to think she may have a chance to win, she has to face what winning would mean.

The story is gripping and well-written. There is definitely a lot of violence. The theme of “kill or be killed” is disturbing and frightening. Even more frightening is the thought of a society that takes its pleasure from this type of entertainment. (Not such a big step from where we are now?) There are a few scenes with casual references to nudity, when stylists are deciding how to dress Katniss for the pre-game TV appearances. It’s not dwelt on, but it’s another caution I would give to parents.

This book reminded me of two other disturbing books: Lord of the Flies and 1984. Both are books I would not want to read again, but I think they have important messages and were worth reading once. I think if older teens (maybe 15 and up) read The Hunger Games and parents also read it and talk about it with them, it could lead to some worthwhile discussions.

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, 1905, 352 pages.

This has been a favorite of mine since college. I re-read it this month and once again was pulled into the story of Lily Bart, who so desperately wants to live out her role in New York high society and yet can’t bring herself to marry solely for that purpose. Without the money she needs to keep up the only lifestyle she knows, she makes poor decisions that take her further and further from happiness. It’s fascinating to compare Lily’s society to ours today. There are differences, but so many of the attitudes are easily recognizable.

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton, 1920, 278 pages.

I had heard of this book (it won the Pulitzer Prize) but had never read it. After The House of Mirth, though, I wasn’t ready to leave Edith Wharton’s New York. And sure enough, The Age of Innocence drew me right back in. It’s the story of Newland Archer, who has just gotten engaged to his long-time choice, May, when her cousin Ellen shows up with an unconventional past and a disregard for the rules of society. Newland is fascinated with her and begins to see his society in a different light, but he resists his growing love and ends up marrying May. The rest of the story could be seen as a tragedy, or not. I tend to think tragedy was averted, but then, I don’t think our feelings are always the best rulers of our decisions. There’s definitely a lot to think about in this beautifully written book.


This school year M. and I are part of a Shakespeare discussion group. Every 2 to 3 weeks we read a play, then discuss it with others over a yummy brunch. I’ve also been checking out DVDs of the plays from the library for us to watch after we finish reading each play, so we’ve been fairly immersed in Shakespeare lately. Here are the ones we’ve read so far:

A Midsummer Night’s Dream
The light, fluffy, and very funny story of fairies, mortals, and magically mistaken love in the woods. We still laugh about Bottom’s play at the end and the wall with the chink.

The Winter’s Tale
Our reaction was “This is a comedy?!” Leontes, irrationally jealous, accuses his wife and best friend of adultery, leading to his son’s death, his daughter’s exile, and his wife’s apparent death. The “happy” ending is not very satisfying compared to the heartbreak of the first three acts. We did get a good line out of it, though: “a lip of much contempt.” We’ve been practicing that facial expression.

The Comedy of Errors
Another light, fluffy one. The situation is ripe for humor (two sets of identical twins, separated for years and now coincidentally in the same town and dressed alike) and there are some very funny scenes.

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