Thursday, January 27, 2011

Mind Your Mother!

For years, my mother has been recommending that I read The Yearling by Marjorie Rawlings. I don't really know why I've never done it; the book sounds like the kind of story I would like (except for the sad "pet animal dying" part, ha ha). It has just never seemed to happen.

Well, it's going to happen now. I finished The Year of Living Biblically last night, and today when I was in the library (trying to work up the nerve to ask one of the librarians to be on a HUGE committee I've been asked to chair), I took a little detour over to the juvenile section and pulled The Yearling off the shelf.

So now dishes are done, assignment sheet is made for first class tomorrow, Facebook is checked - time to go read.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

If You're Going to Write Something Historical, Study Some History!

My family has been off at a day-long retreat today, so I had the television to myself. That means I hunted up movies with some sort of historical link. I ended up watching Brothers of the Frontier and part of Two Mules for Sister Sara. In each case, I found myself questioning some of the history in the movies and getting rather irritated.

I was actually not so much irritated as questioning when the French pulled out what appeared to be a Gatling gun in Two Mules for Sister Sara. I remembered from a trip to the Museum of Arkansas Heritage (where they had a firearms exhibit up) that the Gatling gun was invented during the American Civil War. A quick trip to the internet told me the French invaded Mexico during roughly that same time period, so at least the gun existed to lend at least a shred of truth to the story. However, further reading convinced me that there wouldn't have been a Gatling gun in that French stronghold in Mexico; the U.S. Army didn't actually adopt the gun until 1866, meaning it probably wouldn't have made it into the hands of foreign armies just yet by the time the French were defeated in Mexico. So while it's plausible, it's just not very likely. I don't care that a Gatling gun made for really dramatic battle scenes; it is historically inaccurate and shouldn't have been in the movie.

At least the Gatling gun in Two Mules for Sister Sara was plausible. There were so many things in the Brothers of the Frontier movie that were just plain wrong. In a nutshell, the story is about a family that is driven away from their home when a greedy, proud neighbor falsely accuses their oldest son of theft. The family leaves for the West and gets separated on the way, leaving the three sons alone in the wilderness. This story was supposed to have taken place in the Alleghenies of the 1700s. But let me tell you, whoever wrote this movie and whoever did props and costumes apparently made no effort whatsoever to find out what people wore in the 1700s. The mother had on the standard form-fitting "pioneer woman" costume with what looked like Battenburg lace on the collar. Battenburg lace???? Are you kidding me? The Alleghenies were still frontier territory during the 1700s - this woman would have been lucky to have a very simple linsey-woolsey dress.

I also caught them using the term "OK" throughout the movie. I know from research for my own writing project that "OK" didn't come into common usage until the 1820's. And their dog! It was one of those fluffy little white "Benji" types of dogs. No self-respecting pioneer family would have a cutesy dog like that! They would have a hound or some kind of terrier that could pull its weight, not just be a pet.

Well, I could go on, but the family just got home and it's bedtime. For my two cents, these movies are just wrong...if you're going to write historical stories, get the history right!

Saturday, January 15, 2011

What Does It Take to Get a Young Reader's Attention?

My daughter and I went to a bookstore today, and we had it in our heads walking in that we were going to buy a book (or three, as it turned out). We had some disagreement, though, over what we should buy. I found Journey to the River Sea by Eva Ibbotson, and since I've been wanting to read one of Ibbotson's books, and since it would count as Lily's historical fiction requirement for this quarter at school, I decided it was my choice. Her choice? A copy of one of the books in the Warriors series by Erin Hunter.

Now, I don't have anything against the Warriors books (although I tried to read one once and couldn't keep up with all the different cat characters). The reason I didn't want her to get it was because she's read it multiple times. As I told her, variety helps your mind grow, just like variety in food helps your body grow.

In the end, I got the book for her (it was a bargain book) and I made a deal with her - she should read the first two pages of Ibbotson's book and see if it caught her curiosity. She read it aloud to me in the car. I thought it sounded pretty interesting - a young girl attends a boarding school, but her life is about to change, since her guardian pulled up in a car outside the school.

As soon as she had hit the end of the second page, though, Lily quit. I said, "Didn't it make you curious about how her life is going to change?" She said that it sorta did, which I guess means it sorta didn't. So I asked what would have made it more interesting to her.

The book starts off with a couple of paragraphs that establish the setting and background of the school the girl attends. I didn't think it lasted all that long. Lily, however, said it would have been more interesting to skip that part and start when the car drove up with her guardian. In other words, Lily wants to start right at a point of action.

I've read other articles that advocate the same thing. Start in the middle of the action, they say. Immerse the character in some sort of conflict from the first paragraph. I guess what Lily says confirms that advice.

I wonder why. Is it because kids are so immersed in a "vivid" culture? Video games and cartoons don't spend an extended time on world-building. I guess you sort of have to slip it in on young readers the way you have to hide a pill in a biscuit before a dog will take it. There has to be something - conflict, drama, characters - that appeals to them immediately, or they are going to dismiss the book as "boring" before they finish the first chapter.

I told Lily I have a three-chapter rule, that I promise myself to read three chapters of a book before deciding if it's worth finishing. She seemed to think that was a little extreme. I'm afraid we're raising a generation of impatient readers who want to get to the point. I know my own reading preferences have changed to be sort of impatient with books that take a circuitous route to get anywhere. But how much is Lily going to miss out on if she's not willing to invest some attention if the "good part" doesn't show up in the first words?

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

A Recommendation from My Son

My 15-year-old son has been a voracious reader since he first learned to read at the end of kindergarten. He went through a phase when he wouldn't read anything except fantasy (mainly Harry Potter), but lately he's been branching out in all kinds of directions. Recently he was talking about a book he had checked out from the public library, The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs. He made it sound so intriguing that I decided to borrow it from him until it has to go back to the library.

The subtitle of the book is, "One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible." Jacobs starts as an agnostic, secular Jew who decides to experiment with living exactly by the rules of the Bible, 8 months by the Old Testament and 4 by the New Testament. I thought it would probably be a sort of cynical approach that would be finding the weirdest stuff possible in the Bible and exploiting it for laughs. There are plenty of laughs in what I've read so far, but far from being cynical, the book seems to be a genuine and respectful effort to learn more about the Bible.

A couple of nuggets I pulled out just last night:
"...coveting means that you are overly desirous of the Jaguar, you are distracted by material goods, you have veered from the path of being thankful for what God provides. You have, no doubt, fallen victim to advertising, the Tenth Commendment's arch-nemesis."
"...a lot of religion is about surrendering control and being open to radical change."
The book is definitely a radical change from my usual reading fare, but I suppose it's good for a person to read something different once in a while. Plus, it is a "Y" book, which gives me an idea - I'll go through the alphabet backward this year!

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Looking Back, Looking Ahead

I've been meaning to write this post for a couple of days now, but we've not had internet access for two days; apparently I'm going to have to get a new wireless router.

That's only the latest excuse, though. I've had at least two other ideas for posts in mind after reading Speak, but never had (or never took) the time to sit down and write. Now the time for those posts is past; I can't even remember what it was I wanted to say, and it will never be said.

Since this is the time for resolutions, here's one: I don't want to let that happen again. This year, when I get an idea for a post, I intend to sit down THAT day - not "tomorrow" - and get it written. That's why I'm here right now instead of finishing washing the dishes (that big pot needs to soak a few minutes, anyway, ha ha).

I failed to get all the way through my A to Z reading challenge this year, but I'm pretty happy anyway. I read 24 books this year (and part of two others). I know that's not so much when I look at how many other people read. But it's more than I've done for a long time, so I feel good about it. I'm going to post a list in a sidebar, if anyone is interested in what the 24 were.

In the interest of creating a tradition, I'm going to go through the same review that I did last year at this time.

Best Discoveries
The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins - These were the only books this year that had me neglecting my family so I could finish.

Saddest Disppointment
Mockingjay from Collins' series - It was so bleak.

Favorite Classic
Hamlet by William Shakespeare! I really got into reading it, more so than when it was required in college.

Favorite Love Story
Looking at my list, I really didn't read that many "love stories" this year. Ann Turnbull's Alice in Love and War was the best of the few I did read. I also enjoyed Just Ella by Margaret Peterson Haddix (if it counts as a love story).

Favorite Historical Fiction
Alice in Love and War tops this category, too, although The Heretic's Daughter by Kathleen Kent was also a favorite.

Greatest Reading Accomplishment
Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende - I had tried reading it before, but couldn't get past the first chapter. This time I made it all the way through.

Biggest Failure
The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart - I know it's popular, but it never caught me. Maybe some other year....

Favorite Re-read

Once Is Enough - Books I Probably Won't Ever Read Again
The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly
Jellicoe Road by Mellina Marcheta
The Lace Dowry by Andrea Chang
A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly (I was really disappointed by this one)

Books I Thought Would Be Amazing But Were Just So-So
Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink
Pioneer Breed by Glenn Vernam

Books I Thought Wouldn't Be Much But Were Actually Good Stuff
Just Ella - Honestly, I thought it would be pretty shallow
Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson - It's not my type of book, but I bought another of Anderson's "teen issue/problem" books the other day. I guess that says something.

5 Books I Plan to Read in 2011
I liked the A to Z challenge; it seemed to give me a focus and to keep me on track. I might do it again and see if I can get further this year. Also, last night I was talking to someone at a party and sort of realized there are a lot of books people would expect a former English major to have read that I haven't read. I guess it's time to catch up. Therefore, in 2011 I plan to read
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Tess of the d'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (I'll admit, this one scares me - it's so long - I may spend most of my year chipping away at it!)
Beloved by Toni Morrison

We'll see how it goes - I hope to report in more often this year!