Tag Archives: Meg Rosoff

The Secret Door, The Sudden View, The First Page of a Great Book

Dear Blog,

Readers and writers have been talking up Erin Bow all over the internet for quite some time now. I am always late to the Everyone-Is-Reading-X parties, but one evening last month I put down a book that I wasn’t enjoying at all and thought, bah, not going to finish this, and I picked up Plain Kate instead.

When I was ten years old, my family moved to Oxford, England, for a year, and we rented an apartment in a beautiful old house. At our entrance, there was a piano against a door that looked like a closet or something, and then the stairs that led up to the rest of the flat. One lazy afternoon, my younger brother and I thought to squeeze behind the piano and check that closet. It turned out, of course, that it wasn’t a closet. Crumbling stone steps led down to a cellar. We explored with flashlights the passageways under the house, full of broken old pottery. It was like stumbling into another world: this ancient, secret place that had been there all along, and we hadn’t thought to look. It felt like something out of a book. The secret door. That moment when the thing you expect is not what you find at all.

I remember that day so well, and that feeling: our boredom and irritation falling away as we stared down into the dark, my brother and I shoulder to shoulder, the tense whisper – Get a flashlight! We’re going down! – and it felt like our whole lives were about to change. It’s a feeling that since has been replicated a number of times by the first page of an extraordinary book. When I opened Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now, I got that same breathless tightening in the chest, that same sense of stumbling onto something entirely beyond what I’d been expecting. Like hiking a misty, twisty, wooded path in the mountains, and suddenly there is a break in the trees, the fog lifts, the view opens up and you can see for miles, the whole world laid out before you, and you want to weep with how lovely it is. Like how I imagine it would feel for pirates stepping into a cave and seeing at last the treasure they’ve spent their whole life searching for, lying there in a great gleaming heap before them.

On page seven of Plain Kate, I cried. I’m not a big crier-over-books. Two books made me cry in 2013: Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein and We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler. Erin Bow gave me an early start on weeping this year. I’m not sure if I was crying for the character, even, or simply for the spare and lovely writing about her grief as, in those first gorgeous pages, she loses everything. As I read, I thought about how skilled you have to be with words to pull of this marriage of compassion and ruthlessness. There are brilliant, beautiful writers whose books shine with empathy, and there are a good many cruel geniuses too, who seem to write with a knife, murderously or surgically, depending on the story. I can be won over by either of these gifts, but both together is a rare and wonderful thing. When trying to think of writers whose work requires both a hot heart and a cold eye, I think first of Alice Munro. Erin Bow has that double gift too.

I finished the book and went to check out her blog. Was I surprised to find out that she is a poet? No! I was not surprised to find out that she is a poet! Obviously, if you read her prose, you can tell that she is a poet. She has published two collections under the name Erin Noteboom. The day that I checked her blog, there was a poem at the top called The Common Swift (see below), and I had that same feeling of wondrous discovery all over again: the pirate treasure, the secret basement, the dizzying view.

It is exciting discovering somebody this good. So if you haven’t already, go forth and discover her. And read the poem below, if you need more convincing, and also if you don’t.

Yours, proselytizingly,

Catherine

The Common Swift – by Erin Bow

Consider in its turn the common swift.
There is new evidence that over the dark dunes
of the Sahara, a swift will stay aloft
two hundred days.
Scientists are puzzled, not over how, but why.
Consider the work, they note, of sleeping in flight:
The alertness demanded,
the tacks and turns it takes
To ride the wind. Even a gliding bird would expend
a small but constant effort.
For such cost, there must be benefit.
That is the equation of science, which is only
half a twist from love. Consider in its turn
a marriage, surely no less common
Or marvelous
than swifts. Surely no less a nest
built in the air.

Five Little Lists of Five

Dear Blog,

Last week I wrote a scoldy sort of post about how book-lovers should stop bemoaning the fact that there are (a lot of) people who like to do different stuff and don’t care about reading. Because, after all, what are you gonna do about it? Other than wildly and enthusiastically recommend all your favorite books to Everybody, that is!

Book lists are hard. It’s painful to leave off anything you’ve really loved and if you are a big reader, a list of books you’ve really loved is going to end up being a ridiculously long list. So in the interests of not just posting a Really Long List, I’m going to share five mini-lists, and limit each one to five books. Not my Top Five, because that’s impossible. Just… five. And yes, I would like to see your list(s) too!

LIST #1: BOOKS FOR NEARLY-THREE-YEAR-OLDS

Winnie-the-pooh by A.A. Milne
This is a family favorite. We all adore Winnie-the-pooh and it is a frequent suppertime read. The only book that has actually caused both my kids to fall off their chairs laughing.

Watch out, Big Bro’s Coming! By Jez Alborough
The jungle animals are terrified of Big Bro, whose size and strength grows with each telling, but he turns out to be a (tough) mouse. This book is useful for quelling tantrums, because most of the time K would actually rather listen to it for the billionth time than continue with his oh-so-exquisite tantrum. The size-is-relative joke just never seems to get old.

The Nightmare in My Closet, by Mercer Mayer
A boy turns the tables on the nightmare-monster in his closet, who really just wants to cuddle with him in bed. K is not the least bit afraid of monsters; he has total faith in his own powers of terror and destruction, and rightly so.

The Wolf of Gubbio – by Michael Bedard and Murray Kimber
This is the story of St. Francis of Assisi taming a giant wolf that is terrorizing a town. It has big, beautiful illustrations and K is fascinated by it. He is drawn to stories about big scary wolves – three little pigs is another favorite – and for a long time he had us all convinced that there was a wolf in our closet (we still don’t open that door, ever). He growls through the early parts and gets very calm by the end. It’s a good bedtime book.

Frog and Toad by Arnold Lobel
These are funny, odd, superficially simple stories that often feel really profound. Again, a family favorite. We are all happy to hang with Frog and Toad.

LIST #2: FOR FOUR-AND-A-HALF-YEAR-OLDS

Tashi, by Anna and Barbara Fienberg
I go around recommending these books to everybody I know with kids. They are charming, clever, and really beautifully written. Tashi is Jack’s new friend from Somewhere Far Off and is full of wild tales about dragons, warlords, ghosts, and such. Funny and just a little bit scary. I recommend getting the big collections with lots of stories in them – your kids will want more and it will save you money.

My Father’s Dragon by Ruth Stiles Gannett
This trilogy from the 40s had J totally enraptured. We read all three books over and over and over again. The first is by far the best, in my opinion. A young boy rescues a captive dragon, and they go on to have adventures together in the sequels.

The Magic Treehouse by Mary Pope Osborne
This series is awful. I hate it. It is formulaic and the writing is horrible. Unfortunately for me, J loves them. In each story, the cardboard protagonists Jack and Annie go to a different point in history and have a really lame adventure, while the Young Reader learns, I suppose, about castles or Vikings or dinosaurs or what-have-you. They are, I think, supposed to be educational, and appealing to “reluctant readers.” I cannot tell you how I loathe them. But J asks for them over and over, keeps a notebook of observations like Jack (I mean, he can’t actually write, but he pretends to), and the stories inspire hours of play with his little brother along for the ride.

The Fantastic Mr. Fox, by Roald Dahl
Roald Dahl is the antidote to crap like The Magic Treehouse. His sentences are a pleasure to read out loud, and of course, he is gruesome and hilarious.

A Child’s Introduction to Greek Mythology, by Heather Alexander
I feel like a lot of this stuff is really quite gory for a 4-year-old, but That Guy and J ignore me. Nice illustrations by Meredith Hamilton, introductions to the various gods, heroes, and beasts, and 16 myths. J can’t get enough. Particular favorites are “Odysseus Escapes the Cyclops,” “Greedy King Midas,” “Perseus and Medusa,” “Theseus and the Minotaur,” and of course, “The Twelve Labors of Heracles.” He was so taken with the idea of Achilles being invincible, except for his ankle, and for weeks went around unsettling people by asking them WHAT IS YOUR WEAKNESS??

LIST #3: YA FICTION

Witchlanders, by Lena Coakley
The perfect fantasy novel, if you ask me, with the loveliest and most original vision of magic I’ve ever read. Gorgeously written, stunning world-building, very clever plotting – it is gripping and profound and beautiful.

Imaginary Girls, by Nova Ren Suma
A wonderful, creepy, riveting read about a younger sister who should have drowned but didn’t and her charismatic older sister, who seems to be able to make the world as she wills it to be within the boundaries of their little town.

Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein
This book gutted me. Characters to deeply fall for, plot twisty in ways I didn’t see coming, totally satisfying and totally devastating. I gasped! I laughed! I cried! I reread!

How I Live Now, by Meg Rosoff
I knew from the first paragraph that this book was something extraordinary. Strange tale of Daisy, sharp and funny narrator who ends up with her cousins in the English countryside while the country is under occupation (by whom is unclear – this is possibly the near-future). One of my favorite books in any genre, for any age. I don’t know what to say about it, except that everybody should read it.

I Capture The Castle, by Dodie Smith
I read this when I was thirteen, and kept reading it through my early teens. I read it again in my thirties, and yes, it holds up. A beautiful coming-of-age story narrated by my all-time favorite YA heroine, Cassandra Mortmain, about her eccentric family and her own first experience of falling in love. Never sappy, never anything less than brilliant and moving and profound. It is definitely slower and wordier than most YA nowadays, but if you are finding it too slow then you have fried your brain and you need to slap yourself and fucking read it.

LIST #4: ADULT FICTION

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke
If somebody forced me to pick my favorite novel, this is probably what I would choose, and that’s all I’m going to say about it.

The Baroque Cycle, by Neal Stephenson
I’m cheating because it’s three books, and really the equivalent of about 10 books. A huge cast of vivid characters charging about through Baroque-era Europe. Philosophical but fun, science-fictiony and historical, wonderful writing, and bizarre but compelling storytelling. The kind of thing that “tour-de-force” really applies to.

Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys
A “prequel” to Jane Eyre, in which Bertha Mason (the mad wife in the attic who burns down Thornfield) meets (and ends up marrying) Rochester in the Caribbean. This is an odd, feverish little book, poetic, excruciating, exquisite.

Teach Us To Outgrow Our Madness, by Kenzaburo Oe
This is a collection of long stories or novellas. They are horrible and disturbing but very, very powerful. This book gave me nightmares when I read it and has haunted me for years.

The Towers of Trebizond, by Rose Macauley
This is my desert island pick, because if I had to read one book over and over again for the rest of my life, I think it would satisfy. It is (superficially) the story of a wonderful cast of characters traveling from Istanbul to Trebizond in the early 50s (I guess that’s when it’s set?). It manages so easily to be hilarious and profound and entertaining and tragic all at once. Rose Macauley captures All Of Life, the way Virginia Woolf does, but in a crisper and funnier way, almost casually.

LIST #5: POETRY

The Book of Light, by Lucille Clifton
Really, anything by her. Her poems are usually short and simple, often painful, always beautiful. A punch to the heart.

The Sensual World Re-Emerges, by Eleanor Lerman
Again, I’m choosing a collection at random, I like all her stuff. She makes me notice the world differently. This might sound a bit sketchy, but I really think that reading Eleanor Lerman is a bit like getting high. When I was a teen, I used to drop acid just so the world would look different. Eleanor Lerman’s poetry has a similar affect, but without making you actually hallucinate or freak out or fail grade 9 math. Disaffected teens should probably read more poetry.

A Nun’s Diary, by Anne McLean
A surreal series of prose poems set, kind of, in a village convent, and sadly out of print, detailing what the back cover calls “one woman’s fix on God” – disturbing stuff but really remarkable.

Birthday Letters, by Ted Hughes
I know, I know… I feel like I am supposed to be Team Sylvia, but I can’t get over this collection, it is just so stunning. I’m not crazy about his other stuff, just this book.

Collected Sonnets, by Edna St. Vincent Millay
I think it is her I am in love with, really, but she shines through in her poems. She is so funny and light but then writes about pain and loss with total brilliant savagery.

Yours, thinking-about-the-books-I’ve-left-off,

Catherine