Monday, August 24, 2020

Why I Read Old Books

Graphic from

I don’t completely follow Lewis philosophy. I probably read one old book to every 5 or perhaps 10 modern books. But I still try to punctuate my modern reading with selections from the past.

A few summers ago, I stumbled on the Well Trained Mind reading list that I’m slowly working through. I'm finished with the novels (except for 1,000 Days of Solitude, which I'm still working myself up to). I’m currently on Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography in the Biography list and plan to read Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl next. I don’t read every book, because there are a few I couldn’t get through or have already read. I particularly like this reading list, because its selections are not just your typical classics.

But why even bother? Aren’t Moby Dick and War and Peace just a waste of time?

Here are a few reasons I’ve tackled those books and others.

1.  It’s a challenge. I can’t say that I loved every minute of Moby Dick, especially the chapters on whale biology and the whaling industry. Old Books require more concentration than modern books, because you don’t get as “caught up in the story.” But finishing an old book feels like completing a marathon--its own reward.

War and Peace is not on the Well Educated Mind list--but it's one of my favorite old books that gets a bad rap.

2.  I form my own judgments. It’s interesting when you look at this list, what you think you know about these books. A lot of these books have been banned for various reasons. But if you read the book yourself, you get to decide if this book is as dangerous or boring as everyone says it is.

3. People haven’t changed.  This particular struck me when reading Augustine’s Confessions, maybe because it was so focused on his thoughts. It was hard to believe this man was writing in the 300s. Except for some differences in cultural mores, his thoughts were not that different from a person of our day.

4.  It keeps me humble. If you read the whole of C.S. Lewis’ quote, you find this is the reason he advocates for old books. We all have blind spots, and the problem with reading only contemporary writers is they have the similar blind spots as your own. If you read from the past, you will definitely find many errors in their thinking, but that helps me remember that I probably have errors in my thinking too.

5. Reading old books is participating in a long, ongoing conversation. Lewis talks about reading modern books as entering into a conversation at eleven o'clock that’s been going since eight o'clock. Every time I read an old book, I am acutely aware of what a privilege it is. If I had lived at the time of many of these books were written, I wouldn’t have been able to read them, considering that a classical education was rare for women. By reading old books I am giving myself the education I never had—and getting to listen and converse with intelligent thinkers throughout the ages. I can’t see how that doesn’t inform the conversation I am building through my own books and stories.

“Those who can’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” George Santayana

Do you ever read old books? Have they changed your outlook on modern books?

Monday, August 17, 2020

MMGM: A Slip of a Girl

I picked this book up from the library’s new reads shelf for one reason: the author. I have enjoyed everything I’ve read by Patricia Giff, especially Lily’s Crossing, one of my favorite MG historicals of all time. 

I usually prefer traditional novels over novels-in-verse, maybe because I like to really get immersed in what I read. But in this case,  the sparse poetry really added to the emotional resonance of this book.  And how can you not think of the Irish without thinking of music and poetry?

Like me, you’ll find yourself rooting for this girl who’s trying to carve a place for herself during the Irish Land War.

Synopsis from Amazon:

A heart-wrenching novel in verse about a poor girl surviving the Irish Land Wars, by a two-time Newbery Honor-winning author.

For Anna, the family farm has always been home... But now, things are changing.

Anna's mother has died, and her older siblings have emigrated, leaving Anna and her father to care for a young sister with special needs. And though their family has worked this land for years, they're in danger of losing it as poor crop yields leave them without money to pay their rent.

When a violent encounter with the Lord's rent collector results in Anna and her father's arrest, all seems lost. But Anna sees her chance and bolts from the jailhouse. On the run, Anna must rely on her own inner strength to protect her sister--and try to find a way to save her family.

Written in verse, A Slip of a Girl is a poignant story of adversity, resilience, and self-determination by a master of historical fiction, painting a haunting history of the tensions in the Irish countryside of the early 1890s, and the aftermath of the Great Famine.

A Junior Library Guild Selection
A Bank Street Best Book of the Year

What to Love:

1.  Anna is a feisty heroine who is brave beyond her years in standing up to land agent’s and fighting for her her family. I felt for her from the first page, where the author did such a great job of establishing the close ties Anna has with her mother, who dies early in the book.

2.  Anna’s sister has a disability (though it’s never clearly stated), and I particularly liked how protective Anna was of Nuala. And (spoiler alert)—it was touching how Nuala finally found her home.

3. The author has a personal connection to this story. She was inspired to write it based on her great-grandmother, who took part in the Irish Land War. I enjoyed hearing how Giff visited her great-grandmother’s house in Ireland in the author’s note.

4. Real photos from the time are included between the poems. This made it feel like you were reading a memoir rather than fiction.

If you love MG historical fiction or novels-in-verse, you will love this book!

What historical fiction have you enjoyed recently?

For more MMGM reads, please check out Greg Pattridge's Always in the Middle blog.

Monday, August 10, 2020

MMGM: Here in the Real World

I discovered Here in the Real World  from my local library's new reads section. I was intrigued by the premise and the title. For some reason, I expected magical realism or fantasy, but this is realistic fiction at its best.

I  was moved by this story about a boy who doesn’t fit in, but wants to be a knight, and his sidekick, a girl from a difficult home, who thinks gardening might save her life.

Synopsis (from Amazon):

From the author of the highly acclaimed, New York Times bestselling novel Pax comes a gorgeous and moving middle grade novel that is an ode to introverts, dreamers, and misfits everywhere.
Ware can’t wait to spend summer “off in his own world”—dreaming of knights in the Middle Ages and generally being left alone. But then his parents sign him up for dreaded Rec camp, where he must endure Meaningful Social Interaction and whatever activities so-called “normal” kids do.

On his first day Ware meets Jolene, a tough, secretive girl planting a garden in the rubble of an abandoned church next to the camp. Soon he starts skipping Rec, creating a castle-like space of his own in the church lot.

Jolene scoffs, calling him a dreamer—he doesn’t live in the “real world” like she does. As different as Ware and Jolene are, though, they have one thing in common: for them, the lot is a refuge.
But when their sanctuary is threatened, Ware looks to the knights’ Code of Chivalry: Thou shalt do battle against unfairness wherever faced with it. Thou shalt be always the champion of the Right and Good—and vows to save the lot.

But what does a hero look like in real life? And what can two misfit kids do?

What I loved:

1. Intriguing characters: Both Wade and Jolene are multi-dimensional and sympathetic. Wade sees the possibilities in things, and Jolene counter-balances him with her realism. And the juxtaposition of their deep hurts with their big dreams (knighthood and gardening) makes them very multi-dimensional.

2. Kid- like point of view: I don’t know if I’ve read a MG book recently where the author captured the kid point of view so well. From Wade’s understanding of his parents and their world to his ideas of being a knight to Jolene’s idea of growing papayas to save her family, everything is filtered through a kid’s understanding.

3. Hope as a theme: I read this book at a time when I was feeling overwhelmed and discouraged by all that is going on in our world right now. What Wade's mom said about "looking around the edges” and accepting that you may not be able to fix everything, but you can fix something, really resonated with me right now. I’m sure it will with a lot of readers.

4. Sparse, but powerful prose: I am in awe of writers who can convey a lot of emotion in very few words. Pennypacker is a master at writing simply, yet powerfully. I think this adds to the strong middle grade voice, and packs a more powerful emotional punch than a lot of words would do.

Caveat: While I loved almost everything about this book, the one thing that stumped me is the author’s use of a lot of Christian symbols, but assigning different meanings to them. I was a bit confused at times with what the author was trying to say with these symbols. For that reason, I would just say that I think that aspect of this book would be something to discuss with readers, especially if you are a teacher or a parent.

Have you read any books that filled you with hope lately? Please share in the comments!

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

ISWG: The Form Finds You

When I started writing seriously, I had one goal in mind: to write a novel and get it published. Many, many years later, that still hasn’t happened, but I continue to write and work on my craft. The interesting thing to me is lately, I’ve been drawn to shorter forms rather than the novel.

It used to be I would set out to write a short story—and then, boom, realize that it was the first chapter of a novel. That has happened to me many times.

However, it rarely happened the other way around.

But right now, and this might just be because I have a job that takes up a lot of my brain space, that I am more drawn to shorter pieces. I’ve written a few short stories over the last year (one was published this spring!) that will never be novels. I really like being able to have the whole scope of my story within a few pages—so much easier to revise!

I feel antsy now when faced with behemoth of my MG novel, an ongoing revision-in-process.

I wonder if either I’ve changed or my writing has changed. (I guess that’s the same thing).

But when I finish this current revision-in-process, I’m not sure what I’ll work on next. Maybe a novel. Maybe not. Maybe I’ll let myself play in the paints for awhile and just do writing prompts for awhile. Funny that. I used to hate prompts too.

But a novel takes a huge chunk of my brain to maintain, and I’m not sure I can do that and balance that with my family and the job I love.

So, yes, I’ve written many things I never planned on.

Isn’t that how writing is?

You can make your graphs and charts, but it’s the moment when a character does something totally unexpected that sparks joy for me.

How about you? Do you always stick to the form you planned or does the form find you?

What is Insecure Writer's Support Group?

Purpose: To share and encourage. Writers can express doubts and concerns without fear of appearing foolish or weak. Those who have been through the fire can offer assistance and guidance. It’s a safe haven for insecure writers of all kinds!

Posting: The first Wednesday of every month is officially Insecure Writer’s Support Group day. Post your thoughts on your own blog. Talk about your doubts and the fears you have conquered. Discuss your struggles and triumphs. Offer a word of encouragement for others who are struggling. Visit others in the group and connect with your fellow writer - aim for a dozen new people each time - and return comments. This group is all about connecting!

The awesome co-hosts for the August 5 posting of the IWSG are Susan Baury Rouchard, Nancy Gideon, Jennifer Lane, Jennifer Hawes, Chemist Ken, and Chrys Fey! 

To read more Insecure Writer's Support Group posts or to sign up, please got to the Insecure Writer's Support Group website.