This was a fantastic Christmas for me: I got a lot of books!!! Many of these had been on my list for years. My partner’s mother got a great deal at Better World Books, which sells both new and used books–you can see that several of these were discarded by libraries–and donates a book to someone in need for every book sold. I also got books from several other relatives, so this is going to be a great reading year.
My daughter Lydia, who is in second grade and reading very well on her own as well as enjoying a daily read-aloud by each parent, also got some new books! The picture book was a gift from my mother. Runaway Ralph came from a Little Free Library and was wrapped as a gift “from the kits,” Lydia’s feline stuffed toys. Daniel and I bought the others at Amazing Books.
Here are my reviews of the books I’ve read so far. At the bottom are the titles of all the other books, and I’ll link to reviews as I write them throughout the year!
Class Mom by Laurie Gelman
Jen Dixon is a mother of two college-aged daughters and a son starting kindergarten, so she’s reprising the role of class mom and is determined to have “fun” with it by defying norms of mom behavior. She starts off snarky and bossy, but some of the parents find that funny and want to be her friend, so she feels blindsided when the principal removes her from the job because of a racist comment and multiple bribe suggestions that she thought were “just joking.” One of her “enemy” parents then becomes class mom, but that only lasts 73 pages (two months) before the new class mom apologizes and asks her to share the job. Jen goes back to snarking—while also investigating a minor mystery, text-flirting with the cute dad in the class, and training for a mud run.
This book is a mixed bag. It delivers the funny portrayal of suburban kindergarten parents that was described by the person who recommended the book to me—several moments made me laugh out loud; a lot of the dialogue and situations are spot on. But the plot is weak because Jen coasts along with very little character development, and she’s so focused on herself and her personal goals that the parts of the plot involving other people’s feelings and motivations are just sort of outlined or summarized; they could have been interesting if fully developed. I happened to get a copy of this book that is poorly printed, with two mid-chapter pages completely blank and half a dozen so faintly printed that I can’t read all the words, yet I didn’t miss anything, which is sad. Every page of a novel should matter. I’m kind of glad this is an defective copy, though, so I’m not tempted to pass it on, because of this book’s most serious flaw…
Jen Dixon is a small-minded bigot, and based on the way the book is written, I think Laurie Gelman is, too, but they’re both too insulated to realize it. That one racist comment isn’t the only one, but who would dare call Jen a racist when her best friend has “skin the color of cappuccino and a very short Afro that she keeps threatening to take ‘native,’” and Jen also holds prejudices against white people of identifiable ethnic groups? The author named an Italian character Peetsa (which is not a name) just to create a running joke that isn’t funny. She gave the Asian parent a Chinese last name but a Japanese first name (Asami Chang), and because this isn’t explained, I think it’s just ignorance. Jen’s comments about lesbians and life-threatening food allergies also are cringeworthy. Her overall sense of humor is what was thought to be “edgy” in the late 1990s, but this book was published in 2017! The author or her editor should have done better. It was painful to watch Jen being so nasty to everyone different from herself and never becoming aware of it.
I was pleasantly surprised, though, that this book used the words vagina and vulva matter-of-factly. And that makes a great segue to
Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson
This memoir of a small-town Texas childhood, taxidermy, anxiety, romance, couch etiquette, working in Human Resources, motherhood, rheumatoid arthritis, social awkwardness, housekeeping, et cetera, uses the word vagina almost as many times as the non-fiction book on that subject I read recently, but it is much funnier. The chapter “I Am the Wizard of Oz of Housewives” was perfect for reading aloud to my partner at the end of a bad day, when he needed several rounds of incapacitating laughter and a reminder that the two of us are really pretty good at keeping up with the housework, at least compared to some people.
Jenny Lawson is also known as The Bloggess, a writer of both very funny weird stuff and very serious (yet also funny and weird) documentation of her experiences with mental illness. In this book, her first, the main theme is explaining the experiences that shaped the person she was at the time, in 2012. Since then, her mind has continued to leap off in strange directions and she’s tried a lot of innovative treatments, while also opening a bookstore and constantly writing. She is intelligent, compassionate, insightful, generous, and literally insane, which makes for great books and a great blog.
Next, I read a book about a different kind of atypically-minded person finding her own place in society:
Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori
Keiko Furukura has worked at Smile Mart for 18 years, half her life. She loves the rhythms of the convenience store, the comforting rules about what to do when, what to say, how to make things work just right to maximize profits and please customers. Life would be perfect if not for the creeping sense of uneasiness as she notices that nobody else works at Smile Mart for very long and that her family and friends are disappointed that she hasn’t married or taken on a “real” career.
This story was eye-opening because I’d always heard that Japan is a culture in which every job has honor based on doing well at whatever you do. Keiko diligently does her job and feels satisfied with herself, but everyone else is disappointed in her. It seems that by 2016, when this book was published, Japanese people had succumbed to the idea that every woman should have a husband, children, and a prestigious career, or at least one of the above, as Keiko’s sister and friends all do.
Keiko’s co-worker Shiraha resents this cultural assumption more angrily than Keiko does, and he needs a place to live. Can the two of them work out some kind of relationship that will satisfy society?
Runaway Ralph by Beverly Cleary, illustrated by Louis Darling
Can a restless young mouse work out a satisfactory lifestyle in the diverse society of animals and humans at a summer camp? Ralph, the hotel-dwelling mouse who was given a motorcycle by a boy (in The Mouse and the Motorcycle), is annoyed by living with his large extended family, so he zooms downhill to Happy Acres Camp, where he’s heard the kids eat peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, so there’ll be plenty of good crumbs. Adventures ensue with dogs, cats, a hamster, and a lonely kid named Garf. When a wristwatch is missing and presumed stolen, can the creatures cooperate to see that justice is done?
This is a pleasing story of cute animals that 7-year-old Lydia enjoyed, as her brother and I each enjoyed it around the same age. As an adult, though, I’m not as interested in this talking-animal story as in the more realistic dog psychology of Ribsy.
Runaway Ralph is dedicated to Louis Darling, who died the year it was published, 1970. He illustrated 12 Beverly Cleary books. I didn’t know until just now that he also was an environmentalist who wrote and illustrated many books about animals. We’ll have to look for those!
Meanwhile, on to a different kind of talking-animal story….
The Tiger’s Apprentice by Laurence Yep
Tom lives with his grandmom, who is a “weirdo” in the eyes of local bullies, but it turns out she’s a magical Guardian. She introduces him to Mr. Hu, who looks like a man when necessary but is really a tiger–but he still wears his dapper suit even in tiger form. Moments later, the ancient war between good and evil hits home, literally, and Tom is launched into an adventure of learning his destiny with Mr. Hu and his dragon and monkey friends.
This book reminded me of Percy Jackson in style, but it’s based on Chinese rather than Greek myths. Lydia loved it and is excited to see it’s Book One in a series.
The Enchanted Castle by E. Nesbit, illustrated by Betty Fraser
One of Lydia’s friends and several blogs recommended this book as the sort of thing she’d like: A group of kids find an enchanted castle and a magic ring and statues that dance when the moon is full. Our attempt to read this book had several distinct steps:
- I suggested it as the first book to read on Christmas. Lydia said she did not want any of the books she got except for Runaway Ralph. I said fine, we’ll read that one.
- I suggested it as the next book to read. Lydia said no, she wanted to hear something I’d read to her before, not something new. I said I wanted to read new books and convinced her to try The Tiger’s Apprentice.
- When Lydia woke at 12:32am on New Year’s Day and was upset that she hadn’t gotten up for midnight (we had made two attempts to wake her), she said I “had to” read to her. I began reading The Enchanted Castle without announcing the title, and after an initial protest Lydia accepted it. We read six chapters over the next three days.
- Chapter Six ends with some fake people the kids have built out of clothes propped on brooms with paper faces, coming to life and beginning to speak in a way described as like “the old beggar down by the bridge who had no roof to his mouth.” Lydia was OVERWHELMINGLY CREEPED OUT and told me we must stop reading this book and she never wants to see it again!!!
Other kids might not be so bothered by this particular scenario, but Lydia is, and I’m going to honor that feeling. It is really creepy, if you ask me–“a thick rustling and a sharp, heavy stumping sounded beyond the curtain”–and also I was not particularly into this book; it seems similar to Narnia or Half Magic, yet it just didn’t feel special or interesting to me. Oh well.
A Prayer for the Earth by Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, illustrated by Bethanne Andersen
The Bible tells the story of Noah, who loaded two of every kind of animal into an ark in order to repopulate Earth after a flood. What about the plants? This book tells us that Noah’s wife, Naamah, collected two of every plant in her apron pockets and maintained a garden in the ark that was not for eating; it was for reseeding the land after the flood. The illustrations are beautiful!
Lydia initially resisted this one because she thinks she’s too old for picture books, but after giving it a chance she’s been reading it over and over!
Here are the rest of the books I look forward to reading in 2022!
I’ll update with links as I review them.
- Suburban Nation by Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck
- Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney
- The Unquiet Dead by Ausma Zehanat Khan
- The Last Anniversary by Liane Moriarty
- Happy City by Charles Montgomery
- Oona Out of Order by Margarita Montimore
- Dear Ijeawele by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
- Lanterns and Lances by James Thurber
- Harmful to Minors by Judith Levine
- The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell
- Good As Gone by Amy Gentry
- The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart
- A Student of Weather by Elizabeth Hay
- Recipe for a Perfect Wife by Karma Brown
- Dominicana by Angie Cruz
- Home from Nowhere by James Howard Kunstler
- American Like Me edited by America Ferrera
- Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin
- The Scarecrow of Oz and The Lost Princess of Oz by L. Frank Baum