Book Review: James and the Giant Peach

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Because September had a “Banned Books Week,” as part of my “research,” I had my husband check a bunch of formerly challenged/banned children’s books out of the library.

I’d tried reading A Wrinkle in Time years ago, which I couldn’t get into (I preferred Peppermints in the Parlor, though I’m not sure that’s a relevant comparison) and The Giver (an interesting plot with not-so-interesting characters); for some reason, I had my husband return all the books except for James and the Giant Peach. It sat on my nightstand for weeks, and when I was too lazy (i.e. tired) to get up and get the other book I was reading, I opened it and was instantly captivated.         

I’m the first to admit that I generally prefer children’s poetry (i.e. fun and creative) over adult poetry (which often comes across as emo and pretentious), so I was pretty sure this book would stand the test of time.

It did and was even better than I remembered.      

I liked the illustrations—it helped cartoonize the creepy-crawly characters, which made them seem less gross.     

Though James Henry Trotter was likeable, he wasn’t super well-developed. It was what happened to him that made him a sympathetic character, rather than how he handled what happened to him.

That said, the creepy-crawlies all had their own little personalities that set them apart, though I did find that the male creepy-crawlies had stronger and more memorable personalities than the female ones; however, two of the three female creepy-crawlies did contribute much more to “the mission” than the male creepy-crawlies, so even though they didn’t have the gab, they had the gumption.  

Even though the verses were cute, I would’ve preferred them to be in dialogue form. For some reason, when I see poetry in a novel, it’s like an interruption to the story.

The only thing that was weird (and not in a good way) was the ladybug marrying the Head of the New York Fire Department. Humans and animals should never marry, and that goes for creepy-crawlies and humans, as well. Ladybug should’ve married one of the other creepy-crawlies, but then, what were her choices—an obnoxious-as-hell centipede, a blind earthworm who never shut up about his disability (even though earthworms are supposed to be blind), and a grasshopper that would’ve made her a widow any day.

Despite the bizarre coupling of the man and the ladybug, James and the Giant Peach was an incredible adventure (and perhaps a premonition of Monsanto’s crimes against food).

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Book Review: All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten

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I had expected a charming anthology of personal narratives, but instead, what I got was one of the worst books I’ve ever tried to finish (I made it to page 120; I tried to skim after that, but felt my time, and my brain, wasting away). What’s more, the title had nothing to do with the book. The author simply used it to get people to buy it—a classic “bait-and-switch.”

The first thing I read (after the synopsis) when I open a book is the copyright, no matter the genre; the first printing of this was in 1986.

I can’t imagine it was any better then.

*

I remember this man’s list from grade school years ago, printed on a poster and taped to a cinderblock, public school wall. I’d thought it cute then, but even though it was memorable in a benign sort of way, I find parts of it problematic now.

Now rather than regurgitate/retype the list, as other reviewers have done, I will just point out a few things: Share everything. Immediately, I was thinking, um, no. You don’t share your spouse, your prescription medications, or unsolicited advice.

As for take naps, the clarifier should have been as needed. If I lie down for a nap, it’s at least four hours gone. Better to go to bed early and get all your rest that way because in the real world working a full-time job, you don’t get nap breaks (you’re lucky to get a coffee/smoke break), and power naps have always made me feel worse. Time spent outside, even if the weather is lousy, is what rejuvenates me. (And going to sleep—not just to bed—early enough to get at least eight hours.)

Wash your hands before you eat. (That should be every time you go to the bathroom, before and after cooking, et cetera, et cetera; otherwise, you’re only washing your hands three times a day.)

Of course, I can think of many more, such as Keep your hands to yourself. That goes beyond just don’t hit people.

But, that’s just one example.

What’s more, I’m not sure what the author meant when he said the biggest word of all is look, as I could think of better ones, like imagine. This is a classic case of when the author knows what he’s talking about but cannot convey that to the reader.

There was some good advice, like Be aware of wonder and Flush. (I think “if you sprinkle when you tinkle, be a sweetie and wipe the seatie” is a good one, but this book was written by a man, after all.) Better advice would be to flush at least as many times as the job number was.

That said, this was not enough to save the book. (I did, however, share his nostalgia for the 64-pack of Crayola crayons with the built-in sharpener.)

*

A good writer can write about ordinary things in an extraordinary way, but this read like a personal journal—very random and stream of consciousness-like. None of the chapters had titles, some sentences (or fragments) were written in all caps (no need to scream, that’s what exclamation points are for), and the anecdotes were anything but anecdotal. It’s like “I saw a gum wrapper on the bus today,” and then that’s it.

He tried with some metaphors (like a box of Cheer), but none of them worked.

None.

*

The author is a minister, but I got a weird vibe. He talks about teaching his toddling grandson dirty jokes. Huh?

He liked to talk about lawn care, and some of his chapters read like the information had been lifted from Google or Wikipedia (or Encyclopedia Britannica, considering when this was published). He goes into minute detail about dandelion weeds (excuse me, flowers) and beetles (or maybe it was spiders).

There wasn’t one interesting chapter.

Not.  One.

Going back through the book, there was one “rule” that made sense—The Brass Rule—which is that it’s not the thought that counts, but the gift that counts. This, to me, means giving meaningful (not expensive) gifts. I put a lot of thought into any gift I give, because I’ve been on the wrong end of an obvious regift, which are thoughtless (and which ended up as white elephant gifts for the Dirty Santa parties with my husband’s family).

Despite this miniscule glimmer, All I Really Need to Know had little to no redeeming value. Even his abysmal attempts at levity seemed to have a veiled mean-spiritedness that I found disconcerting.

Book Review: Writing Down the Bones

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Though I like the narrative of Stephen King’s On Writing better (i.e. more concrete, less abstract), this book had many more plusses than minuses. The title fits because Goldberg takes a page from Strunk and White’s advice to “omit needless words,” not burdening hers with excessive description or detail (just a handful of unnecessary quotes). Though I checked this out from the library, I will end up purchasing it, so I can go through it with my highlighter, as I cannot possibly remember all the wonderful little tidbits.

*

Goldberg wrote in a non-academic way, which I appreciated, as well as the fact that the creatively-titled chapters were short. I don’t often get a chance to read till the end of the day in bed because I spend the day working on my own writing, so short chapters make it easy to find a stopping place.

*

Though I realize all writers have different experiences when it comes to their craft, I’ve never heard an imaginary voice telling me that I shouldn’t be a writer. Writing has always been the one thing I’m sure of. In fact, I am more likely to think something is good when it isn’t (which I figure it out a year later when I go back and reread some of my old blog posts).

If I had to choose my favorite takeaway from this book, it was making “verb columns” (page 95-97). It was such a fresh and innovative idea to make verbs pop.

Conversely, I found the excessive references to Katagiri Roshi distracting (and somewhat annoying, as it felt like proselytizing), especially since most of the quotes didn’t seem to flow into the narrative.

*

Being a huge fan of humor, I appreciated the hilarious list about why one writes (page 122). This is what Goldberg is good at—writing short. Maybe because Goldberg is a poet and not a storyteller. I consider myself the opposite. (Even my poetry tells a story.)

Through reading books from authors who fictional works I don’t particularly enjoy, I’ve discovered that we can learn not only from experimenting with all kinds of writing but how to write from all kinds of writers.

Book Review: The Arrow Finds its Mark (A Book of Found Poems)

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This is a cute little introductory volume on the concept of “found poetry.”  I love the idea of “finding a poem” because it shows that poetry is omnipresent–in dictionaries, crossword puzzle clues, book titles on a shelf (the word version of a “shelfie”), advertisements, social media posts, et cetera.

For me, the difference between poetry and prose has always been strategically-placed line breaks, but then, everyone has their own definition of what a poem is.  (It definitely doesn’t have to rhyme.)

Some of the “found poems” are a stretch (ironically, “A Bird Poetry Reading,” for example, which would drive one nuckin’ futs to read) and “Texto” (a column of meaningless texting abbreviations which were found on some teen website), but others are gems, like “Man’s Best Friend” (an excerpt in a speech by George Vest–U.S. Senator from 1879-1903–and one of the leading orators of his time) and “First Wins” (from selected words in a SPRINT newspaper advertisement).

The cover is eye-catching, the illustrations cute, the font and layout pleasing to look at, but the book is much more useful as a tool in getting an idea of what found poetry is, as well as a guide in how to find your own poetry.  (Maybe more poets should work in advertising.)

This book helped me see old things in new ways, or rather, look for poetry in the most unlikely places.

Book Review: After Anna

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So this book, on plot alone, was “unputdownable,” but does that make it a good book?

Not exactly.

I’ve read a number of Ms. Scottoline’s books (except the Rosato and Associates series.  I tried reading one and hated it), and they’re generally interesting enough to keep you reading till the end.  However, these kinds of books (not character-based, but plot-based) are the ones I get at the library, read once, and never read again.

Such was the case with After Anna.

Maggie, the mother of Anna, comes across as a dolt and a doormat.  So her ex-husband uses her and whisks their daughter off to France, but instead of learning French and moving to France so she might at least be able to see her daughter, she is content to let her ex-husband raise her (or rather, dump her off in schools) and have ABSOLUTELY NO CONTACT with her for sixteen years.  No pictures, not anything.  Wouldn’t any mother move Heaven and Earth (or at least move to Europe) to see their child?  She didn’t even put up a fight.

What’s more, Maggie remarried and has been married for several years, yet she never got around to adopting her stepson?  Where is this woman’s priorities?

And when Maggie is talking to her teenage daughter about sex, she tells her about the time she slept with some guy one night (a guy not even her boyfriend–she just wanted him to be), and how he ditched her, saying “It happens,” like it was no big deal, was irresponsible.

The whole time, Maggie was trying to be Anna’s friend and not her mother, and I realize that may have been out of guilt, but still.

Furthermore, wasn’t it obvious to her that this girl was destroying her family?  Hasn’t she ever watched The Hand that Rocks the Cradle?  After all, this girl was raised by someone who sounded like a sociopath, which is why she should have fought for her child.

That said, I’m glad that Maggie ended up redeeming herself, but how can a marriage continue if your spouse thought you murdered her child and didn’t defend you in court, even if she still had her doubts?  Maggie knew her husband a lot longer than she ever knew her daughter, who was basically a stranger.

As for her friend, Kathy, when she and Maggie were together, they sounded like college girls (i.e. like the women in Bad Moms), not grown-ups.  I’ll bet they were doubly obnoxious in high school.

I generally don’t like having to switch gears from chapter to chapter, as it disrupts the momentum; such constantly takes you out of the story and dumps you somewhere else, but Scottoline made it work.

There were numerous other details another reviewer pointed out (things I didn’t catch–someone must have been taking notes!) that made this book lose credibility.  I’d think someone who sells as many books as Ms. Scottoline does would have a team of competent editors (even the best of writers need editors), but if her books sell without editing, then why edit?

Lastly, everything was tied up too neatly at the end–a happily ever after which rang false.

Book Review: Don’t You Cry

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So I’d read The Good Girl by the same author. I finished it, but it was forgettable. (When you can’t remember a single character’s name, it was not a good book.) However, this one sounded intriguing, so I gave it a go.

Now a cover isn’t everything, but from an aesthetics point-of-view, the backwards R (like in Toys R’ Us) somewhat pissed me off (like businesses that spell “quick,” “kwik,” just to be different). I would honestly like to know what that backwards R was supposed to symbolize, if anything. (I just think it’s there so that people walking by will say, “Hey, a backwards R. Gee, this must be edgy.”

I think more thought should’ve been put into the title, rather than the way the title looked.

As for what was between the cover, all the nodding of heads and shrugging of shoulders drove me bonkers. What else do we nod or shrug but our heads and shoulders? “He nodded” or “she shrugged” would’ve sufficed. (These are the kinds of things you notice when you’ve read The Elements of Style by Strunk and White.)

Furthermore, I found that the teenage boy, Alex, being enamored of Pearl’s “ombre” hair an odd word choice. What teenage boy would even know what ombre hair is (I had to google it), especially one so socially awkward?

That said, both points-of-view from which the story was told were equally interesting. The fact that we don’t get to know Esther before her disappearance made her more mysterious; learning who Esther is/was through the filter of her roommate was great. I’m glad the author didn’t get inside the killer’s head, because that’s a place I don’t want to be. There’s no way I could ever relate to a character like that.

Though I didn’t think the romance between Quinn and Ben was necessary, it didn’t take away from the story either. However, I think too many authors are guilty of plugging in a romantic angle—can’t two good-looking, heterosexual people of the opposite gender just be friends? Is that really so much to ask?

So even though I enjoyed the journey (the characters we were supposed to care about were solid and sympathetic), the destination (i.e. the plot) was like ending up in Ohio rather than Disneyworld. The denouement did not seem baked in, but rather tacked on; it was jarring, rather than an “ahhh” moment.

Yet, despite all of these faults, this book was definitely worth reading once.

Book Review: The Hypnotist’s Love Story

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This was a fun read, but a little different than I was expecting.  It was set in Australia, which interested me, but I was expecting a Hitchcockian thriller (I should’ve known better, from the cover design), but what I got was a stalking story shadowing an unconventional love story (meaning the “hero,” as they would call him in Harlequin romance novels, is quite the dullard).

Though it was what one might label a beach read (which is rarely a compliment), the characterization was phenomenal.  Even the supporting characters all had personalities that set them apart from what I would call stock characters.  It was light on plot, but character has always trumped plot for me, for I fall in love with characters, not stories, but for the characters involved in them.  (Hence, why I read The DaVinci Code only once.)

Though the hypnotist was meant to be the main character, she competed with the stalking character, whom the author made sympathetic, even though I didn’t approve of her actions.  However, the dueling stories didn’t hurt the book, because both women’s stories were compelling (which is no easy thing to do).

I did learn a little about hypnotherapy, but I wasn’t bogged down with details about it.

I hope the author will refrain, in future books, from adding “their heads,” or “their hands,” when referring to someone nodding or clapping.  Those redundancies drive me crazy, but other than that, it was nicely written.  The pacing was spot-on, for I didn’t skip through one bit of it, and the mini lead-ins to each chapter were a nice touch.

What I got from this book is that relationships are complicated, and how important it is to explore them further to make them work.  I also got that sometimes letting go of a person doesn’t always mean letting go of just that person, but also their family, which is why it’s important to have relationships that aren’t based on our relationships with our significant others–people who will still be your friends, even if the relationship ends.

This book had a breezy feel to it, even though it tackled some heavy topics.  It was a nice balance, with occasional touches of humor.  I will definitely read more of Ms. Moriarty’s books.