Overrated Books

I love this article where fancy literary types reveal the books (considered by most to be classics) that they never connected with, or that they think are wildly overrated.   Reading is so completely subjective that it’s hard to believe we can agree to call anything a classic, but maybe that’s a post for a different time.

Unfortunately the one I was going to pick, Catcher in the Rye, was already there.  But I couldn’t agree more with Jonathan Rosen, who also picked it and characterized Holden Caulfied as whiny, annoying and inauthentic.  I remember thinking that I couldn’t believe this was the book my high school english teachers expected me to think was so edgy and fascinating.

I would probably also have to include Tom Sawyer on my list, even though I’m encouraged to teach it to my eighth graders.  I rarely do because I hate faking enthusiasm for something we’re reading when it’s hard enough to get them excited about books I actually do like.

So, do you have an overrated classic to share?

Writer’s crush

I just finished David Mitchell’s latest book The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.  It’s really amazing to read 2 or 3 of an author’s books and really observe and enjoy them as they hone their skills.  Mitchell just keeps getting better and better.  He demonstrates his skills in the complex plotting of this book, the unusual and meticulously researched historical setting, and the beauty and attention he lavishes on individual sentences.  I have to share one of my favorites; an introductory sentence used the first time we meet a character.

“Arie Grote had a grin full of holes and a hat made of shark’s hide.”

This sentence epitomizes the title of my blog “Ideas in Things.”  “No ideas but in things,” is a quote from William Carlos Williams about writing. The way I understand it is the same way Mitchell uses the grin full of holes and the hat made of shark’s hide to show us his character rather than tell us about him.

Brilliant, just brilliant!  Gush, gush, gush.

Summer reading

Here is my own summer reading list.


The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet  by David Mitchell

Bossypants by Tina Fey

Ten  Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson

Waiting for Birdy by Catherine Newman

Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks

A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan


East by Edith Pattou

Runner by Carl Deuker

Plain Kate by Erin Bow

Now that I look at it, I’m way more excited about the adult titles.  I think I read more YA during the school year.  Any good suggestions for must read YA for the summer?

The essential hook

I’ve been hearing this phrase a lot lately.  A book has to have an “essential hook” which I interpret as a reason to keep reading.  What makes this story essential?  What makes it the one you have to keep reading because you have to know what happens.

In the YA book I’m reading right now, Trash by Andy Mulligan, the main characters; boys who live and work in a landfill, find a mysterious parcel that may be worth a lot of money.  So far the book is about their decision to withhold the package from the police and solve the mystery on their own.

This is an essential hook as far as I’m concerned.  Nothing like a mysterious package pulled from the trash to keep me reading.  But a hook doesn’t have to be a physical object.  A hook can be a relationship between two characters, or an internal conflict within one character.  The key is that “essential” part.  It has to be essential to the character and the plot, and it has to feel essential to the reader.   It’s easier to describe and recognize as a reader than it is to accomplish as a writer.

The truth about YA fiction?

Last weekend the NY times book review featured a few children’s reviews, as they do every few weeks or so.  In one of the reviews was the following line:

“As expected inYA fiction, Lina has both a love interest and a special skill.”

I was kind of horrified.  Really?  Can the whole genre be boiled down so simplistically?  As a test, I decided to look at the last five YA fiction books I read.

1. If I Stay by Gayle Forman.  Main character has a love interest (her boyfriend Adam) and is a virtuoso cello player.

2. 8th Grade Superzero by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich.  Main character has a love interest and is a comic book artist.

3. Dancing on the Edge by Han Nolan.  Main character DOES NOT HAVE A LOVE INTEREST (but is also a bit younger than typical YA main character) but is a talented dancer.

4. Elsewhere by Gabrielle Zevin.  Main character has a love interest and can understand the speech of animals.

5. The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl by Barry Lyga.  Main character has a love interest and he’s a comic book artist (yet again).

Ok, so that’s a pretty good fit.  But what books don’t have “love interests”?  It’s a pretty big part of life at any age.  As for the special talent thing.  That’s true.  There are an abundance of especially talented and powerful teenagers populating YA.  But I think that’s due to the particular desire of young people to feel singled out and important.  They’re just on the cusp of being adults and being taken seriously in the world.  They’re desperate to be noticed for the “right things”.  It doesn’t surprise me that having a special skill or talent has become a trope of YA fiction.  However, there are many great YA books where the characters are just ordinary kids.

Secret indulgences

Ok, I know it’s not as exciting as the blog post title makes it out to be.  But I have a secret passion for Oprah Magazine.  Not every issue, some of them are too weight loss and beauty tip focused for me.  But this month’s issue has some fun and accessible articles about poetry and journal-writing.  It’s easy reading, and substantive as well.

One article asks famous people about their favorite poems or words of inspiration.   As someone who keeps a bulletin board next to my desk with different quotes and poems I find inspiring, it’s always interesting to me to see where other people find inspiration.  It’s also a different way to be introduced to new poets -although the assortment of people quoted runs the gamut from Demi Moore to Diane Sawyer to Mike Tyson.  Yikes!

And there’s a whole article on one of my favorite poets Mary Oliver.  So that’s my reading tip for the day.


The answer

So I brought 3 books.  8th Grade Superzero -which I was almost done with anyway.  Let the Great World Spin, which I’ve been fighting to get into ever since I finished This Side of Brightness also by Colum McCann.  And then just in case I needed more YA, I also threw in If I Stay.  Luckily the bnb had so many great magazines, I never even came close to running out of reading material.

On our way out of town, we stopped at the great local bookstore Rock City.  There I picked up a copy of The Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep and Never Had To.  Got to support local independent bookstores after all.

Also at the bookstore I stumbled upon some postcard sized prints by a really neat artist.  Jane Mount does portraits of people’s favorite books.  She calls it Ideal Bookshelves.   You can even order a custom print of a special someone’s favorite books!  I think I’ll be dropping hints quite frequently between now and July 7th!

How many is too many?

Ok, how many books is too many to bring on an overnight trip?  Driving, not flying, so weight is not really an issue.

Keep in mind, it’s my first over night trip away from my daughter since she was born.  Not sure why that affects the number of books I’m bringing, but since books are sometimes like security blankets to me, I think it does.

Also, heading to a bed and breakfast in wintery Maine so not much else to do besides scrabble and napping.   (Uh, going with a friend, not husband, just in case you think the fire’s burned out on my marriage already…)

Cardboard characters; worse in YA?

I’m pretty picky when it comes to reading fiction.  I don’t read trashy books for fun the way I watch trashy movies.  However when I read YA, I’m more open-minded.  Maybe because I write YA I want to get a broader sense of what’s out there.

I think it’s fair to say that in YA there’s more attention paid to plot than language.  YA readers are generally more interested in what’s happening than the way it’s happening.  But why all the 2 dimensional characters?  This is something that I do think kids are aware of.  When they’re presented with really well drawn complex characters they like them.  They say things like; “the book was very real” or “the characters were like real people” or “the characters were interesting”.  Young adults are highly attuned to authenticity.   Regardless of genre, regardless of how many trolls or elves or dueling balrogs you have in your story, you have to have Frodo or Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Bella Swan, or Katniss Everdeen.  It’s not just the story, it’s their story, and you have to want to tag along with them for 200-600 pages.

For every great YA character there seem to be hundreds of “popular girl cliques” or “sad fat girls” or”football player heroes”.   Are stereotypical characters more prevalent in YA than adult fiction?  I’m not sure.

Favorite YA or other fictional character?