Tag Archives: children’s literature

Revealed! Book Club Choices for May 2015.

Before I get to the fun of recommending some good books to read for May, here’s a quick bit of book-self-promotion: Mother’s Day is coming up on May 10. If you’re looking for a good gift for a mother in your life, may I suggest…you guessed it…Better Than Before.

Because nothing boosts happiness more than a great book, each month, I suggest:

· one outstanding book about happiness or habits

· one outstanding work of children’s or young-adult literature–I have a crazy passion for kidlit

· one eccentric pick–a widely admired and excellent book that I love, yes, but one that may not appeal to everyone

Shop at the wonderful Brooklyn indie WORD, BN.com, Amazon (I’m an affiliate of all three), or your favorite local bookstore. Or visit the library! Drumroll…

An outstanding book about happiness or habits:

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

Buy from WORD; BN.com; Amazon.

An outstanding children’s book:

In a Mirror by Mary Stolz

Buy from WORD; BN.com; Amazon.

An eccentric pick:

The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis

Buy from WORD; BN.com; Amazon.

Some readers have said that they wished that I’d describe and make the case for my book choices, instead of just providing links. I’ve noticed that many times, when someone describes a book to me, I want to read it less. And often, weirdly, the better a book is, the worse it sounds.

Nevertheless, because so many readers have requested it, I’ve decided to give a bit more context for these choices in the book-club newsletter. So if you’d like to know more about why I made these selections, check there. To get that free monthly book-club newsletter, and to make sure you don’ t miss any recommendations, sign up here.

In any event, I assure you that, for all the books I choose, I love them; I’ve read them at least twice if not many times; and they’re widely admired.

If you read last month’s recommendations…what did you think?

Lately, I’ve been doing some good reading on airplanes and in hotel rooms, while I’m on tour for Better Than Before. I just finished Jane Gardam’s The Hollow Land.

Speaking of my own book…things are going very well for Better Than Before: it was an instant bestseller, has received a lot of great attention in the press, and I’ve been able to talk with many readers as I’ve been on tour. Thanks as always, readers, for your enthusiasm and support.

If you like the book, and you have the time and the inclination, it’s a big help to me if you write a review or rate the book on the online bookselling sites. Readers really respect the views of other readers. As a big reader myself, I know that I often see what other readers have to say, before I head off to the library or bookstore or click “buy.”

Happy May, and happy reading! So many good books…

London Always Makes Me Think of Winston Churchill.

Last week, I was in London for my book tour for Better Than Before. What a beautiful, beautiful city. And I took even greater pleasure in it, because I was reminded of Winston Churchill.

One of the great joys of my life was writing Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill, my biography of Churchill. What a pleasure it was to write that book! I had so many complicated things (both praise and blame, yes, I show both sides) to say about Churchill, and the problems of biography, and human nature, and I felt that I managed to express them all — to my own satisfaction, anyway.

The sights of London kept reminding me of various Churchill quotations, such as his extraordinary eulogy to Neville Chamberlain. This is one of my very favorite passages, in all of literature and history.

Before the war, Churchill strenuously opposed Neville Chamberlain and his appeasement policy. It was Chamberlain who, after meeting Hitler, decided “here was a man who could be relied upon when he had given his word.” But once Churchill joined Chamberlain’s government, he became a loyal servant, and he continued to treat Chamberlain with courtesy after replacing him as Prime Minister. When Chamberlain died in 1940, Churchill gave a tribute to Chamberlain that honored his life while acknowledging his mistakes.

The only guide to a man is his conscience; the only shield to his memory is the rectitude and sincerity of his actions. It is very imprudent to walk through life without this shield, because we are so often mocked by the failure of our hopes and the upsetting of our calculations; but with this shield, however the fates may play, we march always in the ranks of honor.

It fell to Neville Chamberlain in one of the supreme crises of the world to be contradicted by events, to be disappointed in his hopes, and to be deceived and cheated by a wicked man. But what were these hopes in which he was disappointed? What were these wishes in which he was frustrated? What was that faith that was abused? They were surely among the most noble and benevolent instincts of the human heart – the love of peace, the toil for peace, the strife for peace, the pursuit of peace, even at great peril, and certainly to the utter disdain of popularity or clamour. Whatever else history may or may not say about these terrible, tremendous years, we can be sure that Neville Chamberlain acted with most perfect sincerity according to his lights and strove to the utmost of his capacity and authority, which were powerful, to save the world from the awful devastating struggle in which we are now engaged…

Herr Hitler protests with frantic words and gestures that he has only desired peace. What do these ravings and outpouring count before the silence of Neville Chamberlain’s tomb?

No matter how many times I’ve read that, it still puts tears in my eyes.

Another favorite is a passage from Their Finest Hour, the second volume in Churchill’s six-volume history of World War II. Of a visit to a very poor London neighborhood that had been devastated by the Blitz, he wrote:

Already little pathetic Union Jacks had been stuck up amid the ruins. When my car was recognised the people came running from all quarters, and a crowd of more than a thousand was soon gathered. All these folk were in a high state of enthusiasm. They crowded round us, cheering and manifesting every sign of lively affection, wanting to touch and stroke my clothes. One would have thought I had brought them some fine substantial benefit which would improve their lot in life. I was completely undermined, and wept. Ismay, who was with me, records that he heard an old woman say: “You see, he really cares. He’s crying.” They were tears not of sorrow but of wonder and admiration.

These passages give the feeling of elevation that’s one of the most exquisite varieties of happiness.

burnetthomeOf course, London also makes me think of children’s literature. Every single street, it seems, reminds me of one of my favorite books. Peter Pan in Kensington Garden. Harry Potter in King’s Cross Station. Pauline, Petrova, and Posy visiting the Victoria and Albert Museum. Lyra wandering through the streets. I happened to walk by the former home of Frances Hodgson Burnett. Which got me to ponder that unanswerable question, yet again: which is my favorite FHB book, The Secret Garden or A Little Princess? I can’t decide.

I loved London. But boy it’s nice to be home. How about you — Is there a city that’s full of memories and associations for you?

Revealed! Book Club Choices for April.

Because nothing boosts happiness more than a great book, each month, I suggest:

· one outstanding book about happiness or habits

· one outstanding work of children’s or young-adult literature–I have a crazy passion for kidlit

· one eccentric pick–a widely admired and excellent book that I love, yes, but one that may not appeal to everyone

Shop at the wonderful Brooklyn indie WORD, BN.com, Amazon (I’m an affiliate of all three), or your favorite local bookstore. Or visit the library! Drumroll…

An outstanding book about happiness or habits:

Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It by Gary Taubes

Buy from WORD; BN.com; Amazon.

An outstanding children’s book:

Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones

Buy from WORD; BN.com; Amazon.

An eccentric pick:

Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes

Buy from WORD; BN.com; Amazon.

Some readers have said that they wished that I’d describe and make the case for my book choices, instead of just providing links. I’ve noticed that many times, when someone describes a book to me, I want to read it less. And often, weirdly, the better a book is, the worse it sounds.

Nevertheless, because so many readers have requested it, I’ve decided to give a bit more context for these choices in the book-club newsletter. So if you’d like to know more about why I made these selections, check there. To get that free monthly book-club newsletter, and to make sure you don’ t miss any recommendations, sign up here.

In any event, I assure you that, for all the books I choose, I love them; I’ve read them at least twice if not many times; and they’re widely admired.

If you read last month’s recommendations…what did you think?

Lately, I’ve been doing some good reading on airplanes and in hotel rooms, while I’m on tour for Better Than Before. Right now I’m reading Andy Warhol’s POPism: The Warhol Sixties.

Things are going very well for Better Than Before: it was an instant bestseller, has received a lot of great attention in the press, and I’ve been able to talk with many readers as I’ve been on tour. Thanks as always, readers, for your enthusiasm and support.

If you like the book, and you have time chance, it’s a big help to me if you write a review or rate the book on the online bookselling sites. Readers really respect the views of other readers. As a big reader myself, I know that I often see what other readers have to say, before I head off to the library or bookstore or click “buy.”

Happy April, and happy reading.

Do You Know Your “Tell?” And the Comfort Food for Your Brain?

My new book about habits, Better Than Before, comes out one week from tomorrow. It’s hard to believe that publication day is so close.

I don’t feel particularly anxious, but I realized that actually I am pretty anxious — because I recognized my “tell.”

Self-knowledge is one of the greatest challenges for happiness and good habits. Why is it hard to know that I’m feeling anxious — don’t I feel it? Why is it so hard to know myself? It seems like nothing should be easier and more obvious than to know myself– but it’s not.

Because I find it hard to know myself, I’m always on the look-out for indirect ways to gain self-knowledge. For instance, I ask, Whom do I envy? What do I lie about? My envy and lies reveal a lot — including things I’d otherwise try to keep hidden, even from myself.

And I’ve also learned to look for my “tells.” In gambling, a tell is a change in behavior that reveals your inner state. Gamblers look for tells as clues about whether other players are holding good or bad hands.

This is my tell: a while back, I realized that when I’m feeling anxious or worried, I re-read books aimed at a younger and younger audience. The more worried I am, the simpler the book. Under all circumstances, I love children’s and young-adult literature, and read it often, but when I’m reading these books as an anxiety tell, I inevitably re-read instead of reading books I’ve never read before. I want the coziness, the familiarity, the high quality of a book that I know I love.

For instance, when I was writing Better Than Before, I went through a stage of a major editing. Not just little changes here and there — massive re-organization, massive cutting (I went from 140,00 words to 80,000 words without losing any ideas), massive line edits. It was exhilarating, but also very stressful and intellectually demanding.

And during that time, I re-read the entire Harry Potter series.

What book did I pick up yesterday, without quite realizing I was doing it? J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring.  Frodo and company were already at The Prancing Pony before I recognized, “Oh, hey, I’m anxious, and so I’m reading this now.”

Once I first recognized my tell those years ago, I realized that I can use children’s and young-adult literature as “comfort food” for my mind. When I want some comfort, when I want to know that I’m going to enjoy something whole-heartedly, and get a distraction from my thoughts, I now deliberately turn to those books.

In this case, though, part of my brain realized that I needed comfort food before I consciously grasped it, myself.

One reason I’m anxious is that these days, a book’s first week of sales has a very disproportionate importance. If a book sells well that first week, it gets a big, big boost.  So next week really matters.  (Which is why, if you’re inclined to buy the book, it’s a big help to me if you pre-order it now.)

But at this point, with one week to go there’s not much more I can do to affect my book’s fate. I told my husband, “It’s like knowing that I’m gong to take a major exam, but I can’t study.”  He gave me a patient look and said, “Gretch, you’ve already studied.”

Hmm. Well, I don’t know what will happen to Better Than Before, but I do know what happens when the Nine Walkers enter the Doors of Durin. And I love reading about it, again and again.

As any lover of Tolkien would agree:  once the story of the One Ring begins, there’s no stopping: you’re going there and back again. And then I’ll want to watch the movies, too, like as not. So, depending on how much free time I have in the next week, I may be set until my publication date on March 17.

How about you? Do you have a “tell” that shows that you’re anxious?  And do you have a “comfort food” for your mind — some activity or subject that soothes you?

 

How Laura Ingalls Wilder Got a Rebel To Learn His Lessons

I’m a huge fan of children’s literature (in fact, I’m in three reading groups where we read children’s and young-adult literature), and Laura Ingalls Wilder has always had a special place in my heart.

So I was thrilled when I found out that her book Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, was being published. I raced through the book last week; so fascinating. For instance, it turns out Nellie Olsen was an amalgam of three annoying girls.

I was particularly struck, however, when I read a scene that also appears in These Happy Golden Years. Which I know like the back of my hand, by the way.

Laura is fifteen years old, and teaching school, where one of her pupils is Clarence. He’s older than Laura, very smart; “he was quick in speaking and moving…[and] had a way of speaking that was almost saucy.” He misbehaves occasionally, but the bigger issue is that after the first few days, that he refuses to study, and tells her “It’s no use trying to learn such long lessons.”

Laura is frustrated, because she knows that he could learn the lessons if he tried, but he won’t.

When Laura asks her parents for advice, Ma says, “It’s attention he wants.” Now that I’ve figured out the Four Tendencies, I disagree. I think Ma was nearer the mark when she also observes, “Better not try to make him do anything, because you can’t.” (If you want to read about the Four Tendencies–Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, and Rebel, or take the Quiz to determine your own Tendency, go here.)

From the description, I’d say that Clarence is a Rebel. He can’t stand for someone to tell him that he must do something; when he hears this, he resists, even though he’s a smart kid who wants to learn.

But when Laura changes her approach, he changes.

When Laura gives others their assignments, she tell him, “This doesn’t mean you, Clarence; it would make your lesson far too long…How much do you think you can learn? Would three [pages] be too much?”

In this way, she does two things. First, she leaves the choice to Clarence, and gives him freedom. Rebels want to act from choice and freedom.

Second, for Rebels, the impulse “I’ll show you!” is often very strong. They tend to respond to a challenge. When she suggests that he can’t master three pages, he thinks, “I’ll show her.”

The Pioneer Girl version shows this dynamic even more dramatically. There, Laura reports that she said, “‘Is that too long Clarance? Perhaps it is and better take only to here. I really don’t think you could learn so far as I first said,’ and he would exclaim, ‘Oh yes I can teacher.’ He had now gotten to the point where he would add a little more to my first suggestion and learn it too, to prove that he could.”

Within a week, Clarence has caught up to the other pupils.  He studied at night to master the material.

It’s very useful to understand the Four Tendencies, because Rebels — and Upholders, Questioners, and Obligers — really have very different perspectives on the world. If we want to be persuasive, if we want to work and live harmoniously with other people, it’s helpful to understand their ways of seeing things.

Ah, how I love Laura Ingalls Wilder! The end of my book Happier at Home is an homage to her and her brilliant work. Of everything I’ve ever written, I must say, the last few pages of Happier at Home are definitely among my favorites.

Have you ever found a way to communicate with someone — so that a point of conflict vanished? It’s not easy to see the world through someone else’s eyes.