Monday, January 28, 2008

Mum's the Word in Avi's The Secret School

(image from Avi's official website)

Most kids would be ecstatic to learn that school is letting out early for summer break. Not 14-year-old Ida Bidson, heroine of Avi's The Secret School. When Mr. Jordan, the miserly school board president, makes the announcement - Ida's teacher will be moving to Iowa to care for her ill mother, so the one-room schoolhouse will be closed until next term, at the earliest - she is devastated. If school lets out early, she will not get credit for the work she has completed, thus delaying her entrance into the high school in town. Her dreams of becoming a teacher are further shattered when Mr. Jordan scoffs at her concerns, telling her, "I'm not so sure a girl needs a high school education" (11). She knows that attending high school was never a sure thing. After all, it's 1925 and things are hard, especially for the sheep farmers in rural Colorado. Still, Ida can't bear the thought of living out her life as a farmer. She has a dream, and she may have to risk everything to achieve it.

When Ida's friend Tom makes a suggestion - "You're such a gravy know-it-all ... You could take over the school when Miss Fletcher leaves" (18) - her hopes revive. Nervously, she accepts the challenge, insisting that the children keep mum about their "secret school." Ida knows teaching won't be easy, but soon she's dealing with a myriad of crises - from an insubordinate student to his ignorant father to an irate school board. All of this is in addition to her usual chores on the farm and her own studies. Soon enough, Ida wonders if she's gotten in over her head. Her childhood seems to be slipping right through her hands.

Finally, a school official agrees to give the students credit for the year only if all of them pass a final exam. Ida worries for her students, and herself. With all the responsibilities Ida has taken on, she's barely had time to crack open her own books. The fate of the school lies in her hands - will plucky Ida be able to save it? Or will her dreams crumble under the weight of her failure?

The Secret School is a short, simple read aimed at young readers. Still, Avi manages to pack in some very complicated and adult themes. At the heart of the book are questions that must plague all teachers - how much of my own life am I willing to give up in the service of my students? Where do I draw the line between being a friend and an authority figure? And, how do I cut through all the red tape and prove to my community that a good education is worth making a few sacrifices? It also discusses issues at stake when a child is teetering on the edge of adulthood - how does a kid get the courage to defy parents and conventions in pursuit of a dream? And, is it disloyal to even attempt it? As you can see, I was impressed with the author's ability to raise so many interesting questions while telling an exciting, compelling story at the same time.

Because of its many layers, I think The Secret School is a book both children and adults will enjoy. Kids will like it for the adventure (the schoolchildren drive Model T's, build a radio, and most exciting, keep secrets), while adult readers will appreciate it for the engaging characters, swift plot and important themes. It's a very quick read with universal appeal. The Secret School gets top marks in my grade book.

Grade: A

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Breezy in the Big Easy

(image from Barnes & Noble)

I wanted something light and breezy to read while at the hair salon today, and Motif for Murder by Laura Childs seemed like just the thing. It was definitely breezy - so breezy, in fact, that it had very little substance at all. Considering its fumbling plot, depthless characters and clumsy writing, the best thing about this book may be that it's short.

The novel is the third in a series of mysteries featuring Carmela Bertrand, a scrapbook store owner in New Orleans. As the book opens, Carmela is just patching up her marriage with Shamus, the son of a wealthy banking family. Waking up in her 26-room home with her husband by her side, everything feels right - until he pads downstairs to make breakfast and disappears. Carmela arrives on the scene just in time to see a black Cadillac racing away from her home, Shamus presumably inside. Frantic, she sprints down the street to her husband's uncle's house only to find out that Uncle Henry has been murdered in his extensive library. She knows the two events are related, even if the police are slow to make the connections. Frustrated, Carmela determines to find her husband and Henry's killer on her own. Along with her voodoo-loving best friend Ava, Carmela combs the city for clues to the crimes, only to find that the answers are right under her nose. Of course, her meddling quickly comes to the attention of the fiends, and soon she is running for her own life. Can she stop the killers in time? Or will more graves be dug in her family's corner of the cemetery?

The plot actually doesn't sound that bad, but it is so poorly presented that it comes off as completely unrealistic. Probably the most absurd situation was Carmela running off to the bayous, magically locating kidnappers police couldn't find, and rescuing her husband with nary a hitch. Ridiculous. It would never happen. After that whole melodramatic event, the characters go back to their lives, almost forgetting about poor, dead Henry. The police bumble along in the investigation, while Carmela continues to pry, stumbling on the only clue in the book that points to the true murderer. Of course, she meets the murderer, the identity of whom comes out of the blue. The killer has to explain his/her whole motive because, like I said, there are few other clues in the book. I just found the whole plot ridiculous.

I also thought the characters were poorly drawn. After I finished the book, I realized one reason for this - I believed I was reading the first book in the series, when it was actually the third, so perhaps the characters' histories have been revealed in the first two books. Still, I didn't feel a bond with any of them, didn't feel like I knew them or really cared all that much about what happened to them.

Now, I could stand a far-fetched plot and cardboard characters if the book had some other redeeming qualities, but it really doesn't have many. I do think the scrapbooking element is interesting, even though I'm personally not much of a scrapper. Still, I thought some of Childs' tips - offered in the story and in a section at the end of the book - were innovative. Besides these tips, the book also included recipes, several of which sound really good. So, I appreciated those things, but overall, the book is an insipid piece of fluff.

Speaking of fluff - I continue to grade these kinds of breezy mysteries poorly, and I'm wondering if I'm being too critical of the genre. After all, a "light" mystery is just that - a quick story without a lot of complicated twists and turns. It's supposed to be fast and entertaining. So, am I just too harsh? Is it too much to ask for a light mystery with some interesting characters and a plot I can sink my teeth into? Do I need to shun this genre forever? What do you think?

Grade: C-

Friday, January 25, 2008

An Ode to A Man, A Credit to His Legacy

I finally finished Joseph Smith, Rough Stone Rolling: A Cultural Biography of Mormonism's Founder by Richard Lyman Bushman, which I read for both the Unread Authors Challenge and the Triple 8 Challenge (and because I was really interested in the subject, of course). It took me about a month to get through it, not because it was boring, but because it is (very densely) packed with information. It required more of me than most things I read, so I wanted to give it the attention it deserved.

Basically, the book is a biography of Joseph Smith, the founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (a.k.a. the Mormons), but it's not a traditional recap. Bushman labeled it a "cultural biography," which seems to mean it's an examination of a people/culture instead of just one member. While the book begins with Joseph's birth and ends with his death, it's really not as much about him as it is about the church he created. In a nutshell, Joseph was a boy who felt troubled about religion. He really didn't believe in any of the churches prominent in his day. Confused, he turned to the Holy Bible for answers, where he found a scripture in James which exhorted him to ask God for answers. When he prayed, Joseph said he saw a vision of God the Father and Jesus Christ in which he was told to join no church. He was told he would be given more instruction concerning God's wishes for him, and he was. Through visions and revelations, he was commanded to start a church, which he did. Because he claimed he had spoken with God, Joseph was ridiculed. Yet, people were attracted to Mormon theology and soon Joseph had a large following. He was a man of the people, loved and revered by the Saints (as the Mormons called themselves) as a prophet of God. Outsiders, however, considered him a charlatan, and continually sought the destruction of him and his people. Still, he soldiered on, receiving revelations, publishing scripture (predominantly The Book of Mormon), building cities and temples, leading his people, even running for President of The United States. A controversial figure always, he was martyred in 1844, after which the presidency of the church went to Brigham Young. Today, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is a thriving church known worldwide.

In retracing Joseph's steps, Bushman uses a plethora of sources from interviews to journals to newspaper accounts to original church documents. The amount of information he presents is staggering (the book is 561 pages long, with 177 pages of appendices and indexes). He analyzes Joseph's actions, revelations and policies in great depth. I've been a member of the Church for 32 years, and I've never read a history as complete as this one. Plenty of the information was new to me.

Richard Lyman Bushman is an active member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. He acknowledges that, as such, "pure objectivity is impossible" (xviii). However, I think he did an admirable job of presenting every side of Joseph Smith. He didn't shy away from situations which showed the prophet in an unflattering light, or ignore criticisms from Joseph's contemporaries. He presented the facts and, in effect, said, "Choose for yourself."

I expected Rough Stone Rolling to be a straight biography of Joseph Smith, and it wasn't. I would have liked more information about his personal life, family history and private thoughts. Obviously, there are other biographies out there (including one by Joseph's mother) that contain this information, but I wanted a little more from Bushman himself.

All in all, it was a thoroughly insteresting study that I, personally, found fascinating. Will it appeal to a non-LDS reader? I don't know. Some people's highest praise of a biography/memoir is that it "reads like a novel." This one doesn't. It's not a book that will keep you on the edge of your seat, but it is a fascinating, thoroughly researched biography of a man who lived and died in the service of his God. The man who was so reviled in his time left an incredible legacy - one to which Richard Lyman Bushman does great honor in Rough Stone Rolling.

Grade: A

A Meme About Books...And Fairies...

Okay, y'all (yes, I do know I'm not from the South - I just like that word) know how much I love book memes. I couldn't resist this one that Eva made up all by herself. Not only is it a fun one, but she's offering "link love" and entrance into a drawing for a free book, just for filling it out and tagging 4 other book bloggers. What's not to love? Check out her blog for all the details. Okay, here goes:

Which book do you irrationally cringe away from reading, despite seeing only positive reviews? I can't think of a specific one that I'm cringing from right now, but I avoided Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell for a long time. It's just such a big book. When I finally read it, I loved it, so that goes to show you how irrational the whole cringing thing really is.

If you could bring three characters to life for a social event (afternoon tea, a night of clubbing, perhaps a world cruise), who would they be and what would the event be? First of all, I don't drink tea, or go clubbing, so it would have to be a more mundane event. I think I would take the Boudelaire kids (of A Series of Unfortunate Events fame) for an afternoon of playing in the park and picknicking. Uncle Olaf, of course, would not be invited. That way, they could have at least one nice, happy day with plenty of food and fun. Since I can spot Olaf a mile away, they would have no worries. Hakuna matata and all that.

(Borrowing shamelessly from the Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde): You are told you can't die until you read the most boring novel on the planet. While this immortality is great for awhile, eventually you realize it's past time to die. What book would you expect to get you a nice grave? This is a toughie. I'll come back to it, I promise...

Come on, we've all been there. What book have you pretended, or at least hinted, that you've read, when in fact you've been nowhere near it? Let's see...most Jane Austen novels, Shakespearean plays, lengthy Russian classics ... need I go on?

As an addition to the last question, has there been a book you really thought you had read only to realize when you read a review about it/go to "reread" it that you haven't? Which book? I really thought I had read Jane Eyre, but I don't think I have. Maybe I did once. I don't know. I just turned 32, and my memory's starting to go...

You're interviewing for the post of Official Book Advisor to some VIP (who's not a big reader). What's the first book you'd recommend and why? (If you feel like you have to know the person, go ahead and personalize the VIP) If the person's not a big reader, I'm going to have to show them that reading can be fun and entertaining. So, I would probably start with some kind of thriller, or at least a well-written mystery. Perhaps I would go with Twilight by Stephenie Meyer or Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling, since I know several (adult) non-readers who rave about those two.

A good fairy comes and grants you one wish: you will have perfect reading comprehension in the foreign language of your choice. Which language do you go with? Okay, I know this is probably cheating, but science is seriously like Greek to me, so I would say science. That way, I could read all those scholarly health books and learn all kinds of great, (formerly incomprehensible) things.

A mischevious fairy comes and says you must choose one book that you will reread once a year for the rest of your life (you can read other books as well). Which book would you pick? At the risk of sounding like a complete Molly Mormon, I'm gonna go with my scriptures. Although not the most exciting of reads, they would be the most beneficial to my life. Plus, I learn something new every time I read (probably because I fell asleep the first time).

I know the book blogging community, and all its challenges, have pushed my reading borders. What's one "bookish" thing you discovered from book blogging (maybe a new genre, or author, or new appreciation for cover art - anything)? I started my book blog before knowing that anyone else was doing that sort of thing. When I stumbled upon Amanda's blog and started following some of her links, I was astounded that there were so many book bloggers out there. Discovering a whole community of awesome people reading and discussing books was amazing!

The good fairy is back for one final visit. Now, she's granting you your dream library! Describe it. Is everything leatherbound? Is it full of first edition hardcovers? Pristine trade paperbacks? Perhaps a few favorite authors have inscribed their works? Go ahead - let your imagination run free. Oh, that it were true! Well, first of all, I would need a big room with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. I would have several shelves of classics, all leatherbound and alphabetized. Then, I would have my "every day" books - hardcovers and trade paperbacks - perfectly organized by subject and author. On one wall, I would have an enormous fireplace - with a fire always blazing - in front of which would sit a comfortable seating area with a leather sofa, armchair, and oversized ottoman. On the opposite side would be a large picture window, which looked out onto a rain-drenched landscape (since we know dreary days are the best kind for reading indoors). Since I would want to blog about my fabulous reads, I would have to have an enormous desk to work on that magically stayed clean. Ahhh...good fairy, come quickly!

Since I have to tag 4 people, I'm going to go with:

Amanda

Lisa

Cath

Chain Reader

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The Whistling Season A Triumph of Storytelling

Reading Ivan Doig's The Whistling Season is like watching a low-budget film. Without special effects or a dramatic score, the film relies solely on the strength of the story. The screenwriter's

words alone must capture and captivate the audience. Doig's novel is like one of those films. His words engage, entertain and satisfy; no cheap stunts are needed to carry the story along.

The novel opens with 61-year-old Paul Milliron pondering an unpleasant task: as superintendent of schools, he must inform residents of rural Montana that their country schools are closing. A product of just the sort of school he's been ordered to dismantle, Paul is dismayed by the job he must do. To ward off his despair, he lets his mind wander back to his own school days in Marias Coulee, Montana.

His memory takes him back to one banner year: 1909. That was the year his widower father answered an ad for a housekeeper which boldly proclaimed, "Doesn't cook but doesn't bite." Neither Paul nor his two younger brothers know what to expect, but they are shocked when stylish Rose Llewellyn steps off the train accompanied by her equally elegant brother, Morrie. Before the Millirons know it, the pair have firmly ensconsed themselves in prairie life. Rose puts the bachelor farmhouse in order, while Morrie brings his fancy Chicago education to the local one-room schoolhouse. Under Morrie's tutelage, Paul's passion for learning ignites, but not all of his experiences will be in the classroom. As the school year unfolds, Paul experiences death and terror and heartache and wonder. Most of all, he discovers that things are rarely what they seem, not even a kindly housekeeper and her dandy of a brother.

Although it does have a little mystery, The Whistling Season is no edge-of-your-seat thriller. It's a meandering, lyrical tale that won't be rushed. The pleasure is really in the journey, as Doig's every word is poetic and masterful. His characters are real and endearing, as charming as they are sympathetic. Their stories are told with a warmth and humor that enchants and affirms. Simply put, the novel is a masterpiece of old-fashioned storytelling.

There were a few things that bugged me about the book. Although I loved Doig's gentle style, I found it lacked focus at certain points. When Rose and Oliver met, I had the story pegged as a romance, but it really wasn't. The spotlight oscillates from the pair to Morrie to the plight of rural schools and back again. I would have liked smoother transitions between the various plots and themes. Sometimes the juxtapositions just felt too abrupt and jarring.

Overall, The Whistling Season is a triumph of storytelling, a beautiful tale as charming as, say, a one-room schoolhouse in rural Montana.

Grade: B+

Monday, January 14, 2008

Fat Girl Deeply Disturbing, Absolutely Riveting


Grading Fat Girl by Judith Moore is impossible. I've been thinking about the book ever since I finished it, and I still can't decide whether I liked it or not. One critic called it "brilliant and angry and unsettling." I agree with the "angry and unsettling," but I don't know if I would go so far as to call it brilliant. It was definitely thought-provoking, but brilliant? I don't even know if I liked it or not.

Basically, the book is a memoir chronicling Moore's life as an overweight girl and woman. From the beginning, she is frank, saying:

Narrators of first-person claptrap like this often greet the reader at the door with moist hugs and complaisant kisses. I won't. I will not endear myself. I won't put on airs. I am not that pleasant. The older I get the less pleasant I am.
And she's right. She is not pleasant. Not at all. She describes - coldly and bitterly - what it is like to be an overweight woman. From the injury of insults shouted by teenage boys, to the pain of not fitting into plus-sized pantyhose to the horror on a friend's face when she says she's in love with him, Moore tells it all. Still, in the first third of the book, I found her to be a mean, unlikeable narrator.

When Moore begins talking about her childhood, however, I couldn't stop reading. It was heartbreaking. Sad. And undeniably compelling. She endured a bleak childhood, unloved by her mother and abandoned by her father. Starved for love, she turned to food. If that sounds cliche, she offers other - more disturbing - examples of how emotionally scarred she was:

I began to chew my fingernails. I turned into a voracious eater whose meal was herself. I ripped and I tore at the flesh around my child nails; I licked, delicately and hungrily, at the blood that popped up in bright droplets at my chubby fingers' ends. I ate myself raw. (123)
The majority of the book reads like this, describing how lonely and painful she was as a child. The only glimmers of happiness in her life are imagined or real, but short-lived. She talks about the months she lived with her kind uncle, a joyous respite that was cut short when her cancer-stricken grandmother came to live with him. Life in the once happy house soon turned terrifying for young Judith, who had to sit by her mean-spirited Grammy, listening to the woman whimper, "I hurt" and "I don't want to die."

I hoped things would look up for Judith, but they didn't. She grew from an unhappy girl into an unhappy woman. In the book's forward, Moore promises not to sugar coat anything. And she doesn't. She swears, "Rockettes will not arrive on the final page and kick up their high heels and show their petticoats" (2-3), and they don't. Fat Girl does not have a nice, triumphant ending. What it does have is truth, truth so real that it hurts.

Judith Moore's writing is interesting. I mentioned that she isn't a warm and engaging storyteller. She is frank. She is honest. But, she is also coldly matter-of-fact. Her sentences are often awkward, like this one: "Uncle Carl, I don't know where he was, but we were not having the family meal with him" (176). In contrast, she offers brutal, but strong descriptions like this one about her maternal grandmother:

She was the Nazi of the barnyard, entirely businesslike in these procedures, and it seemed not to bother her when blood soaked her apron and blood dried in splotches on her bare arms and legs and in the folds of her neck. "If you want to eat you got to kill," she said, when I ran in fright from her.

You can see how ambivalent I am about this book. In one way, it is repulsive in its revelations of hate and abuse (and in several descriptions of sexual acts); in another, it is both compelling and moving. It is well-written in some respects, not so much in others. I couldn't stop reading, but I don't think I would have finished the book if I hadn't chosen it for the Triple 8 Challenge. I'm not even sure if I would recommend it to a friend. Is it angry? Yes. Is it disturbing? Yes. Is it riveting? Absolutely. Am I encouraging you to read it? Not really. I wish I could be more decisive, but I just can't. It's deeply disturbing, utterly heartbreaking, and absolutely riveting.

Grade: C

Another Disappointing Film Adaptation

Don't you hate it when you love a book, and Hollywood announces it's making a film based on the story? You wonder if the writers/actors/producers will do justice to the words and characters that swept you away when you read the book. You cringe to think of the many, many ways Hollywood could alter - or even destroy - the work you love so dearly.

This is why I watched Stardust (the movie based on Neil Gaiman's novel of the same name) with so much anxiety. I loved the book. It was charming, magical and sweet. I hoped the movie would be the same, and that I would adore it as much as I did the book. But, I just ... didn't. Don't get me wrong - I didn't hate the film, I just didn't like it as much as I wanted to. Somehow, it lacked the magic of the book.

On the Plus Side: I did like Charlie Cox as Tristran. I thought he was loveable, with the right mix of vulnerability and inner strength. I also thought Michelle Pfeiffer was well cast as Lamia, the hag. Also, the movie, on the whole, succeeded in being whimsical and lighthearted, which was one of the reasons I enjoyed the book so much.

On the Other Hand: For some reason, I wasn't impressed with Claire Danes as Yvaine. She just seemed awkward in her role. I also think she and Charlie lacked chemistry. Some of the minor characters irritated me as well, especially the dead princes. However, I loathed what the filmmakers did to the kindly pilot, Captain Alberic. They turned him into Captain Shakespeare, a blubbering, cross-dressing fool (Robert DeNiro's most humiliating role since Jack Byrnes in Meet the Parents/Fockers). Ugh.

In general, the movie was disappointing. I really, really thought I would love it and I think I would have if Hollywood had stuck closer to Gaiman's original words and characters. Taking the Gaiman out of the story just took away the magic for me. What did the rest of you think?

Saturday, January 12, 2008

My Resolution Solution

My daughter had a birthday party last night, which forced me to finally get all my Christmas decorations down (yes, I do know that it is January 12). My husband suggested we leave our 12-foot tree up and just decorate it with pictures of our daughter; the fact that I actually considered this is a testament to how unenergetic I've been feeling lately! Anyway, as part of my Christmas clean-up, I removed all the books from my living room shelves (they are about 8 feet tall and 6 feet wide) and dusted my little brains out. I told my kids the faster they got the books down, the faster we could go to their school book fair (which, of course, resulted in even more books to shelve). My point is, when I got all of the books back into their proper places, I realized that I had no room for anymore! I couldn't believe it. This was after I plucked about 10 volumes off to donate to the library/add to my Book Mooch inventory.


Now, I know a lot of you resolved not to buy more books this year and I did, too, kind of. However, I have found a better solution. Instead of purchasing fewer books, I'm buying new bookshelves! Actually, my favorite handyman is going to build them into the master bedroom. Floor to ceiling shelves will line the north and south walls of the room; hubby gets the north wall (on his side of the bed) and I get the south (on my side). I'm so giddy about this I can hardly contain myself. Of course, my exercise bike will have to find a new home, buy hey, I have my priorities, right?

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Inkheart Warns: Reading Aloud Can Be Hazardous to Your Health




Have you ever loved a storybook character so much that you wanted to pluck him out of the pages of his book and set him smack dab in the middle of your life? Or admired a heroine so completely that you wanted to jump right into her story and watch her in action? If you have - and who hasn't? - you might want to have a little chat with 12-year-old Meggie, star of Cornelia Funke's Inkheart. You see, Meggie knows all about storybook characters coming to life ...


Let me explain. Meggie's father, whom she calls Mo, is also known as Silvertongue. Why the strange name? Because when Mo reads aloud, he can pull people out of their stories. Of course, sometimes when someone comes out, someone or something may get pulled in. For this reason, Mo has kept his secret from his daughter, Meggie, refusing to ever read aloud to her. While this seems a little strange, Meggie never suspects a thing until one dark night when she spies a stranger outside her window. Her terror turns to suspicion when her father invites the stranger inside, greeting him as an old friend. When the two hole up in Mo's workroom, Meggie eavesdrops on their strange conversation, a conversation that revolves around a mysterious book and an evil villain who will stop at nothing to capture Mo and his magical voice.


Suddenly, Meggie finds herself in a situation more terrifying than any she has ever read about in her beloved books. On the run with her father, she demands the truth he has kept hidden from her. Out spills the story of a magical world peopled with fairies, trolls, and a vicious monster named Capricorn. This fairy tale world lives inside a book called Inkheart. The trouble is, some of the story's characters - including Capricorn - have come out of the book and into the modern world. Anxious to return, the villain and his henchman are hunting for Mo, the only one who can read them back into their story.


Although Capricorn and his "Black Jackets" have been terrifying real people for years, the police can't help. So, it is up to Meggie and a ragtag group of people - fictional and non - to take on the evil men, save Mo, and restore Inkheart's people to their proper place between the covers of a book. But their mission will not be simple or easy. As Meggie soon finds out, fictional characters can create just as much trouble outside their books as they can inside.


This novel enchanted me from the first pages. I loved the idea of books "whispering" to people and "luring" them into stories, as though the books themselves were live, animate objects. After this alluring beginning, I was hooked. The story is somewhat predictable, but contained enough twists and turns to keep me eagerly reading. I cared about the characters as well, from brave Meggie to her kind father to lively Fenoglio to brave Farid. You can't help but like them in all of their flawed complexity. Overall, Inkheart is a charming, magical read, just beware of reading it aloud. You never know what could happen.


Grade:A


Note:I struggled with whether or not to label this book a "Clean Read." It doesn't have any explicit sex or a lot of curse words, but there are hints about Capricorn's doings with women and a handful of hells and damns. So, I'm labeling it clean, with a little reservation.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Boyack's 'Practical Guide' Goes Beyond the Cliches

When my husband spotted Strangling Your Husband Is Not an Option by Merrilee Browne

Boyack at Deseret Book, he immediately plucked it off the shelf and handed it to me. The subtitle of the book is "A Practical Guide to Dramatically Improving Your Marriage." Now, before you draw any conclusions, I have to say that I have a good, solid marriage. But, since all relationships can be improved upon, I took my husband's recommendation and read the book.

After the first chapter or so, I have to say I was pretty annoyed with Sister Boyack. I had left the book by the toilet in the master bathroom, so my husband had scanned this first section as well; even he said, "Sounds like she has a 1950s mentality." Basically, the first part of the book (Chapter 2, really) concerns the "Five Don'ts of Wifehood," most of which include focusing solely on your husband (to the exclusion of other duties and interests) and making yourself attractive so that he won't cast his roving eyes elsewhere. I thought this was unrealistic and insulting to both men and women. Boyack did make some good points, but overall, I was not impressed with Chapter 2.

Luckily, I kept reading, because Boyack really did have some good thoughts and ideas. Basically, her philosophy is that wives cannot "fix" their husbands. They should quit whining about all of his faults and focus on perfecting themselves. Boyack suggests that women take care of themselves - physically, spiritually and emotionally - so that they are secure enough to allow their men to resolve problems in their own - uniquely male - ways. She says that wives' incessant nagging and criticism prove that they have no faith in their husbands, thus leading to husbands who don't believe in themselves. Sister Boyack backs up her guidelines with quotes from leading psychologists (including both the predictable - John Gray - and the surprising - Dr. Phil), LDS church leaders and the scriptures. With these heavyweights on her side and 25 years of marriage under her belt, it's hard to deny: Merrilee Browne Boyack knows what she's talking about.

Now, I'm not saying I agree with everything she says - I know my husband is not going to stray just because my gray hairs are overdue for a visit with my hair stylist - but I did extract some valuable information from Boyack's book. Of particular interest to me was the "As if" philosophy she describes and the section where she quotes Dr. Michael Gurian on how males think. I was also pleasantly surprised by the way she sidestepped the canned Sunday School answers to marital problems (pray, attend the temple together, etc.) and sought answers beyond the usual cliches. Not that she didn't beat dead horses in places, but I felt that she did have some new insight.

As far as the issues I had with the book: I thought Boyack lingered a little too long on issues I felt were not that important (honestly, does she really think husbands are going to dismiss their wives because they wear sweats once in awhile?), and didn't take enough time with the issues I found truly fascinating (the differences between how men and women solve problems). I also thought Boyack's tone got annoying at times. She was obviously trying to be upbeat and warm, but I found myself frequently irritated by her phraseology - I mean, nobody says dagnabbit.

All in all, I liked Strangling Your Husband Is Not an Option. It was quick, readable and had some valuable advice. I don't agree with all of Boyack's opinions, but I do believe that every marriage can be improved upon, and I will be incorporating some of her tips into mine. For instance, as soon as I publish this post, I'm going to call the hair salon - I have a few gray strands that need some attention!

Grade: B

A (Slightly Energetic) Wrap Up Post

In the waning days of December, I was feeling way too pooped to do a wrap-up post on my reading. Now that the kids are back in school and I feel some of my energy returning, I decided to take a look at my stats. I'm glad I took a look - the numbers are interesting.

In 2007, I read:

66 books total (give or take; I know I didn't review every book I read. Still, this number seems really low to me.)

Of those books:

25 were written by male authors; 39 were written by females; and 2 were written by a male/female team

59 were fiction; 7 were non-fiction

1 was a short story collection

19 were YA novels

I also abandoned 3 books and completed 1 challenge.

I read a lot of books I really loved. The best 3 were:

The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak
Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
Stardust by Neil Gaiman

Very, very interesting. My goal in 2008 is to read more, especially non-fiction. I'm also going to keep a running list of books read on the sidebar - that will make my 2008 wrap-up post much easier :) I've also got a ton of challenges to tackle. Furthermore, I'm going to try to finish up several series of which I'm currently in the middle. So, stay tuned. Lots of fun stuff is coming up!

Happy reading this year. I look forward to reading all of your blogs!
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