Friday Fiction: What Are Your Guilty Pleasures?

Yes, of course, we are all high-brow literature lovers with titles like The Brothers Karamazov and A Tale of Two Cities gracing our bookshelves. We can’t wait to hear the winner of the next Pulitzer Prize and dutifully read New York Times bestsellers. We can discuss for hours the perplexities of plot, the merits of foreshadowing, the symbolism in great novels, and the tragic characters of the classics.

Except when we don’t.

Reading is a bit like your diet. Perhaps we should all be eating healthy meals with plenty of vegetables and scant fat. And much of the time, we can keep our temptation under reasonable control and genuinely enjoy the delicious food on our plate. But now and then, forget the love handles and the bathroom scale, I want a piece of cheesecake! Or a chocolate sundae! Or a Snickers bar! We love our guilty pleasures. 

For some, guilty pleasures include the romance novels bought on impulse in the grocery store line – you know, with the bare-chested muscle man embracing the curvy heroine. Or the horror novels with suspense and gore lining every page and a bloody book cover that makes the average reader recoil. Perhaps it’s the biographies of celebrities who have appeared in every tabloid newspaper with their latest scandalous event. Or an over-the-top political rant book from a hard-core advocate of whatever your political position happens to be.

I recently realized that I haven’t engaged in a guilty pleasure read for a long time. I feel that I should read the classics, expand my knowledge of young adult fiction, learn something new, get inspired, or delve into the kind of novels I want to write. But where is my guilty pleasure? Where is my literary slice of cheesecake?

What’s my adult equivalent of the comic books I read as a kid? I honestly don’t know. But I feel the need to break out of my vitamin-enriched reading diet and dive into a vat of chocolate for a change. Just this once.

So I’m wondering which not-so-good-for-me read I can pick up. Mind you, I’m not a horror or erotica gal (period) and political ranting gets old to me pretty quickly. What I really crave is a good belly laugh.

So what are your guilty pleasures? What suggestions do you have for me? Do you have some kind of books that you don’t readily announce to others that you read?

Friday Fiction: It’s a Classic!

Don’t know what to read?  Pick up a “classic.”

There is a reason that some books survive the weathering of time and become classics.  While we may not enjoy every read in that section of our library or bookstore, plenty of gems await those brave enough to read a work crafted by someone who lived 100 years or more before you spoke your first word.

Yes, the language is sometimes stilted or contains linguistic quirks of the day.  You may also need a little historical information to provide context to the story (e.g., knowing about the Napoleonic Wars helps when reading War and Peace).  It isn’t always as easy as picking up a contemporary work of fiction and breezing through it over a Starbucks’ coffee mug on the weekend.  But a classic is often worth the effort.  Classics, after all, are considered the best of the best. 

Several years ago, Penguin Classics came out with its 100 Classic Books You Must Read Before You Die List.  Several others have compiled lists of recommended reads in the classic literature area.  Library Booklists has a wonderful page linking to several of these.  As for myself, here are a few I think just about everyone should pick up at one time or another:

1984 by George Orwell – Orwell expertly wrote this dystopian novel in which the totalitarian government has eyes and ears in the form of the Brotherhood and one man’s love affair comes at great personal cost.  Because of this novel, I still shiver when I hear the words “Room 101.”

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy – This is the sprawling tale (as Tolstoy is wont to write) of Anna Karenina, a woman whose marriage is unsatisfying and whose affair has consequences.  This novel also covers the politics of the day, while keeping readers engaged with the personal life of the protagonist.

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky – Certainly one of my favorites of all time, this is a story of murder, love, choices, and consequences. Enough said.

Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra – Perhaps the most romantic character in literature, Don Quixote is half-mad and full of charm.  An ardent believer of chivalry, he is in pursuit of adventure and Dulcinea – the object of his affection.  So many quotable lines are in this book; I wish I had highlighted them all.

Dracula by Bram Stoker – The vampire book that started it all!  Stoker’s rendition has a creepiness all its own, and the vampire on these pages is quite different from the Dracula portrayed in films – far more menacing, I think.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë – The best of the Brontë sisters is perhaps this novel in which Jane Eyre becomes the governess to Adéle, whose guardian is the enigmatic Mr. Rochester.  Jane and Rochester fall in love, but Rochester has a secret that threatens their happiness.

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert – Emma desires more than the boring life she leads with husband Charles Bovary, and she gets it.  Two love affairs and her fluctuating financial status give her life an up-and-down experience that has an impact on the people around her as well.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen – It’s a toss-up for which Jane Austen book one should read, but this may be the most beloved.  Austen’s writing is always witty and enlightening, and the story of the Bennett daughters and proud Mr. Darcy is engaging throughout.

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne – The scarlet letter is an “A”, and if you don’t know why, you need to find out.  Hester Prynne’s pregnancy brings her shame and punishment in mid-17th century Boston, and the identity of the baby’s father overshadows her and the town.

What would be on your list of must-read classics?  Do you have any goals to read classic literature?  What classics have you not read yet but want to?

Friday Fiction: The Club Picks

Like many of you, I’ve been in a book club for several years now. Our book club meets every other month, reads one or two selections, and discusses the book(s) for a little while and our personal lives for a long while. With six members, we each host once a year, often providing a dinner that connects with the book theme. For instance, a couple of books about Jews during the Holocaust got us to eat a delicious kosher meal at a nearby restaurant and two books set in Africa had us making suya meat on a stick and fried plantains.

From time to time, I am asked what books our club recommends. Well, we often disagree. Reviews can be mixed on various books. For instance, no matter how much anyone else in my book club liked it, I hated Life of Pi by Yann Martel. (See my post on that one.) And not everyone found The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath as compelling as I did. But we have unanimously concurred on a few selections, and I readily recommend the following:

Bel Canto by Ann Padgett – A famous opera singer, a Japanese tycoon, and a group of diplomats gather for a party; soon after, a group of eighteen terrorists invade the home. A hostage crisis ensues in which author Padgett develops characters on both sides of the negotiations and brings together people who would otherwise never bond.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak – Told from the point of view of Death (yes, the Grim Reaper), this book chronicles the life of a young girl whose adoptive German parents struggle to put food on the table, to hide a Jewish man, and to keep clear of the Nazis taking over their country. Meanwhile, the young girl learns the value of books to help them through this horrible time in history.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon – This is a murder mystery told from the perspective of an autistic 15 year old. Haddon does a wonderful job of dropping the reader into the mind of an autistic boy and showing the challenges he faces in making sense of his world, his family, and the false accusation that he has killed a neighbor’s dog.

Daisy Fay and the Miracle Man by Fannie Flagg – From the author who brought us Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, this is another tale of an unorthodox young lady in the South – this one being 11-year-old Daisy Fay Harper. Flagg takes us through Daisy Fay’s hilarious journey in the 1950’s toward a pageant title in her home state.

The Help by Kathryn Stockett – This novel takes place in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960’s, where “the help” are African-American women hired to be housekeepers for privileged Caucasian women.  Two women – one black, one white – are challenged to rise above their circumstances and shed light on the racially unbalanced and complicated relationships between society women and their hired help.

Hill Country: A Novel by Janice Woods Windle – Author Windle tells the story of her incredible grandmother, Laura Hoge Woods (1870-1966), who lived in the Hill Country of Texas. A formidable woman in any century, Laura survives an Indian attack, raises seven children, and interacts with prominent political figures of the day.

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini – Politically tumultuous Afghanistan is the setting for the story of a wealthy businessman, his son, and his servant’s son. A single tragic event shapes the lives of those involved, as the Taliban is taking over the country. The servant’s son struggles to deal with the fallout of his country’s turmoil and his personal shortcomings.

The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger – There may not be any women left in America who haven’t read this one, but it’s a love story extraordinaire. Henry and Clare are not star-crossed lovers, but time-crossed lovers. With Henry’s “Chrono Displacement Disorder,” they meet for brief periods of time and try to experience a lifetime of love in their fleeting moments.

Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague by Geraldine Brooks – Somehow, reading a book about a 17th century plague doesn’t sound intriguing, but we all liked this one. This historical fiction novel describes an English town in Derbyshire struck by the plague and the choices families make as loved ones become sick and the healthy must decide whether to risk themselves to tend to the dying. Relationships are changed as the calamity unfolds.

Are you in a book club?  If so, what books has your club read that you unanimously enjoyed?  What must-read recommendations would you make to the rest of us?

Friday Fiction: Getting Hooked

If not for Laura Ingalls Wilder and Carolyn Keene, would I have become such an avid reader?  I don’t know.  But my memories of books as a young girl include hours delving into the lives of Laura in the Little House series and Girl Detective in the Nancy Drew series.  It was finding topics I liked and characters I could identify with that opened me up to the worlds that an author’s words create.

Whenever I hear a kid say that he doesn’t like reading, I think, “You just haven’t figured out what you like to read yet!”  Everyone agrees that the key to making a reader out of anybody is finding an author, a topic, or a genre that they enjoy.  If the successes of J.K. Rowling and Stephanie Meyer have proved anything, it’s that kids and teens still enjoy reading if you give them something they like! 

Frankly, this is true with adults as well.  Sometimes, we think a reader is a person who picks up classic literature, current bestsellers, or book club selections. But people who visit bookstores (or download titles onto their ebook reader) might enjoy graphic novels, cookbooks, magazines, online newspapers, self-help books, thrillers, or romances.  The important thing is to get people reading!

We all started somewhere – often with a Dr. Seuss book or an Archie comic in hand.

A few of my own suggestions for getting kids to read these days:

Junie B. Jones by Barbara Park (ages 4-8) – I admit to never having read a single Junie B. Jones book.  But I enjoy this author, and this series comes highly recommended by many of my friends with daughters.

The Magic Tree House series by Mary Pope Osborne (ages 9-12) – I volunteered in my kids’ school library for two years, and these books were checked out all the time.  They are quick reads, but the author takes children through history in a fun way.

Clementine series by Sara Pennypacker (ages 9-12) – I fell in love with Clementine on page 1.  She’s a spunky elementary girl with excess energy, creative thinking, and a few stories to tell.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid series by Jeff Kinney (ages 9-12) – A combination of text and pictures, these books chronicle the life of a wimpy kid whose experiences are easily understood by most children.

The Time Warp Trio series by Jon Scieszka (ages 9-12) – Boys in particular will love the adventures of three time-traveling friends and their humor.  Let’s just say that the first book includes a giant with giant-sized snot.

Lawn Boy by Gary Paulsen (ages 9-12) – This is the hilarious tale of a young boy just trying to make a little extra money and finding himself an illustrious entrepreneur.

Piper Reed series by Kimberly Willis Holt (ages 9-12) – Both girls and boys will love this daughter of a Navy officer with two sisters, a dog, and a fresh perspective on childhood.

Percy Jackson and the Olympians by Rick Riordan (ages 9-12) – Greek mythology can seem dull to most kids, until you read Riordan’s retelling of the Greek myths with teens as demigods. Then hold on for the fantastic ride!

Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling (ages 9 & up) – Yes, I would still recommend this series to any child who hasn’t read it.  I love how the author weaves the average challenges that all kids face in school with a wizarding world and the fight of good vs. evil.

Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins (ages 12 & up) – Tweens, teens, and adults will find these dystopian books to be page-turners. Collins creates an intriguing world and has us rooting for the main characters from the beginning and throughout.



What books got you reading as a child or an adult?  What books or series would you suggest to non-readers to get them hooked on reading?

Friday Fiction: Firecracker Duds

So what’s that one book that everyone raved about, that you spent $20 on the hardcover to purchase or twelve weeks on the library waiting list to receive, that you opened with excited anticipation… only to finish and wonder what all of the hullabaloo was about? 

For me, it was Life of Pi.  When I turned the last page and set the book down, I thought, “I want my two hours back.”  Or maybe I expended three or four.  I don’t know.  I’ve tried to block it out like a humiliating high school memory or the knowledge that your parents had sex.

But I do know that I was not interested in the story, and I kept reading because I thought, “Surely it must get better because everyone is talking about how great this novel is!”  To my mind, not only did it not get better, it got worse with one of the lamest endings I’ve ever read.

Let me be clear.  The author writes well.  The book was well-crafted.  But I am among those who need a character in a book that I can relate to or root for.  No such person existed in The Life of Pi for me.

Also, showing that it is my opinion alone, everyone else in my book club liked the book.  That did not, however, stop me from ranting about it at our meeting.  (By the way, thanks for listening, book club friends, or at least pretending to listen while you played with your dessert or made a shopping list in your mind).

I recently picked up another strongly suggested read from an acquaintance and after a hundred pages tossed it back into the library book drop without once wondering what the characters might do next in the 600-page novel.  I guess my taste just differed from my friend’s.  It happens sometimes.

How many “amazing” books were what my kids would term an Epic Fail for you?  What titles were rampantly recommended that turned out to be time-suckers or firecracker-duds?

Or have you recommended a book that you absolutely adored to someone who reported back that they didn’t like it at all?  Why do you think that happened?

Round of Words in 80 Days Update:  wrote 2,632 of 5,000 words this week; edited 81 of 186 pages in my middle-grade novel; trying out a new blogging goal of 3 times a week – Monday Mumblings, Wednesday Words, Friday Fiction (We’ll see how that goes!)