Tag Archives: Book Reviews

The Year of Reading Leisurely: Book 1 — What I’m Going to Do, I Think by Larry Woiwode

When I was searching my bookshelves for a book to read I came across Larry Woiwode’s first book and thought how appropriate I read it for the first book of my book group break. I’ve been meaning to someday read it ever since I was in the 6th grade and Mr. Woiwode visited our class.

Mrs. Anderson, my wonderful 6th grade teacher, had a student teacher named Mary Woiwode. It turned out that Miss Woiwode’s brother, Larry, was a published author. He was invited to give a talk to the two 6th grade classes at Highland Elementary School. It was the 1968-1969 school year, but I don’t recall when the visit took place – I’m thinking second semester, so it was probably sometime in the spring of 1969.

Mr. Woiwode published his first book, What I’m Going to Do, I Think, three years earlier, in 1966, and was either working on, or had just published his second book, Beyond the Bedroom Wall, when he visited our class. I remember him mentioning that the second book might be made into a movie and he named a famous actress of the time who might be in the film.

I only barely remember the rest of his talk. He mentioned John Updike, and may have said, “my friend, John Updike” in answer to a question about writing. Our teachers encouraged us to ask questions, and I asked him what courses in college an aspiring author should take. I don’t remember his answer, except that he said it was a good question. After the talk and the question/answer session he signed autographs. He signed a piece of notebook paper for me – I still have it, but since I wrote, in purple ink, all around it, it probably is worthless.

I don’t know if anyone had him sign copy of his book – probably not because, although he encouraged us to read it, our teacher and parents were a little more conservative about 10 and 11 year olds reading books with adult content in them. The paperback copy – which was published the following year – contains this description on the front:

The literary discovery of the year – The haunting, erotic novel of a young man and his girl and their doomed honeymoon…

Here’s the excerpt chosen for the back:

He saw sand and dune grass and felt he could count the grains of sand below the curve of her shoulder and throat, each was so individually clear as they made love, and he realized she was seeing the sky, the bright blue sky he’d been staring at, and there was the freedom and openness of sky in her body, in its growing lightness of motion, and then all the space of the sky came.
They lay in silence, still linked, with the wind blowing over them.

Then, the quote from a book critic (Robert Phelps, Life Magazine) reads:

“THERE IS PLENTY OF SEX
Chris and Ellen make love abundantly, and in assorted moods, but never merely to put down Puritans. The lovemaking is sweet and horny, bewildering and majestic, funny and emboldening, somber and joyous – everything, in fact, that sex is always in literature, as well as in life, when it isn’t being used to sell something. …The day I read this book was wonderfully quickened, nourished, consecrated for me. I am grateful.”

I finished the book last month and, for the most part, really enjoyed it. I’m not sure I would have liked it if I didn’t have the connection with Mr. Woiwode, but it was well written and had many wonderful passages. I enjoyed meeting the characters of the book: 23 year-old Chris and his 20 year-old bride, Ellen. Ellen’s grandparents were interesting, as were neighbors, Orin and his sister, Anne. As I read the book I felt like I was meeting people I should have met years ago. I’d first heard about them over 40 years ago and, until now, had kept them locked away. Unlike some things, however, characters in a story don’t go bad with storage. There were a few parts that didn’t quite pass the test of time, but I tried to keep in mind how long ago the book was written.

There was not that much sex – and nothing graphic at all by today’s standards.

The hardback cover of the book holds a photograph of a rifle. Mr. Woiwode said something about a gun in his talk. For more than four decades I’ve expected this book to be tragic and as I read it I worried each time a character picked up a gun. The gun, I think, is another character in the book.

The most complex character is Chris. He claims to love Ellen, yet he is alternately jealous of men she may or may not have slept with during their one year apart and completely overwhelmed in his adoration of his wife. He slept with women during their year apart – and flirted with others when they were not apart yet cannot get over her possible infidelities. He carries a lot of baggage from his earlier life as the son of a Catholic farmer.

Ellen is less complex, although has at least as much baggage as Chris has. Her parents were killed in a mysterious accident when she was young – something that makes her so terrified to talk about, Chris rarely brings up the subject. She was raised by her Christian Scientist grandparents.

When Chris and Ellen marry, earlier than planned (she’s pregnant) her grandparents, who dislike Chris, offer their cabin in a remote area of Michigan on the shore Lake Michigan for their honeymoon. The book tells the story of their honeymoon from their arrival to Chris’s hellish day bailing hay for the odd neighbor, Orin to Chris’s demand that Ellen tell him the truth about her year in New York to his jealousy of what she revealed to him. It also introduces the gun and keeps the reader in a sort of suspense not unlike the works of Stephen King. In fact, I found Woiwode’s writing style to be a lot like King’s writing style.

Woiwode has written many other books – I own probably 80% of books he’s written. I recently read online that he is now a right-wing republican who is active in the right-to-life campaign. The blurb I read about him also said he gave up writing. It cannot have been that long ago, because he published a book called “What I Think I Did” within the last ten years.

I’m not going to recommend this book – only because you probably won’t find a copy anywhere. I believe it has been out of print for a while. Also because, while I am happy I read it, it left me flat –wondering if I missed something or if it really ended the way it did.

Finally, here is the description on the inside cover:

There is a remote summer lodge high on a wooded bluff overlooking Lake Michigan. A farm is down the road, and a village seven miles away. But otherwise there are only sky and lake, wildlife and weather – And a young man and his wife on their honeymoon…

L. Woiwode’s What I’m Going to Do, I Think is a hauntingly beautiful novel about youth growing up to the pain of loss, the puzzle of love, and the sense of despair lying near the surface of modern consciousness. This wildly acclaimed first novel introduces an author of unique and memorable talent. A best-seller since it was first published, What I’m Going to Do, I Think has also been bought for motion pictures.

[Review] The 13th Reality: Volume 1 — The Journal of Curious Letters

The 13th Reality: Volume 1 -- The Journal of Curious Letters
The 13th Reality: Volume 1 -- The Journal of Curious Letters

Note: I belong to LibraryThing‘s Early Reviewer group and was sent this book January 2008. When I received the book I took one look at the cover and decided that I wasn’t interested in reading it after all. The cover of the book, as you can see in the image to the right, was of a boy with a surprised look on his face as he stares at something floating in front of him. The quality of the drawing made me uncomfortable in the same way as the characters in the movie version of The Polar Express did — they just looked creepy — and not in a good way. The face was too shiny and fake looking and was like a plastic doll that came to life.  I cannot really explain my reaction, except that I thought that if the cover looked that bad, the content was probably worse.

I knew that not reading and reviewing the book would affect (or is it effect? I never remember) my chances of receiving another early reviewer title, but at the time I guess I thought it didn’t matter. Perhaps I was over the thrill of getting books before they were published. Then, when I received notice recently that a new batch of early reviewer books were up for grabs I checked them out, just to see what was available. I was excited and surprised to see John Irving’s newest book, Last Night at Twisted River, and clicked the “Request” button, knowing I had very little chance of getting one of the 30 copies the publisher was offering. So, at the end of the month I was more than a little surprised (and delighted) when I received word that I had actually snagged a copy of Last Night at Twisted River.

A few days later I received another note from LibraryThing — they reminded me that I’d indicated that I’d received The 13th Reality: Volume 1 — The Journal of Curious Letters and had not yet reviewed it. So, reluctantly, I located the book and began reading it.

You know the saying about not judging the book by its cover? Well, this book proved that saying true.

[FULL DISCLOSURE NOTICE — Dear FCC & Lawyers: I received this book for free from Random House via LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer program.]

The unfortunately named 13-year-old Atticus “Tick” Higgenbottom is a self-described nerd who chooses to give in to the schoolyard bullies when they torment him, as they frequently do. He’s a straight A student, is on the chess team and loves science. Tick also has a birthmark on his neck that makes him so self-conscious that  he covers it, inside and outside, winter and summer, with a long knitted scarf.

One day in November Tick receives a letter postmarked from a small town in Alaska that informs Tick that he’s been chosen to be a part of  dangerous and possibly deadly events, but first he needs to solve a series of clues, that are also described as dangerous and possibly deadly. Tick, being curious and good is intrigued by the letter and chooses to not burn it because the letter also explains that if he succeeds in solving the clues he’ll save many lives.

Throughout the next half-year Tick receives many more clues that he attempts to solve with the help of some other chosen teenagers and a cadre of unlikely otherworldly characters.

This book was surprisingly hard to put down. I was never bored reading it and looked forward to reading it each time I picked it up. It kept my attention — even when sitting on bleachers in a noisy gym during a wrestling tournament. It even scared me a little, especially when Tick heard noises in his bedroom shortly after receiving the first letter:

“Late that night, after watching the movie Dad had brought home–a creepy sci-fi flick where the hero had to travel between dimensions to fight different versions of the same monster–Tick lay on his bed alone, reading the letter once again. Night had fallen hours earlier and the darkness seemed to creep though the frosted window, devouring the  faint light from his small bedside lamp. Everything lay in shadow, and Tick’s mind ran wild, imagining all the spooky things that could be hiding in the darkness.

A noise from the other side of his room cut him out of his thoughts. He leaned on his elbow to look, a quick shiver running down his spine. It had sounded like the clank of metal against wood, followed by a quick burst of whirring–almost like the hum of a computer fan, but sharper, stronger–and it had lasted only a second or two before stopping.”

I think that the storyline in this book is very good and rather unique. It takes the good vs. evil theme and makes it readable, even for a middle-aged grown-up like me. I imagine it would appeal to upper elementary school students, especially if they like science fiction or fantasy stories. The characters are moderately well developed, although everyone but Tick and perhaps his father, seem a little one-dimensional. Sophia, Tick’s friend from Italy is a rich smart-alack but we know little else about her. Paul, their friend from California is full of himself and seems to like sports, but what else? Rutger is portly and likes to eat. Mothball is tall and kind. I would have liked the supporting characters to be a little more fleshed out.

My other problem with this book was the author’s voice. Voice is usually a good thing in stories, however Mr. Dashner’s voice is too strong in this story. It comes through in all the characters. His sense of humor is slightly stilted — as if he’s working to hard to get a laugh out of a group of bored businessmen and has no idea how to do it, but thinks he does. The humor also seems dated. I cringed and had a weird feeling in the pit of my stomach several times in most chapters — thinking that the characters’ words could have been different and the meaning would have come across just as well, or better.

Maybe the voice works for school-aged readers — perhaps the humor is just right for 5th graders — but I suspect not. I think that Mr. Dashner has an incredible imagination and for the most part wrote a book that will keep many readers engrossed, however the delivery of the story needs a little refinement. I’m not sure I’ll read the next installment of The 13th Reality, although the first volume left me wanting more (which is a good thing with the first book in a series).Perhaps I will read it, though — perhaps the writing style has changed a little. Maybe I’ll read some of his newer books as well, because I think this guy has potential.

I am going to Barnes & Noble on Friday to see this author. From the voice in the book (and on his website), he seems like a likable guy. I only wish I could have given this book a better review, but maybe I needed to be male and in the 5th grade to really like it.

The Overachievers — a review…sort of

Had my kids not been students at the school profiled in Alexandra Robbins‘ exposé of success-driven teenagers, The Overachievers, I would probably never have heard about the book, much less read it. However, since they go to that same high school that AP Frank and the rest of the overachieving students in the book attended, I thought it would be an interesting read.

It was more than interesting, it was an eye-opener and a sigh-producer. I threw it across the room more than once. I vowed to quit reading it more than once. It took me nearly a full year to read and I still have the last few pages to go.

My daughter is now a senior at the school. Clare is not an overachiever in the true sense of the word, but she does push herself academically, which can be hell for her and her parents. I won’t elaborate because she occasionally reads this. Hi Clare.

My son, also not an overachiever, is a sophomore. He’s begun to take school more seriously this year. Hi Andrew! (actually he never reads this, so I could tell you lots of stories about him…

Whitman High SchoolSo, I’d be reading The Overachievers and forget it was so close to home (on a couple of levels) until the author mentioned something I’d seen that day, like the façade of the building or the carpool line or a storefront in Bethesda. Then I’d throw the book across the room.

Sure, sometimes I wish my kids were at the top of their class and candidates for valedictorian, but they’re not. Neither was I. Neither was their dad. We’re not [medical] doctors or lawyers. We didn’t go to ivy league schools.

It’s supposed to be made into a movie. I don’t know how that’s going to work unless it is a documentary. But I think it is a drama. Or a comedy. Or better yet, a tragedy.

Robbins is on our side — she wants schools to stop pressuring kids to overachieve. The last chapter provides many ways to help kids be successful and get into colleges without the terrible stressful hell it has become, but unless all parties (colleges, kids, parents and high schools) agree to follow what Robbins says, it’s not going to happen.

AP Frank wrote a letter [pdf] to the editor of the school newspaper last month. It’s a little rambling, but I think he gives the students some good advice — Be yourself and enjoy your life.  Thanks Frank, that’s the best thing I’ve heard all year.