Childfree Aunts, Irish Americans, & The Last Little Blue Envelope

Ginny Blackstone has horrific taste in men.

She’s the 18-year-old main character of the Little Blue Envelope series by Maureen Johnson. I wonder if I would’ve felt differently about her taste if I’d read this set of novels when I was closer to Ginny’s age. My taste in partners isn’t much different today, though. I’m married to the person I started dating a week after I turned 19.

Anyway, apart from an unwelcome cameo in the first book, I enjoyed this mildly entertaining set of novels about a recently deceased aunt who leads her niece on a European adventure through a series of letters. It was a nice summer read that doesn’t fire up too many brain cells (in other words, it’s a vacation). That said, it did get me thinking about two articles I read earlier this year:

  1. Honoring the Childfree Auntie (Ms. blog)

The nicest part about the Little Blue Envelope series is that it features a close relationship between an aunt and her niece, a relationship I rarely come across in fiction, but one that my children are lucky enough to have in real life with my sisters (one who has a child of her own and one who doesn’t). Research shows that my children are among many who benefit from these types of relationships:

A survey of 1,000 non-mothers inspired by Savvy Auntie Melanie Notkin found that children play an active role in the lives of 80 percent of women who don’t have children of their own. Another study found that it’s common for aunts to spend money on the children in their lives and assist kids’ parents financially.

For more information, see the link in the heading. These women certainly deserve our gratitude. [Thanks, sisters! Love you.]

  1. The Fading of the Green: Fewer Americans Identify as Irish (Pew Research Center)

In the second book in the series, The Last Little Blue Envelope, one of Ginny’s poor romantic options cannot believe she doesn’t know what a bodhrán is, insisting, “Come on. You knew that. You’re Irish. All Americans are Irish.”

Obviously, all Americans are not of Irish descent, and I’m sure this character knows that. He’s just being annoying, as is his way. However, his statement reminded me of a Pew study that shows that the percentage of Americans who trace their ancestry to Ireland is slowly declining.

I look South Asian, thanks to my Sri Lankan mom, but I have Irish ancestry on my Dad’s side. That’s how my daughters have red hair, just like Anusha, the star of our Anne of Green Gables-inspired novel, Anusha of Prospect Corner.

An Unwelcome Cameo in My Comfort Reading

I picked up Maureen Johnson’s 13 Little Blue Envelopes, a young adult novel published in 2005, because it looked like a relatively light read at a time when I want my reading to counter the overwhelming sense of doom I feel every time I think about reality. 2017 blows, a virtually ubiquitous feeling the publishing industry is trying to capitalize off of by churning out “Up Lit.” According to The Guardian:

In contrast with the “grip lit” thrillers that were the market leaders until recently, more and more bookbuyers are seeking out novels and nonfiction that is optimistic rather than feelgood. And an appetite for everyday heroism, human connection and love – rather than romance – is expected to be keeping booksellers and publishers uplifted, too.

Johnson’s novel isn’t a new publication, but I’d say it’s the kind of upbeat read many of us are looking for these days. It takes grim circumstances, the recent death of 17-year-old Ginny Blackstone’s aunt, and turns it into a mildly entertaining story that takes our main character from the United States to several European countries.

The novel starts with a letter to Ginny from her Aunt Peg, asking to play one final game, a scavenger hunt. So far, so good.

However, a few pages later, in a section about Aunt Peg’s background, this happens:

[Aunt Peg] answered phones as a temp at Trump headquarters until she happened to take a call from Donald himself. She thought it was one of her actor friends pretending to be Donald Trump–so she immediately launched into a tirade on ‘scumbag capitalists with bad toupees.’

I read fiction to escape from this man. What the hell is he doing in this book? I don’t want to see any references to him, not even negative ones, in my comfort reading.

But I continued to read the book, doing by my best to ignore a later reference to someone eating steak with ketchup, an unusual combination that just happens to be Trump’s favorite meal.

Overall, I enjoyed 13 Little Blue Envelopes for its scenery, the descriptions of each of the places Ginny visits. For example:

Travestere couldn’t be a real place. It looked like Disney had attacked a corner of Rome with leftover pastel paint and created the coziest, most picturesque neighborhood ever. It seemed to consist entirely of nooks. There were shutters on the windows, overflowing window boxes, hand-lettered signs that were fading perfectly. There were wash lines hung from building to building, draped with white sheets and shirts. All around her were people with cameras, photographing the wash.

Ginny would never have seen Travestere if it weren’t for Aunt Peg’s decision to coax her out of her shell. Ginny doesn’t have much of a personality. It’s her aunt who fuels this story by controlling her niece’s life for a couple of weeks from beyond the grave. At times, I found myself irritated by Aunt Peg’s demands, particularly the ones that placed Ginny in unsafe situations, but I tried not to dwell on it too much. I don’t want to dwell on anything too much these days. That’s the only way to get through the next few years.

A #KidLit Book That Exhibits Everything I Dislike In Literature (But My Kid Loved It)

Recently, my six-year-old left the library with two thick books in her little hands: The League of Beastly Dreadfuls and its sequel, The League of Beastly Dreadfuls: The Dastardly Deed, both written by Holly Grant, illustrated by Josie Portillo, and published by Random House Children’s Books. These novels feature a child named Anastasia McCrumpet who falls into the clutches of a pair of mysterious, silver-toothed “great-aunts” who live in a former Victorian psychiatric institution.

My daughter can read on her own, but she’s not quite able to read middle grade books, so I read the first in this series out loud to her.

Ugh.

It was like reading a 294-page tongue-twister thanks to the author’s penchant for overstuffed sentences, alliteration, and arcane vocabulary. Here’s a random selection (similar examples abound on virtually every page):

(1) Anastasia soon discovered that every day at St. Agony’s Asylum was perfect funeral weather. Standing outside one week later, after seven days of rain and fog, she blinked through the twilit mizzle at the moss fuzzing the asylum bog. (page 59)

(2) Because would-be sickie Mrs. McCrumpet had consulted every expert medic and smooth-talking quack in Mooselick, Anastasia was familiar with many pills and syrups and cure-alls. For example, she knew that waving a bottle of smelling salts beneath someone’s snoot was supposed to jozzle them awake. (page 94)

This wasn’t a quick read, but I powered through it because my daughter wanted to find out who Anastasia’s “great-aunts” really were and why they took her to St. Agony’s. Honestly, I got sucked into the story too, enough to convince me to keep reading even though the novel contained many of my literary pet-peeves, including (but not limited to):

  • Coincidences that resolve the conflict.

Basically, a couple of half-baked characters show up near the end, save the day with random powers, and then turn out to be more than merely superheroes. Some could argue that there are causal connections between these events, but they are weak at best. These characters come out of the blue.

  • Unnecessary negative emphasis on physical characteristics.

How do you know who a villain is? By their unibrow, and Anastasia even refers to an unsavory character as “The Monobrow” instead of using her name.

I also didn’t like certain descriptions in the novel, such as this one, which presents larger body-types in an unfavorable manner for comedic effect:

From somewhere in the house crooned a noise like EEEEEEEE-ooooooooooaaaa. Of course, it was just St. Agony’s settling into its foundations, like a lady with a large rump trying to squeeze into her bikini bottoms. (page 52)

I found myself cringing several times while reading this book.

  • No diversity.

All of the characters in this 2015 book are white. Penguin Random House should try harder to offer alternatives to the homogeneously white narratives that already flood the market. They should publish books that (1) reflect the identities of readers from non-white backgrounds, and (2) introduce readers from racially homogenous families and communities to fictional friends from diverse backgrounds. Fictional friends are no substitute for real-life experiences, but it’s a start.

Conclusion:

I used this book as tool to teach my daughter about plot structure, kindness/acceptance, and the importance of diversity in literature. Our discussions were interesting, and I’m happy to report that my commentary did not ruin her enjoyment of the story. We will read the second book of the series together–we already have it from the library–but it’s too soon for me to commit to the third book, which is scheduled for release next month (August 2017).  My daughter might have to read that one on her own. She is much closer in age to its intended audience than I am anyway.

At the risk of “spoiling” one small piece of the plot, here’s what my six-year-old had to say about The League of Beastly Dreadfuls:

“It’s a good book because I liked it. It shows you how important librarians are.”

Yes, it does. I have nothing to add about the lovely librarian in the story, but when it comes to real-life librarians, we are certainly grateful. Thanks to them, my daughter has access to books I wouldn’t necessarily choose for her, and I think that’s a good thing.

House Arrest: An American Story

 

In House Arrest, by K. A. Holt, twelve-year-old Timothy Davidson faces the consequences of stealing a wallet to pay for his baby brother’s medicine, which costs $1,445.32 for one month. Whatever insurance Timothy’s family has — there are references to “the state” paying for some medical services  — it does not cover all of this child’s serious medical needs. The family is desperate, not that Timothy’s mother wants to admit it. “She never wants to ask for help,” Timothy explains.

Written in verse, the novel consists of Timothy’s entries into a journal the juvenile court requires him to keep during his house arrest. It’s a middle grade book, ideal for children around Timothy’s age, but its content also appeals to adults. The anguish Timothy’s family feels over Levi’s medical challenges is vivid and relatable, probably because the novel is drawn at least in part from the author’s experience.

I read the novel in one sitting with a lump in my throat and tears stinging at the corners of my eyes because this story stirred memories of my twins’ fragile beginnings. My daughters did not have Levi’s diagnosis, but they received expensive medical care and faced heart-wrenching mortality and morbidity odds.

“So many things for such a little baby,” Timothy recalls a nurse saying about the child’s medical supplies. I remember hearing similar words when my tiny former-26 weekers came home after 78 days in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit with oxygen tanks as big as I am and apnea monitors that had a tendency to go off whenever we were in elevators.

One of my former 26-weekers, who is now 9-years-old, read House Arrest after I did. She teared up too, but for different reasons. She couldn’t understand why Timothy’s family couldn’t afford the medical care Levi needed. There’s no good explanation for why anyone in the United States, one of the wealthiest countries in the world, should struggle to pay for medically necessary care (or forgo it altogether).

Our system of private and public insurance leaves too many families without the coverage they need — a reality that may get far worse thanks to Congress. In many cases, families have to rely on the kindness of acquaintances to survive.

These days, in a time of rising medical costs and inadequate government support, there is nothing more American than asking for help to pay for medical expenses on crowdfunding sites like GoFundMe. Sadly, though, research has shown that the majority of these campaigns do not reach their financial targets. People with greater means, such as having extensive social networks, technological skills, and higher education levels, are more likely to succeed, and these are not necessarily the people with the greatest needs.

Rest assured, though, House Arrest portrays a more optimistic outcome for Timothy’s family. That’s part of what makes it such a satisfying novel.

“I Hate Seeing You Walk”: Thoughts on A Time to Dance by Padma Venkatraman

Teenager Veda Venkat, the star of Padma Venkatraman’s A Time to Dance, believes she excels at only one thing: Bharatanatyam dance. The rhythmic beats of this classical Indian dance speak a magical language to her, changing the way she sees herself. As she explains:

my graceful movements make up for

my incorrectly proportioned face.

I can dance beauty into my body.

Dancing defines Veda to such a degree that when an accident takes away her leg below her knee, it threatens to take away her identity too. A Time to Dance is a lyrical novel, written in verse, that describes the poignant process of healing after a profound loss.

I do not know what it is like to lose a limb, an aspect of the novel that is not #ownvoices, but Veda’s feelings felt realistic to me and even somewhat familiar based on losses I’ve experienced in my life. Veda experiences a range of feelings, from grief to jealousy, as she reestablishes herself as a dancer despite the physical changes she has endured.

She says to her best friend, for example, “I hate seeing you walk.”

This line reminded me of how much I hated the sight of pregnant women after my twin pregnancy ended at 26 weeks, leaving my daughters struggling for their lives in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) for 78 days. It made me feel like a monster to hate looking at pregnant women, but I couldn’t help it. Those feelings only intensified when my next pregnancy resulted in a miscarriage, making me believe my body was irrevocably broken. My final pregnancy ended well over a month early, and my daughter spent a few days in the NICU. It was a better result than we’d ever had before, but still far from what I had hoped.

I hadn’t realized the degree to which I had absorbed my culture’s emphasis on female reproductive capacity–the terribly harmful and inaccurate belief that a woman’s role is to have children–until I just couldn’t achieve it the “right” way. I wondered what was wrong with me.

Those feelings of inadequacy have dissipated, thanks to time and the fact that my three children are now healthy. Looking at my twins now, you’d never know how fragile they once were. As a result, I am in a position to appreciate the silver linings of my family’s tumultuous beginning, and I even look back on our time in the NICU fondly (see Rosy Retrospection & #ReadingEmily). I’ve come a long way since those harrowing days beside my children’s incubators, watching their heart rates fall.

In A Time to Dance, Veda ends up in a similar place, feeling stronger as a result of her loss. To find out how she gets there, please read the book. I highly recommend it.

A Time to Dance is ideal for readers of middle grade and young adult fiction. One of my nine-year-old twins read it four times in a row because she loved it so much.

 

*Recommended by the Huntress of Diverse Books. Thanks, Sinead.

The Scent of Old Books: How Do You Describe It?

“The smell of books intrigues and inspires,” Cecilia Bembibre and Matija Strlic write in their research article, Smell of Heritage: a Framework for the Identification, Analysis and Archival of Historic Odours. They contend that smells, such as the scent of historic paper, are part of our cultural heritage and worthy of conservation and inclusion in museums. As they explain, citing guidelines by the Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission for England: “the smells of a place are considered of value because they affect our experience of it. For this reason, they should be taken into account when defining the character of a historic area.”

To explore the identification and documentation of historic smells, the researchers studied the odor of old books, looking for ways to communicate how it smells. The sample book was Les Chardons du Baragan, published in 1928 and purchased from a second-hand bookstore in London. Study participants smelled an extract of this book as one of eight unidentified odors, which included “chocolate,” “coal fire,” “old inn,” “fish market,” “dirty linen,” “coffee,” and “HP sauce.”

Participants described the historic book smell in a variety of ways. The word “chocolate” was the most prevalent description. The next most common descriptions were “coffee,” “old,” “wood,” and “burnt.”

Meanwhile, participants chose the following words to describe the smell of Wren Library at St. Paul’s Cathedral, a historic library: woody, smoky, earthy, vanilla, musty, sweet, almond, pungent, medicinal, floral, fruity, green, rancid, bread, citrus, sour, and creamy.

The authors of the study connected this information to a chemical evaluation of the historic paper odor and created a odor wheel so that “untrained noses could identify an aroma from the description and gain information about the chemical causing the odour.”

I, with my “untrained nose,” have always loved the smell of old books, especially the earthy fragrance that permeated my undergraduate library. I described this aroma in my new adult novel, Two Lovely Berries (2014), like this:

I spent much of my time at Yale, probably too much of it, in Sterling Memorial Library, a grand building in need of no ivy, where the stacks led to well-hidden reading rooms that were empty enough for me to think or daydream without interruption. A faint musty scent hung in the air, the smell of tradition and scholarship; I wore it like a perfume.

Fond memories of that “faint musty scent” at the same alma mater aren’t the only similarities between Nora Daly’s fictional life and my real one, but it’s all I’m willing to admit.  😉

Sterling Memorial Library in New Haven, CT

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*Cecilia Bembibre & Matija Strlic, Smell of Heritage: A Framework for the Identification, Analysis and Archival of Historic Odours, Heritage Science (2017) (linked above).

**See also, The Quest to Better Describe the Scent of Old Books (Smithsonian.com)