Category Archives: children’s books

2010 Between the Covers


* denotes a book I recommend.

– denotes a book I didn’t finish.


Runner up: The Franzen, which I have defended at great length already.


  • Skippy Dies (Murray) – A young boys’ boarding school story that tries to be funny and flops.
  • Remainder (McCarthy) – Intriguing premise; bizarre follow-through. It’s also very hard to care about a main character who barely cares about himself.
  • The Slap (Tsiolkas) – The story seemed so promising! And I’ve read very little about Australia since The Thornbirds in high school. This, however, is a shallow, angry, misanthropic look at suburban life there that is better left untouched.
  • Lit (Karr) – Nowhere near as good as her first memoir, Liar’s Club. As an adult, Karr seemed less sympathetic and more self-absorbed.
  • The Imperfectionists (Rachman) — not because it was bad but because I expected so much and was underwhelmed with the results. Same as with the Wells Tower and Adam Langer.



  • Sacred Hunger
  • Sacred Games
  • Hunger Games

They were all good, too! Maybe there’s some juju there in those words.

You can also tell from this list that I’ve gotten a lot better at putting down sub-par books. Once upon a time, I found that to be much more difficult, and I would read through to the end anything I had started just to be a good girl. Now I’m a total rebel. Take that, patriarchy!

On ‘Franzenfreude,’ gender, and genre

ETA: This has been cross-posted on

Having finally released three different but related books back into the wild of the Brooklyn Public Library system — Freedom, Catching Fire, and The Passage — I feel the time is right to weigh in on the literary meme of the moment, Franzenfreude, a term that, loosely defined, indicates that Jonathan Franzen represents all that is wrong with the contemporary high-brow book world.

Is that stupid? Quite! Except there’s a caveat. The phenomenon referred to by “Franzenfreude,” that the high-brow book world restricts its highest praise and most fawning attention for the works of men, is absolutely true. It just happens that Jonathan Franzen is a terrible poster boy for that problem.

Franzen writes gorgeous women. Fleshed-out, interesting, three-dimensional, vivid women, women with brains. He writes for them, too, and perhaps most importantly of all, he READS THEM. When, at a Brooklyn Book Festival panel, someone asked him what he was reading, he replied, “Edith Wharton.” To the follow-up question of what should we, his audience, be reading, he listed several books, all by female authors, including the Ms. Hempel Chronicles, of which, up to that point, I hadn’t even heard. (Then I read it. It was good!)

A friend and I cornered him after the panel to ask whether he’d realized he’d been promoting work by ladies. He blinked for a moment, then laughed and said it honestly hadn’t occurred to him.

Thus: “Franzenfreude” is the wrong label for this particular can of worms. (As a language nerd points out, it’s also stupid for other reasons.)

That said, let’s address the can of worms itself. Yes! Fiction by women is customarily and routinely dismissed by the intelligentsia in favor of fiction by men. Because why should fiction be any different than anything else? The most exalted spaces in any pantheon are reserved for men. So it has been, so it will be. This is because women can have babies, whereas men can only have egos, and also testicles, or something.

However! The less important the pantheon, the more likely it is that you can find a woman at the top of it.

The high-brow book world also dismisses almost all genre fiction. Genre fiction is where women reign supreme or, at the very least, hold their own: romance, mystery, young adult, sci fi, fantasy. Having just ingested the Hunger Games trilogy, a sci-fi YA extravaganza that took not just me but America by storm, I feel particularly drawn to this point right now.

Even in most genre fiction, there remains an idea that boys won’t read books about girls. Hence the sad-but-true fact that J.K. Rowling couldn’t publish under the name “Joanne” for fear of frightening off huge numbers of young male readers. But this to me feels wrong. Step on the NYC subway right now and look around — I guarantee you that someone on that car is reading, not Freedom, but the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. About, as you’ve perhaps heard, Lisbeth Salander, one of the most kick-ass female characters in any book of any genre. The Golden Compass books didn’t suffer for focusing on Lyra, another quite impressive young woman. Even Dan Brown’s idiot bestseller the Da Vinci Code was a FEMINIST conspiracy theory.

Best of all, perhaps, is Suzanne Collins, whose hugely popular Hunger Games books center around Katniss, who doesn’t want to get married and doesn’t understand why having leg hair is bad. Written by a lady! Starring a lady! Yet everyone’s reading them. Hopefully the next J.K. Rowling can be inspired by this and publish under her full name.

This doesn’t, of course, solve the problem of the white male taste-makers — and the sufficient numbers of female taste-makers who concur — giving all the plaudits that matter to white male authors. As Adam Gopnik, a New Yorker author I admire, put it just this year in his tribute to Salinger: “In American writing, there are three perfect books, which seem to speak to every reader and condition: ‘Huckleberry Finn,’ ‘The Great Gatsby,’ and ‘The Catcher in the Rye.'”

What Gopnik meant to say, no doubt, was, “Here are three books I really dig!” He’s hardly the first intellectual to fall into the tar pit of generalizing from his own experiences. But it’s a disturbingly prevalent trend among white male taste-makers: assuming that what they relate to and find meaning in, the rest of us must as well, AND that those books must be “the best.”

It’s bullshit, and I’m glad people are finally beginning to realize that. But leave Jonathan Franzen out of it, would you? He’s one of the good ones.

Matchmaker, matchmaker …

One of my coworkers mentioned today that when she took 19th century lit in college, her professor assigned every member of the class a fictional spouse from that era. She couldn’t remember who she was given but she wanted Pierre from War and Peace. I thought Levin from Anna Karenina would be a good pick, if you don’t mind Russians, and she countered with Pip, at which I could only scoff, “You can’t pick anyone from Dickens. He had no sense of the romantic at all. Did anyone get Darcy?”

“Funny enough, no,” she said. “Maybe he thought it might cause too much jealousy.”

Another coworker came into the room and I asked him who he would choose. “Aw,” he said, in the voice of Eeyore. “It doesn’t matter. I’d probably end up with Emma Bovary.”

I tried to buck him up, offering him clever heroines and feisty social climbers and crazy pyromaniacs locked up in attics, but he would have none of it. “I really didn’t do too much reading, actually,” he said. “All those girl books.”

We expanded the category to include all literature, at which point he perked up. “Oh, Harriet the Spy’s mom. Or Harriet — when she’s grown up. Is that okay?” We conferred and decided to allow it, because it was okay for Lewis Carroll, and anyway, who are we to judge?

Maybe a more interesting question is the age-old one: Fuck one, marry one, throw one off a cliff: Any three characters in 19th century literature. For me, that’d be: 1) Huck Finn; 2) Nikolai Levin; 3) Raskolnikov. Unless I could have Darcy, of course. If Darcy’s in the picture, all bets are off.

“I like the hot woman in Brothers Karamazov,” contributes Mr. Ben. “The town harlot. … Are you writing that down? Dammit!”

Like-Minded Companions

B: Oh no! The bathroom’s locked.
Es: That’s okay. I guess I’ll just pee in my stockings.
Em: That’s much worse than peeing in your pants. The stockings will trap the urine.
B: Although stockings will be easier to clean than pants would be.
Es: But what about my suede boots?

I’ve been gloriously spoiled lately in terms of society. Friends abounding! Friends everywhere! Look, there’s one hiding the bushes, waiting to play breakfast Scrabble. And look, over there, a cluster of them — they have the table all set for a dinner that will last until the restaurant closes. Behind you! Watch out! That one’s going to make you spend the entire afternoon walking in the sunlight, down the spine of Boerum Hill and back and then over through Cobble Hill to Carrol Gardens for pizza and back to Brooklyn Heights so she can pass out in your bed. (Here, map.)

And on top of that, Mr. Ben, on his way back from a party in Williamsburg Saturday night, bought a hardcopy of the New York Times. I woke up like Sara Crewe, astonished to discover that, overnight, someone had effected such an important change in the room: there it sat, waiting for me, the huge darling paper bundle! I could pick sections, and spread out across my bed, and lounge in the warm light, turning pages, and for one all-too-brief moment not be looking at a computer screen.

It was a bliss in a blue plastic bag.

… Looking over that link to the story “Sarah Crewe” — which FHB expanded into his fantastic children’s novel, A Little Princess & which I read way too many times growing up — I realize it was even more formative than I thought. Consider the following exchange between Sara and her somewhat dim friend Ermengarde:

“It sounds nicer than it seems in the book,” [Ermengarde] would say. “I never cared about Mary, Queen of Scots, before, and I always hated the French Revolution, but you make it seem like a story.”

“It is a story,” Sara would answer. “They are all stories. Everything is a story–everything in this world. You are a story–I am a story–Miss Minchin is a story. You can make a story out of anything.”

That’s, like, my motto! It came from FHB and I didn’t even consciously realize. Amazing.

I also realize, in retrospect, that Sara was a bit of a snot, and I’m completely in love with her over again.