Little Women

by Louisa May Alcott
First sentence: “‘Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,’ grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.”
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Content: It is very long and old-fashioned (well, it was written in the 1860s). It’s in the fiction section as well as the middle grade classics section.

I have had an affection for this book for a long time. Maybe since youth? I’m not sure, but I think my youth affections were more for Laura Ingalls Wilder and L. M. Montgomery than Louisa May Alcott. I know, as a mother, I have tried to be like Marmee: supportive and loving, but letting my girls be their own individual selves, giving advice and comfort as needed.

So, I haven’t read this for at least 25 years; I think the last time I cracked open the book was soon after the 1994 movie came out. And, well, now I remember why. See, I think I have a fondness for the story, and for the movies (I really enjoyed the new Greta Gerwig one!). But the book, I find, well, dull and long-winded and more than a bit preachy. I tell myself it’s because it’s 150 years old, but I don’t feel the same way about Jane Austen and those are more than 200 years old! There are moments of sweetness and sass (which is why the movies can distill the story so well), but the book is overlong, and full of passages that I ended up skipping.

And can we talk about the end? The whole book spent championing girls and women and their lives, and Jo decides to open a school for BOYS? It just didn’t sit well with me, but maybe that’s because I’m reading it with 21st century eyes.

So, yes to the story (and the movies). But it may be another 25 years before I read the book again.

The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein

darkdescentby Kiersten White
First sentence: “Lightning clawed across the sky, tracing veins through teh louds and marking the pulse of the universe itself.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There is some talk of violent acts, and one swear word. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

This book is being billed as a retelling of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but I think it’s more a prequel: the story is of Elizabeth, who becomes a childhood companion of Victor Frankenstein, ostensibly to keep him company, but really to keep his anger and unusual tendencies in check. She is endebted to the Frankestein family for taking her in when she was a small child and basically raising her. And now that they are grown, she feels like Victor is all she has. If she doesn’t keep him in line, she will lose her whole life. So, when he disappears after going away to school, Elizabeth goes after him. And what she discovers is, well, the subject of the classic book.

What this really was (or at least the way I read it) about was the portrait of an abusive man and a woman’s response to it. Victor, if you’ve read the original, is not a nice person. And the way White wrote him, he was never a nice person. And Elizabeth was gaslighted from a very young age. Victor was her world, and the way White portrayed it, that was never a good thing. Or, maybe that’s just the way I read it. Either way, I was angry and disturbed and more angry. It was an interesting book, though: Elizabeth had a phenomenal growth arc, and there were some characters along the way who helped her realize just what an awful situation she was in.

In the end, though, I couldn’t get past the abusive relationship at the heart of it, and the book just made me angry. Maybe that’s a good thing?

Module 2: The Middle Moffat

Estes. E. (1942). The Middle Moffat. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Genre: Classic, realistic fiction. It is definitely a classic, not only because it was published more than 70 years ago, but also because it won a Newbery Honor, thereby bestowing upon it “classic” status. I’m not sure I entirely agree with that, but will discuss that more later. It is definitely realistic fiction, as there is no fantasy elements.

Book Summary:  Jane Moffat is the third of four Moffat children, but has decided that she’s the “middle one”, because she’s neither the oldest or the youngest or the oldest son (which describe her three siblings). Over the course of a year, Jane has a myriad of experiences as the Moffats get used to their new house after the death of their father: she makes, loses, and regains a best friend; she develops a good relationship with the town’s “oldest citizen” (he’s 99!); she plays  on a basketball team; and she better figures out her role in her family. 

Impressions: I desperately wanted to like this one. I generally do like stories like this: I adore All of a Kind Family and read the Betsy-Tacy books to all my daughters. I don’t mind the historical setting; I often find it fascinating to see how authors perceive their present and recent past (I’m thinking this was set in the 1930s, though I may be wrong). However, this one just didn’t click with me.  Perhaps it was because I just finished Beezus and Ramona before diving into this one, but Jane just fell flat. Even though I intellectually could see that Estes was trying to be humorous, like when the Moffats received a hand-me-down organ, and Jane was instant on having an organ recital, which ultimately failed due to overuse and because the organ was filled with moths. That, to be fair, should be funny. But, it just didn’t work for me. Intellectually, I could see that Jane was sweet and charming and tried hard, and  I wanted to like her and be interested in her experiences, but I just found I didn’t care. I can see value in the book; there are children who love this sort of story, and perhaps if I had read it when I was younger, I would have as well. 

Review: It was challenging finding a review of a book this old. I went with a blog post, from Into the Book, in which the reviewer gave The Middle Moffat a glowing review, stating “This book is a series of snapshots of these escapades, brilliantly portrayed in a way that draws readers in, and connects them to the lovable, clumsy ten-year old’s world.”  Additionally, she loved the serial nature of the book, and praised Estes’ writing, saying “What I love about Estes’s writing is that she grabs hold of those indescribable childlike emotions and impulses we all have experienced, masterfully putting them into words, capturing moments that allow us to re-live those happy Christmas mornings, those victories in an all-important sports competition, those moments when we make up with our best friend after a fight.”

Joyce, A. (2013, December 14). The Middle Moffat. Retrieved from:

Library Uses: It would be great in a display of classic books, Newbery books, or one one about stories featuring families. 


  • The Penderwicks by Jane Birdsall: A more contemporary version of the Moffats, the Penderwicks are four sisters who have Mishaps and Adventures and are Absolutely Delightful. This one is similar in tone and subject, but has a more contemporary feel. 
  • All of  a Kind Family by Sydney Taylor:  Set in a slightly early time period than the Moffats, around World War I, this is the story of an immigrant Jewish family living in the Lower East Side of New York. They have a similar dynamic as the Moffat siblings, and the books are similarly about every day life.
  • The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher by Dana Alison Levy: Another contemporary family book, this one with all boys and LGBT themes, as the parents are a gay couple. It deals with the every day lives of the Fletcher family, but with a diverse twist.


Beezus and Ramona

by Beverly Cleary
First sentence: “Beatrice Quimby’s biggest problem was her little sister Ramona.”
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Content: It’s pretty simple text, and nothing objectionable. It’s in our classic chapter book section at the bookstore.

I adored the Ramona books when I was a kid. But, reading this, I realized I’d never read this one. I started with Ramona the Pest, and never really gave Beezus her due. Reading this — short vignettes from the year when Beezus was 9 to her 10th birthday — I realized why: Beezus is boring. She’s a Good Kid. She embroideries potholders for her aunt, she colors within the lines, she wants to read the “right” books. She’s. Boring. Ramona — with her active imagination, her loud, impulsive ways — is Fun. She’s the more interesting character to follow, and while Beezus is a great straight man (or sister, for that matter), she just isn’t terribly interesting as a character. (Yes, Ramona did steal this book from her sister.)

There is one lesson that I could have used as a kid, being the oldest and having not one but three squirrely younger siblings (though I suppose I was just as much of a terror as they were): you don’t always have to like your siblings. Sure, you’re always going to love them, and sure they’re always going to be there, but sometimes (and sometimes pretty often!) they’re going to do dumb, annoying, irritating, irrational, stupid stuff and it’s okay if you get mad at them.

(I’m Team Ramona, though. All the way.)

A Study in Scarlet

studyinscarletby Arthur Conan Doyle
First sentence: “In the year 1878 I took my decree of Doctor of Medicine of the University of London, and proceeded to Netley to go through the course prescribed for surgeons in the Army.”
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Content: There’s some mild swearing, violence (but most of it just talked about), and some, well, murder. It’s in the mystery section of the bookstore.
So, for  book group this month, we didn’t really want to read something long (it’s a busy month for all of us), and we were thinking classics, and I hit upon the idea of each of us reading a different Sherlock Holmes short story (or two). I decided to start at the beginning (mostly because I’ve read short story knock offs of this, and I wanted to see how Sherlock’s Study in Pink held up) and read “A Study in Scarlet”.

I have read many of these stories before, though it’s been a long (!) time, and I can’t be considered a fan of Doyle’s or Holmes’s. Which means, I don’t remember the stories. At all.

Things that struck me: Holmes is much less of a jerk than he is in the BBC series. (I think he was arrogant in the old Jeremy Brett series — it’s been forever since I’ve watched those — but he wasn’t insufferable.) He’s smarter than you, but he’s not insufferable about it. He calmly explains his methodology to Watson not because Watson is stupid but because Holmes wants him to understand how he does things. He does thing Lestrade and Gregson are stupid, but that’s because they’re police and they aren’t putting the time that Holmes is in learning how to be a good detective.

Doyle also explains EVERYTHING. It wasn’t so much a mystery for the reader to solve but rather explains everything in detail, including things Holmes could never know. (See: the first five chapters of part 2.) I wanted to be able to at least attempt to solve it myself, but I guess standards for mysteries were different in the 19th century. Which leads me to the ridiculous anti-Mormon chapters. (See: the first five chapters of part 2.) They were SO pointless (except, as Hubby tells me, sensational anti-Mormon literature was in vogue in London during that time), and even though it eventually wound its way back to the story, they really didn’t serve ANY purpose. (Not to mention being wildly inaccurate: at one point, Doyle had the characters fleeing Salt Lake City headed toward Nevada and going through deep gorges and tall canyons. Hon, if you’re headed out of Salt Lake and you’re going through canyons, you’re going toward Wyoming. Toward Nevada, you’ve got nothing but desert. And that’s just the geography. I won’t even get into the religion part.)

So, did I like it? Well, it was okay. It wasn’t bad, but it didn’t knock my socks off. Maybe it was the wrong one to randomly pick (I think I like Study in Pink better….), but it wasn’t terrible, either. Maybe I’ll read another one just to see if they get any better.

The World of Pooh

worldofpoohby A. A. Milne
First sentence: “If you happen to have read another book about Christopher Robin, you may remember that he once had a swan (or the swan had Christopher Robin, I don’t know which) and that he used to call this swan Pooh.
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Content: These are meant to be read aloud, and we started our girls on them when they were around 4 years old. That said, they’re delightful for anyone.

I was in need of comfort reading, and so what better thing than to pull out Pooh Bear, who hasn’t been read in several years. At least since K was 4 or 5. Which is definitely too long.

I’d forgotten how enjoyable and silly and wonderful these stories are. (And how faithful the Disney movie is!) I loved all the characters from the passive-aggressive grump Eeyore to the simple yet profound Pooh Bear to the small and anxious Piglet. The stories are so delightful and they made me laugh, which is something I needed. I read one or two stories each night, and I looked forward to visiting the animals every night.

It’s definitely a classic. And one that I should revisit again soon.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

charlieandthechocolatefactoryby Roald Dahl
First sentence: “These two very old people are the father and mother of Mr. Bucket.”
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Content: There’s one swear word (which caught me off guard!), but other than that, it’s okay. It’s pretty basic and is in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

It’s been a long time since I’ve read this; I’m not entirely sure when the last time I opened this one. Sure, I know the story, but I don’t know when I’ve interacted with the words last.

It’s weird. And kind of mean, if you think about it. Dahl sets up such an extreme: Charlie is beyond dirt poor and the others are so well off comparatively. Are Violet, Veruca, Augustus, and Mike spoiled, really? Or are they spoiled BECAUSE Charlie is their foil? He was such a crank, and that comes through loud and clear. The kids that aren’t Charlie are constantly in need of smacking, and Willy Wonka is downright rude to Mike Teavee often. Maybe he deserves it, and maybe it’s for humorous effect, but I was unsettled by it.

And what is Dahl trying to achieve here? Is he just telling a fantastical, weird story? Or does he have a POINT? (Maybe Mike Teavee’s song is the point:

“So please, oh please, we beg, we pray,
Go throw your TV set away,
And in its place you can install
A lovely bookshelf on the wall.
Then fill the shelves with lots of books,
Ignoring all the dirty looks,
The screams and yells, the bites and kicks,
And children hitting you with sticks —
Fear not, because we promise you
That, in about a week or two
Of having nothing else to do,
They’ll now begin to feel the need
Of having something good to read.
And once they start — oh boy, oh boy!
You watch the slowly growing joy
That fills their hearts.”)

Did I like it? Some of it, sure. I like that Dahl has a Seussian way with language, not letting non-existent words get in his way. But, I’m not sure I really care for this one (and the movies are both quite… weird) very much at all.

My book group discussion was pretty great. I had nine kids, the youngest was 5 (his mother was reading the books aloud to him; she came with as well) and the oldest were a couple of 10 year old boys who were almost too cool at first, but by the end were participating. We had a fun talk about favorite characters and themes and songs and what kind of candy they’d make (ones that looked like broccoli but tasted like candy!). And we designed our own golden tickets as we taste-tested chocolate.



It was fun! Next up: Matilda.

Audio book: Something Fresh

by P. G. Wodehouse
Read by: Jonathan Cecil
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there! (Though it looks like this one is out of print…)
Content: There’s really nothing. Some smoking. A few words of mild swearing. I’d give it to a high schooler who was interested in Downton Abbey. It’d be in the Adult Fiction section of the bookstore.

Ah, Wodehouse. I had a square on my bingo card that was “Published exactly 100 years ago.” I did some research, and when I discovered that Wodehouse had a book I’d never read out that year, I jumped at the chance.

There’s a lot going on plot-wise in this one, though it mostly surrounds a scarab that is inadvertently stolen from an American millionaire, Mr. Peters. His daughter, Aline, is engaged to the Hon. Freddy Threepwood, the son of the Earl of Elmsworth, who is the one who walked off with the scarab. So, Peters hires Ashe Marson (and Aline hires Joan Valentine) to pose as his valet and get the scarab back. Unfortunately, at the castle, the Earl’s secretary, the Efficient Baxter, is super suspicious and is thwarting all attempts to return the scarab to its rightful owner. There’s several side love stories as well as a bunch of ridiculous relatives as well.

Silly, no? Well, it’s Wodehouse.

There were several audio versions of this, and I picked one at random, not knowing what to expect. I wasn’t terribly impressed; it was hard to tell, sometimes (especially since Wodehouse does rapid-fire dialogue), who was talking. And Cecil’s American accent was HORRIBLE. Awful. Seriously. As was his women’s voices. (Sometimes, he wouldn’t even bother with changing his voice for the women.)

In spite of that, Wodehouse’s writing made me smile (I wonder: how much I’d have laughed if the narrator had been better?), the characters were sufficiently silly, and the plot was sufficiently ridiculous. I thoroughly enjoyed my trip to Blanding’s Castle.

Fables for Our Time

by James Thurber
First sentence: “Once upon a Sunday there was a city mouse who went to visit a country mouse.”
Content: There’s nothing overt, and no swearing. It’d probably end up in the poetry section of the bookstore.

I think I’ve vaguely heard of Thurber before this book was picked for my in-person book group. But I’d never really paid him much attention. So I didn’t really have any expectations going into this.

It’s a series of short fables followed by illustrated poems (the poems are by other people). Pretty simple, right? The fables are pretty standard: animals doing human-like things. But the twist was that they had pretty… unusual… morals.

Things like “It’s not so easy to fool little girls nowadays as it used to be.”

And: “Early to rise and early to bed makes a male healthy and wealthy and dead.”

And: “Never allow a nervous female to have access to a pistol, no matter what you’re wearing.”

And: “The male was made to lie and roam, but woman’s place is in the home.” (The title of that one was “The Stork Who Married a Dumb Wife.”)

And at that point, I decided that Thurber — no matter what time period he’s writing in (the 1930s) is horribly sexist and doesn’t deserve to be read.

That’s a bit harsh. I get that these are satire (which I have a hard time with, anyway), and that they’re supposed to be stereotypes. But STILL. I was more impatient than amused. Stop it already with the sexist crap.

The Bridge of San Luis Rey

by Thornton Wilder
First sentence: “On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below.”
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Content: There’s really nothing, but because it’s a classic, it would be in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

For my in-person last month, we wanted to read a classic. We looked at this huge long list of modern-day American classics some guy put up (I can’t remember right now who it was or why), and chose this one (mostly because it was the shortest). I know very little about Thornton Wilder; I’ve seen Our Town a couple of times (and never really “got” it) but that was the extent of my knowledge.

This story is a short one, a series of short vignettes about five people who died in a (fictional) bridge collapse in Lima, Peru in 1714. They were loosely interconnected, and the framework is about this monk who spent time researching their stories. I think it was supposed to be about the randomness of life and death, that both good and people can die at any moment and how it really doesn’t matter how you live your life.


Seriously. That’s how I ended up feeling at the end. I read the words, but none of them registered in my brain. I didn’t connect with any of the characters, the plot was nonexistent. I do have to admit that it may have been me (why else would it be on all the “you must read” lists?), because this isn’t the first book lately that I’ve gone “huh?” when I’ve finished. Slumps will do that to you.

Or maybe it’s the book. Either way, I finished it, but that’s about all I can say.