Porch Reading

It has been so lovely and warm lately, and I finally got around to clearing the winter muck off of our porch.  This is our favorite spot to read as a family.  It makes me feel like summer is on its way, and I love sitting and working where I can the house wrens bickering and a persistent woodpecker deep in the woods.  The following books would be perfect to read on your porch, patio, balcony, public park, lawn chair, or heck, even your sofa.  I really enjoyed these three: Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, and New Boy.

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, Kathleen Rooney

I love spunky old ladies, in real life and in fiction, and in this book you have the pleasure of encountering the titular Lillian Boxfish, an octogenarian out for a long walk on New Year’s Eve in mid-eighties Manhattan.  Lillian is witty, sharp and funny, bringing out the best in all the various people she encounters.  Interspersed are flashbacks, beginning with her successful 1930’s advertising career and moving through her marriage and mental illness.  The author’s note at the end reveals the story of Lillian is inspired by the historical record of Margaret Fishback, the highest paid female ad writer of her day.  It’s a fascinating story and a lovely meander through Manhattan.

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, Lisa See

If ever a book deserved to be described as an “immersive multi-generational family epic,” it’s this one.  Set in the tea mountains of China, among an isolated ethnic minority, the author takes her time and allows you to fully experience the world through the eyes of a character who starts out as only “Girl.”   A young girl whose value is suspect in the eyes of her family, her world is confined to her mountain.  Once you have gotten a good read on the village (ha), slow changes begin to make their way to the village, the characters, and the world around them.

An adoption broadens the world of the novel further, with artifacts like emails, school reports, and the like.  We track “Girl,” whose name is Li-yan, as she deals with the pain of losing her own daughter.  At the same time we watch that daughter grow up in California, more than a world away.

There was never a moment when I doubted that everything would come full circle, but that did not take away from the satisfaction of watching the pieces fit together.  Li-yan has a fierce spirit that is easy to embrace.  The novel is full of strong, independent women forging their own paths, simultaneously challenging and upholding traditions.  Read while sipping on tea, obviously.

New Boy, Tracy Chevalier

If you think that Shakespeare’s Othello isn’t a good match for an elementary school playground, then you haven’t spent enough time on playgrounds.  Retold in shifting points of view, in this version Osei is the new, black kid entering an ostensibly desegregated D.C. sixth grade classroom in the 1970’s.

The drama of fickle friendships, sixth grade “dating,” and playground bullies are a perfect match for Othello.  The rhythm and rhyme of jump-rope songs permeate the text and help to create a structure not unlike the play’s.  Of course, some details of the original have to change, but the retelling captures the essence.  Chevalier highlights the petty violence, casual racism, and quick offense of childhood.  A powerful bully stalks amongst it all, sewing discord, confusion, and evil.  A quick and gorgeous read.

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