Reading (and Looking) to Beat the Cold Weather Blues….

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It’s been really cold. On the way to the grocery this morning, the car thermometer could not decide if it wanted to read 0 or 1 below. The numbers seemed to shiver as they toggled between the two readings. Alarming either way.  The only “sunny” side to the last five or six days of record-breaking cold has been the opportunity to drink hot chocolate and read.

My reading has focused on art which has allowed me to immerse myself in good words and beautiful pictures: a short biography of John Singer Sargent. Letters between Henry James and Isabella Stewart Gardner. Essays from the catalogue that accompanies the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Michelangelo exhibition, and two illustrated books:

Coco Chanel: The Illustrated World of a Fashion Icon by Megan Hess

The book about Chanel was a gift, and probably not something I would ordinarily be drawn to, but this illustrated story of the influential designer’s life is fascinating.  She was twelve-years-old when her mother died and her father left her in an orphanage. When her “sartorial abilities” were recognized, Chanel became a milliner which ultimately led to ballet flats, tweed jackets, and, of course, Chanel No.5.  It was actually the best kind of reading: engaging, informative, and a book that left me wanting to know more.

Bolivar by Sean Rubin

Bolivar is a mashup: a book for kids that adults will love, a graphic novel, a picture book, an oversize illustrated novel.  I’m not sure where it would be shelved in a bookstore or library, but none of that matters. This is an amazing book and my first personal starred review of 2018. Bolivar is a dinosaur who lives in present day New York City. He’s quiet and keeps to himself – he even reads The New Yorker! But Sybil, the girl who lives in the apartment next door, knows her neighbor is a dinosaur, and she’s determined to take a picture of Bolivar to prove that to her disbelieving mother.

A number of unbelievable events lead Bolivar and the camera-carrying Sybil into a wild chase around recognizable New York City landmarks, but it’s that trip through New York that is most compelling. Every page is a tribute to New York: the produce stacked up outside of small markets, the subway, Chinatown, Central Park, and tourists. There are also fun visual jokes to catch, a wonderful picture of a paleontologist’s desk, and lots of water towers.

Bolivar is a sweet story about people who are too busy to see what’s right in front of them and a girl who is trying to get people to see the obvious. It is a memorable and wonderful book.

In today’s New York Times Book Review, there is an article called “For the Love of Malt Shop Novels” by Joanne Kaufman. In her piece, she talks about teenage books (mostly romances) as an “endless source of reassurance and hope.”  I did not know they were called “malt shop novels,” but I read them as a teenager too and got the same reassurance. As Kaufman writes, “You could be self-doubting like Jane Purdy, the protagonist of Fifteen and, nevertheless, end up wearing the ID bracelet of cute green-eyed Stan.”  Most of the books were win the 1940s and 50s – before my teenage years. But these were the books that I read voraciously as a middle school student.

Among other authors of this genre, Kaufman talks about Betty Cavanna. Cavanna’s name flooded me with memories of seventh grade when I read Stars In Her Eyes. I don’t remember much about the story except that I loved it. The books written for middle school kids today are far more realistic, and there are so many more choices of what to read. But I do remember Cavanna’s books serving the same function as many of the books I recommend to my students. They made me feel less alone.

“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all of the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.”

James Baldwin

Stay warm out there!