BookTalk: Pity Poor Mrs. Popper

We’ve started reading chapter books to Baguette at bedtime. Our first was The Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White. Neither Mr. Sandwich nor I had read that as children, and we’re continuing that with our next selection: Mr. Popper’s Penguins by Richard and Florence Atwater.

On its surface, the story is cute enough. A seasonally unemployed house painter unexpectedly takes delivery of a penguin, and hijinks ensue. There is a second penguin, and then little penguins, and more hijinks. Baguette is enjoying the story, and that’s really the point.

But as an adult, I can’t help but be struck by something. Mr. Popper does not think things through at all. He only has an income for half of the year, which means that his family has to eat beans all winter. Nevertheless, he goes into debt to buy a “chilling machine” for the penguins in the basement.

Mrs. Popper, meanwhile, doesn’t even get a personality. All she does is clean the house and talk about whether the house is clean. And they have two children, but darned if I can figure out why. Janie and Bill are barely present and don’t add to the plot or the humor.

So on a level that the writers don’t seem to acknowledge, this is the story of a woman who puts a lot of effort into making a home for her family, but has the misfortune to be married to a man who spent the entire winter’s bean money on extreme air conditioning.

Fine. It’s fine. But it’s the kind of book that’s probably charming to a child, and a source of some eye-rolling for an adult.

cover of Mr. Popper's Penguins

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Book Talk: The Emerald Key

Sponsored: I received a free Advance Reader’s Copy of The Emerald Key in exchange for writing a review. All thoughts and opinions expressed are my own.

So one of my friends has written a book! Co-authored, actually.

The Emerald Key, by Mark Frederickson and Melora Pineda, is the story of a group of friends who discover a journal and accidentally open a portal to another world. The main characters, Penny and Laci, are life-long friends who anticipate a dull vacation and an unwelcome family wedding, but find themselves transported to another reality filled with danger and dragons.

EmeraldKey

I enjoyed the book–it’s fast-paced, with lots of action, and the characters are likeable. And while Penny and Laci and their friends go through a number of trials throughout the story, it seems like an adventure that tweens might actually imagine they want to have.

I was curious to get some of the story behind the story, and Melora granted me an interview.

1) What was your inspiration for The Emerald Key?
Both Mark and I have tweenage daughters. His daughter is extremely athletic, and I have on occasion, had to threaten mine to get her to put her book down and meet basic needs, such as eating and showering. Our goal was to write a story that would entertain their age group, but also have a little bit of each of them in it.

2) What made you decide to write a book as a co-author, and how did you develop a process that made that work?
Mark and I had worked on a treatment for a children’s show a few years prior to starting The Emerald Key, so we knew we worked well together. Originally we decided to write a screenplay aimed at a middle-grade audience, but by writing it as a book, we created the source material first. Our process was countless hours on the phone hashing out ideas. I took notes and wrote the first version of each chapter. One by one I sent them to him and he expanded them. Next, we spent an entire weekend reading the book aloud and laughing at some of our blatant mistakes, such as the repeated use of our characters “starting” to do something instead of just doing it. I edited per our crazy weekend and then submitted to various publishers.

3) Laci and Penny have a close and supportive friendship, in spite of–or perhaps because of–the many ways in which they are different. How did you develop the characters?
We wanted an unlikely pair of friends to create more contrast in their skills and more challenges in getting themselves out of the mess they landed in. We began with qualities from each of our daughters, but these are fictional characters, so added more differences than actually exist between them.

4) I noticed some references to Norse mythology throughout the book. Were there particular legends or features that inspired you as you wrote?
Although Hallvard’s village was not seafaring and the Norse dragons are more serpent-like than the ones found in Botkyrka, we used a lot of Norse mythology to relate to popular culture (thanks, Marvel). We mention Thor and the mythology surrounding him frequently, but Beowulf is an Old English poem and wyverns are considered to be from European mythology, so we clearly played around with various dragon-based myths. By having Hallvard familiar with the same mythology the kids knew, we could bridge the gap between the cultures and create a camaraderie.

5) What would you like readers to take away from The Emerald Key?

I hope this book reminds our readers to search for and have faith in their own strengths instead of comparing themselves to others. As well as believing in themselves, they should never forget the importance of trusting their friends, and that in the end, it’s a combination of strengths working together that can overcome obstacles. And beat the bad guys!

Book Talk: Station Eleven

Emily St. John Mandel’s novel Station Eleven is the book that really, really convinced me to stop reading post-apocalyptic dystopian fiction.

Sure you might think that The Road would have done that. But while I found Cormac McCarthy’s father-and-son novel to be incredibly sad (and some of it to be horrifying), most of it didn’t dismay me in the way that this book did.

Since my second miscarriage, I’ve found that I have to be more careful about what I let into my head. While I once read innumerable true crime books, I find that now I can’t handle the cruelty. (I’ve read Game of Thrones and its sequels, yes, but there are passages that make me take breaks, and there are things I skip entirely in the HBO adaptation.)

Mandel’s book hooked me from the start. It’s really well-written, and the characters are interesting. I’ve had a long-standing interest in pandemics, so her story of the world after a particularly devastating flu seemed right up my alley in many ways.

But it got in my head in ways that were troubling. The idea of being plunged into a world without infrastructure is frankly terrifying. The death toll from Mandel’s “Georgia flu” would mean an end to existing family and friendships for any survivors. And while the idea of losing either Mr. Sandwich or Baguette is heartbreaking, the idea of losing both was almost insurmountable. (As I told Mr. Sandwich, “I’m not saying I’d just sit down on the side of the road and give up, but I really don’t know why I would choose to keep moving.”)

The book is not all bleakness, though, and I’m glad I finished it. It looks like Mandel’s other books are not as dystopian, and I want to read them. And I do recommend this one. Just not to myself.

cover of novel "Station Eleven" by Emily St. John Mandel

Here Be Spoilers

That’s it. That’s your warning. If you read beyond this (which I’m adding for those of you who get previews in your RSS readers), then consider yourself to have made an informed choice. You’re about to read plot and character details from a book that I’m reading and loathing. Ready? Here we go:

So I’m reading Secret Lives by Diane Chamberlain (not to be confused with The Secret Life of Ceecee Wilkes, by the same author). It’s my first book by Chamberlain, and it’s likely to be my last.

The basic story is this: Eden, an actress and divorced mother, goes back to her hometown to write a screenplay about her late mother. In the process, she discovers long-hidden family secrets which serve largely as counterpoint to her own dilemmas.

One of those dilemmas–and this is where the book completely loses me–is whether she should have a relationship with a convicted child molester.

He’s innocent, of course. The book makes this clear, and Eden believes in his innocence almost immediately. But here’s the thing:

The love interest, Ben, has been convicted of molesting his own daughter. Eden has no qualms–literally none, about leaving her own young daughter alone in his care. She refuses to spend even a moment thinking about how this would affect:

  • Her career as the star of children’s movies
  • Her work as spokesperson for a children’s charity
  • Her access to her own daughter

Seriously, when her agent points out that Eden’s ex-husband may go to court to change their custody agreement to keep her away from the convicted child molester, Eden’s response is, “I have an excellent lawyer.”

Then, when the totally predictable public reaction occurs, Eden is shocked and devastated. Because she had no idea it could happen. Because she is a complete moron.

Eden is able to identify the real molester after he touches her own daughter inappropriately. But she’s not angry, really, because “I’m sure he thought that was the only way he could get me to figure out what was going on without actually telling me.”

What?

Look, I get it. Women do this. They trust their children with people they shouldn’t–and the reason they shouldn’t is that those people aren’t innocent. I know this happens in the real world. And the fact that it does is horrible.

But this is a novel, and I’m clearly supposed to relate to Eden, and find her decisions to be reasonable. And they aren’t. I can understand that she believes in Ben’s innocence. I cannot believe that she doesn’t think about how others will perceive the situation. I cannot believe that she thinks her ex-husband is small-minded when he objects to his 4-year-old spending time with a convicted sex offender.

I cannot relate to this woman. I don’t like her. I think she’s self-centered and oblivious to a degree that is potentially damaging to the most defenseless people around her.

And beyond that, I’m really bothered that the real problem is how inconvenient this problem is for Eden, because she reallyreally loves Ben. The close second is how horrible it’s been for Ben to be living with this false accusation and conviction. But isn’t the real horror what happened to his daughter? Maybe not, because Chamberlain doesn’t seem to want to spend much time on her.

So why am I finishing this book? I guess because I want to see how it ends, and because it’s like that accident on the side of the road that everyone slows down to look at.

I’m not reading, I’m rubbernecking.