Three Recent Re-reads: Princess Academy, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler

May 3, 2019

I've had the pleasure of re-reading a few excellent books over the last couple of months. Rereading is so great, especially when you have a horrible memory like I do and can basically enjoy it like the first time all over again!

Princess Academy by Shannon Hale

When I suggested this as our next readaloud, my boys balked a little at the title. With the word "princess" in the title, it does tend to come across as a little bit girly. But having already read it twice myself, I assured them they had nothing to fear.

But . . . it turns out . . . I had forgotten how slow-paced this book is. It didn't seem slow when I was reading it to myself. But when I was reading it to three boys who just couldn't wait for the bandits to arrive, suddenly Miri's repetitive thoughts on whether she would rather stay on Mount Eskel or move to the palace and become a princess seemed rather dull and boring. I caught myself thinking, Oh no, Miri, not again. Do you have to agonize over your feelings for Peder one more time? 

Over the years of reading aloud to my boys, I haven't shied away from books that might be seen as being more traditionally for girls. Consequently, some of our favorite books have starred female protagonists, such as The Penderwicks, Ramona, and Pippi Longstocking. But I can also recognize that there are certain themes and subjects and plots that my boys are just more naturally drawn to. And daydreaming about what it might be like to be a princess isn't one of them. (In all fairness though, it isn't really a matter of girl vs. boy as much as just a matter of taste. For example, I don't enjoy books with fantasy creatures in them; that doesn't have anything to do with the fact that I'm a girl, but rather, that's just my personal preference.)

But we held out for the promised siege, and it was worth the wait (although, I have to say, I don't remember being so incredulous about Dan's demise when I read it the first two times . . . tiny Miri was able to hold onto a root with huge Dan hanging onto one of her legs???? No way. I'm sorry, but no way.)

So all's told, it was a bit of a let down. It pains me to say it, but it was. I still liked the writing (how about this wisdom from Doter: "Unhappiness can't stick in a person's soul when it's slick with tears"), but the story was a bit of a drag. This is why I'm sometimes afraid to reread a book I loved in the past. You just never know how it's going to strike you on a reread.

(For a more positive review, read the one I wrote back in 2012.)

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

I read this book for the first time in 2013, but when it was selected for my book club's "classic" month, I knew I would need to reread it as I could remember almost nothing from before.

I purposely held off reading my review of it because I wanted to be able to experience it this time without being influenced by my 2013 self. (I will probably finally go back and read it after I finish writing this review.)

What I found was that bits of the story immediately came back to me as soon as I began listening. I remembered Janie's three husbands (Logan, Jody, and Tea Cake) before I was re-introduced to them. I knew each one would be flawed but that the last one would be the best. And Janie saved her best self for the end as well. According to Tea Cake, "God made it so you spent your old age first with somebody else and saved up your young girl days to spend with me." I thought that was so sweet.

This time I was struck by the characters of the three men: Logan's biggest fault was that he was old and boring, something that wasn't exactly under his control. Jody's was that he wanted all good things to be credited back to him, no matter the cost. And Tea Cake's was that, for all of his love, he was still a bit immature. (I had forgotten the two big scenes that really highlight this weakness: the time he spends all of Janie's money having fun while she is home worrying; and the night he physically hurts her to prove to the world how much he loves her. Tea Cake was so likeable, and it was hard to see him make stupid choices, but they made him more real.)

Incredibly, I had forgotten how the book ends until I was literally right there, in the room with Tea Cake and Janie, both of them with a gun in their hands. Sometimes I am annoyed with my poor memory, but in moments like this, it means I get the full emotional impact all over again.

The other thing that surprised me was how little phrases from the book pinged with recognition inside me, like this one: "She stood there until something fell of the shelf inside her." I couldn't have quoted it, but once I heard it again, it registered as something I'd heard (and loved) before. The writing is just so good.

I'm guessing I shared this in my review the first time because I think it's one of the most beloved quotes from the book, but it's worth sharing again because it sums up the theme so beautifully: "Love is like the sea; it's a moving thing. But still and all, it takes its shape from the shore and changes with every shore it meets."

If you've somehow missed reading this classic, I highly recommend it.

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg

When Mike and I decided to go to New York for our anniversary, I had a sudden longing to revisit Claudia and Jamie's adventures. Originally, the Met was on our itinerary, and I thought it would be so fun to have this story in my head while we walked through the museum (even though many of the referenced landmarks are no longer there). Even though we ended up needing to cut it due to lack of time, this story still made an excellent companion on the flight there and back. I had forgotten how much I loved it.

I actually never read this book as a child. I know we owned a copy, but frankly, the cover did absolutely nothing to make me want to read it. (I actually just looked it up to see if it was as bad as I remembered. It was the 1976 edition, and yes, it was.) I had no idea what I was missing, but finally as an adult in 2009, I read it for the first time, and it was marvelous.

Claudia Kincaid feels unappreciated at home and decides it would be best to run away so her family realizes how much they would suffer without her. She carefully and methodically makes plans: She settles on a place (the Metropolitan Museum of Art), a time (on her way to school), and a companion (her middle brother Jamie--mostly because he has enough money to fund the entire grand scheme). Once they are well settled in a 16th-century bed, Claudia decides she can't go home until she has done something noteworthy, and figuring out if the Museum's newly acquired angel statue is really an early work of Michelangelo seems like just the thing.

One of the best parts of this book is the relationship between Claudia and Jamie. They start out as two normal siblings with plenty of arguing and bickering and not a lot of shared goals. But gradually, things come into alignment until something clicks. Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler explained it this way:
"What happened was they had become a team--a family of two . . . Becoming a team didn't mean the end of their arguments, but it did mean that the arguments became a part of the adventure, became discussions not threats. To an outsider, the arguments would appear to be the same because feeling like part of a team is something that happens invisibly. You might call it "caring." You could even call it "love." And it is very rarely indeed that it happens to two people at the same time, especially a brother and a sister who had always spent more time with activities than they had with each other."
The other really masterful part of this story is Claudia's subtle, almost invisible, transformation. When she runs away, she really gives no thought to her parents. She wants them to be sorry she's gone, but she doesn't have any idea about the mental and emotional anguish she will put her parents through when she and Jamie suddenly vanish without a trace (and, as a side note, I couldn't help thinking that even in 1967, this story was probably somewhat unbelievable. But in 2019? It could never happen. Those two kids would have been found within hours of leaving). But then it becomes more about making some sort of impact or contribution before she goes home so her time will be well spent. But eventually, she realizes that she can go home and still be plain, sensible Claudia Kincaid and that that will enough (especially once she has the secret of the statue secured). In the words of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler: "Happiness is excitement that has found a settling down place."

Even though we didn't get to visit the Met, there was still something about being in New York with this story bumping around in my brain that just made it so much more special and fun. Also, it put me in an E.L. Konigsburg sort of mood. I need to read some of her other books.

What have been some of your recent rereads? Did your opinions change or stay the same?

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