The Willoughbys by Lois Lowry.

A few weeks ago, while I waited on my coffee order at Porter Square Books, I did what I always do — wander around and pick up whatever seems interesting. In this instance, it was Lois Lowry‘s latest book, The Willoughbys. Even if I wasn’t such a Lowry fan, I know I would have been drawn to this cover; with its black-and-white swirls and flourishes and that single eye-catching red door, how could anyone resist? I really like this sort of aesthetic for books (it’s almost like a cheery Gorey, no?) and I love dust jackets with cut-outs, as the case is here. (The book itself is crimson. In the hardcover, anyway.)

As I was debating as to whether or not to buy the book right then (I didn’t; I bought it later.) I couldn’t help but overhear this conversation between two mothers:

Mom 1: Maybe I’ll get this for [insert child’s name here].
Mom 2: Oh, I love Lois Lowry. What’s this one about? [flips book over and reads excerpt from back cover] Oh, this is horrible!
Mom 1: What? What is it?
Mom 2: It’s a book about killing your parents!
Mom 1: What?! I don’t want [insert child’s name here] reading a book like that!

This went on for several more minutes.

The Willoughbys is indeed about children killing their parents (or children wishing they were orphans). To be fair, it’s also about parents killing their children (or parents wishing they were childless). However, it is, most importantly, a satire. Of course Lowry isn’t providing a manual on how to off parents, just like she isn’t condoning infanticide and euthanasia in The Giver. (Her Newbury Medal winning novel is ranked at number fourteen on the American Library Association‘s list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990–2000.)

More than anything, The Willoughbys is a kind of love letter to the children’s books of yore, albeit one that cheekily and simultaneously pokes fun at the genre. Lowry’s characters allude to “old-fashioned people” and frequently site classic children’s novels like James and the Giant Peach and Anne of Green Gables. There’s a great deal of humor thrown in as well, like a character’s version of German (“Mein meusli ist dischgusting. It makesch me vant to womit.”) and the Lemony-Snicket-y glossary at the back of the book.

I thought The Willoughbys was a whole lot of fun, as well as refreshing. I am someone deeply in awe of those who take risks, and this book is certainly a departure from the rest of Lowry’s bibliography. That, I suppose, is something else to be in awe of, as Lowry’s written over thirty books spanning multiple genres — a feat I could only dream of accomplishing myself.

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My Reading List, and Some Reasons Why.

Here’s a photo of the books I’ve currently got waiting in the wings, in no particular order. They are all for pleasure, except for The Poet and the Murderer, which is for book club. That’s not say, of course, that the books my friends and I pick to read together aren’t pleasurable — the difference is that I chose the six others for myself, and for no reason other than just plain wanting to read them.

  1. The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan
  2. The Willoughbys by Lois Lowry
  3. Messenger by Lois Lowry
  4. The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
  5. Mrs. Kimble by Jennifer Haigh
  6. The Poet and the Murderer by Simon Worrall
  7. Charity Girl by Michael Lowenthal

Excluding The Omnivore’s Dilemma and, again, The Poet and the Murderer, I purchased these books this past weekend at the Muse and the Marketplace. I attended a lectures by both Jennifer Haigh and Lois Lowry (big surprise, that), chatted with Michael Lowenthal at lunch on Saturday and attended the keynote brunch the following day with Jonathan Franzen. There were several books to be purchased at conference, but I went with these not only because these were the writers who impressed me the most, but also because I had a very limited amount of room in my bag.

  • Do I really need to say anything more about my great affection for Lois Lowry?
  • Jonathan Franzen read excerpts from his most recent book, The Discomfort Zone, and answered many questions on what I can’t help but think of as The Oprah Incident. He also discussed the German language, his unsuccessful pursuit of girls and the contemporary North American writers whose work he enjoys reading. I should also mention that Mr. Franzen’s voice is absolutely lovely to listen to. Immediately afterwards, I went to a seminar with John Sedgwick, who wondered how a voice like that could be attained. Nicotine, he concluded.
  • Jennifer Haigh’s workshop on how to get a novel started was undoubtedly one of the most helpful, and not to mention exciting. In clear, concise words, Ms. Haigh spoke about some of her writing tricks; I know that I’m going to use them myself from here on in, with the hopes of being even a quarter as successful.
  • Michael Lowenthal was a funny and friendly lunch companion — though our eating together was pure happenstance. I nervously sat down at a table, and found myself with published, acclaimed writers and a charming, witty agent. I’ve never felt like such a fraud before in my life. Mr. Lowenthal was easy to talk to, and had so many fascinating things to say about his recent time at the Instituto Sacatar, an artists’ colony in Brazil.

Lois Lowry at Porter Square Books.

This morning I went to see Lois Lowry speak at the bookshop around the corner from my office. If ever you hear of her having a reading in your neighborhood or speaking at an event nearby, I really urge you to make the time in your schedule to go, as she is thoroughly captivating.

The audience was comprised mostly of children, which was nice because this was clearly a group that enjoyed reading. A small disclosure: being around such a large gathering of kids was more than a little strange for me because it was one of the few times that I stood (or sat, as was the case here) taller than most of the crowd. I’m barely over five feet; something like this is highly unusual for me.

Interestingly, Lowry didn’t come to the bookstore with notes, or even a copy of her latest work, The Willoughbys. She simply launched into talking about its plot and themes after grabbing a the display book off of the table next to her.

“Let me see if I can find the right part quickly,” she said more than once, flipping through the pages. And each time she found exactly what she was looking for, and read the excerpts in such a lively and expressive way that I wanted to curl up with a mug of something warm and sweet, and listen to her read everything she had ever written.

Her presence was so impressive. Lowry effortlessly commandeered the attentions of what seemed to me like sixty kids, all the while telling funny anecdotes and maintaining a very relaxed and laid-back attitude. She did this even as she fielded questions, some of which she must have answered countless times at other similar events.

I didn’t stick around for the book signing; like I said, there were a lot of kids, several of whom had multiple books for Lowry to sign. It happens I’ve already got a signed copy of A Summer to Die, which is the first of her books that I ever read, back when I was in grade school. It’s also the first of Lowry’s novels. I recently reread it while I toiled away on my pages; I’m happy to report that even though it was originally published in 1977, it still rings true. Which is all I can wish for any writer, established or otherwise.