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KAPOW! celebrating ten years at Powells.com
KAPOW! Decade of Reading essay contest
What was your most memorable reading experience of the last ten years?

To celebrate the tenth anniversary of Powells.com, we're asking readers worldwide to describe their most memorable reading experience of the past ten years. To get you started, a few well-known writers and Powell's employees have already taken the question for a spin. Here is one of their answers.
The Summer Guest

The Summer Guest
by Justin Cronin

This wonderful story follows three generations of a family who run a fishing camp in Maine. From the horrors of war, from the loneliness of exile, from the devastation of terminal illness, the camp offers the consolations of beauty, of love, of home. Cronin is a very fine writer. Kathi, Powells.com
 
Your Price: $7.50
(Used - Hardcover)

check for other copies

Mary and O'Neil

Mary and O'Neil
by Justin Cronin

"An astonishingly good first novel...fully engaging from the first paragraph. What a gift: to be able to live alongside these people for a while." Ann Patchett, Chicago Tribune
 
List Price $15.00
Your Price: $6.50
(Used - Trade Paper)

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Freddy and the Ignormus

Freddy and the Ignormus
by Walter R. Brooks

"Welcome back, Freddy, you paragon of porkers!" The Washington Post Book World
 
Your Price: $6.99
(New - Trade Paper)

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Justin Cronin on Book with Thumb

Ten years, the whole of my thirties: the decade in which I married, became a father, grew up. Like most writers, I read a lot of books, and I have loved my share. But to be the parent of small children is to think of books differently than you used to, back when reading a book was something you did by yourself, in silence. Corny stuff, but true: Parents are the messengers, the handmaidens of our children's first encounters with the pleasures of story. It's a duty, like doing the dishes, but a happy one. We do the funny voices, we see the jokes a page away and try to time them right, we sometimes actually fall asleep mid-sentence and somehow soldier on. What I mean is, these days, when I read a book, I don't just read a book: I read a book.

My infant son still thinks books are delicious, something to suck till the cardboard melts. But my seven-year-old daughter, Iris, is the literary consumer every writer longs for. She gives herself completely to virtually any kind of story, and has since she was just a year. She also possesses the negotiating skills of Madeleine Albright. Trying to disengage her from a book is like trying to shut down a nuclear power plant. By the time you've done all the paperwork, it's already morning.

So, I'll take the question literally. My most memorable reading experience of the last ten years occurred on a night, about two years ago, when I was reading to Iris from a book I loved as a kid, Freddy and the Ignormus.

Perhaps you don't know Freddy and the Ignormus, the eighth in the series of twenty-six Freddy books written by Walter R. Brooks between 1927 and 1958. The main character of the series is the eponymous Freddy, a pig who resides on an upstate New York farm. In addition to being a pig, he is also a poet, a detective, a newspaperman, a banker, a politician, and a pilot. His friends include the sarcastic cat Jinx, the gasbag rooster Charles, a couple of spinster cows, Jock the collie dog, and a family of fusty ducks. His archenemy is Simon, a rat. In my rendition, Simon speaks with a sinister lisp.

Brooks's books don't possess the emotional sophistication of Harry Potter, or the allegorical substrata of the Chronicles of Narnia, or the lyricism of E. B. White. If anything, they read like Punch and Judy in the barnyard. The plots are completely anarchic, the story is frequently put aside for chatty tangents, the animals snipe at each other like children on a rainy day, and because it's the 1930s, there's a lot of smoking (the humans, not the animals). Brooks was, among other things, a writer for the New Yorker (one of his short stories became the basis for the television show Mr. Ed) , and you get the feeling he wrote the Freddy books fast, on the side. You can hear him saying, "I don't know why, but children seem to like them."

Perhaps it's their unstudied quality that makes them so good, in the same way that a 1970s garage band somehow sounds better, purer, than most of the overproduced rock and roll you hear these days. No Freddy action-figures or Happy Meal marketing tie-ins are forthcoming. No one's going to make a movie of Freddy Goes Camping or Freddy Goes to Florida, and they don't need to. For those of us who love the pig, Brooks's books are the whole meal, appetizer to dessert.

So there we were, dad and daughter, snuggled down at bedtime, Iris's hair still wet from the bath, her thumb finding its forbidden way to her mouth as I turned the pages. The thumb is an issue: she's supposed to give it up, but can't quite. Not during Freddy the Pig.

And I was, I confess, tired; my thoughts and eyes were wandering. I misread a sentence, then another, and as I had done when she was very small, I scanned ahead and realized I could drop a couple of lines and hustle the evening along to bedtime.

Iris stopped me with a nudge. "You didn't read it right," she said.

"What are you talking about?"

"You skipped a sentence." She pulled her thumb from her mouth and pointed to the page. "That's not what it said."

She had me dead to rights. More than that: I'd always thought she was listening, not reading. I felt like a shoplifter who, looking up, finds a video camera pointed right at him.

"How long have you been doing this?"

"A while." She shrugged. "All the time, actually. You always skip the smoking parts, you know."

"You've been reading the whole time," I said.

"Sure." She gave a cagey smile and pulled the covers tighter. "But I like it better this way."

Me too, I thought, and felt how swiftly time moves. Me too.

About Justin Cronin
Born and raised in New England, Justin Cronin is a graduate of Harvard University and the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Awards for his fiction include the Stephen Crane Prize, a Whiting Writers' Award, and a Pew Fellowship in the Arts. He is a professor of English at Rice University and lives with his wife and children in Houston, Texas.

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