Thursday, December 27, 2007

Book Review: Saving Fish From Drowning

December 27, 2007

I haven't read anything by Amy Tan in a long time (decades?)--since The Kitchen God's Wife and The Joy Luck Club-- and I'd forgotten how much I enjoy her writing style. The story here is narrated by Bibi Chen, a recently deceased woman. She is murdered shortly before she and her friends were to depart on a Christmas excursion to Myanmar, and she follows them as they proceed with their trip. Being dead, she is able to see into their thoughts and motivations, which makes for all kinds of surprises. Without Bibi's leadership, this group of American tourists bumble through Myanmar and are quickly kidnapped by a group of Karen tribesmen. The tourists don't realize they have been kidnapped and believe their "adventure" in the jungle to be a tourist special gone awry. The book is quirky, as are the characters. Tan has a wonderful ability to capture characters without stereotyping. Warning: the book jumps from character to character and requires concentration. I had to flip back several times to remember details about characters, but about midway through I was familiar enough with them to keep them straight. reviewers didn't rate this book well, but I enjoyed it and will go back and read the Tan novels I've missed in the past 15 years or so.

2007: The Year in Books

December 27, 2007

This has been a marvelous year of reading. So many memorable books (most of them memorable in a good sort of way)! So many pleasant evenings spent in the company of a cast of characters from Afghanistan to Alaska, the past and the future, from the circus to the coal mine. I am reluctant to move on to next year because I fear disappointment. Truly, this year was filled with some of the best books I've ever read.

The Top 10

* The Glass Castle (Jeannette Walls)
* The Time Traveler's Wife (Audrey Niffenegger)
Water for Elephants (by Sara Gruen)
* The Thirteenth Tale (Diana Setterfield)
* Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (Lisa See)
* The Kite Runner (by Khaled Hosseini)
* A Thousand Splendid Suns (Khaled Hosseini)
* Mrs. Mike (Freedman)
* The Book Thief (Markus Zusak)
Crow Lake (by Mary Lawson)
* Night (Elie Wiesel)

And the absolute best books this year: The Glass Castle and The Kite Runner. Both of them are absolutely phenomenally amazing. These books shook me to my core and made me step outside of myself, jaw dropped, to read the amazing resilience that exists in people--the sheer ability to survive.

Not in the Top Ten, but Enjoyable and I'm Glad I Read Them

* Girl with the Pearl Earring (Tracy Chevalier)
* The Endless Steppe (Esther Hautzig)
* Talk to the Hand (Lynn Truss)
* The Nazi Officer's Wife (Edith Hahn Beer)
* The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio (by Terry Ryan)
* The Hinterlands (by Robert Morgan)
* Into Thin Air (Jon Krakauer)
* When Crickets Cry (Charles Martin)
* The Myth of You and Me (Leah Stewart)
* My Sister's Keeper (by Jodi Picoult)
The Widow of the South (Robert Hicks)
* Ellen Foster (Kaye Gibbons)
* This Rock (by Robert Morgan)
* The Innocent Man (John Grisham)
* Into the Wild (Jon Krakauer)
* Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
* I Capture the Castle (Dodie Smith)
* Veil of Roses (Laura Fitzgerald)
* A River Runs Through It (Norman Mcclean)
* Saving Fish from Drowning (Amy Tan)
We're Just Like You, Only Prettier (Celia Rivenbark)

Classics Re-Read (I don't include these in rankings because they are classics, for Pete's sake)

* The Pearl (John Steinbeck)
* My Antonia (Willa Cather)
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Betty Smith)
* Ethan Frome (by Edith Wharton)
* The Red Pony (John Steinbeck)
* A Separate Peace (John Knowles)
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Mark Twain)

Biggest Disappointments
(i.e., Books That Came Highly Recommended that made me want to shake someone)

* The Eyre Affair (by Jasper Fforde)
* Outlander (Diana Gabaldon)
Crossing Over: One Woman's Escape from Amish Life (Irene Garrett)
The Way They Learn (Cynthia Tobias)

And the Entire List Itself* **

(*Books that aren't on any lists above are neither fabulous nor hideous but lie somewhere in the land of mediocrity. In my opinion, of course.)
(**This list does not include the dozens of novels read aloud to the children. Perhaps in the coming year I can be diligent enough to review those, as well. Perhaps. )

1. The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio (by Terry Ryan)
2. In My Mother's House (by Elizabeth Winthrop)
3. The Hinterlands (by Robert Morgan)
4. Into Thin Air (Jon Krakauer)
5. Talk to the Hand (Lynn Truss)
6. The Pact (Jodi Picoult)
7. The Time Traveler's Wife (Audrey Niffenegger)
8. Bathsheba (by Roberta Kells Dorr
9. The Garden at the Edge of Beyond (by Michael Phillips)
10. Crow Lake (by Mary Lawson)
11. Water for Elephants (by Sara Gruen)
12. Arctic Son (by Jean Aspen)
13. Solomon's Song (by Roberta Kells Dorr)
14. The Queen of Sheba (Roberta K. Dorr)
15. New Stories from the South, 2006
16. The Children's Blizzard (by David Laskin)
17. When Crickets Cry (Charles Martin)
18. The Myth of You and Me (Leah Stewart)
19. The Eyre Affair (by Jasper Fforde)
20. My Sister's Keeper (by Jodi Picoult)
21. Jerusalem Vigil (Brock and Bodie Thoene)
22. Crossing Over: One Woman's Escape from Amish Life (Irene Garrett)
23. The Pearl (John Steinbeck)
24. My Antonia (Willa Cather)
25. The Endless Steppe (Esther Hautzig)
26. The Thirteenth Tale (Diana Setterfield)
27. One Thousand White Women (Jim Fergus)
28. This Rock (by Robert Morgan)
29. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Betty Smith)
30. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (Lisa See)
31. The Innocent Man (John Grisham)
32. The Kite Runner (by Khaled Hosseini)
33. Outlander (Diana Gabaldon)
34. Ethan Frome (by Edith Wharton)
35. The Way to Rainy Mountain (by N. Scott Momaday)
36. The Red Pony (John Steinbeck)
37. A Separate Peace (John Knowles)
38. Wrapped in Rain (Charles Martin)
39. The Nazi Officer's Wife (Edith Hahn Beer)
40. A Thousand Splendid Suns (Khaled Hosseini)
41. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
42. The Other Side of the River (Alex Kotlowitz)
43. Alice's Tulips (by Sandra Dallas)
44. The Dead Don't Dance (Charles Martin)
45. Mrs. Mike (Freedman)
46. The Scarlet Letter (Nathaniel Hawthorne)
47. Man and Boy (Tony Parsons)
48. I Capture the Castle (Dodie Smith)
49. The Book Thief (Markus Zusak)
50. Between, Georgia (Joshilyn Jackson)
51. Peace Child (Don Richardson)
52. Night (Elie Wiesel)
53. The Diary of Mattie Spenser (Sandra Dallas)
54. Winter Birds (Jamie Langston Turner)
55. The Lighthouse (P.D. James)
56. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Mark Twain)
57. Girl with the Pearl Earring (Tracy Chevalier)
58. The Way They Learn (Cynthia Tobias)
59. The Widow of the South (Robert Hicks)
60. New Mercies (Sandra Dallas)
61. Into the Wild (Jon Krakauer)
62. Ellen Foster (Kaye Gibbons)
63. How Strong Women Pray (Bonnie St. John)
64. The Glass Castle (Jeannette Walls)
65. Veil of Roses (Laura Fitzgerald)
66. A River Runs Through It (Norman Mcclean)
67. The Lady and the Unicorn (Tracy Chevalier)
68. *
Saving Fish from Drowning (Amy Tan)
69. *We're Just Like You, Only Prettier (Celia Rivenbark)

Reviews in Past Years:

Pathetic Review of Books Read in 2005

Much Better Review of Books Read in 2006

Book Review: We're Just Like You, Only Prettier

December 27, 2007

Hilarious! Subtitled "Confessions of a Tarnished Southern Belle," this book by Celia Rivenbark had me laughing hysterically. Oh, I recognized so much of this book--and I am assuredly not a Southern belle. Really only the first few chapters are truly reflective of a uniquely Southern culture; the rest of the book can take place anywhere in the country where there are telemarketers, overzealous mothers, and Jiffy Lubes.

The book is a collection of reflections on life, including such chapters as:
* "No, we don't marry our cousins--unless, of course, they got cable";
* "How to be a hands-on parent using field trips, dead butterflies, and beefaroni";
* "Never Saw 'Em Before in My Life: What to say at the wedding reception when hubby's dressed your kid in Batman sweats and Tweety Bird swim socks";
* "Stamp Out Gossip? My Best Friend's Mama's Sister's Hairdresser's Cousin Won't Like This a Bit!"

Those are just a very few selections. One chapter had its funny moments but was sweet and poignant as well: "Mother's Day Memories: Make Mine Macaroni." Rivenbark is of the sandwich generation--having a first child at 40 and also watching her parents age. She writes: "Our time is fleeting and dear. As a good friend explained it, one day it is our mother who is buying us the Chatty Cathy that we begged for; the next, or so it seems, we find ourselves taking a baby doll as a gift to a mother in the nursing home. It has always struck me that women in nursing home beds almost always have baby dolls in their rooms. I suspect it is because they remind them of the happiest time of their lives. I know it is mine."

I can totally relate to Haven Kimmel, author of A Girl Named Zippy, who writes "I laughed so hard reading this book, I began snorting in an unbecoming fashion." I have Rivenbark's books, Stop Dressing Your Six-Year-Old Like a Skank and Bless Your Heart, Tramp and Other Southern Endearments on my reading list.

Book Review: We're Just Like You, Only Prettier

December 27, 2007

Hilarious! Subtitled "Confessions of a Tarnished Southern Belle," this book by Celia Rivenbark had me laughing hysterically. Oh, I recognized so much of this book--and I am assuredly not a Southern belle. Really only the first few chapters are truly reflective of a uniquely Southern culture; the rest of the book can take place anywhere in the country where there are telemarketers, overzealous mothers, and Jiffy Lubes.

The book is a collection of reflections on life, including such chapters as:
* "No, we don't marry our cousins--unless, of course, they got cable";
* "How to be a hands-on parent using field trips, dead butterflies, and beefaroni";
* "Never Saw 'Em Before in My Life: What to say at the wedding reception when hubby's dressed your kid in Batman sweats and Tweety Bird swim socks";
* "Stamp Out Gossip? My Best Friend's Mama's Sister's Hairdresser's Cousin Won't Like This a Bit!"

Those are just a very few selections. One chapter had its funny moments but was sweet and poignant as well: "Mother's Day Memories: Make Mine Macaroni." Rivenbark is of the sandwich generation--having a first child at 40 and also watching her parents age. She writes: "Our time is fleeting and dear. As a good friend explained it, one day it is our mother who is buying us the Chatty Cathy that we begged for; the next, or so it seems, we find ourselves taking a baby doll as a gift to a mother in the nursing home. It has always struck me that women in nursing home beds almost always have baby dolls in their rooms. I suspect it is because they remind them of the happiest time of their lives. I know it is mine."

I can totally relate to Haven Kimmel, author of A Girl Named Zippy, who writes "I laughed so hard reading this book, I began snorting in an unbecoming fashion." I have Rivenbark's books, Stop Dressing Your Six-Year-Old Like a Skank and Bless Your Heart, Tramp and Other Southern Endearments on my reading list.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Book Review: A River Runs Through It and Other Stories

December 13, 2007

So Sunday after church, I was finally ready--after a weekend packed with performances--to truly nurture my hideous cold. I was going to lie in bed all day, alternating between napping and reading. I despise being sick, but when one can be sick all day because her fabulous husband is taking care of everything, well, it's not really so terrible. Not so terrible, that is, until I discovered that I had about 10 pages left in my current book--and nothing else to read!

Now that is tragedy. I actually considered going to the library, but I was too sick for that trip. And we do have an entire house full of books. (It's times like this that I wish I had the re-reading gene.) So anyway, 1stSon2Dad2Three has been begging me to consider adding A River Runs Through It to our spring reading for American Literature, and we just happened to have a copy, and so I read it.

And I feel as if I need to apologize before I write my review. I realize that this has become known as an American classic, and it's been called the "greatest fishing book ever written." But it just didn't do a whole lot for me. Now let me defend myself a little bit:
* First, I don't get fishing. I grew up on a huge lake in upstate New York, and everyone fished. Everyone except for the people in sailboats, like me. I understand that fishing is its own world, and fly fishing is another world of its own, and all that. But I have this Block up that says, "Fishing. Snore."
* Second, I was sick when I was reading, and so my concentration levels weren't at their best. (But I still won't read this book again, no matter how much you try to convince me that I'm missing out on one of the best pieces of literature ever written.)

This memoir is actually two novellas and a short story. The main one is the story of his family and the bond of fly fishing that drew them into each other's lives again and again. Ultimately, though, it doesn't save them. The other two stories come from Macclean's days working for the forestry service in his late teens and early 20s. I couldn't savor the time and place. Macclean's writing style was a bit too jumbled for me (or was it that cold medicine?). But there were moments of sheer beauty, like this:

"I lay there watching mountains until they made me well. I knew that, when needed, mountains would move for me."
Now that is sheer poetry. And there's a lot more poetry like that in the book, but it's just all about fishing imagery, and--see excuse #1. If there were more mountains and fewer fish, I might have been more involved in the stories.

And so, no, 1stSon2Dad2Three, we won't be reading this in class. But not because I personally didn't love it. As I tell my students, you don't have to love a piece of literature for it to be considered a classic. I don't love all the classics by any means, and this happens to be one of them. We won't read it in class simply--and is often the case with 20th century writers-- because there are too many expletives and graphic scenes to which parents would object. Otherwise, we would have read it. I would have enjoyed the challenge.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Book Review: The Lady and the Unicorn

December 10, 2007

I loved Tracy Chevalier's Girl with the Pearl Earring so much that I right away ordered another Chevalier book from PaperbackSwap. As so often happens, I didn't have the same wonderful experience in my second encounter with an author. Like Girl with the Pearl Earring, The Lady and the Unicorn is based on a famous work(s) of art. In this case, the story centers on the creation of Lady and the Unicorn tapestries, commissioned by the Le Viste family toward the end of the fifteenth century. The tapestries were rediscovered in 1841 in a chateau in France and became much publicized. Chevalier takes what little is known about their creation (including the actual artist himself) and weaves a tale of two families, one noble and one working, and the artist who creates havoc among the women in both houses. The story is intriguing, but somehow I wasn't as captivated by the characters and was frequently lost. This sometimes happens to me when each chapter is told from the point-of-view of a different character. (Sometimes my concentration skills are lacking, especially when I am reading only a chapter each night.) Still, I enjoyed the story. The concept of elaborating on the creation of a piece of art--be it literature, a painting, architecture, etc.--fascinates me, and I will seek out Chevalier's other novels of a similar nature.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Book Review: Veil of Roses

December 6, 2007

This book by Laura Fitzgerald tells the story of a young Iranian woman who is given a visa to visit America, and, if she finds a husband in three months, stay permanently. We follow Tami through her various tastes of freedom, from wearing high-heeled boots to ordering coffee to talking to men. Her older sister introduces her to several potential Iranian husbands, all with a fatal flaw of some sort. In the meantime, Tami meets and falls in love with an American man, and, well, it's all rather predictable. I think that Fitzgerald could have had a fantastic book if she hadn't tried to be funny and cute, but then I guess this wouldn't be categorized as "chick lit." The best parts of this book are when Fitzgerald is serious about the struggles of Iranian women. This is Fitzgerald's first novel, and I expect that she has the ability to write a solid, powerful novel. She'll just have to leave out the line-dancing scenes....

I did enjoy the book; it's just that I always feel a bit emotionally manipulated and cheap when I crave these mostly fluffy beach reads, you know? I think I hear Charlotte Mason whispering, "Twaddle" in my ear....(Yes, I know, she'd have stopped reading my twaddly blog a long time ago.)

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Book Review: The Glass Castle

November 25, 2007

Entertainment Weekly calls this memoir "Nothing short of spectacular"; the back of the book says it is "truly astonishing." Spectacular, astonishing, brilliant, intense, fascinating---I could go on and on. Jeannette Walls today is a regular contributor to MSNBC. She lives in a beautiful home and rubs shoulders with the rich and famous. But for years she avoided speaking about her family, even to her closest friends. Her husband finally got the whole story out of her and urged her to write her memoir. And, wow. What a memoir this is.

Walls's family was incredibly dysfunctional. Her father was brilliant man who embraced learning of all kinds, from physics to history and everything in between. Her mother was a free-spirited artist who believed that children should take care of themselves. Completely. Life for Rex and Rose Mary Walls was all about adventure; life for the four Walls kids was all about survival. Though brilliant, Rex was an alcoholic who constantly lost his jobs and got into trouble with the local law enforcement or the loan sharks. Moving every few months, they lived in absolute dumps or sometimes lived out of their car, if they had one. Occasionally Rex would bring home a few bags of groceries which would be gone in a couple of days. Rose Mary told the kids that food was over-rated and just to look on the bright side of things. Walls' memories of digging through trash cans at school for tossed-out sandwiches would be heartbreaking, except that she tells it all in such a matter-of-fact way.

Ultimately the family heads from the west back to Rex's hometown in West Virginia, where their life rapidly deteriorates. Most folks in the coal-mining town are impoverished, and the Walls are at the absolute bottom of the barrel. Without running water or electricity and usually without food, each family member manages somehow to survive, in spite of being ostracized by the community. The resilience of the four kids is unbelievable, and through absolute grit and determination, they all manage to escape the cycle of poverty and alcoholism.

Jeannette Walls is a powerful storyteller. She does not make judgments about her parents but just tells what happened. One can't help but wish warm baths and clean clothes for all the Walls siblings for the rest of the lives. There are two great websites featuring Jeannette Walls. This one is an interview with her; and this one has a video clip of Walls and her mom today.

Having recently read Into the Wild, I have to say that the contrast between Chris McCandless and Jeannette Walls is striking. McCandless was a rich, privileged kid who goes into the wild and dies. Walls was a dirt-poor, hungry, dirty kid who escaped from the wild and survived. And my admiration goes entirely to Walls.

If you read nothing else this year, please read this book.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Book Review: How Strong Women Pray

November 23, 2007

Motivational speaker Bonnie St. John has conquered amazing challenges in her life, including having her leg amputated when she was 5 and being horribly abused by her step-father as a little girl. But in spite of her harsh introduction to the world, she won Paralympic medals in skiing, graduated from Harvard, won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford, and served on the White House National Economic Council.

But St. John's biggest struggles began when she became a mother and gradually remembered her abusive childhood. Forced to deal with decades of memories she'd unburied, St. John found her emotional life unraveling, and she turned, bit by painstaking bit, to God. Prayer came slowly to her, and as she began her own quest to understand prayer, she began to wonder about the prayer life of other women she knew. Who prays? How do they pray? Where and when and why do people pray? Her ponderings became interview questions, and the result is this book that mixes St. John's own life story with snippets of stories of other women's prayer lives. As St. John writes in her introduction, "This book is a spiritual quilt of women's lives you can wrap around yourself."

About two dozen women were interviewed for this book. Some of them spoke powerfully of prayer, like Colette Branch, who packed up 100 severely disabled people and 200 employees and evacuated just a day before Katrina demolished New Orleans--in spite of being laughed at by others who thought she was over-reacting. And Janet Parshall, a radio talk-show host, really stands out as a woman who knows the voice of God through prayer. Unlike many of the women in the book, she writes, "I've gotten over the idea of ritualism in prayer. There's the ABC approach and the method that models the Lord's Prayer. I think it's important to go deeper than the formal prayers that we've been taught. Above all else, He listens to us and He wants to communicate with us."

I think many of the women interviewed for the book are stuck at ritualistic prayer. And some seem to mix up prayer with some kind of transcendental state or as a gimmick. Amy Domini writes that she uses "prayer to get to that place where problems can solve themselves overnight." She says, "I realized...that I could put myself into 'the zone' by praying, and actually lower my heart rate." I don't really get that. It seems more like praying for prizes than spending time with God.

I found myself skimming the stories toward the end because for me, the real meat of the book was Bonnie's own story. I would have been perfectly happy just reading her memoir and her journey into walking closer to God, because she is wonderful. I like her honesty and her moments of realization, like when she realizes during one of her interviews that people actually thrive on coming together and praying together: "Apparently, I was doing it the hard way...I thought I had to do it all by myself. I didn't understand that seeking support in prayer would make me stronger and better as a mother, as a motivator, as a business owner, and as a friend."

This is where St. John starts, as she writes in her introduction: "Conversations about prayer are rare. People can go to church together every day and never talk about how they pray. Husbands and wives can pray separately for a lifetime and never share the experience. Even in a prayer group, most people talk about what they are praying about, not how they actually pray." This statement really jumped out at me because, well, I do have conversations about prayer with my friends. I can't imagine a sermon in which our pastor didn't discuss the power of prayer at some point. It's only been a few months since we completed a women's Bible study about women and prayer. My friends regularly tell me, "I'll be praying for you." And wow. I was struck yet again by the blessedness of my life. Kind of like Dorothy and the red shoes, I've had prayer all my life, surrounding me and protecting me. I forget sometimes that what has been handed down to me by my parents is something that others, like St. John, find only after years of struggling and searching. I am certain that by the time St. John finished this book, she came to a whole new place in her relationship with Christ.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Book Review: Ellen Foster

November 21, 2007

What took me so long to read this book by Kaye Gibbons? I really have no idea. I went through a Kaye Gibbons reading spree several years ago with A Virtuous Woman, A Cure for Dreams, Charms for the Easy Life, and On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon. I think maybe Ellen Foster had recently been a Hallmark movie when I discovered Gibbons in a collection of short stories by Southern women, and I suppose I gravitated toward her works that were not yet movies. Anyway, last week Kaye Gibbons came to speak at our local college, so we thought it appropriate in our Book Club that we would read Ellen Foster. (Amazingly, none of us had read it already.) Well, we are all hopeless procrastinators and didn't read it before the program, but she was a wonderful speaker anyway.

But I did pick up the book as soon as I got home (and discovered that it had arrived in the mail) and thoroughly enjoyed it. Enjoyed it, that is, as much as you can enjoy the story of a young girl who has, at age 11, experienced nothing but pain, trauma, and heartbreak. It is only when she finally becomes an orphan that she is able to find a family who will truly nurture and care for her. Reading this novel after hearing Gibbons speak was especially enjoyable. I could hear her very distinct Southern drawl narrating, and I could even picture her writing the novel. She told us that she wrote this while literally nursing two babies at a time.

Ellen Foster
was definitely not my favorite Gibbons novel, but it is an excellent read along the lines of (but nowhere near as painful as) Dorothy Allison's Bastard Out of Carolina.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Book Review: Into the Wild

November 16, 2007

This book by Jon Krakauer has been on my "to read" list for years. Krakauer is an excellent storyteller. Both Under the Banner of Heaven and Into Thin Air are mesmerizing accounts; and, while I didn't find Into the Wild as compelling as the others, it's still fascinating.

The story: Chris McCandless, a recent college graduate from a wealthy family, hitchhikes to Alaska and heads into the wilderness with a bag of rice and little else. Chris takes the name Alexander Supertramp and survives off the land, eating mostly squirrels and other small game. By the end of the summer, Chris is dead. Some Alaskans and wilderness experts claim he was stupid, cocky, and careless; Krakauer seems to believe that he was the victim of a series of unfortunate events.

The question of Into the Wild for me, as the reader, is much the same as Into Thin Air: What makes one risk everything to taste--to embrace--ultimate danger? What is inside a person who needs to be swallowed up in nature--whether by the Everest or by the Alaskan wilderness? Krakauer obviously understands, being a wilderness seeker/conquerer himself, and I appreciate his careful research and painstaking piecing-together of the events and motives that lead one to shed his self and walk into the wild.

The movie is now playing, and now that I've read the book, I am eager to see it.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Book Review: New Mercies

November 6, 2007

This is my third book by author Sandra Dallas, and I've enjoyed them all (Alice's Tulips and The Diary of Mattie Spenser are the other two). Dallas' novels are quick reads, perfect for in-between heftier works but not light as to be considered, well, fluffy. New Mercies takes place in 1933 in Natchez, Mississippi, where Nora Bondurant is summoned upon learning of her aunt's murder there. In Natchez she uncovers all sorts of juicy family secrets and discovers new ways to deal with her own hurtful past. Many of the characters are stereotypical and the dialogue sometimes borders on silly, but Dallas is great for a good story with a happy ending. And sometimes that's just what we all need.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Book Review: Girl With the Pearl Earring

October 30, 2007

I have had this book by Tracy Chavelier on my reading list for a long, long time. I've even owned a copy of it, courtesty of Paperback Swap, for months, and I've loaned it out to a few friends. I have no idea why I took so long to get to this, but I'm glad I finally did. I love this kind of novel. Take an artist. Take a painting. Take the subject of the painting, and write their story. This is the story of the Dutch painter Vermeer and how "Girl With the Pearl Earring" came to be painted.

The story is told by Griet, the sixteen-year-old Dutch maid who becomes Vermeer's assistant and eventually the subject of one of his most famous paintings. Griet must hire out as a maid due to her family's reduced circumstances, and, because her father was an artist, she is given a position in an artist's family. Vermeer's wife, who is constantly pregnant, instantly despises Griet. Vermeer himself recognizes a kindred spirit in the girl, and he secretly makes her his assistant. Griet goes between being terrified of being caught by Vermeer's jealous wife and inexpressibly honored at being essential to Vermeer. The chaos of this large household is palpable, and Griet's quiet wisdom and view of life adds a perfect frame. I am absolutely adding Chevalier's other novels to my list.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Book Review: The Widow of the South

October 25, 2007

"All this death and dying. How is it possible to tell the story of one's life entirely with reference to death? It must surely be impossible to describe life in death, and yet I felt then--and fell now--that there is no possible way to tell the story of my life without recounting those morbid years. There is no possible way to tell the story of my farm, my town, my state, this whole ****able Southern Confederacy we were so sure of, without recounting the deaths."

This book by Robert Hicks was our Book Club's pick this month, and I absolutely loved it. The novel is based on the true story of Carrie McGavock, a woman who recovers from her own terrible losses in order to give dignity and a home to soldiers, living and dead. Most of the novel takes place during and after the Battle of Franklin toward the end of the Civil War, in which 9,200 men died in a span of 5 hours. The McGavock home, Carnton Plantation, was taken over by the Confederate Army and turned into a makeshift hospital. Carrie must cast aside her own cloud of mourning to deal with thousands of wounded and dying men, and, in doing so, she recaptures her own life.

"The violence would not end, but I still had my role to play. Someone had to do it, to be that person. I was the woman they wrote the letters to; this house was the last address of the war. Now it was the final resting place of the dead, or at least almost 1,500 of them, and they could not be left alone. I had resolved to be the designated mourner, to be the woman who would remember so others could forget."

The Carnton Plantation is a historic site in Franklin, and I am absolutely adding that to my places to see list. This was an extraordinarily well-written novel--Hicks' first. I hope there will be more.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Book Review: The Way They Learn

October 18, 2007

I picked this book by Cynthia Tobias up on a whim at the library a couple of weeks ago, thinking that it was one of those often recommended in homeschooling circles that I'd not yet read. Subtitled "How to Discover and Teach to Your Child's Strength," the book begins with several chapters on the Gregorc Model of Mind Styles which put me right back in Abnormal Psych class twenty years ago. I have a switch that automatically shuts off part of my brain when I start reading/hearing abbreviations: AR--abstract random; CR--concrete random; ARC--abstract random concrete; BB-blahblahblahblah. When I have to keep flipping back to see what the abbreviations stand for, I know I am in trouble. I couldn't help but wonder frequently, if this is a book about learning styles, why doesn't Tobias realize that this kind of mass of abbreviations is impossible for some of us to decipher?

She then goes on to talk about kinesthetic, visual, and auditory learners. If you aren't already familiar with learning styles, this section of the book is useful; however, this information is readily found on dozens of websites in a more readable format with more practical applications. I did actually enjoy the section on analytic vs. global perspectives, but I got more from it as an adult dealing with adults than I did as a parent educating my children.

Perhaps I am too concrete random to appreciate this book. Or too abstract random. Or too sequential. Or just too random. (I never could figure out who I am!)

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Thursday, October 18, 2007 - SO GLAD

Posted by onfire (

you have no idea how long I have waited for someone reliable to critique this book that has consistently made me feel less educated and more confused.
I know I am big time global, but I thought this book was supposed to be a TOOL, not another coaster.
wait until someone reviews MY curriculum ...

Saturday, October 20, 2007 - THANK YOU!!

Posted by ComfyDenim (

I could not get my brain around the first half of the book. I felt like I needed to be sitting in a library or something where I couldn't see distractions - -like Dishes. Because there was just too much. I'm sure that's because my brain fits into a category that I didn't understand. *LOL* (Mainly it means I"m sanguine and highly distractible.) So THANK YOU for letting me feel much better that I don't like this book....

Friday, October 12, 2007

Book Review: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

October 12, 2007

I find classics difficult to review because they've all been reviewed a thousand times, and because, well, they are classics. Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was the second book we've read in the American Lit class I'm teaching at our support group's co-op. The students have enjoyed Huck Finn much more than The Scarlet Letter. Huck Finn is, of course, more accessible, and the vocabulary itself, while rich in dialect, is not difficult. But truthfully, class discussion surrounding The Scarlet Letter was more interesting than it has been for Huck Finn. The students probably don't realize that The Scarlet Letter, as archaic as it seems, struck a more familiar chord with them.

I love Huck Finn. On a purely surface level, it's a coming-of-age story--the kind of story that makes every kid want to float down the river in a raft. I was particularly interested, though, in comparing memories of my first reading of Huck Finn over 20 years ago with my most recent reading. What sticks the most in my memory is a wide river, Huck and Jim on a raft, and the never-ending floating. But my reading this time was completely different. For one, the river scenes really aren't the bulk of the book. I didn't even remember the scenes with Jim in captivity or Huck escaping from his father. In my high school lit class, we must have talked primarily about the river--why else would I remember it as such a grand part of the book? Or, perhaps, I just really wanted to float down a river on a raft.

This time around I was terribly appalled at the use of the "N" word. I understand that it was a common term at the time; still, I am uncomfortable with that word appearing a dozen times on each page. I don't remember this from high school, however. Was I less sensitive, or did I just accept an author's literary dialogue as such? When we started reading Huck Finn a few weeks ago, it was Banned Books Week. We had some lively discussion about why books are banned. We all ran up against a brick wall as to why Huck Finn is often banned, although I did cite reasons according to various websites. Still, the only reason we could come up with for ourselves was the use of that word. Would Mark Twain be appalled now? I think probably so.

Mark Twain is a marvelous author. His humor comes out of nowhere. He's the kind of author that makes me say, "Ha! What a genius!" as I'm reading. I feel unworthy, in fact, to teach and review his writing. I wish he were here to explain it all himself.

Book Review: The Lighthouse

October 12, 2007

I thought I would never get through this book by P.D. James! It's not that the book was terrible. But as I was about a third of the way through this crime/mystery, I remembered I don't really enjoy this genre. A review at says: "Vivid character studies and intricate settings reveal James’s eye for detail—from descriptions of Oliver’s insidious personality and Dalgliesh’s insecurities to an intelligent game of Scrabble." But that's exactly what was missing for me: the "vivd character studies." The characters all seemed flat and stereotypical to me: the silly teenager, the loveless detective, the really bad guy, the housekeeper who knows everything. This is a described as a "page turner": for me, it was a page turner only because I wanted to get to the end so I could start my next book.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Booking Through Thursday: Live and In-Person

October 11, 2007

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This week's Booking Through Thursday asks:
Have you ever met one of your favorite authors? Gotten their autograph? How about an author you felt only so-so about, but got their autograph anyway? Like, say, at a book-signing a friend dragged you to? How about stumbling across a book signing or reading and being so captivated, you bought the book?

Strangely, I have not made it part of my life to seek out book signings or even readings. I suspect much of that has to do with this season of life (and the last season): being a parent of young children (and before that, being mostly concerned with where the next band was playing).

The first author I remember hearing was Charles Wright, who came to read at our college. Randy bought his book of poetry The Other Side of the River and had it signed. When I was in graduate school in Iowa, we had several visiting authors do readings. I guess most of them were unmemorable, except for the poet Li-Young Lee. He was absolutely mesmerizing. I could have listened to him read for hours and hours. I bought all of his books of poetry. Of course lots of fellow grad students and professors also did readings and I did buy some of their books, but it's kind of weird to have a fellow student/professor sign a book. Some of these included: Joe Geha, Debra Marquart , Gary Whitehead , Neal Bowers, and many others.

Several years ago we heard Abraham Verghese read at the now defunct Davis-Kidd Bookstore in Knoxville. I had already read his amazing My Own Country, but I didn't think to bring it to be signed. Soon after his reading I read The Tennis Partner, and I enjoyed hearing his voice as I read it. Next month our Book Club is going to hear Kaye Gibbons read at Maryville College. But I don't suppose I'll ask her to sign my library copy of Ellen Foster, which is, of course, our next month's book.

I guess I'm not much of an autograph person. I never had an autograph book or one of those autograph stuffed animals. I never thought to have the kids get autographs as Disney. And all those yearbooks with their myriad signatures are stowed away in boxes somewhere.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Curriculum Review: Usborne's I Can Draw Series

October 5, 2007

I was reminded again yesterday of how much I love this series by Usborne Books at Home. The series includes I Can Draw Animals, I Can Cut and Stick, I Can Crayon, I Can Fingerpaint, and I Can Draw People. Yesterday Duncan and I spent a good hour with I Can Draw Animals (above). The projects are simple enough that he, age 6, feels a tremendous sense of accomplishment and absolutely no frustration. The drawings go step by simple step, and coloring outside the lines only enhances the final product. Yesterday we did sea creatures; today we are going to draw jungle animals. Being the youngest child, Duncan has not had the benefit of all the hours I poured into his older siblings with art projects. This series if perfect for both of us because of it's simplicity and "around-the-house" usability.

(If you don't have your own Usborne consultant, leave a comment for my friend Donna at her blog and she'll help you out!)

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Book Review: Winter Birds

September 29, 2007

Jamie Langston Turner is the author who convinced me that not all Christian fiction is insipid and trite. I read her novel Some Wildflower in My Heart several years ago and was hooked. I'd forgotten about her until Sherry over at Semicolon reviewed Winter Birds, her newest novel. Turner's novels are not easy reading. She is a phenomenal writer, but complex. Every page is full of uncanny insight into the human soul. She rejects the stereotypical characters that so often star in Christian novels and instead presents her characters intimately and realistically. And she is never didactic. Her theology is carefully woven into the story without ever coming close to being preachy. Really, she is amazing.

This particular novel centers on Aunt Sophie, a lonely and bitter old woman who has chosen to live with her nephew and his wife, on whom she will bestow her inheritance. The novel rotates between reflections on Aunt Sophie's life, including her brief marriage, and her present circumstances. As always, Turner provides a satisfactory, redemptive ending.

Like all of Turner's novels, this is not light beach reading. You have to be prepared to concentrate and absorb--but it is well worth the effort.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Booking Through Thursday: Friendship

September 27, 2007

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This week's question from Booking Through Thursday:

Buy a Friend a Book Week is October 1-7 (as well as the first weeks of January, April, and July). During this week, you’re encouraged to buy a friend a book for no good reason. Not for their birthday, not because it’s a holiday, not to cheer them up–just because it’s a book.

What book would you choose to give to a friend and why? And, if you’re feeling generous enough–head on over to Amazon and actually send one on its way!

That would depend entirely on the friend. If I had a friend that was contemplating homeschooling, I would buy him/her John Taylor Gatto's Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling.
If I were to buy a friend a book of poetry, it might be Li-Young Lee's Rose. If my friend was looking for Christian fiction, I would buy Francine Rivers' Mark of the Lion series. For the best book I've read this year: The Kite Runner. For perhaps my favorite book of all time, To Kill a Mockingbird.

But the thing is: among my group of friends, we circulate books as soon as we finish them. We are a living, breathing, paperback swap. And for anyone else: I'd probably just buy an gift certificate. Too often we've bought books for friends or family only to discover they already have that book on their shelves. Kindly, they'll say, "That's OK! This hardback copy is nice, too!" And so. The gift card suffices.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Book Review: Helen Keller's Teacher

September 25, 2007

"Teacher, don't talk like that [about your impending death]!" her friend cried out. "You must not leave us. Helen would be nothing without you!"
"Then I would have failed," Annie snapped. For her whole life had been dedicated to making Helen Keller free — free even of Teacher.

I just finished reading this book by Mickie (Margaret) Davidson out loud to Laurel. She could certainly have read it to herself, but I really wanted to share this one with her. I think it was about the 118th time in my life I've read this book about Annie Sullivan, and I still got all choked up. I can think of no other book that I read so often in my childhood. I don't know why this story appealed to me more than the biography of Helen Keller herself, but it was always Annie Sullivan's story that I came back to again and again. The girl with the scratchy eyes and terrible temper, the scenes in the poorhouse, her brother's tubercular hip--all those images were so familiar to me as I read the book to my daughter. And she loved it. I would have been terribly disappointed if she hadn't been enthralled! We have also read Helen Keller's story and watched both the Nest video and The Miracle Worker, but Helen Keller's Teacher is still my favorite.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Curriculum Review: Top Secret Adventure and Which Way USA

September 21, 2007

My friend Tammy, who is a curriculum junkie, introduced me to Highlight's world geography club, Top Secret Adventures. Having joined Book of the Month Club many times in my life with disastrous results, I am always skeptical of mail-order book clubs; however, I was intrigued by Top Secret Adventures. The idea is that your child is a secret agent in the Country-of-the-Month (Japan begins the series), and s/he has to solve the crime/mystery by traveling around the country, finding clues. "Travel" around the country is provided through puzzles of all sorts, map work, and searching the guidebook. The guidebook and puzzle book contain loads of information about the particular country. Laurel was 9 when we began this series, and she was just old enough to enjoy it. She was excited each time one would come in the mail. We didn't get to all of the kits and have moved on from World History for now, so I have stored the unopened countries and canceled our subscription for now.

This year we are studying American History, so I've ordered the Which Way U.S.A instead series instead. Much like the Top Secret program, Which Way USA provides a nice state map and a puzzle book with each state (two come per month). My only gripe so far is that the New York puzzle book spent about 98% of the book on New York City and 2% on the rest of the state, which is disappointingly typical.

The books are colorful (but not too busy) and filled with facts and tidbits of information about people and places. The information is presented in a way that is appealing to my 5th grader--short snippets and not terribly overbearing. (She's my "bells and whistles" girl.) My 1st-grader is not terribly interested, and my 9th-grader would rather just find the capital and a few major cities, as well as famous people from the state, and be done with it. We use these Highlights' clubs in conjunction with Geography Matters' Trail Guides and Mark-it Maps to round out our geography program.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Reading Challenge Completed

September 14, 2007

I've finished my first-ever reading challenge. If you haven't yet visited Sherry at Semicolon, you should. She posts a fabulous Saturday Review of Books each week, and I've added many books to my list from the reviews there. Her challenge was to read 6 books from the Review list between now and December 31. Several of these books are on my reading list anyway, but I picked up a few extras. I picked more than six in case some weren't available, and indeed, I never did find one so I took it off my list.

1. The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak. Reviewed by Framed and Booked. Reivewed by 3M. Reviewed by Stefanie at So Many Books. Reviewed by Stephen Lang. Reviewed by Lisa at Breaking the Fourth Wall. Reviewed by Booklogged. Reviewed by Sherry at Semicolon. Reviewed by Krakovianka.
My review here.

2. Mrs. Mike by Benedict and Nancy Freedman. Reviewed by Leslie at Abiding.
My review here.

3. The Nazi Officer’s Wife by Edith Hahn Beer. Reviewed by Literary Feline. Reviewed by Bookfool.
My review here.

4. Night by Elie Wiesel. Reviewed by Jane at Much Ado. Reviewed by Sherry at Semicolon.
My review here.

5. The Other Side of the River: A Story of Two Towns, A Death, and America’s Dilemma by Alex Kotlowitz. Reviewed by Wendy at Caribous Mom.
My review here.

6. A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini. Reviewed by Carol at Magistramater.
My review here.

7. Wrapped in Rain by Charles Martin. Reviewed by Jewellspring.
My review here.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Book Review: Night

September 13, 2007

"Night had fallen. That evening, we went to bed early. My father said: 'Sleep peacefully, children. Nothing will happen until the day after tomorrow, Tuesday' ....It was to be the last night spent in our house. ...At nine o'clock...policemen wielding clubs were shouting: 'All Jews outside!'...
That was when I began to hate them, and my hatred remains our only link today. They were our first oppressors. The were the first faces of hell and death."

Author Elie Wiesel was 15 when he and his family were taken from their home in Transylvania to Auschwitz and then to Buchenwald. This book is the haunting account of the horror of his life in the camps and struggle for survival as he and his father and millions of Jewish people had their humanity stripped away in a single night. Woven throughout the memoir are Wiesel's battle with the guilt of survival, the unbelievable reality of the attempted annihilation of an entire race of people, and his despair at losing his faith. This is a tremendously powerful book and one that I would absolutely recommend to everyone--so that we never become complacent.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Book Review: Peace Child

September 12, 2007

Phew! All I ever wanted to know about cannibalism and more is included in this true missionary story, which is part of Sonlight's Core 100 curriculum. In spite of the gore, this book by Don Richardson tells the amazing story of the Stone Age Sawi people of New Guinea and the Richardsons' adventures in the 1960s and 70s in bringing the gospel to this headhunting tribe. The Sawi people seemed impenetrable. In teaching the story of Jesus, the Richardsons kept running into obstacles. The people applauded Judas Iscariot for his treachery and laughed and believed that Jesus got what he deserved because he wasn't a master of treacher and betrayal. They were taught from an early age to kill, betray and cheat. But eventually the Richardsons figured out the key to the Sawi people using a redemptive analogy from the Sawi's own mythology: the Peace Child. With this breakthrough, the Richardsons were able to bring the gospel to the Sawi people. In addition, the Richardsons began preparing the Sawi for the tremendous changes that were to take place in the next decade in the jungle as the government began regulating the native peoples, stripping the land, and propelling them into the modern world. Gruesome reading. I wouldn't recommend this for kids younger than 12.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Book Review: Between, Georgia

September 2, 2007

I was thinking this would be a sweet and sappy break after reading the extremely intense The Book Thief. It wasn't nearly as sweet and sappy as I assumed it would be; as a matter of fact, there wasn't much of either in this book by Joshilyn Jackson. The story is a familiar one--a Hatfield and McCoy battle in a small southern town. But the characters were terribly compelling. Nonny, the narrator, is more than just living in Between, Georgia. She is also in-between two feuding families: the Crabtrees (her biological family) and the Fretts (her adopted family). To add more conflict to the story, her adopted mother is blind and deaf, and her two aunts are quirky enough to merit being characters in southern literature. Much of the novel revolves around Nonny and her many relationships (familial, romantic, and internally), but the story of her mother and her aunts is wonderful. I can't say I'd rush out and tell my friends, "You must read this novel!" but it was a good filler between other novels.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Curriculum Review: First Language Lessons

August 31, 2007

I was so happy, when going through my shelf of curriculum, to see that it's Duncan's turn to start First Language Lessons. I love this introduction to language arts by Jessie Wise of The Well-Trained Mind fame. The book covers two years--targeted to first and second grades--and is non-consumable, so is a great buy even at it's brand new price ($18). Of course, you can purchase this used for much less.

The approach is a gentle one but very thorough. The first page starts with a definition: "a noun is the name of a person, place, thing, or idea." Over the next several weeks, this definition will be thoroughly explained, piece by piece--person, place, thing, idea. Throughout the two-year program, all the parts of speech will be covered, prepositions and helping verbs will be memorized, the basic rules of capitalization and punctuation will have been taught, and grammar will have taken root in the child's mind. Gently.

Poetry memorization is also a central focus of the program. On the second day, they learn Christina Rossetti's "The Caterpillar" and practice it for weeks. By the end of two years, they will have memorized 10 poems--or at least heard these 10 poems read over and over again! The poems do get harder as they go along, so I can't honestly say that Laurel memorized all of them. But she remembers the first few quite well, and I think it's always good to have a few poems tucked under one's belt. Also included are beginning storytelling and narration skills, although these are light and not at all overbearing. Writing exercises and enrichment ideas are included as optional activities, so you could definitely use this for two or more kids at different levels. And one of my favorite features: each lesson takes about 10 minutes.

First Language Lessons
appeals to me because it is such a gentle introduction to grammar. I love grammar. I love the written word and what you can do with language. I balk at programs that force dry chunks of nouns and verbs down a child's throat and chuck complex sentences at their little heads. No wonder so many grow up to proclaim, "Ahhh! I hate grammar!"

Jessie Wise now has First Language Lessons Level 3, a follow-up to her first for the next level. I wish that had been around for Laurel but will absolutely plan to use it for Duncan.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Book Review: The Book Thief

August 30, 2007

Tragic. Hideous. Beautiful. Those were the first three words that came out of my mouth when I finished this book by Markus Zusak and Dr. H asked "How was it?" How to describe a book written by Death himself as he tells the tale of the enduring force of love and death in the midst of World War 2 in Germany? The protagonist--the Book Thief herself--is Liesel Meminger, who faces tragedy early on but finds love through her new foster family. Their lives are hard. They are poor, hungry, and live in the bitterness of Nazi Germany; but Liesel feeds her soul with the words of stolen books, her foster father's tenderness, her best friend Rudy, and their hidden Jewish fugitive. Death is a compelling narrator as he carries away the endless souls in the mess of WWII but keeps an eye on the story of Liesel.

Zusak combines words and phrases in astounding ways. His imagery is sharp and unusual, impossible to skim. He is a lyric poet and a beat poetry slam in one:

"Her voice was like suicide, landing with a clunk at Liesel's feet."
"He tasted like regret in the shadows of trees and in the glow of the anarchist's suit collection."
Besides Zusak's amazing ability to play with language and images, he is a powerful storyteller. This is a not an easy read. The subject matter is emotionally hard, and Death-as-Narrator is sometimes overbearing and cold. But it is well worth the emotional energy.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Classic Literature

August 28, 2007

Yesterday was the first day for my Introduction to American Literature class at our support group's enrichment classes. I have 16 students in grades 9-12, and I absolutely love teaching literature. Teaching literature in this particular setting is a dream job. I get to pick the books. I get to write my own lesson plans. I personally know most of the kids--and their families--in my class. I don't have any government standards to which I have to adhere, and I don't have to teach to any particular test. And in this freedom, I believe we'll thrive together.

A month ago I gave my students their first assignment: to read The Scarlet Letter prior to our first meeting. They did. Well, a couple of them read a combination of the novel and Cliffs Notes, but we cleared that up right away. (That would be addressed in my course notes at #5 under "My Expectations": Cheating includes reading plot summaries of books rather than reading the novels themselves; and more specifically in the "what we're reading" paragraph: Please do not read the Cliffs Notes (or SparksNotes or anything like that) or watch the movie beforehand. ) But, to their credit, they readily admitted reading the Cliffs Notes and claimed "You didn't tell us!" Which is true. But now they know.

But I digress. The kids were quiet, as they normally are in the first few weeks. After that they all warm up and won't stop talking. Nonetheless, the question came up that I was anticipating: What makes a novel classic? I loved hearing their answers, ranging from "it's fun to read" to "it's long and old." So part of their journal assignment for this week is to ponder great literature. They are supposed to write about why they personally think it is or isn't important to read classic literature, and also to ask their parents/grandparents about what they remember about classic literature from their high school years. Ultimately, I hope this will lead to a further discussion of what makes a classic--and why it's valuable to read them.

So, what does make a novel classic?

Post A Comment!.....


Tuesday, August 28, 2007 - 2 words

Posted by DrHibiscus (

universal truth

classic literature speaks beyond the story. the story is but the context, the setting in which some universal truth, or universal human condition can be explored. true - many novels do this, but may not couch the universality in a compelling story. others may be great stories, but not contain that grain of universal truth. GREAT writers are able to do both.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007 - Classic

Posted by Tim Richardson (

Books are classics if they meet one of the following criteria:
1) Part of the card game "Authors"
2 If the books smells like it belonged in my grandmother's library (she only kept books that were good to read).
3) If you had to read the book in your 9th or 10th grade English class and spent weeks talking about the symbolism in the book (Great Expectations, To Kill A Mockingbird and ...yes The Scarlett Letter).

Tuesday, August 28, 2007 - It's a classic IF...

Posted by QueenoftheHill (

1. It serves as a standard of excellence in literature.

2. Or it is symbolic of a specific style in literature. (Didn't like "A Catcher in the Rye," but they do make you read it in high school.)

3. Or if I read it in high school and cannot possibly live without a copy in my home -- which is a challenge, because I think everyone else should read it and keep lending mine out. I have ordered so many copies of "The Little Prince" by Antoine de St. Exupery and continue to believe that no life is complete and no grown-up truly grown-up until it has been read, embraced and understood.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007 - won't wax poetic here, BUT

Posted by onfire (

the first thing that came to my mind, in trying to embrace more modern literature lately (and not finding much of worth, to be honest)
it does not have gratuitous explicit cheap love scenes or nasty unnecessary foul language.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Booking Through Thursday: Monogamy

August 16, 2007

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One book at a time? Or more than one? If more, are they different types/genres? Or similar?
(We’re talking recreational reading, here—books for work or school don’t really count since they’re not optional.)

I am absolutely monogamous, although my father is the most polygamous reader I've ever seen. He always had several books going at the same time: one in the bathroom, one in the living room, one in the kitchen, and probably another one somewhere else. (Add to that he could carry on a conversation and watch TV while reading.) I cannot bear to have more than one book going at a time.

If you'd like to play along with Booking Through Thursday, post your response on your blog and link here.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Book Review: Man and Boy

August 12, 2007

“You should never underestimate the power of the nuclear family. These days, coming from an unbroken home is like having independent means, or Paul Newman eyes… . It’s one of life’s true blessings, given to just a lucky few.”
--Harry, in Man and Boy

What a sad book. The story goes that Harry, facing 30 (thirty, for goodness sake! Couldn’t he at least have been facing 50?), has somewhat of a midlife crisis leading to a shiny new car and a one-night stand. So, surprise, his wife leaves him and wants custody of their son, but first she wants to try out a career in Japan. So ensues her finding someone else, him finding someone else, and a fight for custody.

At times I had a hard time grasping this book—relating to the characters—because the lives depicted here are lives I choose not to lead. I learn much from books like Hosseini’s Kite Runner, where culture and circumstances create powerful characters who face moral dilemmas and who strive merely to survive. I enjoy novels like The Time Traveler's Wife and The Thirteenth Tale that let me suspend my disbelief for awhile.

But characters like Harry in Man and Boy cause me to take a “Don’t be a whiner” attitude. I couldn’t really identify with the characters, yet I felt that I should because they were of my generation. For one, they were British. Nothing against the British, I just don’t always get British. For another, they swore constantly. And they lacked a moral compass (“oops, I guess I shouldn’t have had that one-night stand”). I understand that Harry is a flawed person. I understand that part of the point of the novel is that he is searching for identity and redemption and comes a step closer to redeeming himself because he is a good father and a good son. It’s just that everything in the novel happened too quickly with Harry. He had an affair, his wife left him, they both found new love in 4 months time. Maybe that’s how the world really works, but it didn’t ring true for me.

But a few things save this novel. Parsons’ writing is very good. And Harry’s love and expression for his son is beautiful and very, very real. I appreciate that Parsons explores the importance of the intact family and the havoc today’s selfish parents are wreaking upon their children. As Harry says, “Sorry about the collapse of the modern marriage. Sorry that adults these days are so self-centered and dumb that we can’t even manage to bring up our own children. Sorry that the world is so messed up that we think about our sons and daughters about as deeply as the average barnyard animal.” Also, crucial to the novel is Harry’s relationship with his father and his father himself, and this part of the story was wonderful. While others fall flat, Harry’s father is a richly drawn character.

There is a sequel to this novel called Man and Wife, and I won’t be reading it, because I find that I don’t really care, ultimately, what happens to Harry.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Book Review: The Scarlet Letter

August 10, 2007

Oh yes, my American Literature students are going to be kissing my feet for this one. I can't remember the last time I had to look up so many words in the dictionary. What authors today liberally sprinkle the pages with words like ignominy, panoply, abstruse, deleterious, importunate, propinquity, loquacity, obeisance, probity, and vicissitude? And right there is a reason for reading A Scarlet Letter: realizing that literature is much more than the action and intrigue of a Tom Clancy novel or the slice-of-life, contemporary novels I so often read. Great literature takes a love triangle and makes a statement about people, society, politics, and religion. And while an extensive vocabulary doesn't mean a piece of literature is a classic, it definitely forces the reader to do a little work.

If only my students can wade through Hawthorne's loquacity to be able to discuss this novel. But I think they'll have fun with some topics:
* How to religious beliefs and colonial laws mix in this novel? How do religion and law mix today?
* How does society demand that we conform to certain conventions? What expectations does society have about how we behave publicly and how we treat other people? What happens when we don't meet those expectations?

I enjoyed re-reading The Scarlet Letter. I predict this will be the most difficult of the novels I've picked for the class I'm teaching at our support group's co-op, but there's something to be said for getting the hard stuff out of the way.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Booking Through Thursday: Multiples

August 9, 2007

Booking Through Thursday* asks:

Do you have multiple copies of any of your books? If so, why? Absent-mindedness? You love them that much? First Editions for the shelf, but paperbacks to read? If not, why not? Not enough space? Not enough money? Too sensible to do something so foolish?

For many, many years, Dr. and I were book collectors. We didn't collect rare books or first editions, just books we liked and/or books that were considered classics. Our plan was to have a used bookstore/coffee shop. (This was way before bookstore/coffee shop combos were the strip-mall du jour.) We spent many hours scouring used bookstores and thrift stores for books. We always kept the first copy of any purchase for ourselves, and shelved duplicate copies next to our own. Because I take strange pleasure in keeping track of things, I kept a chart to record all of our books, even marking when a book was borrowed and by whom. (I would have loved LibraryThing back then; now I have no time for it.)

There are two problems with all these books: 1) the need for more bookshelves and 2) moving. Our assortment of odd bookshelves began taking over our tiny apartments. And boxing up all those books for each move, phew! What sweat.

And then there comes the having of children, who come readily equipped with books. What begins with Good-Night Moon and Pat-the-Bunny morphs into three children with another half-dozen bookshelves. And if children themselves didn't necessitate books, there comes homeschooling and, naturally, we must go with the literature-based Sonlight and its hundreds of books.

And so. At some point, I began giving away duplicates. I believe I gave a box to my niece, who is a fellow bibliophile. And I gave a box to a friend, who was missing some important books in her own collection. I don't remember the rest, but we have released ourselves from nearly all of our duplicates. More recently, I have actually begun going through our own collection and doing away with books I didn't really like or don't plan on ever reading again--and either taking them to our favorite used bookstore (for more book credit, of course) or trading them out on Paperback Swap. I am slowly coming to terms with this: I don't have to keep every book I've ever read. And I certainly don't need two copies of them.

But those empty spaces on the shelves are filled immediately, and we are always in need of another bookshelf.

(*Want to post your own ramblings on this topic? Click on the Booking Through Thursday link above.)

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Book Review: Mrs. Mike

August 4, 2007

This book by Benedict and Nancy Freedman has been on my reading list for a few years, but our library doesn't have it. (I ultimately got it through And after reading it, I am absolutely amazed that our library doesn't carry this absolute gem of a book which, according to the many reviews I've read since, is an incredibly well-loved book! The story: Katherine Mary O'Fallon, a sickly sixteen-year-old, is shipped off to Canada at the recommendation of her doctor. She leaves Boston to live with her uncle in the Canadian wilderness. Within a short time she meets and marries Canadian Mountie Mike Flannigan, and the rest of the book is about their life together in rugged and remote Alberta in the early 1900s. Mike and Kathy cope with all kinds of tragedies and adventures, and their love story is vibrant and palpable. An absolutely wonderful book!

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Book Review: The Dead Don't Dance

July 31, 2007

I'm glad that I am reading Charles Martin's books backwards in order of publication, because I may not have continued had I started with his first, The Dead Don't Dance. His characters are very likeable (although after reading three Martin books, I see that the protagonist is basically the same guy in all three) and the story itself is sweet, but...there's certainly a reason why he received 86 rejection letters before Thomas Nelson Publishers finally picked this one up. His writing oozes sentimentality and cliches. I said this same thing about Wrapped in Rain: he puts in too many tangential slices that distract the reader from the story without adding anything at all. I was irritated by this and skipped several paragraphs and even pages of stories he should have chopped out. (Don't tell me about pigs! Get back to the story!)

So, this is very light reading; again, great for a day when you need something happy and don't mind some sappiness. Martin is an author who absolutely improves with each book. When Crickets Cry was really excellent, and I look for more good things to come from him.

Book Review: Alice's Tulips

July 31, 2007

This book by Sandra Dallas is perfect vacation reading material. Through a series of letters to her sister, Alice relates her experiences as a young Civil War bride whose husband goes off to war. The letters are filled with accounts of quilting, farm life, customs of small-town America, war hardship, and Alice's own coming-of-age. Each chapter begins with a short description of various types of quilts and their meanings, which I found particularly interesting. There's nothing heavy or intense here, just a light summer read.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Book Review: The Other Side of the River

July 30, 2007

This book by Alex Kotlowitz (author of the best-selling There Are No Children Here) is praised by Kirkus Reviews as being "A powerful record of an untimely death in middle America." The disappointment is that this is not a particularly powerful nor compelling book, although the subject matter certainly is compelling. This nonfiction account is of two cities in Michigan: lily-white and rich St. Joseph and poverty-stricken and black Benton Harbor, just across the river. This could have been a powerful book because the contrast between these two towns is fascinating; however, Kotlowitz stumbles as a writer, taking the long way about and leaving a maze of jumbled stories. I couldn't help but compare this to John Grisham's The Innocent Man, which follows a similar story of injustice and an unsolved crime. Where Grisham uses his storytelling skills to make his nonfiction account read like a mystery as well as a social commentary, Kotlowitz's story lacks the kind of personal close-ups that makes for a gripping tale. He could have done a lot more to make the reader know the characters on a deeper level.

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

July 30, 2007

It was a most, most, most satisfactory read. I have no complaints. I have no criticisms. Congratulations to JK Rowling on a most excellent and gratifying series.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Book Review: Ethan Frome

June 28, 2007

This short novel by Edith Wharton stands my test of time: I loved it upon my first reading in high school, then again in college, and now as a full-fledged adult. (Yes, I really do consider myself a full-fledged adult for the most part.) It has all the elements of a good novel: a man who struggles with his identity, a love triangle, a moral crisis, and a healthy dose of irony. The story is as stark as its New England setting. You can't help but root for Ethan, mentally urging him to shed his tedious life and marriage of convenience, in spite of the moral dilemma posed. The ending throws a twist that I had forgotten and so enjoyed all over again. Ethan Frome has now made it to the short list of books for my American Lit class next year. I'm hoping that the 1993 movie is appropriate for teens; I'll put that on my summer watching list.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Book Miscellany

July 24, 2007

1. Curious about how many of the "1001 Books to Read Before You Die" that you've read? I was. I've read 121 of them, or 12.09%. I'll have to read 29 of these books each year in order to read them all before I die. What this chart doesn't tell me is exactly how and when I'll die, although it apparently knows. Also, I'm not sure who Peter Boxall is or why he is the Master of All Books, but it is fun to download this chart and see what an uneducated loser you are.

2. Paperback Swap is fun. See my little linky box on my sidebar? If you click on that, it'll take you to Paperback Swap. What you do is find 10 books in your house that you are ready to give away, and you list them here. Then you get to pick out 3 books for free. It really is fun! Of course, you have to be ready to send your book(s) when requested. Paperback Swap makes this very easy by automatically generating the mailing label for you. You pay the postage, which currently is $2.13 media rate. Every time someone receives one of your books, you get to pick out another book. Is this a good deal for a book? Not necessarily. You can go to a thrift store and buy a book for a quarter. But I've been able to find a bunch of books on my reading list this way, and I so enjoy getting packages in the mail.

3. People often ask me where I find book titles to read. My new favorite place is through Sherry at Semicolon. (This is Judy D's sister, for all you Local Yokels.) Not only does she have interesting book reviews of her own several times each week, but she has a great weekly column called the Saturday Review of Books. You can check her blog every Saturday to see new reviews by 75 or so bloggers, or you can just go to her running list of Saturday Reviews. My reading list has greatly expanded since I've been a regular reader there. And if that isn't enough for you, she has a big list of Book Blogs on her sidebar.
* Another way I like to get books is by perusing Listmania at Just do a search for one of your favorite books, and look at the sidebars or at the bottom to see what the Listmania selections are.
* I've gotten great ideas from the Bibliovores forum at the Sonlight boards. This might be one of the private access forums, but if you spend a lot of money at Sonlight, you can read the "What Did You Read" each month reviews, which are always enlightening.
* And finally, my friends give me great book ideas! We are always saying, "GIve me a good book for my trip!" or "You've got to read this!"

4. And speaking of trips, here is what I am taking to read on my upcoming trip to New York (assuming I'll finish Harry Potter withing the next few days before I leave) (and assuming we'll have a rental van within the next three days so that I DO NOT MISS MY BROTHER'S WEDDING):
The Other Side of the River by Alex Kotlowitz; Alice's Tulips by Sandra Dallas; Man and Boy by Tony Parsons; The Queen of the Big Time by Adriana Trigiani; Mrs. Mike by Benedict and Nancy Freedman; and The Scarlet Letter.

And that's what I have to say about books today. Now go read. It's good for your soul.