Thursday, January 31, 2008

Book Review: Broken for You

January 31, 2008

The debut novel by Stephanie Kallos is everything I want a novel to be, from the fully rendered characters to the twists and turns of plot, filled with all kinds of side-stories and satisfying details. I loved this book.

The story: Margaret, age 70-ish, discovers she is dying of a brain tumor. An awkward recluse who talks to the objects in her house, Margaret decides to take what little time she has left to change her life. She takes in a boarder, Wanda, who is also a broken person. The two women tentatively begin a friendship, accumulating a cast of broken people along the way. The backgrounds of Margaret and Wanda are revealed along the way, including a whopper of story that I didn't see coming with Margaret. I like to be surprised.

Kallos's writing is fantastic. Some may say she manipulates events too much to make everything tie together in a neat package, but I thought the story was fabulous. Some of the broken people were a bit stereotypical, but just a bit. Broken for You kept me up past my bedtime for several nights, and that's always the sign of a riveting book.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Surrounded by Would-Be Flappers

January 27, 2008

The Sunday

"People over forty can seldom be permanently convinced of anything. At eighteen our convictions are hills from which we look; at forty-five they are caves in which we hide."
--F. Scott Fitzgerald in "Bernice Bobs Her Hair"

I wonder what I thought of that statement when I first read this story in my early 20s? Fitzgerald himself was only 24 when he wrote this story, and I find that statement remarkable. Did I ever utter anything so profound at that age? I'm not sure I necessarily agree with him, but still.

Today I’ve been immersed in the Jazz Age: F. Scott Fitzgerald, the Roaring Twenties, and flappers. Tomorrow we’ll be discussing “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” in the American Lit class I teach. I love this story, and it’s perfect for teaching to high schoolers. There’s a wonderful 45-minute movie, as well, but we don’t have access to a VCR for tomorrow and our library doesn’t carry the DVD. We’ll have to add this to our list of movies to watch on weekend get-togethers.

I was surprised at the scarcity of lessons plans on the internet for this story. I could find dozens for The Great Gatsby, but no one seems to be teaching Fitzgerald's short stories. I loved Gatsby and have read it several times, but it's Fitzgerald's short stories that I've always found masterful. I can remember going through a time in college when I devoured Fitzgerald, and I lamented that I hadn't been around in the Roaring Twenties. I look forward to discussing this story with my 18 teenagers tomorrow.

In other reading endeavors, I finally got around to writing reviews for the wonderful memoir The Horizontal World and for The Witch of Blackbird Pond. I finished another absolutely fantastic book, Broken for You. This is Stephanie Kallos's debut novel, and it is phenomenal. I'll post a review sometime this week. I've just started Ann Marie MacDonald's The Way the Crow Flies, which is great so far. To the kids, I'm reading The Sign of the Beaver by day and a "Dear America" book to Laurel by night. (Randy's reading Chitty-Chitty Bang Bang to Duncan in the evening.) This week I'll also be re-reading Steinbeck's The Red Pony in preparation for American Lit class next week.

And one more reading challenge: I'm reading through the Bible this year. I haven't done this purposefully in 20 years, although I've probably read most of the books through several times in the past decade. A few months ago Laurel said to me, "We read this story before! Why are we reading it again!" I explained to her that, even though I've been reading the Bible all my life, I find something new nearly every single time I read a particular story or verse or chapter. And that is the tell-tale sign of a good classic.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Book Review: The Horizontal World

January 25, 2008

“This was no little house on the prairie. We smeared musky blue shadow on our eyelids and raspberry gloss on our lips. We wore platform shoes and bell-bottom jeans. It was the times. We were hip-huggered, and tight-sweatered, and navel-exposed. We walked around town like the James gang, tossing this and flashing that.”

Although it has been nearly nine years since I’ve heard my major professor’s voice, I could instantly recall it within the first sentence of her memoir, The Horizontal World: Growing Up Wild in the Middle of Nowhere. Deb Marquart is a musician as well as a writer, and her voices are rich and lyrical–both her writing voice and her speaking voice. I love everything about this book, from the feel of the dust jacket to the last line. Perhaps it is because I have an affinity for poetic memoirs where place is central. Perhaps it’s because I enjoy these kinds of memoirs, like McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes and Walls' The Glass Castle. I appreciate a writer who takes time crafting language, fitting words together for the sheer joy of poetry.

Perhaps I love this book because I knew the author, and she picked me. I was two-thirds of the way through my master’s program, and I had taken a year off when Laurel was born. Perhaps I never would have finished if Deb hadn’t called me one day and said, “You need to finish. And I want to help you.” I had been assigned another professor, who was wonderful but willing to let me fizzle out unfinished. Deb took it upon herself to ask him if she could “have” me—if she could step in and be my major professor. And I churned out my thesis, poem after poem, piece by piece. I am eternally grateful to her for that.

Maybe it’s because I recognize myself in this book. Deb has a beautiful way of giving words—giving shape--to familiar thoughts. I had moments all through the book where I said, “Yes! Yes! I know this feeling! I have been in this place!” Just a few:
“There at the supper table I learned to listen. As the youngest child, I was at play in a field that everyone around me had long ago mastered. But listeners have their place in stories as do laughers, a job my grandmother took on. Without listeners and laughers, stories have nowhere to live. They float away and are forgotten.”
“Sometimes it’s hard to pin down a family story. They shift before you like mirages.”
“You have to keep an eye on family stories, lest they fall through the crack between the two worlds.”
“Another reason you can’t go home again is that the shape you made upon leaving does not match your shape upon return. Not even for a weekend is it comfortable to step through the ill-fitting hole that your exit created and take up residence in your old life.”

Marquart writes not only about herself and her family heritage, but about North Dakota itself, the state that is “largely invisible to the rest of the country.” The cold and flat state that was partially and purposefully omitted from Rand McNally’s 1989 World Atlas. She writes of her great-grandparents, Russian immigrants, who saw this land as a place to start fresh—and all she saw was a hated place from which to escape.

Marquart’s writing is exquisite, and the combination of personal memoir and North Dakota lore is perfect. And I really do love the feel of the dust-jacket.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Book Review: The Witch of Blackbird Pond

January 22, 2008

"What a pity every child couldn't learn to read under a willow tree, Kit thought a week later. She and Prudence sat on a cool grassy carpet. A pale green curtain of branches just brushed the grasses and threw a filigree of shadows, as delicate as the wrought silver, on the child's face."

I love this book by Elizabeth George Speare. I loved it the first time I read it aloud, several years ago to Jesse, and I loved it even more the second time around. The story, set in 1687, centers on Kit Tyler, who must make the terrible transition from sunny Barbados to Connecticut Colony--from her kind grandfather and life of freedom to her Puritan relatives and the abundant rules of that society. Kit is thrown into a life of hard work and confusion, but her life of drudgery is transformed when she meets an old Quaker woman, known in the community as The Witch. When the people of the community suddenly embark on a witch hunt, Kit puts her own life in danger to save Hannah Tupper.

The books is full of information about life in Puritan Connecticut; the reader gets a great sense of the difficulties faced by these early settlers--constant work, illness, uncertainty, political unrest--as well as customs, beliefs, and traditions. This is one of my favorites in our American History studies.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Sunday Salon: North Dakota and a Witch

January 20, 2008

The Sunday

This is my first Sunday of participating in The Sunday Salon. What is the Sunday Salon? According to its creator:
Imagine some university library's vast reading room. It's filled with people--students and faculty and strangers who've wandered in. They're seated at great oaken desks, books piled all around them, and they're all feverishly reading and jotting notes in their leather-bound journals as they go. Later they'll mill around the open dictionaries and compare their thoughts on the afternoon's literary intake....

That's what happens at the Sunday Salon, except it's all virtual. Every Sunday the bloggers participating in that week's Salon get together--at their separate desks, in their own particular time zones--and
read. And blog about their reading. And comment on one another's blogs. Think of it as an informal, weekly, mini read-a-thon, an excuse to put aside one's earthly responsibilities and fall into a good book.

Participation is open to anyone with a blog and a stack of unread books.

So a Salon sounds warm and inviting on a cold January day. And here is what I have to say about this week's reading: it was very, very good. To the younger kids, I finished reading Elizabeth George Speare's The Witch of Blackbird Pond. This is my second time reading this one aloud, as I read it to Jesse about five years ago. I love that I can't remember the outcomes of books! I remember liking this book the first time through, but the second time through: wow! My grasp of history has grown much in those five years (I, who was a history minor in college, have learned more history in the past 8 years of homeschooling than I did in 19 years of public-college-graduate schooling) and thus my understanding of historical novels is deeper. I'll review the book later, but I'm so glad I had an opportunity to read it again.

And in my own personal reading, late last night I finished reading The Horizontal World: Growing Up Wild in the Middle of Nowhere. This is a memoir about growing up in North Dakota written by my major professor at Iowa State University, Debra Marquart. I have a lot to say about this book and will do it in a proper review soon, but let me just say that Deb's writing is absolutely incredible. I loved this book.

I've got a stack of books by my bedside. I'm eyeing Broken for You by Stephanie Kallos or Ann-Marie MacDonald's The Way the Crow Flies. Both are books I picked up from reading blog reviews, and both look like just what I need for the rest of this cold, cold Southern night.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Book Review: Flies on the Butter

January 13, 2008

""Let those flies have the butter, and next thing you know, they'll want your biscuits, too. You've got to be vigilant about some things in life."

This book by Denise Hildreth is a sweet piece of Christian chick lit (that's sweet as in "nice," not as in "suh-weet!"). Predictable, trite, and familiar with mediocre writing, but ultimately the kind you keep reading because you really want to know what happens. The story centers on the high-powered career woman everyone loves to hate, Rose Fletcher, who is really a good Southern girl in her inner core. She is called home to South Carolina, and takes the long drive to reflect on her life of poor choices in a series of flashbacks. Ultimately, of course, she peels down all the layers to that Southern core. Along the way, she makes many stops at hole-in-the-wall gas stations and meets a stereotypical cast of characters.

Still, there's something heartwarming about the book. It's one of those books that serves well for in-between great books.