Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Sunday Salon: Life Books Challenge

There are a lot of things I could be doing on this rainy summer day. I could be napping or reading or peeling off wallpaper in the kitchen. Instead, I've finished something I've had in mind for some time now: I've created a Reading Challenge. I figure now that everyone is done with the 24-Hour Read-a-thon over at The Hidden Side of the Leaf, it's time for something new.

And so I've created the Life Books Challenge. It's something I've been mulling over for awhile—how certain books capture an element of our lives that somehow add definition. Serendipitous books. Books that hold memories that are part of who we are. I hope some of you will join my challenge. It's the first one I've created, and it may be a colossal failure; but I'd venture to guess other voracious readers can relate. Intrigued? Click on the link above to read more about the challenge and to join and send me some Sunday Salon love. Here's my own list for the challenge.

In other reading news, I finished and reviewed two books this week: the astounding I Have Lived a Thousand Years and the disappointing A Beginning, a Muddle, and an End. I am over halfway through Jhumpa Lahiri's Unaccustomed Earth, and I am absolutely blown away. Lahiri is a master of short story. I love every single thing about this collection except that I want each story to be a novel. More on this next week.

Until then, happy weekend! And come join my challenge!

My Life Books (Challenge Part I)

Here's what my own Life Books Challenge requests:
Part I: Choose Your Life Books
What are the books that, in some aspect, define you? Think about who you are in terms of spirituality, love, economics, values, worldview--the list could go on and on. These might be nonfiction, self-help, fiction, picture books, children's books, etc. Give us your life in books. To see my example, click here. After you've picked your life books, write a post and leave the link on Mr. Linky. Be sure to copy and paste the button above on your blog somewhere!

Part II: Discover Something New
Check out the blogs of other participants and find at least two titles to add to your TBR list. Let us know what books you are adding by linking a second time to Mr. Linky with (Something New) by your name.

Part III: Read the Books
When you've read the new books, write a review and leave a link to your post in the comments here.

My Life Books

The Bible: (Everything) Patrick Henry is quoted as saying, "The Bible is worth all other books which have ever been printed." Daniel Webster wrote, "If there is anything in my thoughts or style to commend, the credit is due to my parents for instilling in me an early love of the Scriptures."
I can't say it any better than that.

To Kill a Mockingbird: (How to Live) For all the reasons why I love Harper Lee's one and only novel, click here.

One and Sonnets from the Portuguese: (Love and Marriage) More than any others, these two books represent Dr. H. to me. We've always quoted to each other from Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese. Not just her most well-known, "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways," but the lesser known ones, as well. Richard Bach's One is probably not a well-known book, but for Dr. H and I, it spoke to the fear of our "what if" and to the relief of how it really all turned out. (You can read about our "Happy Ending" here.) Bach presents in this book the stories of what could have happened if the characters had made other choices; it's a book of parallel lives. What if, for example, I'd not stayed for summer school that last year? What if you'd chosen to go to a different restaurant that night? What if?

Crunchy Cons: (Politics, socioeconomics, the culture debate) This book by Rod Dreher was an “a ha” book throughout for me. In nearly every chapter I had those moments of thinking (or saying outloud and then reading passages to Dr. H.), “Yes! Exactly!” and “So THIS is what I am—and there are tons of people like me!” You can read the rest of my review here.

The Total Money Makeover: (Finances) Dave Ramsey's "proven plan for financial fitness" has changed the direction of our life. From a post on my home-life blog in 2006: " Dave's favorite word is FREEEEEDOOOOOOOMMMMMMMM, and we are tasting it. People have said to us, 'How can you stand to be strapped down to a budget?' As parents, we know that kids to better with a structured life. They have freedom in knowing what is expected of them. It's the same way with finances: we feel a sense of relief knowing that this is what we have to spend--and no more." Two years later, we are still digging ourselves out of debt, but we are closer every month. Freedom.

Good-night Moon: (Parenthood) We've read hundreds of books to our children in the past 15 years, but this is the one that started it all. Margaret Wise Brown's classic bedtime book will always, for me, represent all the good things of being a mama.

Dumbing Us Down: (Education) Because homeschooling is a huge part of my life, this treatise on public education by John Taylor Gatto, a recipient of the NY State Teacher of the Year Award, speaks powerfully to me.

Eats, Shoots and Leaves: (Grammar freakiness) This is another one of those "a-ha!" books. It is a relief to find out that author Lynn Truss is also horrified by dangling modifiers. For my review, go here.

Apples: (Inheritance) Let me explain. My family is filled with generations of apple growers. Frank Browning's Apples traces the apple from the mountains of Kazahkstan to Cornell University to huge commercial growers and the little guys, too. I will always remember reading this, reading Browning's description of my father, and thinking, "Oh! That's my inheritance!" It's not money or books. My father's legacy is wrapped in the sweetest smelling fruit and handed down, seed by seed.

Phew! So that's my list. What are your life books?

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Sunday Scribblings #117: Vision

My family does not have a vision statement. It is something of which I am occasionally made aware, with a twinge of guilt, at this time of year.

Let me explain. We're a homeschooling family, and thousands of new families decide to homeschool each year. In June and July, homeschooling organizations throughout the U.S. hold conventions. And at these conventions, new homeschoolers often attend workshops called something like, "Getting Started in Homeschooling."

Makes sense, right? So at these "Getting Started" type workshops, parents are often encouraged to write a family vision statement.

There are loads of "Getting Started" advice on websites, too. Like this from
Trinity Prep School:
Developing a family vision statement .... or in my case, a paragraph, requires one to reflect on core family values. What is your vision for your family? Think long term .... what legacy do you want your children to pass onto THEIR children? Choosing action verbs in stating core values, creates an overall implementation plan.
And this one from Victory Coaching:
A well written family vision statement will answer life’s great questions: Why am I here (purpose)? Where am I going (vision)? How will I get there (mission)? What's important and right (values)? It is like a compass that guides your course. When referred to regularly, it helps to shape the goals you set and the decisions you make that will lead to your desired destination.
And so here's why we don't have a family vision statement: I think they are silly. For us. We are not the kind of family to create "an overall implementation plan." Oh, I could think of lots of "action verbs" that state our core values: Laugh. Love. Serve. Learn. Enjoy. Climb. Read. Smile. Encourage. Embrace. Believe. Imagine. Create.

But a written vision statement? It's just not for us.
It's not that we take one day at a time necessarily. We have basic goals. We make schedules. We have dreams and hopes for our children. But somehow the formality of a written vision statement seems too cumbersome and business-like.

Still, every year about this time I wonder: should we write a family vision statement? Nah. I'll stick with my list of action verbs.

(Need a weekly writing prompt? Check out Sunday Scribbling here!)

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Book Review: A Beginning, a Muddle, and an End

I so much wanted to like this book by Avi, geared toward middle and teen readers. Subtitled "The Right Way to Write Writing," this is the tale of Avon the snail and Edward the ant as they pursue the way to write a good story. I was hoping that I might use this somehow in the next creative writing class that I teach. it begins well, with helpful maxims included at the end of most chapters, such as "In writing, telling what you're going to write is never as exciting as the doing."

And some bits were quite funny, like "Make sure that when you're writing about what you don't know as if you did know, conceal the fact that you don't know what you're doing." And "Most writers talk about writing way more than they actually write. Then, when they finally do write, they mostly write talk, not writing."

But then, somehow, the maxims got muddled and the bits of wit became too clever. For the first 50 pages, I thought, "Hmm, my daughter [age 10] might like this." But in the last 100 pages, I realized that Avi's cleverness was too clever, and she wouldn't really get it.

I feel sheepish critiquing the work of Newbery winner Avi. Really, I have little patience with puns and riddles. It's not that I don't appreciate humor--really, I find a lot of things hilarious. And perhaps I'm missing the whole point of the book: perhaps the Muddle in the middle of the title is the point. Regardless, this book fell flat for me. I won't be gleaning any brilliant suggestions from it for my future writers. But if you like a fast and clever read, you might enjoy this one.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Book Review: I Have Lived a Thousand Years

Livia Bitton-Jackson was once Elli Friedmann, a carefree 13-year-old who is just becoming interested in boys, who experiences typical relationship difficulties with her mother, who adores her father. But in March 0f 1944, she became one of millions of Holocaust victims, and this is her story of unbelievable survival in the worst of circumstances. From "Hey Jew Girl, Jew Girl" to "Can I Keep My Poems, Please" to Auschwitz to "Mommy, There's a Worm in Your Soup" to "It's an American Plane," the chapters are short, gripping, graphic, and heartbreaking.

I came away from this book astonished, once again, at the ability of someone to maintain faith, hope, and perseverance in the face of cruelty and suffering. In the ghetto, before concentration camps, Elli sees the good:
"For the first time in my life, I am happy to be a Jew. And I am happy to share this particular condition of Jewishness. The handsome boys, lively women, beautiful babies, gray-bearded old men—all in the same yard of oppression, together."
In other places, Elli thanks God for respite from tragedy: the ability to drink filthy water, her mother's healing, a breath of air. Truly remarkable.

This book listed for young adult readers, but adults should not pass this up. This book, Zusak's The Book Thief and Elie Wiesel's Night, make a powerful trilogy of Holocaust reading. Another Holocaust memoir I've read in the past year is The Nazi Officer's Wife, which tells the story of how the author became a "U-boat": an Austrian Jew who went underground and emerged in Munich as an Aryan. All of these memoirs are painful, heartwrenching reads, but I think they are essential. We cannot become complacent; we cannot relegate these events to history.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

The Sunday Salon: Lists and Pondering the Classics

I saw this interesting list on The Magic Lasso's Sunday Salon post and was intrigued. These books, according to Entertainment Weekly, are the new classics (1983-2008). The books in red are the ones I've read. A handful of the others are on my reading list, but that leaves a lot I may need to add to my TBR list. Maybe. The thing is, a lot of the books that I have read on this list-- apparently considered "new classics"--are not among my favorite books. For example, Into Thin Air was great--but a classic? And why Black Water and A Thousand Acres? On the other hand, I'd agree with The Kite Runner, Poisonwood Bible, and The Glass Castle.

This all goes back to the question: what is a classic? What makes a book a classic? This was one of the first topics of discussion in the American Lit class I taught this past year.
I loved hearing their answers, ranging from "it's fun to read" to "it's long and old." When preparing for the class, I asked this question on my other blog last year, and here are some of the responses:

* Classic literature holds a 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.

* 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).

* A book is classic if:
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.

* 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), is thatit does not have gratuitous explicit cheap love scenes or nasty unnecessary foul language.

So here is the list of new classics according to Entertainment Weekly:

1. The Road , Cormac McCarthy (2006)
2. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, J.K. Rowling (2000)
3. Beloved, Toni Morrison (1987)
4. The Liars' Club, Mary Karr (1995)
5. American Pastoral, Philip Roth (1997)
6. Mystic River, Dennis Lehane (2001)
7. Maus, Art Spiegelman (1986/1991)
8. Selected Stories, Alice Munro (1996)
9. Cold Mountain, Charles Frazier (1997)
10. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Haruki Murakami (1997)
11. Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer (1997)
12. Blindness, José Saramago (1998)
13. Watchmen, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (1986-87)
14. Black Water, Joyce Carol Oates (1992)
15. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Dave Eggers (2000)
16. The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood (1986)
17. Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel García Márquez (1988)
18. Rabbit at Rest, John Updike (1990)
19. On Beauty, Zadie Smith (2005)
20. Bridget Jones's Diary, Helen Fielding (1998)
21. On Writing, Stephen King (2000)
22. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Díaz (2007)
23. The Ghost Road, Pat Barker (1996)
24. Lonesome Dove, Larry McMurtry (1985)
25. The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan (1989)
26. Neuromancer, William Gibson (1984)
27. Possession, A.S. Byatt (1990)
28. Naked, David Sedaris (1997)
29. Bel Canto, Anne Patchett (2001)
30. Case Histories, Kate Atkinson (2004)
31. The Things They Carried, Tim O'Brien (1990)
32. Parting the Waters, Taylor Branch (1988)
33. The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion (2005)
34. The Lovely Bones, Alice Sebold (2002)
35. The Line of Beauty, Alan Hollinghurst (2004)
36. Angela's Ashes, Frank McCourt (1996)
37. Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi (2003)
38. Birds of America, Lorrie Moore (1998)
39. Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri (2000)
40. His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman (1995-2000)
41. The House on Mango Street, Sandra Cisneros (1984)
42. LaBrava, Elmore Leonard (1983)
43. Borrowed Time, Paul Monette (1988)
44. Praying for Sheetrock, Melissa Fay Greene (1991)
45. Eva Luna, Isabel Allende (1988)
46. Sandman, Neil Gaiman (1988-1996)
47. World's Fair, E.L. Doctorow (1985)
48. The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver (1998)
49. Clockers, Richard Price (1992)
50. The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen (2001)
51. The Journalist and the Murderer, Janet Malcom (1990)
52. Waiting to Exhale, Terry McMillan (1992)
53. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Michael Chabon (2000)
54. Jimmy Corrigan, Chris Ware (2000)
55. The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls (2006)
56. The Night Manager, John le Carré (1993)
57. The Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe (1987)
58. Drop City, TC Boyle (2003)
59. Krik? Krak! Edwidge Danticat (1995)
60. Nickel & Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich (2001)
61. Money, Martin Amis (1985)
62. Last Train To Memphis, Peter Guralnick (1994)
63. Pastoralia, George Saunders (2000)
64. Underworld, Don DeLillo (1997)
65. The Giver, Lois Lowry (1993)
66. A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, David Foster Wallace (1997)
67. The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini (2003)
68. Fun Home, Alison Bechdel (2006)
69. Secret History, Donna Tartt (1992)
70. Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell (2004)
71. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, Ann Fadiman (1997)
72. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Mark Haddon (2003)
73. A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving (1989)
74. Friday Night Lights, H.G. Bissinger (1990)
75. Cathedral, Raymond Carver (1983)
76. A Sight for Sore Eyes, Ruth Rendell (1998)
77. The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro (1989)
78. Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert (2006)
79. The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell (2000)
80. Bright Lights, Big City, Jay McInerney (1984)
81. Backlash, Susan Faludi (1991)
82. Atonement, Ian McEwan (2002)
83. The Stone Diaries, Carol Shields (1994)
84. Holes, Louis Sachar (1998)
85. Gilead, Marilynne Robinson (2004)
86. And the Band Played On, Randy Shilts (1987)
87. The Ruins, Scott Smith (2006)
88. High Fidelity, Nick Hornby (1995)
89. Close Range, Annie Proulx (1999)
90. Comfort Me With Apples, Ruth Reichl (2001)
91. Random Family, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc (2003)
92. Presumed Innocent, Scott Turow (1987)
93. A Thousand Acres, Jane Smiley (1991)
94. Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser (2001)
95. Kaaterskill Falls, Allegra Goodman (1998)
96. The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown (2003)
97. Jesus’ Son, Denis Johnson (1992)
98. The Predators' Ball, Connie Bruck (1988)
99. Practical Magic, Alice Hoffman (1995)
100. America (the Book), Jon Stewart/Daily Show (2004)

So which ones that I haven't read should I add to my TBR list?

And speaking of my TBR list, I've added several new titles the past few weeks. Most of these are gleaned from fellow book bloggers.

Glimpses of the Moon by Edith Wharton (reviewed by Caribous Mom)
Loving Frank by N. Horan
Namesake, The by Jhumpari Lahiri
Beautiful Boy
Briar Rose by Jane Yolen (Reviewed at Maw Books)
Sentimental, Heartbroken Rednecks by Greg Bottoms (Reviewed by Sage)
Mudbound by Hillary Jordan (Reviewed by Just Another Blogger)
My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier (Reviewed by Reading to Know)
Dedication by Emma McLaughling and Nicola Strauss (Reviewed by Bookstack)

If you've reviewed any of those as well, send me your link and I'll post it on my TBR list.

And finally, in other reading news, this week I posted a review of Deborah Weisgall's The World Before Her, revisted the Books Around the World challenge that I've neglected for several months (thanks to Weekly Geeks for that inspiration), and last night finished reading the phenomenal memoir of growing up in the Holocaust by Livia Bitton-Jackson, I Have Lived a Thousand Years. I've not yet reviewed it, but it was terrifying and amazing.

Next up on my reading list: A Beginning, a Muddle and an End by Avi, a young adult writing guide which promises "the right way to write righting." I think it'll be a great tool for the upcoming writing classes (middle school) I'll be teaching this year.

(Want to participate in The Sunday Salon? Read all about it and sign up here.)

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Books Around the World Challenge

This week's Weekly Geeks challenge is to organize any challenges. While I'm generally afraid of getting too consumed by challenges and deadlines, The Books Around the World Challenge appeals to me tremendously. I started this back in November but haven't been terribly dedicated about keeping up with it. I needed a challenge to remind me of my challenge!

Being a huge fan of Sonlight as the main course of our homeschooling, I have developed quite a taste for learning about other cultures via literature. The premise of this challenge is to read a book for each country in the world. The book should help us learn something about that country and not just be one written by somebody who lives there. I believe there are something like 193 countries in the world, so this challenge should take a few years. That suits my lackadaisical approach to reading challenges.

And so, here is the list thus far. Obviously many countries are missing. If you have a book for a country either listed here or not listed, please let me know. The books with an asterisk are ones that were suggested didn't look particularly appealing to me, and the ones linked or in italics are ones I've read. So help!

The Bookseller of Kabul (Asne Seierstad) (review here)
The Kite Runner
A Thousand Splendid Suns

*Decipher (Stel Pavlou)


A Town Like Alice (Neville Shute)
Mutant Message from Down Under by Marlo Morgan (already read)


*I Am a Taxi (Deborah Ellis)

The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency

*Keeper (Mal Peet)
Child of the Dark: The Diary of Carolina Maria de Jesus

The Stones Cry Out: A Cambodian Childhood by Molyda Szymusiak

Crow Lake
The Other Side of the Bridge (Mary Lawson)
The Stone Diaries (Carol Shields)
Latitude of Melt (Joan Clark)
The Way the Crow Flies by Ann-Marie Macdonald

Portrait in Sepia

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan
Peony in Love

The Bonesetter's Daughter by Amy Tan (review here)

Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (already read but should re-read)

The Poisonwood Bible (Barbara Kingsolver)--already read

The Bridge on the Drina by Ivo Andriæ

*Our Man in Havana (Graham Greene)
DANCING TO “ALMENDRA.” By Mayra Montero.

*Napoleon’s Pyramids (William Dietrich)
DOWN THE NILE: Alone in a Fisherman’s Skiff. By Rosemary Mahoney.
Mara, Daughter of the Nile (already read)

Black Swan Green (David Mitchell)
On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan
Atonement by Ian McEwan

Chocolat (Joanne Harris)

The Book Thief
The Nazi Officer's Wife


BROTHER, I’M DYING. By Edwidge Danticat.

Hong Kong
The Language of Threads (Gail Tsukiyama)


Beneath a Marble Sky (John Shors)
Great Hedge of India : The Search for the Living Barrier That Divided a Nation by Roy Moxham (already read)

Veil of Roses (Laura Fitgerald)
Persepolis 1 & 2 by Marjane Strapi (reviews here)

An Irish Country Doctor (Patrick Taylor)


A Thread of Grade (Mary Doria Russell)






Stolen Lives: Twenty Years in a Desert Jail (Malika Oufkir)

New Zealand
The Bone People (Keri Hulme)

Purple Hibiscus (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie)



Alentejo Blue (Monical Ali)

The Madonnas of Leningrad (Debra Dean)
The Endless Steppe by Esther Hautzig

Left to Tell: One Woman's Story of Surviving the Rwandan Holocaust. (Imaclee Ilibigiza)
We Wish To Tell You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families by Philip Gourevitch

*My Heart’s in the Lowlands (Liz Curtis Higgs)
Rob Roy by Sir Walter Scott

LONG WAY GONE: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier. By Ishmael Beah.

KNOTS. By Nuruddin Farah.

*The Shadow of the Wind (Carlos Ruiz Zafon)

Astrid and Veronika by Linda Olsson


Daughter of the Mountains by Louise Rankin (already read)


How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn (already read)

Sunday Scribbling #116: Happy Ending

Twenty years ago was a hotter June than this. Twenty years ago on a southern June night, I was sitting on the hood of a car with my ex-boyfriend and all the sudden realized: "My life starts now."

I had graduated from college just a few weeks beforehand. I was hanging around for the summer, "finishing up an incomplete." My life at that point was a big question mark. I had a very vague grasp on the future. I guess I thought I would be going to graduate school at the University of Tennessee and driving back to my college town on the weekends to hang-out with all my friends (who were still in college) and continue our regular college life. It was all very nebulous. I'd been accepted in U.T's English department for graduate school, but I really had no plan. The future went no further than the night before me.

But on that night, June 4, I saw my future with perfect clarity, and he was sitting on the hood of the car right there with me. To think that moment might not have happened used to frighten me. Sometimes in later years I would have those kinds of dreams where we are lost to each other, and I'd wake feeling as if I'd been weeping all night. I am still relieved and overjoyed to find him here with me.

We had been officially broken-up for 8 months at that point, but the year before that had not been a good one. It's all so complicated--was then, and is now. Who can explain who we were then? But I had let him go and had moved on. It was a choice I made every day. At twenty-two, I knew that I'd already had the love of my life. I knew that I could and would go on. I'd get married someday, have kids. But I knew that what we'd had at 19 would never be replaced.

There was this poem called "Four Poems for Robin" by Gary Snyder that I saw as my future. I read this so many times during my senior year in college that I had it nearly memorized. I was resigned to this fate in the last stanzas of the poem:

Only in dream, like this dawn,
Does the grave, awed intensity
Of our young love
Return to my mind, to my flesh.
We had what the others
All crave and seek for;
We left it behind at nineteen.
I feel ancient, as though I had
Lived many lives.
And may never now know
If I am a fool
Or have done what my
karma demands.
But on that muggy June night 20 years ago, all kinds of things fell into place. I can't remember what led up to us sitting on the hood of the car. I can't remember much of what was said, except for a quote from a Dire Straits song. What I do remember is that powerful feeling that all moments in my life had led up to this place, this person, and this future.

Some people scoff at young love. I do it myself sometimes, because 19 just seems so, well, young. (And so does 20, and 21, and 22, for that matter!) A young woman at church once asked me: "How do you know who is 'the one'? Do you ever just completely know?" To answer that question with a yes is the most I can do, because to explain that knowing is impossible. Sometimes, you just know.

And the knowing begins the happy ending.

(Need a weekly writing prompt? Check out Sunday Scribbling here!)

Book Review: The World Before Her

Hmmm. So this book by Deborah Weisgall is one I choose randomly off the "New Arrivals" shelf at our local library. I was intrigued because the inside flap promised to present two stunning stories: one about George Eliot and one about a contemporary (fictional) sculptor.

The stories are told in alternating chapters. (Actually, that seemed rather random. I wasn't sure when to expect a change from one story back to the other.) For awhile the reader will be with Marian Evans and her new husband in Venice, and then we'll be with Caroline and her husband in Venice. But then it gets tricky. With all of the shifts in stories, settings, characters, and time, I got really lost. I get frustrated with novels in which I have to say, "Huh? Where am I? Who is this? Where are they?" on a regular basis.

I very much enjoyed the story of Marian Evans. I don't really know anything about her except for whatever brief introduction I would have had in college and high school. Reading this fictionalized account of her makes me want to read one of the biographies upon which this is based.

And to a lesser degree, I enjoyed the story of Caroline and her search for self through her sculpture and her loves. This storyline seemed too familiar: the wife begins searching for her true identity after years of marriage, discovers herself in art, becomes fabulously successful, etc.

But the two stories linked together? I didn't get it. Too much of a stretch for me. Not enough connections to make the stories united in one novel. I get that the themes of identity, the price of happiness, and personal fulfillment are integral to both stories; however, I'd rather have read just the smooth-flowing story about Marian Evans without the contemporary story stuck in here and there.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Booking Through Thursday: Flavor

btt button

Today's Booking Through Thursday asks: Think about your favorite authors, your favorite books . . . what is it about them that makes you love them above all the other authors you’ve read? The stories? The characters? The way they appear to relish the taste of words on the tongue? The way they’re unafraid to show the nitty-gritty of life? How they sweep you off to a new, distant place? What is it about those books and authors that makes them resonate with you in ways that other, perfectly good books and authors do not?

Don’t forget to leave a link to your actual response (so people don’t have to go searching for it) in the comments at BTT—or if you prefer, leave your answers in the comments themselves!


1. Everything must ring true. (I'm sure there is a literary term for this, but I am unable to come up with much but mush after an afternoon at the pool.) Authenticity. Believable dialog.

2. Fully developed characters. I despise stereotypes and vast generalizations. I want richly painted characters, and truly I prefer likable main characters. I specifically despised The Shipping News, for example, because I couldn't stand the protagonist. I'm not saying all the characters have to be likable, but I want to root for the main character.

3. Lyrical writing. I love descriptions that take my breath away, language that simply flows. I generally do not like writers who try to be clever or witty. Scout saying "Pass the damn ham" is the kind of humor that I love.

4. Evocative. I want to experience an emotional response to a novel, but I don't want sentimentality to be forced upon me.

5. Theme. As Solomon said, "There is nothing new under the sun," and so it is with themes. I love to discover a novel through which the theme is richly and skillfully woven but is not overtly preachy.

6. Redemption. I love for something good to come out of the novel--for both the characters and the reader. I'm not saying the ending necessarily has to be happy, but a redemptive moment is essential.

There are only a few books that I've read over and over again; To Kill a Mockingbird and The Chronicles of Narnia series are the ones that stand out. These six elements are present in big doses in both the novel and the series. I want to know the characters in these books; in fact, I've read them so many times, I feel as if I do know them. I get a thrill of excitement each time I begin reading The Silver Chair, or each time I read about Atticus and the rabid dog. And that makes those books full of flavor.

Monday, June 16, 2008

The Sunday Salon: In the Mountains

We spent much of Sunday in the Smokies—the perfect Father's Day gift for Dr. H. The day was absolutely perfect in every way. Having these beautiful mountains 20-30 minutes away is amazing. I often forget that the Great Smoky Mountain National Park is the most visited national park in the U.S., with 9 million visitors each year. We used to avoid going to the Smokies on weekends from June-October because the traffic can be bumper-to-bumper, and that is not a pleasant way to spend one's day in the mountains. But we know lots of off-the-beaten path places now that are quick to get to and very quiet, and there is just nothing like being in the mountains by the river on a hot summer day.

If you haven't visited the Smokies, please don't let the 9 million tourists scare you off. Only 1 millions of them actually do more than drive through; the other 8 million spend most of their time doing stuff in Gatlinburg. If you want a serene mountain experience, you may want to consider avoiding the touristy and heavily trafficked Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. There are many other entrances to the park that are quiet and beautiful, including Townsend, the tiny town just south of us.

But this post is supposed to be about books, and so I'm going to share a few of our favorite books about the Smokies. My favorite kids books are these two written by Lisa Horstman: The Troublesome Cub and The Great Smoky Mountain Salamander Ball. Another must-have if you are visiting the park is Who Pooped in the Park? (These are available for all the national parks, so be sure to get the Smokies-specific one.) I love this beautiful Appalachian ABCs, and Cynthia Rylant's When I Was Young in the Mountains --the story of a childhood in the mountains--is pure poetry. Speaking of poetry, Nikki Giovanni is from Knoxville, and I love the picture book based on her poem "Knoxville, Tennessee."

For young adults (and adult readers, too), Catherine Marshall's Christy is a classic. This is the story of a privileged young society woman who goes to teach school to the mountain kids in the Smokies. For younger readers, there is a good series of chapter books based on the novel Christy; my 10-year-old loves these books. She also loves the Mandie books by Lois Gladys Leppard, which all take place in and around the Smokies.

I've noticed that the Southern Literature challenge is a popular challenge this summer. I am a huge fan of Southern Lit, both classic and contemporary. A few of contemporary authors whose novels take place in and around the Smokies are Sharyn McCrumb, Adriana Trigiani, and Robert Morgan. In She Walks These Hills, McCrumb weaves a modern-day mystery in with a mountain legend. I'm not crazy about McCrumb's Elizabeth MacPherson mystery books, but I absolutely love her Southern mountain novels. Others include If I Ever Return, Pretty Peggy-O; The Ballad of Frankie Silver; The Songcatcher; The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter; and a couple others. While each novel stands on its own, many of the same characters appear in all the novels.

Adriana Trigiani has a collection of three novels--Big Stone Gap, Big Cherry Holler, and Milk Glass Moon--that take place over in Virginia. They're not exactly Smoky Mountain lit, but the characters and dialect would fit right in here. I've just noticed that there is a fourth in the series now, Home to Big Stone Gap, which I'll be adding to my TBR list.

Robert Morgan is one of my favorite Southern writers. He is much more lyrical than Trigiani and McCrumb. I haven't read all his books, including his newest one Boone, but I love what I've read: This Rock, The Truest Pleasure, Gap Creek, and The Hinterlands. His characters, dialect, setting--everything is beautiful and true to the area. You can imagine Morgan as an oral storyteller in each of these books.

One more fascinating novel that takes place in the Smoky Mountains is Francine Rivers' The Last Sin Eater. The story is about the old folk custom of a community "sin eater," who is said to absolve the residents of their sins by "eating them." I had never heard of this odd custom until reading this book, and I found the concept fascinating.

All of the above reading material provides a great introduction to this unique mountain area. I would be remiss if I didn't recommend a couple of great guides for once you are actually in the Smokies. Dr. H. has two favorites. Hiking Trails of the Great Smoky Mountains by Kenneth Wise is his favorite for family-type hikes and excursion. For tougher, more backcountry hikes, he recommends Hiking Trails of the Smokies, which is published by the GSMNP service.

Have I whet your appetite for the Great Smoky Mountains? Even if you can't come for a visit, you can get a taste of the Smokies in these books. And for some amazing photographs of where we live, visit my friend Lynn's website here. Unbelievable.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Sunday Scribbling: Guide

"My children, listen to me. Listen to your father's instruction. Pay attention and grow wise, for I am giving you good guidance. Don't turn away from my teaching." (Proverbs 4:1-2)
This week's Sunday Scribbling theme is "guide." My father came instantly to mind. My father has guided me and my four older brothers—and now his 9 grandchildren and 2 great-grandchildren—throughout our whole lives. He is a gentle, soft-spoken presence: funny and brilliant, encouraging and forgiving. His life has been a constant pursuit of knowledge, and in the course of seeking knowledge, he has acquired tremendous wisdom. He continuously strives to walk in the paths of righteousness, without ever being self-righteous. He is a brilliant scientist and historian who has a heart for Christ.
"My child, listen to me and do as I say, and you will have a long, good life. I will teach you wisdom's ways and lead you in straight paths. If you live a life guided by wisdom, you wn't limp or stumble as you run. Carry out my instructions; don't forsake them. Guard them, for they will lead you to a fulfilled life." (Proverbs 4:10-13)
On Monday my parents, who are in their 80s, are flying to Scotland and Ireland for a 10-day tour. My parents have traveled extensively throughout the second half of their lives; astonishingly, they've never been to Ireland, although my father's grandfather came from there as a boy.

My father has spent his life either growing fruit or doing groundbreaking research in fruit breeding and nursery production. Before him rest five generations of Cummins apple growers. My brothers are the seventh generation, and two have orchards: Stephen has Indian Creek and James has Bittersweet, both in or near Ithaca, NY. Stephen and my Dad also run Cummins Nursery.

I wrote this poem about my father many years ago, and I still love it. This is my most vivid memory of my father: peeling apples.

Dad, Peeling Apples

The color of wheat
bread speckled
like the skin of a Golden Delicious,
freckles on top of freckles
and tiny nicks
from his knife, dots of blood
turned to brown scabs.
My father’s hands

have never changed. Every night
a different apple
skinned naked,
split and seeded without him
ever looking down, loving the fit
of apple
in the left hand, brown-handled
knife in the right.
He licks the tip of his finger
where the juice runs clear
and skewers a slice

for me, which I take
of whether I want
an apple or whether
the flesh has begun to brown
around the edges. When he is done,
knife set down and fingers wiped
clean against the legs
of his beige corduroys, I will take
the leathered back
of his hand to my cheek
and hold it there, begging
his weathered roots to spread
their soil-caked fingers
long and strong
as deep as the generations will go.

(By Sarah Cummins Small. Copyright 2000. First published in The Yalobusha Review.)

Saturday Review

Semicolon's Saturday Review of Books is up here. This is one of my favorite places to read reviews and gather more titles for my Ever-Growing TBR List. If you aren't a regular contributor, be sure to hop on over to Semicolon's blog and add your latest reviews!

Friday, June 13, 2008

Book Review: The Senator's Wife

The Senator's Wife chronicles the lives of two women whose stories become intertwined when they become neighbors. Meri and Nathan are newly married, and Meri is filled with the insecurities of an unstable childhood. Delia is in her 70s and has lived a complicated life as the wife of an openly unfaithful Senator. Meri is instantly drawn to the elegant but mysterious Delia, and she begins a hunt for the story of Delia and Tom. In the course of the story, Meri makes a critical error that changes the course of both of their lives.

I like this book by Sue Miller. I don't think I've read anything by this author since Family Pictures, back 15 years ago or so. This isn't a breathtaking novel; it isn't one that I thought much about when I finished it. But Miller is a good writer. She creates characters I can almost see perfectly, and she has some wonderful insights that made me stop and say, "Yes! Exactly!" I love those moments when something that I've thought, but not verbalized, is put into words. Like this bit on the study of history:
"Doesn't it all start--our interest in the past--with our wanting to know more about our own parents? … That drive we all have to get to the root of their attraction to each other. We always want their story, don't we? It's the first history we're really curious about. And the last one. It haunts us. Because it's a history with the most important consequence in the world--is. Us and our story. Our history."

And this one toward the end of the book, as Meri reflects upon her marriage:

"She had thought [15 years ago] that she knew already what their marriage was, what its limits were. She had thought they were in it. She didn't know they'd barely begun. She couldn't have imagined the long, slow processes that would change them, change what they felt for each other. She would never have guessed, either, the way the children would remake them and their love."

I've read some criticism of this book that points to disappointment in Delia's "stand by your man" policy, but I thought Miller did a great job of revealing Delia's dilemmas and her decisions. Meri's choices were a little harder for me to take, but still--I enjoyed the book.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Booking Through Thursday: Clubbing

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This week's Booking Through Thursday asks:

Have you ever been a member of a book club? How did your group choose (or, if you haven’t been, what do you think is the best way to choose) the next book and who would lead discussion? Do you feel more or less likely to appreciate books if you are obliged to read them for book groups rather than choosing them of your own free will? Does knowing they are going to be read as part of a group affect the reading experience?

Want to play? Click on the link above to go to Booking Through Thursday!


Book Club! See in the collage below? The women sitting around the table? That was Book Club, and that was an exceptionally fun night. We were discussing the most dreadful book: Crossing Over: One Woman's Escape from the Amish Life. But it can be fun to discuss a terrible book! We sure tore that one to shreds. That night was even more special because Kristina, who I actually met through blogging, was visiting from Canada, and she got to take part in the event. I don't think I've laughed so hard since that night!

Really, our Book Club is a haphazard affair. We begin with great gusto and determination each fall, and fizzle out by Christmas. Some years we pick back up again in spring. Some years, like this one, I think we all forgot we had such a thing called Book Club after about November. We did start out great, though. We gave everyone a month to pick out a restaurant and a book, all the way through December. We did great for September, October, and November (we even went to hear author Kaye Gibbons speak), but plans fell through in December. We were to have read The Kite Runner (most of us had already read it) and then go see the movie together.

That never quite happened. Perhaps we weren't exactly dedicated Book Clubbers, but it sure is fun whenever it happens. We really don't talk about the books as much as we do enjoy the food and company; a Book Club is certainly an excellent excuse for a night out.

I think we need to reinstate Book Club.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Weekly Geeks: Photos Week

This week's Weekly Geeks is all about photos. Suggestions include photos of a favorite reading spot, your TBR pile(s), a local bookstore or library, our children reading, etc. I've included many of the above in the collage below: my family reading and being read to, a book rack in our home displaying books for a unit study, an exceptionally fun night at my book club, and my favorite used book store.

Also, we are to link to another participant’s WG photo post. And so I've picked:

* Chris at Stuff As Dreams Are Made On gets a link because he posted a picture of my favorite book ever, which he is going to read soon.

* Shelly at Chain Reader gets a link because I love her sidebar description, which includes this: "my reviews may contain such unliterary words as "awesome", "retarded", or "cool". Shelly, you would be my real-life friend.

* And Suey gets a link because I like her abundant and messy bookshelves.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Sunday Salon: Family Reading

"There are many little ways to enlarge your child's world.
Love of books is the best of all."
— Jacqueline Kennedy

Reading is not just something that I do in the evening after the kids are in bed. I was raised in a family of readers, married a reader, and am trying to raise another generation of readers. From the time we brought our firstborn home, we've been reading to our kids. We are a homeschooling family, and our approach to just about every subject is literature-based. What I'm saying is: we read a lot around here. Heard daily around our house is this question: What are you reading now?

Today, here are the answers:

The Firstborn, age 15, just finished a John Steinbeck marathon and has now moved onto H.P. Lovecraft.

The Princess, age 10, is reading Understood Betsy, and we are reading through the Little House on the Prairie series together again.

The Rascal, age 7, is reading all kinds of street signs and store signs; in other words, he is emerging into the realm of the written word, making daily strides. The last book he read by himself was Danny and the Dinosaur, and Dr. H. is reading through the Harry Potter series with him for the first time.Dr. H., having just finished a rather ponderous biography of Thomas Jefferson, is now reading HP and the Deathly Hallows for approximately the 812th time.

And this week for me: I finished Ami McKay's The Birth House and gave it a lukewarm review here. I'm more than halfway through Sue Miller's The Senator's Wife and am enjoying it very much. I picked up that and a couple of other books off the library's new arrivals shelves last week: Unaccustomed Earth by Jhuma Lahiri; A Beginning, A Middle, and An End by Avi (it's a kids' book on writing); and Deborah Weisgall's The World Before Her. I plan to read these three before I tackle my new stack of books. And then comes the ethical dilemma: do I add these library acquisitions to my TBR list even though they weren't really on my TBR list? What would you do?

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Sunday Scribbling #114: Nights

This week's Sunday Scribblings is all about "nights":

What do you do at night? At different times in your life, how have you spent your nights? Is there any one night in your memory that stands out for any reason, as the most memorable night of your life?

I have an instant mind-picture with "nights": summers during my college years and early twenties in a medium-sized southern town, with the intoxicating smell of honeysuckle seeping into every inch of the night. This is a poem that came to me one day when I was remembering those nights and how far we've come from them.



My writing excites you. Not the plot
twists nor tongue tangos,
but the fact that I can be wholly
separate from you, peeled
clean as a tangerine,
a fresh-squeezed lime,
all juice and pulp and smelling green.

Vaguely desiring
a lick of salt these days,
I am too clean. Imagine a park bench
on a July night thick with honeysuckle
and a white sundress sprinkled
with tiny pink flowers. Spaghetti straps.
Imagine stars and a tan and a night as
heavy as a teenager’s heart.

Looking up at the night sky,
I see—or I used to, anyway. Look up.
I have seen the hefty orange glow of the city,
a hint of disoriented aurora borealis,
a clear full moon, and streetlights.

I am startled by so many stars.
An ache like an old lady stretches
from state to state, reminding us
of our concrete musts: a front porch,
a ridge of endless mountains,
children, coffee.

We drink it stronger than anyone we know.
We are happier than anyone we know. How
these small irritations pile up, tossed
into the mail slot by a careless passerby,
completely unaware of the careful balance
potentially in peril by a single misplaced word.

~Sarah Cummins Small, Copyright 2002.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Booking Through Thursday: Trends

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Today's Booking Through Thursday asks:

Have your book-tastes changed over the years? More fiction? Less? Books that are darker and more serious? Lighter and more frivolous? Challenging? Easy? How-to books over novels? Mysteries over Romance?

Want to play? You can leave a link to your actual response (so people don’t have to go searching for it) in the comments at Booking Through Thursday.


I don't think my books tastes have changed too much through the years, with some exceptions. I have to admit that I did read some trashy novels in my teens: the whole Flowers in the Attic phenomenon comes to mind. I definitely went through my share of Danielle Steele and the like. I also loved horror novels, especially Stephen King and John Saul. I was all over books like The Amityville Horror and Rosemary's Baby. John Saul creeped me out for years. My mother must not have known what I was reading.

I'd say I started gravitating more toward classic literature at about age 16. By age 20 I was solidly immersed in the Good Literature. I was fortunate to have an amazing humanities program (two years, required) at my college, and classic lit was well covered. Of course I was also an English major, and so my exposure to literature was vast. I really am going somewhere with this--where was it?

Oh yes, classics. I was madly in love with Wharton, Hemingway, Faulkner, Steinbeck, Vonnegut, Cheever, Flannery O'Connor, Eudora Welty, Katherine Ann Porter, Dreiser, Thomas Wolfe, the Bronte sisters, Austen, DH Lawrence, Shakespeare, Chekhov , Dostoevsky, Kafka--oh, all those and so many more. To say them all now brings back actually visions of the books themselves, the words on the page.


I find myself now thinking, "I should read Faulkner again. I should re-read all the Steinbecks. It's been years since I last read Wuthering Heights..." And yet, until this past year, I haven't re-read any of my old favorites. Books I was once crazy about. I think part of me was afraid that I would be disappointed--that my happy memories of these authors would be tainted if I re-read something and found....I didn't like it anymore.

Happily, I taught an American Lit class this year, and in doing so I re-read many classics. And even more happily, I can say that I enjoyed each one even more than I did the first (and for many, second and third and even fourth) time.

So here's my answer: my reading tastes have changed. I've eliminated some genres and become more selective in some ways. I read more non-fiction that I used to, although I haven't read much this year. I am more often disappointed than I used to be.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Book Review: The Birth House

I've had this book by Ami McKay on my TBR list for such a long time. I love the cover art, but that isn't always indicative of the art within. Now I'm not saying this book doesn't have its good points; it does. The story itself, which takes place in the early 1900s in a tiny Nova Scotian village, is compelling. Dora Rare is an anomaly from birth: she is the first girl born in five generations of Rares. But anything unusual sets a person apart, and she is looked upon with suspicion. Eventually she becomes an apprentice to the midwife, Mrs. B., who, although essential to the village women, is also regarded suspiciously (i.e., they call her a witch).

The first half of the book flowed nicely. Dora is sweet, smart, and helpful. But then the book begins to lose its subtleties and become preachy with the advent of the Villain. Enter the Evil Doctor, who, with his clean hospital and medicines, seeks to destroy all the women in the village by insisting that they birth according to his new-fangled methods. Forceps, straps, ether, etc. McKay's goal seems, on one level, to show the arrogance of the professional medical community vs. traditional healing. But rather than doing this with the grace of Geraldine Brooks in Year of Wonders, for example, she thrusts it upon the reader.

(I feel that I must insert here that I'm all for midwifery and that my one birthing experience with a midwife was absolutely the most fabulous, but I also appreciate MDs, so there. I'm making a literary criticism, not a medical criticism.)

And I don't like fiction books that tell me how I'm supposed to feel. (I talked about this recently in my review of John Grisham's The Appeal.) I don't like things to be so stereotypical. Surprise me. Let me see something in a new way. Let me figure things out for myself.

The second half of the book tries to do way too much. We've got war, medicine vs. healing, feminism and a variety of women's issues, abusive marriages, and the influenza epidemic. Many stories are begun and not finished, their surfaces barely scratched. This is not not unusual, and I can even imagine how an author might feel: "I really want to get this story in, and introduce this character, and make this point..." but sometimes those things are better cut out and made into a new novel.

McKay's writing itself is very good. Her dialog is believable and her language flows nicely. My assessment: too much material for one book, and too didactic for my tastes.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

The Sunday Salon: A New Stack of Books

I had a lovely afternoon. My 15-year-old wanted to make a run up to our favorite used bookstore around here, so I happily obliged. I gathered up a crate full of books to trade in and, after stopping for green tea frappucinos, we headed up to McKay's. This was a decent box of books; I got $29 in book credit. Since I didn't have my younger kids with me, I only spent 10 minutes in the children's books aisle and 20 minutes in the educational stacks. The rest of the time I was focused on books for me. Strangely, I could find absolutely nothing in the regular fiction aisles that appealed to me enough to buy for $4 or more, but the bargain book aisle was fabulous. Well, actually I can't speak to the success of my finds since I haven't read any of them yet, but here they are:

Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland
Blue Ridge by TR Pearson
More Than You Know by Beth Gutcheon
The River King by Alice Hoffman
In Country by Bobbie Ann Mason
The Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst
The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom
The Amateur Marriage by Anne Tyler

I also got something else by Alice Hoffman, but I've already loaned that out to Leigh, my fellow bibliovore friend, and I don't remember the title. I may have already read the Bobbie Ann Mason and Anne Tyler books, but I don't think so. And yes, I know I am the last person around who hasn't read the Mitch Albom yet. I'll be adding these books to my TBR list! If you've read any of them, let me know what you thought or, better yet, give me a link to your review. And while you're at it, check out my Ever-Growing TBR list and leave me links for any reviews you might have of any of those titles.

On my blog this week I've written a review of Mildred Walker's wonderful Winter Wheat; discussed Booking Through Thursday's "What is reading" topic and Weekly Geeks' "Other Forms of Storytelling'; and followed the "Curves" on Sunday Scribbling. I have just a few chapters left in Ami McKay's The Birth House. I'm having mixed feelings about the book but shall reserve final judgment until I finish.

I finished reading Little House in the Big Woods this week to my daughter, and we've begun reading Little House on the Prairie. I read the whole series to her about three years ago when we had a sweet little Mother/Daughter book club, but it's fun to read these to her yet again at age 10. And although I've read the series myself at least a few times in my own childhood, I don't think I could ever grow weary of reading these precious books.

I'm looking forward to finishing The Birth House tonight and starting on my new stack of books!

(Do you like to chat about books? You can join The Sunday Salon here and find out what's going on in the world of book lovers across the continents.)