Thursday, August 28, 2008

Weekly Geeks #14: Bookish Photos

This week's Weekly Geeks over at The Hidden Side of a Leaf asks for "bookish photos" and I've got just the thing. Actually, I have a couple of boxes' worth, but I'll just feature a few here.

When I was in upstate New York earlier this month, one of my jobs, as my parents prepare to sell their house, was to go through boxes in the attic. And of course boxes-in-the-attic = books. I couldn't part with at least a few dozen books, even some that weren't mine. I just liked them. Most of my four brothers had already gone through the attic, so what was left would either go to the Salvation Army or to me.

Here's just a sampling of what came home with me.

I took a bunch of old storybooks like this. My kids are really past these kinds of books, but they are so old and colorful. I just love them. Old books make great decor.

How much do I love this Great Stories of the Bible? It's not such a pretty book on the outside, but … it's special because of what's on the inside. The inscription indicates that my grandparents gave it to my Dad in 1931, when he was six years old. And I love that my father practiced his own signature, too. I bet my grandmother wasn't too happy about him writing in the book. My grandmother often gave books to us kids as gifts. I have several nice hardback books with her inscription and also dated, which I love. I always forget to do that myself.

The next two sets of books are some of my own favorites from my early childhood. I was the youngest of five children, and I'm sure these books had all been well-loved before I came around. My mother read to me for countless hours, and I have sweet memories of looking at the pictures in these books while she read. I am always aware of what a legacy my parents and grandparents bestowed upon us children with their gift of shelves full of books and time spent reading aloud.

The Brave Little Tailor, Emmett Kelly as Willie the Clown, When I Grow Up, and A Little Golden Book of Manners: four of my favorite Little Golden Books.

And a few more of my childhood companions. The stories about the chipmunks Chap and Chirpy was for sure my favorite.

"He that loves a book will never want a faithful friend, a wholesome counselor, a cheerful companion, an effectual comforter. By study, by reading, by thinking, one may innocently divert and pleasantly entertain himself, as in all weathers, as in all fortunes." —Isaac Barrow

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Book Review: The Liar's Club

I've written before about memoirs and how I love them. Since that post I've read two more memoirs: The Liars' Club by Mary Karr and A Million Little Pieces by James Frey, which I'll review in the next couple of days.

I didn't like The Liars' Club as much as I thought I would, and I think I know why: Karr is a harsh writer. Heck, she survived an unbelievably harsh childhood, so her prose makes sense. I've read reviews that call this a hilarious book, but I didn't find much to laugh at. I've read that her language is lyrical, but I found it brutal and aloof.

Brutal, dark and aloof make sense, though. The memoir tells of Karr's volatile childhood in a nasty East Texas town that was ranked one of the most vile places in America to live. Her father worked hard and drank hard; her mother was depressed and unstable. Karr and her sister were basically left to tend to themselves, although their mother appears to feel responsible for them and their father adores them.

The writing is sometimes choppy. The stories start and then go off on a tangent, with time and place sometimes hard to follow. I don't require a linear story, but too much jumping around without a pattern can be tedious. Basically, I didn't connect with the author. My favorite part--the part that really got to me--was at the end when she finds out the reason for her mother's depression.

But who am I to critique this much-praised book? It's not that I didn't like it at all; I'm glad I read it. But I just think there are much better memoirs out there that deal with similar issues (alcoholism, child neglect, incompetent parents). The Sky Isn't Visible From Here and The Glass Castle are two.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Book Review: A Death in the Family

I hear my father; I need never fear. I hear my mother; I shall never be lonely, or want for love. When I am hungry it is they who provide for me; when I am in dismay, it is they who fill me with comfort. When I am astonished or bewildered, it is they who make the weak ground firm beneath my soul; it is in them that I put my trust. … I hear my father and my mother and they are my giants, my king and my queen, beside whom there are no others so wise or worthy or honorable or brave or beautiful in this world. I need never fear: nor ever shall I lack for loving-kindness.
How is it possible, I mean, seriously, how is it possible that I have never read this classic novel by James Agee? That in 4 years of high school taking every possible English-type class, 4 years in college as an English major, and 2 or 3 years in graduate school as an English/creative writing major, no one ever put Agee on a reading list? I don't get it.

A Death in the Family is, truly, an American classic. In this beautifully lyrical, autobiographical novel, Agee presents the life of the boy Rufus. Rufus is a cherished son in a tiny family with a big extended family. Preceding the novel is the stunning narrative piece called "Knoxville: Summer, 1915." This piece is a slow, dreamy observation of a summer night in a neighborhood from a child's perspective. The novel then opens with the happy life of the Follet family. They are working class people, and Mary and Jay adore each other and their two young children. Grandparents, aunts, and uncles are also central to the family dynamic, and together they make up Rufus's world.

The book is sectioned between straight narrative and Rufus's stream-of-conscious observations. The thoughts of Rufus were heartbreakingly beautiful. I'm not sure I've ever read a more apt description of the happiness and security that comes with being in the midst of a loving, stable family. Agee's narrative writing is simple but powerful; his "Rufus sections" are pure poetry. The combination is staggering.

But Rufus's perfect world must inevitably end. One hot summer night, Jay Follet take a late-night drive to his dying father's bedside north of Knoxville, and on the way home he has a fatal car accident. The rest of the novel dances between Mary's coping, funeral preparations, and the viewpoint of Rufus and his baby sister Catherine. It's all devastating, and like Mary, the reader hopes there has been some mistake.

I have to wonder if I love this novel so much partly because it takes place in Knoxville. I love thinking of Agee's old city, and do certainly delight in watching a Shakespeare performance on the same Market Square that Agee details when Rufus buys his first cap or driving by James Agee St. up on the UT campus. But regardless of place, this is southern literature at its best.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Book Review: The Serpent Handlers

And these signs shall follow them that believe: In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues. They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.
~Mark 16:17-18

Earlier this summer, our local library advertised that authors Fred Brown and Jeanne McDonald would be speaking about their book, The Serpent Handlers. I wasn't able to go to the seminar, but I did find several copies of the book at the library the next week. I have a weird fascination with religious fringe groups, like the fundamentalist LDS movement as described in John Krakauer's Under the Banner of Heaven.

Brown and McDonald introduce three serpent-handling families: the Brown family very near us in Parrottsville, TN; the Coots family of Kentucky; and the Elkins family of West Virginia. All three families have long histories of being involved in "taking up serpents"; all three have suffered several deaths in their families and congregations from snake bites.

The authors handle the lives of the snake-handlers gracefully and graciously. While it would be easy to mock the handlers for making Mark 16 a literal and vital part of their faith, Brown and McDonald recount their beliefs without bias and then allow the individuals themselves to tell their own stories. It's up to the reader to come to his or her own conclusions about this faith tradition.

Living in East Tennessee, I've long been aware of that snake-handling is not a thing of the past, but I didn't know much about it. (I've been told that there is at least one church just 10 minutes away, but the churches don't exactly advertise widely.) It's easy to smirk at what seems like such bunk, but after reading the testimonies of the handlers in this book, I do have a much greater understanding of these believers also known as Signs Followers. (Other signs are followed are handling fire, healing, drinking strychnine and other poisions, and casting out demons. Not all members follow all the signs.) I think what was made especially clear is that the signs are not the primary focus of the church members, but rather an element of worship. Also emphasized is that snake-handling and other signs-followings are not attempts to prove faith but are done to confirm the Word of God.

But honestly, while I do have more of an understanding, I still find it all bizarre and, frankly, taken out of context.

Interestingly, two articles in our local newspaper in the past few months reference snake-handling. This one most recently reports that Gregory Coots, one of the handlers featured in this book, was arrested by wildlife officers in a crackdown of the venomous snake trade. And this article details how the curator of the herpetology department at the Knoxville Zoo went out in the fields to collect snakes with a local snake-handling preacher.

If you're curious about life in Appalachia or in religious traditions, I'd highly recommend this book. The writing is excellent and purely unbiased and the personal narratives are fascinating.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Sunday Scribbling #125: How I Met My [fill in blank]

This week's Sunday Scribblings asks: How did you meet your significant other, your best friend, your dog, your nemesis? On the flip side of that, are there any people in your life you have lost touch with who you wonder about?

I'd love to talk about people I've lost touch with and wonder about, but since I already have the "how I met my husband" post on my other blog, I'll just take the easy way out this week and do a little cutting and pasting.

Our love story is very long and complicated. There are many twists and turns along the path that led to me become the other half of SmallWorld. It is much easier to say, “We met in college,” which is entirely true.

But more precisely, I spotted Dr. H. whose real name is Randy. I was a sophomore, and my friend Brenda and I returned from summer break a few days early, during freshmen weekend. I believe that we came specifically because our boyfriends had to be back early to start basketball practice and we wanted to see them, but we absolutely, in spite of our boyfriends, engaged in much previewing of freshman boys.

And in he walked. Brenda and I were in the cafeteria, facing the doors so that we could see everyone who came in. So in walks Randy, with that bounce in his step. He was wearing black Reboks with paisley shoe strings and striped shorts. He was very tan and had gorgeous long brown hair. And earrings. “Who IS that guy?” I asked. (I don’t know who I asked, but someone.) “That’s Greg Small’s brother,” I was told. (Background information: Randy’s older brother Greg had graduated from this same college a couple of years beforehand but lived nearby in an apartment.)

So I kept my eye on him. But I had this boyfriend that I was crazy about, and that was all very complicated. So Randy and I became good friends. We hung out. His best friends were my best friends. But I had this boyfriend…

FAST FORWARD. So over Christmas break that year, this boyfriend quit school and dumped me. That was very sad. But heartaches mend quickly at 19. Back at college in January, Randy and I exclaimed our jubilation that we were both relationship-free. We held hands for the first time at the Italian Village. He sent me flowers for my 20th birthday. We kissed in the lobby of my dorm. For Valentine’s Day, we cooked spaghetti together. And it was all very, very nice.

The first seven months were pure bliss. We were madly in love. I’m pretty sure I’d never been happier in my life, nor felt more completely myself with anyone. And then— kerplunk, kerplooey—it all fell apart. I don't even remember the circumstances, but we broke up and it was devastating. And then, at Perkins late studying one night, we got back together again. We sang, “Reunited” while walking around the swimming pool outside Perkins. (Why was there a swimming pool outside Perkins, anyway?) And then at Christmas, we broke up again. And then…yeah. That happened a lot. A whole, whole lot. We were “on a break” more often than not. And since I don’t like to dwell on that year of on-and-off…

FAST FORWARD. So after a year of on-again/off-again, I said, “Enough.” I remember wondering who in the world I was and knowing that I had to release Randy in order to reclaim myself. Oh, that was a very good thing. And it was very hard. Randy started dating my best friend’s roommate. Did I mention that we went to a very small college? That everyone knows everyone’s business? That you can’t help but run into your ex-boyfriend and his silly new girlfriend everywhere? Oh, and that my best friend and her roommate-who-was-now-dating-my-future-husband lived right below me, and that my window looked out on the parking lots, and that every time that roommate and my ex-boyfriend/future husband walked out to his car, I was watching? Yeah, that was stinky.

But I had my own new boyfriend pretty soon, and he was fun. We laughed a lot, and he liked to quiz me every now and then: “Are you still in love with Slim?” (His name for Randy.) “No, no, of course not,” I’d reply.

Yep, he was fun, the boy I would never have married. And my girlfriends! Oh, we had the most amazing times together. We lived in constant angst, but a delightful kind of angst. We painted poetry on my dorm-room walls and made mixed tapes. We went to here bands and danced the night away as often as possible. We didn’t care about our sort-of boyfriends, because we knew they were temporary. We were so, so free.

What I really gained after breaking up with Randy was myself. I was healing. I was gaining perspective. I remembered who I was. And somewhere in there, I really did let Randy go. I remember understanding that I would never love anyone as completely as I had loved him. But I knew I could move on with my future. I would marry someone who treated me well. I would love him. But the great passion of my life happened by age 21.

There was a poem by Gary Snyder that burned into my heart. Like the poet, I would live; I would endure. But I would live remembering:

After college I saw you
One time. You were strange.
And I was obsessed with a plan.

Now ten years and more have
Gone by: I've always known
where you were--
I might have gone to you
Hoping to win your love back.
You still are single.

I didn't.
I thought I must make it alone. I
Have done that.

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.

(Excerpted from “Four Poems for Robin”)

And so I graduated from college. Randy was there, and that weekend there was a graduation party at a friend’s house. We all brought white t-shirts to autograph for each other. And what Randy wrote on mine clearly meant to communicate to me that he was missing me. (Did I mention that he and his silly girlfriend had broken up a few months beforehand?)

But still, I had this fun, uncomplicated boyfriend. Who went away on a trip for two weeks after I graduated.

So one evening my girlfriends and I were watching the classic horror flick from my childhood, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death. (Hmmm. Perhaps I should write a post someday about all the scary movies I saw when I was a child.) This particular movie scared me just as much at 22 as it did at age seven, so we decided to go check out the local music scene instead. I can’t remember who was playing, but it was warm night in June, and some of us were sitting outside in the parking lot, leaning on cars. And then it was just Randy and me.

And that was it. Nearly three years after we'd first met, and eight months after our final break-up—the big one—there was that sublime moment of realizing that this—this moment—begins our life. There should have been symphonies and fireworks lighting up that June sky. It was a moment I can still see so clearly: the young girl and boy in their t-shirts and shorts, sitting on the hood of an old car on a warm East Tennessee night. He quotes a song to her. They know: this is forever. They kiss. Friends peer at them from inside the building, pointing and whispering: “OH MY GOODNESS! Randy and Sarah are back together!”

All is right with the universe. This is the way it was always meant to be, but sometimes we have to do things the hard way.

June 4th we met for breakfast in the park. We had jelly donuts and Five Alive. I wrote my uncomplicated boyfriend a letter and broke up with him. As it turns out, he was always right about Slim.

In September we said, “Hey! We could get married!”

In March, we did.

And we still have spaghetti every Valentine’s Day.

(Do you have your own story to tell? Check out Sunday Scribblings.)

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Booking Through Thursday: Libraries

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Today's Booking Through Thursday asks: whether you usually read off of your own book pile or from the library shelves NOW, chances are you started off with trips to the library. (There’s no way my parents could otherwise have kept up with my book habit when I was 10.) So … What is your earliest memory of a library? Who took you? Do you have you any funny/odd memories of the library? (Inspired by Booksplease)


I feel certain that the public library was about the first place my parents found when they moved from Carbondale, Illinois to Geneva, New York when I was but 15 months old. When I was just learning to read, the tiny library had one bookshelf devoted to children's books. I can remember squatting at the shelf, picking out books, as my mother chose her books in the library's remaining 20 or so bookshelves. I loved everything about the library, from the gentlemen reading the newspapers in the leather chairs to the ornate woodwork on the banisters.

When I was about nine or 10, the basement of the library was turned into an entire children's section. Now this was pure bliss. My mother could browse upstairs while I browsed all by myself downstairs. I remember when I was about 11, looking for books in the card catalog about adolescence. I must have read this word somewhere and understood that I was entering the stage, so I thought I should check out books that would enlighten me. No doubt I found some.

What do you remember about your childhood library? See more posts at Booking Through Thursday.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Book Review: Jimmy's Stars

This is Day 2 for me on the Jimmy's Stars book tour. My Day 1 post discusses a bit about the author, Mary Ann Rodman, and how much my daughter and I loved this novel about a working-class community during WWII.

Today my daughter was filling out a "My Favorite...." chart for the start of our school year. Her favorite book? Jimmy's Stars. What makes this novel a favorite for her, a typical nearly 11-year-old girl?
1. The main character, Ellie, is an authentic "every girl." She has strengths and weaknesses. She struggles, she cries, and she has small victories. Although she is a 1940s girl, her character transcends time, and a girl of 2008 can relate to her.
2. Rodman makes the setting somehow familiar, yet she liberally scatters unique war-era traditions/concepts and subtly explains them: rationing, phrases like "for the duration," the explosion of women in the workforce, the fear of the telegram, the hatred of Hitler, the strong belief that soldiers were heroes. In other words, today's readers are provided with a clear explanation of how life was then, but without it sounding like a history lesson.
3. Ellie and her family are not the perfect all-American family like the Brady Bunch. They all fight, the parents are tired, and they have to eat salmon pea-wiggle. But there is an abundance of love, evident in small gestures and in their pulling together.
4. The book is sad, but Ellie is strong. There is closure without necessarily a happy ending.
5. Rodman has a knack for writing dialog that is true. There's no artificial, excessive speech—just real stuff.

We loved Jimmy's Stars. Below is a list of other stops on the blog tour. I particularly enjoy the two-part interview with Mary Ann Rodman over at Maw Books. Tomorrow I'll talk about other WWII literature that would make good companion pieces for Jimmy's Stars.

1 Charger, A Childhood of Dreams, A Christian Worldview of Fiction
A Mom Speaks, All About Children’s Books, Becky’s Book Reviews, Book Review Maniac, By the Book Reviews, Dolce Bellezza, Fireside Musings, Home School Buzz, Looking Glass Reviews, Maggie Reads, Maw Books, The Friendly Book Nook, The Hidden Side of a Leaf

Monday, August 18, 2008

Book Tour: Jimmy's Stars by Mary Ann Rodman

"The two people Ellie McKelvey hated most were Adolf Hitler and Victoria Gandeck. Hitler lived in Germany, but Victoria was just across the alley. And right now, Ellie hated Victoria more."
For the next few days I'll be featuring Jimmy's Stars as part of Mary Ann Rodman's book tour. This tour is sponsored by Kids Book Buzz, a blog devoted to promoting quality children's literature.

My 10-year-old daughter and I have been reading this book together in the evenings for a couple of weeks now. According to her, this is "one of the best best books ever." (This is a child who has been getting a daily dose of classic read-alouds since birth; in other words, we've read a lot of books together.) I have been reading aloud to her since I am the one actually writing the review, but she couldn't resist reading ahead a couple of chapters on her own most nights.

The book is targeted to the 9-12 year old audience. The central character is 11-year-old Ellie McKelvey, an average girl from a blue-collar family. The setting: working-class neighborhood in Pittsburgh in September 1943. The central conflict: the affects of World War 2 on Ellie, her family, friends, and the community, shown primarily through Ellie as she tries to deal with her beloved brother, Jimmy, being off at war.

Author Mary Ann Rodman’s debut novel, Yankee Girl, was chosen as a VOYA Top Shelf Fiction for Middle School Readers and an NCSS-CBC Notable Trade Book in the Field of Social Studies. My daughter and I will be checking this one out together soon! Rodman's My Best Friend is for younger readers, as are her upcoming First Grade Stinks and Surprise Soup.

We still have 2 more chapters to read in Jimmy's Stars, so I'll post my actual review of the book tomorrow. Suffice it to say: my daughter and I both loved it. More stops on the book tour are listed below:

01 Charger, A Childhood of Dreams, A Christian Worldview of Fiction
A Mom Speaks, All About Children’s Books, Becky’s Book Reviews, Book Review Maniac, By the Book Reviews, Dolce Bellezza, Fireside Musings, Home School Buzz, Looking Glass Reviews, Maggie Reads, Small World Reads, The Friendly Book Nook, The Hidden Side of a Leaf

Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Sunday Salon: Lakes and Snakes

I spent the first two weeks in August visiting my parents' home, which is on one of the beautiful Finger Lakes in upstate New York. (Saying "my parents' home" doesn't sound quite right as it was once my home, too. But saying "my hometown" doesn't ring true, as I consider where I live now to be my hometown; nor does saying "my childhood home" sound quite accurate as I lived there mostly during my teen years.)

Anyway: suffice it to say I spent a lot of time reading out on the dock while the kids swam in Seneca Lake. We also spent a total of 28 hours in the car (round trip), and I'm fortunate to be one of those people who can read in the car. So here is my total vacation reading list and reviews of several of the books:
The Miracle at Speedy Motors (Alexander McCall-Smith)
The River King (Alice Hoffman)
On Chesil Beach (Ian McEwan)
Atonement (Ian McEwan)
The Secret Between Us (Barbara Delinsky)
Liar's Club (Mary Karr)
A Death in the Family (James Agee)

and yesterday I finished The Serpent Handlers by Fred Brown and Jeanne McDonald, which I began somewhere in the middle of Virginia heading south on Interstate 81.

What a fantastic two weeks of reading. There were no "losers" in those eight books, although The Secret Between Us was not of the same caliber as the rest. Still, even that was entertaining—and sometimes we just need to be entertained. The three highlights for me were Ian McEwan's two and James Agee's Pulitzer-winning classic. I've heard so much about McEwan, and I was not disappointed. And as far as Agee goes, my only disappointment is that I never encountered his writing in all my many years as an English major in college and graduate school, and that I didn't make this novel required reading for my American Lit class last year. What a shame. And I'm mad at all my English teachers and profs for not introducing Agee to me ever.

A surprise for me was how much I enjoyed the nonfiction account of serpent-handlers. I have a weird fascination with religious fringe movements, like the fundamentalist LDS movement as described in John Krakauer's Under the Banner of Heaven. Brown and McDonald handle the lives of the snake-handlers gracefully and graciously, but I'll tell all about that in my upcoming review.

This week I'll be joining several other bloggers on Kids Book Buzz for a tour of Mary Ann Rodman's new WWII novel, Jimmy's Stars. I've been reading this with my 10-year-old daughter for the past couple of weeks, and she calls it "one of the best books ever." In fact, I'm going to go join her now and read the last two chapters.

Happy Sunday!

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Sunday Scribbling #124: Observations

This week's Sunday Scribbling prompt: Observations

I am an observer, always have been. Being the youngest of five children and the only girl, it was a role I fell into easily. As a child I rarely participated in supper conversations because, frankly, they bored me and I had nothing to contribute. My parents and brothers seemed to (and still do) always talk about orchards: what scion wood should be gathered, what spray to use, what pruning needed done. I would rather have talked about people.

And so I watched them all and pondered the lives behind the tree-talk. My oldest brother is the most enigmatic, partly because 16 years separate us. I don't know him except through observation. Conversations with him seemed seeped in subtext; always beneath words was a joke I didn't get.

My brother owned his own orchard for 25 or 30 years, and during that time he had many accidents that should have been fatal. His relationships invariably failed. But in spite of injuries and heartbreak, he remained to me like some Greek hero: sharp-tongued, sharp-witted, powerful, brilliant, and arrogant. Light on his feet and absurdly confident, he was like a black cat with all its nine lives. Below is a poem I wrote years ago after a tractor accident that he somehow survived.


His girlfriends are always leaving him, crossing
the line to someone with a little less
question in his eyes. Each time one zips
up her bags, he tries death,
teasing it like a slick black
shrew, tossing it in the air like a catnip
mouse. He laps it up, then turns
his back and twitches one ear
toward the sound of tunneling
underground. He blinks, twitches
again, resists the instinct to finish

what he started. He is subtle: a fall
through the ice, a slip off a roof,
a sleep in the snow, a bottle
of whiskey. How many more times
can he escape

with only scratches, broken teeth,
frostbite on his fingers and toes?
He wears his scars
proudly. Women listen
to his stories and flock
to comfort him, running
itching fingers
down his spine.
~Sarah Cummins Small, 1999

His worst brush with death was yet to occur. Just two years after this was published as part of my master's thesis, my brother had a bicycle accident and sustained a traumatic brain injury (TBI). He was given a slim chance of much of a recovery. I fed him strained plums and observed him in a whole new way. Here is a post I wrote once about that time period. Today he continues to live on his own and manage a small orchard, as well as lend his extensive expertise to the fashionable Eve's Cidery. According to my parents, he continues to improve both mentally and physically.

And that's all I know. He didn't return my text message when I was in New York this summer. He didn't come to our brother's wedding last summer, and the summer before that he told another brother and me to "come back when it isn't the busy season." Like a cat, he remains aloof. Observation is all I have.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Booking Blogger Appreciation Week

Book Blogger Appreciation Week is coming up next month at My Friend Amy. Sounds like a good idea to me; check it out here!

Booking Through Thursday: Gold Medal Reading

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This week's Booking Through Thursday asks:
You, um, may have noticed that the Olympics are going on right now, so that’s the genesis of this week’s question, in two parts:
First: Do you or have you ever read books about the Olympics? About sports in general? Fictional ones? Or non-fiction? Or both?
And, Second: Do you consider yourself a sports fan? Because, of course, if you’re a rabid fan and read about sports constantly, there’s a logic there; if you hate sports and never read anything sports-related, that, too … but you don’t have to love sports to enjoy a good sports story.(Or a good sports movie, for that matter. Feel free to expand this into a discussion about “Friday Night Lights” or “The Natural” or whatever…)

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

What an interesting set of questions! I have never read a book about the Olympics, unless maybe in grade school I got a Scholastic book profiling a current Olympic athlete. In fact, I can't think of any sports-themed book I've read other than John Grisham's Bleachers. Are there a lot of sports-themed books? I've never thought about it!

So am I a sports fan? Perhaps vicariously. Dr. H. is definitely a sports fan, and I love football season because we have great snacks in the house and everyone either wears orange (for U of Tenn) or blue (for Tenn. Titans). Also, being a Tennessee Vols fan is pretty much requisite for living in East Tennessee. Since college I've been to one NFL game (Titans vs. Bengals) and a couple of UT games (1 football, 1 basketball). For me, going to a sporting event is all about watching the people in the crowd and the marching band. OK, I am a big nerd.

Of course I love watching my kids play sports, but that's because I love watching my kids. I was a swimmer in high school, and I do love watching swim meets. I even watch other kids than my daughter. And I have thoroughly enjoyed watching swimming and, of course, gymnastics at this year's Olympics.

I do have Friday Night Lights as an alternate on the New Classics Challenge, and I'm looking forward to reading other responses to this particular Booking Through Thursday. Perhaps I'll broaden my horizons a bit.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Book Review: The Secret Between Us

If you are a fan of Jodi Picoult, you'll like this book by Barbara Delinsky. The story reads much like a Picoult novel: it's engrossing and fast-paced, but I felt a bit cheap after reading it. I mean, everything is a bit contrived. The dialogue is stilted, the characters all a bit too familiar, and my emotions feel manipulated.

Still, it's a great plot read. The basic story: Sixteen-year-old Grace hits and kills a man while she is driving home from a party, and her mother covers for her. Of course the lie—the secret between them—gets out of control and ends up being worse than the truth itself. Within the 300+ pages are all sorts of family relationships in turmoil, identity crises, etc. The ending happens quickly and everything is tied up all nicely and unrealistically.

I won't be hurrying out to find another Delinsky novel, unless someone gives me a compelling reason to try another; but if you want something fast to read that doesn't take much concentration—and if you are a Picoult fan—go ahead and try The Secret Between Us.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Sunday Scribblings: Ask

Sunday Scribblings #123: Ask
What question would you like to ask? If you could ask anyone anything, what would it be? What question do you ask yourself? What question fills your mind? What question have you been asked lately? What question have you had problems answering? What is the eternal question? What? Where? Who? When? Why? How? Go ahead and ask!

Sunday Morning Questions While on Vacation at My Parents' Home, 7:30-9:30 a.m.

To the kids: "Did you sleep well?"

To Dad: "Will you please turn on the water heater so we can have hot showers?"

To my youngest: "Would like a bowl of cereal?"

Should I check my email now or later?
Should I text my brother now or later?

To my daughter: "What are you going to wear to church today?"

Will my brother text me back? Will he want to see me? Do I really care?
Why do I feel so nauseated?
What should I wear today? Will I be too warm in a long-sleeved shirt? Why is it so chilly here in New York? Why didn't I bring warmer clothes to wear?
Should I take a picture of my high-school boyfriend's gravestone before I go back home or is that morbid?
Will my friend Janet call me back or should I call her again later?
Should I straighten my hair today?

To my husband: "Is this clock fast?"

What time do we have to leave for church? Do I have time to blog a little?

To my husband: "Did you watch any more of the Olympics last night after I went to bed? Did anything exciting happen?"

Why do I feel so nauseated?
Should I go wake up my teenager?
What is up with this intermittent wireless connection?

To my daughter: "Did the phone ring while I was in the shower?"

Should I be getting dressed instead of blogging?

Friday, August 8, 2008

Book Review: Atonement

Now—after reading On Chesil Beach and Atonement in less than 24 hours— I know why everyone is reading Ian McEwan (and why McEwan is on Entertainment Weekly's list of New Classics). He is brilliant.

The writing in Atonement isn't as sparse and conservative as it is in On Chesil Beach. This is a more complicated novel in terms of characters and twists and turns. There is more to keep up with in this novel that spans several decades, but you won't feel as if you're working to keep up.

The most basic storyline itself is a terrifying one: a precocious 13-year-old girl, Briony, creates her own truth about an event, and everyone believes her. With her gigantic lie, she alters the lives of her whole family. Does she have the courage to take back what she said?

The novel begins with Briony at 13 and ends with her in her 70s. Through much of the novel I longed to slap Briony across her silly, smug face. But the possibility of a lie being told and stuck to: terrifyingly true. How many times as children did we tell a little lie and have to remember it and stick to it later? Most of our lies were probably "innocent" cover-ups ("I'm not the one who broke the glass!"), but even a little lie is just a step away from one that is big enough to alter our world.

As I said in my review of On Chesil Beach, McEwan is a master storyteller and a true craftsman. I will be reading through the rest of his novels soon.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Book Review: On Chesil Beach

I came to Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach knowing nothing about it except that lots of people have recently read and recommended it.

From the first paragraph, I realized I was about to read something by a master author. I guess I subconsciously group authors, and I'm not through puzzling out my exact groupings, but one of them is "master." There is something masterful in every sentence that McEwan writes. In literature classes in college and in AP English in high school, I was taught to pay close attention to everything I was reading because writers choose their words carefully. I realized as I began this book (and Jayber Crow also comes to mind) that I have largely let that power of concentration slip away amidst a sea of good plot reads and intriguing, though not necessarily powerful, characters.

But with McEwan, I have to sit up and pay attention. He demands it.

The primary story takes place in just a few hours in 1962: the wedding night of newlyweds Florence and Edward. Key to the novel is that this all happens just a few years before "moral liberation" of the 1960s. Frances and Edward are innocent; they haven't even spoken of their physical relationship before this night. And Frances is absolutely terrified. Between scenes of the wedding night, McEwan takes us through their year or two of courtship. Unless you've read other book reviews, you don't know whether they are headed for marital bliss or disaster (and I won't tell you here).

McEwan is never frivolous with his language, and I love that. He is intense, poetic, and grave. There is a strong sense that life was more serious then—that today we are conditioned to being casual with consequences. Although this is a fast read at 203 short pages, this isn't a light beach read. I loved On Chesil Beach so much that I immediately (literally, as I had it with me) began reading Atonement. Review of that coming up soon!

If you've reviews On Chesil Beach, feel free to leave your links in the comments.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

I've been given a few awards lately and just wanted to say thanks and pay it forward. The first is the Arte Y Pico award, which apparently translates as something like: "Wow. The Best Art. Over the top" (quote from the Arte Y Pico blog). Hava at Nonfiction Lover bestowed this award upon me, so thank you, Hava!

And now for the E for Excellent and Brillante Weblog Awards, given to me by Amy at The Sleepy Reader a couple of weeks ago. And also, Dad2Three bestowed the Brillante Award to me at my SmallWorld at Home blog, so I'm thinking I can double up some here on the acceptance speech, right?

And finally, thanks to A Second Cup for a fabulous one, the Kick-A Blogger Award. A Second Cup is a blog I've encountered by way of entrecard, which is a blog-visiting site to which I've become addicted and can't seem to leave, even though I have no idea why I spend 20 minutes each day doing it. But I have found some awesome blogs in the entrecard community, so I guess that's my reason!

So, I know I'm supposed to pay these forward, but honestly I am befuddled by the enormity of searching for the required 22 or so bloggers to present with these various awards. Can I just say thanks for now? Will I be struck my lightning or have something terrible happen to me if I don't play by the rules? I am, truly, honored. I love bloggers!

Book Review: The River King

When writing my book reviews, I often like to look at the review quotes sprinkled on the front and back covers of books. (This is especially helpful if it's been a few days before finishing and reviewing, and I've forgotten all I had to say about the book when I first finished!) In this particular case, I like what The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has to say about Alice Hoffman's The River King: "Graceful, beguiling, and quirky." Exactly.

The book starts and stops at the beginning (or perhaps that was me reading at bedtime and then falling asleep) but once the characters are straightened out, the story picks up and quickly becomes "beguiling." The setting is Haddan: the town itself and the exclusive prep school at the edge of town. This dynamic presents one major conflict. And then there are a variety of relationship conflicts: the unpopular student, the scholarship girl vs. the rich kids, the local law enforcement vs. the school administration, a local man vs. a teacher. All of these are satisfying and "beguiling" stories in and of themselves, but they all revolve around a body found in the river.

And with a body come ghosts—ghosts of the past and perhaps a real ghost, as well. After reading this book, I realized something about myself that surprised me a little: I love a bit of a ghost-story element. Perhaps that stems from my childhood habit of memorizing ghost stories to tell in the evenings to the neighborhood kids or from my teen years of reading great chunks of horror novels. Other books that have this same element of ghost are Beth Gutcheon's More Than You Know, Lisa See's Peony in Love, and Diana Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale. All of these books have another common feature: all their authors are "graceful" writers. If you read my reviews regularly, you know that I love an author who takes joy in the craft of writing lyrically. And Hoffman does this well.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Book Review: Miracle at Speedy Motors

I can't help but love the No. 1 Ladies' Detective series by Alexander McCall-Smith. Years ago a friend recommended the books and I was only slightly interested, but I picked one up at the library anyway. I fell instantly in love, just as she predicted. There is just something about Precious Ramotswe, chief detective. She is comforting, sensible, witty, smart, and profound.

The stories themselves all center at a primary level on Mma Ramotswe as she seeks to solve small cases at her detective agency, but the real focus of each novel is the larger theme of life in Botswana, the loss of traditions, and human relationships.

All the regular characters are back in this ninth novel in the series. As always, McCall-Smith takes his time telling the story, in no rush to push his characters through their lives. If you haven't yet read this series and need something gentle but not fluffy, I highly recommend starting with Book 1 and reading your way through.

The Sunday Salon: Reading Bliss

I'm in the midst of a long vacation: reading bliss. I finished two books on the car trip from Tennessee to upstate New York and I've finished another while lounging on the dock. I've started my fourth vacation book this morning. What I haven't done yet is review any of them, so coming up, reviews of: The Miracle at Speedy Motors (Alexander McCall-Smith), The River King (Alice Hoffman), On Chesil Beach and Atonement (Ian McEwan). I've just started The Secret Between Us, and I can tell this one is going to be hard to put down. And I've still got another week of vacation!

Books Read in July
The Sky Isn't Visible From Here (Felicia Sullivan)
More Than You Know (Beth Gutcheon)
Blue Ridge (TR Pearson)
Briar Rose (Jane Yolen)
Unaccustomed Earth (Jhumpa Lahiri)

Discarded in July (and thus, the worst book of the month):
The Ten-Year Nap (Meg Wolitzer)

Best Book of the Month:
Unaccustomed Earth, but closely followed by The Sky Isn't Visible From Here

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Sunday Scribblings: Do I Have To?

Do I have to decide what to keep and what to throw away? Must I alone pick through bits of family history and determine what gets passed down, what is thrown away, and what is cast aside, bound for a thrift-store's dusty shelves to sit amidst a jumble of other forlorn, forgotten objects?

Why do I choose to keep the tiny china dog, the size of a marble, and relegate the Pennsylvania Dutch trivet to the Salvation Army pile? It could be useful on my own table, that bit of ceramic tile. Or what if it's not some cheesy trinket sold in a souvenir shop; what if it's actually something precious, a bit of German art sent in gratitude to my father and mother? Who am I to determine its worth?

Here are two diaries, mine: age 10 and age 12. How life picked up in those two years! From jumping rope to getting a birthday kiss on the cheek. These notebooks are easy to keep. But who am I to decide if this letter to my grandmother, 1981, should be kept or discarded? If I keep it now, am I just relegating this job to my own daughter in some far, far future?

Box after box in my mother's attic, I choose between an object's life, death, or uncertainty. One plastic pig, a puppet, a postcard. A silk scarf, a box of picture hangers, a pair of skis. The weight of four generations rests upon me: treasure or trash? Do I have to choose?

(Need a writing prompt? This week's is "Do I Have To?" Check out Sunday Scribblings.)

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Answers to Weekly Geeks

A Favorite Author: Harper Lee

Author of the book I'm currently reading, who is also the author of the book I just finished: Ian McEwan

Some authors I've met: Debra Marquart (major professor in graduate school), Jane Smiley (took a fiction writering class with her and chauffeured her to the university when her leg was broken), Li Young Lee (the best poet I've ever heard read).

Video: Li Young Lee, "Echo and Shadow"

Weekly Geeks: Author Photos

So this week's challenge at Weekly Geeks is to post author photos. This is very interesting to me because I like to know what authors look like. I often flip from book to inside flap or back cover to see the author while I'm reading.

As explained by Dewey at Weekly Geeks:

Using the meme-like list below, post photos of authors in response. Please feel free to skip any you don’t like. You’re also free (encouraged!) to add your own, but if you do that, please be sure to indicate which are yours, so that people can credit you if they use yours.

But don’t put words/names with your photos. Ask your readers to guess your answers! If you have a book to give away, you may want to offer a prize, maybe draw a name from those readers who guess correctly.

1. Photos of your favorite author(s).
2. Photo(s) of the author(s) of the book(s) you’re currently reading.
3. Photo(s) of any author(s) you’ve met in person (even very briefly).
4. A youtube of (an) author(s) you’ve heard speak.
5. Any photo(s) you may have of yourself with an author.
6. A photo of the author of the book you’ve most recently finished.
7. Photos of the hottest author(s)!

After reading a few others posts, I have to say that I don't enjoy not knowing who these authors are. I want to really cheat and post the names with the pictures, but instead I have a separate post here that gives the answers.

A Favorite Author

Author of the book I'm reading currently and of the book I finished yesterday

A few authors I've met

A reading by an author I've heard speak

Who are these people? Answers here.