March Reading

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Fiction Read in March

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride

The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson

Dear Life by Alice Munro
I’m not a big short-story reader but I wanted to read this, the latest collection by the 2013 Nobel Prize winner for literature. Munro has been called a master of the short-story for good reason. I don’t particularly like the people she writes about, the situations she puts them in or the genre she uses. Yet she writes in a way that is compelling and true and beautiful and that makes all of that seem not so important. 

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
This was the first time I’d read this classic thriller. I loved it and couldn’t believe I hadn’t read it before. 

The Art of Detection by Laurie R. King (audiobook)

The False Prince
by Jennifer Nielsen
Recommended by John, who loves fantasy books. He read this last year and then recently got it out of the library to re-read it which made me want to see what was so good. This mistaken identity story with a twist rises to the top of the crowded fantasy middle grade genre. I’m looking forward to reading the next two in the trilogy. John promises they are just as good. 

Non-Fiction Read in March:

Ten Years in the Tub: A Decade Soaking in Great Books by Nick Hornby

With the Kids:

The Dragons of Blueland by Ruth Stiles Gannett

Obi, Gerbil on the Loose by Michael Delaney

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle

Poetry Friday: The Donkey

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Hudson 97 008a

The Donkey
By G. K. Chesterton

When fishes flew and forests walked
And figs grew upon thorn,
Some moment when the moon was blood
Then surely I was born.

With monstrous head and sickening cry
And ears like errant wings,
The devil’s walking parody
On all four-footed things.

The tattered outlaw of the earth,
Of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
I keep my secret still.

Fools! For I also had my hour;
One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears,
And palms before my feet.

This is the poem we’re working on memorizing this month. To give credit where credit is due, I got the idea from Amy at Hope is the Word who mentioned it in a recent post.

Poetry Friday is posted at The Poem Farm today.

 

Poetry Friday: Once Upon a Memory

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Does a feather remember it once was a bird?

Does a book remember it once was a word?

Nina Laden’s Once Upon a Memory uses beautifully poetic text to explore the concept of memory. The soft watercolor illustrations invite the reader into the imaginary world of a a little boy populated with animals and a sense of wonder.

Much more poem than prose, there is no real story here but the question and answer format leads the reader to think about the world in a slightly different way. It reminded me very much of one of my favorite book poems for kids, A Sock is a Pocket for Your Toes.

Poetry Friday is hosted this week by A Year of Reading.  And don’t forget that April is National Poetry Month!   Do you have plans to celebrate?

Ten Years in the Tub

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After the last book I read, I needed a very particular type of book. Non-fiction. I couldn’t get involved with other fictional characters after inhabiting Adam Johnson’s North Korea. I couldn’t have read something that was too sad or about the evil in the world. I also didn’t want something that was too funny or lightweight. So really my choices were down to some bland not-too-hot-and-not-too-cold book or one of the random catalogs that come in the mail. Luckily for me, I realized I had a third choice: Nick Hornby’s Ten Years in the Tub which happened to be on my shelf of books recently checked out of the library.

Ten Years in the Tub is one of my favorite kinds of books: a book about books. It’s actually a collection of columns Hornby wrote for The Believer magazine over the past 10 years. The title of the column is “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” and the skeleton of each column is just that: Hornby’s reflections/reviews of what’s he’s been reading. But you also get thoughts on football (soccer to those of us in the US), musings on art and relationships and parenting and best of all Hornby’s thoughts on the act of reading itself.

Hornby and I are really nothing alike. He’s a 57 year old British man who clearly leans much more to the left than me politically and who mentions once that although he won’t read Phillip Pullman’s Dark Materials series because he doesn’t like fantasy and sci-fi, he’s ok with the “God being dead” idea. (What does it say about me that I was more bothered by the idea that he doesn’t like fantasy at all than his anti-religious feelings?) I’m not any of those things. I’m also not an Oscar-nominated screenwriter and author who is married to a director. Heck, I’d never even heard of the clearly hip and arty magazine that his column has been in for 10 (!) years. I do, however, share one important character trait with Hornby. We are both readers.

I could probably turn to just about any page of the book and find a quote by Hornby that I found funny, inspiring, intriguing or just plain true. Hornby’s approach to reading reminded me quite a bit of Alan Jacob’s in The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction although their writing styles are quite different. Both Hornby and Jacobs are of the “read what you want” rather than what is deemed “important”. Read at whimsy. Read one thing and let it lead to another. Read because you want to rather than because you have to.

I thought about making a long list of all the books that I’ve added to my own to-be-read list just by reading this book. But that would be a little boring and to be honest, I didn’t actually make a list. I kept thinking about making a list. Just about each column had me thinking, “Ooh! That sounds good, I want to read that.” But I didn’t sit down and write down each and every book I thought sounded great while I was reading this one. I probably should have but I was usually too into reading to stop and take notes. Plus, I’m usually reading doing something like brushing my teeth or sitting at swim practice or curled up in bed at night. On one hand, I’m sad that I didn’t write them down because I feel like I’m certainly going to forget about that one book that I really really wanted to read. On the other hand, it feels right to not have kept a list. Keeps the door open for whimsy and all that.

One last testament to how much I’ve enjoyed this book. The book was due yesterday at the library but couldn’t be reviewed because it has a hold on it. I hate to have library fines. Not because I mind the money, I figure at about $1.00 I’m still getting a great deal. But because I feel like I’m betraying the other reader out there who is waiting patiently for his hold to come in. I rarely keep books out past the due date in this situation, sometimes I return them and then put them on hold again. But I’ve kept out Ten Years in the Tub. It’s just that good. So if you’re a Fairfax County library goer who has Ten Years in the Tub on hold, sorry. I promise I’ll take it back tomorrow.

 

 

 

The Orphan Master’s Son

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I’m not really sure I can do justice to this book in a review. Nor can I go the lazy way and share my favorite quotes with you because I had to return it to the library today. Since it won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and was named a best book of the year by just about every major newspaper and even won the more quirky Tournament of Books in 2013, I’m not sure why I even feel the need to mention it here on my little ol’ blog anyway.

Probably for the reason that I’m fairly sure that when I look back at the end of the year this will be my best book of the year.

The story is of Jun Do, an North Korean orphan who grows up to be a kidnapper and spy. I don’t really want to give away more of the plot than that. It’s complicated and complex. The things it tells of are horrific and gruesome and sad. I never knew what was going to happen next because I’d never have been able to predict the mind-blowing horror of the North Korean prison camps or the sheer unbelievability of life in a totalitarian state.

My book club read this and when we chose it one of the women (who felt that our previous book was too emotionally difficult) asked, “Is it depressing?” To which we looked at her and said “Well, it is about North Korea.” If you are someone who is very sensitive to scenes of torture or violence I would not read this book.

And yet.

Somehow Johnson manages to tell a story filled with unspeakable evil and make it a page-turner. I don’t know how he does it. It’s never gratuitous in its depiction of violence. He tells you only what needs to be told and nothing more. It’s unbelievable but rings true. There is also a slim thread of redemption and even hope within Jun Do’s story. Not redemption as in happy ending with all the bows tied up neatly. (That’s not a spoiler; no one would ever read this book and think it was going to end happily.) But redemption as in there is a shred of hope for the future. It’s a shred but it’s there.

What more is there to say? Except maybe: Read it.

The Good Lord Bird

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I’ve heard this 2013 National Book Award Winner most often described as satire or even farcical. Satire, it is. Take a cross-dressing, wise-beyond-his-years, 12 year old slave who is kidnapped/rescued by John Brown. Mix in a rag-tag band of John Brown’s followers. Stir in a skirt-chasing Frederick Douglass, a slave rebellion in a whorehouse and a leader who prays for hours at a the drop of a hat and you’ve got a fast-moving, page-turning, thumping-good read of a book

Like all good satire, there is a heart underneath all the craziness. There were passages in this book that made me laugh out loud but there were also passages that just resonated as TRUE. And sometimes they were the same passages.

even though I’d gotten used to living a lie-being a girl- in come to me this way. Being a Negro’s a lie, anyway. Nobody sees the real you. Nobody knows who you are inside. You just judged on what you are on the outside whatever your color. Mulatto, colored, black, it don’t matter. You’re just a Negro to the world.

and later….

But a spell come over me that night, watching him eat that bad news. A little bit of a change. For the Captain took that news across the jibs and brung hisself back to Harpers Ferry knowing he was done in. he knowed he was gonna lose fighting for the Negro, on account of the Negro and he brung hisself to it anyway, for he trusted in the Lord’s word. That’s strong stuff. I felt God in my heart for the first time at that moment. I didn’t tell him, for there weren’t no use bothering the Old Man with that truth, ’cause if I’d’a done that, I’d’a had to tell him the other part of it, which is that even as I found God, God was talking to me too, just like He done him, and God the Father was tellin’ me to get the hell out.

Poetry Friday: Lenten Poetry

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IMG_2693Our assistant pastor’s wife sent me a link to a group of poems compiled for Lenten meditation. This came at a perfect time as I had just been bemoaning the fact that I always want to do more during Lent but somehow never do. I’m not sure yet how I’ll use these poems but they are beautiful and just reading them alone is probably enough.

The one for today is by Robert Herrick, a poet I know nothing about. It was written in 1648 so I’m going to assume it’s in the public domain and post the whole thing here.

To Keep a True Lent

Is this a Fast, to keep
The Larder lean?
And clean
From fat of veals and sheep?

Is it to quit the dish
Of flesh, yet still
To fill
The platter high with fish?

Is it to fast an hour,
Or ragg’d go,
Or show
A down-cast look and sour?

No: ’tis a Fast to dole Thy sheaf of wheat And meat
Unto the hungry soul.

It is to fast from strife And old debate,
And hate;
To circumcise thy life.

To show a heart grief-rent;
To starve thy sin,
Not bin;
And that’s to keep thy Lent.

Poetry Friday is hosted today at Reflections on the Teche. Stop by and share a poem.

 

February Reading

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Fiction Read in February:

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley-
Read as part of a co-op class that I assist with (assist meaning basically sit and listen and do nothing, not a bad gig). I had never read this classic horror story. I found it interesting and I’m glad I read it.

The Dinosaur Feather by S.J. Gazan
This debut mystery was awarded the best Danish crime novel of the decade (or something like that). In a bit of serendipity, I found it when searching for something unrelated for John for school. It looked intriguing so I put it on hold at the library only to later see it on many “best of” lists at the end of the year. I read a lot of mysteries and this one may have used the most ingenious (and creepy) method of offing the victim that I’ve ever seen. In some ways this felt similar to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo in the Scandinavian setting, very liberal attitudes towards sex that seem to be the societal norm and use of many similar-sounding to my ear Danish names. It’s not as violent as Dragon Tattoo and overall I think I liked Dinosaur Feather better. 

A Red Herring Without Mustard by Alan Bradley
I admitted last year that I had to eat crow after initially disliking Flavia deLuce and the series of mysteries she stars in. After reading the third in the series, I have to say these continue to get better and better. Quirky, endearing girl detective and chemist, small English village and clever murders make for a very enjoyable and fun read. 

Locked Rooms by Laurie R. King (audiobook)
I continue to enjoy listening to King’s Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series in the car in the mornings. 

The Unwanteds: Island of Fire by Lisa McMann
The third in a middle grade fantasy series that John and I have read and enjoyed. It’s sort of a Hunger Games meets Harry Potter meets a bunch of other fantasy series that have been done before. But it’s well-written and always especially nice to discuss a book with John that he likes. These must be read in order to be appreciated. The author doesn’t do any summing up of the plot at the beginning of the second and third books so if you are interested, start with number one. 

Non-Fiction Read in February:

The Little Way of Ruthie Leming by Rod Dreher
A memoir/biography of the life of the author’s sister, Ruthie Leming. Dreher grew up in a small town in Louisiana but left as an adult to pursue a career in journalism. His sister stayed behind in the town and lived a very different kind of life surrounded by family. The difference in their personalities and life paths causes tension between the two siblings. Dreher deals with this tension as well as his sister’s life and death when he comes home to live in his hometown after Ruthie’s death from lung cancer. We read this book for my book club and although we all mostly enjoyed it, we all thought it would have been a better book if the author had waited a few years to write it. There are a lot of questions about the themes of community and calling and family that are left unexplored or that he might answer differently when the traumatic events of the book aren’t quite so raw. 

With the Kids:

My Father’s Dragon by Ruth Stiles Gannett
Like her brothers before her, Ruth is quite liking the tale of Elmer Elevator and his quest to free the baby dragon from the creatures of Wild Island. 

Obi, Gerbil on the Loose by Michael Delaney
We just started it but as fans of the Humphrey the hamster series, I think David will enjoy this one. He likes anything with animals and books that are funny. This story of a gerbil named after Obi-Wan-Kanobi seems to fit the bill so far. 

Peter and the Shadow Thieves by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson

Cybils (a little late)

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The Cybils winners were announced last Friday. I was too busy to post a comment that day. Unfortunately I wasn’t busy being wined and dined for Valentine’s day but instead I was taking care of a vomiting child. As a side note, we don’t really celebrate Valentine’s day so I wasn’t really expecting to be wined and dined. But all things considered, I can think of better ways to spend the day than with a 4 year old with a stomach bug.

I read a LOT of Cybils nominees this year, but not that many of the final winners. The only two I had read were the winners in the two picture book categories: Mr. Tiger Goes Wild by Peter Brown for fiction and Look Up! Bird-Watching in Your Own Backyard by Annette LeBlanc Cate for non-fiction. I was happy with both of those winners. As for the others, several look intriguing to me but the  one I’m really hoping to read is the poetry winner, Forest Has a Song: Poems by Amy Ludwig VanDerwater. Sadly, our library system has a dismal selection for children’s poetry and doesn’t yet have this one. But one can hope, right?

This year the Cybils were more interesting to me for having been a first round panelist. Now that the whole thing is over I thought I’d give a few reflections on what I learned.

1)There is way more that goes into judging a book than “good” or “bad”. There were so so many really good books that just weren’t going to make it to the shortlist. There were books I loved that didn’t make it to my own personal shortlist for various reasons. Sometimes it was too narrow of an appeal, sometimes it was something well-done but that has been well-done before and so lacked the originality of the other choices. Sometimes it was a lack of reference material (important in a nonfiction category). It made me look at book contests like the Caldecott with a new appreciation for how tough it is. I think in the past when a book I didn’t like won, I would think either the judges had poor taste or I’d question my own judgement. (Usually the first.) But now I appreciate more that the judges might be looking at different criteria than me. Or that a book I don’t personally like can still be award-worthy.

2)There is a LOT of really excellent children’s literature being published. Especially in the category of non-fiction. I knew that already, but this really drove it home.

3) There are a LOT of people who love children’s literature and books as much as me. I’ll even go so far as to say maybe even more. Probably the most fun part of the process (other than the actual reading) was “meeting” people who shared a passion for excellence in children’s literature.

And since this year’s Cybils are over I thought I’d also share my own personal shortlist in the Elementary and Middle Grade Non-Fiction category. Each panelist submitted a list of 10 titles and then after lots of good (and not too heated) discussion we narrowed it down to 7 titles for the final shortlist. As you can see, five of the seven books on the final shortlist were on my personal list. Which means five of my favorites were left off. Each of the other panelists had favorites that also didn’t make the final cut.

In the end, we all felt really good about the list we submitted as a panel. Everyone didn’t love every book but someone loved every book. We wanted a list of books that at least one of us felt passionate about and that’s what we got in the end.

Anubis Speaks by Vicky Alvear Shecter-“one of the quirkiest and most enjoyable books I read…”

Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Maker’s Strike of 1909 by Michelle Markel- Melissa Sweet illustrations plus inspiring story made this one of my favorites of the many picture book biographies in the category.

Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table by Jacqueline Briggs Martin- I never reviewed this biography of a retired professional basketball player turned urban farmer. Look here at Readers to Eaters for a full review.

Locomotive  by Brian Floca I’d just like the record to show that our panel beat the Caldecott committee to the punch with this one. And that I think they had excellent taste this year. 

Look Up! Bird-Watching in Your Own Back Yard by Annette LeBlanc Cate- The winner, of course. David, our resident bird-lover, was quite happy when I told him that this one won.

That’s a Possiblity by Bruce Goldstone An engaging book about statistics that all three of my kids (ages 10, 7, and 4) really enjoyed. I’m fairly sure that’s not a sentence that could be written about any other book.

The Boy Who Loved Math by Deborah Heligman With appeal for even the biggest math-hater.

Thomas Jefferson Builds a Library  by Barb Rosenstock Delicious, bookish quotes. Offers a slightly new perspective on an iconic figure and his passion for books.

Volcano Rising by Elizabeth Rusch Gorgeous illustrations. Packed with facts. Looks at the creative rather than destructive nature of volcanoes.

The Skull in the Rock: How a Scientist, a Boy and Google Earth Opened a New Window on Human Origins by Lee R. Berger and Marc Aronson Both John and I found this real life science detective story fascinating. A wonderful look at how science is really done and one that goes one step further and invites the reader to be part of the process.

One last thought in this already too long post: if you are a blogger who loves children’s literature and you’ve thought about applying to be a Cybils panelist, do it! It is a lot of work. But it’s even more fun.

William Shakespeare’s Star Wars

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At first glance this book by Ian Doescher looks like it could be either the worst kind of bad fan fiction or a something you would buy as a clever gag gift. William Shakespeare’s Star Wars is neither. Doescher has taken the story of Star Wars: A New Hope (Episode VI or otherwise known as the real Star Wars before George Lucas ruined our childhood icon) and rewritten it in Shakespearean language. He doesn’t just drop in a few thees and thous. He writes the entire thing in iambic pentameter. This serves to underline the classic themes in Star Wars that really recur in all literature (good vs. evil, a hero going on a journey to discover his heroic nature, a princess, friendship and honor).

I think there is a lot that could be done with the book in a school setting. I hesitate to say that it could make Shakespeare accessible because I think Shakespeare can be made accessible to kids in many other ways. However, I do think this would be a great tool for kids who might already have decided that Shakespeare is boring or too hard or just dumb. I also think it would make a great accompaniment to the study of an original Shakespeare play. I can imagine a lot of discussion around whether or not just putting something in iambic pentameter makes it as beautiful as Shakespearean language (no). Or the difference between a play and a movie screenplay. Or the common themes we see in say Hamlet and Star Wars. I would also love to see this performed. Humphrey pointed out it would make for great forensics competition pieces.

Mostly, it’s just a really fun book to read. I enjoyed it. John loved it. And now Humphrey is reading it and loving it. It’s the rare book that three of us would read and enjoy equally.

I first heard about William Shakespeare’s Star Wars when it was shortlisted for a Cybils in the Young Adult Speculative Fiction category. Cybils winners will be announced tomorrow as a Valentine’s gift for all of us book lovers. Be sure to check them out then!.