Friday, August 31, 2007


I did something totally and completely insane today: I quit my job.

I’ve decided to work temporarily at a library in Paris. I fluctuate between being ecstatically happy and excited at the prospect of living in ParisParis!—and feeling insane for leaving a steady job and everyone I know.

Clearly, I need to focus on the exciting and ignore the doubts and pessimism. So, to help myself think positively, I am going to remind myself of all the wonderful books I’ve read that take place in Paris.
  • Madeline: When I hear “Paris,” I immediately think of Madeline. Do you think it’s possible for me to attend a boarding school? I want a nun like Miss Clavel to teach me, and I will walk in two straight rows. I’m afraid, though, that I would be one of those good, boring students. I am too anal about school to act like Madeline.
  • Hunchback of Notre Dame: Technically, I shouldn’t count this book because I didn’t finish it. However, this Victor Hugo's classic does remind me of my last trip to Paris. I walked up the 400-ish steps of Notre Dame. I thought I was going to die—and I think my sister was convinced of this as well. Remembering this book, and my last trip, should inspire me to eat right and exercise before moving to Paris. Too bad I’m leaving in only a week.
  • Suite Francaise: I also can’t technically count this book because I didn’t finish it (though I had the best intentions to). The story takes place during World War II when Paris was neither a safe nor a happy place. Maybe it’s a good thing I didn’t finish.
  • The Da Vinci Code: I have not been kind to this book. However, The Da Vinci Code is a great advertisement for Paris. I mean, it makes the Louvre look like a very exciting and mysterious place—rather than a crowded tourist attraction. I’m sure I’ll have as many adventures in Paris as Robert Langdon and Sophie Neveu.
  • A Tale of Two Cities: This is my favorite Dickens’s novel. It does not take place during the happiest of times, with all the guillotine action and such, but I am in love with Sydney Carton. The first time I went to Paris was with my father, the second with a girl from church, and the third with my youngest sister. Surely, this is my time to actually have romance in the “City of Love.” Right?

On that note, I am very excited for Paris. And I’m sure to read loads and loads of excellent books while I’m there.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Ruby Lu, Empress of Everything

Reading children’s books really is my style. I love that I can sit down and within an hour or two be finished with a chapter book. Granted, the chapter book has ginormous font and pictures—but I still feel accomplished.

Ruby Lu, Empress of Everything loses little of the first book’s charm. Ruby still does delightful things—like try to fry an egg, hotdog, and pot sticker on a hot slide at her school playground—and gets herself into one mishap or another (she hides school letters from her parents and brings home a stray dog).

Lenore Look also continues to acknowledge and appreciate her adult reader. She winks at her older audience with snarky details—like comparing Ruby’s book reports to Russian novels—and includes some adult subtext. Ruby’s aunt and uncle, recent immigrants from China, spend the entire book unsuccessfully trying to find work in the United States. Like most children, Ruby has little understanding of the adult world that surrounds her.

Reading about Ruby reminds me of when I was a child. I only have vague memories (I seriously have early-onset dementia), but I remember walking to school, taking swimming lessons, and spending a summer voluntarily taking math tests (don't ask me how I ended up doing that, and I won't admit that I actually enjoyed it).

Despite my fond memories and Look’s respect for her adult reader, I just realized (okay, I had to do some research) that 40 of the last 50 books I’ve read have been for children or young adults. Oh my. It is time I bit into some juicy, complicated adult fare.

Dostoyevsky, here I come.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

A Life Without Books

Apparently, 1 in 4 American adults has not read a book in the past year. Clearly, this statistic is disturbing, alarming, distressing, disgusting, etcetera, etcetera.

I can’t imagine not reading books, and I wonder if there are actually adults who go through life without reading at all.

Even if you took away all of my books (perish the thought), I’d still have to get my daily reading fix. Here are a few websites I have to look at everyday (yes, I just might have OCD):

  • MyFamily: My family has its own website where we post news and photos. I love this site, and it breaks my heart when my family members don’t post on a regular basis. It’s way better than actually talking to each other.
  • My local paper: Notice that I didn’t put a link or a name. The paper is that bad. But it is also the only way of finding local news. For example, today I learned that children under five are banned from local swimming pools because of too much pooping (or something along those lines). How could I live without that knowledge?
  • USA Today: To paraphrase my brother-in-law, USA Today is the Kia of newspapers. As such, I don’t read this paper to get my news fix. Instead, I only read the Life Section. I love movie and TV reviews, celebrity gossip, and pop culture.
  • BBC World News: I spent a summer in Ukraine, and I had only two English stations—EuroSport and BBC World News. For the first time, I realized that snooker is a fascinating sport and that the United States is not the only country in the world. Since then, I’ve read the BBC World News website on a daily basis to keep track of global developments.
  • Lonely Planet Thorntree: One of my favorite pastimes is dreaming about travel. I like to follow the posts on this site to feed my fantasies. I’ve even been known to ask a question or two. (Shh, don’t tell my friends that I’m a super computer nerd.)
  • Email: I love receiving emails. Well, I love receiving emails from people I know. So, anyone who knows me, please send more.

Like it or not, there really is no escaping reading. How a quarter of the population avoids it is beyond me.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Guest Blog--Bel Lamington by D. E. Stevenson

During the past week, I have picked up and started several books. By page ten I was not interested anymore. Not that I won't go back and try again, but I wanted to read something that carried me away from all of the packing and unpacking that I am currently doing in my life. In desperation one night, I went to my favorite books and pulled down an out of print novel written by D.E. Stevenson.

I could only vaguely remember the story of Bel Lamington until I started reading it again. Stevenson was a descendent of the famous Robert Louis Stevenson so it is not surprising that many of her stories take place in Scotland in part or completely. She wrote light romance novels and I think was very good at it. I haven't ventured into the type of novel that is produced monthly and follows a formula. I suppose that her books probably are not that different but they have become some of my favorites stories. Stevenson herself was the wife of an Army officer and she began writing when a friend read her journal and suggested that she turn it into a book. Four of her best books are from those diaries and are the Mrs Tim Christy series.

In this novel, Bel is an orphan who lives in a small flat in London. Her parents died in an auto accident when she was young and she was raised by an unmarried aunt. When the aunt died there was just enough money for Bel to go to secretarial school. She left the small town where she had been raised and went to London to pursue a career and to take care of herself. She has no one she can rely upon except herself. One of her greatest fears is that she will become ill and will be unable to keep her job or pay the rent. She works for a small firm as a personal secretary and deals with the petty jealousies in the office. She knows none of her neighbors in her apartment building and her one refuge is a small rooftop garden she has created outside her apartment window. One day she comes home and discovers that there is a man sitting in her sun chair in her garden. He has climbed over the roofs and discovered her oasis in the city. Mark is an artist and he begins to paint Bel kneeling planting out her seedlings. As he returns daily to paint, he brings romance and excitement into her dull life.

I am not sure why I love Dorothy Emily Stevenson so much. Some of her books bring me more satisfaction than others. Bel Lamington is one that is warm and delightful and, of course, has a happy ending. However, she goes through heartbreak and being fired from her job before she manages to discover the real love in her life. And fortunately for me, there is a second book written about Bel called Fletcher's End that tells more about the challenges of her life and that of her newly found friend Louise. I discovered D.E. Stevenson by chance in the library in Boise, Idaho many years ago. I am so grateful that I chanced upon her books because they have become old and very dear friends. However, I really don't expect anyone else to decide that these books written 40 to 60 years ago are forgotten treasures. But thank goodness they are there to read again when I feel the need for an old friend in my life.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Guest Blog--Twilight, Review 2

Okay, I know the blogger master already reviewed this book. However, I'm going to add my two cents.

This was definitely not my favorite book, and I like young adult and romance. Granted, I may have been a bit biased by Blogger. It took me quite a while to get through the first 150 pages, and then I admit I stayed up in the middle of the night to finish it.

Despite being pulled in by the end, I ask, "What is so special about this book?" What makes this book better than other YA adult authors who never made the best seller list? The writing isn't great, the story isn't that spectactular, so why all of the hype? Why is Twilight so much better than the endless Eve Bunting books I read (and quickly forgot) as a teenager?

Friday, August 24, 2007


I succumbed and read Eclipse. I swear this is the last time I will ever write about Stephenie Meyer. I really am sick and tired of her books. Fortunately, the next won’t be released for a year, so I can put the series behind me for at least that long.

After offending several people with my dislike for the series, I am starting to feel vindicated. Something about the third installment has pushed some Meyer loyalists over the edge. I have heard students at work complaining about how repetitive the books can be, how little occurs in 600+ pages, how weak Bella is, and how repulsive some of the love scenes are. It feels good to be right.

This post isn’t intended to be a ripfest on Meyer, though. I really am feeling over her and her books. But here are a few reasons why:

  • Throughout Eclipse, Bella compares herself and her relationship with Edward to Cathy and Heathcliff. That is a very brazen—and unwarranted—comparison to make. How big must Meyer’s ego be—how warped her sense of importance—to compare her book to Emily Brontë’s classic? I mean, seriously?
  • Meyer beats the reader over the head with how much Bella and Edward love each other. Their love is unearthly (like Catherine and Heathcliff’s?); it surmounts all restraints and barriers. There never was such a love as theirs. Yet, for the life of me, after reading the three books I just don’t feel that love. I don’t even understand why the characters are attracted to each other. I’ve been told ad nauseum that Edward is attractive. But is physical attraction a solid basis for love? And what in the world can Edward (or Jacob, for that matter) find attractive about Bella? She whines and complains and trips and faints. Despite reading over 1500 pages about their love, I still don’t buy it. I feel no attachment to or investment in the characters or their relationship.
  • The physicality in this book really has gone too far. One scene, in particular, is straight out of any romance novel. I’m not criticizing romance novels. They are what they are and don’t pretend to be anything else. This book, though, is masquerading as a young adult classic: “His hand curved around my elbow, moving slowly down my arm, across my ribs and over my waist, tracing along my hip and down my leg, around my knee. He paused there, his hand curling around my calf. He pulled my leg up suddenly, hitching it around his hip” (186). I blush even typing the words. Oh my.

Okay, I guess this is a Stephenie Meyer ripfest. I’m not sure why I feel so venomous (wink wink) about these novels. Maybe I’m just jealous that Meyer can write absolute filth and be a bestselling novelist. If nothing else, this should inspire me to write more and write better.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

What My Mother Doesn't Know

Not long ago, I read in the American Library Association newsletter that the young adult book What My Mother Doesn’t Know by Sonya Sones had been banned in several libraries. It reveals a lot about my character that I immediately wanted to read the book.

Doesn’t Know was available where I work. The library actually has “locked cases” to store books that are valuable, delicate, or deemed somehow inappropriate. Imagine my surprise and disappointment when I discovered Sones’s book on the ordinary shelves. How scandalous could it be if even the most stone-cold sober university in the nation hasn’t censored it?

The answer? Not scandalous at all. In fact, I found it rather a bore. First, the book is written in free verse. I know it is entirely hypocritical from a girl who wrote a collection of poetry for her thesis, but I found the format a drag.

Second, try as I might, I found no scandalous content. True, there is one mention of breasts, but that is it. Overall, I was thoroughly disappointed with the book and wouldn’t recommend it to anyone—not because it is ban-worthy but because it just isn’t a bit interesting. Sigh.

Perhaps I should try some other banned books. So far, the only one I’ve read on the ALA’s 2006 list of the ten most-challenged books is Tony Morrison’s Beloved. I certainly would not ban the book, but I also wouldn’t recommend it for a young reader. I often found the format confusing and the story difficult to follow—not to mention its adult content.

If I were going to choose any book from the list to read, it would definitely be The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things just for the title.

Fortunately, my count is much higher for the top 100 most-challenged books of the 20th century. I’ve read 20, started another 15, and seen movie versions of 25. I’m just so scandalous. But can someone please explain to me how Charlotte’s Web (#13) and Winnie the Pooh (#22) made the list? Do people hate talking animals?

On the positive side, initiating a campaign to ban a book is a brilliant way to get people to read it.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Literary Travels

I got an advert in my email today to “tour the lands of Charles Dickens.” Talk about dreamy. Granted, I am not in love with Dickens—and I definitely can’t imagine the draw of visiting the slums he so often wrote about—but the idea of actually seeing some of the places I’ve read about, dreamed about, is just heavenly.

If I had the time and the funds, I would go to:

  • Great Britain: Although I’d like to visit London, I am actually more interested in the English countryside. I long to visit the villages of Jane Austen, the Brontës, and George Eliot, to tour Bath, Haworth, and Middlemarch. I would take tea (herbal, of course) in Midsomer Worthy—and hopefully avoid being murdered—drop by Miss Marple’s house for scones, and then trot over to Scotland and find my lover, Hamish Macbeth, in the Highlands.
  • Australia: I read all of my mother’s Lucy Walker books as a teenager and started dreaming of the Australian outback. I have it planned perfectly—I will fall in love with a station manager who is the strong, silent type. He will love me deeply, but it will take many years, and many tears, for him to admit this love. I've also dreamed of Miles Franklin's Australia (at least the part with Harry Beecham) after watching and reading My Brilliant Career. Even now, it breaks my heart that Sybylla rejected Harry. I would take him in a moment. Sigh.
  • Prince Edward Island: More than anywhere else, I have longed for Prince Edward Island. I want to see the Lake of Shining Waters, Lover’s Lane, and Green Gables. Deep down, though, I fear visiting PEI. I have such high expectations, such a deep love for the province, and I do not want those dreams shattered. What if PEI isn’t as green and as charming as I imagine? What if Gilbert Blythe isn’t waiting for my arrival?

Clearly, reading has ruined me. It has made me long for distant lands—and impossible leading men.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

New Moon

I am totally insane. Even though I totally dissed Twilight in this blog, I have an obsession with series and read New Moon.

Why do I intentionally put myself through such dreck?

New Moon is only a slight improvement over Twilight. The book has two things going for it:

First, I had no expectations going in. I already knew it would be a poorly-written romance—and Meyer did not disappoint.

Second, Bella, our heroine, and Edward, her prince, are separated throughout much of the novel. Though many readers were probably distressed by this turn of events, I was delighted. If they aren’t near each other, Bella and Edward can’t do any of their disgusting, gut-wrenching touching. Blech.

In one way, though, the book is more painful than Twilight because Bella now has two admirers. And, truth be told, there is very little to admire in Bella. She is one of the weakest females in print. She spends her life moping and fainting. Why would one, let alone two, hot guys like her? (Obviously, Meyer is experiencing some wish fulfillment here.)

Meyer, much like Rowling (who she is now erroneously being compared to), desperately needs a more forceful editor. New Moon is over 500 pages long and very little happens in those pages. I often found my mind—and my eye—wandering because she fills the book with meaningless fluff and repetitions. She obviously needs to read Richard Lanham’s Revising Prose again and start cutting out the lard.

Unfortunately, the series has the same addictive properties for me as Days of Our Lives and Passions. The soap operas are absolute drivel, but I just have to know what happens next (and check out that hottie Elvis, Junior).

Unfortunately, I do want to know what happens next in Meyer’s series, and I am even contemplating doing the unthinkable: buying Eclipse. Shoot me now.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Ruby Lu, Brave and True

I gifted Ruby Lu, Brave and True to my six-year-old niece last week. Fortunately, since I gifted to a family member, I was able to give it and then take it back to read.

Eight-year-old Ruby Lu is a delightful character and Lenore Look is an excellent writer. The story is fun, fast-paced, and very funny.

As an adult, I love this book. The characters have charming quirks: Ruby performs magic shows and wears a cape, her father knits sweaters for the entire neighborhood, and her neighbor slathers on sun block everywhere she goes.

In my favorite vignette, Ruby decides she is old enough, and capable enough, to drive a car. She creates a driver’s license, packs up her baby brother, and takes him to Chinese School. Oh my.

With this in mind, I have to wonder whether a responsible adult should let a child read this book. My niece cut her hair after reading a Junie B. Jones book. I can just imagine her trying to drive the car. As enjoyable as the book is, it just might be a manual for disaster in a child’s hands.

I also wonder how enjoyable the book would be for children. In many ways, I feel like it was written for adults, and I question if a child could enjoy the same things I do.

I guess the only way to find out is to read it to my niece.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Guest Blog--Required Reading - my list

Reading "The Bloggers" list of favorite required reading inspired me to do the same. I'm sure there were many novels I didn't enjoy but for some reason the only novel I can only think of right now is Gulliver's Travels. Jonathan Swift seriously must have been smoking cocaine.

I can remember many required novels or texts I did enjoy.

  • Tess of the D'Urbervilles - I thoroughly enjoyed my first Thomas Hardy experience. There were some very real life experiences with Alec that shocked me as a teenage girl and I loved Angel and Tess's love story, as dysfunctional as it was. It was the first time as I reader that I learned about tragedy and truly felt agony for a character. I really should re-read Tess to see if I still feel the same way.
  • Why Nations Go to War - I had to read this text by John Stoessinger for a Political Science class. I assumed the writing would be daunting and I'd have to work to keep myself awake. You can imagine my surprise when I was drawn by the way Stoessinger made history into enthralling stories. This text helped me become Pro-Palestinian after reading about the conflicts in the Middle East. I would recommend Nations to anyone wanting to learn more about the wars of the twentieth century.
  • The Great Gatsby - I enjoyed F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel about Gatsby and his love for Daisy. I loved all of the symbolism and imagery in this novel. Probably something I may not have seen if I hadn't read Gatsby in school. Another novel I need to re-read. It also didn't hurt that the movie versions of the novel had Robert Redford and Toby Stephens as Gatsby - sigh!!

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Young Adult Mysteries

Not long ago, I went on a brief kick reading young adult mysteries. As a teenager, I went crazy reading every Lois Duncan book I could find, but I’m not sure what inspired this binge. I browsed through Amazon’s bestsellers and checked out all the books I could find at my library. Here’s a brief overview:

  • The Body of Christopher Creed: Christopher Creed has disappeared. Three teenagers, feeling guilty over their past treatment of Christopher, try to solve the mystery and are convinced Creed’s mother is to blame. The premise is interesting, and overall, the book is an enjoyable read—though the culminating scene at the end is rather confusing and leaves something to be desired.
  • Aimee: I’m not sure how this book ended up in the “mystery” genre. Granted, Aimee is dead and her best friend, Zoe, is connected to the death. More than anything, though, the book explores Zoe’s depression following Aimee’s death. The tone is dark and depressing and the writing lacks fluidity, so and I found it difficult to slog through. I also found the story terribly frustrating as the actual means of Aimee’s death is skirted around for the entire book. Perhaps, Mary Beth Miller meant to keep the reader guessing, but I found the ploy disingenuous—and l almost quit reading the book because of it.
  • What Happened to Cass McBride: Cass McBride has been kidnapped, and her story is told from multiple viewpoints: the investigators, the suspects, Cass herself. The story arch can be rather confusing, but Gail Giles does a fine job of creating sympathy—and dislike—for both Cass and her kidnapper.
  • The Christopher Killer/The Angel of Death: This series (Forensic Mystery) by Alane Ferguson was my by far my favorite. Cameryn Mahoney is a teenager who works with her father, a coroner in Colorado. The books have a nice blend of mystery, CSI-forensics, and potential romance. I am looking forward to the next in the series, The Circle of Blood, arriving in February.

Young adult mysteries are short—you can read them in one sitting if you choose—and not overly scary. They are just right for the wimpy, short-attention-span reader (i.e., me).

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Guest Blog--Tears of the Giraffe

This book is old news to avid followers of Alexander McCall Smith's No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency Series. However, I want to contribute where I can, so here's my review--even if it is many years late.

I found Tears of the Giraffe to be my least favorite in the series so far. This installment follows the format and characters of the previous books. However, I finished the book feeling ripped off. Mma Ramotswe only solved one case--and I'm not even sure I can say she solved it. The characters only encounter one "adventure" in the course of the book. The events that left me content in the previous books were simply lacking in this one. I hope the next book in the series will leave me feeling more satisfied.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007


I was very fortunate to spend the evening with two of my sisters—shopping. In fact, one of my coworkers commented today on how lucky I am to have sisters. She has a mother and a daughter—but no sister. I cannot imagine such a life.

"I could never love anyone more than I love my sisters." It is a relationship so wonderful I cannot imagine living without it. As such, I have a particular fondness for literary sisters:

  • The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants: Okay, the characters in this series are not sisters. But they do their darndest to fill that sisterless void (although, come to think of it, several of the characters do have biological sisters). I enjoy—but do not love—this series. The major flaw of these books is that not all four characters are equally as interesting. I find Carmen so petulant she loses all my sympathy, and I care little about Tibby’s movies. Because I’m a romantic at heart, all I really want to read about is Lena and her Greek love and Bridget and her soccer camp conquest.

  • The Brontë Sisters: This isn’t exactly a book, but the Brontë sisters are the prime example of literary sisterhood. The five Brontë sisters had a profound influence on each other. Even though they died as children, Charlotte’s two older sisters inspired the relationship between Jane Eyre and Helen Burns. Emily and Anne wrote together as children and created a prolific series of juvenilia that was a precursor to their later works.

  • Pride and Prejudice/Sense and Sensibility/Emma/etc. etc.: Name a Jane Austen novel, and you have a book about sisters. Of course, as is true with life, the relationships are not always idyllic. Elizabeth Bennett has an abundance of silly sisters—but she also has Jane, her kindred spirit. Elinor and Marianne Dashwood do not always see eye-to-eye; but, ultimately, their love for each other is firm. Even spoiled Emma Woodhouse has an older sister.
  • Little Women: This book, of course, is the epitome of literature about sisters. Although I love the book—and several movie adaptations—I find it almost too painful to enjoy. Like Jo March, I have three sisters. The thought that I might lose one of my sisters, the very idea that we might be separated by death, is unbearable. Even typing the words brings tears to my eyes.
I have concluded that when I have children, I must have at least two girls. I would never want my children to miss out on the opportunity to have sisters.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Book Gifting

My best employee left today. For some reason, she thinks it’s appropriate to graduate from college and move on to graduate school. Darn her.

Not only was she a good employee, but she was also a reader. In fact, I have her to blame for introducing me to the Shopaholic series. As such, I decided to give her a book as a good-bye gift.

Gifting a book is a rather daunting process. Reading is such a personal activity that giving a book is almost intrusive—like buying someone lingerie—and fraught with questions.

  • How do you choose a book?
  • What does the book say about your relationship?

Choosing a book for a friend is analogous to setting her up on a blind date. The book, or date, is a reflection of her personality. What if she meets her date and thinks: “This is what you think of me? You think I’m this nerdy . . . unattractive . . . obnoxious . . . etc . . . etc.”

  • Can you only give a book you’ve read personally?
  • Or can you pass on an unknown quantity?

One of my fears is that I’ll give (or recommend) a book the receiver finds offensive. Perhaps I have unknowingly developed a high tolerance for profanity, violence, or sensuality, and she’ll be shocked that I enjoy reading smut.

In the case of my employee, I was stumped. I know she reads the Shopaholic books, is a fan of Georgia Nicolson, and celebrated Harry Potter’s birthday.

In theory, I’m supposed to be an expert when it comes to recommending books, but in this case I turned to a buyer at the university bookstore.

Given my criteria (funny like Georgia, imaginative like Harry), she recommended Once Upon a Marigold by Jean Ferris.

And now it’s killing me that I gave the book away instead of reading it myself.

Friday, August 10, 2007

There are Jews in My House

"There are Jews in My House." The title of this short story (and collection) by Lara Vapnyar immediately caught my attention. And when I discovered Vapnyar is an expatriate Russian writer, I had to bite.

This story is brutal in its honesty—uncomfortably brutal. Yet, it reminded me very much of living in Eastern Europe. Strangers, as well as close friends, never seemed hesitant to comment on my appearance or behavior. As an American, so accustomed to white lies and tact, I found this honesty difficult to adjust to.

In the story, Galina and Raya are best friends. They work together as librarians, and Raya is completely open with Galina about her feelings: she does not love her husband, doubts her love for her daughter, and conducts an affair with library patron.

Galina begins to resent Raya for this openness. Yet, the reader is privy to Galina’s own internal struggle: she hates her drunken husband, despises the sound of her sleeping daughter, and is jealous of Raya’s wealth and popularity.

As the Germans invade Russia, Galina invites Raya and her daughter, who are of Jewish decent, to hide in her apartment. Their cohabitation, however, is strained, and Galina’s resentment towards Raya increases.

Galina’s feelings are disturbing. She seems overwhelmed by anger and bitterness. At times, she even wishes the deaths of those close to her.

I was repelled by this honesty. I was disgusted by Galina's feelings. Yet, when I examine my own internal dialogue, could I honestly say I have never experienced similar feelings? Have I never been angry, jealous, and resentful?

I could admit to many feelings that would make my family and friends cringe (e.g., my strong revulsion towards a neighborhood child), but I will spare us all the embarrassment and discomfort of an extended confession.

Americans simply are not comfortable with or ready for such honesty, such lack of tact. And I am not prepared, nor advocating, for us to change.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Required Reading

There’s a possibility I have scarlet fever. But I am too lazy, too cheap, and too stupid to go to the doctor to find out. When my brother—the aforementioned non-reader—heard of my illness, he asked if I was now wearing a red “A” on my chest.

I couldn’t believe he actually paid attention in school.

I discovered teaching college English that very few students actually read the required texts. And those who do hate the books because they are forced to read them.

I can relate with that feeling. I do not like being told what to do. And there were some books I read in high school that I did not love (though my feelings could change if I read them as an adult): Gulliver’s Travels, The Good Earth, and The Grapes of Wrath.

There were some books, though, that I couldn’t help enjoying:

  • To Kill a Mockingbird: I am reluctant to include this book because it is so obvious and very little needs to be said about this Harper Lee classic. Of all books, though, it breaks my heart to know students skip reading it.
  • Fahrenheit 451: I did not want to like a science fiction book, but this Ray Bradbury novel caught me. Perhaps I’m just a sucker for books about books (think The Eyre Affair). To be perfectly honest, I only have vague memories of this book—something about beetles keeps popping into my head—but at least I’ll never forget at what temperature paper burns.
  • Wuthering Heights: Okay, this is a bit of a lie. The first time I read this Emily Brontë novel, I did not love it. I was a Jane Eyre fan and found Wuthering Heights too gloomy, too moody, and too depressing. However, this is one of those books that improves with multiple readings (or maybe it is just my increased maturity). Wuthering Heights was required reading for at least three of my college English courses, and each time I read it, the more I like it.
  • The Unvanquished: I’ve never met anyone who had to read this book in high school English. Come to think about it, I’ve never met anyone who has ever read this book. The Unvanquished was my introduction to Faulkner. And I loved it. The Civil War novel is dense and confusing, but I had a deep sense of satisfaction when I finished it. I also have good memories of reading it and making my friend ask our teacher: “Do you think Colonel Sartoris and Drusilla consummated their relationship?” She had no idea what she was asking, I was pretty pleased with myself for making her, and our teacher answered the question honestly.

Looking at this list, I realize I read from a very old-school canon. High school requirements are now more contemporary and "hip." But maybe it doesn't make a difference whether you read crib notes of a classic or best seller.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Guest Blog--Austenland

It was purely an accident that I picked up Austenland written by Shannon Hale. It wasn't until I had been reading it for awhile that I discovered that she is the author of The Goose Girl and Princess Academy. And I had to stay awake tonight until I had finished the book. The story is about a thirty-something modern-day woman who goes to Pembrook Park to spend three weeks living in Jane Austen's world. She is determined to get over her love and obsession with finding Mr. Darcy. I laughed and was delighted with the book and was even surprised by the ending. Traces of Jane Austen's books and characters are woven into the story. I thought I had figured everything out but discovered that I was wrong. I didn't foresee all of the surprise endings. Only one very un-Jane occurrence happened in the book, and it makes me wonder about the author. Jane Hayes goes off to England and dresses in a corset and empire waist style dresses...very Jane Austen, and then the author has the heroine ride sidesaddle on her horse in her morning dress. Now how in the world does any woman throw her leg over the pommel of a saddle wearing a Regency dress? She doesn't do this once but twice she goes riding in the same clothes that she was wearing when she set out on a walk. Okay, so maybe I am an Austen purist, but please...that is going too far. Couldn't she have gone back to her room and put on riding clothes. I just have a vision of Elizabeth Bennett trying to get on a horse in one of her morning dresses. It just doesn't work for me. But I highly recommend the book for a quick read and a chuckle. And let me know if I was imagining the horse riding scenes.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Picture Books

I am, unfortunately (though many people tell me otherwise), not yet a mother (I added that yet for my parents’ benefit). But I am very fortunate to have five nieces and a nephew.

Every so often, I have the chance to read children’s books with my nieces. Today was such a lucky day. We read five books:

  • Firefighter: This is a “first reader” book with only one word per page: Helmets, Run, Smoke, Siren. I discovered I am not a good first reader reader. First, I wasn’t necessarily fond of the words Michael Rex chose. Fire House—I prefer Fire Station; Engine—I like Fire Truck better. I also had little patience with the single words. I wanted a story, so I made up a tale about the firefighters to match the illustrations. In retrospect, I probably set my nieces’ reading curve back several years. Oops.
  • A Day in the Life of a Baby Deer: Firefighter has too few words, but A Day in the Life of a Baby Deer has way too many. It’s one of those books you open up and have to stifle a groan over; you hope you can edit the story without the child catching on. Not only is this story too long, it is rather brutal. There is a scene where two older bucks lock horns and fight. The baby deer longs for the day when he will fight, too. Hmm. Fighting may be true to nature, but it is not necessarily an attribute I want to teach my nieces.
  • Amelia Bedelia 4 Mayor: I love Amelia Bedelia. But when I saw the book was written by Herman Parish—Peggy’s nephew—I was ready to hate it: and I did. Okay, hate is a strong word, but any book that uses "4" for "for" cannot be good. I love the original Amelia Bedelia because even though she tends to misunderstand things, she is always a success. The Amelia Bedelia in this book, however, is nothing more than a buffoon. Plus, the premise of the book is that the current mayor is raising taxes. Do children know what taxes are? I think, and hope, not.
  • Whistle for Willie: Somehow, I’ve never read this Ezra Jack Keats book before. I am a huge fan of Peter’s Chair and The Snowy Day, so I was happy to catch up with Peter again. The book reminds me a bit of Sesame Street. Based on the illustrations, Peter clearly lives in a big city. Yet he and his dog, Willie, seem to trot up and down the streets on their own. What a glorious—and long dead—idea.

The best part about reading children’s books is you can read many in a short time. Perhaps, I will start reading picture books exclusively.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Scary Books

Tonight, I dropped by my sister’s house. It is over a hundred years old and, from the outside at least, rather scary looking. Someone flippantly commented that it looks like a haunted house. If only.

I’m a sucker for scary movies. There is something so delicious about a rush of fear. Unfortunately, most scary movies are just plain stupid—they are either unbelievable, confusing (who writes these things?), or gratuitous rather than frightening.

Perhaps my all-time favorite horror film is The Changling. I’ve watched it multiple times, and it still gives me the chills. Recently, I was delighted by Disturbia—the movie was intelligent and made me jump. And I’ll confess to gasping at the end of Friday the 13th, which I watched for the first time this past Friday, the 13th.

Yet, for some reason, I’ve never gotten into reading “scary” books. My lack of interest is rather surprising since mysteries have always been a major part of my life. My mother is a huge mystery book buff, and I’ve watched Mystery! with her for years.

I think my distrust for scary books stems from a teenage summer long ago. My sister and I were having a “reading blowout” (the offensive term was coined by my non-reading brother). She was reading Mary Higgins Clark’s Where are the Children? Several times, she gasped and grabbed my arm as she read. Clearly, the book was terrifying.

And though I’ve read cottage mysteries like Hamish Macbeth and the odd Agatha Christie, I’ve never read a really scary book. I’m not sure if it’s because they don’t exist or because I’m a wimp at heart. After all, there is a huge difference between watching a two-hour movie and spending hours reading a scary book.

The scariest reading experience I’ve had was several years ago with Iris Johansen’s The Face of Deception. I probably shouldn’t admit to reading “romantic thrillers,” but the book really frightened me. Unfortunately, I’ve read all of Johansen’s books since then, and the fear has never been duplicated.

A year ago, though, I finally took the dive. I was taking a class on genre fiction and decided it was my opportunity to break the horror barrier. If I were going to read a scary book, I reasoned, I had to go to the top: Stephen King. I perused his books at my public library. I wanted something relatively short (I know, totally lazy), and the blurb on the back used the word horror, so I picked The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon.

Talk about disappointing. Trisha, a young girl, is lost in the woods. She is scared because she is . . . lost in the woods. Granted, being lost can be scary—especially for a child—but it doesn’t make for a fascinating (or horrific) read. Trisha also sounds just like an adult, and I couldn’t help but imagine her as a middle-aged man, a man just like . . . Stephen King.

I haven’t returned to the genre since.

Friday, August 3, 2007

The Kitchen Madonna

Something terrible is happening to me. I am losing my mind. I must be developing an early-onset case of dementia.

Today, I put my pants on inside-out, completely forgot to water the lawn, and almost missed my appointment with my Afghani pupil. And those are only the things I know I forgot to do. There could be countless other things I haven’t remembered.

Oh yes, I also forgot until the last moment that I have a blog to write. I am simply hopeless.

I am doing my best, though, to rectify my errors. I flipped my pants, will water the lawn tomorrow, and apologized profusely to my student (although, ultimately, we could not get our technology to work properly).

And I am now going to write the neglected blog:

Today I read The Kitchen Madonna by Rumer Godden. It is one of those books that has been languishing in my “to read” pile.

Initially, I picked up Shopaholic & Baby, which has been neglected while I finished my paper. However, within the first few pages, Becky Bloomwood was back to her lying ways, and I thought, “She drives me crazy. And I don’t have to put up with it.” So down went Becky and up came The Kitchen Madonna.

This is a delightful little book. Gregory, a nine-year-old boy, has a deep love and respect for his family’s Ukrainian maid, Marta. When he discovers that Marta is sad because she does not have an icon in the kitchen, he commits to doing something about it.

Gregory, initially, is confused by Marta’s desire for an icon. However, I was not surprised. I discovered that many Ukrainians—like other nationalities, I’m sure—are obsessed with their icons.

Almost every taxi or bus driver has a miniature icon attached to his (I am not being sexist here—they really are all male) visor. Almost every home I entered had an icon on the wall—even the homes of people who no longer claimed allegiance to Orthodox or Catholic religions. For Ukrainians, icons have a deep, significant meaning that I could not comprehend.

And neither does Gregory. He does not understand Marta’s need for an icon, nor that the icon also represents the loss of her family, home, and religion to war and Communism. Yet Gregory, with the help of his seven-year-old sister, Janet, sets out to procure—and ultimately to create—an icon for Marta.

As Gregory makes the icon, he changes—the dour boy becomes sociable. The text is not overtly religious, but clearly the icon transforms Gregory and those around him.

As for me, this little book did much more to ease my ailing mind than any pop fiction could.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

The Paper

Finally, after weeks of talking about it, I’ve finished the paper. I’ve expressed many of these thoughts before, but here are a few highlights from my “masterpiece”:

  • Although the unifying theme of my paper and the books is genocide, the word—or even concept—is rarely used within the texts themselves. The stories are told from the perspective of children, and they have little, if any, understanding that the conflicts they experience are based on ethnic tensions.
  • “Why” is an ever-present question throughout the literature. The children feel abandoned by both the world and God. Both have allowed these atrocities to happen, and the children have the impression that no one cares about them. Death is their constant companion.
  • The most graphic accounts of the conflicts occur in the literature addressing the Rwandan genocide. Perhaps this is because the violence was so present. Unlike Bosnia, where people were killed by shelling and unknown snipers, those killed in Rwanda were attacked face-to-face by neighbors and friends wielding machetes and other farming tools.
  • Rather than dwell on the death and destruction inherent in genocide, children’s literature on the topic overwhelmingly emphasizes survival. As such, the focus of many of these books is not the conflict itself but escape as many characters seek sanctuary as refugees.
  • Although all of the main characters in these books survive the genocides, they must deal with survivor’s guilt. For these children, being survivors is often more difficult than facing the actual conflicts.
  • Despite their suffering, the children in genocide literature are, indeed, survivors. They have the ability to continue living despite the death that surrounds them and their own unwarranted guilt over surviving.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

After the Dancing Days

Reading a childhood favorite as an adult is an interesting experience.

Last year, I taught college English classes at a satellite campus located in a junior high school. One evening I found myself scanning the teacher’s collection of books. One caught my eye: The Woodshed Mystery. I have fond memories of reading The Boxcar Children. I remember wanting to live the Aldens’ life. I wanted to fend for myself in a boxcar—and to solve mysteries while I was at it.

I read The Woodshed Mystery, and it was only vaguely what I remembered. As a child, for example, I did not catch the social mores of the 1940s, when Gertrude Chandler Warner started writing the series. I felt uncomfortable with many of the sexist and racist undertones of the book. Why were Violet and Jessie expected to do all of the cooking and cleaning? Because they were female?

I was intrigued by one aspect of The Woodshed Mystery. The book suggests there is some sort of romance between Jessie, who is a teenager, and John Carter, who is a retired FBI agent. Oh my. I read another four books just to see how this obviously inappropriate relationship would advance. Perhaps Warner realized its inappropriateness because none of the other books mention the relationship.

As such, I was a little reluctant when I picked up After the Dancing Days today. I have memories of loving this book, memories of sobbing at the end. Clearly, I was obsessed with romance as a preteen. All I cared about when I read the book was Annie and Andrew’s potential romance. And I obviously missed Margartet Rotkowski’s point.

This book is not a romance. Andrew is a severely wounded WWI veteran; Annie is thirteen. Clearly, I had no issues with a May/December romance as a teeny bopper, but as an adult, I was relieved to discover that the romance was mostly a concoction of my imagination (and Annie’s).

In reality, the book is about acceptance. Rotkowski is not shy about advocating women’s rights, victim’s rights, and tolerance. This message is clear to me now—and I’m afraid for my twelve-year-old self that I completely missed it the first time.