Sunday, January 31, 2010

In Praise of Book Clubs

While the title of this post alone does not provoke much surprise among a book blogging community - if you consider that I have never been a part of a book club, yet I am willing to sing its praises, it may sound rather odd.

I have always thought that the social aspect of a book club would be quite enjoyable. All of us would agree that the act of reading is, by and large, a very solitary activity. A book club allows the human need to be social beings to meld seamlessly with our favorite past time. Add a splash of beverage, a good nosh, and an engaging conversation, and the experience (I imagine) is sublime. I have not given up on the possibility of finding such a great experience in my neck of the woods, but I have learned not to hold my breath. That is why I am so grateful to have found this wonderful, online, network of bibliophiles (and I provide my own snacks).

But in reading the bloggosphere this week, I have learned that there is another very academic, and humanitarian reason why book clubs are valuable: they give the solitary reader the opportunity to hear different points of view, which (hopefully) leads to a more tolerant, accepting society. This became so clear to me as various bloggers were posting their tribute to J. D. Salinger.

I was never required to read Catcher in the Rye in school, and the opportunity never really presented itself in my adult years. This summer, however, when a visiting professor gave a lecture at the Bread Loaf School of English entitled, Dostoevsky and J. D. Salinger: Catcher in the (Russian) Rye, an essay that he wrote to present at an educational Conference in Russia this past August, I decided that it was time that I read this modern-day classic for myself. When I returned home I made good on this promise and you can find my initial review here. Needless to say, my initial reaction was fair to mediocre at best.

However, in the few months since that initial review, I have found myself reflecting on that poignant story of Holden Caulfield and have discovered that the voice that initially offended me, has really caused me to sympathize with the teenage boy over time. Fast forward to this past Sunday when I was surfing various blog sites. Meghan (Medieval Bookworm) gave an absolutely beautiful account of reading this book two specific times in her life and how each time she was greatly affected, but for different reasons. That was something that I HAD to read. Then Beth Fish commented that she had not actually lost a sibling, but losing a close friend to Leukemia helped her to understand where Holden was coming from. This gave me pause to stop - and analyze my own reaction to the book. As a 50 year old woman I would perhaps have used less "colorful" language to describe my depressed state of mind; but as a teenage boy, who has lost his brother and is searching for meaning in life, would I not in fact resort to foul language? Is there not something in that diction that condenses the hopelessness of it all? Was I not too hasty in my judgment of the author's writing style? THIS is why book clubs are needed. We need to hear other viewpoints and why they like a book we perhaps dislike? OR contrarily....why they dislike a book that we enjoy.

It is all a matter of opinion, and opinion is neither right nor wrong. But opinion enables us to empathize with others, to see the other perspective, to not be so hasty and obstinate in our judgments, but rather, as Atticus Finch instructs us, "to walk in someone else's shoes for a while."

So, I may not have a book club to attend in person....but fortunately there are several online experiences that can fill that void for me. I am most interested in attending the read-along for Catcher in Rye Rye starting February 14. I look forward to hearing all opinions regarding this controversial novel, and learning more about myself and human nature in the process.

TSS - 01.31.10

The last day of January, 2010. Oh my....where does the time go?!

Well, we started the year with winter storms, and we ended the month the same way. Although it never snowed a great deal at any point in time this past Friday, it did snow most of the day which resulted in about an inch of the fluffy white stuff on the ground. While some may be tiring of this winter weather, I love the fact that I can curl up in my nook and read.....which is exactly how I spent most of the day yesterday.

As you recall, I have been bringing home some serious stacks of books from the local library, as mentioned here and here. I knew there was no way that I could fully read all of them, but I was hoping to at least skim through them all and decide which ones I wanted to read immediately, and which ones could perhaps wait until another time. Well, that is what snowy Saturdays are made for!

I must say I did indeed hit the motherload! I was able to read the first 20 or so pages of all these books and the vast majority of them I desired to read on and finish in one sitting (I used great will-power, don't you think?) Each of these books resonate with me in a different way, and yet all of them are vying for the top of the TBR pile.
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Larsson Stieg. I can't tell you how many of you highly - and I mean highly - recommended this book. However, I think Kay offered some sage advice: wait and read this book when I have the time to read the entire trilogy! So with that, I have decided to wait until summer to begin this mesmerizing series.
  • American Rust by Philipp Meyer. This has received some wonderful reviews in the bloggosphere, and some have even gone so far as to compare this debut author with John Steinbeck. However, after reading the first 20 or so pages I decided that this is not the book for me for now. The writing style is very fragmented, and while I am sure this is indicative of the subject matter and characters' way of thinking/speaking - I am truly not in the mood to read a depressing, disjointed tale. I will add this to the TBR list and perhaps comes back to it at another point in time.
  • The Little Giant of Aberdeen County by Tiffany Baker. I am already enthralled with Truly and I simply must discover the true story behind Dr. Robert Morgan (and why is he never referred to in first name only?) I love the author's writing style: so descriptive using very unusual metaphors that transmits emotion as well as accurate detail.
  • Noah's Compass by Anne Tyler. I have not read this author before, but I can understand why she is popular. I was instantly drawn into this novel, mostly because I could totally relate to Liam, the main character, who at the age of 61 has been "forced" to retire from teaching. But more than that, the author's easy writing style has gently carried me along in this narrative. I am anxious to discover what truly happened to Liam and what he has blocked out of his memory; I already care deeply about this man's future.
  • Brooklyn by Colm Toibin. Again, after only reading two short chapters I am very much involved in the lives of these three women and the caring relationship they share with one another. I am also wondering what role Mrs. Kelly plays in their lives, because right now she is not a woman that I trust with a ten foot pole. I must admit that I had a personal interest in this story as I used to live in New York City. I think once a Yankee, always a Yankee.
  • Alice I Have Been by Melanie Benjamin. Ok - so many of you ranted and raved about this book that I truthfully had my doubts that it could live up to the hype. Well, I am eating my words now. It is fantastic! I really know nothing about Alice in Wonderland nor its author, Lewis Carroll, but I am totally engrossed in this historical fiction narrative of the "real Alice." I expect that this will be the first book that finish.
  • The Motion of the Ocean by Jana Cawrse Esarey. This would be the surprise book of the stack. I absolutely LOVE her writing style. She is witty, funny, poignant, and descriptive. She uses a bit more colorful language than perhaps I am accustomed to....but that doesn't matter. I care deeply about her story - and I know that if it gets too serious, she will be sure to throw in enough humor to keep me from becoming too melancholy. This is probably the second book that I will finish as I feel it is the perfect book for me at this point in my life.
  • Fablehaven by Brandon Mull. I discovered this series while searching for the Percy Jackson series online. Five years ago I would not be caught dead with a fantasy novel in my hand. It isn't that I have anything "against" them, but I just don't "get" them. At that time I forced myself to read The Hobbit as a compromise activity with my British literature class, and that has warmed me up to the genre, just a bit. I am currently listening to the Harry Potter series and totally enjoying that experience. I know that I will come back to the Fablehaven books soon and read the series as I found the opening chapter very well written and captivating. I feel that I should read the Percy Jackson series first, however, since so many of my students have told me that it is "amazing" Fablehaven is definitely high on the TBR list!
  • Mr. Dixon Disappears by Ian Sansom. After reading the first page (and perhaps that is too generous....the first paragraph), I decided that I must add this book to my personal library collection. I will gladly return this copy to the library for someone else to discover, and I will soon read the series in its entirety -- chuckling as I go.
Hopefully I can continue this reading trend today.

I hope you have had a relaxing weekend, no matter the weather, and have found some time to pursue literary adventures of your own.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Beyond excited.....

Ok - this post has nothing to do with books, but I am so excited and wish to share this enthusiasm with others.

I know many of you...and thousands of others....follow the blog of Pioneer Woman. Well, last night she posted pictures of an amazing water color portrait of her basset hound, Charlie. Now Charlie is adorable no matter what, so I know my emotions were somewhat swayed by the subject of the painting. However, I was also taken with the true artistic interpretation of Charlie. His personality came through in beautifully soft, subtle watercolor hues. I was captivated and immediately followed the links to the artist's website, Fine Art by Rachael Rossman. In perusing her various photos of dogs (although she does paint other subjects, like cats, horses, nature, etc.) - I became obsessed with having my own dogs' portraits immortalized forever by her artistic talent.

I found several pictures of my dear puppies, in particular Ralfie, the dad, "Mama" Mia - who passed away 18 months ago and I still miss dearly (my tribute to Mia is found here), and Mia's first litter of puppies. I sent these various photos to the artist to see if there is even a remote possibility that I could have this dream come true.

Much to my surprise - and delight - the artist responded within minutes of my email. She was so complimentary of my photographs (saying how her own children would squeal each time she opened the electronic file) and she provided a very reasonable price quote: $400 for an original water color painting!

Now $400 is expensive for our current fiscal state, but I think it is money well spent. How often can a person say that they have an original? A one of a kind? and of a subject that they care so deeply and passionately about?

My husband and I will be in deep discussion over this unexpected budgetary expense (I am thinking early anniversary/birthday gift(s)???) I will let you know the outcome. In the meantime, if any portion of the post is of interest to you, please check out the artist's website. You will NOT be disappointed!

Weekend Cooking: Bierrocks

Thank you, Beth Fish, for hosting this fun culinary event! I used to love cooking and had quite a collection of cookbooks to help me with that hobby. But over the past few years I just have not been eager to get into the kitchen after a full day of teaching - and full night of grading looming in the distance. This weekly meme is starting to rekindle that passion, however, and I so look forward to all the recipes and reviews over the weekend.

I had not heard of Bierrocks (I think they are also called Runzas) before moving to the Midwest, however once I read about these tasty morsels I knew I wanted to give them a try. It only took me about ten years to actually go from printed recipe to a tried-and-true favorite.

I like this recipe for a several reasons. First of all, it is very adaptable. You can substitute any kind of cheese (american, cheddar, mozzarella, and swiss are some of our favorites), add seasonings to suit your taste buds (I don't like onions, but enjoy red peppers), and even vary the meat filling (ground turkey or sausage work quite well). Secondly, you can make a large batch of these in one afternoon, freeze them, and they are ready to reheat in the microwave in a matter of seconds (about 50 seconds works well for us). Finally, they are enjoyed by all members of the family: young and old; male and female.

This recipe came from the Once a Month Cooking section of the Menus 4 Moms website. The original recipe included directions for making homemade rolls, but to be honest, that is too much work for me. I use the Rhodes frozen rolls -- usually thawing about 24 rolls for one batch of Bierrocks mixture. I hope your family can enjoy some on one of these frigid winter evenings!

  • 2 pounds ground beef (I use 93% fat free)
  • 1/2 head cabbage, chopped
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 18 slices American Cheese (I prefer grated)
  • 1 egg (optional - I do not use it)
  • sesame seeds to garnish (again, I do not use)
  1. Brown beef in a large skillet. Do not drain. Add onion and cabbage and continue cooking until onion is soft. Add salt and pepper to taste. Let cool.
  2. After rolls have thawed, assemble bierrocks one at a time. Roll dough as thin as possible. Place cheese on dough (I use a healthy "pinch" - perhaps 1.5 Tablespoons) and then top with filling (I used approximately 2.5 Tablespoons). Fold over and seal like a turnover (I grab all corners at the top, pinch together, and create a round ball).
  3. Place on baking sheet (I use Parchment paper for easy clean-up), brush with egg wash and sprinkle with sesame seeds (optional) and bake at 350 degrees for approximately 30 minutes or until golden brown (my oven runs hot so I cook them about 20-25 minutes).
  4. Serve immediately or cool and freeze.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Library Loot: 1.29.10

UGH!! I am faced with such a dilemma (although I am not really complaining....) Why do all the great library holds become available at the same time?!

I have had several of these books on hold for weeks, and now, when second semester is in full swing and my free time is rather limited, they all become available for a limited three week time period. What is a girl to do?!

Here is the loot that I have acquired this week.
  • Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips to Clean up your Writing and...
  • Grammar Girls' Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing. I am the grammar teacher at school and, not surprisingly....grammar is not a favorite among the student body. I am hoping that this audio series will either give me some ideas to help spice up my classroom OR....I can use these audio clips in the classroom so students will realize that it is not just Mrs. T's boring subject matter -- but actually supported by others in the country.
  • On Writing by Stephen King - performed by Stephen King. Belle at Ms. Bookish raved about this audio book which is read by the author. I know that the book is considered a modern classic among those books on writing - and I figured that if it is read by the master himself, if must be excellent!
  • Leaving a Trace by Alexandra Johnson. To be honest, I do not remember what bunny trail led me to this book, but I am grateful. This non-fiction book focuses on how to journal with intent. I think this might be the place for me to begin my budding writing endeavors.
  • Fablehaven by Brandon Mull. Again, I am not sure how I came across this series, but I think it had to do with my recent interest in the Percy Jackson series that my students absolutely, positively LOVE.
  • The Motion of the Ocean by Janna Cawrse Esarey. I read several favorable reviews of this memoir in January and I knew that it was one that I would enjoy. I hope I have the time to read it in its entirety.
  • On Writer's Block: A New Approach to Creativity by Victoria Nelson. I am sure that I have mentioned more than once my desire to write - but my lack of ideas has me worried. I am hoping that this book might help me break through some of those self-imposed barriers.
  • Alice I Have Been by Melanie Benjamin. I reserved this book for several reasons. First of all, it came highly recommended from several book bloggers. Secondly, the March 2010 release of Alice in Wonderland, starring Johnny Depp, has renewed an interest in this classic not only for me - but for my students. I made a bargain with my English 1 class that if they truly "studied" the original fantasy story - then we could go see the movie in 3-D. I want to read this book as an enrichment to the unit of study.
  • Turning Life into Fiction by Robin Hemley. Are you noticing a pattern here? I know I want to investigate this writing interest -- but I am just not sure which direction to follow. Non-fiction is less scary to me, so when I saw the title of this book, I thought I would give it a try.
  • Noah's Compass by Anne Tyler. I really, really, really hope that I have the time to read this one. It is paired with several books that I have enjoyed reading in the past, including The Help by Kathryn Stockett.
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson. Yes, I know...nearly every other thriller lover in the bloggersphere has read (and ranted and raved about) this book - but somehow I never got around to reading it. Again, I sure hope I have the time to do so before I need to return it.
Yes, it was indeed a great week at the library this week. I want to thank Eva of A Striped Armchair and Marg of Reading Adventures for hosting this wonderful weekly meme.

Hmmm...I wonder if they know a way I can add more hours to my day so that I can read all these amazing books???

Thursday, January 28, 2010

BTT - Twisty

Today's Booking through Thursday is a fun, thought-provoking, two-part question from Jackie, which asks:
  1. Do YOU like books with complicated plots and unexpected endings?
  2. What book with a surprise ending is your favorite? OR your least favorite?
My impulse was to say that I LOVE books with complicated plots and unexpected endings, but on further reflection I decided that it really isn't such a cut-and-dried question. I do not necessarily think that these traits are joined together at the hip. I think you can have an unexpected ending in a book that is not terribly complicated, and I think you can read a complex book without experiencing the twist ending. On the whole, however, I do think they are closely related, and I am a fan of both.

Having said that, I do not enjoy reading books that are so complex that I need to keep paper and pencil nearby to create charts and graphs in order to aid my understanding. This is not an enjoyable reading experience for me. I do enjoy books that make me think. I especially like those which have two or more subplots that appear unrelated, but somehow connect in the end. It makes me realize what a small, intimate world we really live in.

Unexpected endings are wonderful, as long as they ring true with the rest of the book. Again, this is reminiscent of life - as we constantly experience twists and turns of fate that result in a conclusion which we do not originally anticipate.

I think my "favorite" book written in this style would have to be the first book I read where I was introduced to the "twist" ending: Plain Truth by Jodi Picoult. I only read this book five years ago, and I had no idea that she was known for the unexpected. She grabbed my attention with the first paragraph, and I never lost interest until the last page was read. I think I read the book in a 24 hour time period. I remember reading the last chapter and was so shocked, that I just sat on the couch dazed and confused --- at first saying to myself, "no way" and then realizing that there were indeed clues all along. Now that I have read a few more of Picoult's books, My Sister's Keeper and Nineteen Minutes, I would like to re-read this book from a writer's point of view and see how she manages to twist the ending, yet keep true to the "expected" outcome that the reader anticipates.

So how about you? Do you like to read books that have a nice tidy ending - or do you prefer to be surprised at how it turns out?

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

This week in Mrs. Totoro's Class

I thought it might be fun if occasionally I gave you an update on what is happening in my various classes, and pull a favorite quote from each of the novel readings we are studying that week. I hope you don't mind this deviation from my blogging norm.

First I should introduce you to the term "dialectic journals" Students in all three classes (8th grade is excluded) are bemoaning the fact that I make them do this tedious chore. What is a dialectic journal you ask? It is notebook where students write down quotes from the book that they find significant - and then explain to me why they chose that particular text. Quotes can be selected for diction (eloquent word choice - which will help students become better writers themselves) - character development - theme development - possible foreshadowing (and what they predict will happen) - personal connections they see in the story - connections to other books and/or movies that they recognize - well, you get the idea. What students rarely realize is that this tedious chore is actually making them responsible for their own learning. Hopefully they will end the unit more confident in picking up any work of literature to discover meaning for themselves.

Well, now that you have had a mini-lesson on dialectic journals, let me introduce the classes.

In Brit Lit we are continuing to study Pride and Prejudice. We have just started Volume II, but I must admit that my all-time favorite quote from the first Volume is when Mr. Bennet takes Elizabeth's side when she refuses to marry Mr. Collins:
"Very well. We now come to a point. Your mother insists upon your accepting it (the proposal). Is not it so, Mrs. Bennet?"

"Yes, or I will never see her again."

"An unhappy alternative is before you, Elizabeth. From this day you must be a stranger to one of your parents. - Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins, and I will never see you again if you do. (page 206 )"
I absolutely LOVE his quick wit!

In 9th grade English we are reading Fahrenheit 451 and I look forward to re-reading this book each year. We have just begun the novel, so we are only about half way through the first part, The Hearth and the Salamander. My favorite scene in this portion of the book is when they describe the classroom environment. It is eerily similar to what is currently happening in schools today:
"...But I don't think it is social to get a bunch of people together and then not let them talk, do you? An hour of TV class, an hour of basketball or baseball or running, another hour of transcription history or painting pictures, and more sports, but do you know, we never ask questions or at least most don't; they just run the answers at you, bing, bing, bing, and us sitting there for four more hours of film teacher. That's not social to me at all. ..... They run us so ragged by the end of the day we can't do anything but go to bed or head for a Fun Park to bully people around, break windowpanes in the Window Smasher place or wreck cards in the Car Wrecker place with the big steel ball. .....

"I'm afraid of children my own age. They kill each other. Did it always use to be that way? My uncle says no. Six of my friends have been shot in the last year alone. Ten of them have died in car wrecks...." (pages 29-30)
I am finding that more and more students just want to be told the answers to the questions; they don't want to have to think for themselves. The incidents of road rage and school shootings has skyrocketed in the 21st Century. I find these words of Ray Bradbury written over 50 years ago to be quite sobering.
In 8th grade English we are starting to block the scenes for a final performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream in May. Due to snow days, we are not as far along I as had hoped. We have just started working on Act I scene i when Egeus demands that his daughter Hermia be forced to marry Demetrius (she, in fact, loves Lysander) or to be killed. (as a side note - I will say that the 8th grade girls learned to appreciate their fathers after reading this).

Anyway, my most favorite line in this portion of the play is when Lysander rebukes Demetrius for allowing this to carry on:
You have her father's love, Demetrius.
Let me have Hermia's. Do you marry him (I i 95-96)

Finally, the 7th grade class has just started reading The Hobbit. We spent a large part of first semester studying Fairy Tales. Students learned how to discuss "literature" by reading several common fairy tales and answering questions regarding characters, setting, plot, conflict/resolution, and theme. Students even wrote their own "fractured" fairy tale - which is always fun to read. We then read the novel, Tuck Everlasting, and at the end of the book discussed whether this could be considered a modern-day fairy tale.

Now we will read the Hobbit and over time discuss similarities and differences between a true fairy tale and this fantasy novel. My favorite part of chapter 1 is the description of Bilbo Baggins - for I know deep in my soul I am truly a Hobbit too:
The Bagginses had lived in the neighborhood of The Hill for time out of mind, and people considered them very respectable, not only because most of them were rich, but also because they never had any adventures or did anything unexpected: you could tell what a Baggins would say on any question without the bother of asking him. (page 4)
I have never been fond of adventure - my least favorite Disney movie is Peter Pan for they always seem to be on the brink of death! I would much rather stay in my cozy little Hobbit hole (book nook) with my cup of tea, slice of cake, and a good book.

So there you have it --- a day in the classroom of Mrs. T. Thanks for stopping by!

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Teaser Tuesday: Eye of the Crow

Teaser Tuesdays is hosted by MizB and is great fun for anyone! All you need to do is:
  1. Grab your current read
  2. Open to a random page
  3. Share two teaser sentences from somewhere on the page.
I am currently reading Eye of the Crow, a YA novel by Shane Peacock about Sherlock Holmes as a young boy.
They are flying toward the oldest part of London, the city proper, the area inside London Wall, where spooky little streets wind around like snakes slithering into stone burrows. It is filled with banks these days, but it's where the Romans once lived, where the Vikings and Saxon lords ruled, where witches told gruesome tales, and wretched medieval men and women were whipped and tortured in public. (page 31)
This is a great book so far and one that I think I will suggest my 7th grade students read when we complete our mystery unit in the Spring.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Musing Mondays - Library Books

Musing Mondays is hosted by Rebecca of Just One More Page and today asks us to consider:
Where do you keep any books borrowed from friends or the library? Do they live with your own collection, or do you keep them separate? Do you monitor them in any way?
Several years ago, when I was a stay-at-home mom with three rather active children, I found myself frazzled more often than not - and unable to accomplish those simple household tasks that I thought all homemakers should complete with ease. Somehow I discovered FlyLady and immediately signed up for her daily reminders. Every Sunday night/Monday morning she would remind us to gather up our library books and check for due dates, in order to avoid costly fines. At that time I didn't use the library much (if I didn't have time to clean, I was not going to spend time reading - or so I told myself), but I filed that information away for future use.

Today I use the library constantly. I am usually on the website once a day - at least - and monitor all my holds and due dates from the comfort of my computer chair. If I pay a late fee (which is rare), it is usually because I choose to keep the book an extra day or two.

I purchased a book bag from the library several years ago. I use this bag solely for library books, and always have it nearby my stack of borrowed books. I put all library books on the top of one of my book shelves - totally separate from my own collection. I try to remember to put library books back in that location when I finish reading them. Slowly my one large stack becomes two smaller stacks: one for books yet to read; one for books ready to return. The next time I go to the library, I put all the books ready to be returned in the handy-dandy book bag, and away I go to pick up my new arrivals.

It is a system that works well for me, but then again, I like a lot of structure and routine. What system do you use for keeping track of library books you have borrowed?

Sunday, January 24, 2010

TSS - 01.24.10

Yesterday was the absolute perfect day for me - although many might consider it quite boring. I woke up and had a leisurely cup of coffee while reading - and commenting - on several blog postings. I (finally) finished The Swan Thieves, which I thoroughly enjoyed, but am now desperate to go to a museum and spend hours in the European Impressionists wing. I then began reading No Plot, No Problem by Chris Baty and found myself totally immersed in the idea of actually writing a novel in a month. I read the book from cover to cover and then immediately placed an online order for the book so that I could add it to my own personal library. It has opened my mind to infinite possibilities!

For those who are unfamiliar with this short, insightful, and quite humorous book --- Chris Baty is the founder of NaNoWriMo --- or, National Novel Writing Month. Now, I must admit that the first time I saw this clever title, I thought - someone needs some help with their capitalization rules. It was quite reminiscent (at least to me) of the poetry of e e cummings. Then once I discovered its true meaning, I thought - there is no possible way that anyone could write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days (!) However, after reading this wonderful step-by-step program, I must admit that I am very excited by the possibility of actually participating in NaNoWriMo 2010.

I was first introduced to this book by J. Kaye - whom I am sure many of you know by her book review website, but perhaps are not so familiar with her newest blog, 365 Days of Novel Writing. I am totally addicted to her daily posts. She has (I think) 19 different writing projects she is currently working on - and I am sure those are in a constant state of change. I am totally in awe of her creative ability - and her willingness to share the victories and disappointments of a writer's life.

I feel that the culmination of taking my first writing class last summer, Rewriting a Life, plus the friendship of a fellow teacher that has evolved into a corroborative effort to teach a creative writing class, plus the daily motivation from J. Kaye's blog has created the "perfect storm" for me to try to my hand at writing fiction. Now, I would be remiss if I didn't mention that I followed the progress of Ms. Bookish last November when she participated, and completed, the NaNoWriMo 2009 challenge. I was amazed - and mesmerized by her self-discipline and dedication to the goal. Do I have what it takes to complete this challenge myself? I don't know, but I think I am willing to give it a try.

I lack creative ability. I commented to someone the other day that I stopped being a child at the age of 8 - and I mean that sincerely. I have forgotten how to dream - how to imagine - how to be spontaneous and fun. My entire life can be summed up as: she was independent and responsible. Now those two traits are what I have always aspired to be --- but I wonder if I perhaps attained them at the sacrifice of other important character traits.

So here I am at the age of 50 once again wondering, "What do I want to be when I grow up?" Do we ever arrive at a conclusive answer to that elusive question? While the practical, responsible side of me says "yes we should" --- the new me, the me that I would like to become says "no -- for once we have a definitive answer to that question --- all other possibilities cease to exist. And what hope is there in that?"

While this entry is not exactly about reading (what Sunday Salon is supposed to embody) -- it is, however, an entry about life and its wonderfully, infinite possibilities. Let's seize the moment - reach for the sky, and remember that if we should fail - we will still be among the stars.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Weekend Cooking: National Pie Day!

As I sit here typing the post and looking out the window I realize that it is the first time in weeks - literally before Christmas, that there is no snow on the ground! We have actually been above freezing for most of the week and the nearly one foot of snow has finally melted. Of course, this means that my family room will now be a muddy mess as dogs go in and out the back door, but that is a small price to pay for a bit of warm weather. Hopefully the forecast of falling temps and more snow tomorrow are inaccurate!

I wasn't quite sure what to write today (I still have 30 more pages to read in The Swan Thieves, and the review for A Moveable Feast is not yet complete) and then I read on Lorraine Bartlett's blog, Dazed and Confused, that today is National Pie Day! Who knew?! I LOVE pie! Given a choice of desserts, I would choose pie over cake, ice cream, and most cookies. I love fruit pies (apple and peach are my favorites, but blueberry is a close runner up); custard pies (coconut and chess pies are favorites); holiday pies (pecan and pumpkin - although mincemeat is quite delicious); get the idea.

Unfortunately, I have yet to master the perfect pie crust and (cringe) I tend to buy the ready-made crusts in the refrigerated section. Someday, however, I will take the time to tackle that challenge. It is tough job, but I am willing to make the sacrifice. I will persevere and make as many pies as I need to in order to complete the mission.

In the spirit of Beth Fish Reads weekly meme, Weekend Cooking, I thought I would post my two favorite pie recipes, Southern Living's Apple Pie and my mom's traditional Poor Man's Pecan Pie, but then I realized I already wrote those recipes for the Fall Festival Recipe Exchange. So I thought if you are interested, you can view those recipes here, or perhaps you have your own favorite pie recipe that you would like to share in honor of this auspicious occasion.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

WWW Wednesday

MizB at Should be Reading recently started this new Wednesday meme that I thought might be fun and insightful. This will be my first, although hopefully not my last, time to participate.

The 3 Ws stand for:

What are you currently reading: The answer to that question is several different books at once!
  • I have less than 100 pages left in The Swan Thieves - which I hope to finish tonight. It would be my goal to have the review written this weekend (but suffice it to say, I have enjoyed every single page!)
  • I still continue to read Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman a little bit at a time.
  • I am listening to the Harry Potter series (for the first time) while walking the treadmill (I am hoping that if I only listen while exercising it will actually help motivate me to do it). I am thoroughly enjoying the first book and am probably about 75% through it.
  • For school, I am currently reading Volume I chapters 10-16 of Pride and Prejudice. We are knee deep into the obsequious character of Mr. Collins, and I am very anxious to hear the students' comments regarding this comical fellow.
  • My 9th grade class has just started Fahrenheit 451 and I love discussing the fact that Ray Bradbury wrote this book in the 1950s when technology was just beginning to take hold and schools were mostly concerned with chewing gum in class --- and how accurately he depicted our current society of the 21st century.
  • I will be introducing The Hobbit to my 7th graders - and we will be reading the book nice and slow (approximately two chapters per week). I plan to listen to the audiobook as a change of pace. We focused on fairy tales first semester - and the Hobbit will be a nice way to end that particular unit.
  • My 8th grade class is now starting to memorize lines from A Midsummer Night's Dream in order to perform the play in an hour's timeframe. This week we will be watching 4 different film versions (the first scene only) and discussing the different ways in which directors have interpreted the play. Once students decide how they wish to perform our version, we will begin to cut the lines to fit the time slot.
What did you recently finish reading: A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway (the review is half written - hopefully it will be up by the end of the week)

What do you think you'll read next: That is the most difficult question.
  • I would love to read Possession, as I have been so inspired by A. S. Byatt lately. But that book is a little over 600 pages and I am just not sure that I will have the time to finish before it is due to be returned at the library.
  • My other consideration is Surviving Hitler by Andrea Warren. I just learned that the author will be giving a writing workshop at my daughter's school, and I may have the opportunity to sneak in the back and listen. I feel that I need to read at least one of her books, although I am very interested in the book she is currently writing, Charles Dickens and the Street Children of London, due to be released in the fall, 2011.
How about you? Do you wish to share one of the three Ws in your life this week? I'd love to hear!

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A. S. Byatt

I stated yesterday that I was in a pensive mood all day. Well, a part of that mood was inspired by the national holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Another part was inspired by the author A. S. Byatt, and a third was inspired by J. Kaye's post on her 365 Days of Novel Writing. My entry today will focus on what I have learned from A. S. Byatt.

As many of you know, I read her most recent novel, The Children's Book, a few weeks ago and was so enamored with the storyline and writing style that I found it difficult to write a review. This was my first Byatt book and I immediately felt the need to read another. Possession has not only received many accolades from the book blogger community, but it also won the Man Booker Prize for fiction in 1990. I decided that this should my next Byatt read.

To be honest, I have not made it past the prologue, and I am already deeply affected by her writing. In the edition that I received from my local library, Byatt actually writes a detailed introduction to her own work. I quickly learned to admire this amazing woman - not only for her literary talent, but for her ability to juggle all aspects of life. She is a mother, and professor, and a writer. To that end, she must set aside time each day to spend quality time with her children, quality time to research and organize lesson plans, quality time to grade papers, quality time to read (for all authors must read!) and quality time to write her own works of fiction. When I assimilated this information, I quickly realized that I have no excuse! My children are nearly grown, my grading is nowhere near her course load, my course research is at a much younger level, and my lack of personal time is nothing but a bunch of whining! If A. S. Byatt can accomplish all she has done in her lifetime (and she is still going strong), then there is no reason why I cannot begin to follow my own dreams.

Here are a few quotes from that introduction that so greatly inspired me. Perhaps they will also inspire you:
Perhaps the most important thing to say about my books," remarked Byatt, "is that they try to be about the life of the mind as well as of society and the relations between people. I admire - am excited by - intellectual curiosity of any kind (scientific, linguistic, psychological) and also by literature as a complicated, huge, interrelating pattern. I also like recording small observed facts and feelings. I see writing and thinking as a passionate activity, like any other." (pages ix - x)
Later in the introduction she continually compares the writing of a novel to the plan for a painting.
"The ur-Gestalt of Possession was a grey cloudy web, ghostly and spidery, to do with the ghostliness and connectedness of the original idea....I imagined my text as a web of scholarly quotations and parodies through which the poems and writings of the dead should loom at the reader, to be surmised and guessed at." (page xii)

"....there is a Gothic plot, I thought, of violence and skulduggery. The Gestalt got more lurid, purple, black, vermilion, with flying white forms." (page xii - xiii)

"....I had been thinking a lot about the pleasure principle in art. Art does not exist for politics, or for instruction - it exists primarily for pleasure, or it is nothing. It can do the other things if it gives pleasure, as Coleridge knew, and said. And the pleasure of fiction is narrative discovery, as it was easy to say about television serials and detective stories, but not, in those days, about serial novels." (page xiii)

"....The Gestalt in my mind changed colour and form and became delicious - all green and gold, the colours of Tennyson illustrations in my mind as a child, of dream landscapes, of childhood imaginings of a world brighter and more jewel-like than this one." (page xiv)
I am sure that reading this introduction, while at the same time completing The Swan Thieves, which also focuses on the painting as a predominant art form in the novel, has heightened my senses and awareness to this line of thinking. While it is so easy for me to fall back into the "poor pitiful me" scenario -- realizing that I have no chance to truly master any intellectual pursuit given my age (I have so much that I want to read, so much that I want to learn about art appreciation, so much that I wish to experiment in creative writing) - I need to realize that I do have several years ahead of me (the good Lord willing) and I need to make the best use of that time. A. S. Byatt has truly made the best sense of the time she has had available, and I find her to be a true inspiration.

Monday, January 18, 2010

In memory of Martin Luther King, Jr.

This holiday Monday has found me in a pensive state. First of all I was reflecting on the life of Martin Luther King Jr., the reason why I had a day off from school. He died when I was 8 years old and the only memory I have of that day is my mom ironing in front the television set. I remember she looked rather serious and when I asked her what was wrong, she stated that a man was killed. I knew it was a somber moment - and I think I even realized that it extended beyond the four walls of my house in Houston, TX....but I do not recall any other emotion tied to that day.

I normally teach To Kill a Mockingbird at this time of year - and I will go back to this schedule for all future years. This holiday is too precious to let it pass unnoticed by the students of America. This novel takes us back to a time in our nation's history that I am ashamed. The evidence obviously clears Tom Robinson of any wrong doing and yet the jury of his peers (12 white farmers from Maycomb County, Alabama) decided his guilt based solely upon the color of his skin. It makes my skin crawl and my stomach churn when I think about that. I am so thankful for the Atticus Finch characters of this world - who live their life by defining moral values that do not consider the prejudiced opinions of the "moral majority"
The one thing that does not abide by majority's rule is a person's conscience (page 105)
While I remain rather a-political in my personal life, I am deeply grateful for those who chose to take a stand. For those who were willing to give their life so that I and my children could enjoy a world that "would judge them not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character"

Thank you, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

TSS - 01.17.10

Oh my - is it Sunday again?! On the one hand I am very grateful that this horrible week has ended; on the other hand I simply cannot believe that we are in the middle of January already. Does life ever slow down? is a good thing that last weekend was the Bloggiesta and I was able to catch up on book reviews, otherwise I would have had no posts this week. School started again - and unresolved issues from last semester continued, while new ones were added. It truly made me question my "calling" as a teacher. But "time heals all wounds" as they say, and I have calmed down just a bit. Not a lot of reading happened however, as I was too upset to do much of anything.

All that changed on Thursday, however, when I went to the library and just happened to see The Swan Thieves on the "recently acquired" shelf. I did not hesitate as I grabbed the book, added it to my stack of holds that were on reserve, and brought it home. I started reading it Thursday night, read more on Friday night, and spent a good part of yesterday absorbed in the story. I have read approximately 400 pages of the 600 page story, and I hope to finish it today. It is truly a great story that is so very well written; it makes me want to finally pick up The Historian that has been sitting on my shelf for months and delve into Kostova's debut novel. Hmmm....this book technically counts as a chunkster; the Historian would count as a chunkster....should I dare enter that challenge?!

I have tried to write the review for A Moveable Feast, which I finished last weekend, but it is proving to be difficult. I hope to have that completed today.

I am about three-quarters done with Anne Fadiman's Ex Libris and I have enjoyed reading this little bits at a time. Some of the essays I find myself laughing out loud; others I find myself nodding in agreement; and there are a few that I scratch my head and discover that I am not nearly the bibliophile as she. All in all I think this is a book that I will eventually add to my personal collection so that I can partake of an essay at a time, in a leisurely fashion.

Academic reading will be in full-force this week. We are reading Pride and Prejudice (I enjoy the annotated version) in British Literature (the girls are loving it - the boys are complaining); Fahrenheit 451 in 9th grade (I absolutely LOVE this book and plan to have the students select a book that they feel is worthy of memorization); and the 7th graders will begin reading Bilbo's quest in The Hobbit. I love all three of the books - and yet I always feel that I must refresh my memory of them before I teach the lesson. Unfortunately, this will cut into my personal reading time.

I am not quite sure what I will read after I finish The Swan Thieves. I plan to reserve a portion of today to skim through my newly acquired library books and decide which ones to read now, and which ones to postpone to a later time.

We have a day off tomorrow to remember Martin Luther King, Jr. I think I will do some online research and find a few of his memorable speeches to re-read. I will also use this "free" day to finally clean the house after the holidays --- ugh!

I hope this offers a great literary week for all of you!

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Mystery RAT - Intro meme

So, it is finally here --- the mystery read-athon weekend, and man could I use it after the week I had! All negativity began to ease away on Thursday, however, when I somehow managed to bring home The Swan Thieves from the local library! I immediately began reading it, and am currently on page 160. I am so glad that the book counts for this weekend's reading genre.

For those of you not familiar with this particular read-athon, it is very low key. Over the course of the weekend attempt to read 12 hours. The selected genre is, obviously, mysteries - but any thriller/suspense novel will do.

Anyway, there is a fun intro questionnaire that we are asked to complete, so here are my answers:

Give us 5 fun facts about you: UGH! -- I hate these kinds of questions. I can never think of anything fun and creative to say. I figure I am an open book (so to speak) and everyone already knows everything about me. Well, here it goes ---
  1. I was actually a French major (even though I teach English);
  2. I played flute for several years and even debated about majoring in music (sadly, the flute has sat in the corner for about 2 decades now);
  3. my one literary vice is that I LOVE reading People magazine (I figure it is a lifestyle that I will never experience myself);
  4. I think the Chipotle carnitas burrito with black beans is about the most perfect food in town
  5. I am a born Texan - transplanted Yankee - living in the Midwest - with dreams of traveling to Europe.
What is on your TBR stack for the next two days: Well, The Swan Thieves of course. However, I have also thought that I might like to read Agatha Christie's first Miss Marple mystery, Murder at the Vicarage, and/or Shane Peacock's Eye of the Crow, and/or Nancy Springer's The Case of the Missing Marquess. All three of these books would be enrichment material for the mystery unit that I teach in the spring.

Do you have any specific hopes and plans for this read-athon? The only hope that I have is to relax and rejuvenate from this week - in the hopes of returning to school with a renewed outlook on life. I think I can only manage that by spending some quality and quantity hours reading a good book.

Did you participate in the mystery read-athon in the past? Unfortunately no. I heard about it too late to reschedule plans for the weekend.

If you already participated, can you give new participants any tips? Well, even though I have not participated in the mystery read-athon, I have taken part in two of Dewey's 24 hour read-athons. My biggest suggestion would be to have a variety of material available to read. If you tire of one book, don't push through - just pick up another. Also, young adult novels are a great way to keep reading, but give your brain a time to relax. I know that some veterans also include an audio book in the mix so that they can continue "reading" but do not strain their eyes.

If this is your first mystery read-athon, how do you plan to go ahead? I plan to put no pressure on myself whatsoever. This weekend is all about having fun and relaxing. If I finish The Swan Thieves, great....if not, I at least enjoyed the journey.

Ok - it is time to get off blogger and start reading!

Review: Sixpence House

Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books
by Paul Collins
published by Bloomsbury
copyright 2003
rating: 3 out of 5

I discovered this book while surfing the internet for books about books - my current reading frenzy. While I had never heard of this book before, the summary from Goodreads was enough to intrigue me:
Paul Collins and his family abandoned the hills of San Francisco to move to the Welsh countryside-to move, in fact, to the village of Hay-on-Wye, the "Town of Books" that boasts fifteen hundred inhabitants-and forty bookstores. Taking readers into a secluded sanctuary for book lovers, and guiding us through the creation of the author's own first book, Sixpence Housebecomes a heartfelt and often hilarious meditation on what books mean to us.
Oh my goodness - what is not to like about a story like this?

I first heard of Hay-on-Wye when I read Lewis Buzbee's memoir, The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop, last spring (reviewed here). I simply couldn't imagine a small village with over 40 used bookshops. It sounds like a bit of paradise to me. I even did a little internet research and discovered that there is an annual book festival each year where thousands of bibliophiles descend upon this little hamlet for several days and partake of bookish festivities - and there is even a facebook group devoted to lovers of the festival. Yep, I am pretty enthralled about the possibility of someday visiting an entire town devoted to books.

So as you can imagine, my expectations were high - in fact, perhaps they were unrealistic. I think I was looking for a book that would transport me to a Utopian world, and that was neither the author's purpose nor the village's claim.

It seems that I can divide the book into two parts: when the author talks about the town of Hay-on-Wye and the evolution to its rise in the biblio-kingdom; and the other part where he talks about his life as an author, the ups-and-downs, struggles and victories of having his first book published. Obviously my main interest lie with the town - and I found myself skimming through the rest. It isn't that I am not interested in the publishing process, but for some reason I wasn't interested in his story. To be honest, I think it was in large part due to the fact that his setting totally overshadowed his character --- so to speak. Perhaps if he had written two books, each with a more narrow focus, I would have enjoyed it more.

There were parts of the book that I enjoyed immensely, and I bookmarked several passages that caught my attention. I thought that the subject matter was not only captivating, but the author's writing style was a perfect blend of accurate description with subtle humor.

For example, the author and his wife try desperately to find a house to purchase in this quaint town, but since everything is over a century old - and there are few who choose to leave the village - the choices are slim to none. Their last opportunity to purchase a home is when the Sixpence House is put on the market:
We have one last hope for a home in Way: Sixpence House.

We have shied away from the Sixpence before. It is a desanctified pub, huge and rambling and hundreds of years old, thumped down squarely into the middle to town. Everyone in town, it seems, knows about the Sixpence House. Here is what they know:
  1. It is a dump.
  2. Everyone who buys it tries to sell it again, except that
  3. They can't sell it.
Corollary to this:
  1. It has a cellar full of water, and, oh, yes,
  2. It is a dump. (page 148)
After reading this description I discovered that perhaps my romantic view of a city of books in the Welsh countryside is perhaps a bit unrealistic. Ultimately, they do not purchase the house and instead decide to return to the states, a rather sad ending for someone like me who had hoped this quaint village was the equivalent of heaven on earth.

There are, however, some lovely descriptions of the town and the bookstores and the people who live-and-work-and-breath books there.
Hay-on-Wye, you see, is The Town of Books. This is because it has fifteen hundred inhabitants, five churches, four grocers, two newsagents, one post office.....and forty bookstores. Antiquarian bookstores, no less. And they are in antiquarian buildings: there are scarcely any buildings in Hay proper that are under a hundred years old; not many, even, that are under two hundred years old. There are easily several million books secreted away in these stores and in outlying barns around the town; thousands of books for every man, woman, child, and sheepdog - first editions of Wodehouse, 1920s books in Swahili, 1970s books on macrame, pirated Amsterdam editions of Benjamin Franklin's treatise on electricity, and maybe even a few unpulped copies of John Major's autobiography. (pages 22-23)
While I enjoy good used bookstores and the thrill of the hunt to find that perfect book that I don't know exists, but once found, know I can't live without... I wonder if perhaps this town would be a bit overwhelming for a suburban girl like me:
Not every book at Booth's is a lost treasure. You have to sift through a lot of rubble first. (page 101)
I suppose it depends how much "rubble" one would have to sift through. Some of the titles that the author references in his book, which he found and enjoyed --- I would not be the least bit interested in reading.

And yet there are many out there who seem to visit this quaint village in the middle of nowhere and decide to plant roots a stay awhile - becoming a fixture in the town's business scene:
One could fairly say that Clare and Diana, though not rooted in the town's past, are the faces of its future. For a town that once subsisted on butter and wool - selling it, not eating it - Hay has seen a great many changes in its economy and its populace. With the exception of the bookseller Derek Addyman, almost nobody in the town's book trade is actually from Hay. It is a town composed of refugees from London, Edinburgh, Liverpool, the states, anyplace but the Welsh countryside. The town bookbinder came from Illinois, the copy shop owner from California, and even Diana herself - to my shock, for I cannot think of anyone more English than Diana - was born in Chicago. Hay is a town of travelers who stopped; it is where urbanites come to hide from their home cities and from the tentacles of big-city traders and publishers. (page 103)
After reading this book I have decided that I would still like to visit this unique, quaint, antiquarian town --- but perhaps I do not aspire to take up permanent residence. I would recommend skimming this book for the shear purpose of daydreaming about a town of books - and realizing that the dream is a reality on the "other side of the pond."

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