Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Wrap-up for March

March was a month of firsts for me. It was the first month I could participate in Monday Mailings (that was fun!!); it was the first month that I received a book from an author to read and review (and not just one author but two --- that was fun!!); it was the first month that I read more than a book a week from my personal "want to read" list; AND I completed my first reading challenge ever! Additionally, March also afforded me the opportunity to play around with HTML code to try to improve my blog site - and while that was most definitely a first and I felt a certain sense of pride and satisfaction when I was done, I must confess that I would not label that activity as "fun"

The books read this month (with links to my reviews) include:
Of all the books listed, I would say that I enjoyed The Help the most (such a great storyline and beautiful character development); I found the Yellow-Lighted Bookshop to be the most inspiring (I like to dream of owning a bookstore someday - although I know realistically the chances are slim); and I found We Need to Talk about Kevin to be the most disturbing/thought-provoking. I am somewhat fascinated by this topic, however and have read two other books that deal with it as well: The Hour I First Believed by Wally Lamb and Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult. I truly enjoyed the latter book, and if you are a fan of Jodi, then you absolutely must head over to Maw Books - Natasha is giving away 7 autographed Jodi Picoult books!!! But you better hurry - the contest ends Friday, April 10.

The challenge I completed was Just For the Love of it Reading Challenge 2009 - and I must confess I had a lot of fun working on this one (and I am very glad it was my first challenge). Most of the books listed above counted for this challenge (thank you, Sheri). As posted yesterday, this euphoric feeling of success has now gone to my head and for some reason I felt inspired to sign up for a new challenge - the Cozy Mystery Challenge (I'm not sure why -- I still have several challenges in which I am not making much progress). I have just started reading mysteries as my "default" genre when I want to read but not sure what I want to read. While I know I enjoy the police procedural category of mysteries, I think the cozies will fit in well with this time of the year: I will have lots of work to do prior to the end of the school year --- and than an intense 6 weeks studying in Asheville. I am thinking that my brain will not be able to absorb much more material in my "free" time than what a cozy will offer.

All in all I must say that the book blog community has definitely helped me increase my productivity as a reader during the first quarter of 2009. While I have added a new distraction to my life (reading book blogs - which is fairly "all encompassing") I know I have read far more than I would have otherwise. This community has also inspired me to write my own book reviews - something I have never pursued in the past - but now wonder why it took me so long. I regret not having accurate reading records prior to 2009, but I will rejoice in the fact that I am learning great systems for the future --- and reading will always be a part of my future.

Cozy Mystery Challenge 2009

Ok --- so I have allowed the success of completing one reading challenge go to my head, and I have decided (or rather, was strongly urged by Kaye) to sign up for another one. This one does sound like a lot of fun, it sounds doable, it will allow me to read some books that are already on my bookshelves, and it will provide a much needed break from all the "big" books that I will have to read this summer for school. How could I possibly pass it up?!

I have signed up for the Cozy Mystery Challenge, hosted by Kris at Not Enough Books, and the specific rules can be found at her site. Essentially, the challenge runs from April 1 to September 30 (6 months) and I must read 6 cozy mysteries in that time frame. The mysteries can be read one a month - all 6 in one month - or any combination in between. Up to 4 of the cozies can count towards other challenges; she only requests that 2 be exclusive to this challenge. While the following list is certainly subject to change (mostly because I read Lesa's Book Critiques every day and I am constantly adding to my wish list)......here are my initial 6 --- all are currently sitting on my bookshelves just waiting for me to read them:
  • Catering to Nobody by Diane Mott Davidson
  • Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder by Joanne Fluke
  • On What Grounds by Cleo Coyle
  • The Ghost and Mrs. McClure by Alice Kimberly
  • Gunpowder Green by Laura Childs
  • Bookmarked for Death by Lorna Barrett
I notice a pattern here: all six books either focus on food, caffeine, or bookstores --- 3 of my favorite topics. While I do not expect these mysteries to cause me to ponder serious subject matters, or to lead to significant literary discussions, I do expect to be quickly transported to a lovely setting with fun, endearing characters who will certainly face problems, but are sure to find a satisfying solution.

So how about you? Are you a fan of cozy mysteries? Have you never read one but think you might like them? Go ahead and sign up for the challenge today. What have you got to lose?

The Love We Share Without Knowing

I was sent a copy of The Love We Share Without Knowing by the author after reading Becky's post that he was willing to send 10 copies of his book to the first 10 requests. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time (I do not find myself in this position very often and I must admit that I enjoyed it). This is Christopher Barzak's 2nd book, and I must confess that I did not read the first one. I truly had no pre-conceived idea nor expectation when I opened the book, which is probably a good thing. The book is not a novel really, but rather a series of short stories that are held together by a very thin thread of common relationships. I wish I knew how to draw a story web in blogger's browser, because that is the only way that I think I can adequately present the connections. All the stories take place in Tokyo, or its surrounding towns and villages, and half the stories center around Americans living in Tokyo, while the other half center around Japanese citizens.

The story opens with an American family who has just recently been transferred to Tokyo. The teenage boy is having a difficult time assimilating into the new culture, so as a means of escape he runs…and runs…and runs. On one of his jogs he comes upon a small cottage in the woods and sees a fox – which somehow gives him a sense of peace when he returns home. Later, in an effort to "find" himself, the boy ventures to the city of Tokyo where he runs into a girl dressed in a fox's costume. The girl – and the fox he met in the woods – have the same green eyes and he instantly feels a connection to her. He learns that she lives close to him in the same village, but when he goes to visit her the next day, he discovers that she had committed suicide several years before.

This leads into the next story where a group of 4 Japanese strangers – turn friends – are so discouraged with life that they decide to form a suicide pact. One of the 4 happens to be the best friend of the girl who committed suicide several years before (there is the loose connection between the two stories). They follow through with the pact – but only 3 are successful.

The best friend of the girl who committed suicide works (or did work until her suicide attempt) as the receptionist for a company/school that hires young Americans to teach English in the Japanese schools. There is a group of 4 "veteran" teachers who hang out together – and one of the short stories centers around them. There is also a new group of American teachers that have just arrived for the start of a school year, and one of the stories focuses on one of the young male teachers in this group. He is lonely and confused, and in the middle of the winter season is befriended by a stranger on the streets of Tokyo. The two become quite close and maintain a gay relationship. In time, however, the American feels suffocated by his lover, but for various reasons cannot leave.

Another storyline is connected because one of the 4 who forms the suicide pact is/was dating a punk rock star. Upon her suicide attempt – which does not seem to phase him in the least – he meets an attractive girl on the train, they hook up at a "love hotel" and you can surmise the rest. However, after their rendez-vous, the girl becomes too emotional/sentimental for his "seize the day" mindset and they part ways: his way leads to blindness and eventually coming in contact with one of the 4 "veteran" English teachers; her way is to become more conservative and eventually come in contact with the victimized lover.

There are other plot lines to be sure – but all of them have that incredibly thin thread of connectivity.

Did I like the book? I think so. It is certainly thought-provoking and enabled me to see that a life without love is no life at all. Each chapter in the book pertains to a different set of circumstances, different culture of people, but all trying to find love and acceptance. While some of the chapters were not in keeping with my value system, I cannot discount the fact that they are truly a part of our society as a whole – and if a major theme of the book is to show us that we are all, at the core, the same: we all need to be loved and in turn to love others – then the book succeeds. The author's writing style is straight-forward, but with some very eloquent descriptions, as well as deep insights into the human condition. For those who are easily offended by the inclusiveness of certain societal cultures, then this book is probably not one that you would enjoy. If, however, you enjoy reading as a way to open your eyes to ALL of humanity, then I think you will find this book will do that and perhaps more.

Because Christopher Barzak was kind of enough to share this novel with me, I would like the pay forward this gesture and offer the novel as a give away. Now, this is the first time I have ever held a give-away in the blogosphere, so I ask for your patience and assistance. The give away will run through April 15 (happy tax day) - and to keep the rules fairly simple for yours truly, I will give one entry if you leave a comment here; and an additional two entries if you become a follower and/or have been a follower of my blog. Hopefully I will learn to navigate and use the random selection site between now and then.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Monday Memes

Well, I am feeling rather proud today. Not only did I figure out how to add three columns to my blog - and how to evenly space content on my header --- but I also figured out how to "schedule" a blog post (ok - I know - I'm not the sharpest tool in the shed when it comes to computer stuff). I was so excited that I had my Monday and Tuesday posts done - that I never expected to write another entry this early in the week. However, there are several memes that I wish to take part in today - that I simply could not resist.

First of all, Mailbox Monday - which is so generously hosted by Marcia at the Printed Page . I simply cannot tell you how very excited I am to report my latest (just one hour ago, in fact) mailbox book I received: DROOD by Dan Simmons - which I won at Carey's site during the book give-away week. Oh my, I have wanted to read this book since I first read the title two months ago. I love Dickens and I thoroughly enjoy Wilkie Collins - so this novel hits all my hot buttons right off the bat. I am not sure when I will have time to sit down and read it (it is nearly 800 pages!) - and ideally I would like to read The Mystery of Edwin Drood before I read this one --- but rest assured, when I find the time to read it, I know I will devour it!! Thank you Carey!!

This will probably be the last Mailbox Monday that I will be able to participate in for quite some time (I have purchased all my summer school reading books, and I don't anticipate winning too many more contests). BUT....I have pretty much convinced myself to go to the Book Expo America in NYC at the end of May, and perhaps I will learn how to get on the ARC lists for the upcoming fall season!

Secondly the Musing Mondays question of the week found at Just One More Page delves into a great topic:
Do you keep track of what and/or how many books you read? How long have you been doing this? What's your favorite tracking method, and why?If you don't keep track, why not?
I am so embarrassed to answer this question. I have been an English teacher for 6 years now (although in my defense, I was never trained in this profession) and it NEVER occurred to me to keep any record of my reading until I started reading your fabulous blogs a little over 6 months ago. In January 2009 I decided that I would try to keep an excel spread sheet of the books I read this year. I list the title, author, rating (on a scale of 1-5), whether I reviewed the book on my blog, and the first line of the book (the last idea came from reading Becky's list of "you had me at hello" at the end of last year). I still have a LOT to learn. Matt has an amazing system of writing on post-it notes as he reads and then writing a formal review in a moleskin that I am giving serious thought to copying. Wendi has a detailed list of books read by month - number of pages read by month - and link to review on her blog. I need to do some serious investigation of her system and I am sure I can glean several useful tips.

I also have started to keep track of the books I buy each year as well. I got this idea from Nick Hornby when I read his book, The Pollysyllabic Spree. At the beginning of each chapter he lists the books he bought - as well as the books he read. Rarely do the two lists match and I must say that I found that very liberating (although I must also add that I have found it to be very expensive as well - because now I am more free to buy books since I am scientifically keeping track of them. It is all in the name of research, mind you!)

The final Monday meme that is worth discussing is hosted by J-Kaye and she asks us to list the books we plan to read this week. What a great, organized way to stay current with reading lists and challenges. Unfortunately, my life these days demands that I be more spontaneous. Very soon - like in just a few weeks - I will be required to read several books for my summer school session. I feel the need to "stock pile" fun reading now to tide me over during that time period (odd, I know). This week I am torn between a couple of books, and will probably not fully decide until this evening. I may read Inkheart by Cornelia Funke. I just started it last night and so far I REALLY like the book! OR.....I may decide to go the tried and true route by reading a couple of cozy mysteries (my default genre when I really want to escape and not have to think too much). Lesa, without knowing it, has challenged me to read the first in the series of Joanne Fluke and Diane Mott Davidson and decide which I enjoy best in the "culinary" mystery cozy genre. Of course, I will have to refresh my memory on the books that I am currently teaching: The Hobbit (chapters 2 and 3); Midsummer Night's Dream (Act I); and Cyrano de Bergerac (Act III).

I hope this Monday has found all of you in an anticipatory mindset for the new week. It was a very long day for me, but I am definitely looking forward to a couple of hours of reading time to decompress.

Jane Austen Ruined My life

What an unexpected pleasure this book turned out to be. Why unexpected? Don’t get me wrong – I LOVE Jane Austen, but I do not love Jane Austen because of her romantic stories; I love Jane Austen because of her satiric wit and ability to give us a bird’s-eye view of small village life in Regency England. There are many, however who read Jane Austen for the romantic tales she weaves. They know the characters have found their perfect soul mate and in the end they both will “live happily ever after.” The cover of this book led me to believe that this narrative would follow that plotline, but while the protagonist of this clever, easy-to-read story did hold those views, the book is really so much more than that.

Emma Grant is an English professor at a prestigious American University who is just recently divorced from Edward, her more famous college professor husband. Emma’s expertise happens to be in the area of Jane Austen, while her husband is world-renown for his study of Milton (in fact, Emma jokes that he can recite all 12 parts of Paradise Lost for memory). Emma thought Edward was her prince charming --- she thought that he was her Mr. Darcy or Mr. Knightley and once they married they would live happily ever after --- just as Jane Austen had promised in each of her 6 novels. When Edward has an affair with Emma’s Teaching Assistant (and Emma is accused of plagiarism and must resign her teaching post) her “perfect” world collapses and she blames Jane Austen for filling her head with unreal expectations of life.

Emma is near homeless (she has the option of living with her parents, but at the age of 33 wishes to keep that option as a final resort), little money (Edward managed to keep the house and the contents), and no job. The story opens with Emma on a plane reading a “worn out copy of Pride and Prejudice” on her way to London to meet with a woman, Miss. Parrot, who claims to have in her possession ALL of Jane Austen’s original letters (it is true that Jane Austen wrote nearly 3,000 letters in her lifetime, but few remain in existence because Cassandra, Jane’s older sister, is said to have destroyed them upon the author’s death). Miss Parrot has heard of Emma’s studies in this area and has invited Emma to come meet with her. While the notion is far-fetched, and even preposterous, Emma feels that she has nothing to lose and if there is any truth to this claim, Emma would be credited with the find of the century and, she feels, re-instated into the academic community.

There is a romantic interest in the story. Emma has been invited to stay at her cousin’s townhouse, but when she arrives (jet-lagged and miserable) she discovers that her cousin has “double booked” the townhouse and Adam, Emma’s boyfriend of 10 years ago whom she dumped to marry Edward, is also in residence.. While somewhat awkward, the two are able to rekindle their friendship, and, as one might guess, a possible romance.

I don’t want to tell much more of the plot, as I feel it would give away too much of the story. Suffice it to say, this is not a piece of high-brow literature, nor is it a sappy romance novel. I think I enjoyed the book so much because it met all my requirements for a brief escape on a snowy day: quick read (I think I finished the 270 page book in about 4 hours time) – just enough romance to keep me interested (but not enough to make me gag); just enough mystery to hold my attention; and just enough academic facts thrown in to let me know the author truly researched the book, without coming across like a biography. I thoroughly enjoyed reading about all the Jane Austen sites: the church at Steventon; the assembly halls of Bath; her residence on her brother’s estate in Chawton; and then all the sites of London that Emily visits as well. It brought back fond memories of the two trips I have made to London, and left me wanting to return again and again. Is the storyline believable? Not if you really stop to think about it. But if you want to play pretend and “what if…..?” – then yes, I must admit there was a part of me that truly wished these new found letters would be published for all for all of the Janeites of the world to read.

I would like to make special notice – and to offer Beth Patillo, the author, a special thank you – there is not one single word of profanity nor one single “erotic” scene in the entire book. Such a refreshing change of pace from most modern day works of fiction!

I must admit that when I finished reading this book I immediately wanted to pick up one of Jane Austen’s original masterpieces as my next escape read. But which one? Perhaps Emma would be the perfect choice.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Clean up.....

Oh my goodness....I spent FAR too much time tinkering with my blog today - and I am sure that it is barely noticeable.

I felt that my blog sidebar was getting too crowded - so nearly two hours was spent learning how to adapt the html code to include a right and left sidebar. After doing that - I felt that the blog still looked crowded.....so I decided to investigate the possibility of adding tabs to the header. After another two hours I decided that it was impossible (or at least for me), but I also decided that there is more than one way to skin a cat. SO....I learned how to add a widget function to the header - and decided to use links to separate pages for challenges, blog awards, and blogs that I follow. It is not perfect, but I do think it creates a "less cluttered" luck on the home page.

The header has bothered me since I set it up with the picture of books. I did not like having the writing on top of the picture, but I couldn't figure out how to place the lettering into the empty colored space. Finally, after another 90 minutes or so, I learned html well enough to modify right and left margins for header descriptions. Again, it is not perfect, but I do think it looks nicer than it did before.

Was it worth the more than 5 hours I spent on it? Absolutely not .... but I do feel that I learned more about blog templates, which will probably come in handy again.

I need to properly acknowledge the following websites that provided me with invaluable directions to help me achieve my meager results today:

3 column website

Header: picture to left and title to right

TSS – 3.29.09

I was a reading fool this week – or at least for me. I managed to complete (all in various starting stages) 5 books this week. I would like to think of it as my training period for the 24 hour Read-a-thon on April 18-19. In reality, it is because we just started back to school and I had managed to complete all lesson plans over Spring break. I am sure my free time will decrease as we get closer to the end of the school year, with final projects, tests and activities.

Anyway, the 5 books that I managed to complete include:

  • Jane Austen Ruined my Life by Beth Patillo (review to come)
  • The Help by Kathryn Stockett (review here)
  • The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop by Lewis Buzbee (review here)
  • Coraline by Neil Gaiman (see below)
  • The Love We Share Without Knowing by Christopher Barzak (actually completed at the end of last week, but will count it anyway --- review to come)

The last two books were definite stretches for me. I do not read much YA literature, except for what I teach in my 7th grade class, and being at a small private school, my choices are quite limited as to which books I can/should teach. Coraline will probably not be one of those selected books, but I am glad that I read it. I am ashamed to say that I had not heard of Neil Gaiman until he was nominated, and then won, the prestigious Newberry Award in 2009 for The Graveyard Book. I have had that on hold at the library for the past 6 weeks, and am hopeful it will be available for the Read-a-thon. I thought Coraline might be a good book to start, as it has just been released into a movie and there might be some students who would be discussing the movie version at school (so far I have not heard it mentioned, but then again, Twilight was just released in DVD form and that is now all the rage among the junior high girls). I liked the book – didn't love it, but that has more to do with the fact that the genre isn't my favorite rather than a criticism of the author's writing style.

Now I might be the only one to see the comparison here, but I felt as though Coraline was a darker version of the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis. Coraline, the young protagonist in the story, has just recently moved into a new house, but her parents are too busy with their own careers to pay much attention to her (somewhat reminiscent of the professor in LWW). They allow her to go off on her own and she chooses to spend most of her time exploring (which is exactly what Peter, Edmund, Susan, and Lucy enjoyed doing most). One day Coraline's father suggests that she count the number of windows and doors in the house – which Coraline promptly does. She discovers that there are 14 doors, but the door in the living room (which is rarely used but is stuffed with her grandmother's old furniture) is locked. She convinces her mother to unlock the door, only to discover that there is only a brick wall behind it (similar to the wardrobe being only a closet of coats when Lucy tries to show her siblings the passage way to Narnia).

A few days later, when Coraline is once again alone in the house and bored with seemingly nothing else to do, she sneaks the key off the top shelf in the kitchen and unlocks the living room door. This time, however, instead of finding a brick wall, Coraline discovers a dark passageway (again, just like Lucy walking through the dark wardrobe to eventually discover the winter land of Narnia). At the end of the passage is another townhouse almost exactly like her own. In fact, the people that she meets in this house tell her that they are "her other mother and her other father." Initially Coraline is treated well in this other house – given good food to eat and lots of toys to play with (again, very similar to Edmund originally treated well by the white witch), but as you can guess, all this changes abruptly and Coraline is held here beyond her wishes.

This other house definitely contains supernatural elements, just as one might expect to find in "another" world, but the primary difference between this book and LWW is there is not an Aslan figure. There is a cat who pops in and out of the story at key times and places, but the redemptive element of a savior's sacrifice is missing from this story. Coraline is a formidable heroine, however, and after defeating the "other mother" in her scheme, Coraline is able to return to her "real" home just in time to begin a new school year. I did appreciate Gaiman's writing style and his ability to create a believable young heroine with whom I am sure the YA audience could relate. If I were to give the book a personal rating, I think I would it 3 out of 5 stars.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

What's today's date?!

Well, the weather forecasters were a bit late in the prediction (snow was supposed to start around 9:00am but didn't actually start until 3:00pm), and it will probably "only" snow about 2 inches rather than the original projection of 4-8 inches -- but still, is this any kind of weather to experience on the last Saturday of March?!

I simply couldn't resist taking some pictures of Bella in the snow. She has only experienced snow one other time in her life - and she is still not quite sure what to make of it all. We have a doggie door and she insists on putting front paws out --- taking a nibble of snow -- and then proceeding outside. Cracks me up.

Anyway, hope you enjoy the pictures of our lovely spring weather here in Kansas. Not to worry, we have a saying: if you don't like the weather just wait a couple of days and it will change.

The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop

If you love reading - and bookstores - as much as I do, then you absolutely, positively must pick up this gem of a book! Lewis Buzbee was a bookseller for a number of years and this is a memoir of his life-long love affair with books. As Becky would say....."the book had me at hello." Here is a portion very first paragraph:
When I walk into a bookstore, any bookstore, first thing in the morning, I'm flooded with a sense of hushed excitement. I shouldn't feel this way. I've spent most of my adult life working in bookstores, either as a bookseller or a publisher's sales rep, and even though I no longer work in the business, as an incurable reader I find myself in a bookstore at least five times a week."
Ok --- someone who visits a bookstore perhaps even more than I do?! I did not know it was possible. I do believe there is some truth in the saying "great readers make great writers" - because not only is the author quite knowledgeable about this subject, but he is able to eloquently express that knowledge that leaves the reader wanting more - while at the same time wanting to pause and savor the moment. I wrote down 10 quotes within the first 50 pages and then stopped. I borrowed the book from the library, but I know that I will eventually purchase it - and soon. I can then mark the book with each and every quote that captures my attention. I am very anxious to sit down and re-read it again and again.

While I won't share all 10 quotes with you.....I will give you a taste for the style of writing that you can expect from this short (a little more than 200 pages) yet thoroughly satisfying book.
  • page 6 - Books connect us with others, but that connection is created in solitude, one reader in one chair hearing one writer, what John Irving refers to as one genius speaking to another.
  • page 9 - It's not as if I don't have anything to read; there's a tower of perfectly good unread books next to my bed, not to mention the shelves of books in the living room I've been meaning to reread. I find myself, maddeningly, hungry for the next one, as yet unknown. I no longer try to analyze this hunger; I capitulated long ago to the book lust that's afflicted me most of my life.
  • page 10 - even though I was here (bookstore) yesterday morning, every day brings new arrivals, and while there's nothing startling today, there's still pleasure in looking at the same books again.....
  • page 36 - the problem with libraries, I discovered, was that two weeks later, I would have to load up the bike and, with a sense of loss, return the books
There are parts of the book that detail the history of book making and the evolution of the publishing industry, and while interesting, I personally was far more interested in the author's personal connection with reading and "book lust" than with the historical facts and statistics.

In the final 40 or so pages of the book, the author gives personal recommendations for independent booksellers he has enjoyed across the United States - and even the world. In this section I have found a vacation spot that I simply must visit before I pass on: the village of Hay-on-Wye in Wales. With a population of only 1500, this small town is home to over 40 antiquarian bookstores! Sounds like a slice of heaven on earth to me:

I am so very grateful to Susan of You Can Never Have Too Many Books and Nymeth of Things Mean a Lot for their reviews and thoughts on this book. Without reading their blogs, I never would have stumbled upon this tremendous treasure.

The title of the book, by the way, was inspired by a quote from Vincent van Gogh:
I think that I still have it in my heart someday to paint a bookshop with the front yellow and pink in the evening....like a light in the midst of the darkness.


I have been so blessed these last few weeks to have my blog nominated for a few awards. I think this is an activity exclusive to the blogging community: outwardly give awards and recognition to those you find endearing and certain kinship. This positive reinforcement is SO valuable: it is edifying - encouraging - supporting; it is like a little hug from your computer; it makes me WANT to improve because I know that my efforts are appreciated by others. I wonder how the "real" world might be impacted if we chose to give hard-copy awards to those that we appreciate and ask them to pass it on??

Anyway, I want properly thank those who took the time to pass long their awards to me:
Debbie at Wrighty Reads has inducted me into the Sisterhood -- I am SO excited. This award is given in order to "acknowledge the kindness and spirit of blogging." Thank you SO very much, Debbie! In passing along this award, I am asked to:

  1. Put the logo on your blog or on a post.
  2. Nominate up to 10 other bloggers which show great attitude and or gratitude.
  3. Be sure to link to your nominees within your post.
  4. Let them know that they have received this award by commenting on their blog.
  5. Remember to link to the person from whom you received your award.
Jenners at Find Your Next Book Here has been so kind as to award me the Sunshine and Lemonade Award. First of all, I just love this springtime picture - especially today when we are expected to get 4-8 inches of snow!? Secondly, if I were to put a face with the word "sunshine" - I would immediately think of Jenners. You must visit her site and look at her profile picture. It brings a smile to my face each and every day.

As I see it, the purpose of these awards is two-fold: recognition of a job well done AND willingness to pay forward that recognition. In so doing the latter, I would like to try something new. IF you are reading this blog and have yet to be nominated for any of these awards ---- consider yourself nominated!! I do not trust my brain lately - and in making a list of award recipients, I may inadvertently leave someone out. I do NOT want to be exclusive -- I want to be inclusive. Anyone who tries to maintain a blog knows that there is effort - as well as joy - involved. You deserve to know that your efforts are appreciated - and believe me, they are.

The biggest surprise in starting this blog, for me, has been the friendly sense of community that is so willingly shared. I am still in awe of the special friendships that I have formed with wonderful peopel that I have never met. Sheri at Novel Menagerie is one of those special bloggers. She awarded me - quite some time ago - the Blog Friends Award. Read the description of this award and you will know why it is so very special:
“These blogs are exceedingly charming. These kind bloggers aim to find and be friends. They are not interested in self-aggrandizement. Our hope is that when the ribbons of these prizes are cut, even more friendships are propagated. Please give more attention to these writers. Deliver this award to eight bloggers who must choose eight more and include this cleverly-written text into the body of their award.”
I truly do consider Sheri a friend - and I am deeply touched that she thinks the same of me. There are 8 wonderful ladies that I also consider friends in this close-knit community. Their comments are always uplifting and kind. Their posts are entertaining, informational, and they are willing to share a part of their personal lives as well. Please visit their sites, if you are not already a follower, and see what I mean.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Help

Well, obviously classes have started up again. I feel as though I have not had time to read or blog since Sunday. Oh well, just 6 more weeks and summer break is here!

I really have 4 book reviews to do from my spring break reading fest - but since I only have time to write one this evening - then I must pick The Help by Kathryn Stockett.

This is the best contemporary fiction book I have read in a very long time. "The Help" refers to the expression that southern white women used to call what we might term: domestic household engineers. The story takes place in the early 1960s in Jackson, Mississippi. Need I say more. You can fully imagine the racial tension of this region of the United States 2 years prior to the start of the Civil Rights movement. I had just finished teaching Harper Lee's classic To Kill a Mockingbird to my 9th grade class, and I found this book to be a lovely companion novel.

The story is told from 3 different points of view:
  • Aibileen - a 50-ish year old back maid who has been hired as "the help" for the vast majority of her life. Abileen immediately endeared herself to me. She is kind, sweet, loving, selfless, and a prayer warrior (she has kept a prayer journal for decades and often prays 2 hours plus a day).
  • Minnie is Aibileen's best friend - yet you have never met two people more different. Minnie is a fiesty, strong-willed woman who was born several years ahead of her time. Minnie has a difficult time controlling her tongue - especially towards her white female employers. As you can imagine, she does not remain employed at any one location for very long.
  • Miss Skeeter (aka - Eugenia Phelan ) is a recent college graduate who has just returned to the family's cotton plantation. Skeeter is a writer and desperately wants to leave her southern roots for the hustle and bustle of New York City. By day, Skeeter writes a weekly column entitled Miss Myrna's Weekly Cleaning Advice - which is somewhat ironic because Skeeter does not know the first thing about cleaning and must solicit the help of Aibileen to answer the question of the week. By night, however, Skeeter is writing a novel about the black women's experience working for a white women. She has been counceled by a mentor in the NYC book publishing world to write about something that "disturbs her, particularly if it bothers no one else" and she is hoping that this might be her ticket to a writing career.
The book had me from the very first paragraph - told from Aibileen's point of view:
Mae Mobley was born on a early Sunday morning in August, 1960. A church baby we like to call it. Taking care of white babies, that's what I do, along with all the cooking and the cleaning. I done raised seventeen kids in my lifetime. I know how to get them babies to sleep, stop crying, and go in the toilet bowl before they mamas even get out a bed in the morning.
Aibileen rarely calls Mae Mobley (doesn't that just sound southern?!) by her given name, but instead refers to her as Baby Girl. Aibileen treats Baby Girl as if she is her very own daughter - which is far better than Mae Mobley's own mother treats her (she is far too busy sewing to tend to the needs or attentions of her toddler). Aibileen even goes so far as to try to instill positive self-talk to this girl from a very young age: "You a smart girl. You a good girl."

I think what I like best about the book is the absolutely amazing skill Stockett uses in writing dialogue. When I read the book, I feel like I am sitting there in the room with these ladies - just listening in on the coffee clutch conversation. Through dialogue and internal thoughts, we are given such in-depth character descriptions that I truly do expect to run into Aibileen - or Minnie - or Skeeter - walking down the streets of Jackson, MS and I when I do run into them, I would recognize them in a heartbeat.

While the theme of racial injustice is not one to be taken lightly, Stockett is deftly skilled at adding just the right amount of humor to make her characters lovable - while not sugar-coating the seriousness of the subject matter. At the heart of the controversy is the Home Help Sanitation Initiative, put forth by the junior league President, Hilly Holbrook. As endearing as Abiliene is to me, Hilly is someone that I hope I never meet - I absolutely loathe this self-serving, conceited, prejudiced woman (and such antagonistic feelings toward a character speaks volumes about the author's talent at developing believable, relatable characters). This "initiative" is nothing more than a continuation of the abominable Jim Crowe laws of "separate but equal" that were still controlling much of the south's municiple regulations. This topic alone is enough to get my blood boiling and I could wax on forever.....so I will stop now.

Suffice it to say --- I absolutely LOVED this book and would whole-heartedly recommend it to any adult (there is some obscene language that may be objectionable to some of the YA audience). This book has been reviewed and recommended by so many other book bloggers out there, and I am so very grateful for your suggestion.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Monday Mail and Musings

I love alliteration!

There are two Monday memes that I can participate in this week. First Mailbox Monday sponsored by Marcia at the Printed Page (yippee --- two weeks in a row!)

I actually received 3 books in the mail this week and all because of the generosity of this book blogging world. I actually won another book, so that means that I can participate again next week too. The 3 books that I received this week include:

I am very much looking forward to reading all of these --- probably sometime in July when school responsibilities will be over.

Today's Musing Monday asks:

How many bookstores do you frequent? Do you have a favourite? If so, which one and what makes it so?

Well, I think my family would label me a bookstore addict. I actually checked out the Independent Bookstore website before I left for Branson to see if there were any bookstores that I could visit on my route (unfortunately, the answer was no). The bookstore that is closest to me - and that I visit on a weekly (if not more) basis is Half Price Books. I absolutely LOVE that store. I like the fact that the books are somewhat organized, making it easy to find a particular book or to browse through a particular section. I like the fact that the clearance section is constantly updated and there are always "must have" bargains just waiting for me to take them off the shelf and offer them a good home. I like the fact that they offer a 10% discount to teachers on ALL purchases! I like the fact that this store allows me to indulge in my passion without breaking the bank. AND.....I like the fact that each Half Price bookstore is a reflection of the neighborhood in which it resides. There are actually 4 Half Price shops within a 45 minute driving radius - and each shop has its own distinct flavor. Ok -- enough description - I'm starting to hyperventilate :)

As a final note to these Monday ramblings, I urge you to check out My Friend Amy's blog today. She has a fabulous post regarding the blog "community" - and the comments made on this post are extremely thought provoking as well. All I wish to add here is that I am so very grateful to have found this wonderful, accepting group of people who happen to enjoy reading as much as I do. You have inspired me.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

TSS - 3.22.09

I have had a fantastically wonderful bookish week! The trip to Branson was exactly what was needed to rejuvenate me enough to finish out the school year. I managed to read 1 book for my teaching classes (Life of Pi) - one book for my summer classes (The Road) - and my first "author sent for review" book (The Love We Share Without Knowing). I am more than half way through my 1 book for pure fun - The Help - and hope to read lots more today (I am thoroughly enjoying this one!!)

I also signed up for the Spring Reading Challenge 2009 and am very much looking forward to participating. I posted an initial group of books for the challenge, but that was before I decided to also participate in the 24 hour read-a-thon. I shared some of my fears about signing up for this sporting event (I have never been the athletic type), but the more I think about it, the more I know that I want to be a part. While this is not a set category - I think I will shoot for a half-marathon this go around: 12 hours of reading in a 24 hour period. This is a manageable goal for me --- I know I will accomplish a lot of reading - I know I will not have to forgo my beauty sleep - and I know I will not be totally ignoring the family. It will work for me, and I hope the organizers of this event do not mind my slight tweaking of the rules. I have also decided that this event will allow me to totally ignore all the books that I have to read -- and rill allow me to read some of the less-challenging books that I want to read. The theme for my half-marathon will be YA literature and I am hoping that several of them will be available from the local library at that time (I put a hold on some of them over a month ago).

This week I should finish my book for Nymeth's "Try Something New" mini challenge: Manga Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Now the challenge was to try to read a genre outside my comfort zone and this most definitely is NOT my typical book. I was truly blessed to be paired with Susan of You Can Never Have Too Many Books and while we both wanted to read something in the graphic novel category, we did not end up selecting the same book: she chose the Watchmen. I tried - I really tried to get into that book, but simply could not. Susan, on the other, was hooked from the first page. We both plan to finish our reads this week -- interview one another - and then post our reviews within the next week or so. In the meantime, I plan to share some of the Manga Shakespeare with my 8th graders this week as we embark on our own Bard adventure. I am hopeful that seeing this work in a 21st Century format will help the students to realize the Shakespeare is just as relevant today as he was 400 years ago.

Well, that has been my reading week. While I will do some reading this upcoming week, I know that I will also be back in the swing of grading papers and writing lesson plans. Only 7 more weeks of school (plus finals) and then the mecca for teachers will be here: Summer!!!

Saturday, March 21, 2009

24 Hour Read-a-thon --- advice??

I knew nothing - absolutely nothing - about the book blogging community until October of last year. I am not sure which blog I found first (it was either Becky or J Kaye) - or even how I stumbled upon it, but reading blogs quickly became an addiction. Then I learned about book challenges. Oh my -- it had never occurred to me that reading could be a competitive sport (can we purchase letter jackets??). I felt like a kid in a candy shop when I discovered the Novel Challenges blog. I read every single challenge and wanted to immediately sign up for half of them. But alas, in trying to curtail my addictive type-A personality, I initially only signed up for 4.

As if this is not enough stimulation to keep a bibliophile in ecstasy for years to come, I just recently read of the 24 hour read-a-thon hosted by Nymeth, Trish, and Word Lily that will be held the weekend of April 18-19. If book reading is a sport, then this is the olympic marathon event. I so want to compete, but my fear of losing and my perfectionist personality prevents me from committing. Can I really and truly read for 24 straight hours?! I don't have young children at home, but I do have family and dogs --- how will they understand this obsessive/compulsive issue of mine? How does one "train" for such a competition? What supplies does one lay in for this kind of event?

I have given this quite a bit of thought since I first heard about it - and I think that if I do participate, I would have to modify the level of participation (work my way up to a full-distance marathoner at a later date). I also think that I might want to use this time to read some lighter fiction than what I have listed on my Spring Challenge List. There are many YA novels that I have on my TBR list (The Graveyard Book - The Hunger Games - The Boy in the Striped Pajamas - Harry Potter (I know -- what rock have I been hiding under?) - 13 Reasons Why - Ender's Game) - that I think I may want to concentrate on these books which I should be able to read at a faster pace. I also know that I will want to read others' blogs to experience their marathon success stories.

So what about you -- have you participated in one of these events before? If so, do you have any words of wisdom for a neophyte? Are any of you planning to participate in this event? If so, have you given thought to how you might train over the next few weeks?

Friday, March 20, 2009

Spring Reading Challenge 2009

My family would say that I need to sign up for another novel challenge about as badly as I need a shot in the head -- but I simply cannot pass this one up . For one reason, the button is just as cute as a...well....a button. The pastel colors just radiate spring and warmth and longer days and rejuvenation. The second reason is that I can actually use this challenge to read books that MUST read, and perhaps even a couple of books that I have wanted to read for other challenges, but have not yet had the opportunity to do so.

The rules of this challenge, sponsored by Katrina of Callapidder Days are simple, straightforward, and most of all, manageable. I have copied and pasted the directions here:

To participate, here’s what you need to do:
  • Create a list of some books you’d like to read or finish this spring.
  • Feel free to set some additional reading goals (such as reading to your kids two hours per week, getting through your pile of magazines, etc.). This is completely optional.
  • Write a blog post including the list of books you want to read and any additional goals you’ve set, and get ready to post it on your blog on March 20th.
  • Visit this blog on March 20th to sign up. I’ll have a Mr. Linky set up that morning, so you can submit a link to your personal Spring Reading Thing post, and it will be added to the master list.
  • Read! Work on your goals throughout Spring 2009.
  • Report your results. Write another blog post in June to let everyone know how you did.
  • Have fun! Visit other participants to see what they’re reading. Write reviews if you’re so inclined. But most of all, enjoy your spring reading.
I can do this --- I KNOW I can do this. Several of the books on my list will be required reading for my summer classes. A couple of the books will be required reading for the classes that I teach. I am going to try to set aside enough time to read at least 2 books for my own personal enjoyment. So, for now (although I do reserve the right to numerous changes at any time) my reading list includes:
  • A Gathering of Old Men by Ernest J. Gaines
  • In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O'Brien
  • The Soul Thief by Charles Baxter
  • Home by Marilynne Robinson
  • What Narcissism Means to Me by Tony Hoagland
  • Crafting a Life in Essay, Story, and Poem by Donald M. Murray
  • You Must Revise your Life by William Stafford
  • The Tempest by William Shakespeare
  • The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare
  • The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  • The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien
  • Maisie Dobb by Jacqueline Winspear
  • The Love We Share Without Knowing by Christopher Barzok
  • Murder in the Marais by Cara Black
  • The London Scene by Virginia Woolf
The last book I just discovered today reading Fleur Fisher's blog. That is the problem I have with these challenges. I make a list of books that are currently on my shelves, and then you guys write a review about a new book and I feel that I absolutely must put your recommendation at the top of the list. I think I have added over 65 books to my list (not to my shelves, thank goodness -- we simply can't afford that right now) since I started blogging in December.

The other item that I am going to add to this Spring Challenge is the 24 hour read-a-thon. I was not a part of the blogging community with the previous events - but I can tell that I missed a lot of fun. I am very skeptical that I can actually read for 24 hours (first of all, I'm not sure the family nor the dogs would appreciate it -- and secondly, I am OLD -- I need my sleep) -- but I do want to be a part. If you have any suggestions for a novice "read-a-thoner" I would greatly appreciate it.

Finally, there are numerous other books that I would love to add to this list, but I know I will not have the time. However.....after July 29 I should have a good solid month of free time. Is anyone planning a Summer Reading Challenge 2009 that I can be a part of???

Thursday, March 19, 2009

BTT - Worst Book read

WOW -- this is quite the popular meme today! The Thursday question of the week is:

“What’s the worst ‘best’ book you’ve ever read — the one everyone says is so great, but you can’t figure out why?”

I must admit that I experience uncomfortable feelings answering questions like this. First of all, I empathize with the author. I simply cannot imagine how much time, talent, blood, sweat and tears it must take to give birth to a novel - only to hear some "amateur" rate it as a "worst" book ever read. I apparently to do not have the tough skin (not to mention the talent) to become a professional writer. Secondly, I tend to take responsibility for the poor rating - especially if it is a book that several others have found "great" (my husband claims that I am a guilt-sucking fool). I just can't help it: I feel as though I must not be literary enough to appreciate all the subtleties of the writing. I HATE feeling stupid.

BUT...having said that...the first book that popped into my head when I read this question was Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. I have read and heard countless accolades for this series. I even noticed that there is an Outlander reading challenge taking place in anticipation of the newest release in the series this September. I am absolutely in awe of an author who can write thousands of pages (I think each book is no less than 600 pages and there are - so far - 6 books in the series) on a given topic. I really, really, really wanted to like this book - even though I knew the genre (time travel romance) was not my cup of tea. I managed to read about 350 pages of it, and then I allowed myself to put it away. It was absolute torture for me and I decided that time is simply too short to spend reading books for "fun" that are not fun.

I do want to make one point: I did enjoy the author's writing style and I believe she has tremendous talent for developing detailed characters. My dislike of the book has nothing to do with her talent, but rather everything to do with the subject matter.

I am sure there are many of you in cyberland who totally disagree with my selection. I would welcome comments from those of you who love this work. Please help me understand its broad appeal. And, if there is perhaps one single soul who shares my same sentiments, I wouldn't mind hearing that I am not alone.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Reviews: Life of Pi and The Road

I am now more than half-way through my spring break get-away to Branson, MO. For those of you not familiar with the Midwest, let me see if I can adequately explain Branson. It is the lights and shows of Las Vegas with the southern gospel values of Nashville. Branson is CLEAN living. There is no gambling - no bars (although the town is not dry by any stretch of the imagination) plenty of good, clean, country/western shows (with some hillybilly humor thrown in), LOTS of outlet shopping (3 outlet malls plus other various shops), and the Silver Dollar City theme park (somewhat of a cross between a pioneer town and 6 flags). It is spring break for most schools in the Midwest and let me tell you -- this town is hopping!

I did not come down here to partake in any of these entertainment festivities, however. We have a timeshare (purchased nearly 10 years ago) and I desperately needed to get away by myself. Being an introvert by nature, teaching is an energy draining profession. I absolutely LOVE educating our youth -- but the constant pressure of being in front of a class wears me out after a while. That, coupled with my husband's 3 month long unemployment and my mom's recent brush with death (she was released from hospice the week before my husband lost his job) has left me with no emotional resources. This 5 day respite has been a perfect prescription. It is a short 4 hour drive from Kansas City - so I really feel as though I have "gotten away" without the travel expense.

I left on Sunday morning and arrived around 2:00pm on Sunday afternoon. In this time period, I have finished reading Life of Pi, finished reading The Road, and finished grading all my papers for school --- YIPPEE!! I feel that I have accomplished a lot and that I can go home fully relaxed and ready to begin classes again on Monday.

I am not sure that I can adequately review these two books that I have read thus far. Both books are heavy reads - and I feel that their full impact will not be absorbed for quite some time. Life of Pi is an unbelievable story somehow portrayed in a very convincing manner. A young Indian boy survives 227 days on the Pacific Ocean on a 27 foot boat with a 450 pound Bengal tiger. Unbelievable, right? And yet the boy's faith in God -albeit his God is a conglomeration of the "one" true God of Christians, Muslims, and Hindus - gives him a strength, determination, and endurance to survive despite impossible odds. The final pages of the book present the reader with another possible story - a more plausible story - and we are asked which one we believe. Our decision reveals more about us and our own faith than it does about this particular narrative. As I said, I am still mulling this over in my mind and have yet to form a comprehensible conclusion. I will say this, Yann Martel's description of the Pacific Ocean -- the fear of the unknown and the beauty of nature - is unsurpassed. I thoroughly enjoyed his word imagery and extended metaphors.

The Road is depressing. Period. How many different ways can you describe hopelessness? I am awestruck by the author's use of vocabulary to describe "black - gray - ashes". There are numerous words I could add to Kathy's Wondrous Words Wednesday meme from this book alone. Even though the past - present - and future were hopeless and full of despair, I was somehow drawn to finish the book. The bond between a father and son despite circumstances provided the necessary hope for the reader to persevere to the end -- just like the characters. Again, it will take me quite some time to fully comprehend the full message of this story, but the author's writing style -- not only his incredible vocabulary, but his use of syntax to also create the mood of hopelessness is incredible. The author uses dialogue with no quotation marks - that seems significant to me. Like the words are spoken in silence - mimicking the barren land that surrounds them. Oftentimes the details are written as fragments - again, reflecting the fragmented world of this post-apocalyptic time period. I must say that I am very curious how my instructor for "Rewriting a Life" will use this book in class. I will be sure to pass along this information.

I have also done some preparation for the final quarter of the year. My 7th graders will be doing a mystery unit and we will read some of the short stories of Sherlock Holmes. They will also try their hand at writing their own mysteries -- inspired by the pictures of The Mysteries of Harris Burdiss by Chris Van Allsburg. I think I have selected the 3 or 4 Holmes' mysteries for this unit of study. Do you have a favorite short mystery that you feel would work well in a 7th grade classroom? I would be most grateful for any suggestions.

The 8th grade class will be learning Shakespeare by reading and (hopefully performing portions of....) Midsummer Night's Dream. I know that I will learn how to better teach this class this summer, but for now, I am hoping that the play will be interesting enough to hold their attention and help them learn that the Bard is just as applicable today as he was 400 years ago.

The 9th graders will complete Cyrano de Bergerac (thank you PBS for running the Broadway production of this over Christmas break and I can now show that in class) - and we will finish the year with Animal Farm.

The British Literature class will complete Tale of Two Cities next week - give oral presentations of their British author which was researched and written in an 8-10 page paper, and finish the year by reading and discussing Tolkien's, The Hobbit.

I am now at a cross-road. What to do next? I have 1.5 days to do anything that I want to do -- what a gift. I have decided that I do not want to read another heavy book -- I will go home depressed rather than re-energized. I am thinking of reading The Help by Kathyrn Stockett or starting Drood by Dan Simmons. Ah -- what a dilemma to be faced with!
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