Sunday, August 30, 2009

TSS: Columbine

Well, I managed to complete the first week of school! While there are still some logistical issues to work out between the school and the church, all in all I think the first week went fairly well. I must admit that I was totally exhausted by Friday evening. I teach six classes in a row and am basically on my feet from 7:45 until 4:15. It will take a couple of weeks for my feet to adjust to this new schedule - as well as my voice. I am pretty sure I collapsed around 8:30 on Friday night!

While I have been in the mood to read these past couple of weeks, I have just not felt like I have had the time to completely escape into a literary world; there has been too much real world happening. On Saturday morning, however, I discovered that my local library finally had my copy of Columbine ready for pick up. Since my lesson plans are up to date and it is too early in the semester to begin grading papers, I picked up the book before noon and immediately became engrossed in the ten-year documentary.

I am not quite sure why I have such a fascination for this subject matter. Some of you may recall one of my first reviews being Wally Lamb's The Hour I First Believed. I had mixed feelings about that novel, wishing the author had focused more on the Columbine storyline and less on the ancestral heritage. After reading my review, several suggested that I read We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver, which I did and thoroughly enjoyed - although in a haunting sort of way. When I learned that Dave Cullen had written a non-fiction book which chronicled the last 10 years since Columbine, I immediately put my name on the library list. Apparently it has been quite popular as I had to wait nearly 5 months to read it. I must say it did not disappoint.

I am in awe of the amount of tedious research that Mr. Cullen had to cull through in order to coherently write this 350 page summary of the events leading up to the massacre, as well as the investigation that took the better part of a decade to complete. Dave Cullen is a journalist and his instinct to sift through the 25,000 pages of data for the hard-hitting, significant details is exemplary. His crisp, to-the-point writing style is a pleasure to read. However, what truly sets this book apart from the others that I have read on this subject is that the author attempts to tell us WHY this event happened; a question that many of us have pondered since April 20, 1999. There were so many inaccuracies that were leaked in the early hours and days after the event that the truth was difficult to discern.
We remember Columbine as a pair of outcast Goths from the Trench Coat Mafia snapping and tearing throughout their high school hunting down jocks to settle a long-running feud. Almost none of that happened. No Goths, no outcasts, nobody snapping. No targets, no feud, and no Trench Coat Mafia. Most of those elements existed at Columbine - which is what gave them such currency. They just had nothing to do with the murders. The lesser myths are equally unsupported: no connection to Marilyn Manson, Hitler's birthday, minorities, or Christians. --- page 149
Contrary to what many of us believed, these boys did not seek revenge on a predetermined "hit list" but rather they had planned to kill anyone and everyone. Dylan was extremely depressed and suicidal. Eric hated the entire human race and had dreams of annihilating us all. Several professionals in the mental health field believe that he was a classic psychopath.
Ten years afterward, Eric still baffled the public, which insisted on assessing his motives through a "normal" lens. Eric was neither normal nor insane. Psychopathy (si-COP - uh- thee) represents a third category. Psychopathic brains don't function like those in either of the other groups, but they are consistently similar to one another. Eric killed for two reasons: to demonstrate his superiority and to enjoy it. ---- page 239
While the book is relatively short, it is quite comprehensive. Not only does it chronicle the events leading up to April 20, 1999 - beginning with the all school assembly the Friday before warning the students to have a safe Prom weekend, but is also gives background information on the planned attack beginning in January, 1997. Interspersed throughout the narrative timeline is the ongoing investigation after the massacre that took literally years to complete. Some of the injured victims are followed over the years and their recovery, coupled with their forgiving spirits, are an inspiration.

This is a book that has shaken me to the core. While we have a better idea as to why this happened - there is still the ever-present thought this could happen anywhere at any time. We as a nation have learned a lot from Columbine and have implemented many safe standards for schools to follow. The loophole in the gun laws have been plugged and suburban America is no longer naive in thinking it is immune to violent attacks. In some ways it is hard to believe that 10 years has passed since that tragic event, but in other ways the memory is still quite vivid.

One of the final chapters of the book begins:
The fifth-anniversary commemoration drew a smaller audience than expected. The crowds had grown progressively smaller each year, but the school foresaw a bigger bump for this milestone. Nearly everyone was pleased by the light turnout. It meant people had moved on.

Many survivors began to think in terms of how many events were let to slog through. Only two remained now: the ten-year and the dedication of the memorial. Surely they wouldn't have to come back in twenty. --- page page 338
While I agree that the survivors have been through enough and it is time to let them live in peace - I truly hope that we as a nation never forget Columbine and will continue to give special thought and prayer each April 20, for if we do not take the time to remember history we are doomed to repeat it.

If you are interested in reading more information about this book and the resources used in writing it, please visit the author's website.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Fluff - Fright - and Sensational

I wasn't quite sure what to write about today, seeing how I haven't done much reading in the past week due to the start of school, but there is nothing like reading through my blog list to inspire me to write a post of my own.

Today's Booking through Thursday meme asks:
What’s the lightest, most “fluff” kind of book you’ve read recently?

I must admit that I tend not to read a lot of what I would consider "fluff" books. I tend to focus on literary fiction or mysteries. I do enjoy a good cozy mystery - which might be considered the "fluff" of that genre, but I still find that my mind is actively engaged as I am trying to determine "who did it" before it is revealed in the end. At the risk of making a broad judgmental statement, I would say that my classic definition of "fluff" is chick lit. You know, the lovey-dovey romances that so many find true escape, but which make me gag (I am NOT the romantic one in our marriage, much to my husband's chagrin). However, I have recently read a book that I think qualifies as "fluff" and I was quite surprised how much I thoroughly enjoyed it: Jane Austen Ruined My Life by Beth Patillo (review found here.) I enjoy Jane Austen, but not because of her romantic scene; I enjoy her satiric wit and commentary on Regency life in the small English villages. This book was a true fluffy pleasure!

That was the fluff - now for the fright. In reading Meghan's blog post this morning on her Medieval Bookworm site, I was intrigued by the annual RIP reading challenge. Apparently this is the 4th year for the challenge, but since I am relatively new to the book blogging community, this was the first time I had heard of it. The books that Meghan listed as possible challenge reading material were quite interesting (I have never been fond of the Horror genre, but as I mentioned above, I love a good mystery - and the gothic novel is vast becoming a favorite of mine as well). I immediately followed her link to Stainless Steel Droppings and read through the challenge. Now, I need to join another challenge like I need a hole in the head - and I know that I will only set myself up for failure (I have a dismal record for reading challenges in 2009) -- but I must say that this one seems like it "should" be doable. I mean, I only have to read one book by October 31 in order to participate. I can do that, right? If I decide to give into the temptation, then I am think I will read The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova, which has been on my bookshelf for at least two years.

The other aspect that I love about this challenge is the focus on Short Stories. I am ashamed to admit that I have never read any work by Edgar Allan Poe, but I would truly love to challenge myself to do so. I own several short story anthologies, of which there is always at least one Poe selection included, and I know that many of his short stories are available online. At the very least, I plan to follow Carl's Short Story Sundays and perhaps participate in this reading goal.

Fluff, Fright, and now Sensation. I want to mention that I am so excited to read Simon's postings this upcoming month when he plans to focus on a "Sensational September" on his blog, Savidge Reads. As I previously mentioned, I have gained an appreciation for the gothic novel, and the Sensational novel is, in my opinion, a natural extension of that genre. I have only read Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White and Mary Elizabeth Braddon's Lady Audley's Secret, but I so thoroughly devoured both of those books that I am very anxious to read more. I hope to have the opportunity to join in at least one of Simon's read-a-longs next month, as I am sure it will a thrilling reading experience.

As you can see, I am not lacking for reading material. What I am lacking is free hours in the day to sit down and enjoy my favorite past-time.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Weekly Geeks: Reading Procrastination

The Weekly Geeks meme asks:
I think just about every reader has a least one book that they've been meaning to read for awhile (months or even years) but, for one reason or another, they just haven't gotten around to it. Maybe it's a book a friend recommended last year, or a title you've flirted with in a bookstore on more than one occasion, or maybe it's a book that's sitting right there on your bookshelf, patiently waiting for you to pick it up -- but the thought is always there, in the back of your mind: Why haven't I read this yet? This week, tell us about a book (or books) you have been meaning to read. What is it? How long have you wanted to read it? And, why haven't you read it yet?
While my TBR shelves continue to grow by leaps and bounds, there are a few books that I have put off reading for quite some time. Probably the book that has been on the shelf the longest is The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingslover. I have heard and read wonderful reviews about this author and this particular book, but for some reason I always choose another book to read in its place. I think subconsciously I have categorized this book as "difficult" (I know that is is sometimes used for AP literature classes) and I am hesitant to attempt it on my own when I have so many other "academic" books to read during the year.

Have any of you read The Poisonwood Bible? If so, did you enjoy it? Is it as difficult of a book as I have made it out to be?

The first book blog review that I remember reading that truly influenced a purchase decision was for The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruis Zafon. I recall that this is touted as a book for booklovers. As luck would have it, I found an excellent copy of the book in the clearance section of Half Price books and immediately brought it home. Why it has sat on my bookshelf opened for these past several months, I truly have no idea. Somehow I am always lulled into reading a more current book and/or a book that is shorter because I know I have limited time.

For those who have read The Shadow of the Wind, is it truly a must read for book lovers? If so, then I should move it up to the top of the TBR list and perhaps it will end up being a fast read, even if it is nearly 500 pages long.

It has been a goal of mine for about the past three years to read all of Jane Austen's novels (or at least the 6 published novels) in one year. I have had the books purchased (I even purchased all the same edition so that they would look nice on my bookshelf), but I have yet to read them. I read Pride and Prejudice each year with my British Literature students, and I have managed to read Northanger Abbey and Mansfield Park, but I truly want to read them all in succession (and preferably in the order in which they were published). While I continue to procrastinate in this endeavor, I am hoping that the Everything Austen Challenge will be just the motivation I need to finally complete this goal.

I am curious if you suffer from the same procrastination affliction that I do. Do you tend to select books based on what you feel like reading at the moment? OR do you refuse to buy a book until you have read all that you already own?

Monday, August 24, 2009

Musing Monday: Serials anyone?

Today's Musing Monday asks:
Do you prefer to read stand-alone books, or books in series? Do you stick with a series the whole way through or stop after the first installment? Are there any particular series you enjoy?

I hav
e been "musing" on this topic for quite sometime. My youngest daughter, until recently, almost exclusively reads serials. She always starts with the first book and reads each one in chronological order. I, on the other hand, almost exclusively read stand-alone novels. While I pride myself on the ability to stay focused, I think my attention span is only good enough for one novel. Once I finish reading that story, I am ready to move on to something different.

In analyzing this from an English teacher's perspective, I wonder if perhaps I am missing out. I now think it
would be fascinating to see how an author develops major characters over time. I also think it would be instructive to see how an author reiterates pertinent information in each sequel in order to bring new readers up to speed, while at the same time not boring loyal fans.

The only real series I have read in my lifetime, and I certainly did not read all in the series, was Nancy Drew. That was the start of my love affair with mysteries which unfortunately I allowed to lay dormant until last October. I have since purchased the first in a series of several mystery authors: Laura Child, Anne Perry, Elizabeth George, Julie Kaewert, Joanne Fluke, Diane Mott Davidson, Stephanie Barron, Jacqueline Winspeare, Rhys Bowen, Victoria Thompson, and Hailey Lind. My game plan is simple: read the first in the series and if it grabs my attention then continue with that series. I have enjoyed several of the authors enough to continue reading the series, but I have not yet had time to read all these "firsts"

I have also started listening to the audiobooks of Harry Potter. Yes, I am one of the last human beings on the face of the earth that have not read this fantastical series, but I must admit that I have absolutely loved the Jim Dale narration. In fact, I have enjoyed myself so much that I joined Galleysmith's Harry Potter Challenge so that I would have an excuse to actually read the books. I understand that JK Rowling does an amazing job of tying together all loose ends and keeping various plots and subplots in constant motion. I am really looking forward to this serial experience and I am hopeful that it will lead me to a greater appreciation for the authors and their works.

I would love to hear your opinion of stand alone vs serials, and if you are interested in reading others' responses to this meme, please visit the Musing Monday blog of Just One More Page.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

TSS - Last Sunday of Summer

Well, tomorrow the 2009/2010 school year begins. This will be my 6th year teaching at Christ Prep Academy and my classes have filled up quite nicely. I am very excited about the curriculum that I will be teaching in each of the courses (7th grade English - 8th grade English - 9th grade English - and British Literature), but I am not looking forward to grading the umpteen papers that will be assigned. Oh well, I must be willing to take the bitter with the sweet.

I am a bit nervous as to what tomorrow morning might hold. The move to the new location has not gone as smoothly as we had hoped, and while I initially thought I would have my own classroom, I have learned that I have the "chapel" which is used throughout the week for church functions. This means I will not be able to leave ANY materials out (and for an English teacher with shelves full of books, this is a real issue), and I will never know what state my room will be in when I arrive. Such are the challenges of teaching at a small, private school. I know that I will not have a white board tomorrow - and possibly all week, so that creates another challenge for a grammar teacher who uses the white board extensively. Most of today will be spent brainstorming how to overcome these bumps in the road, as well as developing ice breaker games.

I am sincerely hoping that I can find enough time in today's schedule to be able to sit down and read The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. I had this book on hold from my local library since February, and when my turn finally arrived, I found myself in the middle of back-to-school preparations. The book is due tomorrow and I simply do not want to return it without having read it (who knows how long I would have to wait for another opportunity to read it). I think it would be a fitting way to spend this last day of summer.

I would like to end this Sunday Salon post by publicly acknowledging Belle at Ms. Bookish for her wonderful friendship and encouragement. If you are not familiar with her blog, you simply must check it out. Each Sunday Belle posts The Big List of Book Giveaways: a summary of ALL book giveaways in the blogosphere. I simply cannot imagine how much time and effort it takes her to coordinate this information, but it is a wonderful weekly feature and we all benefit from her hard work. In addition, Belle is a tremendously talented and disciplined writer. She is almost finished with one novel, Nantucket, and she has started on another. Periodically she will post her progress and frustrations with a writer's lifestyle, and I have greatly enjoyed reading each and every one of those entries.

I have always been interested in reading how and why writers write - but after taking the Revising a Life writing course this summer, I returned home with a real desire to implement the writing process into my own daily life. I have not done much in the past three weeks, but Friday night, while watching the evening news, I was struck with an idea for a fictional story. Now I don't know where this will lead - and it may only lead to frustration -but I at least want to try and develop this seed of an idea. I contacted Belle immediately and asked for guidance and she, not surprisingly, responded with incredibly kind, encouraging counsel. Once again I was touched by the true community spirit of book bloggers (and perhaps it can be extended into the writer bloggers as well).

If you have not yet experienced this amazing comraderie among cyber literary friends, then I strongly recommend that you take part in the Book Blogger Appreciation Week the week of September 14-18. Amy has coordinated a spectular event (with the help of several other book blogging buddies) that will be sure to showcase the community spirit that is prevalent among the nearly 1,000 registered book blogs.

I hope you all have a relaxing Sunday and a productive week!

Friday, August 21, 2009

I am humbled.....

Most of you reading this post are very well acquainted with the BBAW event: Book Blogger Appreciation Week that will be held September 14-18. This celebration of book bloggers is the brainchild of My Friend Amy and I simply cannot imagine the amount of "behind the scenes" work she and her team of helpers must do to ensure a smooth, successful event. She deserves a HUGE round of applause (clap clap)

I was notified this week that I was nominated for two categories: Best New Blog and Best Reviews. I don't know which one of you kind souls out there thought enough of my blog to nominate me, but I thank you from the bottom of my heart. I was asked to submit a list of 5 blog posts that I thought most pertained to my nominated category, and then Amy's team of helpers will read through all the posts, analyze them, and develop a 'short list' of final contestants. While I have no expectation of making the short list (there are too many wonderful blogs out there), I am truly grateful to have my humble blog nominated.

And...if that weren't enough for one week, I was notified this morning that Cathy of Kittling: Books has bestowed her I Keep Coming Back for More! Award to My Cozy Book Nook. The following is a description of the award:

The I Keep Coming Back for More! Award is for a blog you just can't stay away from. If you've been busy and your Google reader is over 1,000 unread posts, these are the blogs that you single out to read. These are the ones that are never victims to the dreaded Mark All As Read. There may be many different reasons why you can't stay away: a taste in books that mirrors your own, the same sense of humor, always knowing the latest in the book world... for whatever the reason, these blogs are flat out addictive and you have no wish to be cured!
Cathy, I truly cannot thank you enough for this recognition. And.....if you haven't visited Cathy's blog, I guarantee she is a worthy recipient of the award as well!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

BTT: "Best" Recent Read

There has been a series of BTT questions over the past several weeks which, unfortunately, I have not had a chance to participate: What is the funniest - most serious - worst book you have read recently. Today's question asks:
What’s the best book you’ve read recently?

I think I can narrow my choice to two recent reads. My first choice would be The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein, primarily because it was my most recent read and I thoroughly enjoyed it (you can find my review here). I liked this book on so many levels, not the least of which is that it is told from Enzo's Point of View, a wonderfully loyal dog who garnered my sympathy right off the bat. The story has other memorable characters and well-developed, classic themes such as love and friendship. I am sure that this book will be one of my top 10 reads for 2009.

The second book that would qualify as a favorite recent read would have to be The Help by Kathryn Stockett (review found here). It has been nearly 5 months since I read this novel and I still find myself thinking about life in Mississippi in the early 1960s and the memorable voice of Aibileen. This is another book that will definitely make the list of this year's top 10 favorite reads.

So how about you, have you read either one of these books? What did you think? What are your favorite books of the year so far?

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Wordless Wednesday - 8.19.09

Inspired by Cathy's photo at Kittling: Books this week, I have decided to showcase the Eagle and Child Pub in Oxford, England. This is where CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien and other "Inklings" met on a weekly basis to discuss their literary endeavors. It was a reverential moment to visit this landmark. The second photo is the actual booth where they met - and it is possible to sit there and enjoy a pint as well!

Monday, August 17, 2009

Musing Monday: Movies

Well, I had hoped to publish this post earlier in the day, but it was a L-O-N-G first day of school. Oh well, better later than never.....

Today’s MUSING MONDAYS post is about movies …How do you react to movies made of your favourite books (or even not-so-favourite books)? Do you look forward to seeing them, or avoid them? Do you like to have read the book before seeing the movie?

What a great topic this week and one that I have been recently musing in my own free time.

For the past several years (probably close to two decades) I have rarely gone to the movies. I think there are many reasons for this, but mainly because of the expense. The money spent for us to go to the movies for 2 hours seems excessive when I could purchase 2 books (or more at Half Price) for the same price which will provide hours of reading pleasure and the opportunity to re-read if I desire. I am not one who has to be on the cutting of edge of anything: fashion, technology, or entertainment, and if there is a movie that I think I might enjoy, I am more than willing to wait until it is released on DVD and watch it in the comfort of my own home for a fraction of the price (even then it is rare that I take the time to watch it).

Having said that, however, I am hoping to expand my entertainment horizons and begin adding movies to my free-time repertoire. In keeping with my "life is an educational opportunity" philosophy, I will probably start with movies that are based on novels that I have read. I have incorporated that concept with the Everything Austen challenge, in that I hope to read each of her six novels and then watch the corresponding BBC movie adaptation. I have enjoyed the Harry Potter audiobooks (I have only had the chance to listen to the first three, however) and I am hoping to read all 7 books for the Harry Potter challenge and then watch the corresponding movies (or at least those that have been released on DVD).

While I much prefer to read the book first, exercising my own imagination rather than relying on the director's interpretation, I simply cannot seem to get into the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I love the Hobbit and have taught the book for the last four years - rereading the book each year and always discovering some new insight, but the trilogy is just too "fantastical" for my realistic brain to comprehend. I think in this case I would benefit from watching the movies first: I am a very visual learner and hopeful that putting a face with the elfish name might help me keep the characters straight.

I think watching movies might help me assimilate into the 21st Century. I often feel like I was born in the wrong time-period, preferring the old-fashioned methods of entertainment, such as reading and writing, to the current trends of movies and video games. I think if I add movies to my entertainment mix I might be able to relate to my students, as well as my own family. My son has always been interested in videos and film editing. Watching a movie with him is quite the experience because he not only focuses on the characters and action, but he also notices the lighting, camera angle, etc. My youngest daughter enjoys movies and this would be an opportunity to connect with her on a different level. My husband has always enjoyed movies, most particulary the classics as well as the westerns, and I think it would be a nice alternative to going out to dinner.

All I have to do now is figure out how to stay awake during the entire movie. It seems that if I sit down for too long in a single place, my eyes automatically close.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

TSS - Balance

Today is my last "official" day of summer. This week teachers report to school to set up new classrooms in a new building with a new principal (yes, lots of changes have taken place since the middle of May). Parents and students come to "check us out" at Back-to-School night on Thursday and next Monday morning classes begin. I have always considered the start of a new school year my New Year rather than the traditional January 1st. There is something about the purchase of new school supplies, new school outfits, transitioning to a new season of the year, and the anticipation of new classes (new teachers - new students - new knowledge) that causes me to pause and consider goals and aspirations for the upcoming 10 months. While I traditionally make the New Year's Resolutions in January, I really begin those resolutions in August.

This year I would like to focus all efforts on the theme of "balance." The last two years have been a blur with working two separate teaching jobs (both years prepping no less than 8 classes), dealing with an ill parent (and the journey through hospice and back again), and experiencing my husband's two job losses during a declining economy. Combine these energy-sucking activities with the fact that I turn 50 this year and I have decided that now is the time for life-style change.

My first step towards this end is to decline the second teaching job. I will only teach at one school this year on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. I will prep for 5 different classes (teaching 6 class periods) and will have Tuesdays and Thursdays "free." Now I know myself well enough to know that I will use these days off to grade endless papers and perfect lesson plans, BUT I also want to leave several hours for doing something fun for me. One way I plan to use the free time is to READ books of my own choosing. This activity alone has several components that requires a balance:
  • I will need to find a balance between reading contemporary fiction, classical literature, and review books.
  • I hope to begin a "face-to-face" book club with like-minded friends who enjoy reading and crave the social interaction as well.
  • I will need to make the time to read others' blogs and comment.
  • I will need to make the time to write reviews for my blog and respond to those who comment.
For those of you who have maintained a blog for quite some time, do you have any words of wisdom for finding this reading balance in life?

Other areas of my life that need attention include:
  • healthy eating habits (I have never been one to drink much water and I think I need to start)
  • begin an exercise routine (I have never been one to exercise and I really don't want to go overboard --- but it seems that walking on the treadmill 5 days a week should not be a big deal)
  • develop weekly meal plans to help save money (it is amazing how much of our budget can go towards the purchase of convenience food)
  • cultivate a writing lifestyle (I so enjoyed the writing class this summer and I truly wish to continue the discipline of daily journal writing - perhaps developing some of those ideas into larger literary works)
  • round out my reading/writing life with other activities that I have enjoyed in the past but have put on the back burner for several years (such as photography, scrapbooking, stamping cards, and learning more about art appreciation).

In the past I have used a writing exercise with my students: describe your "perfect" day. While students tend to pick an a-typical day, such as summer vacation or birthday, I think I would like to challenge myself to write a draft of my "perfectly ordinary" day. How might I include all these balanced activities into my ordinary life?

While this may seem like a mountainous task, I think it is doable if I remember to 'balance' I cannot do all of these things at once --- I must ease into the process. I must be patient with myself and not "quit" with the first day of a missed exercise routine or the first second helping of dessert. I know there are those of you out there who succeed at finding this elusive balance better than I have done and I welcome any words of wisdom or encouragement that you may have. I am in this for the long haul: the next 50 years of life.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Tunnel Vision: Incorporating Writing into the Classroom

Those who know me in real life know that I can sometimes be a little too focused (ok - stop the laughing; I'm not that bad). I start on a project and bury my nose so deep that I manage to tune out the rest of the world until the project is near completion. That has happened this week, which has greatly interfered with my reading and blogging time. I started revising my syllabi for the upcoming year on Monday and managed to complete 4 out of the 5 classes (those classes that will be taught basically the same as in years past). The only syllabus remaining was for my 9th grade English 1 class, and that was yesterday's project. This class will change from a strong grammar focus (which is now the focus of 8th grade), to a strong writing focus. While the two are always taught hand-in-hand, I hope to really branch out in this 9th grade year. I want to explore the writing journal, have students experiment with creative writing projects, and even expose them to some journalism techniques in the hopes that they might consider joining the school newspaper their sophomore year.

The grammar curriculum has always taken about 30% of the class time, which means that I need to develop quite a bit of new material to fill that void. I managed to find 3 books on that should help me achieve that goal (I had a sizable credit and decided to put it to good use). Two of the books will help me quickly, but I think effectively, review some grammar rules throughout the year. English Workshop Activities provides reproducible pages of literary passages. After reading the passage, students are asked a variety of questions that will hone their literary analysis, as well as grammar usage skills. I plan to use these exercises along with those found in the Nancy Dean's books, Voice Lessons, which are wonderful for helping students understand the components of an author's voice (such as diction, syntax, figurative language, detail, and tone). I will also use a book entitled Phunny Stuph, which provides a reproducible paragraph that students must proofread and correct. Each paragraph is rather humorous, so the hope is that the dry subject matter can be countered by the silly reading passage.

What took most of my planning time, however, was the concept of the writing journal and the development of writing projects throughout the year. I used the book, Yoga for the Brain to aid me with prompts, as well as ideas that I gleaned from reading Natalie Goldberg's Old Friend from Far Away and Susan Wooldridge's Poemcrazy. I think I currently have about 100 writing prompts, and I am sure that the list will grow as the school year continues. My plan is to cut each prompt into a strip of paper and put all strips in a large "writing journal jar." Each day one student will draw a prompt from the jar. It is my sincere desire to have all students begin each class period writing for approximately 7-10 minutes in their journal either using the daily prompt OR a topic of their own choosing. Every 6-7 days students will then be asked to select one of these daily writings to develop into a more formal writing project. Sometimes I will tell them the form to use (personal essay, short story, poem, etc) and sometimes I will leave the form up to them.

I also hope to incorporate three concepts that I learned in my writing class this summer: the writing workshop, the cover sheet, and the read-around. The writing workshop is used to help students help one another, mostly in terms of revision. Students are divided into small groups: about 3-4 students in each group. The concept isn't to praise or criticize, but rather to offer possible suggestions: "What if....", "What you thought about .....?" The read-around is an opportunity for students to share their work in front of the class. Again, no judgment is made, just helpful comments: what works, possible suggestions, and always a round of applause.

The cover sheet was the most helpful tool I learned this summer and I think my 9th graders will be mature enough to use it as well. Essentially, the cover sheet accompanies each final written project and completes the background information: what was the inspiration for the piece; why was the piece written as a short story, poem, personal essay, etc rather than another form; why was the piece written in 1st person rather than 3rd person (or vice versa). This subtly forces the students to make conscious decisions about their writing rather than just completing the assignment on the fly (and if they have completed the assignment on the fly, they still need to validate those decisions). A large component of the cover sheet is to detail all revisions made and WHY. Again, this will subtly encourage students to work on more than one draft, and even if they procrastinate they will have to give thought to WHY.

In our class this summer the cover sheet was also an opportunity to voice what revisions we would make if we had more time. As an adult perfectionist I liked this opportunity to indicate that I knew the piece needed more work, and I could elaborate as to what I wished to further change. I am not sure that I will include this section with 9th graders; the temptation would be too great for them to make NO revisions, and just tell me that would make them at some indefinite time. I may see how the cover sheet concept works first semester and slowly introduce this component second semester.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Literary Fiction vs Contemporary Fiction

So yesterday I found myself very frustrated with some life issues and really couldn't concentrate enough to read (which meant I had to miss the mystery read-a-thon --- darn it!!). While I needed to mull over the problem and come to some kind of resolution, I also wanted to do some kind of mindless activity. Adding labels to my blog posts fit the bill (I know, I live a very exciting life). I have wanted to do this for quite some time as I think it will make it easier for me to find previous postings, and hopefully it will aid new visitors to my blog to delve into posts that may interest them.

Now, adding labels is not as easy as one might initially think. At first I just created the label "Book Reviews" but then quickly decided that if I plan to maintain this blog over a long period of time (and that is the plan ..... at least for now) then I may want to segment that category further. So, I modified the label to "Book Reviews 2009". Not a major intellectual decision, I must admit, but I do think it was necessary. After labeling about 50 posts, however, I quickly realized that each review should probably have a double entry: one for the year in which it was reviewed, and one for the genre of book. This would make finding reviews MUCH easier. Ok - good decision, Molly. Now, what will the genre categories look like? I don't want to have the categories too specific, at least for now, so all mystery, thriller, suspense type books are currently filed under the Mystery label. All books that are found in the Young Adult section of the bookstore are filed under YA. No biggie.

BUT.....what about the vast number of general fiction books that I read? I read a fair number of classics for academic endeavors as well as personal pleasure. I also read a fair number of current "best sellers" (for lack of a better word) because so many great reviews are written on blogs that I feel I must read the book right away to be a part of the blogging buzz. Many of these books are GREAT novels, but what is the defining line between "literary" fiction and "contemporary" fiction? For my purposes I made this distinction: if the book is a classic, and/or if it is frequently taught in an academic setting, and/or it has won a literary prize for fiction --- then I deemed it "literary". If it is just a great, modern-day book, but did not make the cut as listed above, then I simply labeled it "contemporary" fiction.

Now granted, there was no scientific reasoning behind my labeling. This was purely personal randomness. So I ask you: what do you think is the dividing line between literary fiction vs contemporary fiction? you even think such a line exists? I am very interested in hearing your comments, and realize that I may need to make some changes to the current labeling of posts based on your opinions.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

TSS - I Love a Mystery

The title of this post has 3 distinct meanings - a triple entendre, so to speak.

First of all, I really do love mysteries, and I have one entire bookshelf, double stacked, to prove it. While I tend to use Cozy Mysteries as my default genre (you know, when you want something easy to read but that will be sure to hold your interest), but I am starting to branch out into other sub-genres in the mystery category. I really only started reading mysteries about nine months ago, and I have tried to analyze why I enjoy them so much. Then this morning, while drinking my customary cup of coffee and catching up on my blog reading, I came across this post on Musings from a Bookish Kitty. She details a broadcast that she heard on NPR (and her entire post is worth reading), but what really caught my eye was the following:

People are drawn to crime fiction for very different reasons. A small few of the reasons I heard given on the radio show:
- To live the life of the bad guy vicariously through the TV or book
- To see good win out over evil
- To better understand the criminal mind
- To enhance problem solving skills

- For the love of the characters, including that flawed good guy who might not be so different than the rest us
- For the thrill

- An escape fr
om real life
- Predictability

- Unpredictability

- Relevant social issues

- The List could go on forever........

Some of these stated reasons I had already discerned for myself: good wins over evil; enhance problem solving skills; escape from real life. But there were some others that caught me off-guard, yet caused me to reflect: better understand the criminal mind; vicariously live the life of the bad guy. Hmmm....interesting. I am curious, for those of you who also love mysteries, what reasons would you give that are not mentioned on this list?

The second "meaning" of the title is that we have a local independent bookstore in the Kansas City area called, I Love a Mystery. It is a fantastic bookstore for several reasons: it is very well stocked with new books, as well as used books. The atmosphere is Gothic Victorian England, so there are gargoyles and skulls appropriately placed throughout the store to get you in the mood. There is plenty of comfortable seating so that you can sit, read, chat, and enjoy the escape from every day life. The workers are quite knowledgeable of the genre and their stock, and they are more than willing to recommend books, or to leave you in peace while you look around for yourself. My good friend, and fellow book lover, and I went to the store yesterday. We each went in to purchase one book, and we both came out with multiples. Not only that, we added several new mystery series to our TBR lists and immediately began planning our next visit. I am hoping to make this a regular event on my monthly calendar. Two hours in this store does more to rejuvenate me than just about anything else I can think of, and I don't see any reason why I should deny myself that luxury (of course, I would have to put myself on a strict budget each time I go into the store, but that would be a small price to pay).

How about you? Do you live near a local independent bookstore that specializes in a certain genre of literature? If so, I would love to hear about it and begin a list of possible places to visit in my retirement years.

Finally the title of this post is significant because this weekend marked the 2nd Mystery Read-a-Thon event. I missed the first event (I can't remember why) and had such grand ideas of being a big participant this weekend, but alas I was too busy shopping for new books and socializing with good friends to take part yesterday. I am still hopeful to get some solid reading done today, however, and at least finish the new book I found this week, Three Bags Full by Leonie Swann. This is one of the very few times that I have spontaneously purchased a book without having heard of it. BUT with the description being "a sheep detective story" and the characters named Miss Marple and Othello, I simply could not pass it up. It is told from the sheep's point of view, after they find their shepherd murdered with a spade, and it seemed like the logical book to read after Enzo's narrative in The Art of Racing in the Rain (my review found here).

This coming week will be my last week of summer, although I have a couple of school-related meetings to attend and syllabi to write. I officially report to school on Wednesday, August 19 and classes start on Monday, August 24. I am hoping to get some personal reading done in these last few days before "real life" begins.

Saturday, August 8, 2009


Admission by Jean Hanff Korelitz
Grand Central Publishing
copyright 2009 (449 pages)
rating: 4 out of 5

Synopsis from
"Admissions. Admission. Aren't there two sides to the word? And two opposing sides...It's what we let in, but it's also what we let out."

For years, 38-year-old Portia Nathan has avoided the past, hiding behind her busy (and sometimes punishing) career as a Princeton University admissions officer and her dependable domestic life. Her reluctance to confront the truth is suddenly overwhelmed by the resurfacing of a life-altering decision, and Portia is faced with an extraordinary test. Just as thousands of the nation's brightest students await her decision regarding their academic admission, so too must Portia decide whether to make her own ultimate admission.

Admission is at once a fascinating look at the complex college admissions process and an emotional examination of what happens when the secrets of the past return and shake a woman's life to its core.

My Review:
Well, first of all, I think I have misrepresented myself in this blog and I need to set the record straight. This week I participated for the first time in the weekly meme, Where are you. I have always enjoyed reading these teasers in the past and I thought I might like to play along. From what I remember (and granted, my memory is not as great as it once was) most bloggers write the meme in the first person, that is, the blogger is telling where the story takes place from the protagonist's point of view. SO.....I decided to do the same. Unfortunately, I had several readers comment as though they thought I am actually a admissions counselor for Princeton University. OH NO NO NO.....and Princeton University would not be thrilled to hear that, I am sure. I am just a lowly English teacher at a small, private school in the Midwest.

However, I absolutely loved reading this book because the protagonist is an admission's counselor for such a prestigious school. I do teach English and I begin each academic year with the writing of the college essay in my British Literature class. I cull essays off the Internet and we analyze why the essay is deemed the "creme de la creme". I try to inform students that those who read the essays will be reading hundreds if not thousands of essays in one semester and in order to grab their attention, they must write something that stands out in the crowd. I was truly moved by the protagonist in this story, Portia Nathan, as she takes her job very, very seriously. She knows that Princeton will only admit 1 out of 8 applicants, and she knows that nearly every applicant is worthy of admittance. She fears that these students will allow an acceptance or rejection letter to determine their self-worth.

There are really several other story lines in this novel that do, sometimes too conveniently, all come together in the end. There is the pregnant teen from the Midwest who comes to stay with Portia's 68 year old mother in New Hampshire so that she can attend school and have her baby without her Mormon family knowing of this indiscretion. There is the strained relationship between Portia and her mother, and we all know the conflict that can arise between tense mother/daughter relationships. And while the story begins with Portia and her significant other, the chairman of Princeton's English department, living together for what has been over 16 years, the relationship soon ends when his mistress becomes pregnant. There is another significant conflict in the story, but I do not want to give away too much. Needless to say, it involves the double meaning of the title, Admission: Portia not only grants admission to students into Princeton University, but she also must admit something from her own past.

While the author does an adequate job at developing the main characters and various story lines, I must confess that some of the plot seemed a bit too contrived for me. However, a large part of the book focuses on the admission process and this more than made up for any deficit in other areas. I was totally enthralled with the Boarding school descriptions, the students' anxiety, the parents' audacity, the counselors' politics, and Portia's empathy for them all. There are even a few choice passages from the book that I plan to use in the classroom to help illustrate the importance of the well-written college essay in the admission process. If a behind-the-scenes look at the Ivy Leagues is of any interest to you, then you will thoroughly enjoy this novel.

Friday, August 7, 2009

The Art of Racing in the Rain

The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein
Harper Collins Publishers
2008 (321 pages)
My rating: 5 out of 5

Synopsis from Goodreads:
Enzo knows he is different from other dogs: a philosopher with a nearly human soul (and an obsession with opposable thumbs), he has educated himself by watching television extensively, and by listening very closely to the words of his master, Denny Swift, an up-and-coming race car driver. Through Denny, Enzo has gained tremendous insight into the human condition, and he sees that life, like racing, isn't simply about going fast. Using the techniques needed on the race track, one can successfully navigate all of life's ordeals.

On the eve of his death, Enzo takes stock of his life, recalling all that he and his family have been through: the sacrifices Denny has made to succeed professionally; the unexpected loss of Eve, Denny's wife; the three-year battle over their daughter, Zoë, whose maternal grandparents pulled every string to gain custody. In the end, despite what he sees as his own limitations, Enzo comes through heroically to preserve the Swift family, holding in his heart the dream that Denny will become a racing champion with Zoë at his side.

My Review:
I am writing this review about thirty minutes after I finished reading the book and I still have tears in my eyes. While I am a sucker for any narrative with a dog as the protagonist, I truly did not expect to have such an emotional reaction to a book that uses the racing car circuit as an analogy for life. I am ashamed to admit that I have been one of those people who laughed when people talked of the Indy 500 being a "sport". I have even made fun of people who attend the NASCAR races when they come to the Kansas City, Kansas track, but I must confess that this book has instilled in me a greater appreciation for the talent, skill and dedication that it takes to be a champion race car driver. To all the car racing enthusiasts out there, I owe you an apology.

This story is so much more than a "dog" story; it is so much more than an auto racing metaphor. This is a story of life itself: all the love, devotion, illness, unfairness, pettiness, and justice that humanity has to offer. The narrative is told from Enzo's point of view on the eve of his death. Yes, the reader is told in the first chapter that our canine protagonist is going to die. We know how the story will end and yet we are compelled to read further. Garth Stein has totally captured the voice and personality of this lovable pet. Enzo is an intelligent dog, intuitive and accepting of nearly everything except perhaps the fact that he is without opposable thumbs. However Enzo if very optimistic and he is certain that he will come back in another life as a human; he looks forward to the opportunity to grasp and carry things, as well as to speak rather than communicate only through gestures.

While the book is a quick read with simple language, the themes are richly detailed and the characters well-developed. While this story is told through Enzo's eyes, he is a reliable narrator as far as being a devoted, loyal follower of his master. Denny Swift is portrayed well as a dreamer who never loses sight of his career goals, while at the same time remaining true to his wife and daughter. The reader not only falls in love with Enzo, but we also admire and respect Denny's strong character. The "evil twins", that is, Denny's in-laws, are also very well defined, as I found myself truly loathing these characters fairly early on in the book. Even a few of the minor characters are brought to life through Stein's writing.

The plot was appropriately paced and the interspersing of car-racing wisdom was not only uniquely creative, but also added a depth to the storyline that enriched the understanding and entertainment of the book. As I said before, I have never been a car racing enthusiast, and I am not sure that I will become one even after reading this novel, but I fully understand the complexities of the sport after being introduced to such one-liners as:
Your car goes where your eyes go.
No race has ever been won in the first corner; many have been lost there.
There is no dishonor in losing the race; there is only dishonor in not racing because you are afraid to lose.

In short I would say that this is a must-read book if you are a dog lover; if you enjoy tales of romance; if you enjoy tales of the American dream; and if you believe that right should always win in the end. Even though I still have tears in my eyes, there is also a pleasant smile on face. Now if you will excuse me, I need to go downstairs and love on my labs.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

BBAW - Introduction

If you have been a part of the blogging world for any part of this summer, then you are well acquainted with the BBAW or Book Blogger Appreciation Week coming up September 14-18, 2009. For the one or two of you who may not be familiar with this term, this is the brainchild of the incredible Amy of My Friend Amy as a way to recognize and celebrate the book bloggers in the blogosphere. This will be the second anniversary of the celebratory event. I was not a part of last year's festivities, as I had never heard of a book blog in my life, but Amy had over 400 participants at that time and is hoping for 1,000 or more this year!

If you have a book blog yourself and would like to register, there are 9 days left to do so here. It is quick and easy and I know it will be worth your while (not to mention the fringe benefit of discovering new book blogging buddies). In an effort to help us get to know one another, Amy has posted a few questions to help us introduce the person behind our blog. So, without further ado, here is the blogger behind "My Cozy Book Nook"

What has been one of the highlights of blogging for you?
I know that I will sound like a copy-cat here, as the same answer is given by most book bloggers, but without a doubt the highlight of blogging has been discovering that there is a community who is truly accepting, caring and encouraging of one another. We may have never met face-to-face, but we are definitely NOT strangers. The very nature of reading is a solitary activity - it allows us to escape from the realism of our every day world and enter the world of others. I have tried (unsuccessfully) several times to establish a book club in my area where I can add that social component to my favorite activity. I tried the local bookstores, libraries, and even Craig's list. Apparently all the literary souls in Johnson County Kansas have no room to add a newbie to their group. I even tried a couple of online book clubs and yahoo book groups, but I never felt comfortable enough to "participate" and therefore never really became a part. BUT....the book blog world welcomed me with open arms! They would make friendly comments on my simple entries (and with each comment I feel like Sally Field, "you really do like me"); they encouraged me to write my own book review - and gave me the confidence to do it again; they have totally understood my 6 week hiatus this summer and sluggishness at getting back to my blogging routine. I have been truly blessed by all these cyber friends who happen to enjoy reading as much (and some even more) than I do.

Some other highlights of this new endeavor however have included the discovery that I love the writing process: I like brainstorming ideas, trying to develop those ideas into a cohesive essay, and then revising the essay for "public" eyes. I need to work on tightening up that writing (obviously), but until then, this wonderful community is willing to just skim over the long-winded parts. I attended the Book Expo of America, where I not only got to meet some terrific authors and obtain some awesome new book releases, but I was able to meet some fellow book bloggers face-to-face and I have to tell you ---- I recognized them a mile a way! The personality of each blogger is so evident in their writing.

What blogger has helped you out with your blog by answering questions, linking to you, or inspiring you?
Ok --- well I have nearly 200 blogs in my google reader and I can honestly say that the majority of them have helped me in some way: either by inspiring me to read a certain book; or by inspiring me to better my blog because of the way they maintain their own; or by leaving a thoughtful comment that encourages me to keep on keeping on. Due to space and time considerations, however, I will not list all 200 blogs in this post. If you are interested in those blogs I follow on a regular basis, you can access that list (with links to each blog) found in the header at the top of the page. A few bloggers that I will choose to highlight, however, are found below:

  • Sheri of A Novel Menagerie: Sheri was the first blogger to reach out to me and welcome me to the community. We both have a fondness for our pets, and she is a very outgoing, friendly individual who loves books, movies, and family.
  • Matt of a A Guy's Moleskine Notebook: Matt probably has no idea how inspirational he has been to me, but I greatly admire his intelligent blog. Matt is the English professor that I wish I had several years ago, but I am glad that I have discovered his wisdom now.
  • Kim of Page after Page: Kim is a faithful follower and always has a kind word to say. The fact that she signs each comment with *smiles* is a testament to her optimistic outlook on life. Her comments can brighten my darkest mood.
  • Wendy at A Novel Challenge: I had NO idea that reading challenging existed until the fall of 2008, but this has opened my mind to a whole new way of reading! Wendy maintains this amazing site where she lists all on-going challenges and then provides link to the hosting site. My reading has greatly improved because of her.
  • Lesa at Lesa's Book Critiques: I started reading mysteries about the same time I discovered book blogs. It wasn't too much later that I came across Lesa's amazing book reviews, which focus on mysteries (both classic and contemporary). If Lesa recommends it, I know I need to add it to the TBR list.
  • Stephanie of Stephanie's Written Word: Stephanie was kind to reach out to me at BEA (Book Expo of America). We met on the first day and navigated through the thousands of people and books together. For a shy wall-flower like myself, Stephanie was an angel in disguise.

What one question do you have about BBAW that someone who participated last year could answer?
I am sure I have a ton of questions, but since I have never participated, I really don't know what to expect. I suppose my biggest question right now is ---- How do you narrow down your list of recommendations??? There are SO many deserving blogs out there, that I feel guilty recommending only 1 for a category when I can easily recommend 10-20. Any tips??

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Tuesday Teasers - 8.4.09

There are two Tuesday memes that coordinate well with one another and I am so excited to participate in both of them today.

It's Tuesday, Where are You is hosted by Raider Girl of An Adventure in Reading. I am living in Princeton, NJ where I have been an admissions counselor for said Ivy League university for ten years. I take my job very seriously, reading and evaluating over 800 college applications each year. While I thoroughly enjoy giving students the educational opportunity of a lifetime, I am always mournful of the best and the brightest that we must turn away. I have just recently come to face to face with a ghost from my past and I am struggling to deal with seventeen years of pent up emotion.

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just do the following: Grab your current read - Open to a random page - Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page.

"The traveling was done for the year, and what remained was this confluence of the cold and winter, and the all-in-our-hands sense of bleak responsibility: to the trustees and faculty, of course, and to the guidance counselors (who were, for better or worse, their partners in the work of getting the right students into the freshman class), and, yes, to the alumni, because Princeton honored its graduates and wished to retain their high opinion. But mainly to the applicants themselves, who collectively seemed to hover everywhere in Portia's imagination, like spectral Jude the Obscures, waiting for the verdict on their futures and - Portia very much feared - their sense of self-worth." -- page 217 Admission by Jean Hanff Korelitz
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