Monday, December 13, 2010

Four Christmas Reads

Christmas books are a tricky thing. Sometimes the setting is only secondary to the plot which makes them not truly a Christmas read. Other times the author goes too overboard with Christmas and it winds up being overwrought. Typically my favorite holidays literary passages are one chapter in a children's book such as A Year Down Yonder or the Four Story Mistake. However, I have found a few Christmas books that are quite fun to read.

Nigella Christmas by Nigella Lawson. Yes, this is technically a cookbook, but Lawson's style is heavy on the narrative, and it is well written entertaining narrative at that. I don't know how many recipes I will make from this book considering I don't have ready access to goose fat and have no desire to eat a steamed pudding. It is a delightful read though.

Immoveable Feast by John Baxter. This is another food related book, but it is not a cookbook. It is a memoir of one Christmas where the author prepares the Christmas feast for his wife's French family. Each chapter focuses on the journey to obtain ingredients for a specific course along with related stories from Christmases past. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and highly recommend it, unless you have food issues in which case you might want to pass it by. It will make you hungry.

Stupidest Angel by Christopher Moore. I've blathered on about how much I enjoy this book in an earlier post ages ago, but it deserves another plug. It is a sort of Christmas Story for the literary set. (Yes, yes I know, that's actually a book too! But Schwartz goes on to die in the book and who wants to endure that?) Only with zombies, profanity and lots of sex. Delightfully wicked. The extra bit in the 2.0 edition doesn't really add anything, but it is nice to spend more time with the characters.

The Twelve Terrors of Christmas by John Updike and Edward Gorey. At a scant 32 pages, and predominantly illustrations this book is a delightful little truffle of naughtiness. Many things at Christmas are cloying, and the expectations to do so many things and do them perfectly can leave folks overwhelmed to say the least. This book skewers many of those traditions in Gorey's well known macabre way.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

W3dnesday


It has been a while so this one will be interesting!

What have you been reading? Since my last post I have read the following books: A Year in the World by Frances Mayes, Clara's Kitchen by Clara Cannucciari, A Spy in the House by Y.S. Lee, Case of the Missing Servant by Tarquin Hall, Stephen Fry in America by Stephen Fry, Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne-Jones, A Bear Called Paddington by Michael Bond, The Vanishing of Katharina Linden by Helen Grant, and Fifty Acres and a Poodle by Jeanne Marie Laskas.

What are you currently reading? I started Fever Crumb by Philip Reeve last night. I'm enjoying it, but not loving it.

What will you read next? I have the following books checked out: A Natural History of Love by Diane Ackerman, Dead Woman's Shoes by Kaye Hill, and one other mystery who's title escapes me.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

5x5: First Holiday Edition

Five Christmas Songs I Love
1. I Saw Three Ships performed by the Bare Naked Ladies
2. Step Into Christmas performed by Elton John
3. Christmas Wrapping performed by the Waitresses
4. Merry Christmas from the Family by Robert Earl Keen
5. Linus and Lucy performed by Vince Guaraldi


Five Christmas Songs I Hate
1. Feliz Navidad (mainly because it gets stuck in my head)
2. Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer (do I really need to elaborate?)
3. Is That You Santy Claus? (This one isn't a bad song, but it was playing in every store my sister and I went into when we were doing all of our Christmas shopping in one night back in college.)
4. I'll Be Home For Christmas (it makes me cry)
5. Twelve Days of Christmas (again, because of the ear worm effect, but also because of the aggravating repetition.

So how about you? What are your holiday musical loves and hates?

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Challenge Updates!

I have completed my Fantasy reading challenge and the 1st in a series challenge.

Fantasy:
1. Bite Me by Christopher Moore
2. Dead in the Family by Charlaine Harris
3. Soulless by Gail Carriger
4. Savvy by Ingrid Law
5. Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman
6. Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

1st in a Series
1. Still Life by Louise Penny
2. The Agency: A Spy in the House by Y.S. Lee
3. Good Thief's Guide to Amsterdam by Chris Ewan
4. Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
5. Haunting Jordan by P.J. Alderman
6. Case of the Missing Servant by Tarquin Hall

Still working on Reading My Name (only two more letters to go!) and What's in a Name which is proving to be very tricky.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Some food for thought

This is taken from an article in Crosscut a daily guide to local and Northwest news based out of Seattle, on the recent banning of the book Brave New World at a local high school. The defenders of this action are saying it isn't a ban, just the the book is suspended from the curriculum until teachers have more training on how to teach it with more sensitivity. Ahem.

"Huxley imagined a world of genetically engineered, pharmaceutically controlled drones who wouldn't know much about books and literature, or anything unsanctioned, save consumerism and sensuality. The idea wasn't to ban books, but make them irrelevant, to suspend any interest or engagement with them (and much else). "

Does this sound familiar to anyone else? I think I'm going to make a point of reading tonight.


Tuesday, November 9, 2010

and this is why we are such a perfect match

Here is a snibblet of a conversation my husband and I had the other day.

LW: You know who would be great to have in the zombie proof fortress? Pyro!
Sunshine: Ooh yeah! He could just torch them!
LW: Jean Gray and Cyclops would be very useful too.
Sunshine: Don't forget Wolverine!
LW: I don't think that would be a good idea! I mean, obviously we would want him in the fortress, but not as a fighter. What if he got bitten?
Sunshine: Don't you think his healing power would stop him from turning zombie?
LW: I don't know, but would you really want to risk it? Then we would need Magneto.
Sunshine: And nobody wants Magneto.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

From the Shelves: Stephen Fry in America


I read Stephen Fry in America this past weekend and thoroughly enjoyed it. It is potentially risky to read a comedian's take of your country, particularly when you know that there is much to criticize or mock. However, while the book was funny, the humor was in no way mean spirited. Fry has a genuine affinity for the US but the book also wasn't fawning. He really did an amazing job of highlighting different elements about each state and giving pertinent historical information where applicable. I can honestly say that I managed to learn new things about each state and about my fellow countrymen. I will never get over the picture of a six year old riding a sheep at the junior cowboy rodeo he visited. (I will double check the book to get the exact name and location).

I did find it disappointing that he didn't truly visit three states (Delaware, Ohio and Idaho), and that he only visited Arlington Cemetery in Virginia and Asheville in North Carolina, but I realize that he did have time constraints. I'm sure anyone reading his book from other states will also point out things he missed in their home states. I do hope he does a sequel (I can give him tons of recommendations for Virginia and North Carolina), and I would love to see the footage he shot for the BBC special that was the point of the whole trip. At any rate, the book was a lot of fun and if you teach sixth grade social studies or state history in elementary school it would be a great place to start to discuss what he missed in his visit to either the country as a whole or a state in particular.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Random Thoughts

This is a rather disjointed post, as I am feeling a wee bit disjointed myself.

1. We just got the DVD Lust for Life in at work and every time I see it (it is in my office waiting to be cataloged), I get the Iggy Pop song stuck in my head. Sadly, I only know the tune and that one lyric. Grr argh.

2. It is almost Halloween and I don't live some place that is considered tropical. It should not be 80 degrees!

3. I am having a horrible time finding plain ground pork in my town. It makes no sense, and I need it to make meatballs.

4. Christopher Nolan's third Batman film finally has a title. I was less than excited by it, but I eagerly anticipate the movie.

5. China's gross population imbalance (it is roughly 120 boys born per year to 100 females according to MSBNC) is going to cause a lot of problems in the near future. One that is minor in comparison to the others is "how will they craft their female sports teams with so few girls?" Granted, it probably won't matter that much considering the sheer astronomical size of their population, but it is something to think about.

6. I wish I could bring my dog to work.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Musing Mondays


This question comes from the blog Should Be Reading.

Do you prefer hardcovers, trade paperbacks (the bigger ones), or mass market paperbacks (the smaller ones)? Why?

I vastly prefer trade paperbacks to either hardbacks or mass market paperbacks. They are the ideal weight and size, and fit nicely into the front pocket of my backpack that I routinely use as a carry-on bag when flying. Also, they are better quality than mass market and a better price than hardback. That being said, there are some books that I want in hardback to withstand the multiple re-reads. I am longing to get the Melendy Family books by Elizabeth Enright in hardback, and if they ever release Ballet Shoes and Dancing Shoes in hardback I will jump on those as well. But overall, I prefer trade paperbacks.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

W3dnesday


What have you been reading? I finished The Help by Kathryn Stockett and The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister. I really enjoyed The Help, but I loved The School of Essential Ingredients. I gave up on The Book of Air and Shadows by Michael Gruber.

What are you currently reading? I am currently reading A Year in the World by Frances Mayes. I'm really enjoying it, but man does it make me hungry! All of those luscious descriptions of food.

What will you read next? Yesterday I checked out the following books: How Reading Changed My Life by Anna Quindlen, Clara's Kitchen by Clara Cannucciari, The Case of the Missing Servant by Tarquin Hall, and A Spy in the House by Y.S. Lee. I'll see which one strikes my fancy first after I'm done with the Mayes. If anyone has any suggestions for books whose titles start with either V or L I would greatly appreciate it.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

W3dnesday

No cute picture today, as my computer is being cranky.

What have you recently read?
I just finished reading Red Sky at Night by Jane Struthers and The Good Thief's Guide to Amsterdam by Chris Ewan.

What are you currently reading? I checked out The Book of Air and Shadows by Michael Gruber on Monday when I had to go the Social Security office to change my name. I'm finding it hard to get into.

What will you read next? I should read The Help which is this month's selection for my book club, but I might go with The School of Essential Ingredients.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Updates!

I've managed to read 51 books so far this year, and my to be read list has swollen to 574. You might remember that when I first posted about my reading challenges that it was around 491. Never enough time to read!

Here is the status of my reading challenges.

Our Mutual Read: The Victorian reading challenge is done!
Fantasy: 5/6
First in a Series: 5/6
Read My name: 11/14 All I need is a Y, a V, and another L
What's in a Name: 3/6 I'm still missing a food, body of water, and a title
Typically British: 6/6!!! Hooray! Another challenge is complete. I read the following books for this challenge.
Red Sky at Night by Jane Struthers
Serpent's Tale by Arianna Franklin
King Solomon's Mines by H. Rider Haggard
Invisible Man by H.G. Wells
Bellfield Hall by Anna Dean
Twenties Girl by Sophie Kinsella

So Bob's Your Uncle!!!

Thursday, September 9, 2010

5x5

Five reasons I want to move to Asheville:
1. They still have four seasons there! You know, instead of cold, hot, and hotter.
2. Cultural opportunities abound. Music, theater, art, dance.
3. They have fabulous resturants. I miss having a choice of nice places to go to eat.
4. The downtown area is pedestrian, bicycle and dog friendly.
5. It is a great fit politically for us. I didn't see a single Palin sticker the whole time I was there, and I saw a number of things promoting buying local and recycling.

Five reasons to stay where I am:
1. The cost of living is much cheaper.
2. I would have to find a new hairdresser, dental hygenist, massuese and OB/Gyn if I moved. Don't laugh, good ones of those are hard to find.
3. My job is here.
4. We have a support structure in place here.
5. I would have to give up my book club and my dance class.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

W3dnesday!


After a month long hiatus, I return! The reasons for the break are copious, and don't truly need to be elaborated on beyond the fact that I am getting married this Saturday. So what have I been up to since my last W3dnesday post? Quite a lot actually.

What have I recently read? I read: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, The Serpent's Tale and Grave Goods by Ariana Franklin, A Fatal Grace and The Cruelest Month by Louise Penny, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson, Never Trust a Thin Cook by Eric Dregni, Wicked Plants by Amy Stewart, and Flow: The Cultural History of Menstruation by Elissa Stein (which I will review after the wedding-it will be a doozy!) I also started, but did not finish Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson (I just wasn't in the right mood for it, but I plan to return) and A Yank Back to England by Denis Lipman because it got fairly repetitive and I found the author to be a tad annoying. I might return to it. This brings my total to 51 books counting picture books.

What am I currently reading? I am currently reading The Good Thief's Guide to Amsterdam by Chris Ewan, although I have temporarily set it aside because I was finding that bits and pieces were sneaking into my dreams when I read it before bed and the results weren't pretty. I typically have weird and vivid dreams anyway, I don't need any help there.

What will I read next? I have The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister packed in my overnight bag for the mini-moon.

Friday, July 23, 2010

5 x 5

This week's topic: Five literary characters you hate/love

Five characters I hate!
1. Dolores Umbridge, from the Harry Potter series. Of all the villains in this series I loathe her the most. She is concern only with retaining her power and obtaining more. She cares nothing for the truth or fairness, and what's worse, she pretends to be sweet while doing horrible things. Plus, the bitch escapes punishment. HATE her.

2. Nurse Ratched, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Another person who is only concerned with her own power and who misuses it.

3. Fudge, first appearing in Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing. I feel like I am alone on this one, since so many reviews of these books talk about how he is a typical little boy and how funny he is. I completely disagree. I think he is a horrible brat.

4. Debbie van Pelt, the Sookie Stackhouse series. She is a character with no redeeming qualities whose death can't come quickly enough.

5. Tinkerbell, from Peter Pan. I know that Tink commits an act of great self-sacrifice, but this is after a great deal of extremely bad behavior, including trying to murder Wendy. I don't find her sympathetic in the least, and am shocked by how many people seem to think she is wonderful.

Five characters I love!
1. Flavia de Luce, first appearing in The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. Flavia is a precocious and entertaining narrator and sleuth. She's also a little scary at times which adds to her appeal for me.

2. Fred/George Weasley, from the Harry Potter series. Yes, I know that they are two characters, but as they are always together in the books I'm counting them as one unit. Fred and George provide the best examples of comic relief in the books, and I think that Rowling's choice to kill Fred in book seven is highly unacceptable and flat out wrong.

3. Miranda Melendy, first appearing in The Saturdays. When I was younger I harbored a desire to either be her, or at least be friends with her. To this day, I would like to be friends with her.

4. Gen, first appearing in The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner. It is difficult to discuss why, precisely, I love Gen without giving away major plot points. Suffice to say that he is clever and talented, loyal, brave and very complex. If you haven't read this book you should. It is the first in a trilogy, but after what happens in the second book I became furious with the author and thus haven't read the third. The first book, however, is brilliant.

5. Abby Normal, first appearing in You Suck by Christopher Moore. This little goth teenager is one of the funniest narrators I have ever come across and two of her more colorful catch phrases (Fucksocks and Fucktard) have wormed their way into my vocabulary.

So what about you? Who do you love and hate? Or love to hate?

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

W3dnesday

Everyone should know the drill by now!

What have you recently read? Since my last W3dnesday post I have read the following books: The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells, Still Life by Louise Penny, Folk Wisdom for a Natural Home by Beverly Pagram, A Monstrous Regiment of Women by Laurie King, and Dinner at Miss Lady's by Luann Landon.

What are you currently reading? I am currently reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver.


What will you read next? I'm not sure what I will read next. I keep hoping my copy of A Fatal Grace by Louise Penny will come in, and if it does I will start it next, probably before I finish the Kingsolver book. We've gotten a ton of new books in here at work and I may cave and check one of those out before anyone else. The perks of being the cataloger!

Monday, July 19, 2010

Challenge complete!

This weekend I managed to complete one of my challenges when I finally finished reading The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells. I read four books for the Our Mutual Read: Victorian Challenge, hosted by Amanda from Blog Jar. The challenge has its own separate blog though, Our Mutual Read. I did level one participation which means I read at least two books written during the years 1837-1901, and the other two were either non-fiction or neo-Victorian.

Here is my list:
King Solomon's Mines by H. Rider Haggard, published in 1885
Invisible Man by H.G. Wells, published in 1897
The September Society by Charles Finch, neo-Victorian
Below the Peacock Fan: First Ladies of Raj by Marian Fowler, non-fiction.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

From the Shelves: Still Life


I literally finished reading this book last night and it was wonderful! The plot concerns a suspicious death in a small town in the province of Quebec. Chief Inspector Armand Gamache is sent to investigate. No one can quite believe that it was murder, who would want to murder retired school teacher Jan Neal? She was, by all accounts, universally loved. Surely it had to have been a tragic hunting accident? The reader knows better of course, this is, after all, a murder mystery novel.
The plot and characters captured my attention and held on to it from start to finish. I loved the character of Gamache, and how the author was able to flush out all of the characters, even fairly minor ones, into realistic people. I found the character of Yvette Nichol, a novice detective who has a massive ego, particularly interesting and aggravating. I wonder if she will appear in any subsequent books?
The mystery was tightly crafted and full of surprises. I loved all of the subplots and twists and how everything came together. (That is one thing I can't stand, when an author introduces minor mysteries or storylines and then fails to resolve them.) It was a thoroughly original in terms of how the mystery was solved, and the motives behind the crime, and it was exceedingly well thought out.
The book also provided for me an introduction into Canadian life, or at least a segment of life in Quebec. I know very little about our great neighbor to the north, and I loved noting the differences between American police work and Canadian. (I know that this is fiction of course, but those parts have to be based in reality or no one would believe them.) And those differences are pretty substantial at times. For instance, if the police were in the home of suspected murder in the states, the parents would have had the right to demand that they leave if they didn't have a warrant, and that doesn't appear to be the case in Canada. I don't know if this is just that Canadians are less paranoid/law suit happy than Americans or if the police really do have the right to stay until they crack you. See how little I know about Canada?
My only regrets are that Jane Neal's art doesn't actually exist, and that some of the inhabitants of Three Pines, more than likely, aren't in the other books in the series. This is an extremely well done mystery, and I extend a huge thanks to Tucker for recommending it to me. Highly recommended.

Edit: Apparently, the other books in the series also take place in Three Pines! Joyful day! Poor Three Pines, you are apparently like Cabot Cove Maine.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

What are your favorite genres?


Participating in a fun question posed by Lost in Books. What are your favorite genres to read? (Everyone has at least one favorite type of book that they gravitate towards, even if they read widely.)

1. Mysteries. I love them! I generally prefer cozy mysteries (ones without a whole lot of blood and guts), but have been known to read gritty ones.

2. Historical novels. I am embarrassed to say that I don't necessarily enjoy reading books written during the Victorian era, but I love to read books that are set in that time period. I don't limit myself to that time period though. Early 20th century, the regency period, and even the renaissance, middle ages, or ancient Greece/Roman times have all made appearances.

3. Fantasy. I don't really go for high fantasy so much, but I love magic and myths and that sort of thing. I should amend that statement, I'm picky about my high fantasy.

4. Memoirs. I love to read about people's lives and when they are written from a first person point of view they are even more fascinating.

Friday, July 9, 2010

5 x 5

So I am modifying the traditional format of five loves/hates for this week's topic. The books I've selected are either not the best well known by a (fairly) famous author or are ones that I don't think get noticed.

5 Children's literature gems

1. Danny the Champion of the World by Roald Dahl. This book is not nearly as well known or as popular as books like BFG or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory which is a shame. I read this book for my children's literature class, and it was the first thing to make me laugh after September 11th. It will forever hold a special place in my heart because of that. If you are a fan of Robin Hood stories you will appreciate Danny and his father's attitude and the crafty way they thumb their noses at the system. And as always, full of laughs and slightly twisted incidents. Classic Dahl in other words.

2. Gone-Away Lake by Elizabeth Enright. This happens to be a Newbery Honor book and so comes marked with a highly visible and well known endorsement, but I still think it is under read. Actually, I think all of Enright's books are, but that is another post.* This story, and its sequel, revolve around the adventures that Portia Blake has with her cousin Julian when she and her brother Forest come to stay with Julian's family for the summer. Together they discover what once used to be a lake (and is now a swamp) and an elderly brother and sister who still live in the old lake houses. I loved this book as a child, and will still re-read it if I need something extra comforting.

3. In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson by Bette Lord. This book has an odd sounding title that on the face of things doesn't make sense. Or at least, it didn't make sense to me as a child. This is one of those books that I read as an adult and kicked myself for not reading it as a child. It is a fantastic and engaging story of a young Chinese immigrant making her place in American society through the use of that quintessentially American past time baseball. It is funny and touching and I loved it.

4. Murder for Her Majesty by Beth Hilgartner. I started this book one night thinking I would read a few chapters and go to bed. I read the entire thing instead. It has everything a book should have: engaging, memorable and believable characters, a tightly woven and plausible plot, witty dialogue, elements of danger and suspense, and a satisfying outcome. I recently suggested this book to one of my co-workers for her granddaughter. She absolutely loved it (the granddaughter), taking it on errands with her that afternoon because she didn't want to stop reading it. And once she was done she firmly informed her grandmother to thank me for suggesting it. Hurrah! It is such a great book.

5. One Hundredth Thing About Caroline by Lois Lowry. Lowry is probably best known as the author of the Anastasia Krupnik series and, more recently, as the author of the Giver and its sequels. This particular book, which also has two companion novels Switcharound and Your Move J.P., focus on the title character of Caroline, a young girl with a love of science and dinosaurs and an overly active imagination. Here's the plot synopsis from Wikipedia (there isn't one on amazon because the book appears to be out of print). "Caroline Tate discovers a note written to the mysterious man living in the apartment above her, telling him to "Get rid of the kids". Caroline jumps to the conclusion that she and her brother are going to be murdered, and she's even more horrified when her single mother starts to date the man." The book is a real joy to read, and if you can find it, I highly recommend it.

5 Adult literature gems

1. Cat Who Had 14 Tales by Lilian Jackson Braun. I used to love her Cat Who series, but it has gone on for far too long and the quality has really gone down hill. However, the early books in the series are great and so is this short story collection. They are very different in style from her Cat Who series, and this is an excellent choice for the beach or a long plane trip because of the length of the pieces.

2. Dog's Life by Peter Mayle. A light, humorous read by Peter Mayle. I think every dog owner imagines a voice for their dog, but rarely is it as well executed as it is here. Great beach reading, or a mid-winter pick me up. My sister also loved it and we don't always see eye to eye on books. This book really is hysterically funny. I think I may just have to re-read it.

3. In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson. Bill Bryson turns his attentions to Australia in this work (in case you couldn't guess by the cover which features a kangaroo). Highly informative, accurate, funny, and as always there is a large element of environmentalism. Bryson also has a knack for pointing out the alarming and dangerous parts of an area, and Australia is jam packed with deadly things for him to point out. Really well done and it taught me a lot about a country and continent that I knew very little about.

4. Little Heathens by Mildred Kalish. So many books about the Great Depression deal with the politics that swirled around it, and/or focus on the worst of what happened, so it was nice to read a first person account from someone whose life was hard, yet still happy and secure. I gave this book a glowing recommendation to both of my parents who grew up in the forties. I'm amazed at the body of knowledge that Kalish accumulated during her childhood and felt at times extremely inadequate in my resourcefulness and abilities. I cannot imagine what it was like to bake a cake on a wood stove, and thankfully, I will never have to attempt it. This book will make you admire the work ethic, resourcefulness and determination of that generation, as well as feel very relieved that, as a rule, the average person does not have to work as hard as they did on a daily basis. Great book.

5. Sunshine by Robin McKinley. I thought this was a great new take on the vampire mythology, updating it without stripping it of the sinister aspects. However, I felt as if I was missing some major piece of information, almost as if this was a sequel to another book. But it isn't. I do hope that she writes a sequel to this one though. Robin McKinley is primarily known for well written YA and children's fantasy, but this book isn't for intended for young children. I highly recommend it.

*Years ago I went into a Barnes & Noble looking for a copy of the third book in Enright's Melendy quartet series to give to my niece. (I owned the other three books and she had borrowed the first two and loved them). They did not have it or the fourth book, although they did have the first two books. I asked about ordering it and when the teenage girl helping me looked it up she said that it was out of print. I was aghast and said as much, which prompted the response of "kids today don't like to read books like that." OH REALLY? Who's laughing now that the whole set was reissued in hardback?

Thursday, July 8, 2010

What have you been doing?

Between January 1st and July 1st of this year I have done the following:

Read 38 books, counting picture books. 3 picture books, 1 graphic novel, 5 YA/Juvenile, and 29 for adults. 14 were nonfiction, 23 were fiction, and 1 was a fable. I also started, but did not finish, at least four books.

I have played numerous hours of video games as well, primarily Lego games. Sunshine introduced me to them with the two Star Wars Lego games. We have subsequently purchased Batman, Indiana Jones (that was actually a gift) and most recently Harry Potter. I also got Kung Fu Panda which has been fun, but not as much fun as the Lego games.

I have seen the following movies: Up, Wall-E, Fanboys, Office Space, Alice in Wonderland, A-Team, How to Train Your Dragon, Half-Baked, Wolfman, Capitalism: A Love Story, Kung Fu Panda, and a number of assorted documentaries and shorts that Sunshine was previewing for selection for our local film festival this summer. There are probably loads of other movies too, I'm just blanking right now.

I got engaged and started planning a wedding.

All in all, a pretty full six months. What have you been up to?

Friday, July 2, 2010

5 x 5

As a child, I didn't have that many books that were assigned reading in school. Looking back I find this rather surprising, and it makes me wonder what some of my teachers were thinking. (Of course, I wonder what they were thinking for some of the books that were assigned.) However, this did enable me to read at whim, and I read a lot. A great deal of it was junk, but just as much of it was outstanding. This week's 5x5 reflects on childhood reading.

Five Children's books that I hated. (All were assigned reading)
1. Across Five Aprils by Irene Hunt. I was subjected to this horrible book not just once, but twice. First in fifth grade and then again in 7th. Why do I say it is horrible? For starters, it is painfully dull. Secondly, she wrote in southern vernacular which is fine for adults, but not at all appropriate for a children's book. Thirdly, nothing about it is memorable at all, except that it is ungodly boring.

2. Z for Zachariah by Robert O'Brien. Lovely, a book about a nuclear holocaust and a paranoid murderer. Seriously. Of the potentially last two people on earth one of them is a murderer and our heroine has to steal the nuclear fallout suit to save herself from him, thus leaving him alone in the valley with no way to escape which condemns him to a long, slow and lonely death. In a book for sixth graders? I think not! I know it is by the same author as Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, but come on! Thanks so much Mrs. Brundage.

3. House of Stairs by William Sleator. This one was not exactly assigned in the traditional sense since the rest of my class didn't have to read it. It was the book I chose from a selected list in 7th grade. A group of orphaned teenagers are selected for an experiment that confines them to an inescapable house filled with stairs. Ultimately they are conditioned to abuse first themselves and then each other in order to get the food dispenser to give them food. Our heroine refuses to participate and almost starves to death before the experiment is halted. WTF?!!!

4. Dear Mr. Henshaw by Beverly Cleary. I love Beverly Cleary's work, but I really did not like this book. It utilizes epistolary writing, which in and of itself didn't bother me. It was the concept of who Leigh was writing to that bothered me. He is originally writes to his favorite author ONE time, and ends up writing letter after letter to this man. For FOUR YEARS. (Second grade through fifth). I asked the reading teacher, Mrs. Fox, why he thought the author would be interested or even bother to read his letters when they had never met, and why didn't he just write in a journal? She didn't give me a good answer. Additionally, I read this book because I was selected to participate in the "Great Books" program because I was a strong reader. What this meant was I got additional homework. I did learn the word hors d'oeuvres from this book, though I asked Mrs. Fox why he didn't just write appetizers, since it didn't seem realistic to me that someone his age would use that expression. Eh, she probably thought I was a serious pain in the ass.

5. The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Patterson. I know most people who are into children's literature worship the ground Katherine Patterson walks on, but I'm seriously ambivalent towards her. This is another one that I was assigned to read for the Great Books program. I couldn't understand why we were given this book to read in 4th grade. Gilly is not likable at all. She steals, she swears and is verbally abusive and cruel to her foster mother and the other foster children. Yes, she is a dynamic character (although I wasn't aware of that description at the time), but even at the end of the book she still isn't the type of person I would have invited over to my house after school. I remember asking Mrs. Fox about that too, I'm sure she wanted to throttle me. I get that teachers want to expand children's horizons and expose us to things we aren't exposed to during our day to day lives, but still. I guess it could have been worse, we could have been assigned Pinballs by Betsy Byars which is also about foster care. Thank goodness I was spared reading a book in which a father deliberately runs over his son's legs with a car. (The made for t.v. movie staring Kristie McNichol filled me in.)

Five Children's books that I loved!
1. Ramona Quimby, Age 8 by Beverly Cleary. This was not assigned to me to read, but was read out loud by my all time favorite teacher, Mrs. Primoli, in first grade. I read this book so many times that I practically had it memorized in third grade. Not even the ironic incident of one of my classmates throwing up right after Mrs. Primoli read "it was too late. Ramona threw up." could mitigate my joy of this novel. In my opinion, it is the best of all the Ramona books, which is saying something.

2. A Cricket in Times Square by George Selden. Finally, one from fourth grade that I loved! I loved the dynamics between Chester Cricket, Tucker Mouse and Harry Cat, and Mario's devotion to his pet cricket was very endearing. I would classify this book as magical realism since it isn't quite fantasy. Just a great read.

3. Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh. I was assigned this one in fifth grade, and it immediately captured my imagination. I find my love of this book to be a tad surprising, since Harriet is also not especially likable, but she won my sympathies quite early, and any meanness she dished out in her private notebook she was repaid for. Again, I'm surprised that I wasn't filled with righteous indignation at the treatment she receives from her classmates since they had no business reading her notebook, and everyone is entitled to their own thoughts, however awful they might be. Don't get me wrong, it made me mad, but not infuriated like I was when I read Ramona the Brave.* Now that I think about it though I'm irritated on Harriet's behalf. Fortunately, Harriet rallies and things right themselves in the end. I read the companion novel Sport which was also really good, but couldn't even make it halfway into The Long Secret.

4. Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan. At the end of each school year my parents would take me and my sister out to a fancy dinner and give us books as presents. I received this book at the end of third grade and I loved it. I'm really surprised how much character development and plot takes place in a book that is only 64 pages long. Stay away from the Hallmark Hall of Fame adaptation. Christopher Walken plays the father and it is just wrong.

5. Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild. This was not assigned in anyway, nor was it given as a gift. My sister read this book as well as Dancing Shoes and Movie Shoes and when I got old enough to read them I read them too. I've subsequently read Theater Shoes and Party Shoes as well, and none of them compare to Ballet Shoes. (Dancing Shoes is a close second). It shocks me that after the very prominent mention of these books in the film You've Got Mail that they weren't all reissued in hardback. All in all there are 11 books that would be considered part of the Shoe series (although they aren't all interconnected like a true series), and only five are in print. Despite the title, very little dancing actually takes place in Ballet Shoes, it is much more about the relationships between the three Fossil sisters.

*In Ramona the Brave her first grade teacher is a piece of work and the favoritism she displays riles me up every time. Not as bad as the teacher's actions in Little Town on the Prairie, but bad enough. Sadly, this teacher was based on Beverly Cleary's first grade teacher.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

W3dnesday


Hopefully you all know the drill by now!

What have you recently finished reading? Since last week I have read Cat of the Century by Rita Mae Brown, and Screen Doors and Sweet Tea by Martha Hall Foose which was a wonderful cookbook that I found at my public library. I started writing down which recipes I wanted to copy and filled up an entire sheet of paper, so I decided I would buy a copy of the book instead. However, it appears to be out of print! Since I still have the library's copy at home I may par my list down and copy off the ones that are my absolute "gotta try" recipes.

What are you currently reading? I did start the Invisible Man by H.G. Wells and am about halfway through it, but all of the books I had put on hold from other community college libraries arrived and I also started Dinner at Miss Lady's by Luann Landon. And of course, I still have Homer P. Figg going as well. Poor Homer. I may have to return him, or else simply skim the section where he gets grifted.

What will you read next? After I finish these three (or two depending on how things go with Homer), I will start one of the following: Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, A Monstrous Regiment of Women by Laurie King, Animal, Vegetable Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, Headless Males Make Great Lovers by Martha Crump, A Bad Day for Sorry by Sophie Littlefield, The Vitamin D Cure by James Dowd, or Still Life by Louise Penny.

Monday, June 28, 2010

From the Shelves: Cat of the Century


Cat of the Century is the latest in Rita Mae Brown's murder mystery series that is "co-authored" by her cat Sneaky Pie. The series, overall, has been quite strong, although not every book is equally good. Occasionally, the motive for the murders has been very disturbing, and every now and again the method of murder rates high on the squeamish factor. However, Brown does a great job of letting her characters change and develop over time which is the key to longevity in a series.

Lately though, Brown has really started to use her characters as a way to express her political opinions, which are pretty liberal. Normally this doesn't bother me because 1)I tend to agree with her, 2)the opinions that are expressed are in keeping with the characters who express them, and 3)it is incorporated into the plot so as not to be jarring. That is, something has occurred that makes the character voice his or her opinion. However, in this particular novel, there seemed to be A LOT more of it than normal. Additionally, she chose to set a large part of the action at a real university in Missouri, William Woods University, for the express purpose of drawing her readers' attention to its existence. (She says as much in the afterword). Brown is an avid horsewoman and champion of animals, and William Woods offers a highly respected equestrian science, and she has formed lasting friendships with some of the professors and administrators. You get the idea.

The mystery was sound, and as I read the majority of this in one morning, it certainly kept me engaged. I did find the use of William Woods to be quite forced, especially since the rest of the action takes place in Crozet, Virginia where almost all of the other books are set. I also found the amount of politically infused dialogue to be over the top, making the characters more like mouthpieces instead of the characters I have come to love over the years. Not a bad read by any means, just distressing at times. If her next novel in the series follows this pattern, or worse, increases it, I will have to give up reading them altogether. Subtlety is our friend, and in this book, Brown passed right on by and got chummy with hit you over the head.

Friday, June 25, 2010

5 x 5

Five Authors That I Just Don't Get:
1. Anne Rice. I've read five of her books, and I didn't like any of them. I gave her Mayfair Witches series three tries, and got incredibly fed up with her refusal (or inability) to answer questions that she had raised in previous books. Plus, she seems to really enjoy including sexual sadism in her novels.

2. V.C. Andrews. Why on earth does anyone want to read novels that revolve around incest? What's worse is that after she died in 1986, people kept churning out books in her series.

3. Lurlene McDaniel. Again, I don't understand why anyone would want to read novels where the whole point is that one of the main characters is dying a slow and painful death.

4. Nicholas Sparks. It isn't that I dislike romance novels, or even books that deliberately pull at your heartstrings, but I fail to understand the popularity of his books. They're ridiculously sentimental and maudlin.

5. LaHaye and Jenkins. The popularity of their Left Behind series scares and puzzles me.

Five Authors that I LOVE!
1. Christopher Moore. I realize his work would not be for everyone, but I find him to be uproariously funny, and his books to be filled with clever plots, witty dialogue, and highly memorable characters. Of his twelve novels, I have read ten. I should have paced myself better as I only started reading his books in 2007.

2. Jasper Fforde. Again, his work would not be for everyone, but I find his books to be incredibly clever and witty. I've read all of his Thursday Next books, both of the Nursery Crime novels and can't wait for the next installments of each. I haven't had a chance yet to read Shades of Grey which is a separate novel, but I will soon.

3. Neil Gaiman. I've only recently gotten into his works so I have a vast quantity left to discover, but I have loved everything I have read so far. It took me a while to get into some of his novels, but once they grabbed me, I was hooked good and proper.

4. Roald Dahl. For the longest time as a child I was unaware of how many books Dahl had written, and sadly didn't get past the major works such as BFG, Witches, Matilda and the like. And I certainly wasn't aware that he had written novels and short stories for adults. What a treat to discover this as an adult. One caveat: Dahl's work for kids is actually fairly dark and demented, and his work for adults is the same, only more so.

5. Bill Bryson. I haven't enjoyed all of his books equally, but he is one of my favorite nonfiction/travelogue authors. I'm very excited for his newest book which comes out this fall.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

W3dnesday


What have you recently read?
What are you currently reading?
What will you be reading next?
Brought to you by Should Be Reading. (I gave incorrect credit for this at least once.)

What have you recently read? Since last week I have read Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman, Haunting Jordan by P.J. Alderman, and Suite Scarlett by Maureen Johnson. The brings my total of books read this year up to 32. I'm not exactly on pace to reach 100, but I'm feeling pretty good. If I get to 75 this year, which will be the most I've read in a year when I've kept track, I will be really happy. On a related note, I'm pretty sure I will be chucking my carefully constructed list and just reading whatever the heck I want. :)

What are you currently reading? I still haven't finished Homer P. Figg, and I have The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells on my nightstand ready to crack open tonight.


What will you be reading next? Looks like The Invisible Man, but I may also go with The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

Monday, June 21, 2010

From the Shelves: Haunting Jordan

" Jordan Marsh left L.A. for the quaint Pacific Northwest town of Port Chatham in pursuit of some much-needed R & R. As the prime suspect in her cheating husband’s murder, she had been hoping to immerse herself in the restoration of the charming Victorian she’d just bought—and put all talk of homicide investigations behind her. But as she soon discovers, the coldest of cases cry out to be solved, too. For this old house comes fully furnished—with two garrulous ghosts who have a century-old murder of their own they’d like her to look into. Now, if Jordan can keep the L.A. police at bay, and sort through a suspect list of shady characters circa 1890, she might just clear a wrongly accused man’s name—and her own."

I thoroughly enjoyed Haunting Jordan by P. J. Alderman. It was exactly what it presented itself to be, and I came to care about the characters quite readily. I really enjoy a well-crafted mystery and I admire an author who can keep two different mystery narratives running in the same book. Did it bother me that I could figure out who the murders were slightly in advance of the heroine? Not particularly for the following reasons 1)for the historical murder it was fun watching how she figured it out and where she found her evidence and 2)for the present day murder, while I guessed who did it, I didn't know WHY. Plus, the climactic fight scene was something to be enjoyed.

I found the plot point of Jordan being able to communicate with and see ghosts to be handled fairly deftly. She was not at all happy to discover that she could do this and it takes her quite a while to adjust. She is not someone who had demonstrated psychic powers in the past, nor was she someone who makes her living dealing with anything supernatural or new age, which I found refreshing. This, combined with the fact that all of her neighbors readily accepted the fact that their town was heavily haunted and were excited that there was someone who could actually speak to the ghosts in their midst made for some very amusing passages.

I do have a few quibbles though. I thought that the loyalty and almost unnaturally good nature of her new friends was a bit much and a bit too soon. I realize that there was a bit of a time crunch in order to keep the narrative running in a realistic time, but to have developed such fast friendships like these seemed unrealistic. Additionally, there were a few loose threads that did not get tied up in this book. At the time I was unaware that this was the first in a new series so I was irritated, but now that I am aware of this fact I am less so. Finally, there were two different times when a major error took place, (the repetition of a phrase in the same sentence and calling a major character by the wrong last name) which made me wonder a bit about the editor. These are pretty minor quibbles though. I am looking forward to the next book in the series, whenever that may come about. The only information I can find on the author's website is that the second book (no title) will be published sometime this year. Highly recommended.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

A Salute to My Father

Since it is Father's Day I decided I would do a post in honor of my dad. I know that many people think highly of their fathers (and just as many have low opinions of theirs as well), but I really think I hit the jackpot in terms of fathers. I've chosen three different stories to illustrate my dad's character and personality.

My grandmother once told me "your father was the nicest, dearest, sweetest little boy." She proceed to elaborate by telling me about her dog Candy. Growing up my father's family had a number of dogs, but Candy was Meme's dog and she was extremely fond of her. One day, when Meme came home from shopping, my dad met her at the door (he was about ten) and told her that Candy had died in her sleep while she was out and that he had already buried her in the backyard so that she wouldn't have to do it.

I sort of hesitate to tell this story as it reflects poorly on my grandfather, who held certain prejudices. To be fair, he was born in 1906 and had a jerk for a father himself so it was definitely learned behavior, but that isn't much of an excuse. At any rate. When my father was in high school he was getting ready to go out on a date with a young lady whose last name was Rosenbaum. My grandfather asked who he was taking out and when he shared her name my grandfather said "but Peter, she's a Jew." My father calmly replied "no Dad, she's a girl," and then left.

And finally, as a child I only remember getting spanked by my father one time and it was for being horribly rude to my mother at the dinner table. I was not very old, maybe five, and was sent from the table in disgrace for making my mother cry. I got spanked one time, burst into tears, and my dad grabbed me in a fierce hug and told me he loved me but that my behavior had not been acceptable and to never do it again. Dad was crying while this took place too. I admire him for giving me the punishment I deserved (although my older sister got off scott free and she was the one who goaded me into saying what I thought of the meal which still bothers me), even though it pained him to do so. I also admire him for supporting my mother so much and not tolerating such attitudes.

Dad, I know you don't read my blog, but you're fantastic, and Sunshine loves and admires you too. Love you!

Friday, June 18, 2010

Fat Friday


Yum, yum, yum! Once again it is time for Fat Friday. I know I originally stated that I was going to do this once a month, and that is still my intent, but I fully acknowledge that I missed doing one in the month of May.

A Passion for Baking by Marcy Goldman is an outstanding baking book. The first chapter is all on baking secrets and should not be skipped. She also includes at the end of the book a source guide so that bakers everywhere can find some of the rarer ingredients she uses. I've only made a fraction of the recipes in this book as many are yeast doughs and I have zero experience with traditional yeast doughs. However, the recipes I have made have all been fabulous.

From the Giant Sweet Cheddar Biscuits, to the Pralines and Cream Pecan Caramel Muffins, to Pumpkin Pocket Cookies, this book is jammed with wonderful recipes. The Caramel Swirl Hunks (which are essentially giant chocolate chip cookie bars with homemade caramel) are out of this world. The Best-Ever Little British Butter Cake is the best shortcake I've ever had and the directions for it are extremely easy. I'm dying to try the Chunky Cheese Bread, the Double Garlic Fougasse, the Brittany Butter Cookies, and the Toronto Blueberry Buns. I'm getting hungry just thinking about these things!

The book has chapters on the following: Loaves, Rolls Baby Breads & Buns, Pizza & Other Flatbreads, Scones & Biscuits, Muffins, Cookies, Biscotti, Bars & Squares, Quick Breads & Coffee Cakes, Pies Tarts & Pastries, Sweet Yeast Baking, Cakes, Cheesecake, Holiday Baking, Grainy Goodness (which has the healthier fare), and Baker in a Hurry.

One of the pitfalls for cookbooks is incomplete directions which fortunately is not the case with this book. Nothing is more aggravating when you trying out a new recipe than to get to a point in the directions and have no idea what the author is talking about. This could be because you have no idea what "soft ball stage" is, or because they simply aren't specific enough with the steps. The only time this comes into play in this book is when she offers alternative baking options (making something smaller, making in a loaf instead of muffins etc.), because she does not always include alternative baking times for these options. (And also, there are no carrots listed in her carrot cake recipe. I thought at first it was simply a typo on the ingredient section, but no, there is no mention of them anywhere in that recipe. Can't exactly be carrot cake without them now can it?). Overall though, I find her directions to be quite complete and easy to follow.

The book is not for everyone. Many of the recipes are fairly labor intensive, although none of the techniques are exceedingly advanced. I'm a primarily self-taught baker and if you take the time to read the chapter on baking secrets you'll be just fine. But if you are looking for quick and easy recipes seek them elsewhere. Also, most of the recipes are not cheap to make. She uses high quality ingredients, and these recipes are laden with butter, eggs, sugars, extracts and where applicable, fruit, chocolate and cheese. However, that's really what I'm looking for in baked goods, explosions of flavor with great texture and heft.

I fully endorse this book, and while I will possibly let friends borrow my copy, (I'm pretty possessive of it, and frequently read it at breakfast) I won't share any of her recipes on here. Recipes can't be copyrighted (which is a whole other issue, and one I profoundly disagree with*), but I still won't do it. I don't think it is fair to her in the least and you really should have the entire book. If you want to check out some of her recipes I can recommend going to her website, Better Baking, and seeing some of the freebies she puts up there. The rest are obtained through subscription or paying per recipe like on itunes. Like the title of the book says, she has a passion for baking, and it shows. Now I want to go home and bake something.

*It makes sense that an ingredient list can't be copyrighted, but I think the procedures that are detailed (which frequently make all the difference) should be. I know that two people can independently come up with the same methodology and I understand that it would be an extremely thorny issue to try and regulate, but for professionals to not be able to protect their work is grossly unfair.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Double Post!

I don't typically post twice in the same day, but I was just reading an article/interview about/with Charlaine Harris in Writer's Digest and she puts somethings really beautifully:

"I really admire good writing no matter where I find it, or even effective hokey writing," she says. "You know, there's gotta be something that grabs you and pulls you in. Even if it's not literature, there's something about it that gets you viscerally, and that really attracts me in understanding that." (page 54 of the July/August edition of Writer's Digest).

Also:

"If it pleases you and you can write at all, it's gonna please somebody else." (also page 54).

And that's really what reading is about isn't it? Finding something you connect with and that you enjoy. To me, reading is so personal, that while you can find others that share similar tastes with you, you are never going to find someone whose taste is exactly the same as yours. And that's fine.

5x5

Five Academic Regrets I Possess
1. I wish I had had a different third grade teacher. Don't get me wrong, Mrs. Kent was an extremely nice woman, but I don't feel I learned all that much during third grade, beyond how to spell mountain and bacteria, cursive handwriting (mine has never been pretty), and multiplication tables. I was in a very fortunate position at my elementary school in that not only did I have an older sister who served as the guinea pig for the teachers, but also because my mother was able to request which class I was placed in. For two years in a row though, I was placed in the less challenging of the two classes. In second grade she made the right decision, even though I was terribly bored in Mrs. Smith's class. (The next year she went on to teach kindergarten). I laugh to imagine the chaos and scenes that would have ensued had I been in Mrs. Stedham's class though. The first time she told one of my classmates that the question he/she had asked was stupid I would have been up in arms, raising Cain. However, I think my mom missed the mark in third grade as I got on really well with Ms. Green when three years later she was my social studies teacher. I know my sister hated being in her class, but Bird went on to major in art, while I did not. We have very different personalities, and I think I would have been fine. Although, my childhood nemesis was in that class.....hmm....third, sixth, and tenth grade were the only years I had a break from him. Maybe Mom made the right decision after all.
2. I wish I had not taken GT English in 7th grade. Seems counter- intuitive that I would express a desire to have been in a less challenging class in 7th grade when I just expressed a desire to have been more challenged in third. The thing is, that English class wasn't very challenging, nor were the assignments especially clever. I disliked the teacher, particularly after she told me that "feline is the word for female dog," and being in that class meant I was forced to take pre-algebra with the absolutely worst teacher I have ever encountered as a student. Ever. In my entire educational experience. Had I been in a regular English class, I would have taken pre-algebra with Mrs. Mehal, who wound up being my teacher for regular 7th grade math for the second half of the year after I switched out of the class from hell. Of course, that would have meant I missed out on one of my all time favorite teachers, Ms. Hartley in 9th grade. Oh well.
3. I wish I had studied Latin. The more I learn about it, the more I feel cheated that I didn't study Latin. Not because of the extra boost my verbal scores on standardized tests would have received, but because it is the primary origin of our language. Also, had I studied Latin I could have majored in Classical Civilizations, which brings us to number four.
4. I wish I had majored in Classical Civilizations. I ended up with a minor in the program because of how many of the courses I took to fulfill my elective and feminist studies requirements. I was inducted into their honor society my senior year, three of my favorite classes in college were in that department (Hellenistic Greece and Republican Rome, Greek and Roman Myth, and The Classical Tradition), and I had a great relationship with three of the professors, as compared to one in the department for what I actually majored in.
5. I wish I had taken the opportunity to study abroad during college. I honestly never even looked into studying abroad because I was a Speech and Communication major and the two didn't seem to make sense together. I felt you needed to be majoring in something international to justify it. Had I only known! Still, if I had studied Latin and therefore had a different major I could have gone to Italy or Greece.

Five Academic Joys I Have
1. I am so happy I studied French. I know that in this day and age that Spanish is far more practical, but I adore French and I'm glad I took so many years of it. Sunshine and I really wish we could afford Rosetta Stone for French so that I can refresh my memory and he can learn it.
2. I am so happy I took creative writing in 8th grade. Not only did it give me an opportunity to become friends with the person who would be my closet friend for the next three years, but that is also where I met Sunshine! (No, we haven't been together since that time, but we are getting married on the 20th anniversary of when we first met.)
3. I am so happy that I took AP English in high school. As I stated in my last post, this course was as hard or harder than anything I took in college until I was a junior. I think I would have had a much harder time in my classes had I not had this experience. Thanks Mrs. Rennar!
4. I am so happy that I had a difficult instructor for Core in college. Core was this hideous course in college that all incoming freshman were required to take. At the time of my enrollment the teachers were allowed to teach it however they saw fit, as long as they had us read all of the same books. Therefore you had the art instructor who allowed his students to make clay pinch pots (you know, like you did in elementary school) as their final, and the philosophy instructor who gave everyone A's because he resented being forced to teach the course. My professor taught Russian and he had us write papers (bare minimum of two pages) for everything we read, and we read a lot! At the time, I really disliked him, but he really made us think and for that I thank him. Here's to you Joe! (I can't remember how to spell his last name. I wonder if he still teaches there? I will look him up.)*
5. I am so happy that I have parents who not only valued education, but encouraged me to take classes on other things besides academics, such as art and dance. Do I need to elaborate more? They made me a life long learner and for that I am eternally grateful.

*Troncale! And he still teaches there.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

A Bone to Pick with Newsweek

Yesterday I encountered an article in Newsweek that really got my hackles up. Newsweek creates a list every year of America's Best High Schools. This, in and of itself, is not what bothers me. No, what bothers me is how they determine the rankings. Newsweek uses tests to come up with their rankings. Not just any tests, but AP and IB tests. In their FAQs the creators of the list explain it thus:

"We take the total number of Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate or Cambridge (AICE) tests given at a school each year and divide by the number of seniors graduating in May or June. All public schools NEWSWEEK researcher Amy Novak and I could find that achieved a ratio of at least 1.000, meaning they had as many tests in 2009 as they had graduates, were put on the list on the NEWSWEEK Web site. Each list is based on the previous year's data, so the 2010 list has each school's numbers for 2009."

Waiting to find out what they use? Nothing. That's it. They don't even look at passing rates of these exams since schools can skew those results by only allowing the best of the best to take the exams. Um....call me crazy, but don't you think passing rates reflect on how well the teachers did their jobs? Sure, every senior at a school may take an AP exam, but if only five of them pass I would not say that this is a great high school. But wait, it gets better! (Or worse, depending on how you look at it.)

Also from their FAQ section:
"5. How can you call these the best schools or the top schools if you are using just one narrow measure? High school is more than just AP or IB tests.
Indeed it is, and if I could quantify all those other things in a meaningful way, I would give it a try. But teacher quality, extracurricular activities, and other important factors are too subjective for a ranked list. Participation in challenging courses and tests, on the other hand, can be counted, and the results expose a significant failing in most high schools--less than 6 percent of the public high schools in the United States qualify for the NEWSWEEK list. "

Wow. Just wow. Really? You can't think of any way to evaluate other areas in a non-subjective way? What about using any of the following:

Age of the facility.
Student to teacher ratio.
Graduation rates: which can be done two ways 1) by comparing enrollment at the start of the year with how many graduate, or 2) going back four years to freshman class size compared to how many graduating seniors they have.
Number of scholarships awarded to graduating seniors
Number and variety of electives offered
Number of foreign languages offered
Number and variety of extracurricular activities offered
Number of computers per student
Crime rates for the area surrounding the school
Number of registered sex offenders living nearby
Number of lockdowns the school had to have in one year
Amount of money spent per student
Are they ranked in their state or nationally in any of the following programs: art, band, chorus, debate, drama, sports?

The last time I checked colleges look for well-rounded students, not just academic excellence.

The creators of the list further explain why they chose such a limited criteria:
"I think that this is the most useful quantitative measure of a high school. One of its strengths is the narrowness of the criteria. Everyone can understand the simple arithmetic that produces a school's Challenge Index rating and discuss it intelligently, as opposed to ranked lists like U.S. News & World Report's "America's Best Colleges," which has too many factors for me to judge for myself the quality of their analysis."

Really? So having a chart that show the scores for the different categories would be confusing? Ideally the top schools would score highly in those areas I mentioned. This is how Consumer Reports does rankings and people understand those. Now, I'll admit, that finding this information will be a lot trickier than simply getting the statistics of two areas that schools are happy to divulge, but almost everything I mentioned is something you can find out by looking at either the school's website, or through the websites for the county schools. As for crime rates and such, the local police can provide that, as can a number of websites that allow you to type in an address and get information.

But wait, there's more!
While they have restricted their list to public schools, and they didn't include any charter or magnet school "that draws such a high concentration of top students that its average SAT or ACT score significantly exceeds the highest average for any normal-enrollment school in the country," they did include charter and magnet schools. As in, schools that don't have to take everybody who lives in a given area. No surprise that all of the top ten are either magnet or charter schools, and that only two in the top twenty are regular high schools. That's hardly comparing apple to apples now is it? Take for instance, their number one school The School for the Talented & Gifted in Dallas Texas. It has been number one on their list for last four years. According to the Dallas Magnet School website "To be eligible, students must show good conduct and meet academic and assessment entrance requirements." Lovely. I'm sure my school would score a lot higher if we didn't have to take all the kids who were kicked out of private schools for bad behavior, or who didn't care about school. (And by the way, my high school came in 179th.) In my opinion, there should be two lists done: one for regular public schools and one for charter and magnet schools.

Also, they don't take into consideration programs like the one in place here in North Carolina where students take a course through the community college that counts towards both high school and college. Frankly, I'm not a big fan of that program since I feel it short changes the students, but for people looking at the list who are wondering why there are so few North Carolina schools on the list, compared to say, Northern Virginia, that's your answer.

I'm really not trying to dump all over the creators of this list. I think their goal is admirable. I agree with their statement that "AP, IB, and Cambridge are important because they give average students a chance to experience the trauma of heavy college reading lists and long, analytical college examinations. " My AP English class was as hard or harder than anything I took in college until my junior year, and I didn't attend a school that was considered academically lightweight. And I think it is a shame that more schools don't offer these courses, but you also have to have teachers who are willing and capable to teach these classes, and they don't get paid more for the extra work.
I find their stance regarding the criticism about not using passing rates or scores as a factor, to be admirable. They say:
"(T)hese are all schools with lots of low-income students and great teachers who have found ways to get them involved in college-level courses. We have as yet no proven way for educators in low-income schools to improve significantly their average tests scores or graduation rates. Until we do, I don't see any point in making them play a game that, no matter how energetic or smart they are, they can't win."
But ultimately, it makes their list misleading. These aren't the best high schools in a America. These are the best high schools in terms of academically rigorous curriculum being available and utilized in a very defined way (ie AP and IB) with no regard to performance.* To view the list click here.

*Although, I am sure, that many of the schools that score highly on this assessment will also score highly in the areas I listed.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Book Review: Twenties Girl


So, I finally managed to finish reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog, and while I didn't hate it, I certainly didn't love it, and I was left feeling highly disappointed by the ending. Don't get me wrong, the book uses beautiful language, but overall it is fairly cold and then once you finally start warming up to the characters-wham! Badness. But this isn't a review of that particular book. No, this is a review of the book I used as a palette cleanser: Twenties Girl by Sophie Kinsella.
Sophie Kinsella writes what most people call Chick Lit, and while I hate the term, it is rather fitting. I first became familiar with Kinsella (like most people) through her very popular Shopaholic series. I've also read her stand alone novels, Can You Keep a Secret and Undomestic Goddess. Suffice to say that she tends to be a tad formulaic in her writing. Typically, things are only going okay for our heroine, something happens that brings her world crashing down in some sort of comedic way, and ultimately she ends up finding love, happiness and a better paying/more fulfilling job. Happiness ensues. Pure cotton candy. And every once in a while you need some cotton candy.

I purchased this book at a bookstore that was going out of business for a ridiculously reduced price. I kept it tucked away for when I needed something really frothy, and fortunately my sister was able to return it to me this week because I really needed something frothy after Hedgehog. Twenties Girl does in fact contain the parts of Kinsella's formula (or more accurately, the chick lit formula), but she changed things up a bit with this one. The comedic disaster that causes our heroine's world to come crashing down is the ghost of her great aunt Sadie. Sadie needs Lara's (our heroine) help to find her missing necklace or else she can never rest. Madcap adventures and a pretty good mystery follow. The dialogue between Lara and Sadie is delightful and funny. I wasn't bothered at all by seeing some of the plots points clearly illuminated as other plot points were clever surprises. Kinsella's books aren't for everyone, but if you enjoy a comical romance with a touching and happy ending you will like Twenties Girl.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

WWW Wednesay


What have I finished reading? Savvy by Ingrid Law. I started this while proctoring an exam for a friend and ended up reading the rest of it in one day. I really enjoyed it, although I felt the author overly used metaphor. It counts towards by 100 book challenge and Newbery challenge.

What am I currently reading? I'm still plugging along with The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. I'm having a hard time with it though. I've been told that the book really picks up once the new tenant at the apartment building moves in, but it is difficult for me to enjoy a book where I don't like the characters, especially when the author appears to be using them as mouthpieces for her own philosophy instead of actually having a plot for the first half of the book. I truly don't understand all of the fuss, and I'm a little disconcerted that my boss (who loved the book) said it reminded her of me. Perhaps she meant it did in the sense that she feels I hide my light under a bushel, and not that I'm a smug know-it-all with a chip on her shoulder. Considering we're friends and socialize away from work I'm guessing it is the former. Oh, and I haven't had a chance to go back to Homer P. Figg yet either.

What will I read next? I'll finish Homer P. Figg and then I'm unsure. My sister returned three of the books I had lent her, none of which I have read, so I might crack open Twenties Girl by Sophie Kinsella. After The Elegance of the Hedgehog I will need something light.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

So disappointing.


This week's topic: what are three books you thought you would like, but ended up hating? Once again, thanks to Lost in Books for this idea.
For this topic I stuck with books I actually finished, as opposed to ones I stopped reading because I disliked them so much.


First up, we have The Ghost Writer by John Harwood. The problem I had with this book was the ending. I literally said "What the hell?" and then went back and reread portions of it trying to figure out what had happened, and if I had missed something. I was never able to figure it out. Extremely disappointing and confusing.

Next we have Skipping Christmas by John Grisham. I had never read anything by Grisham and I thought this short little funny book about Christmas would be a good place to start. Wrong! First of all, it isn't funny. Secondly, none of the characters struck me as either likable or sympathetic. In my review on Shelfari I called the book pure drivel.

Finally we have Hissy Fit by Mary Kay Andrews. Hoo-boy! This book suffers from a horrible identity crisis. The cover synopsis presents it as a tale of jilted woman gets revenge and finds true love, but this is not the case. The book starts off that way, and then turns into a lame murder mystery, and then has the main character end up with the dullest and stupidest leading man ever, after virtually no sparks whatsoever. Absolutely awful book.

Hmm. Interestingly enough, I read all three of these books during my miserable time living in Fayetteville. I don't think that really played a role in it though since I read so many books there that I loved, including A Year in Provence and A Walk in the Woods. But these three were stinkers.

Monday, June 7, 2010

5x5*

or I felt like making lists!

5 Things I am Sick and Tired Of
1. Back pain. Yoga and massage therapy are helping, but I still have a grouping of constant knots in my back muscles concentrated around my right shoulder and at the bra level. I know I am lucky that it is muscular in nature as opposed to skeletal or nerves, but it really stinks.

2. Feeling under-appreciated at work. This is more from the standpoint of the faculty members and students themselves instead of my boss. It may be primarily in my head, but it isn't a nice feeling.

3. Politicians who pay lip-service to valuing education but then refuse to fund it or other educational organizations.

4. Worrying about money. There never seems to be enough.

5. The fact that being a conscientious shopper means paying more for just about everything so that you can get products that don't support slavery (chocolate companies), or companies that treat animals inhumanely (most meat companies), or the company that brought us Agent Orange and now brings us GMO (Monsanto), or the petroleum industry (plastics).

5 Things I've Loving Right Now
1. The new season of Doctor Who. I just hope that the final episodes aren't weep fests waiting to happen.

2. My local farmer's market. I wish that we had one year round, but I know that's really hard for such a small area. I go almost every Saturday, and the roast chicken I made yesterday with the locally, organically, and humanely raised chicken was the best I've ever had.

3. My sister and her adorable children are in town for a visit this week! Sadly because of work I will only see them in the early evening when they are cranky, but they will still be fun.

4. My dog. I love him all the time of course, but he just got groomed and so is extra soft and fluffy right now, making him more like a living teddy bear than normal.

5. We have a chipmunk colony (well, there are at least three of them) living in the backyard and they are so much fun to watch.

*Bonus points to anyone who gets the reference.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Anybody want a cookie?


One of my favorite books as a child was The Tiny Little House by Eleanor Clymer, which is, sadly, no longer in print. Clever monkey that I am, I still own my copy and it is in pretty good shape, all things considered. On a whim I pulled it out of the closet the other day and reread it. For those who are unfamiliar with the book the plot revolves around two little girls who love the tiny house that is sandwiched between their two apartment buildings and who wind up turning it into a cookie shop for an old woman. It is a very cute book with great illustrations, and it renews my love of the girl's name Alice. And of course, it makes me want to eat cookies. I remembered that peanut butter and chocolate cookies both were featured in the climatic scene where they convince the irate landlord to allow them to transform the neglected little house into a shop by stuffing his face with cookies, and I also remembered that there were recipes at the end of the book. Sadly, there is only one, for sugar cookies, and I already have a fabulous recipe for those.
At any rate, the book got me to thinking that perhaps this is one of the reasons I love to bake. Here, in my of my first loves (books), is the story of how homemade baked goods not only calmed an extremely angry man down, but also enabled a little old woman to be self sufficient. Behold the power of baking! I really do think that this book helped sow the seeds of the idea that homemade baked goods have the power to bring people closer. I could wax very philosophical about the symbolism of breaking bread together, but it is a Saturday morning after all, so I won't. I may have to bake some cookies this weekend though. If you have children and happen to come across a copy of this book in a used book store, by all means, snatch it up. (My copy originally sold for fifty cents; the book is tiny too, perfect for a child's hands, so look carefully.)

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Confessions of a Librarian


As I have mentioned before, my job consists primarily of ordering and cataloging the new materials for my library. In addition to this, I'm also responsible for doing the majority of deselection or weeding as it is known in the library world. My confession is this: I enjoy weeding as much, if not more, than ordering the new books. Gasp! I love, love, love unpacking the new books when they come in, but the actual ordering process can be rather tedious. Weeding on the other hand consists of me spending large spans of times happily exploring the stacks, analyzing the collection, and pulling the outdated or damaged books from the shelves.
We have a small library and have no room currently to expand the bookshelves. This means in order to make room for the new stuff I have to get rid of the old and outdated. Many librarians hate to weed, which is not something I understand. I get that some people love books so much that the thought of getting rid of one is hard for them, but books with inaccurate information or offensive terminology don't help anyone. And in my opinion, having a bunch of outdated books on a topic is the same as not having anything. They won't go out and your patrons will think that your whole collection is outdated.
It is possible that the reason I so enjoy weeding is that my library was not weeded for years prior to my employment so I find all sorts of interesting and almost comical content loitering on our shelves. But then again, I loved weeding at the public library too, but that was primarily because of how shabby and sometime down right nasty the books could get. I bring all of this up because I recently came across the following book: I Try to Behave Myself: Peg Bracken's Etiquette Book. It has a copyright date of 1963 and is hysterically funny. This is because it does not stick to the main points of etiquette but includes chapters on how to get rid of guests when the evening is over, and when not to have sex.
Here's a quote from the back of the book:
"No man who calls his wife 'Mother' or 'Fats' all day can justifiably expect a bonfire that night--or has Henry Fielding put it, 'a warm partaker of the genial bed.'"
Now, if I worked in a public library I might consider keeping this, despite the fact that it has not gone out once in ten years. However, since I work in an academic library an outdated, albeit comedic, etiquette book doesn't have a place here. But fear not, I ponied up the book sale price of $1.00 for a hardback and have taken it home with me.