Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The W's of Reading: Are You a WEIRD Reader?

A friend of mine recently told me I read a "weird" selection of books.  Being the over thinker that I am, I've completely over analyzed that comment and been thinking about it ever since.  What makes my reading choices so weird?  Is it because I'm a "grown up" and because I teach English?  Is there some reading list that I'm expected to draw from?  Having said that, I realize that I too stereotype books in considering who I think would read them.  Honestly, I think we all do.  Does that make some of us weird if we just like a bit of everything?  Should you be able to peg someone by their career, interests, or even field of study in school?

One of my literature professors in college was this ex-football player who happened to be teaching Young Adult literature.  He one time shared with us how during his travels around the country, that when people saw him reading YA (especially what was considered "girly" YA), he would get funny looks.  I also had this experience recently when a colleague caught me reading a book and asked the title.  When I said the Fever series, he gave me an odd look. I'm sure he just hadn't heard of it before and was trying to place it, but I thought it was funny.  As a teacher, here are the books that most folks think I must like to read:

    * Shakespeare
    * Classics
    * Prize winners
    * Poetry

While I love each of these types of writing, I'm also quirky and will read just about anything.  I also know that most of my friends in graduate school were reading casually all the time, and things that people wouldn't think we'd spend our free time reading.  I remember a couple of girls chatting about the Gossip Girls series one day before class, and many of us picked up the latest Dan Brown novel when it came out.  I'm not sure that makes us weird, but more that we have a wide taste and appreciation in literature!

I've called it book "snobbery" in previous posts, but I think I might take the honored badge of a weird reader any day.  Here are some of the ways that even I would label myself as "weird" when it comes to reading:
  • I'll pick a book up at the library, just because it has a girly, pretty cover.  (Yes, I'm owning it.)
  • If I like an author, I'll read every book they've ever written, even if there's a bad one in the bunch (which there usually is).
  • I might be an adult, but I still like a good teen or children's read, and not because I might recommend it to a student!
  • I like chick lit, nonfiction, and Nobel Prize winners, all in the same rotation of books I'm currently reading.
  • I hardly ever read a crime or mystery novel, and usually only if someone has begged me to read it.  That's just me.  (I think I just must not have enough patience for the story to unfold!)
  • Sometimes a good romance just fits the bill.  I might be skeptical and snarky about love in real life, but a good love story can be the perfect get away from the real world!
  • Although I love ethnic literature, I'm a complete Anglophile and find myself reading all types of Regency and Victorian novels.
This is just a small list of things that I have noticed might get me labeled in that weird reader category.  The heart wants what the heart wants, and if it's a wide, strange variety, then maybe that really is weird.

What say you?  Are you a weird reader as well?  Has anyone ever said you have weird or eclectic tastes in reading material?

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Review: Me by Ricky Martin

I meant to get a couple of reviews written up earlier on Monday, but my sudden lack of schedule played with my ability to get anything written today!  It's not that I didn't get things done, since I was running around to appointments and various errands, but I just didn't settle down today to do anything online.  At least, not anything that was fun!

Before I get sidetracked, I wanted to post a quick review of Me, by Ricky Martin.

Review:  I don't think that anyone needs to explain what Me is about.  Both the title and cover clearly spell out that this is a look into the life of Ricky Martin, the man behind the artist.  Honestly, I've always had a bit of a crush on Ricky Martin, from his days in Menudo when I watched him dance and sing between Saturday morning cartoons, to crooning sultry serenades on Vuelve, or gyrating to "Livin' La Vida Loca."  Whatever he's done, I've been a fan.

In a stripped down sense, this autobiography is the essentials.  There isn't a single picture, very little outside information about anyone else, and mainly takes us through Martin's feelings and thoughts about different periods in his life.  The core of his exploration seems to center on his own self-identity, which returns over and over again to his acceptance of himself as a gay man.  I wouldn't say that he solely looks for areas of his life that should have guided him in his personal truth, but it was a definite theme, and rightfully so.  It is easy to see how Martin's upbringing in a Catholic, Latino culture that both demand strong ideals of masculinity and heterosexuality, shaped his own search to understand who he was at the core.  In the book he looks at what he thought at different times in his life and considers his response in each case.  For instance, Martin had a string of successful relationships with women, who he felt passionately in love with, only to be offset by equally satisfying relationships behind the scenes with several men that came into his life.  He doesn't express any confusion about these relationships, but explains what drew him to each of these loves and what he learned.

The book is pretty much an exploration of experiences and how they shaped Martin into who he is today, a man of an open heart and life of complete honesty.  My one disappointment was that there wasn't a single picture outside of the cover!  I don't care if I'm reading about a famous author or a superstar, I look forward to seeing the personal pictures that are included.  There's something about autobiographies that beg for a picture or two to help us think about the person at each age.  I was just sad that Martin chose not to include any pictures.  The stories and personal journey were interesting, but I'll admit that I was sad that he left out the pictures.

In short, I would say that this is less of an autobiography in the classical sense (linear and straight-forward), and more about Martin's thoughts about different times in his life.  This was an interesting life story, with lots of self-reflection that helps us to relate to Martin's life and to see ourselves in him. 

Yep, I still found I had a bit of a crush and am glad to see how happy he is today.

*FTC Disclosure:  This review was based on a library copy of the book.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Sunday Blatherings: Summer Vacation?

This week I  had a bit of a mini meltdown--twice.  I realize I sound a bit dramatic since I had a nice vacation out of the country, but I swear I haven't had a moment to let the brain reboot and run its own updates.  Since school let out I've been in classes, meetings, and appointments, and to top it all off, my online courses that I teach started up summer term on Monday.  Needless to say, I had my meltdown moments.  It seems to me that we all need a second to breathe, to take in whatever we're doing, but I'm not sure that life affords such luxuries?  Having some downtime this weekend to read and watch a movie or two has definitely helped me to chill out a bit.  Time for me to put the drama queen away!

On the reading front, here's what I'm reading:

Shadowfever by Karen Marie Moning.  Enough said.  I'll probably be sucked into this one all day!

My Jane Austen Summer by Cindy Jones.  I like this one well enough, and even started it when I was in England.  It's a teeny bit slow right now, which might not be the best combo with my previous read.  I'm sure once I finish the Fever series, this will take over.

Finally, I'm finishing up Bill Bryson's book, Notes from a Small Island.  Most of this was read on the plane before I hit England, so I'm really just finishing up.

I also had a bunch of books come in at the library.  Here's what I'm excited to read next:

Besides finally diving into my summer break this coming week, I have some goals for my blog this summer.  I'd like to set up a rating system.  I realized that my audience here is pretty diverse. Some of my friends really want to know if a book has material that might be offensive, not to mention the fact that I sometimes have students that find out I have a blog and search me out.  I definitely want to be sensitive to a wide range of readers.  Because of that, I've thought about adding a rating system that breaks down content as well as my own thoughts on the story overall.   I don't want to be too technical though, so I'll be thinking about a quick system where I can share some "want to know" information, but in a fun and easy way.

Finally, I want to reach out more.  I have a hard time commenting on other blogs when work gets busy, especially when I come home and teach online classes.  Being online for work often leaves me wanting nothing more than to get offline and pronto!  The blogs I follow though are really incredible, and I respect so many of the people that I follow that I want to take some time to interact again.  Honestly, I'm excited to take a little time to reconnect with the blogging community!

Well, this week I'll be taking care of a few more items on my list for work, so I'm not off YET.  The nice thing is that I get to sleep in this week, which is huge, so I already feel like I'm on vacation. Now I'm looking forward to great summer weather, a little R&R before fall sneaks up on us, and getting through a stack of great books this summer!  What about you?

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Review: Dreamfever by Karen Marie Moning

Here's the one book that I did finish on my trip that created a lot of panic for me.  Talk about a cliffhanger!  Thankfully I'm off in the last book in the series, so as soon as my meetings are over this week I can get back to reading!

Synopsis:  From Goodreads, "When the walls between Man and Fae come crashing down, freeing the insatiable, immortal Unseelie from their icy prison, MacKayla Lane is caught in a deadly trap. Captured by the Fae Lord Master, she is left with no memory of who or what she is: the only sidhe-seer alive who can track the Sinsar Dubh, a book of arcane black magic that holds the key to controlling both worlds.

Clawing her way back from oblivion is only the first step Mac must take down a perilous path, from the battle-filled streets of Dublin to the treacherous politics of an ancient, secret sect, through the tangled lies of men who claim to be her allies into the illusory world of the Fae themselves, where nothing is as it seems—and Mac is forced to face a soul-shattering truth."

Review:  While I was on vacation, I finished Dreamfever.  For anyone who has read this series, you know that book four ends with a HUGE cliffhanger!  Here I was in London, frantically trying to get wireless in my hotel so that I could see if I could download the next book from Amazon.  By the time I get on, what do I find but that it's over $20!  Yes, I was crushed.  See, I was enough of a cheapskate that I just couldn't download it when I knew the book was sitting at home on my table.  I had enough foresight to pick it up from the library before I left, but not enough to actually bring it with me!  What I didn't anticipate was the giant, gasp-worthy moment that ended Dreamfever that had me in a panic for the next book!  Ironically, the price went down after I got home.

In the fourth installment Mikayla is left picking up the pieces from a showdown with some serious bad guys who are aiming to find the powerful Sinsar Dubh to gain its power.  Just when we think that Mikayla couldn't possibly recover from the trauma and pain she has gone through, Barrons steps in to help her.  The problem is that we don't quite know who he really is, why he's helping her, or what he is to begin with.  Because of that, Mikayla remains cold and aloof from the other characters in the book, and rightfully so.  At this point, all Mikayla wants is resolution and her family kept safe from the evil that is pouring forth on the world.

Without saying anything more that could ruin this installment, I have to say that you really should have the next book handy when you finish.  Each of the books in the series has had a twist that forces you to keep reading, but this one really is painful not to know!  Mikayla has grown darker, shrewder, and tougher through her experiences.  On one hand the softer person we were introduced to feels sadly lost, but this new Mikayla seems like just the person to get the job done that she knows she has to do. 

By this point, I can't put this series down.  I thought there might have been some hype built up around these books, but have to say that I get it now!  They're neither romance nor suspense, but have both elements in them.  There's magic and seemingly paranormal creatures involved, all in a fantasy-like backdrop that takes place in Ireland.  They are both funny and tragic, scary and sweet.  It's in these dichotomies that Moning created such a consuming read.  Thankfully I have my hands on the last book so I can find out what happened after the major cliffhanger that ended this book!  All right, I'm off to keep reading.

*FTC Disclosure:  Review is based on a personal copy of the book.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Review: Edith Wharton by Hermione Lee

June has turned out to be a pretty crap month as far as reading and even relaxing is concerned.  I know, I know, I know.  When you've traveled for fun, no one pities you in the slightest, but I'm just saying that this has been the craziest, on the go month for being a break!  One of my big goals, every summer, is to read books that will help me prep more for my AP classes.  I haven't done very well in that regard, but I did recently read most of Hermione Lee's large biography, Edith Wharton.  Amazing and dense is the easiest review to write, but I'll try to explain a bit better than that!

Review:  In short, Lee's biography is more than just a book about the famous author Edith Wharton.  In this densely written book, we learn about the culture of turn of the century, upper-class society in New York City.  We learn about gardens and landscaping in the United States in comparison to Italy and other European countries.  We learn about little lap dogs, and their popularity way before the likes of Paris Hilton started toting them around.  We learn of the ever sophisticated, cultural center that was Paris, as the escape for artists in all walks of life.  We learn that writing reflects the pain of one's life so directly, that the mental anguish or non-disclosure of such pain can eek out into the words on the page whether the writer want them to or not.  For Edith Wharton, the complexities of her life were shown in all of these lessons and a million more. 

I can't really, adequately review  a book of this nature without directing more of my thoughts around how the book was written.  In a pretty weighty, yet engaging academic voice, Hermione Lee takes a linear approach to Edith Wharton's life, in a very non-linear way.  Although she starts with her early childhood and marriage, she also bounces around to show how things that occurred in her life are reflected and influence events later on.  This moving backward and forward through Wharton's life leaves the chapters in the biography feeling more like individual academic essays that could be lifted from the book for research.  I would think that unless you are really, really interested in Wharton's life, that I would only pick up this hefty book for individual research or curiosity.   This is not easy reading, by any means, but it is richly satisfying and made me appreciate the artist's life much more.  For college students or academics, Lee's book would be a brilliant resource that I can heartily recommend.  Give yourself plenty of time to peruse, because you'll need it!

*FTC Disclosure:  Review is based on a library copy of the book.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Sunday Blatherings: Back from Holiday

Hampton Court, the famous home of Henry VIII.
Bonjour and Happy Father's Day for all here in the U.S.!  I arrived back late, late Friday night from my trip to London and Paris and am now trying to quickly readjust before work meetings all this next week.  The trip was great, although so tiring at the same time.   I suppose that's what happens when you do everything in a whirlwind eight days.  It was a great eight days though and I have come home with a lot of great memories!

First off, can I say that in eight days I lost 7 pounds.  Does that say anything about the amount of walking we did?  On average, we walked, climbed stairs, stood in lines, rode metros, and meandered through sites for 8-9 hours a day.  Every night, I rubbed my poor sore feet in the hopes that they would still be attached to my body by the end of the trip!  Even the teens that traveled with us complained that their feet hurt, so I know it wasn't just me.  Who knew that I could go on vacation, and still eat croissants, pastries, and nutella and not gain an ounce!  (Oh, and did you know France has these cool Chicken & Thyme flavored Lays potato chips?  Some in our group didn't like them, but I thought they were delish!)  I suppose I should schedule more vacations if this is the case?  The travel diet sounds pretty darn good to me!

I'll admit that our trip got off to a rocky start and I'm not much of an American Airlines fan at this point.  Our flight was late getting into Chicago when we left, and although the plane was still in the gate, they wouldn't let us on.  It didn't make sense to me though, since there were eleven people on the incoming flight that needed to catch that plane and it sat at the gate for almost 30 minutes after we ran to get there.  In hindsight, we're all pretty sure they sold our seats and just bumped us.  We ended up sleeping a pretty miserable night in the airport and catching a flight that next night at around 6:30pm that put us into London early Saturday morning.  Lucky us though, they also lost our luggage in the switch, which we then didn't get until Sunday evening.  That means that we not only had literally slept in our clothes in the airport one night and again on the overnight flight into London, but then had to wear them for two more days!  Yes, talk about a lovely sight that we all just had to laugh at and keep moving.

Regardless of the rocky start to our trip, we made up for it all by really hitting the pavement and seeing as much as possible.  We did all the normal in London, which I have to say that I absolutely loved.  I'm even now looking into courses that I could take that would put me back into London for a couple of months.  I loved it all.  The city is great, full of history, and teeming with activity.  We got rained on a good bit last Sunday, but we had a great time while we were there. 

Canterbury Cathedral
On our way out of London to France, we spent a day in Canterbury.  Talk about an amazing cathedral!  I teach some of the tales in The Canterbury Tales, so I took a lot of pictures to hopefully create some nice teaching materials.  We'll see if I'm smart enough to create something with iVideo, or at least on PowerPoint.  I'm also going to have to go back and reread Murder in the Cathedral by T.S. Eliot and Jean Anouih's Becket, which I've never actually read.  This should all really add to my Middle Ages unit and some of the materials (a book and an audio CD) will make for nice background information.

Paris was our next stop after crossing the English Channel and driving down from the coast.  What can I say about Paris that a million other people and artists haven't said, sung, drawn, or performed?  It's an amazing city full of life and energy from the get go.  Before we left on the trip I  had purchased To Dance With Kings by Rosalind Laker, which is a book that centers on Versailles and the history of the time that the kings lived there.  I started it on the plane, but was so distracted, prone to motion sickness, and busy once we got there, that I only really read about 40 pages into it.  Now, I'm kind of glad I didn't get far, as the history behind it now makes more sense to me.  Knowing that they moved from the Louvre, out to what was originally a "hunting lodge" that turned into what is now this enormous palace, has helped the story come together even more.  Now I'm really looking forward to finishing the novel!

This is just a short blip on the radar of all that happened on my trip, but I couldn't move smoothly on to reviews and other reading-related posts without giving my trip a nod.  On a personal level, travel is what I live for.  If I could afford to travel out of the country every year I would do it, but it's not really a possibility at this point, so I enjoy every moment of the time I do get to spend abroad, about every four years.  It definitely takes some planning, and skimping and saving on my part to make it happen, but it's so worth it.  Besides, on a professional level, I think that connecting the literature that I've read and loved with the locations and history behind them is invaluable.  Although I try not to share history and places like big travelogues with my students, I always hope that some of what I bring back helps them to get excited to also connect to the writings of great authors.  My hope is always that they see the value and importance of reading and studying literature, because as a great teacher and mentor of mine said to me, "Business and other lucrative fields might control the world, but the humanities CHANGE the world."  I've hung onto that thought and can see more than ever the impact of art, history, music, and literature on the standard of one's life.  Without these beauties, where would our lives be?

Enough waxing poetic for one day.  Today I'm going to go for a nice, long walk to keep up with what we did on our trip, and then will settle down with a stack of good books.  Since I really haven't read in over a week, I'm behind on books I need to read and review by the end of the month, so that's what I'll be doing.  I hope you're having a great weekend!  To close, I'll include a short video clip of the Eiffel Tower doing its hourly sparkle at night.  We had such fun sitting back on the grass, avoiding the salespeople with their champagne and lit-up Eiffel Tower statues for sale.  It was all an experience to remember.  It's slightly cheesy to get so excited about it, but the Eiffel Tower really was a real highlight.  Au revoir!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Review: Breadfruit by Celestine Vaite

Synopsis:  From Publishers Weekly, "This second installment begins when Pito Tehana, the father of Materena's children, drunkenly proposes marriage. Though he's forgotten about it by morning, Materena can't get it out of her head. In between jobs, caring for her kids and visits with her many cousins, Materena fantasizes about her wedding, even though Pito does nothing but dash Materena's hopes; in one of the book's most moving chapters, Materena scrimps to buy Pito a silk shirt for his birthday, but when he opens it, he grumpily tells her to return it and buy him a case of beer. Although the novel is driven by Materena's intense longing, it's peppered with witty encounters between Materena and her nosy family members. Among the wide cast of friends and family, there's Cousin Giselle, who gave birth in the back of a Mercedes Benz; Mama Roti, Pito's doting mother; Mama Teta, who drives a wedding car; and Rita, Materena's favorite cousin. None are particularly nuanced, but when combined with Vaite's light touch and the exotic setting, the result is redolent of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series—a delightful diversion."

Review:  After reading Vaite's first novel Frangipani, I had high hopes and expectations for her second in this group on novels.  Where the first seemed to follow a linear storyline and mode of telling the story between mother and daughter, this felt more like a series of short stories.  Each is leading to Materena's real desire for Pito to be serious in his proposal to her, not to mention her hope that this means that he really loves her in a truly romantic sense.  This romantic hope threads through each story nicely and lends to the whimsical look at Matarena's Tahitian culture all the more.

The book is very light-hearted and warm, which makes it easy for readers to love Matarena and hope for her best.  Having felt a connection with her first book because of the time I'd spent in Hawaii and how similar some of the cultural references and relationships seemed, I enjoyed watching each character develop.  The story unfolded in these shorter chapters, but I'll admit that sometimes this lost my attention, as I wanted each story to tie directly to Matarena's desire for Pito to marry her.  The stories didn't necessarily all have to do with the relationship, per se, but built around them to show us the community and family they lived among.  Although it didn't grab me in the same way as the first book, I still really enjoyed the novel and feel that Vaite has an important voice in telling stories that show us Tahitians and their vibrant and amazing culture.

*FTC Disclosure:  Review was based on a library copy of the novel.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Review: Faefever by Karen Marie Moning

I sure hoped to have this series finished before I left on my trip, but that didn't happen.  As the buzz about this series can attest, these books suck you in, so even I'm surprised I didn't finish them up yet!  If that last book wasn't over $10 I'd download it, but I think I can hold off and read it once I get back.  At least I didn't have to suffer for a lot longer like many readers did who anxiously waited for this last one to come out, so I have nothing to complain about!

Synopsis:  Still in search of her sister's past and her killer, MacKayla has started to adjust to the fact that she is part of a small number of sidhe-seers who can protect the world from the evil that is on its way.  As part of her powers, MacKayla can sense the magical Sinsar Dubh, an evil book that contains ancient, evil magic that could truly destroy the world.  With the fast approach of All Hallow's Eve, MacKayla learns of even more evil magic that is and could come down on the world and has to determine what, if anything, she can do to help stop its progression.

Review:  These books progressively get harder and harder to review.  The action just continues to build over the course of each book, and MacKayla gets so much more savvy with each conflict that the pace speeds up.  At this point, as a reader I feel completely invested in MacKayla and realize that she might be the real key to stopping the evil from taking over the world.  Although she is still determined to put her sister's death in perspective and to kill the man/evil being who murdered her, Mac seems much more focused on joining other sidhe-seers and good guys in defeating evil.  The thing is, this evil seems REALLY evil and beyond comprehending its power.  The mystery behind it all, and even what fuels it, keeps you flipping pages.

Jericho Barrons continues to play a major role in the story, but always as the brooding guy who seems to put her down to make her stronger.  This is definitely not a story nor relationship that has all the cards out on the table.  MacKayla might feel that Jericho is dangerous and too mysterious to get mixed up with, but she still seems to give him enough credit to trust that he isn't out to kill her.  Although I want to kick Jericho in the shins half the time, I can see that the mystery surrounding him really has helped to propel the story forward.

This installment, has what I think is a pretty sad and startling ending.  There really is no resolution, and your agony and feelings for Mac triple.  After this book, I will admit that I'm all in and have to hurry and finish the final two in the series.  This dark fantasy series is gruesome, sexy, and gut-wrenching.  Honestly, it's unlike anything I've ever read before, which makes it even more thrilling to read; I just never know what will happen next!

*FTC Disclosure:  Review is based on a personal e-book copy of the novel.

Friday, June 10, 2011

London Calling...

Well, I'm off on a quick trip to England and Paris.  Here I thought I'd have a couple of days to unwind, do a little reading, blogging, commenting, etc.  Boy was I wrong!  School ended on Friday with graduation, which went off really well.  That next day I had a good friend come into town and we went to see Les Miserables, which is touring the country right now.  (The play and the company both were great!)  Sunday I collapsed in a heap of post-school year fatigue, and the first two days of the week were spent at a school meeting that kept me busy all day long.  This transition from the end of school to this trip has been a pretty busy, eventful one.  Maybe that will make sleeping on the plane a possibility so the jet lag isn't quite so crazy?  I sure hope so!

Thanks to everyone who has given me great advice on everything from what to take or what to see.  Now I can hop a flight and be on my way.  Oh, and thanks to my new toy (iPad), I didn't have to pack half a suitcase of books!  It felt really odd and I almost snuck a stack in anyway, but just knowing I have hundreds to choose from on my iPad is pretty great.  Maybe that means I can buy more once I get to London??? 

When I get back, things will be busy throughout much of the summer, so I'm going to really try to kick back and completely enjoy every moment.  Yes, I'll be taking a lot of pictures of places and things that I can share in some of my lessons at school, but that's always kind of fun.  My students tease me a bit about some of the pictures that I'm included in from my trip to Greece, so I have to keep the teacher-included pictures to a minimum on this trip! 

Thanks again, and I'll see you on the other side.  (We'll see if I can get a post or two written before I leave, but it seems a little unlikely at this point!)

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Review: Wish You Were Here by Phillipa Ashley

Synopsis:  Jack Thornfield and Beth Allen have a complicated past.  When they were younger, they met on a student trip to Corsica and fell madly in love.  Things changed when they returned from their trip and Beth never heard from Jack again.  Now, somehow Beth's resume ended up on Jack's desk to fill a new position at the travel company he is the new CEO for, and he's not sure what to do or how to feel about it.  What happens when two people who once loved one another meet up again, unexpectedly after an eight year separation, and can love still linger after all that time?

Review:  On a level of total escape and reading for pleasure, this book totally fit the bill.  The story between Jack and Beth feels tense from the get go, and we get the story from both perspectives as it bounces back and forth between the characters.  We don't necessarily know what happened to separate the two, but you get the sense that there is a serious story behind it all.  In short, the tension is still there and they just need to sit down and talk.

I really loved the escape factor of this novel.  It was short, it was engaging, it was romantic, it was emotion-driven, and it was set in the UK.  All of these led to a great read, in my opinion.  Having read Phillipa Ashley's Dating Mr. December and loving it, I was not disappointed with the newest republication.  Ashley has a nice precision to her writing, without sounding too technical or superfluous in her descriptions; she simply tells a great story.  There is some sensuality in the novel, but I didn't think it was overdone nor was it through the entire novel.  On the whole, this was a great escape read and one that easily sucks you in from the first chapter.  I will definitely be reading more of Ashley's work, since they've both been great reading for pleasure!

FTC Disclosure:  Review was based on an Advanced Review Copy from the publisher.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Review: Stones from the River by Ursula Hegi

Synopsis:  Set in Burgdorf, Germany around the time of WWII, we are introduced to the "Zwerg" (dwarf) Trudi Montag.  Besides the obvious difficulties Trudi must face by being smaller in stature than those in her community, she must also grapple with the challenges of a country at war.  Through Trudi and the people of Burgdorf we get a memorable story of how one town survived as the Nazi regime created chaos and evil wherever they went.

Review:  Ursula Hegi's novel Stones from the River was unlike any WWII novel I have ever encountered.  Although we are exposed to some of the injustice Jews encountered during the Nazi regime, the story centers more on the everyday people of Burgdorf and how they responded to the economic hardships Germany faced as well as Hitler's changes to their culture and lifestyles. 

In a pretty interesting sort of way Hegi managed to show a side of the WWII story that we might not have considered, in particular how the everyday citizen in Germany was affected by the evil surrounding them.  Often we think about what people had to know and why they didn't do more to defend the Jews.  Although the story doesn't focus on that, I got a better feel for why people didn't do more than they did.  The fear people felt and the harsh reality of living day to day made the crazy stories they heard about their Jewish neighbors seem like impossibilities.  We watch as the men in the town head off to war, either to never return home again or to never be the same.  Women who remained behind either suffered from providing for children alone, from despair and loneliness, or from the guilt they felt from moving on to new loves.  Also, the tension surrounding Trudi Montag's dwarfism lends the story a new twist; Trudi isn't a Jew, but she knows what it is to be different and sometimes an outsider.

Overall, I felt that the novel did an interesting job of telling a character story, most of all.  The characters felt real and present.  I did find the distance in the story strange at times.  For instance, Trudi tells of what they heard happened to their town's Jews, but not of her own thoughts or opinions.  We understand that she hated Hitler and wished him to be taken out of power, but she was as powerless as everyone else to ever express these opinions.  In short, the novel felt mostly like a retelling, but with an interesting perspective on what the average German did during the war and how they might have felt.  For that, I was glad to have had a book that allowed me to rethink Germany and the impact the war had on everyone there, and not just the Jews.

*FTC Disclosure:  This review was based on a library copy of the novel.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The W's of Reading: My Thoughts on #YASaves

Really not much is going on in my world now that school is out for the summer.  It's ironic though that school has just concluded, but the conversation is kicking up about teens and reading.  I wanted to take a second to respond to the much discussed article by Meghan Cox Gurdon "Darkness Too Visible," that appeared in the Wall Street Journal on the 4th.   The article basically outlines what the writer sees as a trend in current YA fiction as being too dark and abnormal for teen readers.

I'll admit that I hear this complaint from adults on a frequent basis, as they fear that their teens are reading the equivalence of smut.  What I don't understand from this article is the blanket idea that this is the majority of what is available for teens?  As a teacher of a Popular Fiction class, I would say that I've tried to stay familiar with what is available for teen readers.  While there is a current trend towards paranormal, dystopian, and angsty types of reads, there are plenty of heart-warming, wholesome reads for teens to choose from.  Let me just share a few of my own observations though, based on what I see my students reading. 

First, teens are more discerning than we give them credit.  If a teen doesn't like a book or is offended by it, they really will stop reading it and return the book.  I don't think adults believe that teens will stop reading a book that might be salacious, but they really will.  I've watched them time and time again, return something they felt wasn't worth their time. 

Second, and I don't mean to make an excuse or whitewash adult fears, but teens are exposed to a lot on TV, in movies, and in real life.  One of the most checked out set of books at our high school were the Ellen Hopkins' books that contain issues of drug use, mental instability, and a general struggle with self identity.  Inevitably I have two or three students who present one of Hopkins' books during our "Book Show and Tell" time in my Popular Fiction class and I always ask, "What did you learn from this book and who would you recommend it to?"  They almost always say something about how devastating these issues are on people's lives.  I still remember one girl saying, "I just realized how good my life really is." In some ways, if thoughtfully presented, books provide an opportunity and experience with something so that the readers don't have to go through it themselves. 

Third, kids hate it when adults tell them what they should like.  I get that a teen should have protection from a list of things they know not of, and in sheltering their innocence and joy as long as possible, but I will admit that a lot of times it's the "why" behind not reading something that we miss sharing with them.  When we censor what they read or avoid subjects, they become more curious and will seek them out to find out the "why" for themselves.  I'm just suggesting that a conversation or dialogue needs to continue.  Teens really do appreciate honesty.

Fourth, I'm not sure it's the evil publishing industry out to make money to corrupt all teens.  With more and more reluctant readers coming up the ranks, writers and publishers are looking for reading experiences that will snatch them away from the television, movies, computers, and music that is all vying for their attention.  It's a known fact that if you can get a reader absorbed and excited in a reading experience just one time, they will seek that out again by reading even more.  Is there salacious reading material out there?  Of course, but I don't think the goal of writers and publishers is to see how much they can get away with and still make money.  In the end, they are trying to fill a demand to provide good reading material for their readers.

Finally, I wanted to acknowledge my own agreement with one aspect of Gurdon's article which was parental involvement, "No family is obliged to acquiesce when publishers use the vehicle of fundamental free-expression principles to try to bulldoze coarseness or misery into their children's lives."  I think that this is an important point.  It is essential that parents talk about good books and teach teens (and much younger children) to question not only content, but also rhetoric, in general.  When we help teens become better readers, with a more developed sense of problem solving, we set them up for greater success as adults.  You don't have to be exposed to the "ick" (as I call it) of the world to be a more savvy person, but maybe teens should be given a little knowledge about how to situate themselves to it?

In the end, I want to acknowledge the good going on in YA literature.  I'm fine with discussions that create a dialogue and some understanding, but I hope that this doesn't create more fear than anything.  The fact is that our teens have much more to read than ever before.  The bridge is there so they don't have to jump directly to adult literature, with its complex themes and issues.  I'm glad they have stories that can help them move into adulthood. And if a discussion needs to happen, my hope is that teens feel safe enough to bring up what they have read to good parents or teachers who are sensitive to their needs.  Thank you to authors who work hard to create good, validating reading experiences for teens, and to parents, teachers, and librarians who try to guide them through this point in their lives!

Take this as you will.  These are just a few of my own thoughts and opinions based on a variety of students I've run across over the years.  I'd love to hear what you think!  Maybe this article has great timing in encouraging a conversation, or is it sending out a much too negative vibe about YA fiction that will only stir up fear?  What do you think we should be doing as adults to help teens select good reading materials?

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Favorite Movie Lines & Memories: French Kiss (1995)

One of my favorite movies of all time is French Kiss (1995) with Meg Ryan and Kevin Klein.  Of course my trip coming up has given me a renewed interest in this favorite movie of mine, but when I went on a search through my DVD collection for it, I realized that it was gone!  To make a long story short, I really had to search to find a replacement, which kind of scared me.  Is this movie that obsolete that you can't find it anymore?  I felt a slight need to hoard the movie and buy several "just in case," but I resisted. 

If you haven't seen French Kiss, it's quirky and funny, and in my book--a must see.  Below is a quick trailer from the film:

Listed in the menu section of the DVD are the trailers for a bunch of other movies I'd almost forgotten about.  It made me want to rent them all, crawl into bed with a nice bowl of popcorn, and take a walk down memory lane!  Tell me if any of these movies make you smile or transport you back to 1995:

Ever After

One Fine Day

Great Expectations

Picture Perfect

Never Been Kissed

Cousin Bette

Pardon my walk down memory lane, but these movies needed to be brought back up again!  There's a certain romantic quirkiness to most of these romantic comedies that dates them, but makes them so fun to watch.

My favorite line(s) come from French Kiss.  First, I can't stop laughing when Kevin Klein tells Meg Ryan, "When people tell me they are happy, my ass begins to twitch."  (Pronounced with his French accent and it's a sure laugh every time.)  We also named our cat "Bubs" from the movie, which I had to really search for a good clip of, but you can see at about :50 in the clip below.  (Sorry about the subtitles!) 

Have you seen French Kiss?  If not, what is one of your favorite "go to" films that seems to have all your favorite lines?