Monday, January 25, 2016

Reading Roundup: Adult Edition

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Today is our fourth snow day from school, our sixth total day with snow on the ground. The amount of culture I have consumed on this little unplanned break is substantial; I've binged books, knocked movies off my Netflix queue, and thrown in lots of PBS programming to feel especially productive. Since it's been over a year, at least, since I was all caught up with posts on this blog, I've also decided to try and play catch up with the backlog of books I've needed to write about! If I keep reading at the rate I'm going without writing, this queue is going to back up forever!

Two great reading related things happened over winter break:
  1. I got a new Kindle (I lost my Kobo back in sad), which allows me to once again checkout random eBook purchases from the library on a whim. I didn't realize til it was gone how much I depended on it for actually broadening my reading horizons, being able to check out whatever I was in the mood for instantaneously and all.
  2. Back in Colin's hometown for the holidays, we visited the library's book barn and got a serious STACK of books for something absurd, like $10. Once again, I was able to grab whatever looked appealing, bringing my reading outside of my 'to-read' list. 

Lately I've kind of mourned the fact that I rarely roam the shelves of the public library, bringing home whatever possible hidden treasure catches my eye. But I've also just realized that maybe I branch off my purposeful reading more than I think; the method is just different!

David Lodge's Deaf Sentence is my most recent instance of choice based on shelf appeal. It's one of those books that looks the right size, with the pages feeling good, and the cover piquing interest. Plus, the review snippets on the front and back covers even helped! This seemed like a charming, sort of sardonically humorous story.

That story is the one of Desmond Bates, a retired linguistics professor that's slowly losing life as he knew it to deafness. By now, he's used to the new daily annoyances of adjusting his hearing aids to the situation—though it's still an annoyance and not second-nature; he still turns it on or off at the wrong time, forgets to replenish batteries, etc. Likewise, he's struggling with the realization that he's actually becoming a nuisance to those around him; his special needs require others to adjust their own habits and instincts, and that's a burden he doesn't want to others to bear. Mostly, though, it's the unreliability of communication that's most bothersome, especially when it leads to accidental involvement with a seemingly personable graduate story who increasingly proves to be quite unhinged.

Deaf Sentence is definitely British. It's a great blend of quiet, situational humor—the kind that is funny as you experience but not funny enough to retell to an audience. We, the reader, are the ones experiencing here, so we can chuckle along with Desmond and sympathize with his plight. This is the kind of story that seems almost too simple to be anything, yet, you realize, is actually so universal that it seems entirely necessary to be written. A true take on the human experience, in all its frustrating glory.

Shannon Hale's Austenland is the last book I read on my Kobo, back on that fateful October flight. After leaving my Kobo on the plane the first go-around, I had to finish this book on my iPhone on the way home—not an enjoyable reading experience! This was, though, the perfect light book for a short weekend trip, one that I'm pretty sure has been in my queue since the Everything Austen Challenge back in 2010!

Jane Hayes is a young woman living in New York who's been dating for a decade and has nothing to show for it. She's grown frustrated with relationships and is on the verge of giving up entirely. Okay, so maybe she doesn't have the most realistic expectations; she's entirely obsessed with the ol' Pride & Prejudice hero, Mr. Darcy, and pretty much compares all men to him and all her relationships to his and Elizabeth's. (Surprise: her actual life falls short of that standard and continues to disappoint.) When a wealthy aunt dies and leaves Jane a fully-expensed trip to a unique English resort, Jane finally gets to live her dream of Regency living. Is it enough to kick the obsession for good, or will it only fuel the flames of unrealistic expectation?

I'll gloss over the fact I find this woman mostly crazy and more than a little pathetic, holding her life to a 19th-century English standard, because I guess that's looking at it with a little too critical, jaded eye. In actuality, Austenland is just a fluffy piece of enjoyable chick-lit; it doesn't try to be anything more, and rightly so. If you're an Austen fan, or just need a bit of light reading, this will do just fine.

I'd never heard of Issa Rae, and I'm pretty sure I was introduced to her memoiric (I am making up this word) essay collection, The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, through a Goodreads ad. Chalk this one up to another random eBook read, but I'm glad I ran across it; she's got a humorously observant voice.

So Issa Rae is known in pop culture from her various web series, the most well-known being the titular basis of this essay collection. In Awkward Black Girl (ABG) and her other web projects, Issa reflects mostly on the cultural stereotypes that exist for people of color, particularly her own inability to fit into that mold. She is critical but never aggressive; her observations are more enlightening—like "Ha! Did anyone else notice that this exists??? How ridiculous!"—and doused with a lighthearted sense of incredulity. In these essays, she chronicles her life as an ABG, navigating through middle school insecurities, workplace relationships, and adulthood realities, among others.

I realized quickly that the author and I are very close in age, particularly as she shares her middle school experiences with early Internet culture and chat rooms. I thought, "Yes! Finally another female who also had that weird early intrigue with world wide connectivity!" This is just the kind of episode that highlights her humor—it often comes from her self-deprecating voice. She walks us through the important episodes of her life, usually the ones that made her feel a bit like an outsider, but it's never somber; she's a comedian, not a victim. She is able, though, to connect these universal feelings of misplacement to her broader identity as a woman of color, reflecting on the disparities between the woman she is and the woman society says she should be. This essay collection is not only comedic, it carries a lot of substance beyond the humor.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Fiction | The Music Stops, Time Goes On

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I've been putting off writing about this book for a while. I read Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad as my award-winning book from the past decade (Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, 2011) for the Read Harder Challenge. I read it back before Labor Day which, being a hectic time of year with school starting, combined with not really liking it that much, I have to admit I remember next to nothing about it.

Sorry, Egan, for doing you this disservice. (Your book got enough praise anyway; you don't need me.) This post is going to be less reflective and meaningful, more just writing to mark it off the list. But thank goodness for the library's eBook checkouts, providing a quick refresher so I can write this with some level of credibility!

The novel's first two chapters introduce us to Sasha and Bennie, the latter an aging record executive, the former is young assistant. For this reason alone, their sequential placement in the novel, I have to consider them the main focus of this story (as does every synopsis written of this book), though we read many perspectives and meet many new people.

Chapter three knocks us to Bennie's past, as a high school student, a musician in a rock band, as the 1970s draw to a close. A group of friends—Scotty, Jocelyn, and Alice—are the key players in this historical interlude, the subjects of late adolescent friendships and relationships that strive for the complex gravitas of adulthood.

Subsequent chapters hop around, focusing on one figure or another that has been previously mentioned or introduced. Music is the most common theme. Relationships are also a frequent conflict. The finale circles back to Bennie and Alex, a guy we met along the way through, aptly, Sasha.

I think the whole point to this rigmarole is something about, simply, time and that things change and people change and lives go on and the past can end up unrecognizable. But the fact that I can't even remember the poignancy of this conclusion indicates that it wasn't too successful in reaching me. People adore this book and clearly so do award committee members and/or critics, meaning that someone has clearly found significance in this work. And normally this is a format that I adore, the shifting perspective to share a wide-angle view of a story. But with these people I just didn't care, because I didn't like them, and I didn't care about their music, and I didn't care about their lives. So maybe there was some meaning in there, amidst this unlikable lot; I just didn't care enough to look for it.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Fiction | Field Notes on Ritual, Culture, Love

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The same wonderful lady that, eons ago, recommended Gloria to my wee 19-year-old self recently recommended to me Lily King's Euphoria, which makes this my Reader Harder Challenge pick for the "recommended to you" category.

This story unfolded much differently than I expected.

It centers around three young anthropologists in the 1930s studying river tribes in New Guinea. Nell Stone is a well-known American woman, controversial thanks to her published reports on the sex lives of tribal children and youth. Her husband is Fen, a capricious Australian with uncertain and unstable motivations for his work. After abandoning their study on a particular aggressive tribe, Nell and Fen cross paths with Andrew Bankson, an English anthropologist who has established himself in the area for the past several years. Despite his stability with study, Bankson has been suffering from hauntings of his past—his father's death, a brother's death, another's suicide—and is tempted to end his own life until he meets Nell and Fen.

An agreeable new post of study brings Nell and Fen closer to Bankson along the riverbank. They take up residence amongst the Tam, a female-dominated society with plenty of art and culture to discover. Nell is quick to assimilate into the community, constantly establishing connections and conversations, observing and note-taking on all she learns. Fen, on the other hand, just seems to want to be a member of the Tam, and Nell is frequently frustrated by his lack of record-keeping and purposeful interactions.

Nell and Fen provide the action of the narrative; their perspectives lend a sense of wanderlust to the story as we experience the daily life of an anthropologist in this particular place and time. Bankson, though, provides the emotion and introspection. While he is certainly an observer of experiences, his voice goes below the surface and reflects on meaning and interaction.

The narrative voice jumps frequently chapter to chapter, shifting perspective as mentioned above. What we're left with has me feeling rather puzzled, or maybe disconnected. I found Nell and Fen to be fairly static characters, and though we read much of the story through their immediate experience, I feel quite distant from their emotional one. Bankson is the emotional core of this story, and we sort of only known Nell and Fen, on a personal level, through his recounting of their shared time.

Throughout my reading, I felt there was a wall that the reader could not pass. Partly, it's the use of textual clues, hinting to a future that is already certain, defined; partly, it's the distance we're kept from Nell and Fen, unable to feel the impact of experience. To me, it prevented a full emotional investment in the story. That's not to say, though, it lacks meaning. There is great reflection on motive and perception among individuals and communities. This book is a simple read on the surface but has clearly been carefully crafted. The writing is excellent, and there is certainly poignancy here that gives great dimension to personal histories and cultural varieties.

And sidenote: most synopses of this book describe a "passionate love triangle" or "romantic firestorm" which I think is terribly misleading, because I don't think that's the author's main focus—or point—at all.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Speed Dating with Middle Grade: Part 9

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Ok, I spared you guys the barrage of middle school books for an entire semester, but now this backlog of posts is really starting to build up!

My absolute favorite day of the school year comes in May with our district-wide Battle of the Books competition—and I've deemed it my favorite day despite having only experienced it once! It's this great day where 20+ middle schools come together, each with a 4-5 student team as representation, to battle it out trivia-style on a pre-selected list of 20 books. Though this one day is SO MUCH FUN, it's actually an event that builds for several months of the year as students prep, teams are created, and schools must decide who gets to attend the main competition.

If I didn't say it last year, this is how these Speed Dating posts began, as I make sure to read the whole list along with my students. Having read them and written out these summaries actually ends up really helping with recommendations AND helping our BoB teams study. [Also, I adapted this review format to the library and have been having kids write their own brief reviews. SO helpful for our library website!]

Alright, enough chit chat...

Title: Trash Can Nights
Author: Teddy Steinkellner
Genre: Realistic
Read If You Like...: Stories with multiple characters/plots/perspectives; real-life drama; this book's precursor, Trash Can Days
Three-Sentence Thoughts: Jake, Danny, Hannah, and Dorothy return in this sequel that brings a more mature follow-up to their last story. Jake has returned to San Paulo Junior High as the guy who got stabbed, is dating Dorothy, and still avoiding Danny, while Hannah is beginning her Freshman year at a new school where she's determined to earn the title of Queen Bee. While, for me, this one didn't have the same uncensored, humorous appeal as its predecessor, it was still a realistic, relatable story that deals with some pretty heavy issues.

Title: Guys Read: Terrifying Tales
Author: Jon Scieszka, ed.
Genre: Short Stories, Horror
Read If You Like...: Short story collections, a variety of writing styles, and odd/unusual/frightening things
Three-Sentence Thoughts: Terrifying Tales is the sixth installment in the Guys Read series of short stories, and this theme of this one is the weird and creepy. Stories from well-known middle grade authors like Kelly Barnhill, Dav Pilkey, and R.L. Stine cover every kind of scary: imaginary friends who stick around too long, vengeful ghosts, little brothers who disappear, old lady neighbors without the best intentions. The chill factor varies, but this is a good choice for fans of scary stories and readers with short attention spans. (Also, definitely NOT just for guys. I have mixed feelings on this marketing angle.)

Title: Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales: The Underground Abductor
Author: Nathan Hale
Genre: Nonfiction, Graphic Novel
Read If You Like...: History adventures, true stories, and surprise reveals
Three-Sentence Thoughts: Araminta Ross is one of history's most important figures; you just know her by a different name. Born as a slave in Delaware, she escaped by running north and, once free, led many many more slaves to freedom via the Underground Railroad. This was my first foray into the Nathan Hale series, and in this one (like all the rest, apparently), he shares Harriet Tubman's story with accuracy, intrigue, and a great deal of passion for history and storytelling that will be felt by the reader. (Sidenote: I met the author at a conference and dude is HILARIOUS.)

Friday, January 8, 2016

Fiction | A Poet in Crinolines

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"'I must admit, dear Gloria, that you did fool me for a while. But the truth of the matter is that you have never been one of those girls—no matter how well you have learned to disguise yourself as one of them.'"

If you've asked me to name my favorite book anytime in the past decade, my answer has been easy: Keith Maillard's Gloria. No one has ever heard of it, and no one has ever heard of its author. I adored this book the first time I read it, as a college sophomore, back in 2005. I loved it so much I read it again just a year and a half later during the summer before my senior year. Despite claiming it as my favorite book for the past decade, though, I honestly had no real recollection of its details beyond that the writing is, in fact, incredibly detailed—purposeful—and that Gloria is a wonder to uncover. Amid a recent reading funk (the one that keeps hitting around Thanksgiving when I can't decide what to read next—JUV or ADULT), I decided to pick it up again, as a "proper adult," to see if my perspective on Gloria's coming-of-age had changed.

In Maillard's story, Gloria Cotter is suffering that summer of ennui and uncertainty after college graduation. The year is 1957—and that's a tidbit that should immediately indicate Gloria is not your average young woman. [A woman college graduate? Unmarried? In 1957?] We quickly learn that Gloria is anything but ordinary, though that's exactly how she works ardently to appear to everyone around her.

Gloria is a product of high society, her father being the most senior vice-president of a major steel corporation in West Virginia. She's had the boarding school upbringing, the big fancy house, the country club membership, and the style and demeanor that instantly back up her economic status. On the inside, though, Gloria has always felt like an imposter. She's deeply poetic and highly intelligent. She's constantly reflecting on herself, her thoughts, and her actions, determining if she's acting as a "normal girl" would.

"Then she was aware, suddenly, of herself in this particular room, and aware with such an intensity it made her feel as though she must spend the greater part of her waking life sleepwalking: the way the light fell right now—the muted, green-tinted colors it created—and the calling of a bird, the sound of soft footsteps in the house, a hint of a breeze through the screened window tickling the hair on her arms; and the weight of her body flowing down through her hips into her legs and feet, the immediacy of the sensation of the thick nap of the rug felt through the slippiness of her nylons— The fear of death struck her. Oh, she thought, how could this elaborate, intricate, wonderful web of interconnections ever be extinguished?"

Above all, Gloria has an awareness—of herself, and people, and the world around her—that is complex and uncommon; she observes and understands the intricacies of identities and relationships. Her ability to read situations often comes as a surprise itself, leaving her overwhelmed by this knowledge or understanding that most cannot see or reach. She is an enigma—a young woman that has carefully crafted a personae to an audience—but she's an enigma to herself as well. She's uncertain of her own place and how expectations clash with her own interests and way of thought; she rejects the expectation of early marriage but lacks confidence in a life outside the norm.

I do still love this. But I definitely read it as much darker this time. There's a raw, sexual undercurrent that runs through Gloria's world and asserts itself as power struggles and personal crises. Gloria is a young woman in an era that is on the cusp of change for women, and Maillard writes to those conflicts, both on society in general but specifically her upper-class country club upbringing.

Gloria is an intellect, and large sections of the text delve into academic discourse on authors and poets. The narrative itself is told in a rather confusing order, as this unsettled summer has Gloria reflecting on past experiences and how they brought her to the present as she questions her uncertain future. Pages and pages are dedicated to a lengthy episode from the past, causing us to often lose track of our place in time and forget that this story we're hearing is, in fact, an anecdote, and that the present-time Gloria we have met is a product of all these occurrences. I say confusing, yes, because it should be, in theory. But it's actually brilliant and rather not confusing when you are enmeshed in the story; these are all pieces to Gloria's puzzle, and you so desperately want to know where her story leads.

At 630+ pages, this re-read was a heavier commitment than I expected. It's not a quick read, by any means. It is, however, a satisfying deeply multi-layered story of a girl who would seem, to a stranger, entirely ordinary but is, as you discover, anything but.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Looking Back, Looking Forward: 2015 in Review

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2015 wasn't a bad year of reading. I met my Goodreads goal, plus some; I embarked on a personal reading challenge. The difference between my reading in 2015 and any previous year, though, is that, for the first time, I feel like my reading choices aren't entirely my own. Technically, yes, I still have 100% reading autonomy, but now, having a job that is entirely enmeshed in the literary realm, I feel a great sense of responsibility to know my collection. I think I probably read more middle grade titles this year than adult titles [I'll find out when I do some tallies in a few minutes.] And though I legitimately love middle grade books (way more than YA), I do feel somewhat pressured to spend most of my time reading them, because it has already proven to be hugely beneficial in my daily job—the personal recommendation is everything to a middle schooler!

  • 62 total books read
  • 40 middle grade or YA titles
  • 11 nonfiction
  • 12 graphic novels
  • 39 women authors
  • 3 re-reads
  • 32 published in the past 2 years (2014 or 2015)
  • 9 published between 2010 - 2013
  • 11 published between 2000 - 2009 (ok, clearly I need to branch out, but this was totally because of middle school books)
  • 2 published in the 90s
  • 4 published in the 80s
  • 2 published in the 70s
  • 1 published in the 60s
  • 1 published before 1950 (1914 to be exact)


Most engrossing: Here, There, Elsewhere by William Least Heat-Moon

Most boring: Letters of a Woman Homesteader by Elinore Pruitt Stewart

Most memorable: A Field Guide to Happiness by Linda Leaming

Most forgettable: TIE // Boys of Blur by N.D. Wilson and Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady by Florence King

Most humorous: Drinking at the Movies by Julia Wertz

Most enjoyable: The Shell Seekers by Rosamunde Pilcher

Most disappointing: TIE // Forever by Pete Hamill and Mosquitoland by David Arnold

Overall fave: The Miseducation of Cameron Post by emily m. danforth


I've mentioned many times my lack of attention span during the school year, which is why it comes in handy that the once fall-back/quick-read plan of picking up a JUV or YA book is actually incredibly helpful with my job. In looking at my reading list from the past year, though, I ultimately feel pretty underwhelmed, like I haven't challenged myself much or broadened any horizons. To some degree, it may be unavoidable if I want to keep myself abreast of what's in my school library, but I think I'm going to edit my aforementioned plan of limiting adult reading to breaks only. To get back to being a well-rounded reader, I will:
  1. Try to alternate MG/YA books and adult books (or at least keep up the ratio)
  2. Finish the Read Harder Challenge, and start this year's version (So, I actually didn't realize it was a 2015-specific challenge until I saw somewhere a 2016 version; I was just chugging along at my own pace. So, I will finish the current challenge and start the new one.)
  3. Read Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 in its entirety. This is the ultimate 1500 page chunkster that I've wanted to commit to for years. I'll tackle it slowly, a chapter at a time, but, by god, I will finish it! You know I love a good reading project.

Happy new year and happy new reading!