Category Archives: Uncategorized

Girl in Translation, Miller’s Valley

Girl in Translation:

This book came to me by way of a colleague suggesting it as a summer reading choice for our eleventh grade next school, and I’m excited to say we have chosen it! The narrative follows Kimberly, an immigrant child from Hong Kong who arrives in New York City with her mother and begins work at a sweatshop while also navigating her new public elementary school. We follow Kimberly as she matures, moves from public school to an exclusive private school, falls in love, and continues to straddle the worlds of American and Chinese cultures. I think it will tie in well with our themes of American identity and the American dream, as well as offer good prompts for personal essays, and I finished it in one night, unable to put it down, which is another good quality for a summer reading choice.

Miller’s Valley

Anna Quindlen has a new novel? Of course I’m on board, as she has written some of my favorite contemporary fiction, including titles like Every Last One and Black and Blue. This novel has a more melancholy tone, as a family struggles with understanding the ties that bind them together, and how they might be further affected, and perhaps broken, by the loss of their hometown. The erosion that can happen in loving relationships and the bittersweet nostalgia of losing a place you miss but might no longer desire are only some of the threads winding through the narrative. There’s a somewhat surprising ending that I’m not sure felt truly earned or authentic to me, but I think if you liked her recent Still Life with Bread Crumbs, you might enjoy this one too.

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Revival

Five years ago, I start keeping this reading blog in an attempt to gather all my thoughts on reading, writing, and literature.

This May, even though it’s the hectic end-of-year season, I’m starting again.

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Ripped from the Headlines (A Pair of Reviews)

Cover of "Room: A Novel"

Cover of Room: A Novel

Somehow a month has slipped by without me noticing that I haven’t been posting reviews; I’ve been posting about books, but not reviewing anything I’ve read. I’ve been doing a lot of “comfort reading” lately, I think, as the school year shifts into its manic closing gear, rereading books by authors I like instead of seeking out anything new.

But now that streak has come to an end. Like the last review I posted, I somehow ended up reading two books that both take horrific news stories as their starting place and then try to find their ways inside the minds of those involved. Both have unconventional narrators with distinct voice, and both are told with narrative techniques you don’t see everyday in modern fiction: the point-of-view of a five-year-old, the epistolary form most common a hundred years ago. Finally, both try to answer the unanswerable, and watch their characters try to construct their lives after major terrifying catastrophes.

Room: A Novel came out last year and quickly became a much-talked about book, for all the reasons I described above, but I think also because Donoghue not only conceived such a startling narrative structure, but she executed it brilliantly, in a novel that keeps you turning every page until it’s finished, but also lingers in your memory beyond the final scene. Jack, the five-year-old narrator, is a character for the ages, with a distinctive voice but also such a richly drawn persona. Jack and his Ma live in Room, where they have been kept prisoner for seven years by the man they call Old Nick, who kidnapped Ma when she was nineteen. The first half of the book takes place inside Room, and the second half after their Great Escape, showing their tentative reintegration into the world Jack has never known. The second half of the story is the one we in the general public often glimpse, like in the case of Jaycee Dugard and Elizabeth Smart, but never from the perspective of a child involved, and not in this detail.

We Need to Talk About Kevin: A Novel (P.S.) is a novel from the viewpoint of Eva Khatchadourian, who is writing letters to her estranged husband about their son, Kevin, who killed eleven people in a school massacre. I first read about the books years ago in a blog post, but only picked it up this week. Unlike Room, I didn’t stay up all night to finish it, and while Kevin is a book I do think is well-done, it’s a pricklier, thornier book to really say you “like.” Eva is a a prickly character herself, and it is that sharpness that she questions about herself, whether it was a maternal failing on her part that created her son, a sociopathic monster. Eva knows she will never know “why,” just like Dylan Klebold’s mother will never know why, but of course, that doesn’t mean she can stop asking herself, her husband or her son. Kevin is a also a novel about maternal ambivalence, and whether it’s okay to say the things we all fear mothers really want to say: that we regret having our children, that we love one more than the other or our husbands better than our children. Instead, we are supposed to be super-moms, writing letters to our babies, not yelling at them or wishing we could escape. I think every mother can at least agree that we have those moments of terror where we fear we truly are bad mothers, and the horror of Kevin is that Eva has a staggering amount of evidence to say that yes, perhaps she is a horrible mother after all.

So if you want to torment yourself with what it means to actually think you might be a terrible mother, or with the horror of what might happen to your children some day, feel free to pick up both or either of these! But also, if you want some thought-provoking and amazing fiction, give either of these a try.

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Summer Reading Thoughts

Tolstoy death mask from the author's private c...

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I make a summer reading list for myself every year, and while other books always sneak their way in, I find it really helpful to make plans for what I think will be nourishing or enriching during the summer, a time that is just as much about recharging as it is about taking time away.

So I try to mix in a few teaching books, but also books I read just for myself, not with a thought towards teaching, but just because I want to read them. This summer I’m rethinking how I teach grammar and vocabulary with my ninth graders, so I’ve got a vocabulary workbook on my list.  We usually end up reading more bedtime books with the girls over the summer too, since I’m not exhausted at the end of the day and we don’t need to worry about morning wake-up times. This year, I’ve already designated some of my challenge titles to be summer books, not for content, but because I’d like to be able to fully immerse myself in them. I’m thinking of shifting Vanity Fair to the summer for that reason; I’ve started, but am having trouble making headway just reading before bed.

So far, here are the titles I’m considering:

War and Peace , Tolstoy
Mendocino and Other Stories, Ann Packer
Teaching with Intention, Debbie Miller
Glencoe Language Arts Vocabulary Power Workbook Grade 9
As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner
The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery
State of Wonder, Ann Patchett

I’m sure I’ll update this list closer to actual summertime, shuffling some titles on and off the list, but when it’s been raining off and on for weeks, and it seems like summer will never come, it’s reassuring to make lists and dream of sunshine and heat.

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You’d Love This Book (?!)

Sophie's Choice (novel)

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Once you’ve got a reputation for being a reader, inevitably, people will start asking you for recommendations. To me, this is a fair amount of pressure, but when it’s a student asking? Then the pressure is really on: how many times have we heard those stories of a teacher handing a student the book, the book that rocks her world, the book that changes his life? Yikes!

Recently, a student appeared in my doorway with a copy of Sophie’s Choice clutched in her hand, a copy that I had lent her a few months before. This is a very bright and creative student, and when I brought her the book, I was inwardly holding my breath, hoping that I hadn’t fumbled the ball, hoping that at least, she wouldn’t hate it. Her favorite book was Fight Club: A Novel, after all–what had possessed me to think she would like this book?

“I love it!” she said, and I let out the breath that somehow, I’d been holding since December. She came in, and we chatted about the ending, the characters, the impossibility of anyone casting Nathan correctly, the amount of rich detail in the book that all comes to a shattering halt.

I’m not saying I changed her life, but what a relief to know that at least this time, I’d gotten it right.

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Quick Hit: Literary Mixtapes

Do you know about Flavorwire’s literary mixtape series yet? If not, do yourself a favor and click on through them. The most recent character featured is Jay Gatsby, a truly genius choice, and some of the selected tracks are also completely genius. My favorites are the choice of “Electric Feel” and “The Party’s Crashing Us” as party music.

This is, of course, separate from the largehearted boy Book Notes feature, where authors create playlists for their own books, which Papercuts used to do also, and can also be quite amazing.

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Ode to Bookstore Cafes

If you’re anything like me, this article describing a world tour of bookstore cafes, including Mexico City, Boston, Hong Kong and more, makes you want to pack your bags and hop on a plane, ready to see the world with a bookstore cafe as your new homebase.

I don’t drink coffee, but there’s just something wonderful about a bookstore cafe; not only can you wander the aisles and stumble across something new and potentially life-changing, but you can curl up in a comfortable chair and start reading it, perhaps with a muffin or scone to keep you company. It’s a public space that is welcoming and quiet and centered around books, without the looming menace of overdue fines to haunt you. It’s a space where the odds are high you might find someone else who likes that obscure graphic novel or klezmer band.

My all-time favorite bookstore cafe is Grounds for Thought in Bowling Green, Ohio, where I earned my master’s degree, made some amazing friends, and started dating the boyfriend who is now my husband. Clearly, this was a magical and momentous time in my life, and many of those hours were spent at Grounds with Laurie, one of my dearest friends from that time in my life. We would bring our homework and projects, camp out at a table and work, pausing now and then to drink hot chocolate, argue about the value of theory, or note the entrance or exit of a cute philosophy grad student Laurie had a crush on. From time to time, other friends would join us; it was in a conversation at Grounds that I first heard a gay friend talk about couples who made up a new last name when they decided to commit to each other, which my husband and I decided to do as well. When I would daydream about the future, as I often did in that first year, sometimes I saw myself behind the counter of my own bookstore cafe, in some undetermined location, passing out books and baked goods with both hands and watching them nourish my customers.

I haven’t found anything to replace that here in Baltimore; though there have been some likely candidates from time to time, none have lasted for me. Sometimes I still daydream, not about opening my own, but about happening across the perfect haven, full of aromas and books, in the perfect life, where I have plenty of hours to while away in a bookstore cafe.

Any bookstore cafes to add to the list, or any memories to share?

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