Thursday, December 31, 2009

Reading Update

It's looking like I'm not going to get any more books read this year, though I'm working on two right now. The last two books of the year were Ophelia, by Lisa Klein, and The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver.

Book #58, Ophelia, is billed as a YA title, or at least that's where it was in the bookstore. I thought it was for people a little older than my middle schoolers. I am always intrigued by retellings of stories that I know well. This one takes the story of Hamlet and tells it from the point of view of Ophelia, a character whom Shakespeare leaves frustratingly nebulous. I enjoyed her version of events.

And the last book of the year, book #59 - I really thought I could make it to 60 - was Barbara Kingsolver's latest novel, The Lacuna: A Novel. Kingsolver is such a wonderful writer and can make any subject interesting - look at what she did for vegetables in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. This book tells the story of Harrison Shepherd, a character who, the book jacket tells us, is "pulled between two nations." (Favorite theme alert!) At the beginning of the book he's a child in Mexico, living with his Mexican mother, who has left his American father. Later in the book he returns to the United States, but he is always a foreigner everywhere. He falls in with various famous people, namely Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Lev Trotsky, but unlike some books, his story doesn't feel like an excuse to tell theirs. Shepherd's life story, spanning the 30s, 40s and 50s, is richly detailed, and yet there is always a lacuna, for "the most important part of a story is the piece of it you don't know." At the end of the book Shepherd falls afoul of the "Committee on Un-American Activities," as did so many writers and artists of the period. I couldn't help but wonder whether the injustices done to Shepherd were in some way informed by Kingsolver's own experience with the type of criticism she has faced, as she too has been called "un-American" because of some of her writing questioning the status quo. I loved this book and I found it well worth waiting for. But I hope Kingsolver will write another one soon.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Book #57

After the heavy lifting (both figurative and literal) of War and Peace, book #57, That Old Cape Magic, by Richard Russo, felt as light as a piece of fluff. Still, there was something wonderful about reading a book in a couple of hours and not having to contemplate free will and the law of necessity even once.

Jack Griffin, a protagonist who will seem quite familiar to readers of Russo's other books (of which I am one), is a retired screen writer who now teaches screen writing. He's followed his parents into an academic career, but his memories of his parents and his childhood are mostly negative. He's trying to write a short story about a summer the family spent on the Cape while he was a boy. He's going to weddings, including his daughter's. He's dealing with his marriage to Joy.

I didn't enjoy this as much as I have others of Russo's books. (For some reason I kept thinking of Anne Tyler the whole way through - the characters had her kind of whimsical feeling to them.) Usually Russo writes much more evocatively of places and his books have more depth to them than this one. But maybe I'm just comparing him to Tolstoy!

Monday, December 21, 2009

I Finished War and Peace!

At long last, I finished reading War and Peace! All 1386 pages. It's Book #56 of the year.

I both loved and hated this book. The parts about the characters were wonderful. Tolstoy writes great party scenes and great domestic scenes and great battle scenes. His descriptions and dialogue are vivid. His characters are completely believable and complex (reportedly he based them on his friends and relatives).

Unfortunately, Tolstoy fills hundreds of pages with his musings - mostly about history. Why Napoleon and other leaders aren't as important to events as they think they are, or as most historians think they are. How free will works. What an idiot Napoleon is. Why the Russians are superior to all other peoples. Why Russian peasants are superior to all other Russians.

Then there will be another couple of hundred pages of gripping narrative.

And then back to more about Napoleon and free will and history and the Russians.

It's not that what he writes in this vein isn't interesting in itself, but it slows down the story to a halt, and honestly by the third time I read his theory of history, I wasn't at all interested any more.

When I finished the book, I started reading A.N. Wilson's introductory essay to the Modern Library edition, and while I haven't finished it yet, I have learned that Tolstoy's wife copied out the whole book no less than seven times in longhand. A moment of silence for her, my friends. This woman was a true saint. (She also bore thirteen children.)

I'm glad I read this book, but I don't think I will be rereading it any time soon. In its own way, though, it is an unforgettable novel. Marya, her father, Pierre, Natasha, and poor little Petya will stick with me.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Poetry Friday: War and Peace

So I've been reading War and Peace as long as I can remember. Actually it's only two months but that's a long time to be reading the same book. I WILL finish it. I've read a thousand pages and I only have three hundred left.

I don't know of any poems about that particular book, but Billy Collins' poem about Anna Karenina seems appropriate.

On Closing Anna Karenina
by Billy Collins

I must have started reading this monster
a decade before Tolstoy was born
but the vodka and the suicide are behind me now,
all the winter farms, ice-skating and horsemanship.

It consumed so many evenings and afternoons,
I thought a Russian official would appear
to slip a medal over my lowered head
when I reached the last page.

Here's the rest of it.

For the record, I liked Anna Karenina. I even like War and Peace, at least large chunks of it. It is just so endlessly long.

Here's today's Poetry Friday roundup, at Susan Writes.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

How to Remove Staples from your Feet

This is important information. Well, it could be. Should you have staples in your feet. That need to be removed.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Poetry Friday: Nostalgia

I have been looking recently at some old photos of my children, and feeling nostalgic over the sweet babies they were. It's probably a common feeling this time of year, as we look at photos of first Christmases and take out ornaments which have survived, somehow, from those years. How easy life seems back then, back when I could meet their every need, when I always knew where they were, when they wore whatever I put on them.

Of course, I'm conveniently forgetting the inexplicable crying of a pre-verbal child who couldn't tell you where it hurt, the sleepless nights, the days of limited interaction with another adult.

Nostalgia is that way, and Billy Collins has written several poems about it. One is entitled "Nostalgia," but the one I was thinking of this week is the one excerpted below:

Lines Composed Over Three Thousand Miles from Tintern Abbey

I was here before, a long time ago,
and now I am here again
is an observation that occurs in poetry
as frequently as rain occurs in life.


...the feeling is always the same.
It was better the first time.
This time is not nearly as good,
I'm not feeling as chipper as I did back then.

Something is always missing -
swans, a glint on the surface of a lake,
some minor but essential touch.
Or the quality of things has diminished.


And when we put down the book at last,
lean back, close our eyes,
stinging with print,
and slip in the bookmark of sleep,

we will be schooled enough to know
that when we wake up
a little before dinner
things will not be nearly as good as they once were.


Nothing will be as it was
a few hours ago, back in the glorious past
before our naps, back in that Golden Age
that drew to a close sometime shortly after lunch.

You can read the whole poem here.

The Poetry Friday roundup is at Random Noodling today.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Yet Another Twilight Article

This one is by a teacher who loved the Twilight series and suggests ways to use it with students. You can read it here.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

How Far Does God's Love Reach?

This morning in church we sang "The Love of God" and it made me think of my post about the words here. During this Advent season I am glad that God's love reaches all the way down to where we are, however low and far off from Him that is. "There is," after all, "no such thing as a God-forsaken town."

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Poetry Friday Yesterday

Here's yesterday's Poetry Friday roundup. School is crazy right now, with the end of the quarter coming and today's all-day Christmas event. I am just trying to get through it all without losing my mind. Maybe after it's over I'll be able to come back and read some of the postings!

Thursday, December 03, 2009

I'm A Tale of Two Cities

Hmm, don't know about this one. I haven't even read this book, and now apparently it represents me. Some of this is true but I don't distrust the French.

You're A Tale of Two Cities!

by Charles Dickens

You find it challenging to be unequivocal, often tempering your
statements with contradictory or mitigating concepts, just to be sure. Nevertheless,
it's clear that you live in remarkably extremist times and have seen some rather
dramatic things transpire. You are particularly distrustful of the French. While you
find it difficult to part with things, you would gladly sacrifice a carton. Sewing
makes you very nervous.

Take the Book Quiz II
at the Blue Pyramid.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

War and Peace Update

This weekend I passed the 800th page of War and Peace. This is notable chiefly because on my last War and Peace post a commenter informed me:

"Like they say, the first 800 pages are pretty slow, but after that it picks up.

Actually, no, it doesn't."

I am enjoying the book, but I have to admit that there are many parts which are quite slow, particularly the digressions on nineteenth century Russian politics. However, I do want to find out what will happen to Natasha. What was she thinking?

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Greg Boyd Series

I have been listening to the sermons here. I don't know how to link you directly to the one I listened to today, but if you scroll down you can click on various ways of watching or listening to it. It's called "A Touch of Reality." I haven't listened to all the ones in this series yet but so far I am enjoying them very much. They are part of a series on God's heart for the poor, but "A Touch of Reality" is about people who are invisible - people who don't feel real because nobody ever notices them - and how we can reach out to them. There are lots of ways of being poor.

Saturday Review of Books

Today's Saturday Review of Books is here.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Poetry Friday: E-Mails from Scheherazad

After I read The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf, by Mohja Kahf, I had to read more from this author. (I wrote here about how much I loved that novel, and how I felt a sisterhood with Kahf in spite of our different backgrounds and different religions.)

I was not disappointed by her book of poetry, E-mails from Scheherazad. From the first poem, "Voyager Dust," Kahf writes beautifully about what it is like to be from more than one place, describing helping her mother wash her scarves:

She'd hold one end, my brother or I the other,
and we'd stretch the wet georgette and shake it out
We'd dash, my brother or I, under the canopy,
its soft spray on our faces like the ash
of debris after the destruction of a city,
its citizens driven out across the earth.
We never knew
it was voyager dust.

Some of the poems are funny, such as "My Grandmother Washes Her Feet in the Sink of the Bathroom at Sears," or the title poem, "E-mail from Scheherezad," in which we learn that she and Shahrayar aren't together any more, but that she is still telling stories; after all...

You must remember: Where I come from,
Words are to die for.

In a couple of other funny poems, she imagines the Odalisques from all the paintings in the museums of the world jumping down and expressing their views about the Orientalism they represent.

Others of the poems made me cry, such as "Snowfall on the Colossal Ruins," where Kahf describes snow falling in Amman on thousands of Iraqi refugees sleeping in the Roman amphitheater

nightly, this winter of the year 2000,
this tenth winter of the sanctions.
The proud, the dignified,
the ones you might have met in gracious homes
by appointment, bringing with you flowers,
fruit, or any small token,
to avoid arriving empty-handed...

In "The Fork in the Road" Kahf explores the idea that the immigrant has to choose between her two homes, either going to Syria to find the memories of her grandfather or to a graveyard near Indianapolis to look for

the little white coffin,
the boy with the blue
Mediterranean eyes,
the one we lost in the new world

and could not stop to find.

She ends this poem with a two-line stanza: "Which do you want, choose./ You only get one journey."

In "The Passing There," she tells about being chased out of an Indiana field by a farmer as she was playing there with her brother.

The man who owned the field was no Robert Frost
although he spoke colloquial. "Git
off my property," he shouted, "Or I'll-"
The rest of what he said I do not care
to repeat. It expressed his concerns
about our religion and ethnic origin.
He had a rifle. We went on home.

She goes on to imagine a watchman back in Syria chasing children out of a vineyard, yelling at them using their names, and

our parallel-universe Syrian selves among them,
hearing their names called among the others,
Yaman and Mohja, running home
and getting there, skin bright, panting,
getting home.

I read this poem aloud to my family and had to stop several times because the tears were choking me, so perfect is the description of being from two places:

My brother knows this song:
How we have been running
to leap the gulch between two worlds, each
with its claim. Impossible for us
to choose one over the other,
and the passing there
makes all the difference.

I think, though, that in spite of all these poems that I love, my favorite is "Finding Poems for My Students," in which she describes choosing poems to read in class:

I run to you, pockets full of poems.
I select: This poem will help you pass a test.
Here is one that is no help at all,
but is beautiful; take it, take it.

She doesn't mind that her students don't always appreciate the offerings she has worked so hard to bring them, because she imagines one day that those poems may resurface for them, and be exactly what they need. As Mohja Kahf's poems have been for me.

I want to quote pages and pages of this book, but instead, I will send you to buy your own copy.

Today's Poetry Friday roundup is at Becky's Book Reviews.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

And More Thanksgiving

The feeling sorry for myself theme continued today as I stayed home with a sick child instead of attending festivities as planned. I did get a container of food, including two pieces of pie, so I didn't go hungry. I was disappointed, though.

Still, it was fun to play a game and read with my little one, including that holiday classic Arthur's Thanksgiving, in which we learn that the turkey is "a symbol of togetherness and Thanksgiving" and that "today, when we think of Thanksgiving, we think of turkey." We do not learn much about the spiritual dimensions of the holiday.

I won't deny enjoying the turkey (what little of it I managed to scrounge), but I am glad that there's a bit more to Thanksgiving than that. I missed out on the togetherness this year, too - but God's blessings are still overwhelming, and He is always good, whether I am grumpy or grateful.

"Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows." James 1:17

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


Thanksgiving isn't a local holiday, but we do get Thursday and Friday off at our school. That means today is the last day of school until Monday - definitely something to be thankful for.

Mostly I have been feeling a bit sorry for myself, because my family in the US is getting together and doing all kinds of fun things, and I'm not there. So to help get myself in the Thanksgiving mood, here are some things for which I'm thanking God, in no particular order.

1. My family
2. The chance to have an education
3. Plenty to eat and a safe, dry place to live
4. Work to do which, while often difficult and deeply frustrating, is seldom dull
5. My students (see #4)
6. Good health
7. Electricity and running water - not available to many people in this world, even in the sporadic form in which they are available to me
8. Leisure time
9. Friends
10. God knows my name

Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 23, 2009

I Love Lunch!

A friend told me about Improv Everywhere a couple of weeks ago, but it was just this morning that I really checked it out.

Watch this. I dare you to get through it without smiling.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Twilight Again

I finally saw the Twilight movie, and predictably, it was disappointing. While I find the books very funny in the way they juxtapose the strange vampire lives with the normal world of an American high school, the movie is deadly in earnest, dark, and brooding. Everyone is constantly sighing and gasping, but not speaking much, or at least not very articulately. In the book we are privy to Bella's angst-ridden thoughts, but in the movie we can only hear her gusty breathing and the occasional outburst of a few (usually inane) words.

Probably the biggest problem for me, though, was that it was much harder to suspend disbelief when the story was in front of me in full color. I could never really lose myself in the narrative. I thought the script was embarrassing in places and everything was so dark - literally dark - so that at one point when Charlie handed Bella an object, I couldn't even tell what it was. It turned out to be some pepper spray with which to protect herself, but it looked like a flashlight, which would have been more appropriate.

I did like the prom scene, one of my favorite scenes in the book because it's so funny, but the humor comes across much better in the book. I know Meyer's writing has been criticized a lot, but I thought the books were very entertaining and quite atmospheric. The movie, in spite of some nice scenery, did not come close.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Why they Love Twilight

This just in, from my NCTE Inbox of the week: James Blasingame answers the question.


These are a few articles I've read recently.

Andrew Sullivan wrote an open letter to former President George Bush in the October issue of the Atlantic. You can read it here. It's about how the United States lost the moral high ground about torture. One passage that will stick with me is this one: "Every dissident in every foul tyranny on Earth, imprisoned and tortured by men and women far less scrupulous than you, now knows something he or she never knew before your presidency: America tortures too. What this will do to the march of freedom you believe in is yet unknown. But my view is that by condoning torture, by allowing it to take place, and by your vice president’s continuing defense and championing of torture as compatible with American traditions, you have done enormous damage to America’s role as a beacon of freedom and to the rule of law."

The other two are on a much less weighty topic: children's literature. Both are from the October 19th issue of the New Yorker. (I know, I'm a little behind in my magazine reading.)

The first one is about picture books, and specifically how their portrayal of kids and parents has changed, so that now parents are presented as tentative people, afraid to exercise authority over their bratty children. Most of the books that he refers to I haven't read, since my children are past the picture book stage, mostly, but this is a hugely entertaining article. You can read it here.

The second one is about how (some) YA books are "created" by committees. I found it eye-opening and a bit disheartening. Sadly the article is only available to subscribers, so check it out at the library or I'll loan you my copy if you live in the same country as I do!

Monday, November 16, 2009


Once you've been living anywhere for a while, you get the routines figured out. You have friends, a support system. You figure out how to get where you need to go, how to get your needs met, how to speak enough of the language for your purposes. Things are basically fine.

Until there is an emergency.

In the United States, we're very used to having someone to call when there's an emergency. Even though I personally have never had to dial 911, I know that when I'm in that country, in the event of a fire, or a crime, or a medical crisis, I could, and a calm voice would talk me through what to do. That's not the case in many (most?) places in the world. In an emergency, you find out how very much on your own you are. Yes, we trust God to be with us and He has protected us many times, but human services are less reliable than He is.

When we first moved to this country, an expat church sponsored a seminar to help newcomers learn what they needed to know. There was a lot of useful information, but one thing that has stuck with me even as I hope I'll never need to know it is that if you call the fire department, you'd better call a water truck too, since the fire engine might not have any water. People we know had a fire, and the truck did get there eventually, but not before driving about for long enough that the flames had pretty much destroyed the whole kitchen. And really, you can't blame the fire department, since most of the roads aren't marked.

Then there was a time a friend called us in a panic because armed men were breaking into her house. We called the police again and again, but they never answered. She lived close enough to us that we could hear the shots her fiance fired outside her gate. After stealing many of her valuables, the men left.

But the medical category is the one where I have the worst stories. There is good medical care where we live but you have to pay for it up front, and if the situation is an emergency, you'd better hope you are near to the doctor, because getting anywhere fast is a challenge. I have often heard, after motorcycle or car accidents, "He wouldn't have died if he had been in the States and received care right away."

Now you have a chance to contribute to buying an ambulance for a birth center in Haiti. Although the center is staffed by midwives who are very competent to deliver babies without a hospital getting involved, many of the women are high risk; in fact, many would risk out of midwife care in the States and would have to deliver with an OB. Therefore, these midwives are likely to have to transport fairly often. They need a reliable vehicle that they can fit out with medical equipment. To this end, a team will be running a marathon in Florida in January. Pick a runner to sponsor or just send a donation to the team. You can find out much more, including beautiful birth stories and information about the runners, by clicking the button below.

In an emergency, like a high risk childbirth, these women need help. They are tough and strong and live lives I could not survive, but they need some extra care at a very vulnerable time. Please help!

running for women in haiti

Sunday, November 15, 2009

War and Peace Update

So on this, my second attempt to read War and Peace, I have reached page 505. (If you follow that link you'll find that this paperback book weighs three pounds.)

It is a bit heavy going (get it? Heavy?), mostly because of the often-remarked-upon Russian naming system. Not only does each character have multiple names, depending on who is addressing them, but there are also multiple "little princesses," "little countesses," and "princes" both old and young. I would very much like a chart of who everyone is and how they are all related, but when I began Googling in an attempt to find such an item, I encountered mostly spoilers, which I didn't want at all.

Anyway, the main characters are pretty much fixed in my mind now, and I'm moving forward. Here are some impressions so far:

* The battle descriptions are wonderful. I usually don't like reading about fights of any kind, but these accounts seem to me to have the perfect combination of fear, confusion, valor, cowardice, and noise. Then I love the way the characters later recast their experiences and turn them into tales of battlefield exploits.

* It's fascinating to read about Pierre and Andrey as each in his own way attempts to do good things for the serfs under his care. I could relate to this, not because I've ever owned legions of human beings and had power of life and death over them, or anything, but because our efforts to help the poor are so often fruitless, or bear completely different fruits from what we had intended.

* While everyone says this is a good translation, I am very much aware that I'm reading a translation and that I'm not getting the full flavor of the original. An example is the "religious pictures" which I'm assuming would be icons, and somehow "religious picture" doesn't have the same connotation at all.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Friday, November 13, 2009

Poetry Friday: November

When I read poems like this one, I give thanks that I live in the tropics, where November is beautiful and warm and I can go to the beach, as I did last weekend. I am happy if this is the closest I get to gloomy November chill. Yet there's something irresistible about de la Mare's melancholy.


There is wind where the rose was,
Cold rain where sweet grass was,
And clouds like sheep
Stream o'er the steep
Grey skies where the lark was.

Nought warm where your hand was,
Nought gold where your hair was,
But phantom, forlorn,
Beneath the thorn,
Your ghost where your face was.

Cold wind where your voice was,
Tears, tears where my heart was,
And ever with me,
Child, ever with me,
Silence where hope was.

Walter de la Mare

Here's the Poetry Friday roundup for today.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Theme Day - Doorways

It's the first day of November, and the DP Blog theme for this month is Doorways. You can see thumbnails here. As the poem I posted on Friday shows, you never can predict what will come through a door!

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Favorite Podcasts: Sermons

I am something of a connoisseur of sermons, and there are many available as podcasts. Here are some of the ones I've been listening to lately.

The chapels from my alma mater are online. Maybe yours too, if you attended a college with such things as chapels? Try the college website.

So far I like the preaching at Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Yeah, that's where Rob Bell pastors. I kept reading about what a heretic he was so I downloaded a bunch of his sermons to see for myself. So far I haven't heard him say anything heretical. (Understand, please - I'm not saying he's never said anything heretical - but in what I have listened to, I have not heard it.) He also has lots of great guest speakers (some of whom may be heretics, for all I know, but I have heard no heresies). Find these on iTunes under Mars Hill Bible Church or go to the church website here. (And here's hoping I put enough disclaimers into this recommendation to absolve me of all blame.)

I love to listen to Andy Stanley speak. You can look for him at iTunes under North Point Ministries, or check out the church website here. And Andy's a guaranteed non-heretical, fully evangelical guy.

Saturday Review of Books


Friday, October 30, 2009

Poetry Friday: The Door

The Door

Out of it steps the future of the poor,
Enigmas, executioners and rules,
Her Majesty in a bad temper or
The red-nosed Fool who makes a fool of fools,

Great persons eye it in the twilight for
A past it might so carelessly let in,
A widow with a missionary grin,
The foaming inundation at a roar.

We pile our all against it when afraid,
And beat upon its panels when we die:
By happening to be open once, it made

Enormous Alice see a wonderland
That waited for her in the sunshine, and,
Simply by being tiny, made her cry.

W.H. Auden

Poetry Friday is hosted at Biblio File today.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Dress Up as a Poet

Sooner or later just about everyone has the urge to dress up as a poet, right? I got an email with some helpful suggestions and I thought I should share it with you. You can see the ideas here.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009


I went to a retreat this weekend and had a great time. I took no work with me at all and just relaxed. While I was there someone asked me about my writing. "You write every day, don't you?" she said.

"Um, no," I said, adding that I would like to be someone who writes every day, but that I'm really not.

But why not? It's clearly just something I have to make time for if it's important to me. Nobody else is going to do it for me.

So, last night I wrote a poem. Actually I didn't even write it from scratch - it was something I had worked on before, and I tinkered with it some more and "finished" it. And then kept getting up every twenty minutes to fix something else about it. I love doing that kind of messing around with a draft, but it takes time and energy that I often don't have after I've spent a couple of hours reading student drafts and responding to them. I am going to keep trying to write - perhaps not every day, but more often than I have been.

I have some students working on short stories this quarter. We have been talking about their main characters. Today I had some useful conferences with kids who have worked out details of plot - mostly gory ones. It is fun to hear their imaginings. One kid told me today that Stephenie Meyer's ideas for the Twilight saga came to her in a dream. Don't we all wish that would happen for us? A dream with all the plot details, and then fame and fortune? Yes, it would sure be nice.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Running for Haitian Women

Tara just got done running a marathon and raising over $60,000 for Medika Mamba. (I told you about that here.) Now she's at it again, this time with a team. They are running a marathon in twelve weeks to raise money for an ambulance.

Read all about it here.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Reading Update

So here are the latest books I have gulped down.

Book #47 was Troy by Adèle Geras. This was named a Publisher's Weekly Best Children's Book of the Year (to name one of the children's book awards listed on the back) - but it is not at all for children. Much as I like retellings of the Troy story, I didn't like this one. It took the epic tale and turned it into a story of some young people who just happen to work for, or run into, or otherwise be aware of the principals. This author handles the whole supernatural element of the Iliad by having characters run into gods, have conversations with them, and immediately forget the whole thing. At first I bought this but I tired of the device pretty quickly.

Book #48, A Northern Light, by Jennifer Donnelly, is not really for children either, but I feel a bit more comfortable putting this one on my shelves than the last. Mattie Gokey is sixteen and lives in the Northern Woods of upstate New York. Mattie wants to go to college, but she promised her dying mother she would take care of the family. She wants to be a writer but she wants to get married. She gets a job at a hotel and there is a witness to some events leading to a mystery; this part of the plot is based on a true story. The book is really about expectations of women, and whether it's possible to have it all. Although it's set in 1906, I think this is still a pretty timely theme. I found Mattie a believable protagonist, and appreciated her struggle, leading to no easy answers.

I've been waiting for a year for the sequel to The Hunger Games, and I read Catching Fire in a few hours and now have to wait at least another year to find out what happens next. This is what you get when you read living authors and get tied up in their series! I never used to do this. I blame it all on Harry Potter. Oh, the book? Catching Fire, book #49 of the year, was just as breathless as the first book. I couldn't put it down and my heart thumped madly the whole way through. My students are going to LOVE it.

Book #50 was a much more sedate reading experience, The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age, by Sven Birkerts. This was recommended by my friend Janet; here's her great review. Like her, I most enjoyed the chapters about reading and was less interested in the ones about technology and how it's ruining everything. I loved Birkerts' own autobiography of reading and it made me think about writing my own. I will definitely reread this one because there is a huge amount to think about in these pages.

I really did gulp this next one, book #51: Rules, by Cynthia Lord. What a wonderful book! I started reading it at bedtime on a school night and didn't stop until I was finished, nearly 200 pages later. Catherine is twelve and has an autistic brother. She loves him but he is embarrassing. He doesn't know how to act. She decides to help him out by creating rules for him. I thought about this as a read-aloud but, though I want to share it with as many of my students as possible, it really isn't a book to read aloud. It's about different ways of communicating, and there are font changes all through that are for the eye and not the ear. The rules that Catherine makes for David. The word cards that she writes and illustrates for the boy she meets when she goes to occupational therapy with her brother (he can't speak and points to word cards to communicate). The quotes from Frog and Toad books that David uses to express his emotions. The book is funny but it also made me cry. Highly recommended.

In 'Tis, by Frank McCourt (book #52), one of McCourt's teachers tells him his writing has "gusto." It certainly does, and yet the book left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth. It covers a lot of the same time frame as Teacher Man (reviewed here) and since all the parts of 'Tis I liked best were the teaching parts, I could have just skipped this one. McCourt's wife asks him at one point what he would do if he weren't Irish, and I was on her side in this, as in much else. She gets tired of him standing her up night after night because he was out drinking with his friends. She even sensibly breaks it off with him more than once. He complains constantly about his sad childhood in Ireland - and sure, it was sad. We got that in Angela's Ashes. The part I disliked the most in this book was when McCourt was in the military (during the Korean War, but stationed in Europe) and was sent to Dachau to do laundry. We see McCourt so emotional over Dachau that he can't eat (and this is an event for the boy who was constantly "starving with the hunger" in Angela's Ashes). Then on the way back with the clean laundry, the soldier boys stop at a refugee camp and pay the refugees with coffee and cigarettes for sex. OK, I guess this is all very honest and human, but it just made me feel sick.

Book #53 was Andrew Clements' Lost and Found, a quick, fun read about a pair of twins who are tired of being treated as a unit. When a clerical error results in only one of them being registered in their new school, they decide to take turns attending. Clements is the father of identical twins and he does a good job of creating two believable brothers.

I've now read lots of Caroline Cooney's books. She is a favorite with many of my students. This one, book #54, was Diamonds in the Shadow, about African refugees with a complicated past. It's exciting and fast-paced. It also treats Africa as a monolithic Place Where Bad Things Happen, but that seems like an ungenerous quibble to make about a book which will make teenagers aware of things that most of them have never thought about before. It really stood out to me because I have an African student at the moment who is sensitive to that label and I won't be able to use this as a read-aloud. This is a great story, though.

Book #55 was also recommended to me as a book for children, just like the one with which I started this post. I'd say it's for older readers because of the relationship in the story. The book is Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow. It has blurbs on the back from Scott Westerfeld and Neil Gaiman, but it also has several techie names I haven't heard of. Marcus is seventeen, and spends much of his time playing games which are a combination of computer games and real-life running around San Francisco. (His handle is "w1n5t0n" - Winston, get it, get it? This is Little Brother, and that was Big Brother? OK, I'm glad you get it.) Marcus and his friends are out playing one of their games when a huge terrorist attack takes place on San Francisco, and the rest of the story is about Homeland Security trying to make everyone safe by taking away their liberties. It's very timely, and very entertaining, but due to the aforementioned mature themes I really don't think I can hand this to the guy in the front row whom I had in mind for it - maybe in a few years.

Now I'm back to attempting War and Peace again. Last time I got over 300 pages into it, and wasn't even a quarter of the way through, and took a few days off from it, and then felt I had lost my train of thought and would never be able to tell all those Annas apart again. I remember a weekend in graduate school when I read two 500 page 19th century novels - in French. I can't really do that any more, now that I am not in driven-graduate-student mode any more, and now that I have children. And now that I spend hours of great reading time blogging...

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Of Clothes and Books and Having Too Much

Last night I read that my friend Alana is going to try something new. She's been interested for a long time in simplifying her wardrobe and she's written before about her attraction to a "uniform." Then the other day she read an article about a woman who wore the same dress every day for a month. She started exploring the idea and found that several people had tried similar experiments. But I'll let her tell you about it.

Let me say up front that I have no intention of trying such a thing. I live in a very hot, humid climate, and often my clothes don't make it through a whole day, let alone more than one day. One of the women Alana linked to wrote that she washed the dress that she wore for a year "after every two or three wearings." Nothing lasts two or three wearings for me. Also, I don't have reliable enough water and/or electricity to be doing a load of laundry every single night just so that I can streamline my clothing choices. I think I would be using resources incorrectly.

And then, of course, there's the fact that I wore a school uniform for eight years of my life - four different school uniforms, in fact, including one supremely ugly one which included a tie.

However, all that said, I do find the concept fascinating. Here are some great quotes I gleaned from Alana's links:

"I challenged myself to reject the economic system that pushes over-consumption, and the bill of goods that has been sold, especially to women, about what makes a person good, attractive and interesting. Clothes are a big part of this image, and the expectation in time, effort, and financial investment is immense... [so] let's stop agreeing that the best way for women (in particular) to 'express themselves' is by purchasing new wardrobe items and putting together daily outfits." (from

"Perhaps, on a larger scale, we would waste less of the world’s resources if we were captured in wonder by the curve of a carefully crafted cup; the joyful noise of a neighborhood waking up in the morning; the blessed figure of a human being beside us at the kitchen table. We would no longer be animated by a surface curiosity, a desire to entertain ourselves when we get restless. Aliveness to reality in the active knowing of the God-given character of a thing can satisfy us. It is how we can relate to it on a human level, lovingly." (from The Dress Project.)

Wow. Clearly this goes beyond clothing.

I don't think I have a problem with owning too much clothing (though my husband might disagree), but I do buy way too many books. I should cut back on that. And I would if I lived somewhere with a nearby public library.

But it's about more than how many books I own. It's about how I read. Recently I read The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age, by Sven Birkerts. Among many fascinating facts, I learned, in an essay called "The Owl has Flown," about the history of the way people read. People used to read "intensively." Up until about 1750, anyone literate who owned books would only own a few. These would be read over and over and over; they would be memorized. I don't read much this way, with the exception of the Bible, which I have read many times. Mostly I read "extensively." Birkerts describes it this way: "Newspapers, magazines, brochures, advertisements, and labels surround us everywhere - surround us, indeed, to the point of having turned our waking environment into a palimpsest of texts to be read, glanced at, or ignored. It is startling to recall the anecdote about the philosopher Erasmus pausing on a muddy thoroughfare to study a rare scrap of printed paper flickering at his feet."

I read like a starving person - gulp, gulp, gulp, and on to the next book or article or website. I have a huge pile of books I am going to read. Maybe it would benefit me to read less, but more intensively.


It's the same concept: we have so much - and that includes me, living in a third world country as I do and constantly aware of how much more I have than so many around me - that often we don't stop to appreciate and fully enjoy what we do have.

I'll be following Alana's project with interest.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Congratulations, Edwidge Danticat!

Edwidge Danticat has won a MacArthur Foundation grant!

More information here.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Favorite Podcasts: Speaking of Faith

Speaking of Faith with Krista Tippett is billed as "public radio's weekly conversation about religion, meaning, ethics and ideas." While of course I am not equally interested in every episode of this program, I have found many of them fascinating and have learned more about different aspects of my own faith, Christianity, and about other religions as well.

During Ramadan, SOF ran a special series called Revealing Ramadan; each day we heard a short reminiscence about this special month of fasting which is central to Islam. (At that link you'll see the regular one hour program but also the short daily podcast.)

Some other thought-provoking recommendations:

Evangelical Politics: Three Generations. In this live public conversation, Krista talks to three evangelical leaders about their approach to politics and how the Church and individual Christians should be involved. Chuck Colson, Greg Boyd, and Shane Claiborne are the three guests and this is a fascinating discussion.

In another foray into evangelical Christianity, Krista did a series called The New Evangelical Leaders. In the first part, she interviews Jim Wallis, and in the second, Rick and Kay Warren.

The Need for Creeds is an interview with Jaroslav Pelikan. Krista is hesitant to embrace anything so limiting and defining as a creed, but Pelikan does a fabulous job of articulating why they are necessary. He includes some beautiful examples.

There are some surprising insights on what the Bible has to say about family life in Marriage, Family, and Divorce, in which Krista speaks to a New Testament scholar and a rabbi.

In a rare glimpse behind the scenes, Douglas Johnston talks about the importance of including discussions of faith in our diplomacy. Diplomacy and Religion was one of the first episodes that I listened to.

There's a lot to discuss in Krista's interview with Binyavanga Wainaina on The Ethics of Aid. When are we helping, and when are our well-meaning efforts actually hurting those we want to help?

Living Vodou is an exploration of Haitian Vodou. Patrick Bellegarde-Smith is a scholar and an active practitioner of vodou.

While Krista herself appears to have something of an "anything goes" approach to spirituality, she often interviews people at the very center of their respective traditions, so the information you get is not caricatured. In addition, she is a respectful, well-prepared interviewer. I have learned a tremendous amount from this program.

Thursday, September 10, 2009


How did I miss pointing you to the Daily Photo bloggers' theme day on the 1st of September? The theme this month was BIG and you can see thumbnails here of the contributions from around the world.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Reading Update

I bought books #43 and 44 for my classroom and they are already proving popular. Gone and Hunger, by Michael Grant, are the first two books in what will end up being at least a trilogy. (Nobody writes single books any more - you're always committing yourself to at least three, it seems, when you buy YA books.) It's a fascinating premise - what happens when society is run by teenagers? For reasons that become - well - partially clear later, suddenly everyone over the age of 14 disappears. Now life has become the FAYZ, the quickly-adopted acronym of Fallout Alley Youth Zone. It's interesting to see which type of person emerges as the leadership of the new reality and how the newly-liberated young people use their freedom from parents and other adults. (At first the electricity stays on, and they mostly sit around and play computer games all day. I found this sadly convincing.) One young man, Albert, thinks through the economic situation and becomes an entrepreneur, starting with keeping the local McDonald's open. I found him one of the most intriguing characters. Reviews have compared this series to The Lord of the Flies and Stephen King. As long as we were in Golding territory I was playing along, but once the weirdness started - think mutations of people and animals, super-powers, and a mysterious power called the Darkness - I was less enthusiastic. I don't really enjoy the comic-book characters and the endless, non-stop, pounding action. But I have plenty of students who will.

I was ready for a couple of books written for grown-ups.

Book #45, Exposure, by Brandilyn Collins, was fun, if rather forgettable. The author grew up in Wilmore, Kentucky, and her mother had apparently always told her she should set a book there. This is her response to that request.

Book #46, on the other hand, was the opposite of forgettable. Cold Mountain, by Charles Frazier, is the story of Inman, a man coming home from the butchery of the Civil War to Ada, the woman he might love. Both have changed considerably during the years of the war. Inman has seen - and committed - terrible carnage, and Ada, an over-educated young woman, has had to become useful in ways she never anticipated, with the help of Ruby, who shows up to help, demanding that she never have to empty any night-soil jars but her own. To underscore the timeless theme of a man coming home from war, Ada and Ruby read the Odyssey together, but this isn't a book about archetypes but about particularity. Each character has stories to tell, stories of the past before the war, stories of what they have seen during the war, dreams for the future. But one of the most important characters is the landscape. These characters live fully in their surroundings and are aware of the plants and animals and mountains. Ruby is mostly uneducated but knows everything about farming and hunting and every type of tree and flower and herb. And the book is marvelously written - I kept wanting to reread passages or to read them aloud. There's enough action to satisfy the most bloodthirsty middle schooler but there's nothing cartoonish about any of it, and this book is definitely in the grown-up category. Cold Mountain is beautiful, uplifting, tragic, despairing, heartbreaking. Rick Bass is quoted on the back of the jacket as saying, "It seems even possible to never want to read another book, so wonderful is this one." I won't go that far, but I do highly recommend it.

Friday, September 04, 2009


Take a look at this if you need a reminder of what a difference food can make to the starving. On the sidebar, you can donate to Tara's marathon to help feed many more children in just as much need.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Poetry Friday

Today's poetry roundup is here.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Favorite Podcasts: The Story

I thought it might be fun to do a few posts on some of my favorite podcasts. Having something interesting to listen to is a good motivation for me to exercise. I look forward to riding on the exercise bike because I will have a few minutes to listen.

I have never listened to The Story on the radio, but only discovered it recently as a podcast. I don't find every single episode equally fascinating, but I think Dick Gordon is probably the most brilliant interviewer I have ever heard. He is able to get his guests to tell their stories in vivid detail. Some of the stories are about famous people but many of the most compelling are experiences of people you've never heard of before.

Here are some of my favorites:

Grizzly Bear Attack. This is one of the first ones I listened to, and you can tell from it just how good Dick Gordon is. This man is telling about something which happened to him in 1959, yet he remembers every detail. He actually remarks to Gordon that he has never told the story in this much detail before. Amazing.

Long Walk to a Better Life. This is the story of Jonathan Nkala, who made the journey from Zimbabwe to South Africa because of the intolerable situation in his own country. In the process he turns into a Dickensian hero. Again, amazing.

One True Conversation. An interview with Rupa Marya, a singer (her band is Rupa and the April Fishes) who is also a doctor. Fascinating ruminations on the connections between science and creativity. I went out and bought her CD, too, because I loved the music.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

First Day of School

And, we're back! Things went smoothly today except for a few glitches with the schedule - that is, which one we were following. It all worked out and a couple of seventh graders even told me they had had fun today. High praise indeed.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

What I Read this Summer, part 2

Book #33 of 2009 was Missing Persons, by Stephen White. I like these books about psychologist Alan Gregory.

Book #34, Innocent Traitor, by Alison Weir, was about Lady Jane Grey, who was Queen of England for nine days in 1554. Weir is an historian, and her portrayal of Grey is vivid and believable. Plus, I'm a sucker for books about the Tudor period.

Throne of Jade, book #35, and Black Powder War, book #37, were books two and three of the Temeraire series, by Naomi Novik (the first one in the series was the third book I read this year). I found my interest flagging a little during the third book. It's a fascinating premise - a retelling of the Napoleonic Wars, but with dragons.

Book #36 was The Senator's Wife, by Sue Miller. This author is great at writing about situations that are full of ambiguity, situations that make the reader feel uncomfortable. I guess her books are the opposite of escapist fiction. (The Good Mother is the prime example of this.) This one is about a couple who move in next door to the wife of a senator. We learn much more about both marriages as we see life from the perspectives of Meri, the young bride who has recently moved in, and Delia, the "Senator's Wife" of the title. All the characters are vividly drawn, and all are deeply flawed. Even though I knew something dreadful was ahead, I couldn't stop reading.

And as long as we're doing harrowing, book #38 was The Happy Room, by Catherine Palmer. This is the story of three siblings who face crisis as they attempt to come to terms with their upbringing as missionary kids. While my brain told me the ending was way over the top, my emotions cooperated fully with the author as I sobbed my way to the last page. It was brave of her to write this book, clearly based at least partly on her own experience.

This next book, #39, was probably the most intriguing one I've read so far this year. I hadn't quite finished reading it when we left my parents' state, so I took it with me, devoured the last couple of hundred pages in the car, and mailed it back. It was The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf, by Mohja Kahf, the story of another missionary kid, but this one is a Muslim. Khadra's Syrian parents move to Indiana to open the Dawah Center, whose goal is to provide support for Muslims living in the United States. I can't tell you how much I learned from this book: specifics about training Muslims receive in the faith, fascinating glimpses at the wide variety of American Muslims, details about the pros and cons of wearing hijab, and why someone would choose to do so. Yet in spite of the huge amount of new, mind-opening information, I can also relate to Khadra like a sister: the way she journeys through various aspects of her faith until she decides what she believes on her own, the way she navigates the expectations on her, the way she struggles with her identity as an adolescent growing up between two cultures. Her mother saves aluminum foil, just like Mrs. Mossman in The Happy Room; I think the Mossman siblings and Khadra would have a lot to talk about. I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to understand more about Islam in America by getting to know Khadra.

Book #40
was The Passion of Mary-Margaret, by Lisa Samson. Mary-Margaret is a religious sister with an unusual path. This is an unusual novel and I couldn't quite decide what I thought of it. It certainly kept me reading.

Book #41 was another Philippa Gregory book, The Other Queen. I have read many of hers in the past couple of years (here are the references to her so far in my blog). This one is about Mary, Queen of Scots. Once again, Gregory takes a familiar story (at least to me - see above) and puts a new twist on it. We see Mary Queen of Scots in her years of captivity and watch her enjoy the intrigue and plotting. We also see Elizabeth I as an insecure, frightened monarch. And we are introduced to Bess, a surprisingly modern woman who clings to Protestantism for her own reasons which are not all spiritual.

And to finish up my summer reading, since school starts on Tuesday and I doubt I will finish anything else before then, book #42, The House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros. This book keeps coming up lately: quotes from it, recommendations of it on my Amazon account, references to it in professional reading. Frankly, it was a bit of a disappointment. The book is beautifully written, of course, and there are memorable images in it - the homesickness of immigrants is always something I find compelling in books. However, I know it would not hold my students' attention, since it is far too lyrical for most of them and not at all plot-driven. I'm glad I read this one but I don't think I'll be reading it again.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

What I Read this Summer

The moment is almost here when I will take up stacks of papers with lists of the three books each student read over the summer. Before I have to read those, I should report on my own summer reading. I brought home a pile of professional books but ended up reading mostly fiction instead.

Book #26 of the year was The Mysterious Benedict Society, by Trenton Stewart, and # 27 was the second book in the series, The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey. My then-11-year-old recommended these, and I was also intrigued by this terrific review of the first book. I loved these tales of unlikely heroes and unconventional methods of problem-solving. There's humor and fantasy but the books are surprisingly affecting as well.

Book #28 was Broken Music, a memoir by Sting, whose music I enjoy. This was interesting but I honestly don't remember much about it except that it could have used a bit of editing for tense consistency - it frequently went back and forth between past and present.

Book #29, The Luxe, is one several of my students had been lugging around recently. One had been reading it for weeks and had provided almost daily updates to her neighbor at the beginning of class. It sounded to me like a soap opera with a historical setting, and sure enough - the book depicts rich, spoiled teenagers in "the age of innocence," and even begins with an epigraph from Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence. These girls aren't terribly innocent, though. While Edith Wharton is probably a more accurate source for the mores of 1899, as well as being infinitely more subtle, than this book, I could see why it kept my student's attention.

Book #30, White House Autumn, by Ellen Emerson White, is the story of a teenager whose mother is the President of the United States. I found the book a realistic portrayal of what it might be like for a young girl to attempt to live a normal life while under unusual pressures.

I almost didn't read book #31 because of its title, which struck me as overly cutesy and whimsical. I thought The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society would be a quite different kind of book. Although the word "charming" has been liberally applied in reviews, the main story is about a difficult time in history, the German occupation of the island of Guernsey during World War II. I was fascinated by the details of this time and found the epistolary style told the story well. An important theme is reading and the way books connect people. I recommend this one!

Next I finished off Susan Howatch's Church of England series, about which I wrote in more detail here, so book #32 was Absolute Truths.

So...there's a list of almost half the books I read over the summer. I'll write about the rest in another post.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

August 1st

Somehow I managed to go almost the whole summer without posting at all, but now that I am starting to gear up for going back to school, I have to show you the DP theme day. Today's theme is Night and that link will take you to thumbnails of the participants' photos. (You can also look at the July theme, Empty, which I neglected to post.)

Coming soon: a summer reading update.

Monday, June 01, 2009

June 1st

This is my first real day of vacation, after the hectic weekend of graduation and parties. So I have spent today cleaning and working at home. My closet is a thing of beauty now. The current job is going through my bedside heap of books.

I'm taking a quick break to post some things, though. First of all, as I do every month, I want to draw your attention to the Daily Photo blogs' theme day. Today's theme is "Feet," and you can see Eric's Parisian contribution here. You can see thumbnails of the other participants' photos here.

A cake-making and book-loving friend of mine sent me this next link, which improbably combines the two. The people over at Cake Wrecks were horrified by the quote from rapper Kanye West expressing his disdain for books, and responded by posting photos of cakes having to do with books.

And last, here I begged Suzanne Collins to come out quickly with the second Hunger Games book because my students were desperate to read it. Yesterday I read that the second book, Catching Fire, is coming out in September!

Saturday, May 23, 2009


I'm finishing up reading my students' final pieces from this quarter. Some are wonderful, but this is always a depressing time as I reflect on how little I seem to have taught so many of my adolescent writers.

Here's a quote from an article by Chris Crutcher that comforts me somewhat: "If we adults can remember how much adolescence is about process rather than content, we have a chance of opening enough lines of communication to be there when the tough stuff starts."

Friday, May 22, 2009

Small Steps

I asked my eighth graders to pick the final read-aloud for the year. I've been reading books aloud to them for two years and I've chosen all of them. Some they've liked, and some not so much. This was my last chance to read to them before I send them off to high school.

After several nominations and a vote, they chose Small Steps, by Louis Sachar. I had read it before, and reviewed it here. While reading it aloud, though, I came to regret my rather dismissive tone in that review. This book is a fabulous read-aloud. It has everything my eighth graders want: action, suspense, humor, engaging characters, and even romance. I finished it this morning, and they were on the edge of their seats. What a great ending to the year!

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Prayers for the Sick

It has always been difficult for me to find a balance between praying and worrying. Sometimes I have a tendency to start telling God how He should resolve the situation in all its awfulness, which leads me to focus on the awfulness, which leads me to fret, which, as scripture tells us, leads only to evil. This is especially true when the situation about which I am praying is something about which I have been attempting not to think too much, because it makes me sad and scared.

This is a time when written prayers help me, though I don't use them exclusively. Instead of focusing on the problem, I am led by the words to fix my thoughts on God's love, power, and faithfulness. I think of the many generations of Christians who have prayed the same words and who have found that God can be trusted for comfort and for answers.

If you, like me, are praying for the sick right now, here are some prayers from the The Book of Common Prayer which I have been finding useful.

Almighty God, we entrust all who are dear to us to thy never-failing care and love, for this life and the life to come, knowing that thou art doing for them better things than we can desire or pray for; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

O Father of mercies and God of all comfort, our only help in time of need: We humbly beseech thee to behold, visit, and relieve thy sick servant N. for whom our prayers are desired. Look upon him with the eyes of thy mercy; comfort him with a sense of thy goodness; preserve him from the temptations of the enemy; and give him patience under his affliction. In thy good time, restore him to health, and enable him to lead the residue of his life in thy fear, and to thy glory; and grant that finally he may dwell with thee in life everlasting, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Strengthen your servant N., O God, to do what he has to do and bear what he has to bear; that, accepting your healing gifts through the skills of surgeons and nurses, he may be restored to usefulness in your world with a thankful heart; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009


"Language is always available, even to the poor, and you can have as much of it as you want." United States Poet Laureate Kay Ryan in an interview with Jim Lehrer

Ryan is talking here about spoken language, not written; it's possible to be so poor that you don't get to go to school and written language may not be available to you. But the way people speak, the fascinating quirks and rhythms of words - that, she says, is the basis of poetry and is what made her start writing.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Reading Update, Continued

It took me a week, but I'm back to finish the update I started last Sunday.

Book #15 of 2009 was Lucas, by Kevin Brooks, an intense novel about the way people treat each other and particularly the way they treat those they don't understand. This is a YA title.

Book #16 was The Abstinence Teacher, by Tom Perrotta. As the title suggests, this novel tackles the issue of sex education. It also deals with religion and parenting. There's something here to offend everyone! Perrotta has created some complex characters who don't act predictably even when they are trying their hardest to stick to their beliefs; nobody looks very heroic. This book made me uncomfortable, which I would imagine was what the author had in mind. The portrayals of Christians put me on the defensive, and yet for the most part they seem to be straightforward, and not mocking.

Book #17 was Our Game, classic John Le Carré.

Book #18 was Rules of the Road, by Joan Bauer, another YA book. This is a road trip story, with a feisty heroine and lots of shoes. What's not to like?

Book #19 through book #23 were re-reads, the first five books of Susan Howatch's Church of England series: Glittering Images, Glamorous Powers, Ultimate Prizes, Scandalous Risks, and Mystical Paths. I love these books and have read the whole series more than once. They are highly entertaining page-turners, but with surprising depth, covering as they do the history of the Church of England for the past seventy years, various theological views, the exhaustingly eventful lives of a collection of complex characters (mostly members of the clergy), and many of the ways in which psychology and spiritual beliefs intersect. I particularly enjoy the masterful way Howatch shows us characters from different points of view; we see them from outside and from inside. Often someone is described with a sigh as being a person without problems, when we as readers know from a previous book about the harrowing crises this person has undergone.

Book #24 was Trouble, by Gary Schmidt. I enjoyed this book hugely, though I must say that my eighth graders found it rather slow going and got impatient with Schmidt's lyrical prose. However, they hung in there to the end to find out what would happen to the characters. There was one chapter, taking place entirely in a graveyard, that was among the most perfect I have ever read. This isn't as funny as The Wednesday Wars, but like that book it tackles all kinds of issues, this time including racism, privilege, and Cambodian history.

And, finally, book #25 was The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, by E. Lockhart. Frankie is a student at an exclusive prep school who decides that she wants to be taken seriously and who figures out how to achieve that. This book is funny and sad, with a heroine who is strong, sure of herself, vulnerable, not sure of herself, in love, wanting to be just what her boyfriend wants, realizing that being what her boyfriend wants isn't enough, smart, analytical...unforgettable. I'd recommend this to students slightly older than my eighth graders; there's a lot to talk about here.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Reading Update

Lately I have been kept busy by things mostly unbloggable - family illness, work work work, assorted frustrations - and meanwhile my list of books read has been growing and growing. I'm not sure I can fit them all in one post. Here goes...

Book #11 of this year was Miracle at Tenwek, a biography of missionary doctor Ernie Steury. I love missionary biographies and enjoyed this one especially as I was familiar with so many of the people and places in it.

Book #12 was Three Weeks with my Brother, my first Nicholas Sparks book. This one is a memoir, telling the story both of Sparks' trip around the world with his brother and the broader story of his family. I've read far better travel books, and most of the amazing places the men visited together didn't come alive at all with his descriptions, but as a story of how this family dealt with adversity, it was worth reading.

Book #13 was The Scent of Eucalyptus: A Missionary Childhood in Ethiopia, by Daniel Coleman. I loved this book and its nuanced, often ambiguous portrayal of a childhood between cultures.

Book #14, Armageddon Summer, is by Jane Yolen and Bruce Coville, two well-known YA writers. It's the story of two teenagers taken by their respective parents to a mountaintop to await the end of the world, forecast by Rev. Beelson. I have an eighth grader reading this right now, and he was drawn right in by the first chapter.

And I'll end this update in the manner of so many of my students' be continued...

Friday, May 01, 2009

Theme Day - Shadow

I almost forgot! Since it is the first of the month, it is a DP Blog theme day, and today's theme is Shadow. Here you can see thumbnails of the participants' photos.

Poetry Friday - Free Verse Photo Project

I posted earlier about the Poetry in the Wild contest, where people were challenged to write a line of poetry somewhere other than a page, and then document the results.

Here's one of the winners and here you can see thumbnails of many of the submissions.

Here's today's Poetry Friday roundup.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Happy birthday to Shakespeare, and to me

Today is Shakespeare's birthday, and it's also the anniversary of the day I started this blog. I've now been blogging for three years. Lately I have had a lot of silent spells, but I'm still around, reading what others have to say.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Poetry Friday - Abide with Me

The text of this hymn was written by Henry F. Lyte (1793-1847). Whenever I hear it, I think of evening chapels at boarding school. We would always sing it then, and those words, "fast falls the eventide," were then simply literal for me. I wanted God to be with me through the night, with its darkness and scary sounds. These days I think about it more metaphorically, and focus on the second stanza: "Change and decay in all around I see; O thou who changest not, abide with me."

It seems appropriate for Good Friday, but with strong echoes of Easter.

Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide.
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.

Swift to its close ebbs out life's little day;
Earth's joys grow dim; its glories pass away;
Change and decay in all around I see;
O thou who changest not, abide with me.

I need thy presence every passing hour.
What but thy grace can foil the tempter's power?
Who, like thyself, my guide and stay can be?
Through cloud and sunshine, Lord, abide with me.

I fear no foe, with thee at hand to bless;
Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness.
Where is death's sting? Where, grave, thy victory?
I triumph still, if thou abide with me.

Hold thou thy cross before my closing eyes;
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies.
Heaven's morning breaks, and earth's vain shadows flee;
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.

Link with music.

Here's this week's Poetry Friday roundup.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Children's Book Sequels That Never Were

You still have time to enter the Unnecessary Children's Book Sequels That Never Were contest. Or just to go over and read the hilarious entries people have already posted in the comments.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Save the Words!

I am sure you feel badly about many injustices in this world, but have you ever spared a thought for the words that are disappearing from our language each day? The Oxford Dictionaries people have brought us a new opportunity to do something about this tragedy. You can adopt a word and help bring it back into usage. All you have to do is commit to using the word "in conversation and correspondence" as frequently as possible.

Here at the Save the Words site, you can view the many words waiting for adoption, and hear their pitiful little voices begging you to "Pick me!" (Somehow, I would have expected words to be a bit more eloquent, but this is all they seem to be able to manage.)

I am still agonizing over which word to choose; there are so many worthy candidates, such as morsicant (producing the sensation of repeated biting or pricking), buccelation (the act of dividing into small bite-sized portions of food), and epalpabrate (lacking eyebrows). Isn't it hard to understand how these words have fallen out of use?

Go on, you know you want to adopt a word.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Poetry Friday - Prufrock

Today in the mail I got my copy of Voices from the Middle, the magazine for teachers of middle school language arts put out by the National Council of Teachers of English. The topic of this issue, is, of course, poetry. It looks like there's lots of good reading in it, though I haven't started in yet.

In the center of the magazine there's a poster for National Poetry Month. I love this year's image.

Here you can see photos submitted to a contest called Free Verse: Poetry in the Wild contest. Participants were supposed to take a picture of a line of poetry "off the page," like in the image above.

"Do I dare disturb the universe?" What a question! It's quoted from The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, by T.S. Eliot. When my son (aged 6) saw the poster, he laughed and said that he thought his sister would say that he disturbs the universe. J. Alfred Prufrock didn't quite dare. Poor old J. Alfred.

I remember the brilliant lecture on this poem in my American Literature class in college as though I had heard it much more recently than twenty years ago. Several quotes from this poem come to my mind frequently: "In the room the women come and go, talking of Michelangelo," "I have heard the mermaids calling, each to each - I do not think they will sing for me," "I have measured out my life with coffee spoons," and, most frequently, "I grow old, I grow old, I wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled."

Here's the beginning of the poem:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question…
Oh, do not ask, "What is it?"
Let us go and make our visit.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

You can read the rest here.

And here's today's Poetry Friday roundup.