April 29, 2008

may poll

Okay, it's not yet May (and apparently I'm a poet ... yada yada.) But I thought I should expand on my poll (sidebar) so you know what you're voting for, you three people who will inevitably cave in and humor me with a vote.

My selections for travel writing are based on stuff I was so jazzed to find on Amazon but never got around to reading. Mostly Bill Bryson stuff. Here's the list:

In a Sunburned Country, Bill Bryson, and please don't comment on the fact that I've been reading the first three chapters for years now.
Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe, Bill Bryson
I'm a Stranger Here Myself, Bill Bryson
Blue Latitudes, Tony Horwitz
Baghdad Without a Map, Tony Horwitz
Sex Lives of Cannibals, J. Maarten Troost
Walking to Canterbury, Jerry Ellis

My selections for Gabriel Garcia Marquez include, again, stuff on the shelf that I need to dig into:

Love in the Time of Cholera or One Hundred Years of Solitude
Memories of My Melancholy Whores
Innocent Erendira

Autobiography /memoir selections:

Personal History, Katherine Graham
The Opposite of Fate, Amy Tan
Lucky, Alice Sebold
Her Last Death*, Susanna Sonnenberg

Historical Nonfic menu:

Sex with the Queen, Eleanor Herman
Mayflower, Nathaniel Philbrick
His Excellency: George Washington, Joseph J. Ellis
All the Daring of the Soldier: Women of the Civil War Armies, Elizabeth D. Leonard

Ray Bradbury titles:

A Medicine for Melancholy and Other Short Stories or The Illustrated Man
Dandelion Wine
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Should be an interesting month. Vote!

* Would have to acquire.

spring kidlit spree

Friday April 25 to Friday May 2 has been declared YA Fiction Week. By me.

Kicked off on Friday with No Talking, followed by Oggie Cooder (effectively, a comic book in words about a "talented" misfit's harebrained brush with fame) on Sunday. Yesterday I read Minerva Clark Goes to the Dogs, whose protagonist - struggling with a diamond mystery, an electronics class forced on her by a well-meaning brother acting in loco parentis, and a doofus boy who won't call her from his family trip to Montana - has a voice reminiscent of Sharon Creech's Mary Lou Finney. Today it'll be The Killing Sea by Richard Lewis (check out his very cool page), or Deep Down Popular by Phoebe Stone. Depends if I'm in the mood for global tragedy or middle school tragedy.

Update: Don't judge 'Tween Lit by its cover. Deep Down Popular it is, and at page 58 I am already pleasantly surprised. I was all set to snicker right through it - the cover and title suggest a "Hills"-esque view of the shallow life on the middle school fast track - but it is set in the (fictional) town of West Taluka Falls, Virginia, not LA, and it explores (in unexpected ways) themes of family and friendship. It also features a twist on the ever-elusive creature so many fifth-graders seek: popularity. So far the week's protagonists (with the exception of Clements' Dave Packer) are all archetypal misfits of one kind or another, although Minerva (what with her electroshock-induced confidence) is less inclined to care what the Popular kids think of her and Oggie is simply oblivious to Donnica's nastiness. Jessie Lou, a "sorry Southern tomboy," is so far the closest to my heart.

April 25, 2008

hail the unshushables

So Andrew Clements has written a book about my class: "[N]one of these kids really meant to be disrespectful or disobedient or discourteous. But none of them wanted to stop talking. Ever." I sat down and consumed No Talking in an hour ... and thought, what would it take for Real Live Children to be galvanized into a movement of self-imposed silence?

The phrase "you have the right to remain silent" takes on a whole new meaning (and is shouted quite poignantly) in this book - which I wholeheartedly recommend to anyone who's ever been a kid who would or could not shut up, and any parent or teacher who's ever fought (and even succumbed to) the urge to bellow, Kindergarten Cop-style, "SHUUUUUUUUUT UUUUUUUUUUUP!" at their own unshushables.

I laughed at Mrs. Hiatt, the administrator with the bullhorn, because she so reminded me of a principal I once worked under. She measured her success as an administrator by the volume of her cafeteria at lunchtime. She, too, carried a bullhorn. She, too, was slightly off her rocker. But unlike Mrs. Hiatt, she retired before ever realizing that she was a bully with a bullhorn and a worthless mission.

Like The Last Holiday Concert's Hart Evans, No Talking's Dave Packer is creative, perceptive, and willing to provoke and challenge authority figures for the sake of defending a principle. Like Frindle's Lorelei Granger, I hug my dictionary and lie in wait for the day my kids figure out that this is what I want from them.

Mayhaps I'll pick up Lunch Money again. My faith in Andrew Clements has been restored.

all set for the weekend

Got a jump on Water for Elephants in crazy Friday traffic this afternoon. Reminds me of the part in my favorite Anne Tyler novel (what does not remind me of an Anne Tyler novel?), A Patchwork Planet, where Barnaby advises the reader: "I'm telling you, don't ever get old!" The way Sara Gruen's Jacob describes it, aging is a mighty injustice. Nothing dignified or beautiful about it - makes you want to take the other way out. But then, I am only on page 16.

I know I won't be able to resist No Talking this weekend either - it's about a girls-vs-boys contest to see which group can talk less one school day. I love these Clements characters - creative, innovative, and enterprising - the kind most adults quash in defense of the status quo and of themselves, because without all traditional standards of the teacher-student hierarchy in place, they just don't know how to deal.

Scott is camping with friends this weekend and I am alone for - minus a packed Saturday day - two nights and a half day's worth of wordy bliss.


April 23, 2008

the roots of booky goodness

Scholastic Book Fair is the main event in these parts this week ... here is my preliminary list: No Talking!, Andrew Clements; 101 Ways to Love A Book, Mary Englebreit; Bad Dog, Marley!, John Grogan; Water for Elephants, Sarah Gruen; The Blood of Flowers, Anita Amirrezvani; Oggie Cooder, Sarah Weeks; Walk On! A Guide for Babies of All Ages, Marla Frazee.

A few notes.

My favorite Andrew Clements character so far has been Mrs. Lorelei Granger. I want to toughen up - I want to be that teacher. None of the books after Frindle really grabbed me - except for The Last Holiday Concert - but I stock my classroom with them because they are full of great role models. Even the troublemakers are great role models.

I do not really like Mary Englebreit products - they are too Country Fair for me in general - but this book had some really neat ideas for the classroom.

I thought the children's adaptation of Marley would suck, but it is hilarious.

I pass up Water for Elephants at Sam's Club in favor of some other book every time I go. Might as well finally pick it up and let the school profit from my indulgence.

Oggie Cooder charves. What's your hidden talent?

Walk On - thinly-disguised life lesson, but so charming and so true. I will replace the mean NO-WHINE ZONE poster I made with several copies of this book.

postscript: Queued are -- No Talking, Water for Elephants, The Blood of Flowers, Oggie Cooder, and a book on the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia. <-- written by a volunteer worker who saw the aftermath in Aceh up close. I cannot find a link or any information on this book anywhere online. I swear it exists. It's downstairs in my pile.

Anyway, the pile grows from Monday through Friday, the day I make my final selections based (loosely) on how many Scholastic certificates the kids donate to the class. So far we are at Wednesday, $25.00. No Talking, Oggie Cooder, Walk On!, and 101 Ways to Love a Book are top pri.

April 17, 2008

waddy and me

I rushed through the second half of Marley and Me for two reasons: 1) I had purloined my brother's copy and needed to stealthily return it, and 2) I wanted to soften the blow of Marley's impending death. I almost had to leave the bedroom to finish it because I did not want to explain myself to Scott if my crying woke him at 1 in the morning. I solved the problem by placing the book on the floor and leaning over the edge of the bed to read, which created a new problem involving gravity, tears, and snot - and once-pristine pages being wrinkled by their synergy.

Though I have recommended Marley to all the dog lovers I work with, I also passed along a few caveats, which made me seem less like a dog lover (keep reading for more on that thought) and more like a general hater. Who does not unconditionally love the story of the big, dopey yellow Lab? Uh ... me. The book is not earth-shattering in its conclusions; it's not even extraordinarily well-written. And much as I liked and rooted for the Grogans themselves, gifted ultimately with the experience of the pure-hearted Marley, I found them to be unbelievably naive at so many parts of the story. From their rationale for getting a dog (something like, "I suck at raising plants! Let's get a dog!") to their method of puppy selection (something like, "The dog that's not smart enough to run away when you pretend to attack it is the one for us!") ... There were points at which I wanted to write a letter to the Grogans chastising them for the stupidity that is leaving babies in the care of a 97-pound Lab who enjoyed nipping at their diapers. There were points at which I wondered if the Grogans' three kids would ever resent that a memoir about the dog became a New York Times bestseller, while one about them would probably never be written.

If Marley were fiction, its fatal flaw would have been the human characters' "philosophical" attitudes toward Marley and his behavior; the author's insistence on romanticizing the dog as well as the entire situation. Since it's non-fiction, I constantly wondered what universe these people were living in. I realize you're trying to sell a comic-tearjerker-memoir, here, but they seemed to live on the brink of an entirely other reality. One in which property damage, expensive repairs, and social disasters were all events worthy of a philosophical chuckle too shortly after the initial oh shit. So at some point Jenny melts down, pummels the dog, and demands that he be removed from the home. In a few pages it's all chalked up to postpartum depression and is never mentioned again.

I had, not long before reading it, vowed that if I came across one more "My dog has taught me ..." column in my life, I'd swear off the features section of that paper forever. On that premise, I would never have bought this book to begin with. And I didn't, actually, buy this book. It was lying there on my brother's desk a few days after its purchase from Sam's Club. And so I picked it up, and read it all the way through - and felt, acutely, the family's grief (the children's at losing a sibling, the couple's at losing their first child). It is the story of everyone who has ever had to let go of a dog they've loved - naughty or angelic, purebred or mutt, reserved or gregarious, gargantuan or pocket-sized - and so it's my story, as well as that of so many others I know.

Here's my "What I Learned," or rather, "Two Things I Learned" from Marley and Me. The first one is a startling revelation, actually: I am not a dog lover. I loved my old dogs; they were a gentle, sweet pit bull and a loyal, undemanding pit-lab with no behavior problems save going a little nutso on New Year's Eve - nothing a few kisses and some beer wouldn't take care of. I love my Bentley because he picked me, and because he's some kind of stodgy old person in a young dog's body. I love Kona because he was just so git-danged happy to go home with us that day that he couldn't stop smiling. Or peeing. But ... I do not love dogs in general. I don't like the smell of unwashed dog, and I'm not one of those ladies in the park who lets other people's dogs slobber all over them. I don't even let my dog slobber on me. I don't like rambunctious dogs (I had no flippin' idea what to do with, and therefore sort of detested, my client-friends' 110-lb. Weimaraner mix) and I don't like tiny, yappy things that can't learn - where to take a crap, what's actually edible, etc. (Early on, I thought Kona would fall into that category. Fortunately, he filled out, stopped yapping, and learned to crap outside. He hasn't stopped eating cat litter, though.) The bottom line is I can think as many dogs I dislike as dogs I like.

However, I know that dogs will always be in my life. Because of Scott; because even though I may not be a dog lover, I can't resist a puppy; because I've never not had a dog. Which brings me to the second thing I learned: I have not yet found what Ian Bedloe in Anne Tyler's Saint Maybe calls "the dog of [my] life" - as in, the dog that is just mine, who loves everyone but waits mainly for me, you know, that dog. I don't believe I'll go looking for that dog; I think that dog will find me, someday, somehow.

Until then, I'll try to love the dogs in my life right now a little better. Last night after Marley died I took Kona out of his sleepy box, turned off the light, and brought him to bed. I wrapped my arms around him and told him that like Marley, he was a great dog, because I didn't want him to hear it for the first time on his deathbed. He tolerated my maudlin behavior for about three minutes, then wriggled away and went to sleep at my feet.

Oh, the dogs of our lives.

April 16, 2008

words and "we"s*, installment 2: The Ken Momochi Files

Ken Momochi and I met in October 2001 at Bamboo Ridge's "Try Write!", a festival-institute of sorts for anyone local who'd ever wanted to put pen to paper. In attendance were struggling writers, published writers, prolific published writers, dreamers, posers, and no shortage of weirdos. (It was held at UHM's Campus Center, after all.)

I was a poser - having written scads of stories and poems as a kid, the usual melodramatic journals, essays, short stories and letters in high school, and four well-liked (by a total of three professors) short stories in college, I fancied myself in the struggling writer bin, but really, I was a poser. My writing had turned from creative to pandering - online journaling, cute-ifying my prose or using words as cheap barbs, forgetting how to think privately and therefore create true substance.

I was happy to be there, though - I felt like it might be the start of a new era. There was a vibe to the gathering that I can't quite describe. It was just a month after 9/11; everything was fresh and raw, and - even in the islands, so remote from New York - larger than life. Healing had been the theme of the presentations the night before. I had come alone and stayed that way for most of the morning, happy as a clam to keep to myself - my cup of coffee and I - just people watching, eavesdropping, popping in and out of lectures and workshops.

It's true that every good friend was once a stranger. I do not know who broke the ice first when I met K in a food writing workshop, although I think it must have been him because I was intent on staying in my clamshell. But we ended up sitting next to each other, and it was not a workshop in which you could remain silent. It was hokey, and required hokey discussion. We gamely ate whatever weird morsels they passed around in tiny tupperware containers, exclaiming and writing silly prose about dried melon getting stuck in my teeth (for him it was, "I don't KNOW what green tea sounds like in my mouth!") ... Later, I divulged that I thought the workshop had sucked, and he said he'd liked it, and thus, from the very start, we were friends who did not always have to agree.

We had lunch with a mutual friend; it was over cold teri beef and warm Pepsi that I found out K was at the institute because he wanted to write a memoir for a friend who had recently passed away in a diving accident. The three of us decided to form a writers' group - something I desperately missed about the English program I'd just graduated from - and started meeting a few weeks later.

So, it's been six-plus years of a friendship built on a love of words and a desire to create them. The friendship grew in large part because, as he puts it, we are black sheep of sorts who are often accused of not trying hard enough to conform, who don't know (or, in our approach to and journey through 30-dom, care much about having) just the right thing to say at just the right time. Somehow, we have always worked so well as friends, and many times I thought we'd be great colleagues or business partners. We have written together, recommended books and authors to each other (he rekindled my interest in Chaucer and introduced me to Jhumpa Lahiri), built a mental bookstore together, argued about books and authors over chai tea lattes, and at the height of a two-year interlude (for lack of a better word) of dating, we even read to each other weekly - most memorably, all but a chapter of Because of Winn-Dixie. (We never read the last chapter because he went and saw the movie before we finished the book, which pissed me off, and as punishment I refused to read the rest of the book with him. Don't laugh.)

In the NYT feature about dating (or dumping) according to literary tastes, Anna Fels calls scoping out another person's taste in books "a bit of a Rorschach test." While I cannot abide K's taste in movies - the first time he Kind Of Sort Of asked me out, he asked if I'd like to see "Brother Bear" - I loved the fact that he would read and could enjoy about anything, from a Kate DiCamillo Newbery Honor book to modern Indian American short stories. Sure, one could say this is like having no taste at all, no literary personality. You could also call it an adventurous spirit, a mind open to the telling of countless other lives, a willingness to take in and consider - before, while, or sometimes instead of putting one's own art - and life - out there for scrutiny and validation.

Someday, I'm going to read K's memoir for Richie (as well as his current project, a creative take on the medieval allegory Psychomachia). I forgot to mention that in that amalgam of characters at the institute, K definitely sat amongst the dreamers, and, were he to go back, would be included amongst the writers.

Life, not our literary tastes, keeps us apart, and I do already miss talking about books, amusement parks, and life in that funny way that only two black sheep that have found friendship in each other can.

April 14, 2008

find of the day: gutenberg.org

Free e-books ... I have died and gone to that place in the sky where you don't have to sneak your books into the house because you didn't pay for them with that month's grocery money. (Because "where is human nature so weak as in the bookstore?" - Henry Ward Beecher.)

"'I shan't cry but act; for it is high time I was off.'

Christie was one of that large class of women ... earnest and true-hearted, and driven by necessity, temperament, or principle out into the world to find support, happiness, and homes for themselves. Many turn back discouraged; more accept shadow for substance, and discover their mistake too late; the weakest lose their purpose and themselves; but the strongest struggle on, and, after danger and defeat, earn at last the best success this world can give us, the possession of a brave and cheerful spirit, rich in self-knowledge, self-control, self-help. This was the real desire of her heart; this was to be her lesson and reward, and to this happy end she was slowly yet surely brought by the long discipline of life and labor."

- Work: A Story of Experience, Louisa May Alcott

"Welcome to the world of free plain vanilla electronic texts," indeed. I truly may never rise from this chair.

April 13, 2008

the view from saturday

And now, for a young adult novel that will never be made into a movie because the characters could not possibly be embodied by human child-actors, all the special effects are words that can never be replicated by moving pictures, and so much of what pushes the story forward is interal, within one of the four "Souls" or Mrs. Eva Marie Olinksy, their teacher.

Are you listening, powers that be? Please don't let anyone try to make a movie out of this story. My mental casting agent is having a field day with Hamilton Knapp and his father (Tom Felton and Jason Isaacs; mental casting agent and I are very sorry for the lack of creativity there) - but not one of the four Souls can be cast. Because they are, as so many reader-reviewers point out, so not actual sixth graders. Sublimely wise; ethereally composed. Unbelievably perceptive, too mature. Too quick-thinking, and way too considerate. Too intelligent, and far too worldly. Where - gasp - would you find such kids, the ones who would know the origins of obscure acronyms, kids for whom science and activism are a lifestyle, kids who have had life experiences outside a house, away from a television set? OK, so these aren't your sixth graders (neither, I will point out, is the opposite end of the spectrum of manners, Maniac Magee), but that's exactly the value of this book - any of the Souls might be a YA reader's first literary hero.

I do not deny that Harry Potter is infinitely more probable than Julian Singh, but one can always hope.

Konigsburg doesn't set out to create role models, she just happens to have created four of the finest, all in one book. I thought I should say that because she's not an author who tiresomely moralizes, separating (or even classifying) "good" and "bad." Hamilton Knapp doesn't get beat up, sent to the principal's office, or grounded, but readers do see what he has lost out on by being what he is. The Souls win the competition but the rewards are intrinsic - friendship and honor speak for themselves, volumes louder than a plaque or standing ovation.

I came upon Konigsburg not in elementary school but in one of my favorite M.Ed. classes ever (well, favorite ever if you don't count Todd Chow-Hoy's "let's all get out of here by 7 p.m." Ed Research class): Children's Literature taught by Sherry Rose, a Farrington High School English teacher and self-described kook. According to Maurice Sendak, you can't write for children - "... [T]hey are too complicated. You can only write books that are of interest to them") - and I have a particular love for great authors and illustrators who write books of interest to children without talking downward or diluting truths. E.L. Konigsburg quickly became one of my favorites. Some of her books I couldn't get through (Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth, for one) and I haven't yet read her latest, The Mysterious Edge of the Heroic World (sounds Murakamian!), but was floored (and made more than slightly uncomfortable) by Silent to the Bone* and have its prequel, The Outcasts of 19 Schuyler Place, on deck.

The View from Saturday is by far my favorite Konigsburg. So many ELK fans seem to dislike this story, calling it boring, unrealistic and unworthy of the (1997) Newbery Medal. I completely disagree - and would like to know how four sixth-graders forming an Academic Bowl team and sincere friendships is less realistic than, say, an eleven-year-old girl fed up with her family running away to live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC with her precocious little brother for a week (From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, 1968 Newbery winner by ELK. Also a beloved book in my stash, though I didn't read it till I was in grad school.) Each character's singular quirks and their life experiences - funny, painful, joyous - contribute to each one's ability to answer the Academic Bowl questions he or she is given. In the chapter entitled "Nadia Tells of Turtle Love," Nadia Diamonstein describes sea turtles' migration to the Sargasso Sea and, after battling hurt feelings she'd rather deny, finally sees a parallel between their journey and human journeys in which change, compromise and sacrifice for the sake of family and love are everyday necessities.

Nadia, for whatever reason, does not use contractions (as in, she'll say "she will" instead of "she'll"). She's smart and prickly-sensitive, and, were she a real live sixth grader in a real live sixth grade class, she'd probably be scorned and shunned for her intelligence and ostensible self-righteousness. Fortunately, Mrs. Olinsky (perhaps the only adult as smart as Nadia in this book) can see what many real live sixth grade teachers of real live sixth grade classes probably wouldn't. This is another facet of the gem that is TVFS - ELK creates four surprising, perceptive individuals (the "Souls") - and dreams up the teacher so many of us want to be. Intuitive, resilient, human, and at the end of the day, right.

The View from Saturday sparkles - because of Nadia (she has a halo, you know) and for many other reasons. At the risk of sounding like a bad elementary school book report closer, please read this book. For a synopsis and sharp analysis, please read this article. And if you must read an official review, please read this one (but ignore Beth Gutcheon calling one of the principal characters "little Noah Gershom." Thank you.

*Silent to the Bone. Highly as I regard this YA novel, I cannot bring it into my fifth-grade classroom. A handful of my children are not yet ready for it, and several dozen handfuls of adults I can think of will never be ready for it. It is for mature audiences, to be sure, not only because of references to sexual abuse and mind games played against children, but also because the theme of silence as communication is so complex. There's much to be learned from STTB about compassion, integrity, and respect - which is why I'd have it in my classroom library, no question, if not for the aforementioned issues.

April 11, 2008


The saddest number in my life might be the books read to books owned ratio - about 1:5 at any given time. I've tried forbidding myself to buy any more books until I've finished reading the ones I have - and that, in my favorite used bookstore or airport newsstand or (worst of all) the Buy 2 Get the 3rd half off table at either of the big Bs, becomes "Oh, well maybe what it should be is that I should not buy any books unless I haven't started any of the ones I already have." Into the canvas bag goes the desired book (go the desired books?). They arrive at their new home, where I tickle the first 15 or so pages, go "I'm SO glad I got this!" and pop it onto the shelf next between my dust-coated psych textbooks and my unread collection of CS Lewis (which has its own special spot because I really do mean to read those, they're perpetually "next on my list").

So, a progress report on what's listed on my Facebook "shelf" as Currently Reading:

Eat Pray Love. I'm freaking finally in Indonesia. I don't know why something this readable is taking me so long to get through. Maybe it's because of how slowly I savored Elizabeth Graham's trek through Italy, hoping she'd just keep eating (and forget she was supposed to also pray and love.)

The Audacity of Hope. Politically disinclined though I am, I bought and started reading it because I had to know what was behind the impressively delivered words of this politician who has so much of the jaded populace buying into his version of the tired message that things can be better than they are. And though I've only canvassed 47 pages, I don't care how many skeptical pundits dismiss Obama's sweeping statements as substance-free - we as a nation lack passion, we lack hope, and even if hope is all he is capable of providing (which I seriously doubt, but I'll have to read more than his book to get a better feel), we'll be stronger than we are right now.

Digging to America. No progress whatsoever. I still revisit my old Anne Tyler books - just pick one up and read a random page while brushing my teeth or eating my cereal - but ever since Back When We Were Grownups left such a weird taste in my mouth, I've stopped religiously waiting for the next Tyler to come out, and pick them up when they're, well, on that Buy 2, etc. table. (I thought I'd love this one, incidentally. Being a Korean adoptee myself, I thought it would be the novel that would lure me back in to Anne Tyler's Baltimore ... so far, not yet.) Visual Bookshelf thoughtfully e-mails users when a book has been on the "Currently Reading" shelf for more than a week. I guess I should take this one down.

Son of a Witch
. I opened the book, said "Who the hell's Oatsie Manglehand?" and reached for Wicked, which apparently I need to re-read. Note to self: Don't read stuff you want to remember while vacationing in Vegas.

April 10, 2008

the verdict, which is witches

Poll closed. Last night, on my way to dinner with my friend A (who might be the subject of my next "Words and We's" installment) I stopped at Borders and finally scooped up Son of a Witch. It didn't occur to me that I'd find it in fantasy/sci-fi so I scanned the general lit shelf from Debbie Macomber to Norman Mailer in a panic, finding nothing Maguire, muttering to myself, "Not even one stupid copy of Wicked?!" ... Of course when I discovered my error (my error? Debbie Macomber should be shelved in fantasy if you ask me), I had to dig through a freaking mountain of Broadway-cover-designed editions of Wicked.

Continuing with the L. Frank Baum motif I'm trying to keep going, I also picked up Witches Abroad by British author Terry Pratchett, with whom I am not acquainted, but hope that I'll love because it would be nice to get into someone of whose work there is just ... so much. It's been a long time since I've come across an author whose books I'd pounce on as soon as they came out in godforsaken hardcover. There is Nick Hornby - hilarious, accurate, sublime - but not prolific, exactly. I want MORE. I want this pile of books that seems never to end. Kind of like when I went to Goodwill with my godmother one day in my childhood and found a whole shelf of Choose Your Own Adventure books and bought them all and went through them like a worm. I want to discover a fun author with abundant works and recurring characters, and try as I might, I just can't get back into the Baby-Sitters Club. (I have, seriously, tried.)

A few years back I had horrible drive-thru coffee drinks (pink chai! ai!) with an acquaintance named Wendell, who so wanted me to stop reading Amy Tan and Anne Tyler novels that he gave me his copies of Neil Gaiman's Stardust and Terry Pratchett's The Color of Magic, both of which he happened to be carrying in his backpack. I fell asleep on Stardust and never even picked up the Pratchett, but if Witches Abroad rocks my weekend, I'll have to go find Wendell's book and maybe even drop him a line.

After an impulse grab (Milan Kundera's Identity, which in all honesty scared the crap out of me on a mere skim and so probably will never be picked up again), my gift card leftover is $11.93. Sweet.

April 9, 2008

(s)he's just not that into you, jr.

Of course he has time to write books. He's nine. (I'm not bitter.) You've got to scroll down a ways in this CNN transcript, but it's worth it (especially when he tries to convince Betty Nguyen that it's OK - better even! - to be a regular girl than a pretty girl). The kid's really a kid, and hopefully HarperCollins will let that kid-ness ring true when they market this book.

I'd love for ^my kids^ to read something published by a 9-year-old, except I don't know if I want to be the teacher pointing them toward what is basically a guidebook to scoring on the playground.

April 8, 2008

i miss being required to read

Commencement, 2001. The greatest thing about being an English major is that you are expected to read - and write - all the freaking time. Of course when you're going through this, it is pure hell and no one can tell you anything different. I did, however, fully appreciate being read to, and to this day cannot forget being enraptured by Dr. Mark Herberle's Beowulf. I've never read it through all the way by myself; 1) I am lazy and 2) I stubbornly cling to the most unlikely of hopes that someday, somewhere, I will sit in (or be invited to or sneak into) an early English lit class and have Beowulf's funeral read to me once more. That's all I want when I die ... for someone to be reading an old English epic to me in an accent so authentic it sounds nothing like English. I wish I could write a scholarly blog entry on B but alas, all I seem to have taken from the actual poem were 1) an as yet unfulfilled desire to listen to the whole text by a crackling English fire, over and again and 2) an immature and thankfully short-lived delight in referring to everyone I disliked as "Grendel's mother."

A short list of other loves cultivated in the UHM English program:

  • Tennyson's "Lady of Shallott" (my reason for picking up Libba Bray's A Great and Terrible Beauty)
  • Alice in Wonderland
  • Overmicrowaved Sodexho-Marriott chicken sandwiches
  • Stephen Canham quizzes. Example of a bonus question after a quiz on Lord Byron's dramatic poem Manfred: "Name the British pop band Manfred Mann's greatest hit." (A: "Do Wah Diddy-Diddy")
  • Poe's "The Bells." Who does not love the word tintinnabulation?
  • Christopher Marlowe conspiracy theories
  • Amy Tan novels. They were what I'd use to wash down everything on the next list.

A much shorter list of allergies cultivated in the UHM English program:

  • Flannery O'Connor and pretty much all Southern Lit except "A Tree. A Rock. A Cloud."
  • commas
  • Mos Burger
  • Arthur Miller

April 7, 2008

words and "we"s*, installment 1: The College Ex

Here is a memory that is either sweetly idyllic or obviously foreboding, depending on whether you look at the scene or analyze the words (and, I guess, on how you feel about Pablo Neruda). It was raining, so The College Ex and I were holed up in his Moiliili apartment one weekend afternoon. He was sleepy; I was sitting up in bed reading The Captain's Verses. I could hear the rain on the tin roof covering the neighbor's shed. I read him "Si Tu Me Olvidas" as he drifted off; he said it was beautiful and I should read - and speak - in Spanish more often. This poem, about deep - but conditional - love was how I felt about him. "If suddenly you forget me, do not look for me, for I shall already have forgotten you." I reasoned that people in such love as I was in with him are likely, by Murphy's Law, to be fallen out of love with (PLEASE pardon my construction) - and, given any indication that this was going to happen to me, would have pre-empted any such strike by leaving first. I did not read him the English translation.

I won't go into details about what did finally kill our relationship, but there were plenty of times I thought the contradistinction of our reading habits would do it. For example, of the five Anne Tyler novels I love and have read many times apiece, my favorite is Saint Maybe. To give him credit, he did read the book (since I wouldn't stop talking about how much I'd loved it since I'd discovered Anne Tyler via a high school reading list.) "So?" I asked, when he'd finished. "Well," he said. "Um. I kept waiting for something to happen, and nothing ever did." I could not understand. Lots of things happened in the book. It's a story built around a man's guilt after he causes his brother to commit suicide. Years go by. Entire flocks of children are raised. They have conversations that are hilariously sad. Things are realized. Atonement is desired and made. TCE didn't think years of children, conversations, or an ongoing, desperate desire for forgiveness counted as anything happening, and there we stood - him at the edge of Baltimore, wanting to come in but not seeing the point, and me, no longer willing to loan him any more Anne Tyler books.

He found pleasure in reading, but only when forced to read in the first place. TCE liked Ray Bradbury, he just didn't know it. What I mean is, when I asked him one day what his favorite book was, he said he didn't have one but that he did like this futuristic story he once read about a man whose tattoos come alive. I was intrigued and pressed him for details so I could find the story and read it. I remember having my first serious doubts about our future the moment he said, "I know! I think it was John Steinbeck."

The beginning of the end, that was. It turned out he was talking about "The Illustrated Man," which was funny because he had recently loaned me the one book he'd ever actually gone out and bought, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and had not made the connection. Our relationship ended when he let me go (and so it didn't matter if I was too big for my tiny literary britches after all), and it ended with a realization that only fortunate people have when they break up:

"Aquella que tu amas, no es mujer para ti, por que la quieres?"
"The one you love is not a woman for you, why do you love her?"

-Pablo Neruda, "Y Porque Amor Combate"

*This blog miniseries brought to you by ... a British online paper?

April 5, 2008

dogs of our lives

John Grogan, on the "Damn, isn't married life great?" dieffenbachia he bought for his wife, which met its demise in much the same way many of my own leafy green friends have: "She had adored both the gesture and the plant ... Then she promptly went on to kill my gift to her with an assassin's coldhearted efficiency. Not that she was trying to; if anything, she nurtured the poor thing to death. ... Now here she was, somehow making the cosmic leap of logic from dead flora in a pot to living fauna in the pet classifieds. Kill a plant, buy a puppy. Well, of course it made perfect sense."

It's like my college self watching an episode of "Sex in the City," going, Carrie is me! Neurotic fool in love with big bad Big! ... Except here I'm wanting to shout, Jen Grogan is me! Neurotic fool who thought she could raise a dog when she couldn't even stop overwatering a plant!

It was an odd afternoon: Mart and I went to Sam's Club where he bought a book and I ... didn't. Typical trip to Sam's with Scott: After wandering around the aisles poring over the cheapest cleaning products possible and consuming an entire dinner's worth of frozen food samples, we lament our general lack of funds - and then he looks the other way while I throw a paperback book into the cart just before we check out. I don't dig the Sam's Club staples: local cookbooks, every Jodi Picoult novel ever written, and entire pallets of Tuesdays With Morrie. But usually there are at least a couple of things I can't not buy. Example triumphs: a John Adams biography; Blue Latitudes by the hilarious Tony Horwitz; The Money Book for the Young, Fabulous, and Broke by Suze Orman.

Anyway, today Mart picked up Marley & Me, which I shrugged off as a Book Club darling (yes, I am the same person who decided to inaugurate this blog with Sweet Valley Twins). I decided to save my pocket change for Jamba Juice. Just skimming it tonight after dinner, though, reminds me that snobbery toward books can lead to great losses. From reading three randomly flipped-to pages, I can see that this is a book I will see myself in, learn from, and have an awesome time reading.

There were times in the first year of Jug ownership that I despised our dog. Though I didn't demand his eviction like Jen demanded Marley's, there were times I fantasized about leaving the front door open and hoping Kona would find his way into the elevator and down to the ground floor, where one of the 145 or so people in this building who think he is so gosh darned cute would scoop him up and steal him. I am coming to terms with the dog; I think I even love him now, as all dog owners should love their dogs. But I can't wait to read about other souls in this world who at any point in their lives may have felt the same way about their dog as I did about mine.

Unfortunately of course Mart has first crack at Marley and Me, but as soon as I can get my hands on it, I will.

come in, it said, come in

The origin of my URL is the principal character of Sharon Creech's The Wanderer, which I recommend to my students every year. (So far no one seems to have developed as personal a connection with it as I have, but I'm still hoping. I love this book.) Sophie at 13 is so many things that I at nearly 30 am still trying to be. Along with E.L. Konigsburg's Nadia Diamondstein and Claudia Kincaid, Maurice Sendak's Ida, Andrew Clements' Nick Allen, and Creech's own Rosie of Granny Torrelli Makes Soup, Sophie is one of my favorite heroes of children's literature.

She's called "Three-Sided Sophie" by her father; she is in turns romantic and dreamy, logical, and hardheaded and impulsive. "... if I ever get all three together, I'll be all set, though I wonder where I will be then." Sophie speaks in exclamation points all the time - I miss and look forward to feeling that way about life - so in love with it that even when you're terrified of the unknown, no one can stop you from going out to sea to meet it.

The book is so well-written that I feel a little seasick when I read it; the rhythm of the prose and descriptions of the hell they go through at sea and with each other to get to England (and for Sophie to end up where she does) - I sometimes feel like I have to come up for air. My phobia of boats is so great that I almost passed up reading this story, because I was sure I'd hate it - but since I had never, to date, hated a Sharon Creech book, I delved - and have no regrets.

reinventing the wakefields

Found this out on a Google link-fest. Are they actually inviting people who outgrew Sweet Valley sometime in the late '80s to ... come back?

(I'm so there.)

Some memorable books my mom bought me when I was a kid include Nathaniel Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables (it sits on a shelf in my apartment, still patiently waiting to be read, and I never could get past the first paragraph, which contains the phrase "rusty wooden house" - if the house is wooden, what exactly is rusting?, I'd wonder in bewilderment); Tormont-Webster's Illustrated Encyclopedic Dictionary; Rabble Starky by Lois Lowry; AND - my very first Sweet Valley Twins book (Best Friends). Could I pick a sillier series with which to begin this blog? See the Doris Lessing quote at the top of this page.

I would like to call my younger self a nerd, but I was fair-to-middling in all elementary subjects except Language Arts, so I'll have to settle for calling myself a dork. I idolized the Wakefield twins because, try as I might, I had none of the qualities that made them so appealing. I was messy like Jessica, but wasn't popular, a good dresser, or a risk-taker. I was reserved like Elizabeth but wasn't a particularly good student, and got kicked off the elementary student paper because I never did my homework.

I read SVT and SVH for years. Everything seemed believable, probably because I had no social life to speak of until high school (and by high school, when I knew better, I was way over SVH.) Revisiting the books now, I can see that the twins look 35 on every cover, although they are supposed to be seventh graders and then high school juniors, and for the upper-middle class community they grew up in, they were spending way too much time unsupervised by adults.

But like the Baby-Sitters Club (a blog entry all its own), Sweet Valley has this rose-colored feel to it ... no matter how bad things got for Jess and Liz, everything would be okay. The old-school versions touched on drug use (cocaine, of course, because these are the '80s we're talking about), middle-school bullying, running away, and a host of other "universal" issues, but of course by the end of each installment, the problem was solved. Everyone was once again on talking terms, and the Wakefields sat down to dinner together, just before the next crisis popped up. There were specials with uber-farfetched storylines like Elizabeth getting kidnapped while working as a hospital candy-striper, both twins being terrorized by a psychotic spitting image of themselves, and Lila Fowler managing to foil her gold-digger would-be stepmother's wedding to her unsuspecting millionaire father. Yeah, most of the time the stories read like a bad soap opera, but that was the fun of it ... and it all seemed so plausible then. Well, maybe not the psychotic third twin, but I was totally enthralled by Lila's plot to trap her dad's girlfriend!

A major issue they never touched (while I was reading the series anyway) was sex and teen pregnancy. Interestingly enough, the early issues of SVH were much more risque than the later ones, say from #40 on. I remember being scandalized when (in #2, I think it was) Bruce Patman untied Jessica's bikini top as they swam in the lake. It was no Harlequin romance novel, but reading about Jessica's breasts made me blush. As the series progressed out of the '80s and into the '90s, so did the twins' image. Francine Pascal('s ghostwriters) made them less gold lame and more clean-cut. It'll be interesting to see exactly what changes have been made to revamp the series for today's post-9/11 readers, who still need entertainment but who would (hopefully) reject a Sweet Valley as shamelessly idyllic as that of the '80s and '90s.

Site Meter