Thursday, December 30, 2010

Book Review: Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

Having loved Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife, I was really excited to get Her Fearful Symmetry for Christmas.  Excited, but not suprised, since I had put it on my Christmas list.  I've had a difficult time this year finding books that grabbed me and kept me reading, but I sank right into this one.

Julia and Valentina are twins, and the daughters of a twin.  Their mother, Edie, has been estranged from her twin, Elspeth, since marrying.  Now twenty, Julia and Valentina are inseparable, and adrift.  They've been to three different colleges, never staying more than a year, and now live in their parents' house, where they float through their set routines.  All of this is disrupted when Elspeth dies and leaves her London flat to the girls, with some conditions: they must live there, together, for a year, and their parents are never to set foot in the flat.

Moving to London, the girls recreate their aimless ways in a new city, with some notable changes.  Their close tie begins to feel more like a bind to one of them, each developes a friendship "outside" of their twin-relationship, and they begin to realize that they aren't exactly alone in the flat.

The book is a good read and a quick one--I read it in the course of a day.  It would be a great book club selection because there is a lot to talk about.  It's definitely worth reading. That said, I didn't love it the way I loved Time Traveller's Wife.  If you read it, or have read it, I'd be interested in hearing what you think.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Book review: Basic Illustrated Map and Compass

My brother got me this book for Christmas since we're planning to do an adventure race this fall.  I can read a regular map (though, to be honest, it takes way more thought and concentration than it should), but navigating by compass and topographical map is not in my skill set.

While the book isn't subtitled "Orienteering for Dummies", that's basically what it is.  It's a short book and quick read, with clear explanations.  It's filled with illustrations and interspersed with short quizzes to make sure you're getting the concepts.  Of course, reading about navigating is no substitute for actually doing it, but this was a good introduction for me.  If nothing else, I'll have a better understanding of the race reports I've been reading.  I'm looking forward to actually practicing some of the concepts on our next free weekend, when I'm hoping to drag my husband out to Rockwoods Range, which has a permanent orienteering course.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Children's books: Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH

Early this week we finished Little House in the Big Wood, which was a big hit, even with my boys. After watching the Little House Christmas special (which made me cry a little), it was time to start a new book.

But which one? I couldn't decide between The Indian in the Cupboard and Mrs. Frisby, so I took a suggestion from the article I talked about a few posts ago and put it to a vote. I read the back of each book to the kids (which also gave me a chance to talk about the way that I pick out books for myself) and then the kids voted. Now, in my experience, raised-hand votes don't work. You have kids who'll raise their hands for both options. Instead, I have my kids move to different areas of the room depending on their choice. That way we stick to "one person, one vote" instead of "vote early, vote often". :)

Somewhat surprisingly, Mrs. Frisby beat The Indian by a pretty large margin. We're about three chapters in now, and it's been interesting how we've been able to draw parallels between our current story and the other novels we've read. For example, Mrs. Frisby (a field mouse) was afraid to go through the woods at night just like Pa (in Little House) was. We've been able to make connections to things we've seen in our own lives: the way the crow, who accidentally ties himself to the fence reminds us of a dog on a tether. We've been able to talk about the nature of courage (Mrs. Frisby crossing a dangerous field so that she can get medicine to her sick son or risking her life to free the crow). And we've talked about new vocabulary and concepts, like what the crow means when he tells Mrs. Frisby that he's in her debt.

All of this and more, in only three chapters. Our reading time is WELL worth the "instructional time" we lose to fit it in. And best of all, it's both a real treat for the kids, who love to listen, and a real-world example of why they're learning to read...not so they can say the words on the page, but because books are the closest thing to magic we have in our world.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Book review: The Echo Maker

I wanted to like this book. It's a Pulitzer Prize finalist, for heaven's sake! But I didn't. Maybe that means my taste is along the lines of the box wine of books...I don't know, but I'm a little annoyed that (a) this book has taken up precious shelf space for nearly two years, and (b) I spent as much time as I did reading it.

Richard Powers's language is beautiful and discriptive, but the book very quickly reminded me of listening to a person who won't get to the point. All of the words fogged up the story. When I was younger, I loved reading my dad's Tom Clancy novels, but I would skip over vast passages of technical description. I'm sure some readers cared about the specs of a nuclear sub; I just wanted to find out what happened.

I still want to find out what happened in The Echo Maker, too. Though the book didn't grip me at all, I plodded through because I WAS vaguely interested in the characters and was hoping maybe I'd get some satisfaction in the end. Like Mick Jagger, though, I was out of luck. My reaction throughout the book and at the resolution, if you want to call it that, was a resounding "huh?"

So, in short, I found it tiresome, confusing, and overly descriptive without the description adding to the story for me. It did have some beautiful writing and an intriguing premise, but those weren't enough to lead me to recommend it. Unless, that is, you're having trouble sleeping.

Thursday, November 18, 2010 says I know what I'm doing

I've posted recently about using classroom read-alouds to foster a love of reading in my students.  Of course, it's not completely unselfish...I love reading, I love reading good books, and I love watching my class fall in love with a book.  I also know it's good practice, but every once in awhile it's nice to have an outside reminder that you're doing the right thing.  A recent article did just that for me.

"The Read Aloud Experience", by Cathy Puett Miller, touts reading aloud to students as the way to move students from learning and practicing discrete skills (phonemic awareness, phonics, etc) to being engaged readers.  In the article, she lists the components of "good practice" read alouds.  I was pretty happy to see that I hit these.  Here are her recommendations and what it looks like in my classroom:

  • "Read aloud for at least 15-20 minutes a day, at the same time(s) each day."  We read for about 15 minutes each day, sometimes a little longer, right after lunch.  Check!  
  • "Present the read aloud as an enjoyable experience, not as a 'learning opportunity'." Our read aloud isn't tied to our curriculum, it's purely for the joy of listening.  If possible, I'll refer back to something from our story if it comes up in a class, but that's not the goal.  One thing she suggests that I don't regularly do is incorporating a variety of material...newspaper, poetry, etc.  I can remember loving Shel Silverstein's poetry as a kid...I ought to drag out my kids' old Silverstein anthologies.
  • "Choose materials of interest to your students and think outside of the box." You'll have to read the actual article if you want specifics for any of these, but I'm not as on target with this one.  I don't give my kids a choice, as she suggests, though I do choose material that's above their reading level--for me, that's half the point.  I don't choose books that connect with content learning, though as I mentioned above, I'll certainly link to it during instruction--or link to instruction during the story--where appropriate.  Check!
  • "Introduce new vocabulary in at least one daily read aloud session." Because the stories I read are above my students' reading levels, and because some of them come from homes where vocabulary and experience are somewhat limited, we come across lots and lots of words they don't know.  So we stop frequently and talk about the new words.  Today, we even came across a word I didn't know (galluses), so then we had to stop and look it up.  Check!
  • "Make it your aim to turn reading from a chore into an adventure." She goes on to say, "The cardinal sin is to have no interruptions and little expression."  My cooperating teacher, when I student taught, told me I was one of the best questioners she'd ever heard.  My current student teacher said the same thing.  We stop a lot to talk about what's happening, why someone is acting that way, etc.  And there's expression to spare, both from my voice and my hands.  :)  Check!
  •  "Close the read aloud session at a cliffhanger moment." Always!  Sometimes I end up reading extra just to find a good stopping point.  I love it when I stop and they say, "No!....just a little more!!" Check!
  If you're teacher or a parent, I'd encourage you to check out the full article at the link above.  Lots of good information and a few additional resources.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Wish list

A short list of books I'd like to read.  Most of these are books that have caught my eye at the store.  It's mostly so I don't forget, but I'd welcome any suggestions.

  • The Happiness Project
  • Once a Runner, by John L. Parker, Jr.
  • Teach Like a Champion--I want to buy this every time I see it at the store, but I know it's cheaper on Amazon.  But then I never get around to ordering it.  So I want to buy it every time I see it at the store.  And so on.
  • Half Broke Horses, by Jeannette Walls
  • Her Fearful Symmetry, by Audrey Niffenegger
  • Sara Gruen's other books--I've read Ape House and Water for Elephants and loved them.
  • Passing Strange--think I heard about it on NPR
  • The Cookbook Collector--another NPR suggestion
  • Stolen Horses, by Dan O'Brian
  • Juliet, Naked, by Nick Hornby
  • I noticed Stephen King has another collection of short stories out.  I'm thinking I'll buy it for my son and read it first.  That's what I did with The Dome.  :D

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Book Review: The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible by A.J. Jacobs

I read and reviewed this book in March 2009, and it still sits on my "keeper shelf".

The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible As Literally As PossibleThe Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible As Literally As Possible by A.J. Jacobs

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was a book club pick. I had previously read Jacobs' book The Know-It-All, about his experience reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica. I thought that book was funny but often found the author habit of overthinking everything annoying. I guess I expected the same thing from Living Biblically, but it was a pleasant surprise to me.

I was quickly caught up in Jacobs' evolving view of religion and was intrigued to see where his beliefs would fall at the end of the experience. His emphasis on following the entire Bible, particularly the more obscure laws led to a lot of funny incidents (and the revelation that his wife is a paragon of spousal tolerance!), but he never made fun of his subject(s) and occasionally came up with something profound (or quoted someone else's profound observation).

Rather than "go it alone", he had a team of Biblical experts from different traditions to help with understanding the context of the Bible passages he was exploring. I learned a lot about the Bible--or, at least, I learned a lot about different views and interpretations regarding the Bible.

The bulk of the book relates to Jacobs' exploration of the Old Testament. Towards the end he also delved into the New Testament. I thought this segment of the book was weaker, which is maybe not so surprising seeing the author's background as an agnostic Jew. It gave an interesting look at some fundamentalist Christian organizations...some of which were pretty surprising...but this section didn't have near the depth of the rest of the book.

Overall, I really enjoyed reading the book, following the author's progress and misadventures, and just seeing the way that the idea played out.

Verdict: Definitely worth reading.

Giving it another try

My brother gave me The Echo Maker, by Richard Powers, for Christmas back in 2008. According to the cover, it's a Pulitzer Prize Finalist. I've started it a couple times but never gotten into it. I think I was on the elliptical machine at the gym last time I tried, so maybe it's just not a good exercise book. I'll be at my son's volleyball tournament all day with lots of downtime, so maybe this time I'll read enough to get into it.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Fostering a love of reading...or trying to

I always usually love my job, but Wednesday was one of those days when I really loved my job.    I love books.  I love to read.  I loved to read to my boys.    I want, more than anything, for my students to develop a love of reading.  Books have been so much to, entertainment, education (those smutty romance novels were quite an education!).  If my students love being read to, they'll be much more motivated to learn to read.  If they can learn to read proficiently, they'll be able to access all the benefits of reading.

 Every day, I read a section of a chapter book to my class.The first book we read was The Swiss Family Robinson.  They loved it.  Lots of adventure.  Lots of animals.  Every year, we read The Indian in the Cupboard.  These are a couple of the books that I read to my boys, but this year I also wanted to read them some of the books that I loved as a girl.  So after The Swiss Family Robinson, we moved on to Little House in the Big Woods.  The first chapter or so, I was wondering what the heck I'd been thinking.  It was kind of slow.  Not much happened.  But then I started to see some great connections we could talk about between the family marooned on a previously uninhabited island and the family living alone in the middle of Wisconsin with no one around.  And the kids really have taken to the book.  Yesterday, as I was ending for the day (I always try to leave off right as something is about to happen), the kids were complaining, "No!  Can't you just read a little more?"  (Love it!)

"No," I told them.  "We have to do math."

"Ohhh," said E.  "I hope this book never gets over.  I love it!"

I don't need any kind of award or recognition for the rest of my life: that was enough right there. :)  And, of course, she'll be getting Little House on the Prairie for Christmas.  I just hope someone will read it to her.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Not spongeworthy

OK, I looked on youtube for a clip from the "Spongeworthy" Seinfeld episode and couldn't find one. I haven't watched the show in about 13 years, but I still use that term...and my non-Seinfeld-watching husband always looks at me like I'm an idiot. As you may be if you never watched the show. So, if you're one of "those" people, instead of spongeworthy, insert the term blogworthy. As in, the following books weren't worth a blog post of their own.

Mistress of Rome by Kate Quinn

Entertaining, somewhat smutty fun.  Will never be mistaken for great (or even good) literature, but it was an easy read.

Good beach read.

Faithful Heart by Al Lacy

Christian romance novel set in the old West.  I like Christian novels.  There are some wonderful authors writing for the Christian market.  Al Lacy, at least based on this book, is not one of them.  Lame plot, poorly written, underdeveloped characters, and a story full of "tell, don't show". 

Don't bother.

The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell

Since Vowell is a contributor to This American Life, one of my all-time favorite radio programs, and because I'm something of a nerd, I was excited to find her book on clearance.  The story is about the Puritan settlers from just before their trip across the Atlantic through their settlement in America and dealings with each other and the Native Americans already here.  Vowell uses quotes from Puritan writings (of which there were a lot, hence the title) to illuminate this feisty group.

Lots of good information and an interesting concept, but it was a slow read.  Definitely not a book that grabs you and keeps you on the edge of your seat.  Worth reading, but not, you know, when you're driving or otherwise need to stay awake. 

The Castaways by Elin Hilderbrand
When a married couple at the center of a close-knit group of friends is lost at sea, what exactly happened is a mystery.  The point of view rotates among each of the surviving characters, and we gradually learn that this group was more intertwined that any of them even realized.  As the story progresses, the history of the group is unveiled.
This book managed to keep my attention (which really isn't such a difficult feat, but it seems like I'm always saying in reviews that a book was hard to get into or stay interested in).  The characters were well-drawn as were the relationship among the individuals in the group of friends as well as the group dynamic, and the mystery surrounding the circumstances of the shipwreck kept me interested.
Interested, but not riveted, which is what I really want in a book.  Worth reading if there's nothing better on your bookshelf.

Best Friends Forever by Jennifer Weiner
I have really enjoyed some of Weiner's books, but after a while, they all seem to sound the same.  My thought on the Weiner-Franzenfreude brouhaha: he may or may not be a "white male literary darling" of the New York Post, but the reason that books like those of Weiner and Picoult are "overlooked" isn't their general topic or the fact that they're written by women; it's that if you've read one of theirs, you've pretty much read the others.  Only the details change.
And don't get me wrong--I have read books by both Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult that I have loved, that have kept me on the edge of my seat (OK, in Weiner's case it was the movie version of In Her Shoes; I haven't actually read the book yet.  But Picoult's The Pact was a powerful, disturbing book that I thought about long after closing it).  I just don't know that they qualify as "great literature".  That's fine.  They're wonderfully readable and enjoyable books.
Anyway...Best Friends Forever...formerly chubby main character (FCMC), though she's lost a ton of weight and has a cool job, still lives alone in her parents' former house, where her former best friend (FBFF) comes knocking on the door one night after their class reunion.  FBFF (despite having betrayed FCMC back in high school when FCMC was only looking out for FBFF) is in a bit of a bind, fearing that she may have accidentally killed one of their former classmates.  FCMC warily agrees to help out FBFF, and they make the rounds of some additional former classmates trying to figure out if the guy is still alive or what.  Meanwhile, still vulnerable divorced cop (FVDC) is investigating a blood trail from the reunion site.  If that preview isn't enough for you, read the book.
Not one of her best, but it's OK.

Hearts in Atlantis by Stephen King

Believe it or not, the king of horror wrote a bit of a snoozer here.  It was OK.  Growing up, Vietnam War, a little spooky stuff thrown in there.  Say what you will about King's genre, he writes some serious page-turners.  And he writes so well that no matter how crazy his topic, you believe it.  The man had me sleeping with my mattress on the floor (you know, so I knew there was nothing under it) for years after It (AKA scariest. book. ever).  This so much.

Verdict: Skip it and reread The Stand.

Candy Girl: AYear in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper by Diablo Cody

The writer of Juno regales us with tales from her year working in the sex industry.  Funny at times, disturbing at others (serious ewwww factor comes into play with stories of a regular who frequents the peep show windows she works at for a while), Candy Girl leaves no doubt that stripping is not the glamorous life it might appear to be.

Verdict: Yeah, read it.  Be prepared to scrub your mental viewscreen afterwards with Lysol, though.

My Horizontal Life: A Collection of One-Night Stands by Chelsea Handler

I expected more from someone who is supposed to be so funny (I'm not a big TV watcher, so I don't know from personal experience).  There were a couple of laugh out loud moments in the book, but overall the stories ranged from "Your poor parents..."  If I'm identifying with the parents of the my-age person narrating the story...not a good sign for me.

Verdict: Skip it.  Watch her on TV if she's funny there.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Book review: Little Bird of Heaven by Joyce Carol Oates

When Zoe Kruller is brutally murdered, suspicion centers on her estranged husband, Delray Kruller, and on Eddie Diehl, a married man with whom she was involved.  While it's titillating gossip for the local area, the murder is devastating for the families, particularly their children.  The book is divided into two main sections, from the perspective of Eddie Diehl's daughter and Zoe Kruller's son, and covers the time before the murder as well as the way the childrens' lives unfold.  Krista Diehl and Aaron Kruller grow up under the shadow of the mystery of Zoe's death, each believing the other's father is to blame and yet drawn to the other.

I've read several of Joyce Carol Oates's books, and I've only really liked one, so I'm not sure why I thought this one would be different.  While I was interested in what happened and in the characters, the story never grabbed me.  I love a book that entices me to stay up all night to finish it; this isn't that book.  At least, not for me.  It is, however, a well-told story with well-drawn characters and, ultimately, an unsatisfying ending.

If you read it/have read it and think differently, let me know.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Ape House, by Sara Gruen

I really try to buy my "new" books at yard sales, or online if I simply must have them now.  Unfortunately, "must have them now" generally stikes while I'm holding them in the book aisle and I therefore end up paying retail at Borders or Target.  Seriously, Target's book aisle is short, but sooo enticing...and that's where I happened upon Sara Gruen's latest novel, Ape House.

I absolutely loved her previous book, Water for Elephants, so I couldn't wait to read Ape House.  Bought it right then and there, had it read by the next day.  Ape House is the fictional story of a group of bonobos (a type of great ape) who live at a language lab.  Rather than doing harmful testing on them, the researchers have been working with them on language aquisition.  When the lab is bombed, one of the researchers is severely injured, and the bonobos disappear only to quickly resurface on a Real World-type TV show, the relationships among the humans in the story both change and come into clearer focus.

While this book wasn't as magical for me as Water for Elephants, it was well written and had a great story.  I enjoyed every moment of it.  Gruen is definitely one of my new must-read authors, and in searching for the link for her two books that I've already mentioned, I was excited to find that she has at least two other previously published books:
 Riding Lessons and Flying Changes.  If I can hang on until December, they'll be on my Christmas list!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Chasing Lance by Martin Dugard

Last week at N's practice I finished reading Chasing Lance, by Martin Dugard.  Jeff had bought it for me, as he typically will when he finds running- or cycling-related things.  Since this book covers the 2005 Tour de France, it was an interesting follow-up to Armstrong's
It's Not About the Bike (about his battle with cancer, subsequent recovery, and if this is a spoiler alert!! you obviously don't follow cycling or current celebrity events eventual Tour De France win).

While Dugard may have chased along after Lance, he didn't really talk to him much at all, so this is really a book about the Tour...the teams, the fans, the behemoth road show required to put on the event, the officials, and of course the journalists...and about France itself.

The most interesting thing for me about this book wasn't Lance, though his athletic abilities are amazing.  I gained a real respect for the supporting riders, whose job is to more or less keep the team leader fresh so that he's able to break away when necessary to get/stay ahead.  And while I'd love to someday go and watch--who wouldn't want to test out four years of high school French in a three-week tailgate party?--the descriptions of the course left me no illusions that I'd ever want to ride anything like it!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

It's Not About The Bike by Lance Armstrong/Sally Jenkins

It's Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to LifeIt's Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life by Lance Armstrong

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Good read about Armstrong's early career, journey through cancer diagnosis and treatment, and subsequent Tour de France victory. I know the name, of course, but I didn't really follow cycling when this was all going on. It taught me a lot about cycling tactics and team dynamics.

I think this would be an inspirational book for anyone going through a cancer diagnosis, and the experience certainly seems to have made a huge impact on Armstrong's life and focus. In addition to being about him, though, later parts of the book are also a bit of a love letter to his ex-wife Kristin. Like in John Denver's Annie's Song, the book survives the relationship it celebrates, and it's interesting to read it after the fact.

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Friday, October 8, 2010

New book! :)

Just started reading Ape House by Sara Gruen. She also wrote Water for Elephants, which I LOVED. This one is already good, and I haven't even gotten very far. I'm sensing a late night of reading in my near future. :)

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Hours

The HoursThe Hours by Michael Cunningham

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Interesting how it all tied together in the end. I totally missed that...usually I'm better at catching things. I think it was a measure of how unengaged I was with the book.

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Born to Run

Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never SeenBorn to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

LOVED this! I thought it was going to be a book about running, but instead it was a story about running and runners. Very interesting and inspiring. Runners will want to run further, and nonrunners will want to be runners.

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