Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Book Review: To Kill a Mockingbird

For this week's fiction review, I wanted to talk about Harper Lee's classic, To Kill A Mockingbird. I am assuming that most of you are familiar with the book, so this will be less a review and more of a reflection on my experiences with one of my favorite books.

I reread Mockingbird a few months ago and fell in love with it all over again. It was the first time I had read it since the 8th grade. I had seen the movie many times in between, but there was so much richness that the movie doesn't capture. I think the movie is phenomenal, but there is no way a two-hour film can include all the complexity of such a well-crafted novel. I loved remembering all of my favorite scenes again.

For a long time I've been saying that Mockingbird is one of my favorite books. Rereading it this fall has only reaffirmed that statement for me. I read it for the first time in 5th grade. I remember making a book report about it. I drew a tree with a big knot hole in it, and glued tin foil to it for the objects that Boo gives the children. I don't remember too many other details about my first experience with the book, but I remember being enchanted by it.

I read it again several years later for my 8th grade English class. I remember staying up late before the test on it talking to my mom about the book. After I finished studying for it, we just sat up, discussing the themes and characters in the book. I think that conversation helped me prepare for the test more than any studying I had done. Harper Lee's book made me think more than anything other book that I had read up until that point.

This time was different. I was of course moved by the important issues in the book, but this time, I was swept up in the characters and the language more so than before. I read it in a day and a half, and couldn't put it down, even though I knew exactly what was going to happen. I think I want to be one of those people who read To Kill A Mockingbird every year now. So don't be surprised it I start talking about it again this time next year.

What are your experiences with To Kill a Mockingbird? Who is your favorite character? Is there another book you loved long ago that you have returned to recently? If not, what book could you reread?

Monday, November 8, 2010

Keeping a Reader's Notebook

Last Monday, I suggested a few simple ways you could sq
ueeze a few extra books into your life. This week, I'd like to add another suggestion to help you get more from your reading life.

Reading Notebooks

You can call them many different things: reading notebooks, reading journals, book logs, commonplace books, etc. You can keep them in a variety of different ways, but they are infinitely useful.
I first learned about commonplace books (which I've discussed on this blog before) in Susan Wise Bauer's book, The Well-Educated Mind. Bauer shows readers how to educate themselves using a commonplace book and a stack of quality literature. She provides the reading list of "great books", along with a information about each book and genre. She encourages readers to keep commonplace books to being understand and remember what they are reading. She describes commonplace books as educational tools used by readers and scholars in the 18th and 19th centuries. According to Bauer, a commonplace book was, "a looseleaf or bound blank book in which readers copied down quotes or snippets that they wanted to remember." She compares it to a hand-copied version of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations. However, some readers added their own thoughts in their books, beyond simply copying passages from published works. Bauer says a modern reading journal should be "the place where the reader takes external information and records it (through the use of quotes as in a commonplace book); appropriates it through a summary, written in the reader's own words; and then evaluates it through reflection and personal thoughts."

I was immediately smitten with the idea of a commonplace book, and tried to implement it almost immediately. However, it wasn't until I read Michael Gelb's How To Think Like Leonardo DaVinci that I really got the hang of it. In it, he discussed Davinci's famous notebooks and what they contained. He included drawings, plans, brainstorming, quotations, vocabulary words, questions, and lists. Gelb encourages readers to keep notebooks and to write down anything and everything. He especially promotes them as useful for capturing ideas and questions. Gelb's book sort of gave me permission to make my notebook a hodgepodge of sorts. I felt like my commonplace book had to be purely literary, but Gelb helped me understand that I can include all sorts of information, not just that which came from books.

So what does my notebook look like? I purchases a medium-sized, hard-back, spiral sketchbook from Michael's with blank pages on thick paper. I didn't want lines because I wanted to be able to change directions on the page or write in different sizes. I try to always use the same pen (because I am crazy like that), and then have a color-coded highlighting system for emphasizing certain types of notes later. I decorated the cover with maps, scrapbook paper and magazine clippings. I recommend the hard-back and the spiral because it makes it easy to write in. I can fold the pages back and use the hard cover to write on with the need for a separate hard surface.

What do I put in it, you ask? Well, I started with some brainstorming lists, then took notes on a few books I was reading. I include words and definitions of vocabulary I came across in my reading that I didn't know. I do copy some passages and quotations from books that I find particularly inspiring or thought-provoking. I tend to write in my notebook for my non-fiction reads, more than for novels. Bauer's book is primarily about fiction, and she encourages recording characters, themes, and other aspects of the literature that we read. I haven't tried it yet, but I see how it could be useful, especially if I was reading a particularly difficult text. It's also a useful place to keep track of books I want to read and where I learned about them. Writing things down about what I read is very helpful in understanding and remembering the books that I read.

Do you keep a reading journal or ideas notebook? Is it something you would consider.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Friday Book Suggestions

On Fridays, I'm going to start sharing a few book suggestions. These are books I read recently, or years ago, so I'm not going to give detailed reviews on them (some I may have already reviewed, and I will link to those if that is the case).

I will be sharing three fiction and three nonfiction titles around a certain theme. The books will be diverse and may deal with the issue in different ways, sometimes rather tangentially. I just thought a theme for the week would be a fun way to tie the books together and to bring different perspectives to a particular topic.

Today's topic is issues of race and class.


Them by Nathan McCall- The story of a young white couple who move into an old and historically black neighborhood in Atlanta, GA.

Four Spirits by Sena Jener Naslund-A fictionalized account of the events and people in Birmingham, AL during the Civil Rights movement in 1963.

Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann-This book contains many stories of the lives of people in New York City who watched a man walk between the Twin Towers on a tight-rope in 1974. They are a broad representation of society, both racially and socio-economically, and their live collide (sometimes literally) in unexpected ways.


There Are No Children Here by Alex Kotlowitz- The true account of a pair of brothers who live with their mother in a run-down housing project in Chicago.

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich- A writer tries to support herself for a year with only minimum wage jobs and shares all the details.

A Hope in the Unseen by Ron Suskind- One of my all time favorites. Suskind follows Cedric Jennings through his last two years of high school in a low-performing inner-city DC high school. Despite the fact that Jennings is gifted, but grossly unprepared, he receives a scholarship to Brown University.

I hope you enjoy today's selections. Please share any other titles you think fit into the topic for today, and share ideas for future themes.

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Book Review: The Unlikely Lavender Queen

I've been mildly obsessed with lavender for a few years. I'm not sure how it started, but my shampoo, conditioner, laundry and dishwasher soap are all lavender scented. I have a sachet of dried lavender by my best. And I'm bummed that I can't find my favorite lavender body spray at Whole Foods anymore. It's so calming and sweet. I also like the idea of all my scents coordinating.

So when I saw The Unlikely Lavender Queen: A Memoir of Unexpected Blossoming by Jeannie Ralston, I snatched it up. The cover image only pretty much sold me on the book, but I dutifully flipped it over to check. And, yes indeed, this was a book that I would like to read.

The Unlike Lavender Queen is Ralston's memoir of how she moved with her new husband for her beloved New York City to Austin, TX. Once she finally adjusted to that, her husband had another idea. He wanted to move to a small town deep in the Texas Hill Country on a large piece of land. Ralston, the city girl, resisted, but eventually, they got there. Then on a vacation to Provence, her husband (a National Geographic photographer) decided he wanted to grow lavender on their land.

The book follows the growth of their lavender business, and tells the story of Ralston's transformation from a glamorous New York City writer to something she never thought she'd be.

I was thrilled with all the references to Central Texas, Austin, and other places I've been to, but I think the book has broad appeal. Ralston is a talented writer who honestly describes both the joyful and excruciating parts of her life as a wife, mother, sister, daughter, writer, reluctant farmer, and business woman.

And then there's all the lavender. Oh, the lavender...

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Good Cause: Where Do You Buy Your Books?

Once I week, I am going to start highlighting people and organizations that are doing important work in the realm of reading, books, literacy, education, writing, publishing, etc. I've already shared about a few of my favorite organizations, and I will likely be highlighting them again, but today I want to talk about making decisions about where you buy your books.

First, Amazon.com (I'm not going to link; you know where to find them.). Much has been written in the past year about Amazon's unethical business practices and some readers and book bloggers are boycotting the online superstore. Hey Lady!...Whatcha Readin'? wrote an passionate post about why she decided to shun Amazon. My dear Katie wrote a wonderful post as well. You can read more about the issue here and here. Basically, they tend to act like a big bully to impose their will on small-ish publishers, etc and can be quite effective at it because they are so ubiquitous.

Over the past two or three months, I've only made two purchases from Amazon, and both were from marketplace sellers. One book I couldn't find elsewhere online. The other I could find on another website, but it was listed as $100, and I found it from an Amazon seller for like $4 (plus $4 shipping). I wasn't willing to pay the extra $90+ to avoid Amazon. I haven't been able to abandon my meticulously crafted wishlists, so I still check back often, but I've been buying my books primarily with other sellers. So, I can't say that I am fully boycotting Amazon, but I am drastically reducing my business with them.

My reasoning is this. Amazon may or may not be an evil entity. I haven't made up my mind. It's clear that their primary goal is to make money, not promote the needs of readers, writers, and others involved in the books industry. But they're a business, so that's not really that surprising or sinister.

But their clever marketing and shipping policies ensured that I usually spent more with them than I originally intended. I would go to Amazon because of the lower prices, and options for free shipping. I always fell prey to the free shipping for orders over $25. Even if I only wanted one $15 book, I'd search for something for $10 to round out my order and get the free shipping. (I would literally scan my wishlists only looking at the prices.) But I'd always find something for $12, or two books for $7 each. So my quick $15 purchase turned into at least twice that for "free" shipping that would have only cost me a few dollars to pay for outright. The shipping policy is great for when I'm buying a more expensive book, or doing Christmas shopping, but not when I'm just out to buy one little book. I knew I was deceiving myself into thinking I was saving, but I fell for nearly every time. And Amazon got more of my money.

So, to the point of this wordy post: where do I buy my books now? Primarily at two websites: Thriftbooks.com and Betterworldbooks.com. Both offer FREE shipping on ANY order in the US, and quite low shipping to other countries. This alone is awesome. I buy one little $6 book, and that's all I get and all I pay for. Both sites sell primarily used books, but they're usually in pretty good condition.

So what's the difference between them? Why both sites? Well, Thrift Books usually has better prices, but Better World Books tends to have a better selection. Sometime BWB has better prices though because they have this awesome bargain bin where you can buy 3 books for $10, 4 for $12 or 5 for $15. (Yes, I realize this is another trap to get me to buy books that I didn't show up to purchase, but I'm trying to use restraint, and the prices are really good!) Sometimes their prices are a bit more than the same book at Amazon, but it's usually not too drastic.

Also, Better World Books raises money for literacy programs all over the world (BONUS!). So you're doing a good deed while buying your books!

I still buy some books in person at Half-Price, Borders, and Barnes and Noble. But if I'm buying online, I usually check Thrift Books and Better World Books and compare. I've been thrilled with both websites so far, and am delighted to have a viable Amazon alternative.

So I ask you: where do you buy your books? Do you give it much thought? Soon, I plan to write a post about new vs. used books, so we'll have another element to add to the mix.

Happy Reading!

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Book Review: Little Bee

And now I begin the process of reviewing the scads of books I've read during the last few months, but completely neglected to write about.

Today: Little Bee by Chris Cleave.

My mom told me about this book she found on the display table at Borders, and how she was intrigued by the non-description on the back (more about that later). Then my dear friend picked the same book for our virtual book club. Despite the fact that I haven't participated in over a year (bad me!), I made a point of asking my mom to borrow it when she was finished.

Unfortunately, I didn't get my hands on Little Bee until after the online discussion, but I did read it eventually. And my mom was right, the quasi-description on the back of the book is intriguing. It says that the book is a special story, but that they can't really tell us much else. Except that it's about two women, one of whom had to make a horrible choice. And then they meet again, and something extraordinary happens. (Okay, I'm retelling this from memory, but I'm quite certain that it doesn't get much more specific than that.)

The book left me pretty disappointed. I was expecting something life changing, based on the cryptic quality of the dust jacket, and Little Bee didn't live up to that. Perhaps if the description had actually described some of the events of the book, I would have read it with more appropriate expectations. Because some of the events of the book are intensely disturbing. And to give credit to Chris Cleave, the writing is quite vivid. The whole book has a very surreal quality to it, so even the mundane events seemed eerie to me.

Since the publisher doesn't give much away about the plot, I feel that I shouldn't either. So how will you know if you want to read it? Here's my conclusion. The book, despite my qualms with its content, is expertly crafted. There's no doubt about that. The story is original, unlike anything I've ever read, and extremely though-provoking. Overall, am I glad I read it? Yes. But, I did not close the book at the end with the warm, contented feeling I get when finishing one of my new favorites. Rather, I felt jolted, unsettled, and confused. I had serious problems with the decisions made by most of the main characters, but that gave me a lot to think about when I finished it. I don't plan on reading it again. But if you can tolerate some horrific scenes, and enjoy thought-provoking prose, give Little Bee a try. And if you want a second opinion, it received stellar reviews from critics far more talented than I.

A note about the title: I find the title ironic. It brings to mind images of something sweet and innocent, when the book is neither. In the UK, the book was published under the title The Other Hand, which I find to be more apt (a hand plays a pivotal role in the book). The cover also better conveys the eerie quality of the novel as well (plus the terrible decision takes place on a beach).

Has anyone else read it? Anything to share?

Monday, November 1, 2010

Tips For a Better Reading Life: Read More Books

First of all, apologies (yet again) for my extended silence. I tend to blog in bursts, but I am working on a system that will keeping me blogging consistently and often. Here's to another try. Thanks to those who are still around.

In an effort to transform and refocus my blog, I am going to start gathering and sharing resources and tips for improving your reading life. I hope to learn many things as I share them.

Today, tips for getting more books into our lives. This will be an ongoing topic as I am sure there are many different approaches to this, but here are a few to get us started. When I set my reading goal of 50 books for 2010, I wasn't sure how (or even if) I would accomplish it, and I had no plan for significantly changing my reading habits. But I have learned somethings along the way that have helped me get close to my goal (6 books to go in 2 months!).

1. Watch less TV.

This one is obvious (as is its close cousin-spend less time online), but truly effective. I often have a hard time turning it off, so I try to get in the habit of just not turning it on. I have spent many evenings this year with no TV and little to no internet. I've read a couple of shorter books in a single evening this way. This principle can be applied to several different things (movies, video games-any time consuming distraction) that eat up time with little reward. Think hard about what activities hold your attention and see if reading can replace any of them.

2. Read more than one book at a time. Always have one of those books with you.

The first part of this is controversial. Some dedicated readers will say that it's distracting to read multiple books and that it will slow you down, but I disagree. One thing that does help me from getting confused is to read books of different genres simultaneous instead of three Jane Austen novels. The best way to use this strategy is to keep certain books in specific places. Say you are reading one novel, one memoir, and one detailed non-fiction book. You might keep the novel in your car, purse, or work bag for on-the-go reading. Then you might keep the memoir on your nightstand for before bed reading. Finally the non-fiction book might stay in your office, or in the family room for longer periods of sustained reading. This method works because you always have a book ready to read, and you don't have to worry about retrieving your book from the nightstand before you leave for work or to run errands. Which brings me to the second part of this tip. Always have a book with you. Stuck waiting at the DMV? Read your book. Waiting to pick someone up at the airport. Read your book. Waiting just about anywhere is made more pleasant by reading a book.

3. Audio books.

I wrote about them a few months ago, but let me reiterate. Audiobooks help to you to read books in times and places where you previously couldn't. The car is my primary audiobook venue. I still listen to podcasts, CDs, and the radio sometimes, but once every few months I listen to an audiobook. My commute is only 15 minutes, but that's 30 minutes a day, plus errands, and the occasional traffic jam. I typically finish books in about 2 weeks. It makes me way more relaxed about traffic or getting lost (as long as I'm not running late!). And I'd probably have nearly 9 or 10 fewer books on my yearly tally if it weren't for audiobooks. I get mine from the library and occasionally from iTunes. I've never tried audible.com, but I hear excellent things.

That's probably more than enough for today. I'll share some more next week. What are your tips for reading more? Where do you find time to read in unexpected places? Do you read more than one book at a time? What have you given up to squeeze in more books? Do you listen as well? Do tell. I'm dying to learn some more tips!