Friday, January 28, 2011

Pat Conroy: My Reading Life

I'm about to head out of town for the weekend, so I won't be able to get a Friday Recommendations post up. Before I go though, I wanted to share this YouTube video of author, Pat Conroy. He's speaking of his new book, My Reading Life, and sharing some about his love of books and reading. I hope to read his book soon! In the meantime, it's an inspiring interview.

Enjoy and happy weekend!

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Book Review: The Abortionist's Daughter

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My step-mom loaned me this book to read (actually, I think I still have it. Oops!), and highly recommended it. Despite it's controversial name, she assured me, it wasn't really about abortion.

And she was right. The Abortionist's Daughter by Elisabeth Hyde, is about a woman who performs abortion, and her daughter, but it's not really about abortion. The issue is discussed and argued, from both sides, but the book is actually a murder mystery. You see, the abortionist is found dead in her pool and everyone from her husband to the vocal anti-abortionist activist are suspects.

The Abortionist's Daughter was complex, compelling, and emotionally-charged. It follows the days following the murder, as investigators, and the victim's family try to trace back to the events on her last day. Family secrets are revealed, and it's hard to know who to trust. I enjoyed its fast pace, and the fact that it told the story from multiple perspectives. Some of the decisions made by the characters drove me bonkers, but over all, it was very satisfying.

Check out this exciting mystery if you are looking for a quick read that is full of turmoil, intrigue, and family drama.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Wednesday Web RoundUp 1/26/11

Here's another look at reading and book-related news from around the web this week.

Children's book lovers take to Facebook to get the Caldecott and Newbery Medal winners on the Today Show. (The show has featured winners for over a decade, but neglected to do so this year.)

How to create a literacy rich environment.

Do you know how to write a sentence? According to Stanley Fish, you may not.

Smaller, independent books stores try new things to succeed in a declining market.

TED Talks collaborates with Amazon to create TEDbooks-short, inexpensive e-books.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Huck Finn Edited

As I'm sure many of you have heard, a new edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain, will be coming out in February. The new edition is receiving quite a lot of press attention because its editor, Professor Alan Gribbins of Auburn University, has replaced the "n word" with "slave" throughout the text. He believes it will allow students and teachers to experience the text without the hindrance of that taboo word. Many parents complain about the "n word" in Huck Finn, and as a result, it is often not taught in schools. Gribbins believes his version will allow teachers to teach more freely, without parental objection.

This post from the Huffington Post offers interesting commentary on the issue, and this story from NPR includes an interview with Professor Gribbins and thoughts from listeners who fall on both sides of the issue.

Gribbins makes it clear that he explains his choice to replace the "n-word" in his introduction to the new version. The NPR interview also addresses the issue of whether teachers will explain what has been done to the text while they are teaching the book. Also, he explains that he is not recommending use of this new version across the board, but for certain educational settings. For higher level critical work of the text, he states that an original text should be used.

I find myself a little bit torn about this issue. Mostly, I believe that Twain's work should not be altered or watered-down in any way. The language that he uses is an accurate portrayal of life on the Mississippi River at that time. It reveals the prejudice and racism of the time, which is something that we cannot ignore or push aside. I read Huck Finn in my high school English class, and don't remember any controversy about the language. Of course, we knew the word was offensive, but we understood how it was being used in the context of the book. Maybe there was a commotion about it that the students didn't see. However, from where I sat, we read the book because it was an important part of American literary and cultural history.

On the other hand, I understand that this is not necessarily the case at every school. Some students simply don't read Huck Finn because the teachers or parents are unwilling to deal with the issues associated with Twain's use of the "n word". In those cases, would it not be better for students to have some experience with Twain's masterpiece, even if it is censored? Which is worse? Twain without the "n word" or no Twain at all? I don't know the answer.

I fear that with the availability of this new, less threatening text, some teachers will chose it even if they would have taught Huck Finn anyway. It's the path of least resistance for some, but it becomes a slippery slope.

I'm very interested in hearing your thoughts on the issue. Did you read Huck Finn as a student? Were there any protests? Do you think the new version is a good idea? Do you think it is better than nothing? Was "slave" the best choice for a replacement? Please share your opinions in the comments.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Friday Book Suggestions: Education

It's Friday again, so I'll be recommending three fiction and three nonfiction books that all touch on a theme. This week, the books all deal with issues of education.


Little Men by Louisa May Alcott
Most of you are probably familiar with Little Women (and if you aren't you should be!), but not as many people have read Little Men. It continues the story of the March family and the lives of several children who live and learn at Plumfield, the school run by Jo and her husband Professor Behr. (Also wonderful is the third book about the March family, Jo's Boys.

A Separate Peace by John Knowles
An American classic set in a boys' boarding school during World War II. It's an emotional and powerful coming of age story.

This one is short, and meant for young adults, but the themes are timeless and complex. It's the story of a young girl who must teach her classmates secretly if she wants to achieve her dream of becoming a teacher.


This is a small book with huge ideas. Rose questions and reflects on the reasons for educating our children and ourselves. He offers critiques and powerful solutions to the education problems in our country today. It is as poetic as it is political.

Made into a movie starring Hillary Swank, this book chronicles the lives of a young teacher and her troubled students as they use writing transform their lives despite desparate circumstances.

School as a Journey by Torin Finser
This book follows Finser, a long-time Waldorf teacher, through eight years with the same classroom of students.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Book Review: A Hope in the Unseen

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If you want a compelling page turner, full of trials and triumphs, this is your book. What's more--it's a true story.

More specifically, Ron Suskind's A Hope in the Unseen is the true story of Cedric Jennings'
and low-performing school in inner city Washington D.C. in the 1990s. Suskind started out writing an article about Jennings and some of his classmates in a Wall Street Journal article when he was in high school, and eventually developed it into a book. The story spans a four year period: his last two years of high school and his first two years of college.

Despite the fact that this book is nonfiction, it reads like a novel. At the end of the book, Suskind gives some insight into the process he used to interview and observe Jennings and the other people in the book.

A Hope in the Unseen was deeply moving for me. It humanizes issues of race, class, and education in a way that I have never experienced before. Jennings was remarkably gifted, but his lack of experiences and exposure to higher academic material put him far behind his peers once he got to Brown. And Cedric had advantages that many others in his situation do not have. His mother was deeply committed to his education. The book doesn't offer solutions to the education problems that many face in this country, but it does illustrate those problems in a very personal way.

I encourage you all to read this powerful book. I've read it twice and I'm still processing. And after you do, check out this story that gives an update on Cedric. He seems to be doing very well.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Wednesday Web RoundUp 1/19/11

For this Wednesday, here is another collection of book and literacy related posts from around the web.

Looking for the great new book? Check out this new website to get all book related releases in one place.

Watch book trailers for many of the award-winning children's books announced last week!

Librarians help patrons learn to use their e-readers.

The Parent-Child Home Program aims to close the education achievement gap before school starts.

The Book Whisperer, Donalyn Miller, on how to model literate lives.

Happy Wednesday!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Book Review: The Portrait of A Lady and Ramblings on Why We Read

Even though I had read Henry James before (Aspern Papers and The Turn of the Screw), I wasn't quite prepared for the darkness in The Portrait of a Lady.

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I read it as a selection from my book group, and so it wasn't something that I picked for myself. Although I probably wouldn't have chosen it, I'm glad I read it. It is one of those classics that's on so many book lists, but in addition to that, the reading experience was mostly enjoyable, though a little depressing.

This novel is the story of a young American, Isabel Archer, who travels to Europe with her aunt. Once there, she is swarmed with admirers, but remains idealistic and independent. However, as time progresses, she makes decisions and seems to change.

I don't want to give away too much more. Have any of you read it? What did you think?

At first, the book felt a bit like a Jane Austen novel. Although they are not exactly contemporaries, there were enough similarities in subject matter and setting that made me expect some of the regular elements in an Austen novel. I was expecting a clear romantic interest to emerge early on for Isabel, but there were so many, it was confusing. I was expecting things to tie up nicely, but then I only had to remind myself that I was reading Henry James.

The book was deep and complex and full of decisions and motives to analyze. Great for a book group. It made me think a lot about why we do the things that we do, and what we are willing to give up. But in the end, I think I would have rather read Persuasion (A Jane Austen that I am currently loving!).

But what does that say about me? I fear that this inclination for happy endings is somehow limiting my experiences. I don't solely read for pleasure. I also read for information, insight, and vicarious experience. So I should be open to the darker side of fiction. Then again, they always leave me with a sinking feeling that I'd rather be without. I know that I cannot avoid all bad things, nor do I want to. So should that factor into my choice of reading material?

What do you think? Are you a Jane Austen fan or a Henry James? Of course, it is entirely possible to be both, and I don't mean to say that one is better than the other. Austen is wonderfully complex as well, but there does seem to be a fundamental difference in worldview. Am I making this too complex? Too simple?

I know this is something I need to continue to think through. But I'd love your insights in the meantime.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Talking to Babies is Essential

I recently came across this NPR story which demonstrates how important it is to talk to babies and young children. Their growing brains thrive on frequent verbal stimulation from a real human being interacting directly with them.

I am fascinated by the process of literacy and language development, and that fascination only grows as I read and learn more about it. If you are interested in learning more, I recommend these books:

The Read-Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease

Growing a Reader From Birth by Diane McGuinness

Baby Read-Aloud Basics by Caroline Blakemore and Barbara Weston Ramirez

Reading Magic by Mem Fox

Smart-Wiring Your Baby's Brain by Winifred Conklin

These books follow many of the same principles and are based on some common research, but they each provide a unique perspective. When read together, they give a comprehensive and useful guide to understanding how children learn language and how to help them become life-long readers.

The links will take you to Better World Books where you can buy many of them for $3 or $4 (with free shipping!)

Friday, January 14, 2011

Friday Book Suggestions: Writing

Today, I'm continuing the series I false-started back in November. I'll be sharing three fiction and three nonfiction books that have a common theme.

This weeks theme is writing.


The Wednesday Sisters by Meg Waite Clayton
A novel about a group of women who overcome huge obstacles and encourage one another to write and find gifts they never knew they had. Spectacular!

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
Of course, most of you are familiar with this book, but it's interesting to reread the book with an eye especially focused on Jo as a budding and growing writer.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
This epistolary novel follows a young British writer after World War II, who discovers a community of readers (and a few writers) on the isolated channel island of Guernsey.


A beautiful meditation and reflection of the hows and whys of being a writer. Truly inspiring.

Pipher offers ideas and inspiration for changing the world through all different forms of writing including letters, blogs, novels, essays and more.

Since I included Little Women in the fiction section above, I felt this biography is a perfect counterpart on the nonfiction side. It demonstrates beautifully how Alcott grew as a writer and the relationship she had with her books and her readers.

Borders Book Club Conversation with Author Marisa de los Santos

Once again, YouTube comes through. I found a wealth of videos with Marisa de los Santos discussing her beautiful books. Here's her with a group of women discussing both Love Walked In and its companion, Belong to Me.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Book Review: Belong to Me

Sometimes I just can't believe that it took me as long as it did to read a book. I don't know why I chose to pick up this book, after it sat on my shelves for over a year, but I am so glad I did.

When I finally read Belong to Me, by Marisa de los Santos, I was immediately captivated. It's told alternately from the perspectives of three different characters, but I immediately felt a deep connection to many of the other characters as well. The writing is enchanting, the characters are real, and the emotions are as beautiful as they are painful.

Cornelia moves to the suburbs with her husband, and immediately feels out of place. A feeling that is not assuaged by the brisk, judgmental welcome that she is given by her neighbor, Piper. But we see an entirely different side of Piper with her best friend, Elizabeth, who is battling cancer. Cornelia finally finds a like-minded friend in Lake, but she always seems as though she has something to hide. Cornelia, who is so far child-less, finds a connection to Lake's gifted son. Through joy and tragedy, the characters come through a harrowing series of events and are intertwined in ways previously thought unimaginable.

I loved the characters in the book right from the start, and felt truly sad when they were gone after I read the last page. I also love the way de los Santos deals with the complex relationships. Nearly every relationship imaginable is depicted in this story, and they are all portrayed in a realistic and raw way that made me think about the relationships in my own life. Although it is a beautifully crafted work of fiction, Belong to Me taught me great things about myself and the people in my life.

After I finished the book, I came to discover that there was a prior book by de los Santos that includes some of the same characters. The author says that although they share some main characters, the books are meant to stand independently of one another. I think that's a really interesting way to write a second book. Either way, I'm excited to get my hands on the previous book, Love Walked In, as well as anything else written by this talented writer.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Wednesday Web RoundUp

Here's a smattering of book and literary news from around the web:

A settlement in the J.D. Salinger copyright case.

Newbery and Caldecott Awards for children's literature announced. I want to read both!

Students in Oregon allowed to use spellcheck on standardized writing tests.

I'm sure everyone's heard about this Chinese mother's new book.

What do you think about the new edited version of Huck Finn?

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Interview with Katherine Patterson

I found this lovely interview with Katherine Patterson (author of Jacob, Have I Loved, among other wonderful books) yesterday. Her wise words and insights into writing her books are well worth the 10 minutes.

In case you don't have time to watch it, I wanted to share a bit of my favorite part. She talked about growing up in Asia until WWII forced them back home, and how she grew up hating Japan. She then expresses surprise at the fact that she visited Japan for a time as a young adult and loved it. She says that she had a Japanese friend and that it made all the difference in understanding and relating to a foreign, seemingly scary place.

But we can't all have friends from all the places that frighten or anger us, she reflected. But we can read a book about them. And a book can give us characters that we care about in places we thought were completely removed from our own lives.

I love this concept. I often find that reading stories about people different from me does give me a much better perspective on their experiences. Books are certainly not a replacement for real life interaction. But they can be wonderful supplements.

What books or authors have opened your eyes to a world you didn't know you cared about?

Monday, January 10, 2011

Book Review: Jacob, Have I Loved

I've been on a bit of a YA book kick lately. For the most part, I've been returning to historical fiction books I read in my childhood (or ones I should have read). I'm currently rereading my way through and will write about them when I finish. But today, I want to talk about Jacob, Have I Loved by Katherine Patterson.

My sister I insisted I buy and read this book a couple of years ago when she heard that I hadn't read it. I did buy it then, but never got around to reading it.

I finally picked it up a few months ago, and was immediately transported. The characters, setting, and story were utterly captivating. I read it in two evenings, because it's pretty easy reading, yes, but also because it was so compelling.

Patterson tells the story of Sara Louise Bradshaw and her twin sister, Caroline. Sara Louise is always being compared (negatively) to her more accomplished twin. It is a beautiful tale of relationships, sisterhood and growing up.

I loved the book from the beginning, but the end wraps everything up with such perfect magic that I closed the book in awe. I'm sure there was a smile on my face, and a small ache inside me that mourned just a little bit because the book was over.

To me, that's the best way to end a book. Thanks to my sister, Lauren, for making me buy it.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Recommended Reading

I always tear out pages of magazines that include book reviews, but I've yet to create a useful system for keeping track of them. This weekend, as I was organizing my apartment, I can across many of these sheets scattered about. In an effort to remember these titles, and to maybe even read them, I'm going to share some recommended reading. I can't speak to them myself, but they were featured in magazines I enjoy, and sound intriguing to me. If you have read any of them, please let us know what you thought!

What I Though I Knew, by Alice Eve Cohen. The memoir of a 44-year old woman who suddenly finds out that she is 6 months pregnant.

The Wisdom Trail: In the Footsteps of Remarkable Women, by Janet Lieberman and Julie Hungar. Interviews and stories from dozens of women who lived through the turbulent times of the mid-20th century.

Dreaming in Hindi, by Katherine Russell Rich. The memoir of a magazine editor who learns Hindi in India and is transformed.

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, by Katherine Howe. A magical tale of uncovering family secrets.

The Crowning Glory of Calla Lily Ponder, by Rebecca Wells. A new novel about friendship by the author of The Divine Secrets of the Ya-ya Sisterhood.

Small Wonder, by Barbara Kingsolver. A collection of essays on ecology by a most beloved author.

The Forgotten Garden, by Kate Morton. A compelling mystery set in England and Australia.

Happy Reading!

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

2011 Reading Goals

As I mentioned in my last post, I am setting a more ambitious reading goal of 60 books for this year. I am also writing out a list of books I want to read ahead of time, something I've never done before. I've always had ideas of books I've wanted to get to, but I've never started out a year with a reading plan. Until now.

Here is my preliminary list:

  • The remaining six Laura Ingalls Wilder books
  • The whole Anne of Green Gables series by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  • The Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv
  • Beloved by Toni Morrison
  • A Biography of Eleanor Roosevelt that has been on my shelf for years
  • Persuasion by Jane Austen
  • Emma by Jane Austen
  • Cry, The Beloved Country by Allan Paton
  • Middlemarch by George Elliot
  • Getting to Yes by Roger Fisher and William Ury
  • When Jesus Came to Harvard by Harvey Cox
  • A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
  • Gandhi: An Autobiography by...well, Gandhi!
  • The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris
Now, of course, I probably won't read all of these, and will certainly read many others, but I like having a plan. I own most of these books already, which is a big plus. It will keep me reading without having to buy many more books.

What is on your reading list for the year? What books do I need to add?