Friday, May 14, 2010

The Bible, 'Tis, Gravedigger's Daughter, Cloudsplitter

Wooooow. It's been a long time. I'm restarting this in hopes that I keep up with reading and keep track of what I've read. When I try to think about what I read over the last year, I can come up with four titles. These means two possibilites: I've read four books in the last year, or my memory is really bad. How about an even split of the two options?

The Bible by God
How about the best? Last February I started a Bible-in-a-Year program. I took my little Bible everywhere in my purse. I read it on lunch breaks in classrooms while subbing, in my car while waiting for college classes to start (or waiting for nanny job to start), in a front room at our organization in Mexico, on planes, and in my house here in the city. I may have finished after scheduled, but I finished.

And I realized the best thing. That in my 20 years of being a Christian, I had never sat down to read the very foundation of my beliefs. I started at the beginning, that journey with the Israelites, followed through with the Messiah (and felt the joy at his appearance when I got to Matthew), and ended with the hope of the gospel spoken through all of us. How refreshing, how joyous.

'Tis by Frank McCourt
I read Angela's Ashes a few years ago, and enjoyed it, and 'Tis starts off just where Angela's Ashes left off. It also reads the same, and continues the Irish conversation. I'll admit, while I like Frank McCourt, and his anecdotes about teaching were really funny, I got a bit tired of the style of writing after a while. It's an endearing story, but I was ready for it to be over.

The Gravedigger's Daughter by Joyce Carol Oates
The first half of this book was good. In fact, the first chapter was so incredibly good, I couldn't put it down and go to sleep. It played on all of my fears of assault, and moved into a complicated story. However, while the first part of the book was interesting, and the characters were rich, it eventually walked off the deep end of endless plot, and never seemed to connect again to that beginning chapter. Initially, that starter chapter seemed to set up the reader for a fascinating end where everything ties together, but instead, the reader was left with a meandering plot that just ... ended. I picked up this book because I enjoyed another one of Oates books so much, but this did not live up to that expectation.

Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks
Well, if you ever want to learn more about John Brown than you wanted to know, start here. A novelized version of his life, Cloudsplitter takes you back to the beginning of John Brown and follows his ascent (descent?) into maniacal abolitionism and the attack on Harper's Ferry. If you're looking for straight facts about the Harper's Ferry attack, this is not your book. If you're looking for a book about the character and mind of John Brown, in a non-conventional way, this is your book. The latter half of the 19th century has become an area of interest for me (especially after reading The Most Famous Man in America), and this was a nice complement to reading about other social movements at the time. Although at times tedious, I was kept interested throughout the (very long) book.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Little Bee

Little Bee by Chris Cleave
I picked this up on pure recommendation by the bookseller. I do not normally buy brand new hardback books by authors I've never heard of. In fact, I don't think I ever have. I was not disappointed, however.

Little Bee follows the impossibly entangled story of a Nigerian girl and a British husband and wife (and son). In the book's dust jacket it says it can't give away what happens. I don't feel I can either, except to say that this is a haunting, fictional story based in a reality that we'd all like to assume doesn't exist. It's very, very good, and Cleave has a very strong ability to convey human emotion, need, and hurt.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Freedom of Simplicity, , Teach

I should have written this blog over a month ago, and then I would remember the information from these books better. I know I read another book, but I can't, for the life of me, remember what it was. I've been staring at my bookshelf for the past five minutes, and that hasn't helped. Oh well.

Freedom of Simplicity by Richard J. Foster
Excellent. I think I went into this book knowing I would like it, but it really was great. Foster's writing is humble, attractive, and he writes without making the reader feel like he is being judged. This has become a favorite, something I will keep my shelf for years, and recommend to others.

Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire by Rafe Esquith
Well, there's nothing like reading about an outstanding teacher to make you feel inadequate and empowered at the same time. Rafe's sense of his student's worth and potential is amazing, and he is able to convey that to his students in a powerful way. A great read for anybody, a must for teachers.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Coraline, In Dubious Battle

Coraline by Neil Gaiman
I read this three (!!) years ago with my 5th graders while I was student teaching. They loved it, I loved it. I kind of forgot about it. A year or so ago I nannied for a guy who is an animator, and I went home to creepily read his blog and found him talking about the stop motion animation of the Coraline movie they were making (not him, but the actual animators). I got all excited, having read the book, and eagerly awaited the movie.

I bought Coraline at the book sale I worked at in December. I read it quickly, at a day of subbing, and remembered why I loved it in the first place. Gaiman creates this sparse environment for Coraline, his main character. A drab world where she cannot bother her busy parents, and where there aren't many things to do. She stumbles upon a parallel world where everything seems wonderful, but then slowly begins to show its true, evil reality. What most impresses me about Gaiman's writing is his ability to create creepy, scary visuals and situations, just perfect for the upper elementary age. Nothing actually gory happens, but the idea of a "better" world is familiar to children of this age. Excitement leads to horror and Gaiman does it slowly, but with certainty. What seems safe and unthreatening, even as the parallel world turns scary, carefully turns into a world you can't get out of, and you begin to root for Coraline as you feel yourself feeling trapped, just like she does.

The movie came out yesterday, and I went to see it in 3-D. It's visually stunning on its own, but when you take into account the work involved, it is simply mind blowing. Book and movie both highly recommended. Not appropriate for third grade and under.

In Dubious Battle by John Steinbeck
On to adult matters. I'm a Steinbeck fan, and I eventually want to work my way through his list of writings. I found this old used copy for cheap, and picked it up. Steinbeck is best known for (or should be best known for), his ability to see the social movements of his day and turn them, almost effortlessly, into works of fiction. Steinbeck's specialty seems to be the inner workings of the minds of working men, and it seems too easy for him to put that to paper.

In Dubious Battle finds strikers in the apple orchards, up against the three major business/farm owners in the area. Odds are against them, but the characters are more motivated by their work for the cause than the actual outcome of this particular strike. Following two main characters, Steinbeck captures their own feelings, and the emotions of a mass of workers. What I find most moving about Steinbeck's collection of works is that his works continue to be timeless. They were about his day, and about the struggles of the time, but they are still relevant now.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

State by State, Where the Heart Is, Rumspringa, My Life in Orange

Whew. Another dry spell. I think it's because I was trying to read 'Great Expectations' and it was taking me forever, and I finally gave myself permission to take a break.

State by State
edited by Wilsey and Weiland
This collection of essays got a lot of local press, and it sounded like something I would enjoy, so I put it on hold at the library before it was released. Essays by writers who live in the state or are native to the state, it offers a variety of perspectives. Of course, like with any book of assorted writers, there were some I cared for, and some I did not. I thought one of the most interesting was the writer who was originally from Africa, who came to study in Michigan (or was it Minnesota...? No, I think it was Michigan), and lived there and came to consider it his American home. Anyway, I liked it, even though I didn't make it completely through before it had to be returned.

Where the Heart Is by Billie Letts
I've been meaning to read this book forever. So much so, that when offered a copy by my mom, I promptly took it, brought it home, and realized I had the same exact copy and printing on my shelf that I apparently bought at the Goodwill. It was cute, and it was a good, short, fluffy distraction from Great Expectations.

Rumpsringa: To Be or Not to Be Amish by Tom Shachtman
A little obsessive right now about the Amish, the most captivating aspect of the Rumpsringa is their time of rebellion. Rumpspringa, generally between the end of their schooling and the time they decide to come back and join the church, allows the teenage Amish to do all of the things that the church blatantly forbids. Alcohol, drugs, premarital sex, cars, "English" clothes, etc. Eventually the teen or young adult makes that life altering decision whether to return to the familiar of the Amish, join the church, be baptized, and settle down into marriage, or whether to leave the church and their family behind. Shactman does a great job of intertwining the personal stories of Amish teens, along with the history and culture of the Amish, and gives a great synopsis of the whole state of affairs. This book was written after the movie "Devil's Playground" came out, a documentary about the same subject, which follows many of the same Amish teens.

My Life in Orange: Growing Up With the Guru by Tim Guest
I always heard about the Rajneeshies. Well, maybe not always. It seems to be a part of Oregon legend now, how a large group of orange-robed people descended on Central Oregon and took over the land, the government, and even poisoned local salad bars. When the religious group went defunct in the 80s, the large land and buildings on their "ranch" were left abandoned, and umpteen years later they were bought by Young Life, an Evangelical Christian outreach to teenagers. In college I went on a retreat to the "ranch" (now called Wildhorse Canyon), and thought it was rather eery.

Had I known then what I know now, from reading Guest's book, I would have been a little more creeped out. Guest's mother joined the group when he was around 5, and Guest was unwillingly a member of the Rajneeshies. Guest does a great job at explaining his feelings, and combining his own personal experience with the historical facts of the group's expansion and demise. His own mother was a teacher within the group, and her absence in his upbringing left a resounding mark on his life. This is a great retelling of the Rajneesh story, with a personal touch to convey the atrocities and puzzling questions left over after it all ended.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Water for Elephants, Edgar Sawtelle, I Was Told, The Revolution, The Road

It's been a long time. I don't know why. These are the only books I've read since my last entry. September was a bit of a dry spell.

Water for Elephants
by Sara Gruen
A quick, fun read. An interesting era in time and in this subculture.

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski
This was engaging and mesmerizing. I couldn't imagine what kind of story about a mute boy and breeding dogs could fill that many pages, but my imagination is obviously not in the same range as Wroblewski. A really great read. The narrative was so rich and so descriptive it was enveloping.

I Was Told There'd Be Cake: Essays by Sloane Crosley
I have a special admiration for essayists for some reason. I think that is mostly because their stories are true, and they find a way to tell a true story in a captivating way. This is what Crosley does. Now, I've read other collections of modern essays. In fact I read one this summer by someone who was quite like Crosley. Young, female, New Yorker, etc., but her essays weren't nearly as funny as Crosley's. Instead, Crosley's are laugh out loud funny.

The Revolution: A Manifesto
by Ron Paul
Well, let's just say that if I could vote for Ron Paul, I would. What a nice departure from the lines we are thrown from politicians seeking votes. Could it be that Ron Paul is actually looking out for the best interests of Americans? Shocking, I know. What a great read.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy
I had heard so much about this book, but never really thought about reading it. But then, a while ago, I heard it was being made into a movie, and not just a movie, but a movie filmed in Oregon. So I knew that I would have to see it, and I have this thing about reading books before seeing the movie. SO I requested it at the library and started it.

Except I started it and wasn't that into it. I picked it up again Monday out of boredom, and read about 30 pages and became enthralled. I read it again last night in bed. And at a very boring nanny job today, I finished it. HAUNTING. That's the word that comes to mind when thinking about this book.

There are fiction books that seem realistic because they are just stories about life. There are fiction stories that are unreal because they are so far out there. And then there are these kind of fiction books where it seems unreal, yet so plausible at the same time. And that is truly scary. I can't wait to see how it translate to the screen. In the meantime, this was amazing.

Monday, August 04, 2008

When I Was Puerto Rican, Middlesex, The Virgin Suicides

When I Was Puerto Rican by Esmerelda Santiago

I'm a sucker for a good memoir and Santiago delivers. While her story is not as crushingly depressing as Frank McCourt it certainly has its own dimension of strife. Raised in Puerto Rico as the oldest of a clan. The father is sporadically present and the mother struggles. The best part of Santiago's writing comes out in her memories of her point of view as a young girl. She remembers the way she perceived people and circumstances with innocence. At 13 her mother moves her to Brooklyn where she has to relearn life. That is the jumping off point for her next book Almost a Woman.

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

I've been meaning to read this for a looooong time. I finally got right down to it. What an amazing story. A family's secret history adds up to a modern child who, at the age of puberty, finds out he is a hermaphrodite. More than half of the book is all leading up to this discovery and the family epic plays out beautifully. Eugenides' style writing is wonderful. For such a long book, I was never bored.

The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

I've been meaning to read this one for even longer. I saw the movie in high school (a great film), and so have been wanting to see where the story came from. Again, Eugenides is a masterful story teller. The book is mostly descriptive. For myself I believe the sign of a great book is when you are surprised at how far along you are in the book because it has just flown by. Eugenides' books are like that. You are so engrossed in the story that you hardly even have time to think about the fact that you're reading a book. I think I found a new favorite author.