Sunday, October 31, 2010

It's Your Turn to Be Heard

If you have ever followed an awards show or awaited the announcement of a book award winner with an anticipatory trepidation: hoping your favored choice will win, knowing it won't; this is your chance to set the record straight.  Wallace at Unputdownables has created a platform that will give book bloggers a unified voice: the Independent Literary Awards.  Don't pass up this opportunity to put some added weight behind your opinion.

I'm thrilled to be on the panel for the Literary Fiction category--if you want to see a goofy picture of me, and a silly little blurb, you'll find it on the Judges and Panelists page.  I can't wait to see what books you all consider to be this year's Must Reads.  If you have a book blog, get on over there and nominate your favorite book from 2010.  Also, help give book bloggers a voice by spreading the word.  Grab the button, visit the site, nominate a book!

amused, bemused and confused:  "Don’t be put off by the word ‘literary’. We’re not just interested in fancy-schmancy high art. If you are a book blogger, that’s literary enough."

in so many words: "It's about time the ever-growing, ever-expanding, ever-more-powerful book blogging community had an award of its own."

Book Gazing: "I'm hoping people nominate a really interesting load of submissions,"

Amy Reads: " excited to read all the books."

Book Chatter: "...I can’t wait to see what makes the short list."

Saturday, October 30, 2010

April Twilights by Willa Cather

April Twilights (Dodo Press)Title: April Twilights
Author: Willa Cather
Pages: 47 (36 poems)
Published: 2008 Dodo Press (originally 1903)
My Rating: 3? I feel unqualified to rate poetry!

Because I've loved everything I've read by Willa Cather, (and secretly because I think she looks like my great grandmother which makes me feel happy and cozy,) I have decided to read all of her published works in chronological order--not including early stories originally published in periodicals.

Her first was April Twilights: a collection of poetry.  This is Willa Cather's only published collection of poetry, although she reissued it in 1923 as April Twilights and Other Poems with 14 new poems, and excluding 13 of the originals (cited here).

Based on the beautiful language in the books I've read (O Pioneers! Song of the Lark, and My Antonia) I was looking forward to reading these poems, although I'm not predisposed to like poetry in general.  Often I find poetry to be just a little too inaccessible to be enjoyable; too much work to be pleasing.  This is not to say that I shy away from it, however.  On the contrary, I seem to always be looking for something that will change my opinion--I do love creative use of language, contemplation and insight, wit and whimsy.

Unfortunately, most of the 36 poems in this collection were, for me, mediocre.  There were a couple that were interesting or touching, but most of them were rather forgettable.  I did see little glimpses of the inspiration that must have fueled Cather's later works, which is one of the great things about reading an author chronologically.  My favorite was the last poem in the collection, by far the most breathtaking, titled L'ENVOI:

Where are the loves that we had loved before
When once we are alone, and shut the door?
No matter whose the arms that held me fast,
The arms of Darkness hold me at the last.
No matter down what primrose path I tend,
I kiss the lips of Silence in the end.
No matter on what heart I found delight,
I come again unto the breast of Night.
No matter when or how love did befall,
'Tis Loneliness that loves me best of all,
And in the end she claims me, and I know
That she will stay, though all the rest may go.
No matter whose the eyes that I would keep
Near in the dark, 'tis in the eyes of Sleep
That I must look and look forever more,
When once I am alone, and shut the door.

That's 1 out of 19 on my Willa Cather stop The Troll Garden and Other Short Stories.  

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! by Laura Amy Schlitz

Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval VillageTitle: Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices From a Medieval Village
Author: Laura Amy Schlitz
Pages: 81
Published: 2007 Candlewick Press
Read For: School, Aloud to my kiddos
My Rating: 4 stars

Despite the glowing reviews I'd read of this book, and the shiny gold medal affixed to the front cover, I remained skeptical about how much enjoyment could be found in a book which looked rather dry and unapproachable. The fact that it was written by a school librarian for her students to perform only added to my skepticism: how could a group of 19 monologues and 2 dialogues possibly end up as an entertaining whole?

Whether it is because I read the plays aloud, or because I read it with the intention of teaching/learning about the Middle Ages, I ended up enjoying this collection much more than I thought I would.  In fact, my final thought was: What a perfect way to get an overview of Medieval times.  It is impressive in its uniqueness and wholeness, in its ability to retain humor while teaching, in how easy it is to follow even with the large amount of characters and information.  In these small sketches (and the bits of background information) we learn about religion and class restrictions, government and war, relationships and business.  We get to know people, their behavior, feelings, opinions and activities.

I'm not a huge fan of poetry, but I did enjoy what was included in this book.  It would be great fun to see them performed.  I now understand why, even though the book seemed to be a bit of an oddball choice for the Newbery, it is so valuable.  Not a typical story, to be sure, but exactly what was lacking in Junior Fiction/Nonfiction.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Fall Into Reading Update

I'm finally back home, and am beyond ready to visit everyone's blogs and get some more reading done.  This week was so busy that I read maybe 2 pages altogether.  With that in mind, I thought it might help to refocus on my goals for the couple of months remaining in the year.

The books I put on my Fall Into Reading list to finish by Christmas or thereabouts:

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, Aimee Bender (read and reviewed)
Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel (whew! read and reviewed)

Our Mutual Friend, Charles Dickens (no progress whatsoever, on chapter 12 of around 67)
Dubliners, James Joyce (8 stories out of 15)
Rooted in Barbarous Soil (no progress whatsoever, 6 essays out of 12)
Star of the Sea, Joseph O'Connor (currently reading)

Possession, A.S. Byatt (have not started)
The Children's Blizzard, David Laskin (have not started)
Paddy's Lament, Thomas Gallagher (have not started)
How Green Was My Valley, Richard Llewellyn (have not started)
Independence Day, Richard Ford (have not started)
Three Cups of Tea, Greg Mortenson (have not started)
A Room With a View, E.M. Forster (started and inadvertently set aside)
Thunderstruck, Erik Larson (have not started)
    Geez Louise, people!  What have I been doing?  Not starting or reading any of these books, that's for sure.  Perhaps I am not so very good at challenges after all.  2 out of 14 so far, with less than 10 weeks remaining.  I need to get a move on: quit procrastinating and getting sidetracked.

    Sunday, October 24, 2010

    High Fidelity by Nick Hornby

    High Fidelity: A NovelTitle: High Fidelity
    Author: Nick Hornby
    Pages: 323
    Published: 1996 Riverhead
    My Rating: 4 stars

    This was my introduction to Nick Hornby's writing (although I've enjoyed the movies based on his books) and I have to say that I've never gotten so much enjoyment from a book that has this much swearing and sex-talk.  An excess of those two things usually get to me--I don't have much patience for it--but somehow in this book it seemed less superfluous and more like character development.  Not only that, but I loved that John Cusack was the perfect film representation of the main character.

    At the beginning of the book, I admit that it was picturing John Cusack's performance that won me over.  Before long, however, I realized that the book was really holding its own.  The characters were all real people in their own right.  And my, was this a funny book!  Sad in some ways, also...somehow the view on "love" (a.k.a. long term relationships) seemed rather fatalistic, making me realize that I must be further on the idealistic side of the spectrum than I thought.

    Nearly every sentence in this book is quotable.  All the Top 5 lists were great fun, even if I'm nowhere near the music geek that Rob (the main character) is.  I certainly didn't always connect with Rob's rambling thoughts, but that made his quest to find meaning in life all the more real and unique.  This book poses the challenge, in the most humorous way possible, to figure out who you are and be deliberate about the choices you make.  I felt that it also made the point that a change in a person's circumstances or behavior doesn't have to mean a change in your relationship.

    This was not my typical sort of reading choice, but it was very well done and very enjoyable.  I'll be adding more Nick Hornby to my shelves in the future.

    Friday, October 22, 2010

    84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff

    84, Charing Cross RoadTitle: 84, Charing Cross Road
    Author: Helene Hanff
    Pages: 97
    Published: Penguin 1990 (orig. 1970)
    My Rating: 5 stars

    What a delightful little treasure to have found!  Thanks to Wallace at Unputdownables, I've discovered Helene Hanff.  Where on earth have I been that I haven't heard of her?  It was the review on Q's Legacy (which I should be shortly receiving from my new favorite indie bookstore) that sold me.  Now I'm convinced--not only of my love for her, but that everyone needs to read her AND have her on the bookshelf.

    84, Charing Cross Road, in case you are unfamiliar, is a collection of short letters between Helene in New York, and a used book dealer in London.  The letters were written between 1949 and 1969, and were first published in 1970.  Truly, I do not believe any fictional collection of letters could be more entertaining.  In her second letter to Marks & Co. she says:
    Will you please translate your prices hereafter?  I don't add too well in plain American, I haven't a prayer of ever mastering bilingual arithmetic.
    It's amazing that these small letters centering around books built such a relationship between the correspondents.  The story is so complete, and yet so seemingly sparse in words.  I've heard the film adaptation is fabulous as well.  Because of its small size it is easy to fit in your schedule; because of its large payoff, it is easy for me to insist that you must fit it in as soon as may be!

    Wednesday, October 20, 2010

    Musically Inclined

    I'm feeling rather disconnected...being away from my computer and blog-o-sphere this week: I'm camping (RV style) at a fairgrounds in Northern California in preparation for a music festival that my husband produces. My role? I get to supply everyone with coffee: Barista for a Day (or three).

    So I am blogging via phone, which feels almost like driving blindfolded. It's a bit more difficult to read my Google Reader, and takes forever to type a blog post. A huge paragraph on my phone takes up a mere line or two on a normal sized screen--my sense of scale and proportion is all out of whack.

    Even though I'm not able to do much reading this week, I've not been completely without inspiration. In the last week or so I've had the enormous pleasure of seeing two amazing bands live: The Weepies and Mumford & Sons.

    The Weepies are a husband/wife duo from California that write happy, fulfilling music with simple, satisfying music and great lyrics. They were so fun and friendly, and the venue was so beautiful and intimate that it was just a great night.

    Mumford&Sons hail from London, and I don't even know how to classify their music. I would say folk-rock, but that makes them sound simpering and simple--which they are definitely not. I love their heart and spirit, their poetry and passion. Their song White Blank Page is just amazing. I wish I were on my computer so I could link it. These four guys are all incredible musicians. Yep, I'm in love (don't worry, my husband is too.) Unfortunately, I was too far away to get great pics of the upright bass, mandolin, banjo, accordion and horns. But the sound of 4000 people crowding in and singing along more than made up for it.

    So that's it--music is filling in for reading this week. I do have a couple of book reviews ready to post; hopefully I will get another bit of time to post them and make it through my ever growing Google reader list.

    Do you have some music that inspires you as much as books do? Let me know who it is--I love to find new favorites.

    Sunday, October 17, 2010

    Prisoners in the Palace by Michaela MacColl

    Prisoners in the Palace: How Princess Victoria became Queen with the Help of Her Maid, a Reporter, and a ScoundrelTitle: Prisoners in the Palace
    Author: Michaela MacColl
    Pages: 352
    Published: 2010 Chronicle Books
    Read For: LibraryThing Early Reviewers
    My Rating: 3.5 stars

    Hey, what a pretty cover!  I'm so glad that this historical novel has an illustration rather than a photo on the cover--those photo covers bug me.  Better than that, however, is that its beauty is more than skin deep.  It is, admittedly,  "A Novel of Intrigue and Romance" geared toward the Young Adult audience, but it is also well researched and generally well written.

    This is the story of Liza, who lost her chance for a debut into London society in 1836 when she was left orphaned and penniless in one fell swoop.  She has the good fortune to become Princess Victoria's personal maid in what turns out to be the year before Victoria becomes Queen.  It's a great little introduction to Queen Victoria for those who are unfamiliar (and aren't up to reading a vapid nonfiction account.)

    It has a nice balance of elements as far as Young Adult Historical Fiction goes.  The intrigue isn't too vile or intense and  the romance isn't completely unrealistic and mushy-gushy, while at the same time it keeps you turning pages.  There is a good amount of historical information enmeshed, while the action keeps going.  (Except for an extremely conspicuous comment about Boxing Day--which shall remain unquoted--the history behind the story was largely unobtrusive. And there are notes and resources in the back, which was a great addition.)

    The Young VictoriaThe character and plot developments were somewhat weak.  At some point I realized that while it was a page-turner, I wasn't really waiting for any great payoff or discovery.  Likewise, the characters were interesting, but I wasn't really wrapped up in their dilemmas.  It even took me awhile to realize that the main love interest was just that--I viewed him as a boy instead of a man of qualifying age and status. Still, it is an entertaining, interesting book, one that I enjoyed a bit more than I thought I would.  If you enjoyed The Young Victoria, (I kept picturing the actors in this film while reading the book) or are interested in Queen Victoria in general, this book is a nice diversion.

    Friday, October 15, 2010

    A Tale of Two Book Clubs

    Star of the SeaThunderstruckThis month, as both of my book clubs are reading books with rather similar covers (neither of which was my pick--I'm not so fond the ocean in general), seems like an apt time for me to explain how two groups that seem so similar are actually so different...apart from the fact (or perhaps slightly because of the fact) that Book Club #1 has a good decade of experience behind it, and Book Club #2 is still toddling on its new found toes.

    The Main Ingredients:
    - me (whose literary eyes are bigger than her literary stomach)
    - my book club of old (I first joined them in...1999? They started in '97)
    - my friend (who used to be in the book club but fell away, then began to desire the formation of a new book club)

    So I helped my friend start a book club.  The format of both groups is similar: 6-8 people rotate choosing a book, and meet every 4 weeks or so.  We meet at homes or coffee shops or wherever the book-chooser chooses.  The main differences lie in the fact that Book Club #1 is made up of people who live literary lives (we teach, we write, we devour and exchange books, we talk about themes and beautiful language) and Book Club #2 is made up [mostly] of people who enjoy reading, but haven't read much in a long time (smart, enjoyable ladies to be sure, just out of the habit of books).

    I've come to realize that Book Club #2 is more of a "Giving Back to the Community" sort of thing right now, and that's okay.  I get to talk about themes and layers in group #1, and in group #2 I get to see people rediscover a love for reading.  Once I thought about it in this way, my perspective completely changed--volunteering with books?  It's like a dream come true!  There are worse ways to spend your volunteer time for sure (like helping your kiddos try to sell magazines to raise money for a school that you already pay tuition at.  just for example.  I'm not bitter.)  Added bonus: I don't feel guilty if I don't patronize my library as much as I'd like.  At least I'm helping out somehow.

    Although these two groups serve very different purposes in my life, I'm enjoying them both.  One of favorite things about them is how the books are chosen...I love that they aren't chosen by committee.  Every once in a awhile someone will bring a couple of options, but most often we just read what is picked.  I love the surprise: not knowing what is coming next.  I love branching out--most of my book club books are ones that I would not pick up otherwise, and there have been some that I've really enjoyed (and even if I don't enjoy it, I feel more well-read.)

    Do you participate in any book groups, either privately or through libraries or book stores?  Are any of your book activities something you would consider to be akin to community service?  If you are in a book club, how do you go about picking books? 

    Thursday, October 14, 2010

    The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale

    The Goose Girl (Books of Bayern)Title: The Goose Girl
    Author: Shannon Hale
    Pages: 383
    Published: 2003 Bloomsbury
    My Rating: 3 stars

    Are you a fan of fairy tales?  Have you ever heard the Brothers Grimm tell the story of The Goose Girl?  Whether you have or have not, if you enjoy hearing a fairy tale retold, you will likely enjoy The Goose Girl.  Although the storyline is quite predictable, even without prior knowledge of the story, it remains a captivating tale.  Shannon Hale is a wonderful storyteller, this book being similar to Gail Carson Levine's or Jessica Day George's fairy tale books.

    There are other books following The Goose Girl, continuing the series: Enna Burning, River Secrets, and Forest Born.  Assuming these three are similar to the first, I would say that these are just about perfect for the older Junior Fiction reader.

    The reason I picked this book up is two-fold.  I knew that Shannon Hale had won a Newbery for Princess Academy (which I've not yet read) and I love Alison Jay's artwork.  Beautiful!  The Goose Girl was a great, must-finish-tonight type of book, one that I'll be sharing with my daughters someday.

    ABC: A Child's First Alphabet BookListen, Listen!Red, Green, Blue: A First Book of ColorsIf Kisses Were ColorsPicture This...: A Child's First Picture BookThe Nutcracker