Monday, April 30, 2012

For the Record: April 2012

I recently posted about being busy busy mentally, and how reading fits into that.  It's just been that kind of month.  I began with my Junior Lit Challenge, but decided to postpone the second half until May, so that I could take a break with some lengthier reads.  There are books that I've wanted to read all year that I still haven't gotten to, and I'm thinking it will not happen in May either.  In any case, I am reading good books, which is what counts.

13 Books Read in April: (49 year-to-date)
1 just for fun:
  - A Monster Calls, Patrick Ness (5)
4 for Challenges/Obligation:
  - Watership Down, Richard Adams (4.5) [Read for my TBR Shelf Challenge]
  - My Antonia, Willa Cather (4) [Read for my Willa Cather Challenge]
  - Shanghai Girls, Lisa See (4ish) [Read as a precursor to my Book Club selection]
  - An Invisible Sign of My Own, Aimee Bender (3.5) [Recommendation Obligation]
8 for my Junior Lit Challenge:
  - Jacob Have I Loved, Katherine Paterson (3)
  - Rascal, Sterling North (3.5)
  - Princess Academy, Shannon Hale (4)
  - Lincoln: A Photobiography, Russell Freedman (4.5)
  - Mary, Bloody Mary, Carolyn Meyer (4)
  - Catherine Called Birdy, Karen Cushman (3.5)
  - Because of Winn-Dixie, Kate DiCamillo (4)
  - The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Joan Aiken (3.5)


This month I read 4 books of 51 (17 year-to-date) for my various year-long challenges, as well as 6 of 10 for my Spring into Junior Lit challenge.
   - TBR Shelf: Watership Down (7 more to go)
   - Willa Cather: My Antonia (2 more to go)
   - Newbery: Jacob Have I Loved and Lincoln: A Photobiography (3 more to go)

3 Current Reads:
  - Dreams of Joy, Lisa See.  I actually haven't started this one yet, need to finish it by next Monday night for Book Club.
  - The Warden, Anthony Trollope.  I get to pick the next book club book, and I warned them I wanted to pick a classic...I was considering Trollope but wanted to get an idea of his writing first.  I may end up going with Thomas Hardy, since he seems to be loved by my group (&I've been meaning to read him anyhow).
  - Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin.  Highly recommended by you all as a follow up to the Lincoln Photobiography.  This is a CHUNKSTER.  Serious doorstop.  Good so far (barely at p. 69) but it might be slow going for me considering all of my other goals.  I may need to buy it, as I won't be surprised if my library time get used up before I'm halfway through.


On My Nightstand:
  - I'm planning on finishing my Junior Lit in May, so that's 3 Newbery books & 4 others on my shelf.
  - I borrowed Wildwood from the Library and I'd like to actually read it before sending it back.
  - I have 3 books that have been on my nightstand for MONTHS that I don't feel like naming again.  It makes me feel a bit guilty.  But, yeah, I'd still like to get to those.  We'll see how it goes.
  - Other obligations: a couple ARCs, and all those other books on my challenge list...I'm itching to get back to them.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

The More I Read...

...the more I realize I'll never be able to read all the books I'd like to.

It's been one of those months:  in spite of the fact (or perhaps because of it?) that I've been extremely busy, I've been doing a lot of reading.  And somehow, it seems that that the faster I finish books the more discontent I become with my mortality.  All the more reason to slow down, you might say, but I'm finding it rather impossible.  Reading is my escape from all the things that need doing.  Give it up? Slow it down? Impossible.

I'm fairly certain that my current bibliovore status, (the number of books I'm flying through, opposed tho the amount of blogging I'm doing about it,) has much to do with the type of busy I am.  It isn't that I have a tremendous amount of engagements filling my time, although I do have more than usual.  It is more a matter of my brain being saturated by a large quantity of transitive items.

The biggest mind-melter is the impending house remodel we are undertaking.  We have a large mid-century modern split-level home that we've been planning (for a couple years now) to do a major facelift on.  We've been working with an architect on the design, and now that our plans are approaching approval by the city, it's crunch time.  The interior design decisions are heavily underway (thankfully we have a wonderful interior designer to work with); we are in the process of selecting a landscape architect (hoping option #2 is miles better than option #1); deciding where we will live during the remodel (though we aren't yet sure of the timetable); and soon we will be looking at contractor bids as well.  Daily life combined with the knowledge that we'll be needing to move out of the house shortly is crazy enough, wanting to make sure that the remodel results in perfection is icing on the cake.

And then there's school.  Deciding on the best schooling options for each of my kiddos has been an unending source of internal debate over the years.  Public school, private school, home school - all are possibilities for us.  I love having my kiddos home with me, having the opportunity to really connect with them, having the privilege of seeing them learn and understand...even though the idea of being responsible for their education and having them with me all the time scared me to death to begin with, it really has been an incredible experience.  However, it hasn't always been the best choice for each child each year.  And right now, as the school year winds to a close, is the time when I really weigh the pros and cons of the last year and decide what next year is going to look like.  I'll come to a decision eventually, but for now it's one of those things that sits in my brain until I use a book to shush it for a while.

There's more, as there always will be, but to return to the point at hand, it is all this busy-ness that makes me feel that I'm running out of time.  Not just to read, (or quilt or knit or write or blog,) but to breathe and think and enjoy the life I'm so blessed to have.  No matter how much I fit in, there is that much more still waiting for me.  There may always be an abundance of things that need doing, and I may (or may not) get to them all eventually, but when obligations press in I retreat to the basics: family and reading.  It's been a light month on the blogging end and I'm missing it, but I'll get back to it.  Craziness will ebb, perspective will return, and I'll have time to bother you all mercilessly about all my bookish thoughts.  You've been warned.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Rereading My Antonia

I was in the middle of my Junior Lit Challenge, reading The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, and I couldn't get the wolf story in My Antonia out of my mind.  Have you read it? Do you know what I'm talking about?  I could reread the book just to reread that story.  Stranger than fiction.

As it was, My Antonia was the next book on my Willa Cather Chronologically challenge, so I already had it on the radar.  Rereading ensued.  I'm not typically a huge rereader, but I have no problem revisiting a book I've loved...isn't it curious to see how a book will change depending on when in your life you read it?  When I'd read My Antonia previously, I had to speed through it in order to finish by the time my book club met.  This time around, I was determined to take my time and soak it up.

Turns out, it just isn't a very long book.  Also turns out, it just doesn't entrance me like Cather's O Pioneers! or Song of the Lark.  It's very good, but even less than halfway through reading Cather's oeuvre, I wouldn't say it is her best.  My rereading experience was remarkably similar to my initial reading experience a few years back: it's a good story, well-written, and quite evocative of place and era.  It didn't make me cry or sigh, but neither did I get bored or irritated.

The thing that amazes me about Willa Cather is her ability to display all of her passion in such seemingly simple words.  Plot-wise, My Antonia isn't a suspenseful story with twists and turns, rather it is a remembrance of youth, of hopes and dreams, and a look at the outcome.  You get to decide if Antonia's resulting life is squandered potential or life truly lived - an interesting question when compared to Jim's life.  Conventional wisdom would assert that Jim lived up to his potential and Antonia did not, but if you tilt the picture and view it through an Old World lens, it ends up looking quite different.

Isn't it interesting how an author's best known book isn't necessarily their best work?  Obviously this could be debated ad nauseam, but it does seem to happen.  Have you had any experiences with that?  I think that's why I'll often choose a less popular book - I feel I'm more likely to get lucky.

(Next Willa Cather read is a collection of short stories: Youth and the Bright Medusa.  This collection contains 4 stories that were previously published; I haven't decided if I will reread those or not.)

Thursday, April 19, 2012

A Second Round of Junior Lit

I have so many books that I want to talk about, (and yet, ironically, haven't been blogging much lately,) but I thought I'd better to a recap of the Junior Lit I read last week...especially as I've decided to put that challenge on hold midway through.  I'm planning on completing it next month, but just really needed to mix up the length and complexity of my reading diet!

I already talked about Lincoln: A Photobiography by Russell Freedman - an enticing overview of Lincoln's life that I'm going to follow up with Team of Rivals.  Thanks for the suggestions!  I read 4 others before I threw in the towel and sank into My Antonia instead:

Mary, Bloody Mary by Carolyn Meyer

We know the story of Henry VIII from just about every angle, but we get to hear Mary's side of the story in this piece of Junior Historical Fiction.  Mary's voice was strong and true, and she told her story in such a way that I couldn't help but identify with her.

The drastic change from being her father's pet to being ostracized and disowned, withheld from her mother and everything she held dear, left Mary wounded and vowing to one day become who she was born to be: the queen of England.

Not only would this be a good introduction to how thoroughly the king ruled in that day and age, but it's a plausible and enjoyable look at a familiar story from a less popular point of view.  I'm no great expert on Tudor history, but all the bits of information jived with everything else I've read. (4 stars)
Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman

I was surprised to realized that this was the 3rd book I'd read by Karen Cushman.  First was The Midwife's Apprentice (a delightful Middle Ages tale) followed by The Ballad of Lucy Whipple (California Gold Rush era).  Unfortunately, the delight and novelty didn't survive past my first encounter.

Reading Catherine, Called Birdy seemed to be the dowdy, lesser-developed version of The Midwife's Apprentice.  I liked that it gives you a fun overview of how life worked for the daughter of a lord, and there were some funny parts throughout, but I didn't find it as enjoyable.  After reading Cushman's other stories, Catherine was a rather typical heroine.

Still, for a humorous, somewhat irreverent romp through castle life in the Middle Ages, this quick book is worth the read. (3.5 stars)
Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo

Here's another title that happens to be the 3rd book I've read by the author, and what a different experience than the one above!  I've loved everything of DiCamillo's I've read.  They combine easy-to-read writing with deep themes and characters that are easy to identify with, all within a high-interest plot.  Additionally, all three books of hers that I've read have been rather different in structure and tone - they aren't formula stories.

I'm sure you've heard of this title, but if you haven't read it, I'd recommend giving it a few minutes of your time (it won't take much more than that).  Or better yet, curl up on the couch and read it aloud to a kiddo or two.  I think there's something to enjoy at a variety of ages.  It's a nostalgic,  heartwarming tale grounded in reality. (4 stars)
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken

For some reason I always thought this book took place in Russia.  The fur caps, the wolves, and the snow seemed like a perfectly Russian combination.  It doesn't take place there, however, (unless Russia used to be quite easily reachable by train from London, an alternate history that's fun to imagine,) but once I came to terms with that I found a very enjoyable story.

An old-fashioned (meaning there are orphans involved) sort of children's mystery (meaning it's straightforward and not always entirely plausible), this tale kept the interest high throughout.  I enjoyed reading about the places and people involved, even though it was a very black & white/good vs. bad sort of struggle.  It held the magical innocence of A Little Princess and the independent adventure of the Boxcar Children - I would have loved it as a child.  As an adult, it was a bit too simple or innocent or something, but definitely fun enough to have earned a spot on my Junior Lit shelf.  It's one I'd be more than happy to recommend to kiddo or two. (3.5 stars)

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Sunday Salon: Lisa See & Abraham Lincoln

Lisa See and Abraham Lincoln might be a bizarre combination, but those are two of the people currently lurking in the literature side of my brain.  I need some help sorting it all out and getting suggestions...what do you think? Are you up for helping me out?

My dilemma with Lisa See is simple.  I've refrained from reading her because she seems to be so popular, and the topic didn't pique my curiosity.  However, Dreams of Joy is the next pick for book club.  So now I need to know: should I read Shanghai Girls first?  Dreams of Joy is the sequel, right?? I actually own Shanghai Girls (someone passed it on to me) so the answer should seem obvious, but then enters my moderate lack of interest and my limited time frame...decide for me??

I'm currently in the middle of a personal Junior Lit challenge, and I think I need a break from quick books.  They're making me impatient!  That seems a little backwards to me, but there it is.  I read enough on a topic to get me interested, and then it's over and I'm off to the next book.  I read The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, and it reminded me of the story about  wolves in My thing you know, My Antonia is on my nightstand begging to be read.

Likewise with Abraham Lincoln.  I read Lincoln: A Photobiography by Russell Freedman and really enjoyed it.  The information was familiar to me, but I loved how it was written, and the photos were a wonderful bonus.  I'd recommend this for children wanting to learn about Lincoln, as well as adults interested in a peek beyond the legend.  However, it was so good that it left me wanting to know more, more, more!

Do you have a book (fiction or nonfiction) about Lincoln that you would recommend to me?  I've read (a couple times) Love is Eternal by Irving Stone: a biographical novel about Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, and that also left me wanting more.  I recently bought Lincoln: Life Size, which will help stall my urge a bit, but I'd like something meatier.  Suggestions?

I may change the structure of my Junior Lit challenge...instead of plowing through all 15 books in April, perhaps I'll pause to add in some extension reading and then finish in May.  The more I think about that idea, the more I like it.  Rereading My Antonia....mmmm...sounds good to me.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Muddling Through April (& a Junior Fiction Update)

Like the last banquet table to be dismissed for the buffet line, so has my family stumbled upon Spring Break.  I was seriously starting to think it might never come, but oh how we needed it!  I'm sure you all can relate.  Our plans for our time off changed at the last minute due to some rainy days blanketing much of the West Coast - instead of visiting friends in Idaho, we are getting some R&R at my parents' house in Northern California and a last-minute jaunt to Napa for my husband and I (which, unsurprisingly, is still gorgeous even when overcast).  Here's to good food, good wine [and of course some good books] for a day or two!

On the reading front, ten days into April and I've read 3 of the 15 books on my Junior Fiction/Newbery Award Challenges, as well as Watership Down, which was delightful. 

For a book that I've been supposed to read since I was 13 and avoided conscientiously - afraid that it would be the drab, dry twin of Wind in the Willows (which, to be fair, I should probably give another chance) - this book was surprisingly entertaining and refreshing. After taking a little while to understand who everyone was, (I started it on audio, trying to multi-task, and ended up having to start over and make a character chart,) it was not only smooth sailing, it had me hooked: I looked for any opportunity to sit down and find out more about Hazel and Fiver.  It was adventure mixed with life and lore; a well-imagined world.

In the end, I loved this story. It was continually exciting and interesting, and the rabbits were endearing (rather than creepy). The writing was well-paced and well-written - all-around a good experience. I immediately began forcing it upon my 13 year-old son...hopefully it won't take him as long to get to as it did me! (4.5 stars)

While in the process of reading Watership Down, I blew through a book that I actually did read when I was 13ish.  I remember looooving this book.  It understood me like no person could - indeed, Katherine Paterson (author of the much-loved Bridge to Terabithia) understood just how misunderstood I was.

As an adult, I feel like I do a pretty good job remembering what it was like to be young - as far as all the emotional turmoil goes - and yet rereading this book made me feel far removed. Sure, Louise's grandmother is cruel, her twin is either shallow or simply self-absorbed, and her parents were a bit clueless, but why on earth didn't Louise do anything to help herself?  She let jealousy and frustration cloud her life, and it was sad to watch.

I remember feeling a huge relief regarding the ending of this book as a young teen...I saw it as an example of how a life can be turned around. It gave me hope.  What an interesting reread.  If you have a contemplative, quiet, creative young lady in your life I'd recommend this book, but as an adult it wasn't so great. (3 stars)

I actually gave my 13 year-old son the right to choose which book I would start with, and he chose Rascal.  He's read a fair portion of the books on my list, and he's my deep-thinking reader, so I was interested to see what I'd find in his top recommendation.  This was a surprising diversion from the typical fictional fare.  In fact, it is a memoir/autobiography of a year in the author's life when he had the pleasure to be friends with a raccoon.

It's a rather nostalgic and contemplative read, and perfect for readers of any age who long for the days when kids had more freedom to explore nature.  WWI and the Spanish Influenza made it not so much a simpler time, but it did seem to be so through Sterling's eyes.  Surrounded by nature, if not a proper family, he had the opportunity to experience life, complete with joys and sorrows.

One of the things that Andrew (my 13 year-old) loved about this book was that it was all real.  It's a picture of days gone by, and when the author's dad reminisces about falling in love with an Indian girl, you are getting a glimpse of  an even older world dying away.   It's comparatively slow, but it's full of feeling and remembering, tying the ages together. (3.5 stars)

Just today I closed the covers of Princess Academy - a book that caught my eye back when it was published 5 years ago.  Like Cynthia Voigt or Gail Carson Levine, Shannon Hale easily and realistically creates a land such reminiscent of  Cinderella, complete with any young girl's yearning for beauty and love, just as she did in The Goose Girl.

Miri is growing up, and longing more than ever to know that her dad loves her.  But he's a closed book - has been since her mom died after Miri's birth - and the surprise edict forcing her away from her home to train as a possible princess does nothing to answer her confusing emotions.

I can't imagine a boy getting much out of this book, but for a girl who's ever loved The Twelve Dancing Princesses or Sleeping Beauty, who has ever dreamed of the perfection of a fairy-tale ending, there's ever so much to love here.  (4 stars)

On my nightstand I've got others from my Junior Lit challenges: the photobiography about Lincoln, Cosmic (to make me smile), and Mary, Bloody Mary for a trip into history.  Only 12 more to go to complete my 2012 challenge!

Monday, April 2, 2012

Spring Into Junior Fiction

I'm planning on using April to plow through some of the Junior Fiction I've had on my shelves for ages. My kiddos are growing up, I need to know which books to recommend to them, and which to clear from my shelves.  It's crazy though, I pulled these 15 titles off my shelf and it doesn't even seem to have made a dent.  Perhaps by the time I've read them I'll feel differently...or maybe I just need to reorganize my shelves. :)

Instead of reviewing each title, I'm thinking of posting a weekly recap - adding JF titles I've read in the last 6 months into the mix - to give me some time (and mental space) to talk about some Adult Fiction I haven't had the chance to chat about yet.  Anyhow, I'm wondering...have you heard of these titles? Read them?  Most importantly, which should I read first??

5 Newbery Award Winners:
  • Jacob Have I Loved, Katherine Paterson
  • Shiloh, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor 
  • Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, Robert C. O'Brien 
  • Julie of the Wolves, Jean Craighead George
  • Lincoln: A Photobiography, Russell Freedman (nonfiction)

5 Historical, School-Oriented Books:
  • Patty Reed's Doll, Rachel K. Laurgeard 
  • The Shakespeare Stealer, Gary Blackwood 
  • Mary, Bloody Mary, Carolyn Meyer
  • The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Joan Aiken 
  • Catherine, Called Birdy, Karen Cushman

5 For Fun:
  • Rascal, Sterling North
  • Princess Academy, Shannon Hale
  • Homer Price, Robert McCloskey
  • Cosmic, Frank Cottrell Boyce 
  • Because of Winn-Dixie, Kate DiCamillo