Archive for December, 2009

December 30, 2009

I got books for Christmas

The Jungle Books by Rudyard Kipling

Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt

Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver

Very LeFreak by Rachel Cohn

The Last American Man by Elizabeth Gilbert

The Flavor Bible by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg

Brief Interviews With Hideous Men by David Foster Wallace

My Life In France by Julia Child

Tangled by Carolyn Mackler

These Is My Words by Nancy E. Turner

Books this year came in three delightful varieties:

  • Brand new, shiny, unread
  • Advanced Reading Copies
  • Old and smelly, dug out of the basement by my dear, sweet mother

All wrapped up and ready to open.

Still stacked in the living room, making my heart skip a beat when I walk by

December 27, 2009

something’s gotta give

Yesterday, my sisters and I went to the movies. We saw a matinee of It’s Complicated. This was also the choice for a hundred lady members of the AARP. We were the absolute, without a doubt youngest people in the theater.

Nevertheless, I really enjoyed the film. It’s exactly the kind of movie I fall for. Romantic and silly. Over the top sets. Beautiful wardrobes. A cast overflowing with actors who are interesting to watch.

I wanted to crawl inside the screen and live forever with Meryl Streep as my mother, or me as Meryl when I qualify for my own AARP card. To be wealthy enough, with a fulfilling career, happy family, dream home… it’s what I want. I want that upper middle class American dream. It makes my insides curl up to think that I might have it some day.

But it’s not really what I want.

This week is the last in a decade, so people feel obliged not only to reflect on the best albums/books/movies/moments of 2009, but on the best album/books/movies/moments of all ten previous years. I was thinking about movies, in particular, and found myself thumbing through Wikipedia, keeping a list of what I’d seen from each of those years that seem so long ago.

And I’ve never thought of myself as much of a film junkie. I like movies. I go to the movie theater every two or three months, I guess. There have been times where I venture to Blockbuster every other week or so, but mostly I’m content to watch my favorites over and over again. I have plenty of friends who watch almost everything. I have plenty of friend whose lives require Netflix accounts. I thought my habits were moderate.

I was alarmed when my list reached 50 in only 2000, 2001 and 2002.

So I watch a lot of movies. I’m also susceptible to the spell of TV on DVD.

And books. I often want to curl up inside books and live forever. And I remember this one moment of clarity, when I was in college and really struggling, and I curled up in my bed and started another novel ordered from interlibrary loan. I am not reading to enjoy, I thought. I am not reading to enlighten, to learn, or to respect.

I am reading to escape.

I am well aware that I operate inside of a bubble. I am not constantly in touch with the realities of the world, or even the realities of my own life. This is conscious. I have carefully crafted this bubble I call home – I let in only the people I want, only the issues I want, only the tasks and goals I think I can achieve – and I really do like it that way. After struggling for a long time with myself and my relationships, I’m under the illusion that I can handle more because of the bubble. That without it, protection, fear and anxiety and depression would keep me from doing anything. If I have a safe place, I am free to take risks within it.

Books and movies and television. Stories are my safe spaces. Where things begin and then end. Characters meet conflicts. Action rises and resolves. Words follow other words on the page.

That’s why I love movies like It’s Complicated. They are unrealistic and romanticized and false. They are silly and vapid. But they are stories that have limits – people behave in predictable ways, stories will resolve, things have already happened. That is what I want – for my life to reach a point where I’ve already made the right decisions and now I can just enjoy the things I made. I can be Meryl Streep and have silly romantic follies but can come home to my loving family and job and house and just be DONE with all the uncertainty of youth.

But I might not have a family. If I do, my children will be messy and not Hollywood beautiful, I will hold on to baby weight and struggle with my husband. If I have a husband.

There are a thousand reasons why my dreams will never come true. Maybe dreams of Meryl Streep are culturally created fabrications, a waste of my time and efforts.

And a thousand ridiculously awful things will happen even if they do. Cleaning my bathroom won’t help me write difficult papers. Right now I am comfortable in my cocoon of a home, full of family that I trust and love. I relax. I play games. Read books. Watch movies. I don’t accomplish anything when I’m escaping. And it keeps me from doing things I need to do. Something ridiculously awful happened to my best friend, and I should be seeing her. Instead, I’m in my comfortable white box of space, typing words because I can’t figure out what to think about what happened to her.

Ritually attending to my personal, emotional needs – like I do here often in this blog – soothes, but begets more and more self-centered-ness.

Constant escapism brings issues. I’m aware of that.

But I’m also interested in it. The stories. The ability of stories to take me away. To take others away. Whether that escapism has value in society, or in my own life. Whether you can do it while maintaining artistic craft, quality.

When I go to visit my friend – probably tomorrow – I will bring her a story.

I am a flawed individual with a myriad of issues. My boyfriend – a man who has known me for over six years – tells me weekly that I am too hard on myself. I am constantly evaluating whether or not I watch too much TV, whether I read the right books, whether I eat the right foods whether I am making the right choices.

But for some things, I refuse to feel shame.

On It’s Complicated –

Jane may be too perfectly dressed, coiffed and housed to be plausible. But Ms. Streep makes you believe in Jane, or rather makes you want to believe in her, from her casually chic wardrobe to the indulgent smiles she bestows on her children and lovers, all of whom need nurturing. The truth is that everyone needs a little coddling, which could be the key to Ms. Meyers’s peculiar talent: She pampers her audience shamelessly. Manohla Dargis

December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas

We had mini-Christmas this morning.

Because today we drove all day, across the country, to be home with our families.

I am home.

My family, however, seems to be at the world’s longest church service.

I am happy.

Merry Christmas. I hope you are happy too.

December 23, 2009

A Semester In Review

August 2009

We drive from 2 a.m. until 10 p.m. and then haul our every belonging up three flights of stairs.

Lance starts work at Whole Foods while I lay about the house, reading books and playing Super Smash Brothers.

It’s a hundred degrees for two whole weeks.

September 2009

Labor day screws up my school schedule. I start work and often find myself telling my boss that grad school is pretty easy, since I only have one class.

Two weeks later, I have so much reading and work I want to throw myself from a precipice.

I have three classes, 11 credits.

The Writer’s Achievement – We read four Jacqueline Woodson books every week, and then have rousing conversations. Later, we will tackle Phillip Hoose and Lois Lowry. This class is manageable, but the reading sneaks up on me sometimes.

Literary Criticism of Children’s Literature –  We read two novels and 100 pages of dense lit theory each week, and write a very difficult paper applying the dense theory to the novels. This class is intense.

Library Management – We come to class each week and talk about real life issues that will arise as managers in libraries, archives, or anywhere. My professor is hilarious. The work is valuable, but not challenging. I love this class.

My Monday-Friday life turns into Work/ Class – Come home – Nap and read – Make Dinner – Watch TV – Go to Bed. My Weekend life is Hole Up In My Room Doing As Much Work As I Possibly Can With Intermittent Bouts of Tears Because THIS PAPER IS TOO HARD!

On the bright side, Lance got a fancy teaching job! We can afford cable and internet. Huzzah.

Oh, and I buy a pair of rain boots.

October

School chugs along. Two of my classmates and execute a ninety minute presentation on Marxist literary theory and its application to Monster by Walter Dean Myers. We get a pretty good grade. And then we go out for drinks.

Frank and Sadie come for a visit. It is so fun. We eat Italian food, go to a bar where you can bring your dog, visit Walden Pond, and climb too many stairs up a pointy tower.

Then I go back to work.

I write my first big paper. It is about all of these books:

I get an A minus. Cut and paste this grade onto every assignment I have for the rest of the semester, except for a freak 4.0 paper. And my management class, where I rock 100 percents, no joke.

November 2009

What the heck happened in November? I can’t remember. I write more papers. I cry because they were too hard. I go out for drinks. I contract a few viral infections. I work through Lois Lowry’s ouevre. I drive home for Thanksgiving. I drive back to Boston so I can go back to class. Class. Work. Class. Work. A minuses. Class. Work.

I try to write a novel, but I don’t finish. I start going to bed at 10:30 every night and waking up at 6:30 so I can write.

December 2009

Everything wraps up. I go to Lois Lowry’s house (which I still need to write about… I’m aware of that fact). I write two papers in a five day academic marathon. I kill lots and lots of trees.

And then I’m done. We do go out for one last drink.

Elena, Colleen, Jamie, me, and Lauren. We share 6+ hours a week for a semester, and then it’s over.

The Aftermath

So here I am. I’ve been free and easy since Friday. It started to weird me out on Monday. Where is my syllabus? Shouldn’t I be DOING something?

This semester, I have been busier than I ever have. Even when I was taking 18 credits and working 20 hours a week in my undergrad. Even when I was taking 15 credits and working 20 hours a week and singing a cappella and revising a novel. Even when I was working 24 hours a week, commuting 10, working out 3-4 times a week and babysitting on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

There’s constantly something to do, something to think about, something to be planning for. And then a lot of places to be, a lot of things to do around the apartment, shopping that needs to be done, holidays to think about, keeping your energy and health up, and the BOOKS, oh the books there are seven thousand books that must be read!!

Since Friday, I have been a full-time selfish person. My duties include playing Wii games. Christmas shopping. Watching movies. Reading the books I want to read. Making batch after batch of granola. Figuring out whre the good TV marathons are. Obsessively looking for grades.

I got an A in management, natch.

Lance – in case you were curious – loves his job. He’s busy too. He gets up at 5:15 so he can take his time on the highway, and get in some practicing before school starts. Teaches music all day. When he’s not staying after for band or Seussical practice, he tutors kids in math for some extra $$.

He works hard.

And tomorrow, we go home.

Back to Michigan.

AND THEN IT’S CHRISTMAS!

How did that happen?

I’m happy to be going home,

but I’m happy to have had such a good semester.

December 21, 2009

Best Reads of 2009 – Part II

THIS IS IT!

I’M SO EXCITED!!

5. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

Here is the house. It is white and green. It has a red door.

This is a book I probably should have read in high school. It’s a book that should be assigned in high school English classes, and it probably would be assigned more often if it wasn’t for one chapter. It’s such a powerful, important book, and SO right at a teen’s level, that when I read it, I had the most anti-librarian thought I’ve ever had – Can’t we just cut out that one chapter? Black it out? Call it the “school edition?”

I stand by that idea. In high school, we read Malcom X and I Know Where the Caged Bird Sings. Neither had the intensity or the literary application (English teachers love that) of The Bluest Eye.

The story is about Pecola, a poor black girl living in Ohio after the Great Depression. She is living with another family – the book takes you through the How She Got There, the What Happens Next, and what I thought were some of the most moving parts of the story, How Her Parents Got There.

Yes, this is an important book about the African American experience in the US, but it’s also something to behold in a literary sense. Shifting perspectives, artful language, stories unfolding out of chronology, adding up to something bigger than the sum of its parts.

This is a really a book that everyone should read.


4. Show Way by Jacqueline Woodson

When Soonie’s great-grandma was seven, she was sold from the Virginia land to a plantation

in South Carolina without her ma or pa but with some muslin her me had given her.

Maybe this will change once I’ve had an entire course on the art form, but I’m not the biggest fan of picture books. There are some I think are fun. But they don’t really move me.

Enter Show Way.

A perfect marriage of words and images, in my mind. The story is a personal historical narrative, told in verse-like prose, tracing one girl through time, from slavery to 21st century America. The genealogy is the driving narrative, but a symbol that drives the text is the Show Way – a quilt with secret messages sewn into the pattern, showing the way for escaped slaves to reach safety. The family story compounds through time, following the maternal line, and Woodson tells the deeply personal story in a way that feels universal. We all have stories like these in our family, and those stories and those people add up to US, whether we know the stories or not.

Oh, and the pictures are simply revelatory. Amazing. Will move you, even if for whatever reason the text does not. Art. Art Art.

Man, these reviews are simply getting more and more coherent as the days go by, huh?

3. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver

This story about good food begins in a quick-stop convenience market.

The premise is one of those gimmicky things you’re getting sick of: someone does BLAH for a year, and writes a book.

Except it’s Barbara Kingsolver. And she wasn’t dressing like someone from the Bible or going on a self-help spree or cooking her way through a cook book.

She was just eating local food. For a year. A boring premise that turns out to be more interesting than any of those gimmicks.

This book is equal parts memoir and nonfiction. Kingsolver tells stories about the history of her property, laughs about her turkey husbandry endeavors, and describes the seasons and the different kinds of work and food they entail in a way that exudes comfort. Lots of curl-up-inside-this-book-and-live moments. But there is real information here too, about the food industry and why it’s infinitely better for the world and our bodies to simply grow your own food. Or to know the person who grew it.

There is something special about a book that makes you want to leap up from the page and DO something.

I don’t have a garden yet, but I will.

And I think, just now, as I write, I found the money to buy into my local CSA farm-share for next year…

2. In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto by Michael Pollan

If you spent any time at all in a supermarket in the 1980s, you might have noticed something peculiar going on.

If you were to read any book I have ever recommended, I would tell you to read this one.

There is something wrong with the American diet. We eat too much (because our attitudes about food are all screwed up). We eat crap (because we don’t have the strong food culture that values time spent on food). Even the good food is crappy (because of the Big Food monopoly). We would rather eat something made from a machine than made from actual food (because of the media).

Add about 75 more things you’d never thought about/didn’t know about food, and you will have In Defense of Food.

I have a crush on Michael Pollan. He tells it like it is in a way that makes you feel okay about yourself, even though you are an idiot and should really stop drinking Diet Coke already.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle put a fire under my feet, but this book has changed the way I eat, already and immediately.

Please, please read this book!

1. Baby Catcher: Chronicles of a Modern Midwife by Peggy Vincent

“Please lie down,” I begged Zelda. “Please.”

Words can barely express how much I enjoyed this book.

And I’m not really going to pretend that this is a book for everyone.

It’s probably only a book for those who have Baby Fever with a side of homebirth. Just me and my sister Caroline, really.

BUT I LOVED THIS BOOK!

But really. It’s good. Peggy Vincent delivered her first baby as a nurse-in-training in the 1960s. In the age of the “twilight sleep”(Google it: disturbing stuff), Vincent walked into the room of a woman who refused drugs, who refused to sit down, who refused to stop yelling. It changed the way Peggy looked at the medicine of maternity – she began training to be a midwife shortly thereafter, working in hospitals, in an alternative birthing center in Berkeley, and then working her own private practice, specializing in home births.

This is a memoir not about Vincent, but about the important and exciting work that she did for decades. She is a talented storyteller, but it comes out in the way she can remove herself from the story and put the focus on the many, many women she assisted. Which is exactly what you want from a midwife, I’d think. Each episode, each birth, is as interesting and exciting as someone close to you. I was flipping pages late into the night, wanting more and more stories.

If you are a lady, and you plan on someday procreating and taking the epidural as soon as they hand it out, then you might not want to read this book. It might change your mind.

December 20, 2009

Best Reads of 2009 – Part I

Here is the first installment

of the books I read this year

that I liked the best.

Unlike previous lists,

these are in order.

(Suspense!)

10. It Sucked and Then I Cried: How I Had a Baby, a Breakdown, and a Much Needed Margarita by Heather Armstrong

My husband has great hair, but even more impressive than that, he has impeccable taste in socks.

I am the creepy stalker lady who will flip back through the archives of a stranger’s blog, if that stranger is the right combination of Talented, Interesting, and usually Funny. You probably don’t need me to tell you that Armstrong, the writer of Dooce.com, is all of those things. And reading this book, a memoir of her first child and subsequent mental breakdown, is exactly like taking a long trip down Dooce’s archives, except it’s narrative, which makes it better, and it’s paper and has two covers.

I’m not even 25, but I have to smother my biological clock with a pillow at least once a week so the tick-tick-tick-babies-babies-babies won’t drive me insane. Reading tell-all Mommy Memoirs is a consequence free way to indulge my urges. So in essence, this book = interesting, funny, indulgent. Another book you’ll want to drink down from start to finish as soon as your hold comes in from the library.

9. The Willoughbys by Lois Lowry

Once upon a time there was a family named Willoughby: an old-fashioned type of family, with four children.

This book charmed me. It was my second to last book off the syllabus, and I had this big stack of shiny new books waiting for me… oh, I could taste them, they were sitting on the shelf, taunting me, all the books I hadn’t had time to read for three months… but I forgot all about them. This book was so completely charming.

I think that’s one of those buzz words you’re supposed to avoid in book reviews, or so says one of my esteemed professors, who has done her time as a professional reviewer. Charming. So let me be a little more specific.

The Willoughbys are an old-fashioned family. Old-fashioned things happen to the four Willoughby children, like when a baby is left on their doorstep. Or like when their parents decide they no long want children, so they run off to Europe and leave their children in the care of a tough-minded, kind hearted nanny named Mary Poppins. Oh wait, her name is just Nanny. They leave the baby in the care of the reclusive millionaire who lives in an impressive mansion, paid for by his successful candy business.

So really, “goofy” might be a good word. “Satirical,” would be another, but not really a fun word. “Clever.” “Hilarious.”

I really just like “charming,” though.

8. Love Is the Higher Law by David Levithan

My first thought is: My mother is dead.

I have already written a brief review of this book, so instead, I will tell you a little story.

Last summer, my mom and I took the bus down to Chicago to see the vendors at ALA’s national conference. It was free, it was a fun little library road trip. And mostly, I wanted to troll for ARCs. I found this one and read it on the bus ride back to Michigan. It took me a few hours. I put the book down and sighed. The lady across the aisle from me asked me how it was. I said something about it being good, being sad, or something. She read the back of the book, said something about how she didn’t know he had one out, and I said I didn’t know either. And then I told her to keep it, because we’d grabbed two – one for me, one for Caroline.

Fast forward a few months. It’s Cybils nomination time. I like the Cybils, in theory, but holy goodness why must we nominate EVERY BOOK WRITTEN IN AN ENTIRE YEAR, especially because the underdogs never seem to win. Oh, but that never stops me from joining in the fun. I took a brief glance through my Read Along At Home Guide and thought surely every book I’d read that I thought was halfway good was already nominated.

Until my eyes landed on Love is the Higher Law. Oh snap! Must nominate!

Fast forward some additional months. There’s an incoming link to my blog, from the Cybils blog. Oh, they’ve linked to me, because I’ve nominated a title. How nice. Oh, and they’ve started reviews. I wonder what the reviewer thought about the book? Does it really stand a chance?

So here’s what I found.

Just read the first paragraph.

I’m glad she liked it as much as I did.

7. & 6. The Hunger Games and Catching Fire (The Second Book of the Hunger Games) by Suzanne Collins

When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.

Don’t you love when a book gets loads of hype, and it’s actually a good read? I do.

For the 2% of the planet who hasn’t read these already, Katniss Everdeen is a 16-year-old girl living in District 12, the poorest of the “states” that now make up a post-disaster US. Most of the people here work in the mines, but the work is dangerous. Katniss’s father died there, leaving her to help provide for her mother and younger sister. When she can, she sneaks past the electric fences that surround District 12, leaving the community to hunt game in the woods. It’s illegal, but she’s good at it – her father taught her how to set traps, track prey, and shoot a bow and arrow – and it’s lucrative. But not always. One year, Katniss buys 20 tessera – extra rations of food and oil – from the government, but it’s at a high price. Every year, to remind the Districts of the dangers of rebellion, the government draws the name of one boy and one girl from each District to compete in an epic, televised battle to the death.

Every child gets one entry, but every tessera costs you one more.

But when it comes time for The Reaping, Katniss isn’t selected – it’s her little sister Prim.

Gah!

Okay, is that enough to get you to want to read the book?

How about this:

My mom listened to it on audio, brought it home and said “Read This.” I gave it to Lance, my 24-year-old boyfriend. He listened to it and said “READ THIS NOW!”I read it: I thought the first 50 pages or so were slow, but after that I couldn’t put it down. Then my 13-year-old sister read it while my family was vacationing at my grandpa’s house. By the time they all came home, Caroline, my 16-year-old sister had read it and so had my DAD. My dad who once told me that YA was just “stories about teenagers where you throw in a swear once in awhile to get a rise,” or something to that effect.

So if you fit into any of those categories, you will like these two books. The sequel, in my opinion, was just as good as the first installment. Thanks to my CHL buddy, Elena, I got to read it before November (that’s how long my hold took to come in). And yes, we both have the release of number 3 on our calendars.

8.24.2010. You might as well write it down too.

Come back tomorrow for THE TOP FIVE!

December 19, 2009

Best Books of 2009 – Young Adult Fiction

(These are my favorites,

and I really wish I had time

this year

to read more!

I’m trying to catch up…)

1. Keesha’s House by Helen Frost

This was the first Required Reading book of the semester that made me want to curl up inside the book and live there forever.

Keesha’s House is a novel in verse… a novel in sonnets and sestinas to be specific. Novels written in strict verse of turn me on a little, in that English major kind of way. And the form had a lot to do with why I liked the book so much. The form is comforting, even though the characters are struggling with some heavy stuff. The ensemble class of high school students are dealing with teen pregnancy, being kicked out of their homes, substance problems, getting locked up in juvenile detention, etc but they all come together to find common ground in Keesha’s house. Not that Keesha’s House is even a legitimate place for Keesha to live – she rents a room, having left her own home for her own reasons, but she kind of stands as a symbol for all the other kids, a sign that even though their lives might suck right now, there are ways to come out ahead, like Keesha. And when Keesha has problems of her own, they will be there to support her, too.

Oh gosh, I liked this book a lot.

2. Liar by Justine Larbalestier

I don’t want to say too much about this book, because I don’t want to accidentally ruin it. So instead, a list.

1. This book falls under the category of a genre I don’t typically enjoy, BUT THIS BOOK WAS AWESOME, so that’s saying something.

2. This book falls under the category of a genre everyone else on the planet seems to love, so don’t let that scare you away.

3. Twists. Turns. What the heck is going on? GAH! Can I read one more chapter?

4. First person narrator is a compulsive liar.

5. Urban setting was so seamless and real, I kept forgetting it wasn’t written by Jacqueline Woodson. More than once, I got them confused. Probably in class.

6. Fast paced, action-filled with a female protagonist who DOES things and is COMPLEX.

I think most readers will find something to like in this book. Even readers who, like myself, are biased against certain genres.

3. Along for the Ride by Sarah Dessen

There are very few authors as consistent as Sarah Dessen. Yes, consistent can mean plots that feel familiar, characters that seem like they’ve met in other books. But when those plots are so engaging and characters so real on the page, then its hard to think of the word “consistent” as a bad thing. Actually, it’s impossible.  I mark the release dates for the new Dessen book on my calendar, and go out that day to buy it. The hardback.

Along for the Ride has Auden, an intellectual high school grad who lives with her mother, the dramatic English professor. But when her mom gets a little too much to handle, Auden takes her father up on his offer – a summer at his house, on the beach, catching up and getting to know his new wife and their baby, Auden’s new half-sister, Thisbe. But her dad is busy, trying to write a novel, and doesn’t even notice that his wife is melting down under the pressure of a newborn. Auden steps in as babysitter, and working at her stepmom’s clothing store. Through this job, she meets a gaggle of friends and Eli, the only person around who, like Auden, can’t sleep. They forge an after-midnight friendship, and Auden realizes that growing up surrounded by academia, she missed out on some things. Like that gaggle of friends, those crazy midnight adventures, and learning how to ride a bike.

For those of you have read Dessen, you know where this is going. For those of you who can’t, you can expect what Dessen is so known for – a tasty summer romance with characters you will root for.

4. Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson

Like Sarah Dessen, Laurie Halse Anderson can really only hit it out of the park. One mode: excellence.

However, I didn’t really want to read this book. I put it off. I finally did, and I didn’t want to talk about it, much less recommend it.

I am including it on this list because the writing is gorgeous, the story legitimately haunting. Lia is a character caught in the crux of things she can’t control, and things she can.

But this is an eating disorder story. And since Laurie Halse Anderson can’t do anything but write so painfully close to her characters, this is a hard book to read, especially if you are a person who has ever shared her life with an eating disorder, even for the slightest span of time, or have ever watched a loved one suffer. Lia’s story is not one you would want to read, want to acknowledge exists, for so many people.

So LHA has again, elevated the “problem novel” to an artform. Lia’s voice is so well done, so provocative, the way a broken, starved mind might see the world.

Just read at your own risk.

5. Jumping Off Swings by Jo Knowles

Speaking of somewhat transcendent “problem novels”…

I bumped this book up to the top of the queue because even though I just turned in my final paper at 3:30, yesterday afternoon, I whipped through this book from start to finish before I went to bed.

That’s a fairly high compliment. I think Ms. Knowles would take it that way, since she is a graduate from my program, and probably can recall what a life-draining experience CHL 401 was.

So there are four characters, who all get their say in this book. Ellie is misguided, looking for love but finding sex. One night, that sex is with Josh, who was a virgin and was expecting fireworks and manliness and validation but finds he can’t get rid his mind of Ellie’s face when he left her in the back of his dad’s van, alone. But he brags to his friends anyway, including Caleb, who finds his friend’s masculine posturing appalling, especially since he’s had a crush on Ellie since grade school. But Ellie is in no state to deserve Caleb, really – she’s wounded, she’s stuck in this pattern that’s killing her spirit, and then she’s pregnant. Her best friend, Corinne, is her only confidante.

And I give this book high marks primarily because it is a book about Teen Pregnancy that is more about HOW teen girls get pregnant than “What Happens Next?” The choice Ellie makes isn’t the focus of the book, nor are the after effects of that choice. Knowles is writing about the community of friends, their perspectives, how they handle the news, support or reject their friends, survive their parents, et cetera. Ellie’s pregnancy is simply the story element that ties these four characters together. And double props for Josh – I haven’t read a book that gave a teen father such delicate treatment.

Runners Up

P.S. Tomorrow is my FAVORITE ALL TIME BEST OF THE BEST OF 2009 LIST!

Get excited

December 18, 2009

Best Books of 2009 – Great Re-Reads

These books are good to read again,

if you are the kind of person who likes to read books over

and over (I am)

but some people aren’t!

I’d try it, though, with these.

Anastasia Krupnik
by Lois Lowry

First read circa 1995

Read it again because it will crack you up. Anastasia is hilarious, her parents so awesome, and what about Washburn Cummings? Oh gosh, Washburn Cummings…

The Princess Diaries
by Meg Cabot

First read in 2000

Read it again because even though you’d like to think Meg Cabot’s books are a little too fluffy (okay, look at that cover… a LOT too fluffy), you remember that she can write. Also: it will crack you up.

Weetzie Bat
by Francesca Lia Block

First read in high school, then again in 2007

Read it again because it is a timeless gem of a young adult book. An urban fairytale, full of Hollywood wonder and lots of love.

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume I: The Pox Party
by M.T. Anderson

First read in 2007, and again in 2008

Read it again because you have to. Then read it again, because it’s gorgeous and so full of STUFF you can’t get it all in one read.

A Summer to Die
by Lois Lowry

First read on a classmate’s recommendation in 2007

Read it again because it hits harder the second time, and sometimes sobbing into a book is therapeutic.

The Giver
by Lois Lowry

First read to me by my father, in 1994, read to me by my teacher in 1995, read to myself numerous times, and read TWICE this year

Read it again because I’ve read it that many times, and I’d read it again (in a month or two). It’s the first book I recommend to people, still.

In other breaking news, I turned in my final final paper at 3:30 today. My last day of work was yesterday. I’ve officially survived my first semester.

December 17, 2009

Best Books of 2009 – Non-Fiction

So the parade of books continues. Did I mention that barely any of these books were actually published in 2009? Well, until I have read every good book written before the current calendar year (and until I get a lot of money to buy new books at my leisure), this is just how I roll. If I limited myself to just 2009 releases, I’d have a very short list, devoid of little or any suspense or the delight in choosing.

1. John Lennon: All I Want is the Truth by Elizabeth Partridge

John Lennon was different and he knew it.

You guys, the whole concept of young adult nonfiction is really quite delightful. It’s not all “What’s Happening to My Body?” books and shoddy reference texts on cigarettes, euthanasia, and every other research topic you might choose in high school. All the other books in the YA NonFic section at your library, the ones that don’t fall into those two categories, are pretty stellar because… well… teens don’t read as much as publishers would like, especially nonfiction books designed for them. Why not just go read some adult nonfic and get it over with?

My point is: theses books try HARD to be great, because they have to, and they are pretty cool. Because of this book, I am completely in love with John Lennon, and am extremely upset that he wasn’t not around to stir up shit in my lifetime.

And there’s not really much to say about the book other than that: it’s a biography of John Lennon, starting from childhood and ending when he died. So it’s also a biography of The Beatles. The photos are extensive and exquisite (another bonus of reading YA nonfic: there’s this requirement that the book must be “visually interesting”). And despite the world-wide hooplah that accompanies any discussion of the man, the book really centers in on the man, leaving the reader to evaluate his idolization on his or her own.

I think this would be a great read, even for a Beatles fanatic. It’s a great story in an appealing package. What more could you ask for?

2. Necessities: Racial Barriers in American Sports by Phillip Hoose

That’s not a book cover. I know. There is absolutely no internet evidence that this book has a cover. I have seen it though! It’s an okay cover. It’s kind of 80s. But the book does exist, and you can even buy it used on Amazon for cheap-cheap-cheap. And if you are at all interested in the history of sports or the enigmatic racial situation in America, please do buy it. I am not particularly interested in sports, and moderately interested in racial issues, and I found this book so difficult to put down.

The picture I chose is a screencap from Pride, a movie about an all-black, competitive swim team in Philadelphia, a team which Phillip Hoose writes about in Necessities. EDIT: Phillip Hoose actually wrote about the Philadelphia team in the NY Times, and a Cleveland team in Necessities. Whups! You can read the NYTimes article here. That particular chapters details the many ways that African Americans are restricted from competing in many “fringe” sports (aka, not baseball, basketball, football). This is the kind of book that spells out the obvious, but the obvious you were too completely self-fixated to consider. There aren’t very many black swimmers, or gymnasts, or competitive hockey players, lacrosse champs, et cetera. It’s not because they aren’t athletic enough – in fact, the sports media is very invested in the racist idea that African Americans were born for sports but need white Quarterbacks to tell them what to do to win the game, as Hoose discusses at length in ANOTHER chapter. But there are many factors keeping black kids from getting into competitve swimming or tennis, the biggest of which is cost. Duh. Being a competitive swimmer means access to an Olympic-sized pool (membership fees), practices multiple times a day (parents with flexible job hours and a car), private coaching (big $$$$), and you have to start YOUNG (even more cumulative $$$$). These sports are prohibitively expensive for all but the most wealthy American children… most of whom just happen to be white.

Anyway, this book is chock full of stories like these, asking tough questions about who gets to own baseball teams, who gets to be quarterback, why so many Latin Americans end up on American baseball teams. Positively riveting. Unfortunately, the book was published in 1989, which means you’ll read and probably be horrified about how little has actually changed in 10 years.

3. Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith by Deborah Heiligman

In the summer of 1838, in his rented rooms on Great Marlborough Street, London, Charles Darwin drew a line down the middle of a piece of scrap paper.

In 1859, Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species.

Books have been written about this. Lots.

In 1839, Charles Darwin got married.

This is probably the only book on this particular topic. But I’m not sure why NOT! Full confession: I’m only on page 110. Perhaps the last half of the book will go swiftly downhill. But we’ll give Heiligman the benefit of the doubt. So far, I’m finding it delightful.

The book begins with that line, drawn on a piece of paper, dividing two columns: To Marry and To Not Marry. After deliberation, SPOILER ALERT! the To-Marry’s win. Shortly after, he finds a bride (oh, to be a somewhat wealthy MAN, huh?), Emma Wedgewood. His first cousin. Cause that’s how the 1800s roll. Emma is smart and charming, lovely, plays the pianoforte. However, she has recently lost her favorite sister, a trauma that sent dear Emma directly to the church. She is religious.

And Darwin, just returned from his revelatory trip down on the Beagle, has visions of evolution dancing in his head.

But the moral of this tale, or so I’ve heard, is that the conflict didn’t drive the two apart. They had a very happy union. And his devout love for such a devout lady shaped his Theory of Evolution in an undeniable way.

This is the kind of historical non fic that I can get behind.

4. Stitches: A Memoir by David Small

I read a disturbingly small number of memoirs in 2009. Shame, shame. Not a lot of young adult/juvenile memoirs out there, are there? There are a lot published by/for adults that could easily sit in the Y nonfic section… oh… like this one, for example. I think I’ve read quite a few with crossover potential… anyway, that is a discussion for ANOTHER day.

Today, I just want to tell you that you probably have to read this book. If you’ve read Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, then you will have a good idea of the tone and artwork of Small’s work – but only about 3% of the horror. This book, as memoir, is horrifying. One of those “how did you not end up a criminal/in a mental ward/permanently scarred” kind of childhoods. But he’s not. He’s a successful illustrator, and plenty of my former library patrons in southeast Michigan told me he is a very nice man.The artwork – bleak, blue and gray and black – is haunting. The story – unforgettable. And somehow, by the end of the text, it doesn’t feel indulgently sentimental. It’s not a sob story. Just a story.

Yeah, I need to read more good memoirs. Any suggestions for 2010?

5. Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice by Phillip Hoose

Claudette Colvin was 15 when she refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus. Police dragged her from the bus, talked about what a whore she was while she sat in the back of their cruiser, and was thrown in jail. She was charged with violation of the segregation law and assault against an officer.

9 months later, Rosa Parks became the woman who would go down in history.

A very dramatic story, including Supreme Court testimony, civil rights violence, and even a teen pregnancy, but also another example of those YA nonfic books that are in a league of their own. Photos. Sidebars. And Hoose interweaves Colvin’s own words – culled over days and days of interviews – with his own historical context. Hoose did an excellent job of capturing a story that would have otherwise slipped through the cracks of time.

Runners Up

December 16, 2009

Best Books of 2009: Middle Grade Fiction

(These books go in the “Juvenile” section of your local library.

I typically read the ones for upper elementary aged folks.

Again, click titles for Amazon links,

if you want more information)

1. Stay!: Keeper’s Story
by Lois Lowry

I was born in the gutter and grew up in poverty, abandoned by my parents, stealing and begging in order to survive.

Wait, wait. I know what you are thinking. A book with a first person canine narrator = cheesy, ridiculous, why-the-heck-would-I-read-that?

Believe you me: this book is clever enough to make you forgive. Keeper is a stray dog, born in an alleyway, abandoned by his mother, and separated from his brother and sister. But he’s an austere kind of stray, keeping his dignity and always reminding the reader of his tastes for fine food. He even writes poetry to capture his life’s most essential moments. And his life is full of the adventure that every child hopes their pet would have had before being adopted into a loving family. Keeper lives with an alcoholic homeless man, gets into dog fights, and even takes a stab at doggie modeling. Okay, you got me. This book is pretty silly. But Lowry gives Keeper this exceedingly verbose, faux-Dickensian voice that kept me on my toes as a reader, kept me smiling and flipping the pages. This book may have slipped under the radar, but I think it could find a home with an animal loving child and a parent to read along.

2. Feathers (Newbery Honor Book)
by Jacqueline Woodson

His coming into the classroom that morning was the only new thing.

This is a strange year for me to be coming up with lists of favorite books, since I have read so many of these books from a syllabus, a strange, manufactured way of reading. I did read every book Jacqueline Woodson has written, in pretty much the same order in which they were written. And I liked most of them. Woodson is a good storyteller. But after about a dozen book came Feathers, and as I read, holding the gorgeously packaged book in my hands, I thought that this book was the first Woodson book that would have caught my attention outside of class. That this book was not just a good story, but a good book. A solid reading experience.

Frannie is a sixth grader in the 1970s – she and her classmates are black, the white kids go to school across the highway. Until a long haired boy who looks like Jesus walks into her classroom. But this school plot, where Frannie and her friends try to figure out what to do with one who looks so different, is just one of many threads that tie the book together. Frannie and her best friend are wondering about God. Frannie’s family is one of those you want to pull out of the pages and hug – her parents loving but suffering from miscarriages, her older brother confident and capable but deaf and wanting to experience life more fully. Frannie is a thoughtful narrator to the stories that surround her, and through these stories she grows and finds her own definition of hope.

Oh, this one just gave me a nice warm, fuzzy feeling, you know?

3. The Underneath
by Kathi Appelt

Again with the Ambitious January books. This was one of the first books I read in 2009 and I still remember it as poetic, enjoyable, and thought-provoking.

And yes, it’s another book with animal narrators.

Yikes.

I will let my previous review speak for itself, but rest assured that this book is more than a cutesy adventure about kittens trying to survive in the wild. There is mythology, folklore, powerful nature and strong examination of the faults of humans. Your 8-year-old will like it, but you will like it more.

4. What Jamie Saw
by Carolyn Coman

When Jamie saw him throw the baby, saw Van throw the little baby, when Jamie saw Van throw his little sister, Nin, then they moved.

Spare, delicate prose. A tone that feels like dirty white snow, faded gray-blue skies. This is not a book for the faint of heart – the story begins when Jamie sees his baby sister almost killed by his mother’s boyfriend. The tenuous family leaves, moving in with a friend of the family, and young Jamie is left grasping at the remaining threads of safety, comfort, and home.

I read this book for class months ago, but picked it up again to write a paper. With the first read, I thought, “Wow, what a painful story.” The second read, I was in awe of Coman’s skill, to tell such a terrible story through the mentality of a young child. An quick read, but intense, to realize that this is life for too many children in the world.

5. When You Reach Me
by Rebecca Stead

So Mom got the postcard today.

This was my first post-syllabus choice. It’s getting a little hype in the children’s lit world. Actually, I’m sitting in a classroom right now, waiting for a professor of mine to begin a presentation on the best youth books of the year, and I’ve spotted this cover on the table, ready to be lauded.

And I really do love when this kind of book gets attention, because there’s nothing flashy about it. Miranda is a quiet narrator in a quiet story – she lives with her mother in 1970s Manhattan, her best friend suddenly won’t speak to her, she hangs out with her new friends in a skeevy sandwich shop every day at lunchtime, reads and rereads and rereads again the same tattered copy of A Wrinkle In Time. But interwoven into a plain plot is an element of supernatural mystery – Miranda is finding letters in her apartment, written directly to her, including things that haven’t happened yet. At this point, the book becomes, as my dear professor put it this afternoon, “seductively weird.”

Really, an ideal read. Interesting premise, but not TOO interesting, of course. Likeable characters. Well-developed relationships. That hint of weirdness lurking under the text. A gorgeous little book.

Runners Up: