Monday, August 24, 2015

Time to Hit the Books

A while back, while I was still writing a book column for the Herald Times, I featured books about teachers. Since this is the big back to school week for my teacher friends, I decided to share a modified version of that essay with you.  Here goes....

For years I measured my life partially based on the successes, failures, frustrations and happy moments of my teaching career.  My life is still marked by an internal educational calendar.  I cannot shake it.  Although I no longer have to shift gears every 47 minutes, I still experience the myriad of emotions associated with opening weeks of the new "season".  And so, as the beginning of the school year approaches, it feels right to celebrate those who continue to honor the profession with their service.

Writers have acknowledged all types of teachers - the good, the bad, the silly and the non-traditional.  Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird exuded integrity,  He is noble, honest and strong. The unpredictable consequences of his decisions haunt Atticus yet he is wise enough and brave enough to make them.

The impetuous Annie Sullivan struggles to teach blind and deaf Helen Keller in William Gibson's, play, The Miracle Workerhe . We all know the story. Yes, Annie does teach Helen, but Helen also teaches Annie.  Helen teaches Annie to see the world through new eyes and to listen to life's murmurings with patience and persistence.

Several books about teachers and teaching endure despite being set in eras when lecture was the primary teaching technique and young scholars toted tomes outlining the intricacies of Latinate grammar.  Up the Down Staircase, Bel Kaufman's account of a nervous but passionate teacher's first year, along with To sir with Love and The Blackboard Jungle depict what can be accomplished with commitment and idealism trump defiance and doubt. Good Morning Miss Dove and Goodby Mr.Chips tell the stories of charming and resolute individuals whose classroom expectations earned them a place among literature's most beloved characters.

Filling the top spots on my teacher/teaching book list are The Art of Happiness by the Dalia Lama and Dr. Seuss" Hooray for Diffendoofer Day.  This little known Seuss piece applauds creative teachers who irresistible exuberance entertains and inspires.

Every day educators inspire and motivate.  They celebrate success with their students, brush off the dust of failure and try again.  They remember students when they see graduation pictures, engagement announcements, or the unformed portraits of those who serve our country.  Classes move on but teachers keep them close, fitting them into hearts and minds grown full from years of chalk dust, red pens and planning.  Teachers teach forever - every hour of every day - and when the final bell rings on the last day of the year, why not stand, raise a glass of wine and toast someone who has taught you....a parent, a friend, a neighbor, a brother, sister, babysitter, theatre director, novelist...anyone you can call your teacher.

In June, my glass will be raised to Karyl Enstad Rommelfanger, my Germane teacher to whom I would say "Ich kann mein gummischuhen nicht finden". Not so sure about the spelling by I am quite confident that means "Yikes!  I can't find my boots." Although I have retained little of my not so fluent German, I thank Karyl for being demanding, fair and realistic and most likely the reason I became a teacher myself.

My second glass will be for Paul Ingvolstad, my high school theatre director who teasingly shouted at me during rehearsals - "Hey Bev, don't sing so loudly, someone might hear you."  He tied each aggressive and fascinating lesson with a huge bow.  A gift to each of us every day.  I suspect Paul is lurking in the creative halls of Seuss' Diffendoofer School

Lastly, there was the feared and revered lit diva, Sister Salome from my college days. While other professors said I misinterpreted assignments, Salome said I reinterpreted them.  When some declared beyond question that my undestanding of key literary passages was 100% wrong, Salome siad that I found the irony in the works.  She taught me that the word "obtuse" has meaning outside the scary pages of a math text.

Together, teachers and students comprise America's most significant work force.  No one spoke with greater eloquence of the tremendous opportunity, responsibility and honor it is to teach than Christa McAuliffe, and American citizen and educator who died in the1986 challenger disaster.  "I touch the future.  I teach."

Thanks for stopping by.  Now go and learn something new today!

Monday, August 17, 2015

Another Pulitzer for Stacy Schiff?

Blogger is playing games again...this time with some weird highlighting.  Sorry.  I will try to coax a change, but....there are simply days when Blogger and I do not get along.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Cleopatra, the #1 national bestseller, unpacks the mystery of the Salem Witch Trials.

It began in 1692, over an exceptionally raw Massachusetts winter, when a minister's daughter began to scream and convulse. It ended less than a year later, but not before 19 men and women had been hanged and an elderly man crushed to death. 

The panic spread quickly, involving the most educated men and prominent politicians in the colony. Neighbors accused neighbors, parents and children each other. Aside from suffrage, the Salem Witch Trials represent the only moment when women played the central role in American history. In curious ways, the trials would shape the future republic.

Every year as I prepared to again teach The Crucible to groups of high school students eager to read what they though would be a Halloween type story, I  did background research to deepen our classroom discussions. While Arthur Miller's play is actually a thinly veiled commentary on the McCarthy hearings, I tried to balance info on that event with the stuff that kept the kids coming back for more.  We covered a lot of history during that unit, but not nearly as much or with the intensity of Stacy Schiff's new book.  At first I figured I would spend at leasettwo blog posts on this book, but even that would not be sufficient.  You just have to read this one for yourself.

Schiff's exhaustive research and skilled retelling of the events in Salem over a period of sasingle year are alarming and puzzling at the very least.  She doesn't limit her work to the colonies, however, instead weaving in historical references to similar occurrences throughout Europe.  At times, the absurdity of it all gives the Puritans  the appearance of being, as Schiff implies, on low levels of some mind altering substances.  But, she puts the events into perspective by rigorously describing the conditions in which they lived and the belief system under which they functioned.

As I read I bend corners for you - only in proof copies! - pages that have something I want to share.  Far too many this time.  Let me give you one example.  I figured that if these people accepted certain medical practices as logical and beneficial then yes, I see that they could also explain the unexplainable via a belief  witchcraft.

A basic medical kit...consisted of beetle's blood, fox lung and dried dolphin heart.  ....snails figured in many remedies. ...The fat of a roasted hedgehog dripped into the ear constituted an excellent cure for deafness...for epilepsy of wolf skin girdle worked wonders as did ashes of black cow dung or frog liver powder administered five time daily.  A Salem physician treated hysteric with a brew of breast milk and the blood from an amputated tomcat's ear.

 Yes, a belief in witches in certainly plausible.  

I don't want to give the impression that this book is simply filled with stories, facts and suppositions about oddball beliefs, or midnight visitations by neighborhood women who took to flying into bedchambers upon magical stick.  Frighteningly, portions of this book make tons of sense given our current climate of religious provocation, paranoia, and transparency of our public and private lives.  

This book hits the stands on October 27 - not sure if I like the blatant connection to Halloween.  If you read an marveled at Schiff's Cleopatra - well - you will want to read this book as well.

The piano rolled over safely thanks to the strong arm strength of some HAR peeps, as well as my home and store neighbors.  It sure is a nice sounding instrument.   Thanks to my store neighbor, Shelly, for the more than generous gift.

Monday, August 10, 2015

A Short Musical Note

No post today...
I have to
 get the store ready 
for the piano delivery!  
That's right,
...I said 

Monday, August 3, 2015

On the Road with Albert

Oh how I wish that everyone who loves books and reading could have me life!  Really, days are filled with interesting, chatty customers, happy people who tell me about all the books I "must" read.  I add those titles to my list and actually read some of them.  Sometimes it takes years, but I try.  Then there are the ARCs - the Advance Reader Copies that come in the mail - sometimes in a package of a singe book, but more often in a box with many inviting titles.  They pile up nicely.  Waiting.  I try to match them up with the perfect reader. Post it notes come in handy when ear-marking an ARC for a particular customer who I know might like the book.   I ask you, how can life be bad when you get a treasure like the one above?  

Here's the info from the back of the ARC since I haven't read the book yet and wouldn't be good at pretending I have.....

Elsie Lavender and Homer Hickman (father of the author) were classmates in the West Virginia cornfields,** (see note at bottom) graduating just as the Great Depression began. When Homer asked for her hand, Elsie instead headed to Orlando where she sparked with a dancing actor named Buddy Ebsen, (yes, that Buddy Ebsen).  But when Buddy headed to New York, Elsie's dreams of a life with him were crushed and eventually she found herself back in the cornfields, married to Homer.

Unfulfilled as a miner's wife, Elsie was reminded of her carefree days with Buddy every day because of his unusual wedding gift: an alligator named Albert she raised in only the bathroom of their house.  When Albert scared Homer by grabbing his pants, he gave Elsie an ultimatum: "Me or that alligator!" After giving it some thought, Elsie concluded there was only one thing to do" Carry Albert Home.

What fun. The newlyweds traveled 1000 miles to return the alligator.  What's curious to me is that the sell sheet says everyone knows this story.  It's new to me and probably new to many of you as well. The first page photos of the main characters include Homer, the younger and the elder, Elsie, and Albert.  There is also a rooster with this parenthetical disclaimer (Whose presence on the journey is not entirely understood).

So now I am faced with a dilemma.  Do I read this book which promises a "sweet and tragic tale" or do I stick to the plan and read Compulsion?  Years ago I read this true crime novel based on the infamous Leopld and Loeb murder case that changed the course of American justice, and I have seen the movie several times. As a Philosophy minor, I was attracted to the story of two socially awkward college boys obsessed with Nietzsche's concept of the super human. That Philosophy minor, by the way, did little other than provide me the auspicious privilege of wearing a toga and declaring "I think".  But dang it, the book was re-released a while back and finally worked its way to the top of the pile.  So which will it be...alligator tripping or a tragic attempt to commit the perfect crime? 

**Oh and YES, the editor who wrote the blurb for the back of the book actually said they went to school in a cornfield!

Monday, July 27, 2015

The Dog Days of Summer

Nothing beats the dog days of summer, right?  Out of respect for me and all the members of my tribe on this important time of year, You-Know-Who has turned over the keys to the computer with no struggle.  I have a vague memory of an ankle nip, and perhaps a snarl or two, but that might have happened at another time.  

YKW has had her big nose stuck in another book.  Does that surprise you?  Sure, she sits outside to read, but spends more time swatting at things than turning pages.  And she is constantly and annoyingly calling my name.  Geeze Louise.  I have scents to diagnose and neighbors to visit.  This is my time of year - the "dog days" - she needs to let me celebrate.

Anywho (I heard someone use that expression on the TV last week) YKW has had the good sense to read a Chet and Bernie book during these fabulous days of all things dog.  This one is called The Sound and the Furry.  Apparently that means something to her and maybe to you.  The furry part speaks to me since most of the members of my nation are.  We've talked about this before.  Bernie is a D-list PI.  Without Chet riding shotgun in their topless car, crimes would not be solved.  

This crime takes place in the bayou where there are lots of great smells for Chet to track.  He loves the salt water and what else?  Oh, the shrimp.  Yeah. the shrimp.  So, there is fight between two families going all the way back to something called a civil war.  The humans have the same trouble I have. They can't always remember why they are fighting. The worst people in each family are the vicious, boat gunning grannies who do all sorts of finger waving when they speed past each other on the water.  One of fighting families is in law enforcement, just like Chet and Bernie, except they wear uniforms and Bernie says they are crooked.  Chet and I have both seen crooked trees, never crooked people, but I will trust Bernie on this one and hope that if we meet them they do not topple over on me.  Shrimp.  Stolen.  Thousands.  Lost income.  Better watch out.  Those words pop up in all the conversations Chet and Bernie have, but just when Bernie gets to the interesting parts, Chet see a Cheeto under a desk to rescue or catch a whiff of beef jerky.  It must be found.  
So, read this book along with us if you want a tail wagging good time.  Tail wagging.  That's a trick I have been trying to teach YKW.  It's a losing battle. Oh, and if you don't already have a dog in your home, what are you waiting for?

YKW thanks you for stopping by.
With licks and wags from your friend
GB the Dog
aka Mrs. George Burns

Monday, July 20, 2015

Watchman and Writers

Yesterday I read this book.  Today I mourn the loss of Scout and Atticus.  Today I am angry at the publishing company that clearly saw a money grab, taking advantage of a respected writer and all the readers who were and continue to be charmed and informed by To Kill a Mockingbird.

I will not go into the details of my disgrunteledness since there are plenty of people who will read and respect this work. I will not tarnish it further with my opinions.  My watchman has been set.

Instead, how about a few words about “Writers I Have Known”?  Oops – gotta confess that this topic was inspired by “Watchman” when a character articulated something I have never been able to.  Simply put (and I paraphrase here) some people “write”, others are “writers”. Makes sense to me.   I write.  I string words together and say things.  I end my ideas with a . giving little thought to the continuity of what I offer. My consciousness is raised every time I learn that someone has read one of my posts and I for a while I try to do better.

  Writers toil.  They hover over each word until, when joined together, those words form sentences – paragraphs – impact.  They concern themselves with an overall body of work that will bear their names and influence, inspire, provoke...

Writers are my rock stars, my movie idols, my brushes with fame, and for the most part, those brushes have been much more than I ever expected.  Mike Perry, Tom Maltman, Sally Goldenbaum, T Greenwood, Steve Head are just a few of the writers I have had the good fortune of working with over the years. They are keenly and sincerely aware of how important their readers are, and never fail to acknowledge that.  Their relationship with me always begins selflessly with what they can do for me, what they can do to promote reading, literacy, libraries and independent bookstores. 

You know what else? They answer emails from readers, respond to readers’ Facebook posts and Skype with book discussion groups.  Just last month Tom Maltman Skyped with a Manitowoc group.  Of course there are others who always begin the discussion with what I can do for them.  Where will I place their book in the store?  When will I feature it on my blog or on Facebook?  And they do it with aggression.  Oh well...they are the minority.

Watching local people write and self publish has been another treat for me.  They generously share their enthusiasm as projects grow and come to fruition.   Their joy is always tempered with humility – such a nice combination. 

My life is good – thanks to fine friends, a silly dog,  and the opportunities that come along with bookselling.  

Gotta go – there’s a book calling.  Actually, I have returned to Chet and Bernie,
The Sound and the Furry.  I think I might have already read this one.  Still fun, though.

As for the Great Hemingway Project, well, that might be a lost cause.  Every year I dream up a little scheme.  Two year ago it was writing a haiku a day for a year.  The result? Eighteen.  Pathetic.  Haiku.  Then Hemingway happened.  Little success there either. Next idea?  This I am sure I will stick to.  Each time I have plans to so something fun - dinner with friends, art show... whatever, I am going to invite Johnny Depp to join me.  How's that?   Please do not steal this idea from me.  I don't want him to have to make choices.  

Thanks for stopping by.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Twenty Most Hated books

A British blogger recently ran a survey asking her readers to send her a list of their most hated books along with commentary on why they chose the books they did.  From the submissions, she curated a list of 124 titles that received multiple votes, although I don't know how many votes constituted "multiple".  Right - you have already deduced that this was not a scientific survey, nor was it part of a masters thesis or doctoral dissertation.  At least I hope it wasn't. Then again, if this was a major piece of a dissertation, I'm boarding the next plane to England to work on my PhD.

Back to the subject at hand.  I have great respect for British readers who placed Fifty Shades of GreyGone Girl and Twilight. at the top of the list.  Think about it. An entire island of readers shares my opinion. 

 I was feeling rather smug until The Catcher in the Rye showed up as #4.  What the heck?  Too crude? Dialogue too common?  England doesn't have confused teens or hookers?  Readers attempted to justify their feelings about this book, but those made about as much sense as the choice itself.  Basically 0.  Nada,  Big fat goose egg.

The remainder of the list baffles as well, taking an ugly turn to include many classics and standards. First, including the four already mentioned, the blogger goes on to name the seven additional books that made her top 11 list.  11!  Who does that?  Top 10, top 50...but top 11.  Oh those Brits. They have kindly shared Shakespeare, the Beatles and Colin Firth with us so perhaps we need to look the other way when it comes to their list making skills.

The next seven (in the top 11).... 

  • The Great Gatsby - too decadent for the tea and crumpet set?
  • Eat, Pray, Love - too indulgent?  I wouldn't disagree.
  • Lovely Bones - I guess they like their crickets on grass playing fields and not on corpses.
  • Heart of Darkness - come on, Joseph Conrad? - give him another try, Beefeaters. 
  • The Awakening - maybe Kate Chopin's short stories would be less challenging
  • Catch 22 - hmmmmm
  • The DaVinci Code - no Masons in England?  Yup...denial!

As for the rest of the list, I say "Shame on you, British readers."  Look at these titles:
Wuthering Heights
Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man
 Moby Dick (OK, they got that one right)
The Red Badge of Courage 
 The Life of Pi (whaaaat?????, I see you doing cartwheels, Mary S.)
 As I Lay Dying
 Casual Vacancy (by the Queen of all things Potter-isn't that akin to British blasphemy?)
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nightime (have they not heard of the award winning play based on the book - and the young English actor who recently won a Tony for his role in the adaptation?) 
The Shack (such godless heathens).

I wonder what all those disappointed readers are doing with the books they purchased and hated?  Donating is always an option, but my experience has been that when someone hates a book, they have no belief what-so-ever that anyone else could possibly enjoy it. To spare others the pain, the books are pitched in hopes that the small gesture will rid the world on the unnecessary verbiage contained between the covers.  All will be right with the world.  And, for the trash to treasure set, there's always this option.....

Monday, July 6, 2015

Reconstructing Amelia

The reviews are, in general, miserable.  The comparisons to Gone Girl - incorrect and disconcerting.  Stylistically inconsistent.  Yet, I like it.  The first fifty or so pages had me begging for relief, or a razor blade (to slice pages) but in time, that changed.  This has all the earmarks of a first novel, and for that I will forgive the author and blame her editor.

Drawn out, inconsequential narratives opening the book violated the first lesson presented in all Creative Writing 101 courses - "Show, don't tell".  And, in time, that began to happen.  The author allowed characters to speak; she let them reveal themselves through believable dialogue along with some internal commentary.  Her characters are sharply defined and she gives us enough reason to suspect each one that I wanted to read to the end.

What's more, the outcome is logical.  Sure, the plot is predicated upon secrets and the frightening, underground life that some teens live.  But as Amelia's pained life unfolds, it is easy to see how the pieces fit together.  Amelia jumps from atop a fancy pants private school building.  Or does she?  That become the issue at hand, that and the fact that her mom, a professional, single mom, is riddled with guilt over her parenting skills.  My strongest gripe with the book is just that - why is the working single mom so often villainized? 

As I consider the book as a whole, I think readers' negative  perceptions are caused not by the book itself, but by the marketing.  It is not a second Gone Girl and for that I am grateful.  The only similarly is that  they are both suspenseful.  Also, Reconstructing Amelia  has been marketed to adults, when it really is more suited to a young adult audience.  Books written for the YA set seldom satisfy adult reading needs in the same way that a book like The Road would - YA novels are simply substantively lighter.  Nothing wrong with that but so often these days publishers attempt to cross market books and that just doesn't work.

Here's my snarky thought for the day : Hey, all you people who had to film the fireworks with your smatphones or tablets - I hope you enjoy watching the blurry substandard amazing light show that you could have seen live had you put your devices down.  Wow.  It seems that devices have taken control of us. Shouldn't it be the other way around?

Thanks for stopping by.

Monday, June 22, 2015 in Boo! Hiss!

By all accounts, today is June 22.  My calendar says so and my computer agrees.  Flipping through channels this morning I found that the good people at the Today Show and Good Morning America are also under the impression that this is June 22.  The weather doesn't support that, but we're getting used to crazy weather in June in these parts.  

But on June 22nd (and perhaps even before that) school supplies are showing up on store shelves!  That's insane.  I bet even the most dedicated teachers are crying  "Foul.  This isn't funny.  STOP".  Being one season ahead of real time is something I have never gotten a good grip on. Last year I cringed when employees started displaying Christmas books on the 4th of July and Easter books on January 1st. OK - perhaps their efforts weren't that premature, but it still seemed awkward to me.  

Last week ARCs (advance reader copy) of new books started rolling in, and it looks like creepy is in. Yup, publishers are already promoting what they hope will be big, scary books for Halloween. There are too many to share with you, and far too many to have read over the weekend.  Besides that, "Three coins in a Fountain" was on Sunday afternoon right in the middle of my planned reading time.  No contest.  Dorothy Maguire and Louis Jordan won.  But, from the pile, I picked out a couple and will share the back of the book blurbs with you.

Second Souls by Christopher Moore - lovable...oddball....classic bender....I'm a fan and will read this book soon.
In San Francisco the souls of the dead are mysteriously disappearing - and you know that can't be good -...buckle in for a weird and wild ride 

Little Pretty Things by Lori Rader-Day...first chapter got me hooked and I might read the entire novel at some point.
Juliet Townsend is used to losing.  Back in high school she lost every track team race to her best friend.  Then one night, Maddy checks in (to the motel where Juliet works).  By the next morning, Juliet is no longer jealous of Maddy - she's the chief suspect in her murder.

The Book of Speculation by Erica Swyler...I've started this twice and walked away twice.  The reviews are mixed, no middle of the road, either glowing or down right nasty.  I'll give it one more try but the whole mermaid business doesn't work for me. (Lizzer, let me know what you think of this book)
Books matter to Simon Watson, a young librarian who finds himself increasingly drawn to the one that has arrived on his doorstep.  It seems to be some kind of journal from the owner of a traveling carnival in the 1700's who reports many strange and magical things - including the drowning death of a circus mermaid.

Conversion by Katherine of my favorite plays to teach my high school kids was Arthur Miller's The Crucible an allegory about the McCarthy era veiled as the Salem witch trials.  Might be fun to read this fresh twist.
First the Queen Bee starts having loud, uncontrollable tics in the middle of class.  More students and stranger symptoms follow...the media descends on Danvers, Massachusetts as school officials, angry partents and the board of health scramble to find something, or someone to blame. But Colleen Rowley, who has been reading The Crucible for extra credit comes to realize what nobody else has: Danvers was once Salem Village where another group of girls suffered from a similarly bizarre epidemic three centuriess ago...

There you have it, a jump start to your October reading.  In between books, you can work on your Halloween costume and stock up on trick or treat candy.  After all, it's already June 22nd.

Me?  I'm getting out the shovel, salt, and having the oil changed in the snow blower.

Thanks for stopping by.