Winter Reading….

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There is one bonus to being on medical leave during the winter – lots of time to read!  While I’ll be happy to return to school soon, it has been nice to look at the thermometer, remember I don’t have to go outside, and reach for my book.  Here’s what I’ve been reading for the past six weeks….

Middle England by Jonathan Coe

At over 400 pages, this novel took the longest to read. I first read about it on a few English newspaper websites, but this endorsement from the author John Boyne tipped me over into the “buy” column: “Millions of words have been and will be written on Brexit but few will get to the heart of why it is happening as incisively as Middle England.”  Maybe I was tired of reading about the dysfunction in my own country so I decided to dive into another flavor of anxiety.  What I really like about Middle England is its broad sweep. The novel begins eight years before the Brexit vote and follows a cast of characters representing multiple points of view. By the time Coe reaches the actual “stay or leave” vote, I had a deeper understanding of England – and America’s – identity crisis.

Belonging: A German Reckons with History and Home by Nora Krug

This acclaimed memoir by a German woman learning about her family’s history during WWII is an immersive experience. A blend of a graphic novel, a scrapbook, and a memoir, Krug’s book is demanding and thoughtful. It is not a traditional reading experience – rather I found myself engaging with each page visually and emotionally. I felt like I was traveling alongside the author as she uncovers her family’s story and asks hard questions. Krug understands that history exists in the grey space – she does not conclude with a list of who was right and who was wrong. History and family are more complex than that. You reach the end of her memoir shocked again at the atrocities of Nazi-era Germany and thinking about your own cultural heritage and the meaning of “home.”

Someday We Will Fly by Rachel Dewoskin

I read this young adult novel in advance of adding it to Inly’s middle school summer reading list. At the center of the story is Lillia, a fifteen-year-old Polish girl who, with her father and baby sister, escape to Shanghai during WWII. Lillia’s parents were circus performers in Poland, but during a chaotic raid, her mother disappears, leaving the rest of her family to hope for her return. As Lillia makes a new life in Shanghai, she struggles with missing her mother and trying to find ways to make money to help her family survive. The most interesting part of the book was learning about the Jewish community that lived in Shanghai during WWII. China was occupied by Japanese forces at the time, but the Japanese allowed the Jewish refugees to stay because, as Lillia’s dad explains to her, “Apparently the Japanese believe Jews are powerful…..as long as they believe we control Western governments, we should be fine. Who knew there’d be such a silver lining to anti-Semitic conspiracy theories?” A good pick for mature teenagers who enjoy historical fiction.

Inventing Victoria by Tonya Bolden

Continuing the young adult historical fiction segment of the list, I read Tonya Bolden’s new novel about Essie, a young African American woman living in post-Civil War Savannah. At the opening of the novel, Essie lives with her mother in a brothel. Her mother calls the men who visit “uncles,” but Essie knows there is no future with her mother, and with the support of a friend, finds a housekeeping position in a respectable boardinghouse. One of the guests, an African American woman named Dorcas Vashon, gives Essie an opportunity – to be her companion. “I seek out young women of promise,” Dorcas tells Essie. Essie takes the opportunity, renames herself Victoria, and begins a new life among the African American elite in Baltimore. This book addresses race, status, and identity – and it’s perfect for readers ages 14 and over. I really liked this one.

Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney

Since reading about the meteoric rise of Sally Rooney, the twenty-seven year old literary superstar, I’ve wanted to read both of her novels: Conversations With Friends and Normal People. Rooney’s press has been glowing. A New Yorker profile is captioned: “The Irish writer has been hailed as the first great millennial novelist for her stories of love and late capitalism.” Normal People was longlisted for the Booker Prize and was the 2018 Waterstones Book of the Year. So, with that as background music, I enthusiastically jumped into Conversations With Friends.  The writing is brilliant – I was so dazzled by some of the sentences that I would stop, reverse direction, and re-read a passage. But overall, I felt like I did when I would occasionally watch Girls, the Lena Dunham HBO series: that this is a generation I don’t recognize. The novel is compelling, kind of dark, and for me, a look inside a world that is far from my experience. That’s not a complaint. I’m grateful for Rooney’s honest look at the concerns of modern twenty-somethings. I’ll recommend Conversations with Friends to people in their 20s and 30s – and those who want to better understand what it feels like to be young today.

While I’ve been out of school, Mary has sent me lots of pictures from the Library. Here are two that I love and make me excited to go back to school:

A few more days at home – time to fit in one more book from my “to read” pile….

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My Year in Reading

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As regular readers know, I’ve kept a list of every book I read since 1992. No comments. No thumbs up or down. Just the title and author. I looked at Volume One (1992-1998), and the first book I recorded was Song of the Lark by Willa Cather. I loved that book!  In December 1998 I read The Tortilla Curtain by T.C. Boyle. That was a good one too.  Here are four of my five notebooks. One seems to be missing – and I will turn the house upside down to find it!

My average is about 60 books per year, give or take. During the school year there are lots of Inly-related books (for classes or summer reading) and books I’m reviewing for School Library Journal. The summer break is obvious because the titles become things from my own “to read” list. This year, Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming, is #58 so I’ll be able to reach #60 by the time Ryan Seacrest is in Times Square counting down to 2019.

My ten favorites among the books I read this year are:

99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret by Craig Brown

Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday

Up at the Villa by Somerset Maugham (I didn’t plan to read this and absolutely loved it. It’s a novella set in 1930s Florence about a woman caught up in a scandal. So good and a quick read)

Love to Everyone by Hilary McKay

There There by Tommy Orange

House of Dreams: The Life of L.M. Montgomery by Liz Rosenberg

Calypso by David Sedaris

The Maze at Windermere by Gregory Blake Smith

Educated by Tara Westover

Front Desk by Kelly Yang

Technically I have not finished reading one of the books on my list. There are about 50 pages left, but from the opening chapter, I knew Love to Everyone was special. Reminiscent of novels like Anne of Greene Gables and The War That Saved My Life, the setting of McKay’s novel is WWI-era England where Clarry Penrose lives with her widowed father and brother. Clarry is born at the beginning of the 20th century, and the novel spans the course of her life which is rich in both happiness and heartbreak. Much of the heartbreak comes during WWI which initially feels “vague and distant” to Clarry. Of course, it lands on her doorstep.

McKay’s beautiful writing is part of the pleasure of reading Love to Everyone. I love this passage about the seasons:

“The long cold winter was passing. The light grew brighter, even in the Miss Pinkses’ fume-filled classrooms. The air was wet and salt-tanged from the sea. There were birds above the chimney pots and daffodils to be spotten on Miss Vane’s chilly walks, and it was spring with summer on the horizon. Summer was shining bliss. Summer was opals and topaz and lapis and diamonds flung down from the sky. Summer was Cornwall.”

A few days ago I was in Boston waiting for a friend who texted to say she would be late. No worries. My book was in my bag and I was standing in front of a Starbucks. I started reading and soon enough, the lights beaming from all of the laptops and phones faded away, and I was back in Cornwall with Clarry.

And now the books to read in 2019 begin to stack up. Last night we were at the Coop in Harvard Square and, although my “to read” list is completely unrealistic, I could not leave the store empty handed.  I remember seeing something about David Litt’s memoir of working as a speechwriter for President Obama, but a combination of two things made me buy it:

1 – I finished Becoming a few days ago and was forced to re-enter the real world. The contrast proved too great, and I wanted to jump back down the rabbit hole and return to less chaotic days.

2 – The recommendation that a staff member at the Coop wrote about the book. Those staff notes are really persuasive!

Of course, now I want to listen to David Litt on The Moth.

But first….I need to return to Clarry’s story.  Happy Reading….

 

 

 

Tommy Orange Visits Inly

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Tommy Orange, the author of the novel There There spoke at Inly last Thursday evening.

There There, longlisted for the National Book Award and a finalist for the Carnegie Medal is the debut novel by Orange, a member of the Cheyenne tribe. The novel took him six years to write, but it has made the author a new literary star. “Yes, Tommy Orange’s New Novel Is Really That Good” reads the title of the New York Times review of There There. Another New York Times article about Orange’s describes There There as a “new kind of American epic.”  Maureen Corrigan, reviewing the novel for Fresh Air, said:

There There is distinguished not only by Orange’s crackling style, but by its unusual subject. This is a novel about urban Indians, about native peoples who know, as he says, “the sound of the freeway better than [they] do rivers … the smell of gas and freshly wet concrete and burned rubber better than [they] do the smell of cedar or sage…”

The Inly program was a conversation between Tommy and Nina McLaughlin, a columnist for the Boston Globe whose first book, Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter was published in 2015. Nina wrote the Globe’s review of There There which is linked here:

https://www.bostonglobe.com/arts/books/2018/06/14/what-indian/2GsJ8G2XHSo6YRYUZq72IL/story.html

The conversation was rich and meaningful, mostly because Tommy and Nina were natural and genuine. It truly felt like a conversation.

Nina began by asking Tommy about the explosive end to his novel. “I knew the end before I knew the beginning,” he told her. “I knew the characters’ lives would converge at a powwow.”

Talking about his polyphonic novel, Tommy described his writing process as “auditioning voices to see who felt convincing.” Over the six years it took him to write There There, Tommy estimates that he “tried 40 or 50 characters.”

Especially lovely was the way Tommy talked about novels, which he said “can do anything.” He was moved by A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole and the work of Sylvia Plath. He described their work as having “sadness with levity.” Their writing, he said, “transcended their own sadness.”  Discussing his love of polyphonic novels, he mentioned, among others, Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann.

Nina also asked Tommy to talk about the many mirrors and reflections in There There. “Growing up,” he responded, “Native people don’t see themselves very often. We aren’t in sports or movies or television.  The mirror lets you see how you’re native.”

I’ve been fortunate to have enjoyed many happy days at Inly, but this was one of the best. Tommy Orange radiates kindness and thoughtfulness from the second you meet him.  If you haven’t read There There yet, add it to your “to read” pile.

Happy Reading….

 

 

Summer Reading Photo Edition

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Summer Reading season has officially begun, and my “to be read” pile is ready.

I’ve already finished my first novel of the summer reading sprint – There There by Tommy Orange.

Orange’s highly praised novel follows the lives of twelve “Urban Indians” living in Oakland, California. All of the characters are on their way to a powwow, and their lives intersect and ultimately collide at the event. It is a powerful and memorable novel. I’ve read many glowing reviews of Orange’s novel, but these lines from the Kirkus starred review capture it best:

“What Orange is saying is that, like all people, Native Americans don’t share a single identity; theirs is a multifaceted landscape, made more so by the sins, the weight, of history. That some of these sins belong to the characters alone should go without saying, a point Orange makes explicit in the novel’s stunning, brutal denouement. “People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them,” James Baldwin wrote in a line Orange borrows as an epigraph to one of the book’s sections; this is the inescapable fate of every individual here. In this vivid and moving book, Orange articulates the challenges and complexities not only of Native Americans, but also of America itself.”

Next up – perhaps because it has the most beautiful cover (by Julie Morstad) of every book on my list!

Today I am sharing photos – of an Instagram post, a letter, and a student…

Although I’ve never been on Facebook, I’ve become a fan of Instagram. What has been most surprising is how much I’ve come to rely on it in my professional life. Because publishers and authors use Instagram to promote new books, author events, and cover reveals, Instagram has become a way to follow what’s happening. Among the bookstores and other book-centered accounts, I also follow illustrators and artists. One of my favorites is a London-based illustrator, Steve Scott.  With his permission, I’m sharing my favorite of his posts:

At the end of the school year, I receive many sweet notes from students, all of which I treasure. This is one I received this year:

It’s awesome that she thinks the books are mine, and I’m letting her look at them, but I may need to clarify that the books are actually hers, and I am the lucky caretaker. It’s also nice that we are dressed alike in her picture!

Finally, a picture that sums up the joy of summer time reading.  I’m taking a couple of weeks off, but I’ll be on a book adventure so I’ll have lots to share with you in early July!  Until then, happy reading…

Ten: Books, Articles, and Pictures Worth Sharing….

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At last….spring!  My husband opened a box of seeds yesterday, and the incredibly tiny little beginnings hold the promise of flowers blooming over the months ahead. When he begins planning his garden, I know we are turning the corner.

Here are ten things that I thought were worth sharing this week….

  • Russell Freedman died on March 16. The author of many award-winning biographies for young readers, Freedman wrote 47 books, but the best known is his 1988 Newbery-winning book, Lincoln: A Photobiography.  I had the opportunity to meet Freedman when I was in graduate school and fondly remember his encouraging words when I was considering writing about Hank Greenberg. Here is a link to his New York Times obituary:
  • If you regularly read aloud to young children – your own or in your classroom – you need a copy of A Couch for Llama by Leah Gilbert on your bookcase. Mary and I read it to nearly ten groups of young children this past week, and it was a hit every time. The premise of the silly story is that the Lago family needs a new couch so they pile into the car and head to the furniture store where, in a scene straight out of Goldilocks, they look for a “just right” new couch for their family. They find a new couch, but on the way home, it falls off the top of their car and into a field where it is found by a llama. This is a sweet story that you won’t mind reading multiple times.

  • Friday’s New York Times had a wonderful story about George and Martha, the hippopotamus friends who are the stars of James Marshall’s picture books. It reminded me that George and Martha have been “on the shelf” for too long – it’s time to introduce a new generation of kids to these sweet stories.  Here’s the link:
  • Jillian Tamaki’s new picture book, They Say Blue, is a book about colors and changing seasons, but also about slowing down and paying attention. This is a book to share with classroom and art teachers.

  • I just read Tara Westover’s bestselling memoir, Educated, the story of a young woman who grew up in a remote part of Idaho in a strict Mormon, survivalist family.  As a child, Westover did not have a birth certificate, did not attend school, and never saw a doctor. Incredibly, she finds her way to Brigham Young University and then to Cambridge University. Her memoir focuses not only on her truly unbelievable journey, but on her quest to understand her family and the meaning of “home.”

  • The popularity of Mo Willems’ Elephant and Piggie series continues. We looked at what books have been checked out of the library most often over the past few months, and Gerald and Piggie rule the list. One of our students had them lined up and ready to read!

  • One of the books I read in Italy was Muriel Sparks novel, The Finishing School. It has been on my bookshelf for a long time, and sometimes, walking by our bookshelves, a title will catch my eye – a book I bought, but haven’t read. I read Sparks’ best known novel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, years ago, but had not read anything else by the British writer. This one was interesting – a study of jealousy. Roland is a teacher who, along with his wife, runs a small European boarding school. One of the reasons they have chosen this career path is to give time for Rowland to devote to writing his novel. But, as it turns out, one of his students is also writing a novel, and Rowland becomes consumed by jealousy, both professionally and personally. Sparks is an unsentimental writer. You can almost imagine her plotting this novel out by just taking everything to its most extreme and seeing how it all plays out. Funny. A bit dark. A biting satire.

  • One of the best parts of visiting Italy was being surrounded by Renaissance art – Lippi, Bellini, Raphael, Botticelli, Fra Angelico, Donatello, Ghirlandaio, and others. If I had not gone down the book path, I would have studied art history, and as I get older, I’m devoting more time reading about and looking at paintings. Over the past five or so years, I’ve taken a deep dive into two periods that interest me: the Dutch Golden Age and the Renaissance. Like my other reading, it’s an endless well. So many paintings – and so many books.  As we visited churches and museums in Florence, I chose to focus on one specific story and thought about how it is interpreted by different artists. I focused on the Annunciation, a moment we must have seen represented 100 times during the week. Like a story that’s illustrated by many illustrators (think of Alice in Wonderland or Cinderella), the story of Mary hearing the “news” is represented in many ways. Here are a few that stood out for me. In the first, Mary seems unsure about what the angel has to tell her. The fourth image is part of a wall-size fresco that is absolutely stunning. 

  • It is April 1 – the first day of National Poetry Month. A chance to read poetry and awaken some part of you that may have been dormant over the winter. Here is one of my favorites:

Today
Billy Collins
If ever there were a spring day so perfect,
so uplifted by a warm intermittent breeze

that it made you want to throw
open all the windows in the house

and unlatch the door to the canary’s cage,
indeed, rip the little door from its jamb,

a day when the cool brick paths
and the garden bursting with peonies

seemed so etched in sunlight
that you felt like taking

a hammer to the glass paperweight
on the living room end table,

releasing the inhabitants
from their snow-covered cottage

so they could walk out,
holding hands and squinting

into this larger dome of blue and white,
well, today is just that kind of day.

  • A final picture to make it 10!  Happy Reading….

Reading (and Looking) to Beat the Cold Weather Blues….

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It’s been really cold. On the way to the grocery this morning, the car thermometer could not decide if it wanted to read 0 or 1 below. The numbers seemed to shiver as they toggled between the two readings. Alarming either way.  The only “sunny” side to the last five or six days of record-breaking cold has been the opportunity to drink hot chocolate and read.

My reading has focused on art which has allowed me to immerse myself in good words and beautiful pictures: a short biography of John Singer Sargent. Letters between Henry James and Isabella Stewart Gardner. Essays from the catalogue that accompanies the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Michelangelo exhibition, and two illustrated books:

Coco Chanel: The Illustrated World of a Fashion Icon by Megan Hess

The book about Chanel was a gift, and probably not something I would ordinarily be drawn to, but this illustrated story of the influential designer’s life is fascinating.  She was twelve-years-old when her mother died and her father left her in an orphanage. When her “sartorial abilities” were recognized, Chanel became a milliner which ultimately led to ballet flats, tweed jackets, and, of course, Chanel No.5.  It was actually the best kind of reading: engaging, informative, and a book that left me wanting to know more.

Bolivar by Sean Rubin

Bolivar is a mashup: a book for kids that adults will love, a graphic novel, a picture book, an oversize illustrated novel.  I’m not sure where it would be shelved in a bookstore or library, but none of that matters. This is an amazing book and my first personal starred review of 2018. Bolivar is a dinosaur who lives in present day New York City. He’s quiet and keeps to himself – he even reads The New Yorker! But Sybil, the girl who lives in the apartment next door, knows her neighbor is a dinosaur, and she’s determined to take a picture of Bolivar to prove that to her disbelieving mother.

A number of unbelievable events lead Bolivar and the camera-carrying Sybil into a wild chase around recognizable New York City landmarks, but it’s that trip through New York that is most compelling. Every page is a tribute to New York: the produce stacked up outside of small markets, the subway, Chinatown, Central Park, and tourists. There are also fun visual jokes to catch, a wonderful picture of a paleontologist’s desk, and lots of water towers.

Bolivar is a sweet story about people who are too busy to see what’s right in front of them and a girl who is trying to get people to see the obvious. It is a memorable and wonderful book.

In today’s New York Times Book Review, there is an article called “For the Love of Malt Shop Novels” by Joanne Kaufman. In her piece, she talks about teenage books (mostly romances) as an “endless source of reassurance and hope.”  I did not know they were called “malt shop novels,” but I read them as a teenager too and got the same reassurance. As Kaufman writes, “You could be self-doubting like Jane Purdy, the protagonist of Fifteen and, nevertheless, end up wearing the ID bracelet of cute green-eyed Stan.”  Most of the books were win the 1940s and 50s – before my teenage years. But these were the books that I read voraciously as a middle school student.

Among other authors of this genre, Kaufman talks about Betty Cavanna. Cavanna’s name flooded me with memories of seventh grade when I read Stars In Her Eyes. I don’t remember much about the story except that I loved it. The books written for middle school kids today are far more realistic, and there are so many more choices of what to read. But I do remember Cavanna’s books serving the same function as many of the books I recommend to my students. They made me feel less alone.

“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all of the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.”

James Baldwin

Stay warm out there!

As 2017 Comes to a Close…

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As the year comes to a close, I am starting to see lists of books to watch out for in 2018, but it’s still too early to leave 2017 so maybe a look back….

Here are five books that defined my year:

Dog Man by Dav Pilkey

Pilkey’s crime-fighting dog is the star of the most popular series in the Inly Library. The fourth installment will be released while we are on our holiday break, but I’m sure there will be kids waiting to check it out on January 2!

On a Magical Do-Nothing Day by Beatrice Alemagna

This is my favorite picture book of the year. I love it more with every reading. The bright pop of orange on the child’s jacket. The reminder to put down our devices and explore the world. The way some of the illustrations seem to glow.

Patina by Jason Reynolds

The best book I reviewed for School Library Journal this year. Reynolds understands the difficulties and challenges faced by young people today and writes about their lives in a way they recognize, with integrity and respect.

Midnight at the Electric by Jodi Lynn Anderson

My surprise read of the year. I bought this book because I needed something for a train ride and ended up wanting to skip my stop. Three characters whose lives intersect: Adri lives in Kansas in 2065. Catherine’s family is trying to survive during the Dust Bowl in 1934. Lenore’s brother has died in WWI, and she wants to travel to America. A quiet, mysterious, and beautiful novel.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

A ghost story that is truly unforgettable. Both sad and funny, it is the story of Abraham Lincoln’s grief after the death of his young son, Willy, that includes the voices of both historical and made-up characters. Winner of the Man Booker Prize. One of the New York Times 100 Notable Books. I read it earlier in the year. I’m listening to it now.

I’m hoping the last few weeks of the year are filled with reading. My book stack is so tall it wobbles. Last night I finished Autumn by Ali Smith. I’m now reading a book for School Library Journal, and after that Radio Free Vermont by Bill McKibben. There are 15 days left….

Happy Reading!