Monday, October 21, 2013

Fifty … No, Fifty-two … Wait, FIFTY-SIX Books That I Love

I started this list some time ago on a sticky on my desktop, and just felt compelled to finish it (for the time being) tonight. Drop me a line and tell me your top 10 (or more.) You'll note that I don't discriminate between literature for children vs. adults. As far as I'm concerned, great books are great books.

1. To Kill a Mockingbird
2. The Wizard of Loneliness
3. Nightwatch
4. How Green Was My Valley
5. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
6. Savage Inequalities
7. Storming Heaven
8. The Secret Garden
9. Red Sky at Morning
10.  The Book Thief
11.  Endurance
12.  The Chronicles of Prydain
13.  The Last Unicorn
14.  A Prayer for Owen Meany
15.  The Summer Book (Tove Jansson)
16.  Lord of the Rings
17.  Cider With Rosie
18.  Cold Comfort Farm
19.  Singing Family of the Cumberlands
20.  Of Human Bondage
21.  The Razor's Edge
22.  The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian
23.  A Christmas Carol
24.  The Country of the Pointed Firs
25.  Twig
26.  Yellow Raft on Blue Water
27.  The Last Report on the Miracle at Little No Horse
28.  The Wonderful Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
29.  Into the Beautiful North
30.  Charlotte's Web
31.  The Bean Trees
32.  All Creatures Great and Small
33.  The Ark
34.  The Outsiders
35.  Bridge to Terabithia
36.  Little Women
37.  Wise Child/Juniper
38.  My Family and Other Animals
39.  84 Charing Cross Road
40.  The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes
41.  The Pushcart War
42.  The Wuggie Norple Story
43.  Rain Makes Apple Sauce
44.  Bud, Not Buddy
45.  The Graveyard Book
46.  "Little House" series (and yes I know it is racist)
47.  The Story of Ferdinand
48.  The Singing Creek Where the Willows Grow
49.  The Dark Is Rising series
50.  Elsie Piddock Skips In Her Sleep
51.  The Island of the Blue Dolphins
52.  Apple Tree Lean Down
53.  My Side of the Mountain
54.  The Monstrous Regiment
55.  The Wee Free Men
56. Hannah Coulter (but any number of Wendall Berry's books could be on this list.)

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Summer Reading, Pt. 2

Barreling ahead halfway through July …

In the mid-seventies Helene Hanff took a job writing a guide book of New York City for visitors, and as she set out to research the book (by becoming a tourist herself, with her intrepid friend Patsy by her side) she realized that there are a lot of places that native New Yorkers never go. As a guide book it is quite dated -- the World Trade Center was almost new, the tram to Roosevelt Island was brand new, and Ellis Island had just opened as a historic site. It is, however, written in Hanff's highly entertaining style and filled with the kind of people's history tidbits that I like, such as her observations that many of the wonderful artistic venues of New York (Carnegie Hall, the Frick Museum, the Cloisters, etc.) were essentially paid for with the lives of mine and factory workers. Good book, I recommend it, especially for New Yorkers.

 This one is really hard to classify. The author calls it "domestic fantasy". It is the story of a family that lives a seemingly idyllic life in the village of Applekirk, a place that exists in the middle of time. Further east is ruled by gods and goddesses (who seem awfully human,) while the land to the west is largely ruled by reason. Trouble arises when a scholar from the west arrives in Applekirk to study a long-vanished civilization at the same time that an elderly woman -- a former lord of Applekirk -- arrives from the east fleeing the wrath of the goddess of marriage. At times I was bugged by the language that Walton invented for the inhabitants of Applekirk, but the story raised a lot of interesting questions about what constitutes marriage and family. I liked it. (But if you want your novels to move in a linear fashion through time, you might go bonkers reading this book.)

I am a huge fan of Wendell Berry's writing. This is another story set in Berry's fictional Kentucky river town, Port William. It takes place over the course of one day -- the last day, in fact, in the life of 93-year old Jack Beechum -- as he recalls the many turnings of his long life. I've read enough of Berry's Port William stories that the recurring characters are like old friends, and it was wonderful to be among them again. Beautiful, tender, evocative writing. I cannot get enough of it.

The second book in the witches' strand of Terry Pratchett's Discworld series. Desiderata, one of two fairy godmothers has died and bequeathed her magic wand to the young witch Magrat, with explicit directions that she is to travel to Genua to prevent  Emberella from marrying the prince. Magrat embarks on her quest, accompanied by her formidable companions Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg.

I finally got around to reading Personal Effects. (It's been in my "to read" pile only since it came out last fall.) This is a debut YA novel that happens to have been written by my neighbor Emily, so I can tell you that not only has she written one heck of a good novel, but she's also a good dog walker and lawn mower, not to mention a lovely person. But the book: Matt Foster is a 17-year old boy living with his emotionally distant and abusive father as he struggles to cope with his brother TJ's death in the Iraq War. When the family receives TJ's "personal effects", Matt discovers letters and photos that send him on a journey to find out more about his brother. I loved this book -- I could not stop reading it! The author did such a good job of portraying a grief-stricken, emotionally stuck, teenaged boy and I wanted to find out how the story would resolve for all of the characters. On a side note, it was fun that part of the story took place in Madison, in places that I recognized. I highly recommend this book!

Next up: The Lost Garden by Helen Humphreys.

Thursday, July 04, 2013

Summer Reading, Part 1

There came a time sometime in the last year or so, when I feared I was no longer much of a reader. Books just weren't grabbing me the way I remembered that they once did.  I would pick up the latest title my book group was reading and read 2 or 3 pages before I just had to close my eyes. Or I'd get a stack of books from the library, and one after another would fall by the wayside … just … not … that … interesting. What was happening to me?

And now … summer. I'm not working, except to make stabs at getting things whipped into shape around the house. I'm reading again! It's like I've recovered from a long malaise and my appetite has returned. Let me see, what have I read?

A coming of age novel that takes place in 1987, still the dark ages when it came to public awareness about AIDS. While 14-year old June Elbus struggles to come to terms with the untimely death of her beloved uncle Finn, she slowly comes to realize that there are other people in her life who also miss him. Sometimes I felt that June's voice was just a little too wise for a 14-year old, but all in all I found this story to be really compelling and well-written.

What do you read when you want something light and refreshing, yet not stupid? Terry Pratchett, of course! The first of the "Witches" strand of the Discworld series, a glorious send-up of MacBeth with overtones of Hamlet, seen through the lenses of the incomparable Nanny Ogg, Granny Weatherwax, and Magrat Garlick: The wind howled. Lightning stabbed at the earth erratically, like an inefficient assassin. Thunder rolled back and forth across the dark, rain-lashed hills. The night was a s black as the inside of a cat. It was the kind of night, you could believe, on which gods moved men as though they were pawns on the chessboard of fate. In the middle of this elemental storm a fire gleamed among the dripping furze bushes like the madness in a weasel's eye. It illuminate three hunched figures. As the cauldron bubbled an eldritch voice shrieked, "When shall we three meet again?" There was a pause. Finally another voice said, in far more ordinary tones, "Well, I can do next Tuesday."

This is a biography of Mary Granville Pendarves Delaney, a woman whose life spanned most of the eighteenth century, always on the fringes of British high society. She befriended a substantial number of luminaries of the day, was married twice -- unhappily at 17 (and widowed at 23) and again in her thirties to an Irish clergyman, from all accounts the kind of happy marriage that many people only dream about -- but the extraordinary story begins when Mrs. Delaney is 73 years old, widowed again, and begins to create stunning cut paper flower collages (all of which can be viewed at the British Museum's website.) The weak link in this book was the biographer's attempt to muse on the nature of creativity; I found the parallels she drew to her own life to be somewhat tiresome. Mary Delaney's story stands quite well all on its own (kind of like Mary Delaney herself.)

I love reading about Vietnam. In some ways it reminds me of Ireland or Palestine, an underdog of a country, a place that has maintained its culture and dignity through a history of occupation by a succession of bully-nations and despots. Fourth Uncle is a memoir of Quang Van Nguyena Vietnamese man who escaped to the U.S. during the reign of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge (whose influence extended from Cambodia into Vietnam.) He was adopted as an infant by an extraordinary Buddhist monk/doctor and trained to follow in his footsteps. The book chronicles Quang's education (including his teenaged rebellion when he dabbles in sorcery.) While some of his accounts stretch the boundaries of belief for someone like me, I was also reminded (again) that there is waaaaay more to this world than meets the eye. Good book.

Call me a nerd, but some of my favorite books are books about books. And this one is a book about a book about books. I've reached new heights in nerd-dom. One of my top top top all-time favorite books is 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff. If you haven't read it, well, you don't know what you're missing. (The movie adaptation -- in a sweet addendum to the story the rights to produce it were a gift from Mel Brooks to his wife Anne Bancroft -- was pretty good too.) Q's Legacy is partly about how Helene Hanff came to write her mega-bestseller, and then what happened after people like me fell in love with it. I just love her voice: she's funny, self-deprecating,  down-to-earth, all salt and vinegar … but she loves what she loves fiercely. Sadly Ms. Hanff died, mostly penniless in a nursing home, in 1997.

More later. I just started reading Helene Hanff's Apple of My Eye in which she wrote the narrative to accompany a late seventies tourist's guide to New York City. I'll let you know what I think. Stay tuned …

Saturday, June 08, 2013


Just in case you didn't hear me screaming yesterday afternoon, I am thrilled to announce that I have a new position for next year -- School Library Media Specialist at Frank Allis Elementary school! Like many of the best things in life, this is bittersweet. I've had this as a goal for over a decade, I am very ready for a change from classroom teaching, it is a position that will fit me well … but as it turns out, it means I have to leave my community at Emerson Elementary School, something that I have really resisted. After my initial elation, I sat down in my classroom and wept. Leaving my friends, the families with whom I've bonded, the children I've nurtured -- that's a big big deal. Emerson holds a large chunk of my heart.

I don't have a crystal ball to see how this adventure will turn out. My dear family and friends tell me that I will be a swell LMS. I'm a little daunted by the learning curve, but I think I am going to love it. I feel like I've finally been granted membership into a prestigious club, decoder ring, secret handshake, and all.

I've long declared that when I got a job I would buy myself a Bunny Rabbit puppet, like the one on Captain Kangaroo. I found a nice vintage one on Etsy today, and it's on its way. I also subscribed to School Library Journal. I think I might have to buy an iPad as well, so I can preview all the cool new learning apps. I'm so excited! (Ridiculous big grin on my face as I write this.)

Stay tuned.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Notes from Summer School

Please … if next year I start talking about teaching summer school again … if I say, "I'll be in a library, it will be fun" … do me a favor and ask me if I'm out of my mind. I just finished my 3rd straight day of working in a 97˚ library. Humidity was at 56%. I've been uncomfortable, but I make a point of staying hydrated and moving as little as possible. The kids however, are miserable which does nothing for their behavior. To me it's veered over into the realm of ludicrous. For the kids it seems criminal.

Which brings me to another point about our summer school program: MMSD thinks it's a good idea to take all of the kids who were not "proficient" in reading by spring -- who for whatever reason, were not particularly engaged in or struggled with learning during the school year -- and give them more of the same (aka MOTS) for 6 weeks in buildings without air conditioning. Recipe for success? No, I don't think so either.

It's particularly sad for me when so many kids come to the library and can't find anything to read. The most popular books are Sponge Bob, Spiderman, Pokémon, and Diary of a Wimpy Kid. There are limited numbers of those books and when they are all checked out, the kids are frequently at a loss. They frequently go and search for them in the online catalog, as if the act of typing the desired book will conjure it up. They can't hear me when I say "It's not here," and they frequently get angry.

I do what a good librarian is supposed to do. I've been going to the shelves and pulling a lot of books that I know they will never look at otherwise. I give book talks. I pay attention to what they're interested in, and try to find similar titles. I look for movie tie-ins. Occasionally it works. Tintin books were flying off the shelves today, after 5 weeks of plugging them. My first class was all over Neil Gaimann and checked out Coraline, The Wolves in the Wall, and The Graveyard Book -- and proceeded to lay down on the floor and actually read them! With few exceptions my next four classes were testy and unwilling to try anything. (Maybe it was the 97˚.)

I drove home, musing on the whole summer school experience, feeling kind of frustrated. Then I remembered a situation from yesterday. I had one kid -- an upcoming 2nd grader -- who was mad that I was out of Pokémon books. After 20 minutes of a slow motion tantrum (him, not me) I finally got him to tell me that he wanted a book about "hot air" (Appropriate, right?) which I took to mean hot air balloons. We went to nonfiction. No, he didn't want that book or that one either. No, not that one. (As you can imagine, the selection is somewhat limited.) He's frustrated. I'm frustrated. He finally says, "I'll SHOW you what I want!" and goes and gets the book that I had set aside as a read aloud for the next class: Balloons Over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy's Parade. (A WONDERFUL picture book biography of Tony Sarg.)

I tightened my bun, sucked in my girdled abdomen, pushed my glasses further down on my nose and hissed, "No, you can't have that one. I'm reading it aloud!" Just kidding. I said, "You want THAT ONE? COOL!!" and let him take it. There are lots of books in the library, I could always find something else to read.

I think that the educator Susan Ohanian was correct when she observed that teachers ultimately teach themselves, or to put it another way, it's a lot about the relationship that you build with kids. Why should they listen to me when I say a book is good? They don't know me. They're only just starting to know their summer school teachers.

Well, 6 hot days remaining.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Head couple rip and snort …

Social dancing -- it's one of my soapbox topics. As in, we as a society don't do enough dancing just for fun, as a way to socialize with our fellow human beings, anymore. Oh yeah, "young people" go out to clubs and dance, and sometimes "women of a certain age" might drag their spouses to a mini course on ballroom dancing. But just to go to a dance for fun doesn't seem to happen all that often.

So, when I got an email from some listserv or other that I am on, announcing a square dance with a visiting caller and LIVE MUSIC on Friday night at our wonderfully funky WilMar Neighborhood Center, I had to go. (And I dragged my spouse, though it wasn't really much of a drag. He feels much like I do about social dancing. We were even joined by our 16 year old daughter later on in the evening.)

My main experiences with square dancing were, first in elementary school gym class in 6th grade ( a surprisingly happy memory, actually) and then at my alternative high school, where the only dances we had were square dances with a caller named Vern Weisensel from Sun Prairie. (I often wonder what he thought of calling square dances for a bunch of stoned wannabe-hippie kids in thrift shop finery … Who knows? Maybe he wasn't nearly so straight-laced as I remember him.) It was a great way to dance and socialize … you could be flirtatious, touch the other lust-filled adolescents, maybe even snuggle a bit, and then "Cab driver, once more round the block …" and you'd move on to the next person.

The caller last night was T-Claw from Nashville, TN. He takes the tradition of calling dances seriously, but he was anything but straight-laced. I knew I was going to like him when I opened up a copy of his square dance calling 'zine (!) Dare To Be Square and found this variation on the Virginia Reel:
All join hands, up and back 
Let's get our troops out of Iraq 
 Allemande right if it takes all night 
Allemande left, this war is theft …
As the evening progressed he was lounging back in his chair, a microphone in one hand and a beer in the other, calling out "Same old gent with a brand new girl, down the center and divide the world!" He was clearly having a good time. He seems passionate about getting people to participate. (Isn't that one of our great societal ills in the U.S.? People will pay big money to be consumers of lots of things, but it's harder to get them to participate -- not just in the arts, but in things like VOTING, for instance. But I digress.)

He was accompanied by Can I Get An Amen!, a really rocking quartet of old timey musicians (but definitely not old!) out of Chicago. I urge you to check them out. Not only did they play a good reel, but they threw in a couple of achingly beautiful waltzes (the most romantic of dances, in my opinion) and sang in glorious Louvin Brothers-type harmonies. Sigh.

Which leads me to another point. In recent years when I have attended folk events, it's been disconcerting to look around at the audience and realize that I am the youngest person there. (Although I still regard myself as 27 or 28, I'm nearly 53 years old, hardly qualified to be called "young", for Pete's sake.) I have frequently wondered what the future is of a lot of traditions which I hold dear, if the card-carrying young people aren't carrying them on. Well I'm happy (sort of) to report that at last night's dance Ed and I were maybe not the oldest, but among the oldest people there and there were an awful lot of youngsters ("dirty hipsters," my daughter informed me, and that's a good thing) dancing away. It did my heart good, it really did. Even when the sweet young man I was talking to asked me if I was retired.

So … meet your partner, pat 'em on the head, if they don't like biscuits, feed 'em cornbread, promenade across the floor, that's all there is, there ain't no more.

T-Claw "Breaking Up Winter" w/ the Georgia Crackers

Saturday, December 03, 2011

What's in a Name?

For the last 17 years, the first Saturday in December has been set aside for a remembrance service held by the Bereaved Parent Group of Madison. The first year after Sophie's death we simply attended. Then we started contributing a song to the service: The Water Lily by Australian poet Henry Lawson, set to music by Priscilla Herdmann. We've missed just one service since Sophie died, the year I ended up in the hospital with pulmonary embolism (yuck.) I love it; it's a chance to catch up with friends whom we know only in this context and see once a year. People who speak the same language we do, so to speak. Members of the same club.

The most powerful part of the evening is when somebody reads off all of the babies' names. To hear someone else say your baby's name means so much. Last year, the people compiling the list made a mistake and got Sophie's middle name wrong, and I felt terrible. This year I checked the list to make sure it was correct. I hope I didn't seem too obnoxious.

Today brought a strange coincidence: Ed was at work and Sophie's cardiologist came in. We run into him from time to time around town, but today of all days? The world works in mysterious ways. And another year is past.