Tuesday, May 31, 2011

We have an Armchair BEA Giveaway Winner!

And the winner of Col Reads' first every giveaway is: Alyce from At Home With Books! She gets her choice of any book in the Canongate Myths Series from Book Depository!

There is a Literary Fiction Giveaway coming to Col Reads in June! I hope you’ll join in that one!

Monday, May 30, 2011

Book Review: The Penelopiad

Ever since I heard about the Read-A-Myth Challenge, so kindly hosted by JoV and Bina, I have been looking forward to reading Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad. Written in 2005 as part of the Canongate Myth series, The Penelopiad is often described as a “feminist reinterpretation of Homer’s Odyssey.” And it definitely is that.

But now that I have read the book, I would argue it is actually far more than a simple reinterpretation of a myth. I believe what Atwood is actually doing with The Penelopiad is reintroducing feminism itself.

The reinterpretation of the myth is in some ways the easy part of the novella. As I mentioned in my previous post, Penelope is a surprisingly complex character, at turns very funny, snarky, desperate and hopeful: kind of like every woman you know. Her narrative explains her behavior throughout her long ordeal. She loves her husband, but is disappointed by him. She loves her son, but doesn’t trust his judgment. She loves her parents, but their relationship is not close. Once Penelope moves from archetype of patience to actual human being, she becomes more interesting and significant. And that underscores the importance of feminist literature. It reminds us that women have stories, women are funny, women watch movies: they are not bystanders to culture, they are participants in its creation. At one point, Penelope deals with patriarchal misconceptions about her directly:

The charges concern my sexual conduct. It is alleged, for instance, that I slept with Amphinomus, the politest of the Suitors. The songs say I found his conversation agreeable, or more agreeable than that of the others, and that is true; but it’s a long jump from there into bed. p. 143

She similarly dispenses with the idea that Odysseus himself did not trust her, explaining that he simply believed she would cry if he revealed himself, and they might lose the opportunity to surprise and overtake the Suitors.

The trickier part, as I see it, is the view of feminism Atwood leaves us with in The Penelopiad. One of the stranger parts of Odyssey is Odysseus and Telemachus’ slaughtering of Penelope’s maids once they regain control of his kingdom. Atwood anchors the book in this violent act against women by including the usually silent maids as a Greek chorus. They editorialize on events throughout the book, sometimes comically, sometimes angrily. The maids have been wronged by Odysseus, by Telemachus, by the Suitors, and even by Penelope herself, they believe. And to some extent, they function as the feminist consciousness of the book. But if that is what they are, it's important to note that they aren’t totally sympathetic. Thousands of years after the events of the Odyssey and Penelopiad, they seek vengeance on Odysseus. Even the dead Penelope finally asks, “Why can’t you leave him alone?” Penelope senses that continually addressing wrongs done cannot improve the present.

I believe Atwood is addressing some of the complaints about feminist scholarship in this novella. Is it anachronistic to hold men of the past to current standards of behavior? How can feminists give women a voice if they cannot work together – and trust each other? She doesn’t necessarily answer the questions, but she acknowledges that a new generation of women may not see the issues exactly the same as the previous one, and I think that’s very interesting!

I was unexpectedly without Internet access for the past couple of days, so I’m anxious to catch up and see what others thought of this book. Was it enjoyable? Difficult? Here’s what Bellezza, WeBeReading and Nonsuch Book had to say. If you've reviewed this book, please add your links in the comments, and I’ll include them in this post.

In addition to the Read-A-Myth Challenge, I also realized this book counts for the Once Upon A Time Challenge as well. So while I didn’t do so well on that one, I did get one book in at the finish! I’ll plan better for that one next year! Thanks to Carl V. at Stainless Steel Droppings for hosting!

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Headed to Book Blogger Con

Today I'm traveling to Book Blogger Con 2011. I'm looking forward to meeting many of the wonderful bloggers I've been virtually visiting over the past year. If you're around this afternoon, send me a tweet @Col_Reads -- or just reply to this message. Hope to see you there!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Wordless Wednesday: Iris

To participate in the Wordless Wednesday meme, add your link here.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

An Armchair BEA Giveaway -- and Initial Thoughts on The Penelopiad

My friend Bellezza at Dolce Bellezza and I are reading Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad this week, as part of the Read-A-Myth Challenge – and some other bloggers have decided to join in as well! We’re going to post our reviews on May 30. The book is short, there’s plenty of time, so please feel free to join us as well!

So after an evening of reading, here are my initial thoughts and questions about what I’ve read. And there’s a giveaway too!

First, I was not prepared for how funny it was going to be:

After her wedding to Odysseus:
“And so I was handed over to Odysseus, like a package of meat. A package of meat in a wrapping of gold, mind you. A sort of gilded blood pudding.” (pg. 39)

Also, Penelope is a far saucier character than I imagined!

On her mother-in-law:
“That Anticleia would freeze the b*lls off Helios.” (pg. 61)

I am wondering about Penelope’s mother. I had no idea that she was a Naiad. Is that in the original story? Isn’t it interesting to give the most steadfast character in Greek mythology the flightiest of mothers? So far I absolutely love the book. I hope everyone else is enjoying it as well!

The Giveaway

To celebrate my Armchair BEA, as well as our book buddy read-along, I’m giving away the winner’s choice of any of the books in the Canongate Myth series available through the Book Depository (so the contest is international, but you must live in a country where Book Depository offers free delivery). To enter, just follow this blog on GFC (below, right) and leave a comment with your email, so I can contact you! Each entry will be assigned a number, and I'll use random.org to pick the winning digits! Giveaway is open until May 27.

The Canongate Myth Series allows modern authors to reimagine traditional myths from many cultures. For those of you not familiar, here are the books in the series:

A Short History of Myth, Karen Armstrong
The Penelopiad, Margaret Atwood
Weight, Jeanette Winterson
The Helmet of Horror, Victor Pelevin (trans. Andrew Bromfield)
Lion's Honey, David Grossman (trans. Stuart Schoffman)
Dream Angus, Alexander McCall Smith
Girl Meets Boy, Ali Smith
Binu and the Great Wall, Su Tong (trans. Howard Goldblatt)
Where Three Roads Meet, Salley Vickers
Baba Yaga Laid an Egg, Dubravka Ugrešić
The Fire Gospel, Michel Faber
The Myth of Izanagi and Izanami, Natsuo Kirino
Orphans of Eldorado, Milton Hatoum Mythology of Amazonia
The Hurricane Party, Klas Östergren
The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, Philip Pullman

Good luck, and thanks for stopping by! Don't forget to check out the other giveaways at Armchair BEA Central!

Monday, May 23, 2011

Armchair BEA Day 1: Why Col Reads

Getting tenure is a crazy thing. You read and you research and you research and you read until you think you never want to see another book! At least that’s what happened to me. When I finally got the fabulous news that I had indeed earned tenure, I had what I call an “end-of-the-wedding” moment. You know what I mean: you realize you’ve been so fixated on the current goal (throwing a huge party, having a baby, securing employment for the rest of your life, insert life altering event here) that you forgot to think about WHAT COMES NEXT!

It dawned on me that without the avenging Erinyes breathing down my neck, I could actually have some FUN. So I did what any nerd would do: I went out and bought a novel that had absolutely NOTHING to do with my work! And I read it in one sitting. It was awesome.

Right then and there I decided what gift I wanted for earning tenure: the gift of reading for pleasure again. And that, my friends, is why Col Reads!

My first thought was to join a book group, but I didn’t know anyone who was part of one. I didn’t know that many people in town – there’s nothing like the tenure track to make a hermit out of even the most social being – so starting my own book group wasn’t really an option. So I did some research online, and found my first reading challenge, the What’s in a Name 3 Challenge hosted by Beth Fish Reads. I needed someplace to park my reviews, so voila: a blog was born.

Because I read for pure pleasure, I read a quirky and eclectic mix of books: international literary fiction, classics, non-fiction and mysteries are my favorite genres, but there’s almost nothing I won’t try at least once! I love the social aspects of book blogging, and I’ve “met” some wonderful people from around the world with similar reading interests – not easy to find in a small college town! I love to use challenges to find new reading ideas and new blogs to follow. If you leave me a message and a link, I’d love to check out yours!

Hope you’re enjoying Armchair BEA!

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Weekend Cooking: Sweet Potato Pie Pancakes

When Saturday night’s dinner leaves you with a leftover sweet potato, plan on these pancakes for Sunday morning. In fact, if you don’t have sweet potatoes on the menu, it’s worth throwing one in the oven, just to make this breakfast treat!

Col's Sweet Potato Pie Pancakes*
1 cup all purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. kosher salt
½ tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
½ tsp. ground ginger
¼ tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
¼ tsp. cayenne pepper
1 large sweet potato, baked
2 cups coconut milk
2 eggs
2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
2 Tblsp. agave nectar (brown sugar or honey would work fine)
1 tsp. vanilla extract

1. Sift dry ingredients, including spices, into a large bowl.
2. Place peeled sweet potato, milk, eggs, sugar and vanilla into a blender. Blend to puree sweet potato.
3. Pour sweet potato mixture into the dry ingredients. Whisk to combine, but don’t over mix.
4. Butter a griddle; pour ¼ cup of mixture onto griddle for each pancake. (The sweet potato has a tendency to burn, so I keep my griddle lower than with other pancakes – about 325 degrees F.) Flip the pancakes when the bubbles around the edges burst and remain open.
5. Serve with maple syrup or whipped cream. Walnuts would be a fine idea too!

*I know I owe you a pay-off shot, but the kids ate the pancakes so quickly I didn't get a shot of them on the plates!

Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, fabulous quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend. Please link to your specific post, not your blog's home page. Thanks to Beth Fish Reads for hosting!

Saturday Snapshot: Orange Azaleas

Despite the rainy weather, the orange azalea in front of our porch is starting to bloom. I love the peachy blossoms!

To participate in the Saturday Snapshot meme, bloggers are asked to post a photo that they (or a friend or family member) have taken, then leave a direct link to your post on the Saturday Snapshot site. Photos can be old or new, and be of any subject as long as they are clean and appropriate for all eyes to see. How much detail you give in the caption is entirely up to you. All she asks is that you don't post random photos that you find online. Thanks to Alyce at At Home With Books for hosting!

Friday, May 20, 2011

Book Review: The Mistress of Spices

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s The Mistress of Spices has been on my TBR list for some time, so when Jess over at Desperado Penguin and I were looking for our next foodie simul-blog, I suggested it. It seemed to have at least three elements I love in a novel: a strong, female protagonist, a focus on food and a clash of cultures. And I was right. Divakaruni has written a very modern novel steeped in magic realism with interesting, likeable characters and a real multi-cultural vibe. I should have loved it. But somehow, the balance was just a bit wrong for me, like a curry that has too much cumin and not enough ginger to smooth it out. It was good, it was punchy, but it wasn’t totally satisfying.

I think one problem might have been the balance of the story arc. We meet Tilo, our mystical Mistress of Spices, in Oakland, California, a seemingly ancient spice vendor with an Indian grocery in a rough part of town. Tilo’s first person narration dispatches two former “selves” – her childhood as a sorceress and her young adulthood as a pirate queen – in just a few unflattering pages. So when she arrives at the Island of Spices to begin her long apprenticeship to learn the magic arts of healing through spices and become an immortal mistress charged with helping the people of the subcontinent wherever they are in the world, I wasn’t convinced that the selfless, diligent life of a Spice Mistress represented her real destiny.

The other problem was the spices themselves. Who knew condiments could be such demanding characters? Divakaruni emphasizes their individual properties by naming each of her chapters after different spices. But rather than giving them unique personalities or voices within the book, they function together as a kind of harping Greek chorus. First they love Tilo. Then they’re angry at Tilo. They do her bidding. Then they don’t. But Tilo is still Tilo. At the end of the novel, Tilo is still a fabulously gifted but restless woman who doesn’t listen. She didn’t listen to her parents. She wasn’t content on the pirate ship. Why would we think she could follow the rules of a collection of seeds and leaves somewhere on the Pacific Coast?

Tilo how little you have understood. From the deep the voice is a hiss, like water on a hot iron. Or is it a sigh? Like the waterfall the avalanche the forest fire, we do not hate. We only do what we must. p. 304

What saved the book for me was the very quirky, forbidden love story that winds through the novel. Raven, Tilo’s “American,” is the only one who can see through her ancient body to the beautiful, immortal woman underneath. His story is one of the most interesting aspects of the novel. I loved Divakaruni’s musings on the expectations that people bring to multi-cultural relationships. And the story brought a great deal of tension to the end of the book, as I wondered whether or not Tilo could ever find a way out of the mess she’d made by interfering with the work of the spices.

Magic realism lovers and lovers of South Asian fiction will definitely find something to like in this title. It has a trippy, romantic feel that would probably be very appealing to chic lit readers – and indeed, my 16-year-old, chic lit-loving daughter adored this book. For me, it was a good but not great read. But it was a fun simul-blog, as it provoked some fun twitter chatter as we were reading. Why don’t you head over to the Desperado Penguin and her review?

This book also counts for two challenges, the South Asian Challenge and the Immigrant Stories Challenge. Thanks to Swapna and Colleen for hosting!

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Booking Through Thursday: Age Inappropriate

Question: In contrast to last week’s question–What do you think of censoring books BECAUSE of their intended age? Say, books too “old” for your kids to read?

A great question. I am absolutely against anyone designating a book inappropriate for a child because of reading ability. Sometimes the best way for a child to make a “leap” in his or her reading skills is to stretch and read a book that is a bit too hard, because they are particularly interested in the content or because their friends or siblings have recommended it. My younger daughter finally stopped being intimidated by “big books” when her best friend went Percy Jackson-crazy. She needed help with a bunch of words, but by the end of the book she was doing great – she’d taken a huge step reading-wise, even though the book was probably a bit too difficult.

Of course, content is another issue. A parent or a teacher who knows a child well may have enough information about his or her emotional state to worry about themes being too frightening or disturbing for a child. I would never say “Never” to a title, but I would discuss with my daughter what I saw as the pros and cons of a book. I would even read a chapter or two with her. Most of all, I try not to let my own feelings, tastes and prejudices keep my daughters from titles that might be right for them. Perfect example: I would never pick up a title like Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones. But a teacher recommended it to my oldest daughter in 10th grade, and she absolutely loved it. Sometimes your kids do know best!

And sometimes family norms and values allow for books that others would never dream of reading. Our kids live in a family where a quirky – even a dark – sense of humor is highly prized. Around here, Edward Gorey’s The Gashlycrumb Tinies is bedtime reading around Halloween. Twenty-six kids coming to 26 elaborate ends might not be the stuff of sweet dreams in every house, but it’s so very absurd that my kids and I absolutely crack up!*

What about you? Is anything age inappropriate at your house?

Booking Through Thursday is a weekly meme about (mostly) books and reading. To participate, just copy the week’s question, answer on your blog, and link the answer in the comments for that week. Thanks to Deb for hosting!

*Weird, I admit, but realistic child violence is really disturbing to me, and cartoonish mayhem not at all. Adults, like kids, need to know their limits!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Wordless Wednesday: Playing With Your Hair

To participate in the Wordless Wednesday meme, add your link here.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Book Review: The Mill Mystery

I have really been enjoying the The Golden Age Girls challenge, one of the challenge levels in Bev’s Vintage Mystery Challenge at My Reader’s Block. And considering I joined that one late, I’m making pretty good progress so far. Partly that’s because I love having a mystery on my Kindle, so I can sneak a few pages in while I’m waiting for children at activities, or waiting for the pressure cooker to de-pressurize, or waiting for a doctor/dentist/hair appointment.* But my idea to read 5 different vintage authors made the Kindle a liability. Neither the Ngaio Marsh nor the Phoebe Atwood Taylor titles I wanted were available for Kindle. My search finally lead me to The Classic Mystery Collection, more than 100 complete mystery novels in one Kindle title. And the list of authors included two vintage authors I had never read: Anna Katharine Green and Mary Roberts Rinehart. And the price? $2.99!**

I began with Green’s The Mill Mystery. Written in 1886, I would not call this a “detective” story – even an amateur detective story. The book is more mysterious than mystery, following Constance Sterling slowly piece together the reasons behind the seemingly unrelated deaths of a popular local minister and the richest man in town. When we meet Constance, she is “a young woman of twenty-five, without home, relatives, or means of support, having in her pocket seventy-five cents of change, and in her breast a heart like lead, so utterly had every hope vanished in the day’s rush of disappointments.” Before Constance’s kind and gentle roommate, the secret fiancée of the minister, dies within hours of hearing the news of his death, she begs Constance to clear her fiancée’s name from the inevitable rumors of suicide that will flow from his drowning in a vat at the abandoned mill.

The reason that I say the book is more “mysterious” than “mystery” is that Constance doesn’t actively set out to deduce a solution to the mystery. Most of the answer simply falls into her lap, in the form of an extraordinarily detailed letter. She did ferret out some of the details, but I think the long letter device was weak, and made the story look particularly antiquated. The book has some other problems from my personal perspective. There’s way too much Victorian feminine fragility for my taste – in fact, it’s the device that moves the main story along. The love story is rather predictable – once I was able to tell the two Pollard brothers apart, I was pretty sure who the “good” guy was.

So The Mill Mystery is a truly “vintage” title, more reminiscent of Wilkie Collins’ work than a classic Agatha Christie whodunit. It does have the virtue of being a very early mystery work by a female writer who was a best-seller during her own lifetime, and it certainly gives you an idea of how the mystery genre has developed since the Victorian era. In fairness, Green’s most famous work is The Leavenworth Case, and I probably should have started there. Still, if you loved The Woman in White, this might be up your alley.

Thanks again to Bev for hosting The Vintage Mystery Challenge!

*You get the idea. I do a lot of waiting. As in three books worth of waiting in the past two months.

**I’m going to admit that this is a poorly formatted Kindle title – each book is treated as a “chapter,” so searching is a pain. And I can’t figure out what to do about the “farthest page read” sync when I shift around from book to book. But for $2.99, it’s nice to always have a mystery I haven’t read waiting in the wings!

Monday, May 16, 2011

I’m a Guest Reviewer on Black Sheep Dances! The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them

Many of you are already familiar with Black Sheep Dances, a wonderful literary blog that focuses, among other things, on translated works of literary fiction. Amy is hosting The Eastern European Reading Challenge on Black Sheep Dances this year, and I have to admit it’s been a bit tough coming up with titles for an area about which I know absolutely nothing. Then finally I read a book this spring that just screamed, “Amy” to me, plus it was about Russian literature, and Amy said I could write it up as a guest post. So if you’d like to read my review of Elif Batuman’s The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, head on over to Black Sheep Dances! Thanks, Amy, for letting me contribute! It was a lot of fun, and I am inspired to seek out some more translations this summer.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Sunday Salon: Penelopiad Read Along Invitation and Other Summer Fun

With yesterday’s graduation complete, Summer Reading Season officially starts today at Col Reads! I’m especially happy to be starting off this summer with two “buddy” reads. The first will be a foodie simul-blog with long-time friend Jess over at Desperado Penguin – we’ve both been reading Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s The Mistress of Spices, and we’ll be blogging about it this week. I think this is the fourth simul-blog we’ve done, and I’m always surprised by our differing takes on the books we read, despite being friends for about 20 years.

Next up is a Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad. When we signed up for the Read-A-Myth Challenge way back in December, wonderful Bellezza at Dolce Bellezza noticed we both had the title on our lists, and suggested we might read it together. And we’d like to invite you to join us too! We’re planning on reading and posting any thoughts or questions during the week of May 23-May 28, with a wrap-up post on May 30. Atwood’s novella finally gives Penelope, the long-suffering wife of Odysseus, a chance to tell her own story. I’m looking forward to some good conversation about the “feminist” perspective on a classic tale. Please feel free to join us for any or all of the read – it’s totally informal, but we think it will be fun.

Aside from that, my summer plans include getting to work on the challenges I signed up for earlier in the year, which should make for a fascinating summer of reading. I’m behind on the GLBT, Book Blogger Abroad and Read-A-Myth challenges at this point, but the titles I have planned are very eclectic and diverse, and I’m excited to get back to them. My daughter and I will also be working on the What’s in a Name 4 Challenge together for her summer reading project, always a treat.

I’m also hoping to make plenty of time for something else I truly love this summer: photography. I’m hoping to master PhotoShop Elements, so look forward to lots more pictures – and maybe even a change in design of Col Reads. More on that later.

What do the next few months hold for you, reading and blogging-wise?

I hope to see some of your thoughts on The Penelopiad on May 30!

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Saturday Snapshot: At the Arboretum

I recently spent a lovely afternoon goofing around with daughter number two and my camera at Penn State's Arboretum, while gardens were spewing forth tulips at full tilt. I was particularly intrigued by this unusual variegated purple variety.

To participate in the Saturday Snapshot meme, bloggers are asked to post a photo that they (or a friend or family member) have taken, then leave a direct link to your post on the Saturday Snapshot site. Photos can be old or new, and be of any subject as long as they are clean and appropriate for all eyes to see. How much detail you give in the caption is entirely up to you. All she asks is that you don't post random photos that you find online. Thanks to Alyce at At Home With Books for hosting!

Friday, May 13, 2011

Book Review: The Paris Wife

I do not like Hemingway.

I was blessed with a fabulous high school English program, where we tackled the likes of Shakespeare, Dickens, Hesse and Faulkner. I loved it all. Except for Hemingway. The Snows of Kilimanjaro? Too dull. Hills Like White Elephants? Misogynistic. The Old Man and the Sea? I rooted for the sea. God bless Mrs. Dose, Ms. Mormile and good old Dr. Kelley. They did their best. They pointed out the vivid story arcs and the beauty of the spare language. But I never learned to like Hemingway.*

Which is my way of saying that unlike some readers of Paula McLain’s novel The Paris Wife, I was willing to dislike Hemingway the person as much as I had always disliked Hemingway the writer from the get-go. And that may have driven my reading of this book. Where his first wife, Hadley Richardson, saw charm and spontaneity, I saw oiliness and rashness. Where she saw genius, I saw vainglory. Where she saw bravery, I saw bravado. And from the perspective of the novel, I think it worked really well. Right from the beginning, I adored Hadley, and couldn’t see what she saw in the young and callow Ernest anyway. At least for me, McLain was able to conjure a sense of protectiveness about Hadley.

The book is heartbreakingly narrated from Hadley’s perspective, and we watch her slowly awaken to Hemingway’s insatiable nature. On her first trip to Italy, she visits the place where Hemingway fell in love with his nurse, only to be devastated when she rejected his marriage proposal. He says he’s glad they can visit together, but Hadley senses more:

I knew he was telling me the truth, but I also knew that if it were possible, he would have preferred to have me and Agnes both there – his past and his present, each of us loving him without question – and the strawberries, too. The wine and the sunshine and the warm stones under our feet. He wanted everything there was to have, and more than that. pg. 100

Hadley is extraordinarily sympathetic, but almost too saintly at times. She is that girlfriend that you just want to shake some sense into – “He’s treating you like garbage, for God’s sake! You’re better off without him!” And there were times when her forbearance bordered on the creepy, suffering through Hemingway’s flagrant adultery at an excruciatingly close distance. But her story of a life lived around genius is extremely compelling, and the characters of the Lost Generation – Alice B. Toklas, F.Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound and John Dos Passos – come alive in this novel, as do the locations they visit in the interwar period, from Italy to Austria to Paris, of course.

Based on the title, I wonder if McLain is planning a sequel – The Key West Wife? That would be tricky, because Pauline Pfeiffer, the woman who stole Hemingway from Hadley, is pretty hateful in this book. I’m not sure I could read it.

I still hate Hemingway.

*I admit that I did learn to love John Donne, however, the other author that Dr. Kelley predicted would “grow on me” over time. One out of two isn’t bad.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Booking Through Thursday: Age Appropriate

Question: Do you read books “meant” for other age groups? Adult books when you were a child; Young-Adult books now that you’re grown; Picture books just for kicks … You know … books not “meant” for you. Or do you pretty much stick to what’s written for people your age?

The answer to that is “Yes” – with a qualification. When I was a child, I read everything on my parent’s bookshelves. The first time I read Gone With The Wind I was 9 years old – needless to say, a lot of it was way over my head. I remember reading The Crystal Cave not too long after that. I read it again and again. (It may be the reason I became a Medievalist in college. Practicality certainly couldn’t have had anything to do with it!)

As an adult, I have enjoyed reading with my two children (now ages 16 and 10) for closing in on two decades. And I really mean “enjoyed.” Some books are such favorites that the books are no longer necessary. After reading it so many times, everyone in our family can recite There Once Was a Puffin by heart, which has come in handy on more than one occasion when we forgot to pack a book for an overnight trip. From the earliest picture books, through the Madeline and Eloise phases, to chapter books like A Series of Unfortunate Events, I really have looked forward to bedtime most nights!

So here’s the qualification. What I I haven’t enjoyed as much are the YA novels my older daughter reads – and wants me to read too. I am just too impatient with them. The firstTwilight novel made me want to put Bella out of her misery – and mine. Pretties made me cringe. John Green’s novels are better, but he doesn’t write enough of them. I want to encourage her reading outside of her difficult AP English work, and I place a premium on being able to discuss books with my children, so I can’t tell you how thrilled I was when she started grabbing titles from my Kindle library – and finding she actually liked some of them. So far, we’ve discussed Dreaming in Hindi, Radio Shangri-La, and she even finished Bossypants before I did. She still doesn’t dig “old junk” (a.k.a. Classics) much, and won’t touch a mystery to save her life. But at least we’re finding a reading space we can share!

Booking Through Thursday is a weekly meme about (mostly) books and reading. To participate, just copy the week’s question, answer on your blog, and link the answer in the comments for that week. Thanks to Deb for hosting!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Wondrous Words Wednesday: Old Verb Edition

I love seeing how word usage has shifted over time. Reading Anna Katherine Green’s The Mill Mystery, I came upon the following sentence:

“But as we approached the mill, and I caught a glimpse of its frowning walls glooming so darkly from out the cluster of trees that environed them, I own that a sensation akin to that which had been awakened in me by Mrs. Pollard’s threats, and the portentous darkness of her somber mansion, once again swept with its chilling effect over my nerves.”

Quite a mouthful, but what struck me was that two root words appear as verbs, although we now usually see them as nouns – “glooming” and “environ.” So I headed to the dictionary.

gloom: (archaic verb) to make murky or dark
environ: ( verb) to form a ring around

Interesting to think of the environment as a ring around us, isn’t it? And of gloom actually obscuring our real selves? What Wondrous Words have you come across this week?

Wondrous Words Wednesday is a weekly meme where we share new (to us) words that we’ve encountered in our reading. To participate, and to see what other words readers have come across this week, head over to BermudaOnion’s Weblog. Thanks to Kathy for hosting!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Book Review: Radio Shangri-La

Sometimes a book just speaks to you. For me, Lisa Napoli’s Radio Shangri-La: What I Learned in Bhutan, the Happiest Kingdom on Earth did just that.

Of course, Napoli is a news producer, and she recognizes a good story when she sees one. And her story of helping out a tiny start-up radio station with a quirky cast of characters in the most remote capital city on the planet is a really good one. But what moves this book from really good to great is Napoli’s willingness to share her own fears and confront her own assumptions about culture and authenticity.

Napoli faces down her struggles and successes with equal clarity and frankness – even optimism:

No longer was I some burnt out career journalist with no idea how to escape the grind. No longer would I see myself as a failure as a woman, either, for not having had a successful long-term romantic partnership that yielded a happy home filled with children. This long-crafted definition of myself, of a nice gal who had made a mess of her life, started to melt away. Replacing it now was new vision of me: one part proud Ambassador of the United States, one part curious anthropologist, 100 percent human. pg. 31

Not that Napoli sugarcoats her times in Bhutan. Like the news professional she is she reports – and then contextualizes. For example, a Bhutanese monk, realizing she was a foreigner with means, suggested Napoli needed a puja, a series of ceremonial prayers by monks, to remove the obstacles in her life. The price he quoted was exorbitant – more than a month’s salary. But rather than focusing on how the monk tried to rip her off, she focused instead on how she and her co-workers, Pink and Ngawang, crossed their cultural divide to diffuse the situation gracefully:

“You can think about it,” said Pink sweetly.

“Well, I don’t really have to think about it. That’s quite expensive.”

Rinpoche chattered a response in Dzongkha [the national language of Tibet]. Ngawang relayed, “He says if you pay a hundred dollars, that will be okay.” Her smile told me she was on to the extortionate monk.

For a split second, I worried this Rinpoche might pray to the wrong deities if I refused. Make my obstacles more intense. Then I remembered that I didn’t believe in spells.
pg. 85

There are funny and sad and frustrating moments in this book, as well as a wealth of information.* I teach a class in International Strategic Communication, and one of the things I talk to my students about is the importance of stepping outside of your own cultural framework. Napoli’s book illustrates all the difficulties of doing just that – and also all of the possibilities once you’ve done it. I’ll be assigning this book the next time I teach this class. And I can’t wait to read it again!

Here's another one for the Dewey Decimal Challenge, so thanks to Jen at The Introverted Reader for hosting that. It's definitely been my most successful challenge of the year. It also counts for the South Asian Reading Challenge. That one is finally coming along as well! Thanks to Swapna at S. Krishna Books for hosting.

*Who knew that UTEP's campus is inspired by Bhutanese architecture? Certainly not me!