Friday, September 23, 2016

All Creatures

So, I’m that lady. The one with poop bags (unused) in jacket and jean pockets just in case. The one dragging a reluctant dog around the block when it’s raining. The one jogging down the street trying not to trip over the leash because she is late for school pick up…again. The one waking up at 2 a.m. to let her out (and back in). The one cleaning out the crate if she doesn’t.

Being a new pet owner drew me to James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small. Published in 1972, this book also fits the Reading Challenge category “Read a book originally published in the decade you were born.” When I picked up this book I was expecting something along the lines of Carson’s Silent Spring or Thoreau’s Walden. It is not.  Instead, imagine Bill Bryson writing in 1930s Yorkshire.  

Herriot recounts his misadventures as a new vet. Ranging from middle of the night births to mid-afternoon visits to treat dogs with indigestion, each chapter is a new case. Herriot wryly admits his mistakes and modestly summarizes his victories. He revels in the countryside on spring afternoons and curses it on frigid winter nights. His attempts to convince stodgy farmers to accept his modern treatments may be hit and miss, but always amusing. This book is a comfort read in all senses of the word.


So, I’m that lady. The one content to curl up with a book while the dog naps at her feet. Even though I’m not the one buying Halloween costumes or baking homemade dog treats, it may only be a matter of time.

Friday, September 16, 2016

The Sympathizer

Back to the challenge. This week’s task was to read a book by an author that is from Southeast Asia.

The Sympathizer by View Thanh Nguyen is not for the faint of heart. I’ll admit that I skimmed parts of the book due to graphic narratives of torture or battle. However, in the end, the novel gives important insight into war, its aftermath, and its displaced peoples.  

The narrator of this novel is a self-described man of two faces and two minds. He is a communist sympathizer working for the South Vietnamese army. The son of a European priest and a Vietnamese mother, he is also fluent in American English (and culture). He makes it out of Vietnam on one of the last transports and finds himself, along with his commanding general, in Los Angeles. His connections lead him to work as a consultant on a movie about the war, and he soon travels to the Philippines to oversee the casting of the Vietnamese extras in the film. Meanwhile, the General suspects someone is leaking information to the enemy. To detract attention from himself, the narrator blames an innocent man and commits himself to the General’s call for another mission to liberate his people from the Viet Cong. When the narrator is captured by the communist camp, he reveals the novel’s previous pages to be his coerced confession.

More than just a confession, the pages become a reflection of his attempt to live a life as two men. It gives the reader insight into not only the conflict, but the aftermath. Those left behind are driven to extremes to survive. Those who have fled must figure out how to start over in a foreign culture.


To paraphrase one of the book’s final passages, tomorrow we too may find ourselves among strangers. If we do, will we cling to the past? Assimilate to the new? Or try to do both. 

Friday, September 9, 2016

Smart, Modern Women

Not since reading the Flavia de Luce mysteries, have I been so intrigued by the amateur sleuths that crop up in Emily Arsenault's books.

In What Strange Creatures, Theresa Battle writes copy for a candle company catalog by day and procrastinates writing her dissertation by night. When her brother is arrested for the murder of his girlfriend, she tries to prove his innocence.  By seeking out the girlfriend’s current and former acquaintances she often draws inspiration from her dissertation subject, Margery Kempe. Weaving Kempe’s story with Theresa’s, Arsenault ventures to ask us to examine our own vocations.

Miss Me When I’m Gone centers around Gretchen Waters, the author of Tammyland, a memoir of the author’s love of female country music stars. When Gretchen turns up dead after a reading, everyone is shocked, including Jamie, her best friend from college. Gretchen’s mother asks Jamie to be her literary executor and turns over the journals, files, and notes Gretchen was working from for her second book. Originally intended to be a book about the men of country music, Jamie discovers that this second book is actually Gretchen’s attempt to find out more about the identity of her father. As Jamie pieces together the notes left behind, she travels into Gretchen’s past and finds out more than the murderer bargained for.


The Broken Teaglass follows two young dictionary editors as they start finding random citations from a  mysteriously quirky story called The Broken Teaglass.  As the excerpts turn up out of order, they intriguingly reveal a corpse, a guilty conscience, and a love affair all set in the very dictionary offices from which they are working. What could be better than a novel that combines unrequited love, murder, and words? Arsenault builds up the suspense with each excerpt, and helpfully puts them all in order in the later chapters revealing that context matters.


Friday, September 2, 2016

Write about...

When I was pregnant with our first child, my husband and I joked about how our children were destined to be dorks. When your father is a former “mathlete” and your mother’s nickname in middle school was “Nerdstar,” there’s really no escaping it.

One of the “dorky” things we’ve started doing as a family is “Writing Night.” With a little help from a book called unjournaling by Dawn DiPrince and Cheryl Miller Thurston, we choose a prompt from the book, set the timer for five minutes, and all produce a short piece which we then read out loud.

From the prompt, “Write a sentence where each word starts with the letters of the word sentence,” our son wrote this:“She eyes nuts too eagerly, now cowardly eats.”

When the prompt suggested we write a paragraph using as many words we could that rhyme with blue, our daughter produced this:
“Sue bought new blue shoes. She wore them to her Aunt Coo’s farm. When she got there, she heard the cow moo and the sheep boo. And then her Aunt Coo called, “Watch out!” She turned, but it was too late. “Choo Choo.” The blue train swept her away, and poor Sue, was never seen again!!
(Her Aunt Coo was very blue. Boo hoo! Who knew??!!)”

Dorky, but cute, yes?

My husband found another book for our preteen to use on her own. Rip the Page by Karen Benke

alternates word lists, writing terms, writing prompts, and advice from writers. This activity book kept my 11-year-old happily busy this summer. And it will double nicely as a go-to resource for writing warm-ups for my own students this fall.  

Friday, August 19, 2016

"Gravity, plus ocean current, plus wind"

The one time I felt in danger of drowning was when, as a middle schooler, I went to a place called Wet ‘n Wild. I ventured into the Wave Pool, drawn to its seemingly tamer attraction compared to the death defying twists and turns of the higher and faster water slides. I positioned myself next to one of the metal bars lining the deep end and waited for the waves to begin. Slowly the agitation quickened and the waves got higher.  Losing hold of the metal bar, it was all I could do to keep my head above water. Trying not to panic, I glanced over at the lifeguards who seemed oblivious to my plight. Meanwhile my companions were screaming in the delight of it all. Finally the waves subsided and I was able to touch bottom and climb out, thankful for the hot concrete underneath my feet.

This memory came back as I was reading Before the Fall by Noah Hawley. A plane has crashed off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard. One of the passengers, Scott Burroughs, finds himself in the ocean, somehow still alive. Determined to swim to shore, he begins to set off when he hears the cry of a four-year-old boy who has also miraculously survived. Not only is it night, but Burroughs holding onto the boy, has dislocated a shoulder, fears the sharks swimming below, and faces giant waves which threaten to drag their bodies under.  The story of his rescue and the aftermath of the crash is entwined with the backstories of the other passengers on the private plane. Was it an accident or an attack? Answering this question proves as gripping as the first few pages of Burroughs’ heroic swim.

Since I’ve been obsessed with NPR’s you-might-also-like lists lately, I just have to say if you like Before the Fall, you might also like Hawley’s earlier novel The Good Father.  It too unravels a mystery of sorts. Why would a smart college-aged kid from a well-to-do family fall off the grid and assassinate a presidential candidate? This time, the character seeking answers is the boy’s father. He retraces his son’s travels across the United States, trying to prove his innocence.


And if you like The Good Father, you might also like this movie.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Mr. (and Mrs.) Holmes

You’ve seen the movies and shows. The haunting but jaunty violin music that follows Benedict Cumberbatch all over modern London. The signature intense cuts of Guy Ritchie. The unforgettable stained glass knightJoan Watson.

While you are waiting for Season 4 of Sherlock, read the original series by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. 
Or look for these other modern spin-offs.

Anthony Horowitz sends Sherlock and Watson on a new case in The House of Silk. He follows it up with Moriarty which explores what happened to Sherlock and Moriarty at Reichenbach Falls. Although it’s more graphic (ummm much more graphic) than the original mysteries, the suspense is just as thrilling.

Laurie R. King focuses the plot around Holmes’ wife Mary Russell. King explains how they met with The Beekeeper’s Apprentice. If you find yourself hooked, find the complete series list (in order) here. The star in these books is the exotic locale which varies in each book.


Julian Barnes sets the stage around Sherlock’s creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in Arthur and George as he sets off to solve a mystery in “real” life. 

Friday, August 5, 2016

Aha Moments

There’s always one moment during yoga when I think to myself, “Oh, this is why I woke up this early.” Having resumed a somewhat regular running routine, I keep waiting for that moment to happen during a run. I haven’t given up quite yet.

Luckily that moment comes quite often when I’m reading. If only it burned more calories.

My latest why-I-love-reading titles:

The Magicians by Lev Grossman
The Lake House by Kate Morton
Truly, Madly, Guilty by Liane Moriarty
Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave  

A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews