Posted in Reading

Because I Was Reading

A few years ago, I convinced myself that I knew my books (all 700-ish of them) so well that I could identify them merely by touch. I sat on the couch with my eyes closed and my hands over my ears while my husband brought me five books at a time. Then, keeping my eyes closed, I ran my hands over the covers, flipped the pages, felt for bookmarks, inhaled their scents, and generally absorbed their bookiness through my pores before making my guess.

I didn’t get a single one right.

This was very disappointing and also somewhat embarrassing, and the “See-you’re-crazy-I-told-you-so” smirk on my husband’s face only made matters worse. However, I still maintain that I know SOME of my books that well. He obviously just didn’t bring me the right ones.

Whether or not I know my books as well as I thought, it doesn’t take away from how much I love them. Reading is still my favorite thing to do, and I did it a lot in 2017, finishing 60 books that spanned fiction, nonfiction, YA, middle grade, adult, children’s, poetry, short stories, horror, sci-fi, fantasy, realistic fiction, historical fiction, comedy, classics, graphic novels, comics, audio books, and novels in verse. Whew! I consider that a job well done.

However, dedicating the hours necessary to finish 60 books in a year does mean there are times when other areas of life are neglected.

Chances are…

If you called me and I didn’t answer, it’s because I was reading.

If I showed up a little late to your gathering, it’s because I was reading.

If I left the tea kettle whistling until the water boiled away, it’s because I was reading.

If I forgot to feed the dog, it’s because I was reading.

If an announcement about a delayed flight made me smile, it’s because I was reading.

If I had tears in my eyes at a coffee shop, it’s because I was reading.

If I didn’t realize a cat had crawled into my lap, it’s because I was reading.

And if I fell asleep on the couch with the light on and a bookmark stuck to my face, it’s because I was reading.

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A few of my favorite 2017 reading spots (& reading companions)

In fact, the reason why this post didn’t come out on December 31st like I planned, is because I was reading. I was determined to finish one more book before the end of the year. (And I did.)

So, the question is… WHAT was I reading?

I read a lot of things last year, and I liked most of them. Here are a few favorites. (For a full list of what I read, check out my Goodreads page.)

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* The Empty Grave by Jonathan Stroud – An excellent end to an amazing series. Read my full review of this fifth and final book in the Lockwood & Co. series here.

Print* Falling Over Sideways by Jordan Sonnenblick – Sonnenblick has outdone himself with this novel. I didn’t think I’d ever love any of his books more than Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie, but Falling Over Sideways got it just right. Just absolutely perfectly right. An excellent read for middle schoolers, parents, teachers, and anyone who loves a good story.

25814154* The Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell – I can’t express how much I loved The Madwoman Upstairs. It’s everything I wanted and needed from a summer read. Wit. Charm. Passionate book discussions. Literary scavenger hunts. Scandals. Secrets. A creepy old tower. The Brontes. This novel had it all. I listened to it on audio, read by Katie Koster, and it was fantastic. So fantastic, I bought the paper copy. Now I’m tempted to start over and read it again. So good.

24902132* Leaf and Beak: Sonnets by Scott Wiggerman – This poetry collection sat on my shelf for too long before I finally read it. Now, I don’t know why I waited. The sonnets follow the poet on his daily walks around his Austin neighborhood and are organized by the seasons, but there is nothing trite or expected from these elegant poems. The sonnets are both vivid and subtle, allowing the reader to stroll pleasantly through the verse while also inspiring her/him to pause and reflect at regular intervals. An excellent collection.

920607* The Arrival by Shaun Tan – Is it possible to “read” a book with no words? If you don’t think so, then you haven’t read The Arrival. This wordless story of a man leaving his homeland for a new country communicates the immigrant experience in a beautiful, intimate way.

17465707* Still Writing: The Pleasures and Perils of a Creative Life by Dani Shapiro – I bought this book based on its adorable cover, and the inside didn’t disappoint. Still Writing is written in short essays, anecdotes, and tips. It reads easily and is a positive and encouraging take on the writing craft, while also being realistic. I took a lot of notes while reading it and put it down to write multiple times. (That’s how you know a writing book is good—it makes you WRITE.)

23203257* Lily and Dunkin by Donna Gephart – Lily, a transgender girl, and Dunkin, a boy with bipolar disorder, are both struggling through 8th grade. Their friendship will tug at your heart. At least, it tugged at mine.

19364719* Slasher Girls & Monster Boys edited by April Genevieve Tucholke – This anthology of teen horror stories by some of today’s best YA authors is way more gruesome and creepy and dark than I expected. I liked almost all of the stories, and several stayed with me long after I finished them, especially “In the Forest Dark and Deep” by Carrie Ryan. Thanks to that story, I’ll never be able to watch Alice in Wonderland without cringing again.

22840421* My Lady Jane by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows – This book CRACKED. ME. UP. It’s a historical fantasy comedy romance. (Yeah, that’s a thing.) It’s like… if Game of Thrones met The Princess Bride except half the characters could turn into animals. You know what, just read it.

12948* (Not a favorite, but still one I want to mention) – The last book I read in 2017, the one I finished just a few hours before midnight, was The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, and I can’t decide what I think of it. I’m keeping my thoughts to myself for now because my book club will be discussing this classic horror novel in a couple of weeks, and I don’t want to give away all my conversation topics here, but I would love to know what others thought of it. Have you read it? Did you like it? (I promise not to steal your opinions for my book club. All clever critiques will be duly attributed during our discussion, I promise.)

So… the next question is… What will I read THIS year?

I hesitate to even post these titles because, if history is any indicator, books that I put on my “must-read” list often meet with procrastination, forgetfulness, or disappointment. But this year’s list is a winner, I can feel it. Here are ten books I definitely want to burrow into in 2018:

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  • A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (I already started this one and am enjoying it so far.)
  • The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (This has been on my reading list for years. A friend gave me a beautiful purple copy for Christmas, so now I have no reason not to dive in.)
  • Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery (No, I’ve never read it. Don’t shun me. A student gave me a copy—again a gorgeous one—so I’m going to give this classic a try.)
  • If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino (My friend recommended this book. The summary sounds just as strange as the title. Wonderfully strange! I’m so excited to read it.)
  • Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (I’ve watched this author’s TED talks and read her interviews. Everything she says is eloquent and gorgeous, so I expect her book will be the same.)
  • Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History by Art Spiegelman (This has also been on my reading list for years. It feels like time to read it.)
  • Ghosts of Greenglass House by Kate Milford (I got this sequel to one of my favorite middle grade novels for my birthday but haven’t made time for it yet. I can’t wait to see what Milo is up to.)
  • Dreadnought by April Daniels (I’ve heard great things about this YA novel about a transgender superhero.)
  • Eva Moves the Furniture by Margot Livesey (Nova Ren Suma recommended this book during my workshop with her at Highlights. I don’t remember why anymore, but when Nova Ren Suma recommends something, you read it.)
  • The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia by Candace Fleming (A student highly recommended this book to me, and it meets my goals of reading more nonfiction and reading outside my comfort zone. Plus, the girl is brilliant, so I trust her.)

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Well, there you have it. Books, books, and more books. I’d love to hear about your own reading achievements. What was your favorite read in 2017? What are your goals for 2018? And tell me what you thought of The Turn of the Screw! (It’s ok. You can be honest.)

Posted in Reading

Book Review: The Empty Grave by Jonathan Stroud

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Title: Lockwood & Co: The Empty Grave
Author: Jonathan Stroud
My Rating: 5 stars

Rarely do I find a book or a series of books that I love as much as Lockwood & Co. by Jonathan Stroud. This weekend, I finished The Empty Grave, the fifth and final book in the series, and the feelings I have about these characters’ stories coming to an end are very bittersweet.

The Lockwood & Co. series is about teenage ghost hunters in London. It is set in a time when ghosts have become a big problem in society. Instead of just one or two popping up now and then, they’re everywhere, and they’re dangerous. Ghost-touch is fatal, and adults are especially vulnerable because they can’t see the spirits. Children and teenagers are the ones with the Talents– the ability to see, hear, and sometimes communicate with the dead– so they are the ones hired to fight the ghosts, locate their Sources, and seal them to protect the living. Most of the agencies have adult supervision, but not Lockwood & Co. This small, independent group works without adults, and they’re not afraid to break the rules (or burn a few houses down) to get the job done.

In The Empty Grave, the Lockwood team, consisting of Lucy Carlyle (the sensitive who can communicate with Type 3 ghosts), Anthony Lockwood (the confident, reckless leader of the group), George Cubbins (the always-messy, expert researcher), and their associates (Holly, Kipps, Flo, and the Skull in the jar) are homing in on something big. They think the head of the top agency in London is not who she claims to be and they may actually be close to solving the ghost problem. But in order to prove they’re right, they have to face more danger than ever before, and may even have to take a trip to The Other Side.

One of my favorite things about this book is the Skull in the jar. The Skull is a character in the story, an unusual one. He is the Source of the ghost of a teenage boy, but he’s trapped in a silver glass jar, so he’s not dangerous, and he can communicate with Lucy. He’s sarcastic and rude to her but sometimes helpful, and I love the interactions between them. In this book, the Skull keeps trying to persuade Lucy to let him out of the jar, though he’s not exactly convincing. Here’s an exchange from page 99 of The Empty Grave:

“‘Say I let you out. What would you do?’
I’d flit about. Stretch my plasm. Might strangle Cubbins. Carry out a spot of casual ghost-touch, now and again. Just simple hobbies.’

I think the author writes the Skull’s voice really well. Although he can be a giant pain to Lucy, I love his wit and humor and enjoy listening to his snide remarks.

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How I spent my Saturday…

I love to read, but I am often a slow reader. However, I flew through The Empty Grave, finishing this 437-page book in less than a week. On Saturday, I read for hours, losing a few fingernails and gaining a LOT of calories in the meantime. (I like to snack while I read.) I kept trying to put the book down to do chores or grade papers, but I couldn’t stay away for long. I couldn’t leave my favorite characters alone in such desperate situations. I had to go back. I had to know what happened next. That’s another reason why I love Jonathan Stroud’s books. His characters feel like friends. I’m never lonely when I’m hanging out with Lucy and Lockwood and George. (And the Skull in the jar.)

That brings me to the only thing I didn’t like about The Empty Grave: it ended. I loved the book, but I hate that this story is over. I will miss my character friends. However, there is a way to keep in touch with them. YOU can read the books, and you can tell me what they’re up to. I’d really like that.

If the Lockwood & Co. series sounds like something you would enjoy, start with book one, The Screaming Staircase, and tell my friends hello for me.

Posted in Reading, Teaching

Reuniting with The Outsiders

 

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Some books become part of our lives.

The first time I read The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton was in 1990, when I was in the seventh grade. I checked it out of the library for a book report. I don’t remember why I picked that novel. I wasn’t a big reader at the time, so maybe someone recommended it to me, or maybe it was on a list of options, and I chose it based on the title. I don’t know. I don’t even actually remember reading it, though I know I did and liked it. Honestly, only two things stand out about the experience: the movie and the cover of my book report.

imagesI remember renting the movie on VHS and watching it with my parents. I can vividly picture laying on the living room floor in front of the television, watching the rumble scene. My mom had told me there were a lot of famous actors in it, including Tom Cruise. I had a big crush on him at the time (I was obsessed with Top Gun) so I couldn’t wait to see it. I remember liking the movie but being extremely disappointed with Tom Cruise’s role.

I have no idea what I wrote in my book report, but I remember the cover. I drew a big, pretty house with lots of windows and curtains, and in front of it, I drew a tall wooden fence. My English teacher, Coach Day, took off points for my cover, writing something like, “What does this have to do with the book?” in his comments. I was embarrassed that he didn’t get it and too shy at the time to explain myself. I guess he was expecting greasers and switchblades, but I drew my cover from the point of view of the main characters. They were outside the fence, separated from the big nice house. I loved Coach Day, but my symbolism was apparently lost on him.

Nine years passed before I came across Ponyboy and his gang again. I had just graduated from college and was about to start my teaching career, so I was brushing up on the novels I’d be reading with my seventh graders. The Outsiders was one of them. I bought a copy and read it again.

Over the course of the next thirteen years, I would read The Outsiders forty-one more times.

I read it aloud to three classes a day for twelve years and then five classes a day for one more year. I read it until I had entire sections of the book memorized. I read it until, during the last class of the day, I could stare creepily at an off task student while reading without missing a single word. I read it—the same paperback copy every single year—until every page was marked and highlighted, the paper soft as velvet against my skin. I explained slang terms like “cooler” (jail) and “heater” (gun) to almost a thousand students. I watched their jaws drop when I told them the book was written by a teenager. I perfected my “We’ll just have to wait and see” when the kids asked if Johnny would be okay and cherished the silence in the room when he told Ponyboy to “Stay gold.”

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At the beginning of my teaching career, when we taught a different class novel every six weeks, I always read The Outsiders first. It was the only book every student loved, and it taught them to trust me. As the years went on and education changed and the focus shifted from guided reading to independent reading, the number of class novels dwindled to two. But one of them was always The Outsiders. Every year.

And then I quit teaching.

In my post about why I left the classroom, I wrote, “Although part of me still can’t believe it, after forty-three readings of The Outsiders, I have survived my final rumble with the Socs, seen Dally crumple under the streetlight with a look of ‘grim triumph’ for the last time, and will tell Ponyboy to ‘stay gold’ no more.” Saying goodbye to the gang really was one of the hardest parts of leaving.

Four years passed. Then, last summer, I found out that a new 50th Anniversary Edition of the book was being published on November 1, 2016, the day after my 40th birthday. I marked the date on my calendar and added the book to my wish list, but I was a little sad. Sad that such a big milestone was coming, and I had no students to share it with.

By the time my birthday and the novel’s anniversary arrived, I’d gone back to teaching. Seventh grade. My new school only reads one class novel a year, and guess what it is?

Today, I introduce Ponyboy Curtis to a whole new group of seventh graders. I can’t wait to see him again.