Category Archives: reading

Free Reading Friday: Prayers for the Stolen

prayers for the stolenAlthough I’ve already posted reviews of several other Eliot Rosewater book nominees for the 2017-2018 year, Prayers for the Stolen was actually one of the first ones I read this summer. When I borrowed it from the school library at the end of May, I didn’t realize I actually already owned a copy.

I’d read about the book as part of an offer one of the publishing companies makes to teachers: preview copies for only $3 each. The idea is to see if the book is one you might want to teach in class and then order an entire class set or two. I often take advantage of this deal as I’m always looking for new books that might be interesting to teach. Plus, cheap books…who can pass that up?

The blurb in the catalog was enticing to me. A story about a young girl in a rural Mexican village where all the men leave in order to seek their fortunes. A town where girls disappear with such regularity that mothers purposely make their daughters look ugly and dig holes in their yards in order to hide girls so the cartels won’t kidnap them. A town where girls are educated, but only when there is a teacher willing to come to the village. A town where it is not uncommon for a best friend to disappear, but is unheard for her to ever return.

Except, of course, in this book she does.

Jennifer Clement offers up a beautifully disturbing book. While targeted at a YA audience, I think adults will find equal merit in this book. I find it hard to type the word “enjoy” as the book deals with very serious issues including child slavery, kidnapping, murder, drug cartels, alcoholism, adultery and abandonment and has so much tragedy in it. Still, I found the book captivating and could not put it down. Clement’s prose is poetic and haunting.

Ladydi, the main character (named because her mother was obsessed with Princess Diana), is a young woman in one of the most vulnerable situations imaginable. And yet, she rises through each horrific event and becomes stronger. She is powerful and empathetic and will open reader’s eyes to a world they’ve probably never even thought about before. It’s so easy to turn our backs on problems we cannot see, especially when they exist far from our doors, if not far from our borders.


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Free Reading Friday: Fresh Off the Boat

Frest off the boatOnce again, I really had very little idea what I was getting into with this book. I vaguely remember hearing that Fresh off the Boat was the name of a TV series, but as I haven’t had any sort of cable in a few years, I’d never seen it. I actually just saw part of it at the gym earlier this week. I always bring music or a book to listen to while working out, but when I glanced up at the TV hanging over the Arc Trainer, I saw the intro for the show and found myself glancing up at it several times during my workout.

Before picking up this book I’d never heard of Eddie Huang or Baohaus. I actually bought the book after reading a short synopsis of it in a catalog I get a few times a year which previews books teachers might want to use in their classroom. As I am always looking for new, interesting works of non-fiction for my AP Language kids and I have only a handful of non-fiction books in my classroom by Asian writers, I bought a copy and added this one to my summer reading list.

At times I struggled reading it. It’s not that the book is hard to read, bu there is a lot of slang in it, and even when I was young, I was never extremely fluent in slang. Well, I did 80’s Valley Girl ok, but that’s because I actually grew up in Southern California in the 1980’s and mostly just picked it up from friends. East Coast street slang is an entirely different world to me. I also know next to nothing about sneakers and my hip-hop/rap knowledge could definitely stand to be better.

What I really enjoyed about this book was that I feel like Huang’s voice is authentically his in this book. He starts off as a young man, searching for himself, trapped in world where the only faces he sees that look like his are members of his family. As he grows up, he is caught between cultures and trying very hard not to become the “stereotypical Asian” he sees so many people around him becoming. His identification with hip hop and rap artists felt so real to him because like them, he felt like an outsider, looking into a world that didn’t really want him.

I think it’s great that Eddie is unapologetically himself in his memoir. He doesn’t try to turn himself into some sort of flawless hero. He shows the world who he is and was, warts and all, so to speak. He admits to mistakes. He talks about what he’s learned. He shares his frustrations and anger with his readers.

He also shares his very real disdain for a number of people in this book. While I do think he goes overboard with the way he airs his disdain, I haven’t lived his life. I am white and have never felt out of place in America. Disappointed in my country, sure, but never like I don’t belong here, which he has clearly felt, and been made to feel, countless times in his life. I think his anger is justified. I can’t imagine what it is like to grow up in a world where I barely see myself reflected in the media or where I feel pushed toward a minuscule number of professions.

I’m glad Huang wrote this book. I’m glad he started a business that truly reflects who he is as a person and gives others the chance to do the same. I’m glad I read this book and I hope several of my students read it as well. I think it may give some of them a perspective they’ve never thought of before. I love the line he has near the end of the book, “My main objective with Baohaus was to become a voice for Asian Americans,*” which he follows up with this footnote: *”Note that I say ‘a voice’ not ‘the voice.’ I don’t speak for all Asian Americans, I speak for a few rotten bananas like me.”

I think more voices like Huang’s need to be heard in our country.

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Free Reading Friday: The Handmaid’s Tale

HandmaidThe start of the school year means I have to get the summer reading I assigned to my Advanced Placement students finished. Don’t misunderstand, I never assign them a novel I have not read before, but before teaching any novel I re-read and annotate it.

I can’t even count the number of times I have read The Great Gatsby.

I first read The Handmaid’s Tale in my early 20’s. As much as it disturbed me then, I never really thought of it as a reflection of society or any sort of actuality…at least not in the US where it is set. I saw it more as a statement against conservative politics and the danger of letting religion take too strong of a hold on society. I thought of it as a warning to women not to forget some very, very dark times of old.

And while the book is still all of these things, reading it again today, considering the current state of our government, it no longer seems a reflection of things past, but frighteningly of those that may come.

Now, I still don’t believe it could ever get to the disturbing, disgusting levels Offred describes, one message keeps jumping out to me: people can get used to anything if given no real choice and no real voice. Even as Americans, we are willing to sacrifice a disturbing amount of our freedom for “safety.” The Patriot Act is living proof.

We are also seeing scary cuts and changes to reproductive care in this country. Health committees, made up of entirely men, are making decisions about what health services women can receive. State governments are making laws requiring women to get their rapist’s permission in order to get abortions. Planned Parenthhod, the largest single provider of women’s health care, may be defended.

We are seeing news called “fake” and access to our government, one that is supposed to be “for the people, by the people,” restricted from reporters. We are demonizing single mothers and trying to restrict governmental benefits for them. We are also seeing a rise in people demanding we, as a nation, return to “Christian values,” and trying to mirror local, state and national laws on the Bible.

Our country and Gilead are merging in very upsetting ways. Now, more than ever, this is an important book for people to read. It is why Hulu decided, 30 years after its first publication to turn the novel into a modern series.

I’m very interested to see what my students think of its relevance to today’s world.

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Free Reading Friday: Vengeance Road

Vengeance RoadI am not generally a fan of Westerns. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. I LOVED Deadwood, but I think that might have a bit more do do with my overall love for Timothy Olyphant. I also really like Westworld, but it’s not exactly a typical Western.

I was, however, a die-hard Little House on the Prairie fan as a kid. I can’t even count the hours I spent reading and re-reading all of the books. I still remember trying to grasp how Ma’s waist could be small enough that Pa’s fingers could touch when he wrapped his hands around it. When I was 10 I had no idea what a corset was. I also spent way more hours than any child probably should in front of the TV watching reruns of the show pretty much every day after school. My mom was really strict on what I was/wasn’t allowed to watch and Little House was on the approved list. So I devoured it.

I dressed up as Laura Ingalls for at least three different Halloweens. I also have a picture of me, in the fifth grade in a very 70’s (it was a Goodwill find), very pink, very Little House inspired dress. Thankfully I left the bonnet at home. Probably only because it was yellow and even I knew it would clash. That’s right, I loved the prairie so much that I wore it as part of my every day life. I was sooooooo not cool. But I LOVED me some prairie life.

I think my love for those good ol’ Little House days was probably what led me to grab Vengeance Road by Erin Bowman from the stack of books that arrived at my school library right before the start of summer.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but the cover hinted at nostalgia and it’s on the Eliot Rosewater nominee list, so I added it onto my already considerably large pile. As is usual, my eyes get a little bit bigger than, well, my time, during the summer. I always think I’m going to get more reading done than I actually do. While I was certainly no slouch this summer (so far I’ve finished 22 books), I still see 4 books sitting on my piano bench and I think realistically I’ll only get through one or two more before classes start.

Despite its wild west exterior, for some reason I was not actually expecting this book to be about the actual Wild West. I really like going into books with no preconceived notions at all. It’s often a delightful surprise.

And it was with this book. From the opening line, “It weren’t no secret Pa owned the best plot of land ‘long Granite Creek, and I reckon that’s why they killed him,” I felt myself being pulled into the old West, a genre I’m not entirely comfortable in, but as I’ve said, have some serious, specific love for.

The first chapter of this book reminded me more than a bit of True Grit, a movie I quite enjoyed. The plot is only similar at the root–a young girl sets off to avenge the death of her father and along the way picks up two men who agree to help her. Both groups track the killer through “Indian country” and violent shoot outs happen along the way. Like the movie, the main characters have to show a lot of “true grit” during their journey. Huh…that really does make them sound quite a bit alike, doesn’t it?

The big differences lie in the ages of the main characters–Kate is 17 and the Colten boys are far nearer her age; Kate isn’t looking to bring her father’s killer to justice and the Colten boys aren’t actually interested in her revenge; and like most YA novels, there is a love story thrown in.

I quite enjoyed this book. It was a tad hard to adjust to the outdated and horrific grammar (“I were supposed to think she were dead”), but since it added so much to the voice and authenticity of the story, I told the English teacher in me to “shut pan” and get on with reading.

One thing I really like about this book is that I think it has a wide appeal. I think freshmen would like it just as much as seniors and boys just as much as girls. It has a good balance of action, adventure, romance and coming of age to satisfy a variety of readers. If readers can get passed the old-fashioned setting (I know this can be a struggle for kids), I think they will find it a highly enjoyable read. I like that it is a great window into a genre which is not as widely known or read.

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Free Reading Friday: Soul of the Age

ShakespeareThis post is a little late today. My best friend has been visiting me from Georgia and instead of doing the responsible thing and writing this blog the night before so it would publish at exactly 8 am, I stayed up until just before midnight watching old Friends reruns and talking with her. Probably the greatest thing about my best friend is that we never have to plan anything big or grand to do together. We can just sit together in a room, watch old reruns and chat. And we can do this for hours. In our 20 some year friendship, I have never once run out of things to say to her. That’s why she’s my best friend.

Alas, this morning she left for the next leg of her journey: a visit to her parents in Missouri. It was a pretty darn sad morning. Not only was I bemoaning the fact that she had to leave, but my kids were trying to find ways to make her stay just a little longer. My daughter was trying to convince us all that we needed to go to our favorite coffee shop one more time. She ran down the hall to her bedroom only to emerge about 30 seconds later fully dressed. This a feat my daughter has never before accomplished. But I understand as desperate times call for desperate measures…even being dressed before 9 on a summer morning.

Now that we are done crying and I have resolved myself to the fact that I won’t see her again until mid-September, I figured I should probably write this blog.

So this blog is tribute, of sorts, to my darling best friend. Although she is a Victorian scholar rather than a Shakespearean one, she did teach a Shakespeare class last semester and it was really fun because we got to collaborate a bit. Sure, I teach high school students about good ol’ Will, and her students were all at least college sophomores, but I’ve taught a variety of his plays over the last 20 years and it was fun comparing activities, essays and source materials. Like me, she went beyond mere readings of his plays to look not only at performances, but also the way Shakespeare has invaded pop culture and the world around us. Not many writers have had the kind of influence Willy has, and it is fun to introduce students to his works and lasting influence.

One of my best Shakespeare related memories was seeing a performance of Romeo and Juliet in London at the Globe with my best friend. We stood as groundlings, despite the rather outrageous heat (London was having a freak heatwave), trying to keep 10 students, who were not all convinced they wanted to see a play, much less a Shakespearean play, happy while we waited for the actors to take the stage. Thankfully, for the most part, my students were captivated. Even those most vocal about not wanting to go to the play admitted they’d liked it.

As part of my love for the Bard, I’ve read my fair share of historical works about both his life and times and his plays. All historians tend to agree that much of what we know about Shakespeare is conjecture as few of his remaining documents exist. This does not stop me from reading books about him though. One of my favorite is Bill Bryson’s book titled Shakespeare The World as Stage. Last summer I added another book about my dear friend William to my bookshelf:  Soul of the Age.

Although I bought the book a year ago, it wasn’t until this summer that I really had the time to dedicate to it.

This is a well-written, well-researched book on Shakespeare and his works. I like that it is part biography and part analysis. I also like that Bate makes it very clear when he is making assumptions about Shakespeare’s life and that those assumptions are grounded. The author does a good job of dispelling misconceptions by providing thorough historical context as well as source material in Shakespeare’s own works and those of his contemporaries.

I’ve read quite a bit about Shakespeare over the years and this book aligns itself with other Shakespearean scholars I trust and admire. I think what sets this book apart from others I’ve read on the Bard is the in-depth readings of his own plays within this book. I also really appreciated the inclusion of the actual annotations early readers of Shakespeare made within their copies of his plays. That is something I had not see before.

This book is a good read, but not for those without a real academic interest in Shakespeare and his work. It was great for me, but I know there is no way I’ll get my students to read it.



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Throwback Thursday: Ford’s Theater

Lincoln's death bed.jpgMy best friend is in town and I am blissfully happy! Four years ago she finished her PhD and started looking for her dream job: professor of Victorian Literature. While I am amazingly proud of all she has accomplished, I was just about devastated when I found out her dream job was 10 hours away in Athens, Georgia. Athens is a truly amazing city, but, well, I did mention it was 10 hours away, right? Up until her move, not only were we living in the same city, but actually in the same neighborhood. Oddly, my husband and I were not even looking at homes in her neighborhood. We were searching a bit closer to the school where I work. After what seemed like the 100th house we looked at, our realtor drove us just around the corner from her house and we loved it. So, for about seven years we were less than two minutes away from each other, and that was only if we walked slowly.

Being so far apart is really awful for both of us. We are insanely close, but also insanely busy and neither of us are exactly independently wealthy thanks to our choice of education as our career. Still, ever since the move, we make it a point to spend at least 3 weeks together each year. My kids and I visit her on our spring break, she visits us for summer break and we take some sort of best friend vacation together each year. First it was Las Vegas, then Nashville, Denver, and Destin. Some of these trips are just the two of us and some include a few of our other best friends. There are five of us who have been best friends for over 20 year and when we get together it is as if no distance and no time has gone by.

This year we decided to visit one of our gang who is a reporter in DC. Although we recently started seeing him at least once a year on our now annual friend-a-cation, it’d been over a decade since either of us had visited him in DC. A visit was well over due.

Not only was this trip a great chance to catch up with one of our nearest and dearest, it was also a chance for me to revisit some other beloved history. When I was 10, my parents took me on a summer road trip to DC. Well, not just DC. We also visit several other historical sites in fairly nearby Virginia and Pennsylvania. Although I don’t really remember my dad being a big Civil War buff, we did a sort of Civil War tour which just happened to include the Washington Monument and a few stops in a Smithsonian or two.

My biggest memory of that trip, aside from getting horribly sick in the backseat of my dad’s car after eating pineapple at a Shoney’s breakfast buffet (an incident my step-mom NEVER let me live down), and my dad getting us more than a bit lost so we kept circling the Jefferson Monument in our car (which we also NEVER let him live down–my family does not let go of things easily), was visiting Ford’s Theater.

In case you are not a history buff, Ford’s Theater is where President Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth during a performance of Our American Cousin. Booth, who was an actor, waited for a particularly funny line in the play to help cover the initial sound of the gunshot before leaping onto the stage and reportedly shouting, “Sic semper tyrannis” (Thus always to tyrants) before running off stage and escaping the theater.

Lincoln's boxFord’s Theater is also the place where I fell in love with history. I’m not sure what it was about the place that captivated me, but it did. I think part of the draw was the fascination that Abraham Lincoln, a man I’d been taught to revere and admire could be thought of so differently by someone else. Another part of the draw was the idea that someone could do something so horrible that for all of history they would be remembered with complete infamy. I was also drawn to the fact that while the assassination happened over a hundred years ago, people had taken the time to preserve that history. I could look into the theater box where Lincoln was shot. I could walk across the street to the Petersen House and not only see the actual bed Lincoln died in, but his blood on the pillow. Over a hundred years later, I was looking at the blood of Abraham Lincoln. Someone had thought to save that pillow and that bed, knowing they were important and that years from now a little girl would be fascinated by them and want to learn more about history.

Ok, sure, my 10 year old brain didn’t quite process that all at the time. However, the grown up who just went back to Ford’s Theater to revisit that history did think about the draw and the fascination. And, this time I got to share it with my best friend, who also found it riveting. As much as I loved Ford’s Theater as a kid, as an adult it was an even better experience because now I understand so much better the impact of the assassination. I’ve read several books relating to it–my favorite is Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell–and I now better understand how a country can be so divided. Thanks to refurbishments and additions to the theater exhibit and the exhibit at the Petersen Lincoln booksHouse, I also got a chance to learn some cool new information and see amazing displays like this cool book tower. This super groovy piece of art is made up of replicas of the more than 15,000 books that have been written about Lincoln. I had no idea that he was the most written about figure in American history. Pretty cool fact, huh?

My trip back to Ford’s Theater also reminded me of a wonderful, if slightly vomit inducing, trip from my childhood. I remembered walking around the Washington Monument at night. I remember getting astronaut food from the Air and Space Museum. I remembered seeing the Ruby Slippers and the original Kermit the Frog at the Museum of American History. I remembered our trip to Gettysburg and the cool battlefield diorama. But mostly, I remembered how much I loved taking trips with my dad. Walking out of that theater, all I wanted to do was call him and tell him how much I still loved it and thank him for taking me all those years ago.

Since I can’t do that, I’ll just have to plan a trip to take my kids and share that wonderful history with them.


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Free Reading Friday: be-liev-a-rex-ic

BelieverexicOne of my summer goals, aside from reading at least 20 books, is to read as many of this year’s Rosie nominated books as possible. For those of you who don’t know what that means, “Rosie” is the nickname for the Eliot Rosewater Indiana High School Book Award. The award is named after a character created by Kurt Vonnegut, probably Indiana’s most famous author. Rosewater not only shows up in several of his novels, but also has one directly named after him, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater.

Each year Indiana high school students rate the books they read off of the Rosie list. The book that receives the best rating wins the award. The books that come in second and third receive Rosie honors. All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven won the 2016-2017 award and if you haven’t read it, you really should. It was breathtaking and heartbreaking and everything an amazing YA book should be.

Each year there are 20 books nominated and my wonderful school librarian not only has copies of each nominated books, but also highly promotes the books, both to the students and to the staff. Not only did she give each English teacher a great poster of the Rosie nominees, but she also gave us bookmarks and let several of us truly dedicated readers on staff bring home books for the summer. As a result, I have read 12 of the 2017-2018 nominees (7 of them this summer).

The most recent book I checked off my list (the bookmarks actually have check boxes on the back next to each title) was be-liev-a-rex-ic by J.J. Johnson. The author refers to her book as an “autobiographical novel” because she was admitted to an inpatient program for bulimarexia when she was 15. According to Johnson, the admission and discharge dates are real as is the information about the therapy sessions, rules, groups and policies Jennifer goes through in the novel. She does, however, change some of the situations, add fictional details, consolidate characters and change the internal time line to make the story function better. That being said, the book is incredibly real and definitely coincides with other memoirs I’ve read from girls who have been hospitalized for eating disorders.

I think this is a great book for teenagers, especially girls. Unlike several books I’ve read about eating disorders, this one centers on the recovery process. There is no glorification of the disorder nor is there anything that could really constitute a “how to” guide that many books dealing with disorders are accused of containing. The author deals very little with the behavior that lands Jennifer in the hospital and more with the issues that lead her to the hospital. The book is about the road to recovery and the slips along the way.

Considering that according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, 30 million people in the United States suffer from an eating disorder, it is critical that books like be-liev-a-rex-ic get into the hands of young adults to let them know not only the seriousness of eating disorders, but also that there is hope and help. The statistics on eating disorders are pretty darn scary. Every 62 minutes, one person dies as a direct result of an eating disorder. Eating disorders also have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.

As a teacher, this is an issue close to my heart. Over the years far too many of my female students have told me about their struggles with eating disorders. Some have been hospitalized. Many have been in counseling. Some have tried to fight it on their own. It breaks my heart even more because I know their struggle. It was my struggle too. Thankfully mine never got to desperate levels, but much like Jennifer, no one around me noticed. I was good at hiding what I was eating…or more specifically, what I wasn’t. When I got to college, I had a wonderful boyfriend who noticed my shaking hands, my fogginess, and the fact that I would go an entire day and only eat a single Kit Kat bar. It took a lot of work, a lot of tears and a lot of self-examination, but I changed my habits. However, food has always been and will always be a life long struggle for me.

While be-liev-a-rexi-ic may not be my favorite book on this year’s Rosie list (right now that honor goes to Salt to the Sea by Rita Sepetys), I think it is an important book teens should read.

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