Monday, January 31, 2011

January Story: The Girl Who Did Too Much OR Jack Palance Knows Best

"One.  Thing."

Classic City Slickers moment, classic thirty-two seconds of advice (rated PG13):

Oh, but did our Reader Princess (RP) heed it?  (Reader Princess? What's that?  Read this and this for the backstory...) Did she?

Three guesses.  Wait.  No.  One guess

So check out how she set herself up for failure (Shame on RP! When she doesn't have the general public doing it, she's doing it to herself!)...

First, take look at The January To-Do List and tell RP:  Do you notice any CREATIVE actions on here?  Or are they all pretty much citizen action or self-improvement-y?  Hmmm? 

Then, tell me you agree that, not only are most of RP's January actions pretty time-consuming-yet-not-particularly-creative, there are WAY too many of them! 

Yup.  So instead of making great strides, focusing hard to slap one fabulously transformative project into high gear, she scattered, blipping back and forth among three major initiatives while attempting not just one action for each of the twelve (12) books she read this month, but ... wait for it... a total of  twenty-six (26!) total actions.  What was she thinking?  Clearly, she was not.

No wonder she's lost the spark.  And the thread.  Drizzle all over RP's overwhelm with 28 days of rain out of 31 this month, and that oughta pretty much drag any princess down...

But.  The Half-Full Glass? It only took her this reflection to figure all this out, and she did - in fact - get a good bit accomplished on her projects, actually.  And - thanks in part to writer Maile Meloy's mojo - she happened upon an excessive number of truly good books this month and got a bit carried away.  But seriously? Too much dinking around, too much avoidance of action sparked by too many divergent tasks on her plate. 

And here's a sneakily nagging issue for consideration as well:  Reading and blogging can wax time-consuming, not to mention distracting/addicting, so careful rationing of these activities may be in order.

So, what's to do? 

Re-group, refocus, and stick to ONE (1) thing in February.  One major project, one action per book.

First action: an adjustment in review posts to offer you all "jump start" action choices for each book so you can play along if you  like.  For next month, I'll include four choices with each review
* an online action link (to a community group or national/international non-profit, etc. where it's easy to take action immediately by sending a letter, contacting a representative, clicking a button to make a donation, etc.),
* an online inquiry link for studying a related subject in an interesting way
* a creative spark for an activity or practice (w/link if possible)
* and a connection idea (either to the writer/participants in the book or to one's community)

I'll choose one.  At the end of the month, we'll see where for my February story's taken us.

In the meantime, even if it's just by chance, let me know what you've done on account of your reading, so I know I'm not alone.

MFB, ONE thing at a time,

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Rilke & Hopkins: Hawks & Gods

I live my life in growing rings
which move out over the things around me.

Perhaps I'll never complete the last,
but that's what I mean to try.

I'm circling around God, around the ancient tower,
and I've been circling thousands of years;
and I still don't know: am I a falcon, a storm
or a great song?

                                   - Rainer Maria Rilke, from The Book of Hours (1899-1903)

The Windhover

I caught this morning morning's minion, king-
  dom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
  Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
  As a skate's heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend the hurl and gliding
  Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird -- the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
  Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

  No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
  Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.

                        - Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1918, subtitled "To Christ Our Lord"

Even if you are not one to believe in a God, the beauty here seems well worth the investment of imagining you could believe in some unifying spirit, if only for a few moments...

Many thanks to Jim Burke for offering the first excerpt from Rilke on his blog,

The orality of Hopkins has long captured my fancy, despite its perhaps over-intricacy.  If this one's too much, try "Pied Beauty" (nifty text-flow just beneath the print on this site - wait for it!) or "As Kingfishers Catch Fire" (and this link offers you the "Poem in Your Pocket" PDF so you can drag it along...) both of which I memorized long ago and still find solace in trotting out from time to time.  Also, both links come from, a site that just gets better and better.  What a space for solace.


Saturday, January 29, 2011

Esperanza Rising (Briefly)

This modern classic of children's lit/middle readers somehow escaped me for years.  Pam Munoz Ryan's Depression-era tale of an affluent young Mexican girl whose family must move to the Central Valley in CA to become field workers - modeled in part on her own grandmother's experiences - offers us solid third person narration, clear and age-appropriate prose, a realistic look at farm workers' conditions at that time, and a pleasant coming-of-age story as well.  I enjoyed reviewing the Spanish words for vegetables and fruits, which serve as chapter titles, and overall I'm glad that I've got this one under my belt.  Yay for books on CD: They make errands and commutes so much more edifying and entertaining!

1.  Renew my membership in Southern Poverty Law Center, a wonderful organization that not only prosecutes hate crimes - often risking their lives to do so - but defends the rights of migrant and not-so-migrant farm workers.  They also publish a Teach Tolerance magazine resource for teachers.
2.  Use the Coalition of Immolakee Workers site to email Fred Meyer's (a local grocery/general merchandise chain) about supporting farm workers by allowing produce prices to rise slightly in order to offer humane wages.  I'll also print out a letter to bring to the TJ's store manager about it as well.  Materials for other stores and a map of what's in your area are available here too.  (Thanks, Mom, for forwarding me info. from this site a couple of weeks ago:  I did email TJ's, but recently found out that Fred Meyer offers Kroger's products...)

Just the Jist List
Title: Esperanza Rising
Author: Pam Munoz Ryan
Genre(s): historical fiction for young adults or middle readers
Book's Website:
Author's Website:
Year Published: 2000
Pages: 262
When was it read? January 25, 2011
Perfect Matches: young people interested in the Depression era, migrant workers, Mexican and CA history, coming-of-age stories
Perfect Timing: quick read w/period details, unique companion piece for Of Mice and Men or The Grapes of Wrath
Perfect NOT: not interested in US history, not interested issues of race and class in America
Content Fab Scale (1-5): ***
Why? Interesting details re: the customs of the time period, straightforward story, likable protagonist and supporting characters
Action Fab Scale (1-5): ***
Why? Plenty could be researched here, from time period to contemporary issues to current migrant workers' issues
# Yellow Stickies: 0
Why? Listened to it in the car: no stickies to hand. 
Get it:  (again, I'm not an affiliate - just making it easy to purchase)


Friday, January 28, 2011


Today's blog hop from Crazy-for-Books asks: 
"What book are you most looking forward to seeing published in 2011?  Why are you anticipating that book?"

In response, my petulant little Reader Princess whines, "But there are so many... Why must I choose?"  Then firmly insists: "I shan't!"

1. She's greedily rubbing her palms and snickering in delighted anticipation for this title from Hatchette in February...

Twelve, 2/2/2011

Why? RP's obsession with great apes and their communication began when she was but a wee princess and she learned that she and Washoe (the first chimp to learn American Sign Language) were born in the same month, possibly on the same day.  Seemed like a sign.  So she scoured the kingdom for books about great apes and read Fossey and Fouts and Ishmael and...

When she came of age, youngish RP ordered her entourage to travel all the way across the kingdom to meet the equally youngish Washoe and her family in Ellensburg, WA.  And that she did.   And now, next month, she'll be reading this:

"A stunning debut novel, told from the point of view of Bruno Littlemore, the world's first chimpanzee to develop the power of speech, chronicling the extraordinary events that lead to his imprisonment for murdering a man." (publisher's text)

AND RP's grinning from ear to ear because two of her favorite authors, T.C. Boyle and Andre Dubus III, publish new novels next month too!

And then there's 13, rue Therese by Elena Mauli Shapiro, a crafty little novel involving photos and puzzle-like 3-D online elements...

And springtime means festivals for the Reading Princess, plus paperback versions of Jennifer Egan's A Visit From The Goon Squad as well as The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, and many more...

Here's a solid overview article from The Millions with many more up-and-coming titles...The Great 2011 Book Preview.

Now what are y'all looking forward to?

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Top Ten Books I Wish I'd Read as a Kid

1.  To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee.  I'm the one:  I was not forced to read this in high school.  But on some level I wish I had been.  I think that Lee's prose would have beguiled me even then, and what teenager couldn't use an Atticus, a Scout, a Boo, a Jem, a Tom Robinson, a Mrs. Dubose, a Miss Maudie, and a Heck Tate in their lives?

2. The Tree of Life, and so many of Peter Sis's books.  I would have fallen in love with drawing and Darwin.  Who knows where and what I would be today?

3. Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen. P & P annoyed me, so I simply stopped Austen.  I suspect, had I sampled S & S first, I'd've stuck with her.

4. Night by Elie Wiesel.  A slim, jolting volume.  The one book to shape your youthful vision of the Holocaust.   And methinks you would likely be compelled to spend a lifetime thereafter exploring its complexities. Spare = powerful here, and Wiesel's descriptions of his craft in subsequent interviews and books would have helped me to curb my verbose tendencies toward intensity.

5. The Book Thief by Marcus Zuzak.  Integration of illustration w/in a longish text for a tween.  Not only does this provide an unusual perspective on events during WWII in Europe, but it also offers a model of form within a form.

6. Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie AND books on tape/CD (didn't really exist when I was growing up, and I adore this form now).  Sheer joy of language play coupled with a clear allegory about the power of free speech would likely have kept me on the path as a writer from elementary school through middle school, where I lost opportunities to write creatively and instead switched over to theater.

7. All the Madeleine L'Engle books after A Wrinkle In Time and A Wind in the Door.  I adored AWiT and AWitD, yet didn't continue after early elementary school.  Shoulda kept on apace.

8. Harry Potter. A classic hero's adventure that the current generation gets to hold as central to their shared cultural canon.  Plus Rowling's helped train a generation to adore 'the series' (thus committing to a cast of characters as increasingly well-known imaginary friends) and to anticipate long, indulgent hours of reading.  We had nothing of the sort.

9. Olivia.  What?  A strong-willed and almost blindingly vibrant female protagonist in a best-selling picture book? How might she have shaped my wee psyche, given that Kitten Nell, a far less developed heroine, directed much of my early journeys without my knowing it?

10.  Twilight. (not)  I am so pleased that this typical Cinderella-esque/lady-in-distress series did not infect me and my peers as it has this generation of young women.  Clearly, this myth persists due to some inherently inescapable drive toward submissiveness and passivity.  But that doesn't make it a good thing.

FYI:  For the purposes of this post, I'm defining 'kid' as a young reader, all the way up through her early teens.  I would NOT recommend Night or To Kill A Mockingbird or Sense and Sensibility or The Book Thief for elementary age students, or even for most middle schoolers. 

And if I could have an eleventh, I'd probably add Leaving Gee's Bend  below: it's a lovely tale that would have piqued my interest in the 1930's American South - a good primer for TKAM...

Monday, January 24, 2011

Barefoot, One Eye

That's Ludephia Bennett, the dirt-poor 10-year-old protagonist of Leaving Gee's Bend, poet/novelist Irene Latham's middle reader book based - in part - on the true story of a 1932 raid on the tiny Alabama sharecroppers' community by the local landowner's mad widow.  This book feels confidently wrought from page one, and boasts both gentle vocal rhythms and a steady, forthright narrative pace. And it's a local adventure story threaded through with quilting references, the craft for which Gee's Bend has become notable across the nation. 

I didn't think I'd be reading this book so soon after it arrived on my doorstep, but once I picked it up, perused the beautifully crafted business card inside, and visited Ms. Latham's engaging blog, I knew I'd give it a go immediately.  I must say, it was a terrific treadmill read:  the hour flew by!  (Although I jogged more or less lethargically along.)  Latham captures Ludelphia's earnestness and genuine naivete, and that's what engaged me.  And I suspect it will hook and hold young people as well.

Teacher-flag:  For those who - like me - are perenially on the lookout for books that might complement or supplement To Kill A Mockingbird, this one offers a similar setting and a narrator of like age to Scout, with some related themes as well, so it's fair game for our classroom bookshelves, I think.

1.  Offer it to my fellow English teachers to read for themselves.
2.  Spend one day going barefoot in my house, and try some of it with one eye patched. (channeling Lu)
3.  Clean out my quilting stuff and give it to someone who will use it.  (I admire quilters and their useful-artful creations but have tried to get interested in actually constructing them many times, to no avail.  It's tediously precise work, at least the way I've been taught, and I simply haven't the sustained interest. Crafters who live near me:  Call it!)

Just the Jist List
Title: Leaving Gee's Bend
Author: Irene Latham
Genre(s): historical fiction for young adults or middle readers
Book's Website:
Author's Website:
Year Published: 2010
Pages: 227
When was it read? January 15, 2011
Perfect Matches: young people interested in Alabama history, sharecroppers, issues of race and class; To Kill A Mockingbird teachers and students; quilters who also enjoy fiction; all readers who enjoy a well-told tale
Perfect Timing: quick read w/period details, TKAM overwhelms w/vocabulary & euphemism - looking for a more straightforward read, and from an African American perspective
Perfect NOT: not interested in US history, not interested issues of race and class in America
Content Fab Scale (1-5): ***
Why? Interesting details re: the customs of the time period, straightforward story, likeable protagonist and supporting characters
Action Fab Scale (1-5): ****
Why? Plenty could be researched here, from time period to contemporary issues to quilts and witches
# Yellow Stickies: 0
Why? Read it at the gym: no stickies to hand. 
Get it: 


Sunday, January 23, 2011

What The Dog Perhaps Hears

If an inaudible whistle
blown between our lips
can send him home to us,
then silence is perhaps
the sound of spiders breathing
and roots mining the earth;
it may be asparagus heaving,
headfirst, into the light
and the long brown sound
of cracked cups, when it happens.
We would like to ask the dog
if there is a continuous whir
because the child in the house
keeps growing, if the snake
really stretches full length
without a click and the sun
breaks through clouds without
a decibel of effort,
whether in autumn, when the trees
dry up their wells, there isn't a shudder
too high for us to hear.

What is it like up there
above the shut-off level
of our simple ears?
For us there was no birth cry,
the newborn bird is suddenly here,
the egg broken, the nest alive,
and we heard nothing when the world changed.

                                             by Lisel Mueller

I might just need to memorize this one.  I found it via the thoughtful and gracious novelist/poet Irene Latham.  Just read her Leaving Gee's Bend yesterday, a strong 'middle reader'/young adult book set in 1930's Alabama.  To Kill A Mockingbird teachers:  We're always looking for an alternative read that captures its setting and some of its major themes - this one might just do the trick.  Gr. 4-6 reading level, I'd say.  Brief review tomorrow... (And just a coincidental link - When I checked the author's webpage, I found this poem.)


Saturday, January 22, 2011

To be rich and altruistic...

Stickified Citizen You, plus a few great coffee table reads.
Two thumbs up for the title and subtitle.  Two thumbs up for the billionaire's intention to promote civic activism/ active citizenship.  Two thumbs up for 3-10 action ideas per chapter plus 52 more at the back of the book.  Two thumbs up for a few interesting new-to-me stories of citizen successes. 

One thumb sideways for mentioning Tufts University and/or its graduates, affiliates, programs, and current students at least 100 times: It's both Tisch's alma mater and an institution of which he is now a prominent trustee.  One thumb also sideways for every time (beyond the first 15) that he mentions Loews Corporation endeavors (his family's business).  I know, I know: one may 'do well while doing good', but after the first ten mentions, I began to wonder - just a whit - which intention came first, and to question whether/not many groups other than Tisch's affiliates are actually participating in the types of ventures he describes. 

However, this book does get The Golden Sticky, my highest award for 'textual relevance or pithiness resulting in post-it notes' to mark info. I want to return to, reprocess, and jot down when I'm finished reading a book. 

NB: The "Don't just note: Sticky!" process was derived from the clever strategy devised by my friend M, who employs it so successfully as a review technique prior to our bookgroup conversations that I adopted/adapted it myself.  Although she'd be the first to say that it's not enough to 'simply sticky' in all situations, for bookgroup it appears nearly ideal: one doesn't need to slow down or interrupt reading to take notes, yet one can quickly return to stickified pages an hour before meeting, review them, and thus conjure salient passages, ideas, and details with apparently savant-like clarity and precision during discussion.  My Smarty Pants Award for today goes to M.

"Let me explain.  No, there is too much.  Let me sum-up."  Tisch covers quite a range of up-and-coming options for active community-changers, from "Social Entrepreneurs" to "Digital Citizenship" to "mid-life career-changers" to many variations on "business professionals doing civic good", but my favorite chapter challenged ole Rebekah Nathan's research with "A New Breed of Leader: A Generation of Change Agents Ready to Hit the Ground Running".  In it, he details the many ways college students are already shifting toward community mindedness, particularly those at Tufts University where 80% of students take at least one class with a community service component, and Tisch himself has endowed an entire "College of Citizenship and Public Service" that spans every department in the University.  Tisch recounts fascinating examples of students serving in ways as various as bringing showtunes to a neighborhood school that lost its funding for music to a student from Dubai who helped create the Tufts International Ambassador Program.  According to Tisch, student engagement is on the rise, not just at Tufts, but nation wide.

Favorite Quote w/Most Counter-Intuitive Information:
From from Peter Levine, head of CIRCLE, a non-partisan research center based at Tufts as well, relatead to a long-term study of civically-engaged youth:
Although values do not cause people to participate (in civic endeavors), participation changes people's values and habits.  When we compare participants who appeared similar before a civic opportunity, we find that they behave quite differently afterward.  A similar gap emerged between comparable people who did and did not participate in the Freedom Summer (civil rights) campaigns (in the Deep South) of 1964.  Such profoundly moving and terrifying work might be expected to leave a lasting mark.  But the same is true to a lesser extent of young people who participate in student government or school newspapers.  Even forty years later, they remain more civically engaged. (36)
1. From this book, I've collected at least 10 websites to contact that I plan to link to my Reading for Change site (launching 3/11).  The groups associated with those sites will be able to link w/me directlly and we should be able to provide each other with mutual support.
2. In addition, I'm going back to the stickies and taking notes to use as I move forward with my Reading for Change process.
3. Also, I'm going to thoroughly peruse the website and take whatever additional actions seem relevant.

Just the Jist List
Title: Citizen You
Author: Jonathan M. Tisch, w/liberal help from Karl Weber
Genre(s): non-fiction, business, public service
Book's Website:
Author's Website: none.  Wikipedia entry.
Year Published: 2010
Pages: 247
When was it read? January 9, 2011 to January 11, 2011
Perfect Matches: World-changers, neophites to civic or social action looking for a plethora of ways to get involved, people who dig a well-organized non-fiction read with immediate practical applications, pessimists saddened at the state of our nation's civic participation
Perfect Timing: Career-changers hoping to shift into public service, students looking for culminating projects/senior projects, people who want/need to volunteer in their communities right away but don't know where to start, people looking for high-leverage non-profits & public agencies to support, business people looking to shift toward the triple bottom line (economy, community, environment)
Perfect NOT: uninterested in community matters, civic action; hate non-fiction, even if it's well written
Content Fab Scale (1-5): *****
Why? Rich in examples, broad in coverage of this topic. Many people know little about social entrepreneurship and the current upswing in civic participation.  Even those who know much will find something new here.  Up to date too.
Action Fab Scale (1-5): *****
Why? One could act on every chapter, plus Tisch/Weber provide 3-10 action suggestions per chapter and 52 more at the end of the book.
# Yellow Stickies: 27
Why? See above.  And it all pertains to what I'm personally working on...
Get it:

MFB like a citizen,

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Blog Hop: Hated it.

Literary Blog Hop
This meme's from The Blue Bookcase's blog hop today.
Go visit other hoppers:
Discuss a work of literary merit that you hated when you were made to read it in school or university.  Why did you dislike it?

As a teacher, I always advise my students to approach their reading as Taoists:  liking and disliking arise together - they are two inextricably bound aspects of the same energy.  So reacting to a text solely with "I liked it"/"I didn't like it" is just a lazy fallback into the most common response mode of our consumerist culture.  That isn't to say that we will not or should not harbor personal preferences or that we should not critique the merits of a work, but rather to offer the notion that if we allow those personal preferences to halt additional interaction with a text, then we cultivate intellectual shallowness and solipsism.  The path of the citizen-reader is to earnestly consider arguments and positions and texts that challenge his/her opinions, and then to decide how the arguments, positions, and texts will affect future actions and opinions. 

This philosophy has in part sparked my reading-for-change/action-reading experiment, testing the notion that any book - whether I like it or hate it or feel ambivalent or indifferent toward it - can benefit me and the world by what I do, make, or think as a result of interacting with it. 

All that being said (and assuming we can classify Catcher as a book of literary merit, which is perhaps a dubious notion):  I couldn't stand The Catcher in the Rye when I was in high school, and I still can't find much merit in it, even though I've had to teach it.  Although, as an adult, I harbor a bit more sympathy for Holden's character than I did back in the day, and I've read enough criticism to understand what others have found moving or unique or thought-provoking in this novel, I still find the protagonist to be an utterly shallow, simpering, annoying character, and I find little of Salinger's writing to be either insightful or appealing on the level of craft.  My guess is that I am a 'decadent audience' for this book, so that it feels "been there, done that" on every level, but I can imagine naive or sophisticated audiences who would learn with and through Holden's challenges.  And, in fact, my students and I have engaged in animated and thoughtful discussions of this work that made the actual reading of it well worthwhile.


Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Girl Who Fell from the Sky

So fine to stumble upon a great read today.  Well, in fact, I didn't so much stumble as stride there, guided by ShelfAwareness, the daily email about books and bookselling.  I'm a tad addicted to my morning ShelfAwareness now, and the banner ad for The Girl Who Fell from the Sky by Heidi W. Durrow caught my eye three days running until I investigated reviews and put a copy on hold at the library.  I picked it up at noon, started it around 2:00 this afternoon and finished it by 8:00 this evening.  It's not normal for me to devour a book that quickly, yet, even with quite a few other tasks to tackle this afternoon, it was easily the highlight of my day. 

It's a mystery of sorts: A mom and her three kids fall off a nine-story Chicago rooftop.  All but nine-year-old (??) Rachel die on the pavement below.  Why they fell, whether they leapt or were pushed, persists as a question not only for Rachel, who's soon shipped to Portland, OR to live with her paternal grandmother, but also for Brick, a young neighbor who witnessses the fall.  And for Doug, Mor(the mom)'s boyfriend, for her boss, Laronne, and for Robert, her husband.

And it's a coming of age story about race and place as well: Rachel's mom is from Denmark and her dad is African American.  Rachel's blue eyes and mocha skin raise questions wherever she goes, and she slips and stumbles upon the hard edges of a world where the not-quite-categorizable is often denegrated and where the unusual 'other' is often suspect.  Uprooted, subject to the contrary whims of her grandmother, and terrified to unlock the blue vase inside where her anger and grief dwell, Rachel does things even she doesn't entirely understand.

Structure-wise, the narrative shifts among 6 central characters, yet the plot builds handily toward its climax:  Durrow's deft, not only in creating a protagonist who's utterly believable in a situation we wish we couldn't believe, but also in keeping the tension taught while layering in psychological depth and juggling multiple perspectives.

I'm glad that I spent the afternoon reading this.  High school and middle school English teachers, especially: Try it - I'll bet your students will be reading it...

Action: I am going to recommend this to at least 10 people I otherwise wouldn't contact.  That means in addition to you reading this... I'm going to write my first Amazon review, and put most of this one on Goodreads as well (I often link there, but don't flat-out cut-n-paste), and call a few folks and email a few others and tell the librarians at my local library and offer a review to our local booksellers too.  I might even post a status on FB about it... It's that worth reading.

Just the Jist List
Title: The Girl Who Fell from the Sky
Author: Heidi W. Durrow
Genre(s): realistic contemporary fiction (could be read by young adults, but not a "YA" book per se)
Book's Website:
Author's Website:  (yes, same site)
Year Published: 2010
Pages: 264
When was it read? January 13, 2011
Perfect Matches: Mature young adults looking for a gripping read, anyone who craves a well-crafted contemporary fiction, anyone interested in issues of identity, race, coming of age
Perfect Timing: Great airplane read (well, except for the whole family falling to their deaths part), so maybe great train or car travel read or snow-day read
Perfect NOT: people who don't like women/female protagonists, people who don't like to read realistic fiction, can't handle multiple perspectives, don't like imperfect or complex characters
Content Fab Scale (1-5): ****
Why? These issues will likely never stop being relevant in the USA, and worldwide, for that matter.  And unique and insightful coming-of-age stories are ever welcome.  We're all still coming of age in one way or another, aren't we?  Plus there are quite a few dimensional adult characters here as well.  And did I mention it's keenly crafted too?
Action Fab Scale (1-5): ****
Why? One could attempt any number of actions related to content angles in this book, although I wound up going meta here.
# Yellow Stickies: 1 - It was too gripping to interrupt with stickies.
Why? See above.
Get it:  (again - I'm not currently affiliated w/the stores below, just hoping to make access easy for you - the links below are direct to the book)

MFB with more great reads (fingers crossed),

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Top Ten 'Inspirational Characters'

And I want to know yours. Please honor me with your thoughts.  Comment below. 

Gogo and Didi.
Mine, for this moment, in no particular order:

1. Estragon and Vladimir, the 'fail better' friends from Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett.  All we really have is the beauty of the way and the goodness of the wayfarers.  And to fail better.  Profoundly imperfect, we're selfish and careless and cruel and funny and beloved.

2.  Pi Patel from Life of Pi by Yann Martel.  The sheer improbability of his survival on the sea is dwarfed by the transcendent grace of his psychological survival afterward.  Story does indeed save his life, making literal what's so often imagined as merely figurative.  If you haven't read this thought provoking tale cover to cover, you simply must.  Then email or comment here and we'll wrangle over what really happened...

3.  Janie Crawford from Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neal Hurston.  The precursor to Celie (and many of the other women) in The Color Purple, Janie's the one who journeys forward according to her own lights, despite one bad turn after the next.  And she holds her head high, undaunted by others' opinions of her choices.  A model modern woman, in many ways.

4.  Olivia from Olivia by Ian Falconer.  Jubilant, passionate, artsy, imaginative, willful, talented.

5.   Hagrid from the Harry Potter series.  Loves animals on their own terms.  he's a world expert at his craft yet utterly humble.  Loyal and decent and courageous. 

6.  Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.  How could I not include him, after teaching the novel for seven years in a row?  Unflaggingly decent and wise and imperfect and impeccable with his word.  And he earns the admiration of the young, even though he's old.  Actually, he's "The Four Agreements" all wrapped up in one character.  What's not to like?

7.  Horton from Horton Hears A Who by Dr. Seuss.  Like the Lorax, only with listening.  I must continue to practice Horton's skills - to truly hear, and to defend the powerless, the small, the "other" - and with him as exemplar I'm continuously inspired.

Ms. Vinnie.  True heart.
8.  Edna St. Vincent Millay from The Indigo Bunting by Vincent Sheean (out of print) and Savage Beauty by Nancy Milford.  Such different portraits painted of this real-life character - a true free spirit and brilliant poet.  Fearless in life, the way Olivia and Kitten Nell are in pictures. 

9.  Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride by William Goldman.  Passionate, generous, skillful, loyal, funny.

10.  Kitten Nell from Kitten Nell by Dick Bruna.  Everything she did, I wound up doing too.  Ocean voyages, flying, raising chickens and daisies, living with "Indians", swimming with fishes... (no longer in print, and not necessarily recommended, but I'm fairly certain that she seeped into my subconscious quite early and has never left, for good or for ill)

"The Broke and the Bookish" here on offers a "meme" question or prompt like this every Tuesday, and they've posted future topics through March 2011, so if you've got a blog and love to read, you might give their Tuesday Top Ten's a try.

Better yet, though:  Comment below for us all.

MFB, with thanks to Gogo and Didi,

Sunday, January 16, 2011

So: Southern Sudan.

A brief editorial post:  In a reading-for-change action inspired by an extraordinary novel/memoir of an heroic young boy in a desert country half a world away, I will be offering daily meditations for a peaceful transition in southern Sudan.  I read What Is The What years ago, and it is impossible to forget.  Thank goodness.  And thank you, Dave Eggers.

If you're ready to encounter the history of Southern Sudan on a human level, and then to gratefully accept that you will evermore willingly attend to what occurs there, then run, don't walk, toward a copy of Dave Eggers' What is the What.  Simply brilliant.  I know no one - from ninth grade boys to 70+ year old ladies - who didn't grab onto Valentino Achak Deng's story on page one, stay gripped for days and across continents, and finally close this book a changed person. 

And you won't want to stop with just this story:  Go visit Dave and Valentino Achak Deng's website, and then find out how we can all help from here.  So much to do.  So much grief and hope.  And such a perfect example of writing - and then reading - for change.

Or try Women for Women International:  This is my second year sponsoring a sister in Southern Sudan via this impeccable non-profit.  Truth is, the situation's so bad there that I've heard nothing from either of my sisters there.  Their lives are in danger, they're entirely illiterate, and they surely don't have the time to dictate a letter to me right now.  However, I know they're still OK through reports from the regional coordinators.  This is plenty. 

OK: slowly stepping down off soapbox.  Still: it's an historic shift.  All us action-readers durst attend.

MFB in a country so far away,


"Yesterday the bird of night did sit,
Even at noon-day, upon the marketplace,
Hooting and shrieking."
                 —William Shakespeare

Imagine waking
to a scene of snow so new  
not even memories
of other snow
can mar its silken
surface. What other innocence  
is quite like this,
and who can blame me
for refusing
to violate such whiteness
with the booted cruelty
of tracks?

Though I cannot leave this house,  
I have memorized the view
from every window—
23 framed landscapes, containing  
each nuance of weather and light.  
And I know the measure
of every room, not as a prisoner  
pacing a cell
but as the embryo knows
the walls of the womb, free
to swim as its body tells it, to nudge  
the softly fleshed walls,
dreading only the moment
of contraction when it will be forced  
into the gaudy world.

Sometimes I travel as far
as the last stone
of the path, but
every step,
as in the children's story,
pricks that tender place
on the bottom of the foot,
and like an ebbing tide with all
the obsession of the moon behind it,  
I am dragged back.

I have noticed in windy fall
how leaves are torn from the trees,  
each leaf waving goodbye to the oak  
or the poplar that housed it;
how the moon, pinned
to the very center of the window,
is like a moth wanting only to break in.  
What I mean is this house
follows all the laws of lintel and ridgepole,  
obeys the commandments of broom  
and of needle, custom and grace.
It is not fear that holds me here but passion  
and the uncrossable moat of moonlight  
outside the bolted doors.

-          Linda Pastan, Carnival Evening: New and Selected Poems (W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1998)

In honor of little neighbor girls shrieking their bliss in the midnight snow; bound, I listen furtively through the wide front window. 

And for D, whose new favorite poem this is. 

Saturday, January 15, 2011

And now, a change of course?

OR:  A change, of course.  So what will RP turn her attention to next?  The hero's adventure, and great reads, and world peace. (of a sort)

Here's how the first quarter of 2011's gonna go:   Picky.  Picky.  Picky.
ONLY GREAT BOOKS, and books that will support me on my hero's journey.  (And if you didn't get a chance to read my December Story: 1. Go do it right now.  Go.  and 2. Everybody's on a hero's journey.  Or everybody that counts, anyway.  That means you.)

This translates as:
* Books about creating change via one's steadily growing expertise, one's local interactions, and one's extension into the world via the interwebs.
* Books that fit my 2011 Reading for Change Challenge themes: getting to know 'the other', civil discourse, compassion, and positive social change.
* Books that help me create that change.
* PD books and research news about great teaching and about reading and social change.
* Books by strong writers that I'm reviewing at the author's or their publicist's or a friend's request.
* An occasional fiction or play or poetry collection (YA and adult) that's a great read.

In Nov. and Dec. I took the meandering path.  I wanted to see whether the "reading for change" process would work with just about any book, or random set of books.  Turns out, it did.  Does.  So now I know.

But here's the caveat:  Magic doesn't offer itself up when you're out there "do-gooding".  You have to enjoy whatever action you imagine and imagine enjoying it, or you'll simple get action, no magic.  Not that there's anything wrong with that.  Obviously, doing something decent, something open-hearted and generous: well, that's most likely a good thing, most of the time.  But it doesn't necessarily make magic.  Only following your bliss does that.  And, over time, following your bliss - while mindful of all beings - is what's needed in the world after all.

So let your actions be non-harming to your mojo.  They don't have to be service, service, service, at least not overtly or prescriptively so.  If service feels like bliss, then you're onto something extraordinary, and magic will attend on you.  If it feels like a have-to, a chore, then - again - it's probably just fine, helpful even, but not all that motivating for future actions, now is it?  So try something creative or connecting or joyful instead.  Becoming more of who you are will likely help the world too. 

And now I need to test another proposition:  Does it work when you're supporting a resolution or a change in your life, or a quest, or does it wear on you if it gets too programatic?  Let's see, shall we?

And if you get a moment, will you let me know your top five greatest books of the past decade or so?  Throw it into the comments section or email me.  Either way, just tell me a little bit about yourself (your work in the world, and/or your current hero's journey would be enough).  I'll compile 'em and offer 'em up as a source of truly great reads for those on this path with us.  (I'm developing a site to support us as we try this together...)


And here's another change:  I'll be visiting other change- and book- blogs on blog tours and blog hops, so I might be posting memes from them, and then offering y'all a chance to participate in the memes too.  Stay tuned.  This may mean an extra widget or two, but I will maintain a clean-looking site.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Batgirl on the Titanic: Update on the first five bat-tastic actions of 2011

1.  Super-strength: Working it daily, eating well.  Just a matter of time, tenacity, and metabolism.  And a little bit of bat-mojo wouldn't hurt.  (Send some vibes my way, gentle readers...)

2. Streamlining the Stuff at Chateau BG: Actually chipping away at detritus daily.  'Twill take at least three months, I'll warrant, but never fear: I'm Flylady-ing all over it!

3. Honing my superpowers to global status: Going OK, but not fabulously yet.  Last week: quite unfocused, what with all that is possible and minding the gap between specific skills necessary to expand powers on the interwebs and actual skills possessed.  Undaunted, but must devise a bat-plan. Determined to use advice from current read The Alchemist: strip away all potential doing until I'm down to my "Personal Legend" alone, and then follow the omens in that direction.  

Instant update: (picture my BG bat-photo spinning around to a blur, with the nifty bat-music in the background to signify time speeding up...) Next morning , and I'm already part way there. Narrowed down from five projects to two, and clear about where my energy will go this week, month.  Amazing how one's subconscious will work on a problem overnight.

4.  Meet the Titanic:  Crafted a note/speech-to-say when I attempt to meet the neighbors.  Waiting for a semi-not-rainy day to execute wee plan.  Should I wear my cape?

5.  Abstain Jane:  Fine on alcohol, not so great on sweets, as predicted.  Not sure why I decided to try this anymore... Oh well: any abstaining should help with #1, so I'll persist for this month, at least.  WWBGD?

MFB, for certain,
BG (L)

'Nother Incidental Action:  Must get working on my bouffant.

p.s. BONUS:  Blog Hop (a question from every Friday):
Why do you read the genre that you do?  What draws you to it?
Actually, I'm quite promiscuous in my choice of books.  Literary fiction is by far my favorite, followed by well-crafted contemporary non-fiction - literary or otherwise (e.g. Malcolm Gladwell, the Heath brothers, Karen Armstrong, Brenda Miller, Gretl Ehrlich, etc.).  The former, I've enjoyed since I was a kid: my mom took us to the library just about every week, and our bookshelves at home were full of Steinbeck and Fitzgerald and Hemingway and Joyce...  The latter has - to my eye - thickened up considerably as a genre in recent decades. 
However, if it's well-wrought, I'll read just about anything.  Cookbooks, YA, sports books, short fiction (love a great short story), poetry, graphic novels, etc.

Perhaps better to answer:  Why do I NOT read what I don't read?  What drives me away?
Bad writing, first and foremost.  The same old tired tropes.  Hence, I rarely do "genre fiction"/pulp fiction at all.  Why waste my life's hours on the same old plotline, recycled in mediocre prose? 

And I try not to read anything that doesn't impress me or draw me in or seem useful by the third chapter anymore, unless it's for professional reasons. (e.g. YA books often bore me, but I'll read them because I need to know what my students are reading.  Some books I've read (for this blog!) despite feeling bored because they're part of the current popular canon, so I read them to better understand my own culture.  PD books about teaching sometimes offer way too much case study narrative, when I want to cut right to the chase w/the practical strategies and then judge for myself if they're valuable.  I still read those books, but I'll skim or skip the narrative portions.  In all three cases, the reading-for-change process at least redeems otherwise blah books by my own choice of creative or community actions.)
Want to weigh in on a book-question each week?  Visit every Friday and fire away.  Then visit the other folks' blogs to see what they have to say...
No blog? No problem.  Just comment here to express yourself.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Mission Accomplished, Theory in Doubt. Nathan: Not?

Western in snow!
College kids are just as civic minded as anybody else, and getting more so all the time.  Between my trip up to Western to comments and emails from college students in response to my review of My Freshman Year to the chapter I just read in Jonathan Tisch's Citizen You, I've come to believe that either times have changed since 2002 or Nathan's college students are quite a different cohort than many others across the nation, and that civic-mindedness and contribution are likely on the upswing, despite the many obstacles to connection that Nathan noted.

Maybe the students at "AnyU" in northern Arizona are atypically solipsistic, stressed out, and non-community-minded, or maybe the students I met at Western just happen to be more friendly, community-focused, and "hippie-ish" - as one student clepped Western's rep - than your average college kids, but my brief foray "up the hill" painted quite a different picture than what Ms. Nathan wrought in My Freshman Year (review linked here).

What picture is that?
To start, let's talk travel.  On the two buses I took each way, WWU students were friendly with the drivers and passengers, and each and every one thanked the driver when he/she got off.  In fact, I was surprised to note that students live as far as 15 miles from campus, where they participate in the life of their suburban neighborhoods.  That's a positive-integration switch-up from Nathan's dorm-based experience right there.

Then on campus, I noticed regular gestures of politeness and consideration that to me imply a sense of community, of actively noticing other people and offering willingness to help them when the need arises:  When I alit at Viking Union, students parted to let us off the bus, and one even reached out to grab a young woman who slipped on the ice as she headed toward the book store.  While on campus, every door was held for me, even if the student had to wait until I caught up, and eyes were met with smiles again and again. After a time, I began to wonder if students were offering polite gestures because they thought I was a prof., so I hid by the side door at Wilson library, just inside the anti-book-theft beeper gizmo: with rare exception, students showed that it's just the custom at Western to offer such gestures of politeness to one another as well. 

Small considerations? Sure.  But combined and practiced as habit, they produce an atmosphere of connectedness and community, an atmosphere presumably not present at AnyU.

Mmmm... Wilson.  My fave entrance.
Could these just be surface manifestations of Western's particular college culture?  Of course.  But I tend to believe that they reflect the larger community here as well:  When we first moved from the SF Bay area, we were genuinely surprised and heartened by the outgoingness and interest in others exhibited by nearly everyone we met.  So I wonder, too, if the students at AnyU reflect(ed) the larger culture of Arizona, perhaps a more closed, self-focused one?  (Current events and then the coverage about recent political/civic history in AZ might lead one to ponder...)

While at Wilson, I wandered from one huge lounge area to another and again felt a sense of welcome from students as most raised their eyes and smiled when I passed.  I sat down for a bit at the only empty table in the whole reference section (those WWU students must be some serious studiers because the library's every nook and cranny was packed with quiet souls pouring over textbooks, jotting notes, or earnestly researching online).  And there I read both The Western Front student newspaper and the winter 2011 issue of Klipsun, an independent student-run magazine, this edition featuring the theme "Dirt".  Over half of the articles in TWF and nearly all the articles in Klipsun featured links to the larger community here, demonstrating that student journalists make efforts to get out into our county, and again indicating an at least implied sense that their natural "turf" extends well beyond campus boundaries. 

Brief Trip? Sure.  Conclusive? Not.  Heartening? Yup.
So there's a few minutes spent, and a different picture of student attitudes emerging.  Now, I'm not saying that one brief visit provides enough substance to counter a school-year long investigation, but I do think that what I learned on my journey is cause enough to reconsider the notion that most college students just don't care much about engaging with their communities. 

Stay tuned for even more evidence that the tide of student engagement is turning when I review Citizen You in a day or two...

MFB in the community,

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Alchemist


It's a well-known parable that took me a long time to get to in my life.  Nothing at all new here:  Another hero's adventure.  The circle out into unknown worlds, dark challenges, mistakes, insights, then back home again with new wisdom about the inherent unity of all matter & spirit, and a true love waiting in an oasis.  Fortune favors the bold. Enthusiasm sparks the Universe.

If this sort of story is what you seek today, then The Alchemist may serve you well. 

To hear it read aloud might be even better than taking it in through text on a page, in this case, since it's that kind of tale.  I listened to part of it on CD, and Jeremy Irons proved a worthy narrator.

Interesting that Coelho's still active out in the world: you can even follow him on FB and Twitter.  Seems odd, for such a myth-maker to also wax so pedestrian-populist.  He also shares his writing gratis, via his blog and Google Books, where some chapters of The Alchemist are available for free. Tres moderne. 

In this case, The Alchemist's entry on provides all the info. you'll need to decide whether/not to pursue this book yourself.  The first review currently in place there seems to cover most bases, I'd say. 

Action:  Nothing new to be done, really.  Just continue on in pursuit of my "Personal Legend".  Watch for omens, then do whatever they signal.  Listen to my heart.  Don't be afraid to lose everything: it'll all go in the end anyway.  Notice that humans still crave stories to help them negotiate their lives. 


Tuesday, January 11, 2011

(Mean) Girrrl Power, Victorian-Supernatural Style

About 1/3 of the way into A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray, I wondered what in the world I might do to act on this coming-of-age/myth-tinged supernatural fantasy/Victorian historical novel-of-manners.  But by 1/2 way through, I knew.

Any action advancing my own girl power, despite what society might say, will do quite nicely, thank you.  And so much of this novel focuses on young women's attention to and judgment of their appearances, that working with image will factor in strongly.

So:  I'll ponder my own persona to refine it, both in real life and on the interwebs.  AND I'll own up to the fact that most people buying and talking and blogging about books these days are female, so those are the folks I must think of as my primary audience and the first wave of Action Readers.

Let's face it, plenty of research has shown us that when you give $ or education to women, they tend to use these resources to improve their entire communities at far higher rates than men do, who tend to use substantial amounts for their own personal purposes.  AND women tend to make up 85+% of the people in book groups.  So why not begin by focusing primarily on women and youth for our movement to change the world, one book at a time?

Don't get me wrong: I love men.  And they will be welcome at all times.  But this book has helped to convince me - through the mode of story rather than argument - that women who own their power and beauty can change not only this world, but the Realms beyond. 

And, conversely, they can be far crueler than men, not only to advance important purposes in their lives, but sometimes just for sport.  So I want all my endeavors to contain elements that reward behaviors that demonstrate compassion and non-harming, helping to shape young women especially into the decent folks who can save the world.  The 'killer instinct' will survive on its own, I have no doubt.

So you may be asking yourself, what in the world is this book about, anyway?  Well, you might remember Libba Bray from Going Bovine, the recent Prinz winner (best YA fiction of the year) and my review What If Holden Caulfield Wrote The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy? (link here). This is her first novel, quite far afield from GB in time period, tone, and focus.  And utterly solid, compulsively readable at that.  It's the first in a trilogy, of which I realized I'd read the last book a year or so ago when one of my students was doing so as well.  Reading A Great and Terrible Beauty has been a bit like watching the ole claymation classic (and best Christmas special EVER), "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town":  "Oh, so that's why he wears a red suit!" and "Oh!  He laughs Ho! Ho! Ho! just like a seal!"  I finally understand much more of the backstory to The Sweet Far Thing and rather wish I'd gone in the order the author intended!

Super-quick Summary/Teaser:  Gemma Doyle, recently of India where her mother was murdered trying to save her from the otherworldly evil-incarnate Circe, arrives at Spence Academy in England only to find a group of uber-catty teens playing some pretty vicious mean-girl smack-down day in, day out.  Gemma keeps having visions of other Realms, including those of a little girl who leads her to a cave in the forest nearby where she discovers a diary of two previous Spence girls who became witches and then died trying to conjure ole Circe.  One thing leads to another and 2 catty girls plus Gemma's poor, ungraceful roommate create their own little cult.  One wants beauty, one love, one power, one to know herself.  Rising action of the plot ensues.

And a rip-snorter of a plot it is.  You will NOT be bored reading A Great and Terrible Beauty, though you might be appalled at the girls' actions, and I wouldn't suggest reading it just before sleep... Although it's not wildly graphic most of the time, creepiness abounds, not to mention some surprisingly steamy dream sequences.

Sample Chapter to test the waters of Bray's style in this novel (oh so different from Going Bovine), try this excerpt:"Chapter One"

Sweet theme-related Bray quote from the bonus author interview: "The thing is that every choice carries with it a sense of personal responsibility and accountability and a degree of insecurity.  You have to live with that and step outside the fear." (11)

Give it a whirl if you're ready to own your girl power, or just want to recall the darker side of growing up.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...