Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Poet : Poem In Your Post

The Poet

Loses his position on worksheet or page in textbook
May speak much but makes little sense
Cannot give clear verbal instructions
Does not understand what he reads
Does not understand what he hears
Cannot handle “yes-no” questions

Has great difficulty interpreting proverbs
Has difficulty recalling what he ate for breakfast, etc.
Cannot tell a story from a picture
Cannot recognize visual absurdities

Has difficulty classifying and categorizing objects
Has difficulty retaining such things as
addition and subtraction facts, or multiplication tables
May recognize a word one day and not the next

                                           - Tom Wayman, 1989

I can't wait to talk about this heartbreaking yet ultimately triumphant sonnet (of sorts) with my students because its effect turns on complex relationships among poet/creator, title, tone, content, and reader's response.  And yet it's immediately accessible.

FYI:  Wayman is a Canadian poet who lives and works in Calgary and BC, and two of his poems are featured on Poetry 180 (an excellent site for easily accessible poems).  You might want to read "Did I Miss Anything?" when you visit his author page at Canadian Poetry Online.  (All you teachers out there will recognize the question and may smile at his speaker's multiple responses...)


p.s.  I'll bring this to my students as one of a trio of poems, including WCW's "This Is Just To Say", talk a bit about "found" and "concrete" poetry (I'll define those clearly but apply them broadly), and then send us all out on our own scavenger hunt to find most painful and triumphant words and things of our lives.  We'll then use that material as a springboard for our own poems.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Four Books To Jump Start Your 2014 Reading

Maybe you're like me:  You take the Goodreads Challenge at a book a week.  Or maybe you only have time for one per month or one per day (yes, I do have friends who manage this!).  

Or maybe you're like me in that 2013 was a challenging year and you didn't get around to reviewing some of your favorite books.  Below you'll find my attempt to remedy that with four new (brief) reviews of books I rate as among my favorites of 2013.

Why not start January 2014 with a series of knock-outs?

I've also provided links directly to each book on Goodreads,, and Amazon to make them easy to find.

1. The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey
The Snow ChildPublisher's Summary:
Alaska, 1920: a brutal place to homestead, and especially tough for recent arrivals Jack and Mabel. Childless, they are drifting apart--he breaking under the weight of the work of the farm; she crumbling from loneliness and despair. In a moment of levity during the season's first snowfall, they build a child out of snow. The next morning the snow child is gone--but they glimpse a young, blonde-haired girl running through the trees. This little girl, who calls herself Faina, seems to be a child of the woods. She hunts with a red fox at her side, skims lightly across the snow, and somehow survives alone in the Alaskan wilderness. As Jack and Mabel struggle to understand this child who could have stepped from the pages of a fairy tale, they come to love her as their own daughter. But in this beautiful, violent place things are rarely as they appear, and what they eventually learn about Faina will transform all of them.

My Opinion: 
Simply gorgeous. By far the most engrossing, exquisitely-crafted novel of my reading year. Ivey's deft hand with every aspect of storytelling makes this magical-realistic tale of a childless couple homesteading in 1920's Alaska one you will sink into and stay immersed in from cover to cover. And it will color your days and nights for many days after you reluctantly return it to the shelf. Recommended without reservation.

Check out others' reviews of The Snow Child on Goodreads.
Get it at your local bookseller or library, or with this direct link to it on or

2.  Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind
Publisher's Summary:
Perfume: The Story of a MurdererIn the slums of eighteenth-century France, the infant Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is born with one sublime gift—an absolute sense of smell. As a boy, he lives to decipher the odors of Paris, and apprentices himself to a prominent perfumer who teaches him the ancient art of mixing precious oils and herbs. But Grenouille's genius is such that he is not satisfied to stop there, and he becomes obsessed with capturing the smells of objects such as brass doorknobs and fresh-cut wood. Then one day he catches a hint of a scent that will drive him on an ever-more-terrifying quest to create the "ultimate perfume"—the scent of a beautiful young virgin. Told with dazzling narrative brilliance, Perfume is a hauntingly powerful tale of murder and sensual depravity.

My Opinion:
This novel from 1987, translated from the German by John E. Woods (who won the PEN translation award for it that year), absolutely captured everyone in our book group.  Surprising, creeptastic, gorgeously written, and entirely discussion-worthy, this meditation on excess and obsession - not to mention sensory gluttony - never failed to surprise me.    It's rare these days that I find myself wondering what will happen next yet savoring every sentence; Perfume shares these traits with The Snow Child, although the prose and the plots are quite distinct. 

Check out others' reviews of Perfume on Goodreads.
Get it at your local bookseller or library, or with this direct link to or

3.  The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
The Golem and the Jinni    Chava is a golem, a creature made of clay, brought to life by a disgraced rabbi who dabbles in dark Kabbalistic magic. When her master, the husband who commissioned her, dies at sea on the voyage from Poland, she is unmoored and adrift as the ship arrives in New York in 1899. 
    Ahmad is a jinni, a being of fire, born in the ancient Syrian desert. Trapped in an old copper flask by a Bedouin wizard centuries ago, he is released accidentally by a tinsmith in a Lower Manhattan shop. Though he is no longer imprisoned, Ahmad is not entirely free – an unbreakable band of iron binds him to the physical world. 
    The Golem and the Jinni is their magical, unforgettable story; unlikely friends whose tenuous attachment challenges their opposing natures – until the night a terrifying incident drives them back into their separate worlds. But a powerful threat will soon bring Chava and Ahmad together again, challenging their existence and forcing them to make a fateful choice.

My Opinion:
What could be more enchanting than a magically-real fantasy set in my favorite city?  Fast-paced, full of period details and mythic confrontations, this novel also offers us a psychological exploration of the nature of loyalty and the (im)possibility of moving beyond our innate natures.  Choose this one first if you're looking for an engrossing page-turner that's a cut above the usual fantasy fare.

Check out others' reviews of Code Name Verity on Goodreads.
Get it at your local bookseller or library, or with this direct link to it on or

4. Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
Publisher's Summary:
12851538    Oct. 11th, 1943-A British spy plane crashes in Nazi-occupied France. Its pilot and passenger are best friends. One of the girls has a chance at survival. The other has lost the game before it's barely begun.
    When "Verity" is arrested by the Gestapo, she's sure she doesn't stand a chance. As a secret agent captured in enemy territory, she's living a spy's worst nightmare. Her Nazi interrogators give her a simple choice: reveal her mission or face a grisly execution.
    As she intricately weaves her confession, Verity uncovers her past, how she became friends with the pilot Maddie, and why she left Maddie in the wrecked fuselage of their plane. On each new scrap of paper, Verity battles for her life, confronting her views on courage, failure and her desperate hope to make it home. But will trading her secrets be enough to save her from the enemy?
    A Michael L. Printz Award Honor book that was called "a fiendishly-plotted mind game of a novel" in The New York Times, Code Name Verity is a visceral read of danger, resolve, and survival that shows just how far true friends will go to save each other.

My Opinion:
This well-researched and compelling historical fiction was my  favorite YA book of the year.  It features dual female narrators whose varying perspectives keep you guessing until the very end.  I happened to "tandem read" this, and the readers for the audiobook (Lucy Gaskell and Morven Christie) were quite skillful and well-cast too.  After I read it, this book won scads of awards; I'm not surprised, and you won't be either!

Check out others' reviews of Code Name Verity on Goodreads.
Get it at your local bookseller or library, or with this direct link to it on or

MFB, with best wishes for a fabulous year of reading,

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Undressing Mr. Darcy by Karen Doornebos : A What She Read Review

What a romp for fans of all things Austen!

Fast-paced prose?  Check.
Armchair-travel-worthy settings?  Check.
Racy moments of romance?  Check.
Savvy, sassy young heroine plus her wise-cracking sidekicks and patient mentor?  Check.
Dashing Darcy impersonator doing a Regency-era striptease? Twice?  Check.
Austen-echoes on nearly every page?  Check.

So what's not to like, whether you're a fan of Great Jane or a relative neophyte?

In fact, this novel (Karen Doornebos's second contribution to the modern Austen-referenced fan fiction genre) will make a lively diversion for anyone who enjoys a bit of lighthearted, fast-paced, Anglophilic, adult romance on occasion.

At home in Chicago and then "across the pond" in Bath and London, our protagonist Vanessa is a social media publicist who begins her journey by helping her aunt host a house-poor, English estate-owner-cum-Mr.-Darcy-impersonator for an American conference of Jane Austen fans.  When the devastatingly handsome "Darcy" arrives, the romance-wary and smartphone-obsessed thirty-something Vanessa softens by degrees, all the while oblivious to the attentions of the equally handsome but all too responsible - and available - Chase, who has admired her since high school.

Anyone hearing echoes of Austen already?

Whom will she choose and which man in this contemporary romantic comedy will choose her?  Thanks to Doornebos's skills, we're never entirely sure and we're happy to enjoy the journey, whatever the outcome.

Is Undressing Mr. Darcy perfect?  No.  Is it diverting?  Certainly.  And what's more welcome than a little lighthearted fun in this hectic season?


True confessions:  I stumbled upon my perusal copy of Undressing Mr. Darcy via FB, where my friend Darcy is Ms. Doornebos's friend too.  I kid you not.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Chasing Chaos : A Mom & Me Review

Get it at, your local bookstore, or Amazon.
Mom's taking the lead on this review of Chasing Chaos, a fascinating memoir by humanitarian aid professional Jessica Alexander.

What Mom said...
It’s not only taking a journey through 10 years of work in the humanitarian aid profession but the ongoing observation of Jessica Alexander growing into a new person that made Chasing Chaos so appealing to me.

Jessica begins her work life in NY with a marketing agency, making good money but not feeling fulfilled or in the right place. Her life is turned around when her mother dies at age 50 from cancer. Jessica quits her job and goes to Central America alone. She observes the inequities and “returned home determined to pursue aid work.” (17) We follow her to Darfur, Rwanda, Sri Lanka and Indonesia, Sierra Leone, and  Haiti learning about the skill, hard work, and grittiness that are required to work in uncomfortable and dangerous physical, political, mental, and emotional  conditions.

Jessica points out the differences between working with constraints due to flagging international interest in  long-term dislocated populations of refugees in Darfur and other African countries and helping with more immediate needs - and the attendant mass influx of sometimes ill-conceived if well-intentioned donations - in a crisis mode when the tsunami struck in Indonesia. She also notes  the difficulties for the aid organizations when large amounts of money flow in in response to sudden emergencies: how do the agencies determine where the funds will do the most good, where it most needs to go, work with the local population to get their input, hire more staff to implement the plans. Experience helps, but each new crisis is different from the last, so adaptation occurs in every instance. 

Jessica no longer works in the field full time but she continues working with the humanitarian community in NY and is a professor at Columbia, Fordham and New York University while working on her PhD researching the subject of accountability to affected populations in humanitarian action. She wonders: “We will never be able to prove a counterfactual argument—what would people’s lives be like without aid? Would they be better, or worse off?—so in some ways it is a profession based more on belief than empirical evidence. And I stay with it because I believe in the purpose of aid: to alleviate suffering of people when they need help most.”

Me?  I'll be uncharacteristically brief.
I admired this memoir for its breezily conversational tone and thought-provoking content, and I will recommend it to my students and friends who want to change the world for the better.  The content here is thought-provoking on many levels and might help all of us world citizens better understand the challenges of attempting interventions in cultures not our own.

For me, revisiting many of the most heavily-publicized countries devastated by war and other human-created tragedies during the latter part of the 20th century became a painful yet important reminder of how intractable human tendencies toward violence truly are.  I fear that we will ever be imperfectly addressing the needs of those displaced by war.

 If you've ever wondered about serving those in need (especially those beyond your own country), this fast-paced and accessible memoir is a must-read.

With gratitude to the publishers and publicists at Broadway Books for offering us this worthwhile memoir for review.

MFB from Mom and Me,

Action Insight from Mom:
When you've contributed clothes or other items to an agency doing overseas relief have you ever wondered about the individuals who might be receiving them?  Alexander's observations of an onslaught of donations from well-intentioned by less-than-culturally-cognizant Westerners after the tsunami in Sri Lanka & Indonesia might cause you to ponder:  “People who had worn only sandals were being handed 4-inch heels…Shipments contained children’s books written in English, medicine bottles with labels printed in languages nobody in these communities could read…” 

Makes one think about our motivations and understanding when we send used clothing, toys, etc. to "needy" people elsewhere in the world...

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Elegy in X Parts, Part X : Poem in Your Post


My foreshadow stretches
out in front of me.

We stand on the soles
of each other's feet.

I am a field
and there's a man

standing in the middle
of me saying,

God is the sky pinning
me to my body.

I am a man
and there is a field

under me saying,
A dead man makes

love to the earth
by just lying there.

             -          Matt Rasmussen

This fine poet was selected for the Walt Whitman Award by a favorite poet of mine, Jane Hirshfield.  And he was just nominated for the National Book Award on October 16th.  He has a job teaching poetry at a college in Minnesota, so I envy him a tad too.

New to me - and perhaps to you too - his work is clean and spare.  

You will find more on his page.

MFB on a deluge-y day,

p.s.  In researching Mr. Rasmussen, I stumbled upon this fabulous page featuring free e-books that contain excerpts from all the National Book Award nominees!  How great is that?

Monday, October 21, 2013

Mrs. Queen Takes the Train : What She Read Review

Look inside and get it now at Amazon or,
 preferably, at your local independent bookseller.  
What a delight!

I was sorely in need of a swiftly-paced, edifying, amusing, and entirely engaging novel, and this one brought reliable smiles and lofty diversion just when I needed it.

Its plot, focused on a highly unusual day in the life of the current Queen Elizabeth II of England, keeps us guessing with twists and turns, while its wide cast of characters offers an "Upstairs/Downstairs"-esque soap opera loosely related to the current Queen's daily life.

Author William Kuhn (who provides book group questions and  photos from the book on his website) offers us a surprisingly intimate look into the world of the Queen and her staff in a novel that balances light social satire with detailed verisimilitude.  Yet he's not afraid to take on issues I (ever attempting to overcome my status as an ignorant American) wouldn't have considered otherwise, such as how constrained the queen's life might be by the very role from which she receives her power and fame or how the long tenures of her staff members - often of different social statuses - create entrenched rivalries and decades-long misunderstandings.

Paperback cover: Look for it at
your local independent bookseller.
The Bottom Line, plus my action step:   A warmhearted and lively yet well-researched read, highly recommended.  I will be purchasing copies for all my "Downton Abbey"-loving pals, and I will await author William Kuhn's next novel with eager anticipation.  I might even delve into his non-fiction works while I'm waiting.

Those of you who stop by What She Read regularly will likely raise an eyebrow at this glowing review; it's rare indeed that a novel enchants me so utterly that I find nothing to niggle at.   Yet this one offered such reliable diversion that today I offer only praise.

Mrs. Queen Takes The Train is a light romp with a dash or three of social commentary to spice up the story.  As the days darken, what could be more welcome?


p.s. I offer my gratitude once again to the able professionals at TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to sample this lively new novel.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Lost : Poem In Your Post

Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.
                               - David Wagoner

I know I've shared this one before, but there are days when this is the one I need and today is such a day.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Be Kind : Poem In Your Post

Not merely because Henry James said
there were but four rules of life—
be kind be kind be kind be kind—but
because it's good for the soul, and,
what's more, for others, it may be
that kindness is our best audition
for a worthier world, and, despite
the vagueness  and uncertainty of
its recompense, a bird may yet  wander
into a bush before our very houses,
gratitude may not manifest itself in deeds
entirely equal to our own, still there's
weather arriving from every direction,
the feasts of famine and feasts of plenty
may yet prove to be one,  so why not
allow the little sacrificial squinches and
squigulas to prevail? Why not inundate
the particular world with minute particulars?
Dust's certainly all our fate, so why not
make it the happiest possible dust,
a detritus of blessedness? Surely
the hedgehog, furling and unfurling
into its spiked little ball, knows something
that, with gentle touch and unthreatening
tone, can inure to our benefit, surely the wicked
witches of our childhood have died and,
from where they are buried, a great kindness
has eclipsed their misdeeds. Yes, of course,
in the end so much comes down to privilege
and its various penumbras, but too much
of our unruly animus has already been
wasted on reprisals, too much of the
unblessed air is filled with smoke from
undignified fires. Oh friends, take
whatever kindness you can find
and be profligate in its expenditure:
It will not drain your limited resources,
I assure you, it will not leave you vulnerable
and unfurled, with only your sweet little claws
to defend yourselves, and your wet little noses,
and your eyes to the ground, and your little feet.

                                     - Michael Blumenthal

What a fine week, ripe with kindness, warmth, and decency.  I have the world's best people 
for students and colleagues this year, and I thought this might be one way to honor them.

May you be blessed to give and receive the benefits of being kind.


Saturday, October 5, 2013

Grammar : Poem In Your Post

Maxine, back from a weekend with her boyfriend,
smiles like a big cat and says
that she's a conjugated verb.
She's been doing the direct object
with a second person pronoun named Phil,
and when she walks into the room,
everybody turns:

some kind of light is coming from her head.
Even the geraniums look curious,
and the bees, if they were here, would buzz
suspiciously around her hair, looking
for the door in her corona.
We're all attracted to the perfume
of fermenting joy,

we've all tried to start a fire,
and one day maybe it will blaze up on its own.
In the meantime, she is the one today among us
most able to bear the idea of her own beauty,
and when we see it, what we do is natural:
we take our burned hands
out of our pockets,
and clap.

-          Tony  Hoagland

Stunning, this one.  He grabs you in line one, keeps you smiling and guessing
through the first two stanzas, then conjures a warmly empathetic smile in the
final lines.  Well played, Tony Hoagland, well played.


Monday, September 30, 2013

Telegraph Avenue : A Mom & Me Review

This is a novel that sticks with you.

I read Michael Chabon's Telegraph Avenue in the spring of 2012 and traveled to Oakland that summer, visiting many of the sites that form the backdrop for its plot.  It was a journey I relished, and many vivid scenes from this novel still leap easily to mind.  I reread Telegraph Avenue and enjoyed it perhaps more the second time around.

Mom, on the other hand, read the new paperback copy just this week. 

What's it about?
Essentially, Telegraph Avenue is the story of Archy Stallings, floundering part-owner of Brokeland Records on Telegraph Avenue in Oakland, CA, and all those who contribute to the web of relationships in his life.  It's also the story of his teenage son, Titus, and his partner Nate's son, Julie.  And it's the story of their long-suffering and brilliant wives, Gwen and Aviva, who are partners in a progressive midwifing business.   Archie is black, Nate is white; Gwen is black, Aviva is white.  And, in the end, the issues of race and gender in the United States and how they continue to morph from generation to generation form the central themes of the novel.  Finally, motifs of jazz music, film, pop-culture, and the homogenization of all three weave their way through this story.  Oh, and then there's the nearly unavoidable motif (in any contemporary novel written about the U.S.) of The American Dream and its (lack of?) viability today.

How did our responses stack up? 

And so it goes…Telegraph Avenue, that is. Life after life unfolding before our eyes (and ears, too, if we’re  reading Michael Chabon’s prose). Sentence after sentence explodes across the pages, drawing the reader into a world most likely don’t know or even realize they would like to know. Until one meets Archy and Gwen, Nate and Aviva, their families, friends and acquaintances.  These are lives lived in a gritty world that includes jazz, a small business in a world where change is inexorably moving into the neighborhood, midwifery,  issues of race and gender, family interactions—in all, a microcosm of life.

Michael Chabon has a distinctive way of putting words on paper, making his characters and their worlds “activate” for us. Those lengthy sentences portray a scene in a way that “normal” sentences cannot: it’s an event that unfolds itself into the mind.

There is a scene in which Nat reminisces about his father, Julius the First (Nat’s son is also Julius). Nat describes an event in his Dad’s life: “A high point in a life, lived at sea level, prone to flooding.” Have you ever felt  that your life was “prone to flooding”?

And how is this for description: “engine heat troubling the atmosphere above its hood.” Who of us hasn’t seen heat making the air waver over pavement or some other object? But did we think of it as “troubling the atmosphere”?

And here’s another language delight. Nat is frying eggs, reminding himself of how his stepmother worked in the kitchen, how she kept things clean with her Scotch Brite pad and “wiping down every surface to a laboratory shrine, leaving herself to contend at the end only with the baking sheets, the big cast-iron skillet and the blast radius of spat fat on the stovetop.”  That ‘spat fat’ drew a picture for me.

Finally, I point you to pages 193-195: one continuous sentence that describes the people and place and sets a scene that continues to unfurl as Chabon’s opus weaves its narrative magic for us.

Me:  I enjoyed this novel even more the second time around.
Setting plays a major role, as does pop culture from the '70's through today.  Here Chabon inhabits characters of many backgrounds and gender identifications, all from a pretty close third person perspective, which is quite ambitious for a writer and sometimes problematic to process for readers.  Chabon's flexing his style-muscles here too, so expect a hefty dose of simile and metaphor, plus leaps in narrative timeline within the multi-character third person narration.  Also - and this was a major plus for me - it's funny. Often.

Who would enjoy it?
* A major plus in this novel is Chabon's successful creation of a richly populated fictional world, so if you enjoy immersing yourself entirely in a novel, this one won't disappoint.
* Characterization drives plot, so if that's your cup of tea, this will be too.
* If you enjoy music, and particularly - though not necessarily - jazz, this book will hold particular appeal, as it will if you lived through the '70's and thus connect easily with many of Chabon's period details and pop culture references.
* If  you've pondered questions of race, father-son relationships, the viability of 'living the  dream' in the U.S.A. today, and what - exactly - love is, then this novel will offer you another chance to explore these issues.
* If you enjoy layered comedy, you'll appreciate this novel even more.

Any "cautions" with regard to content and/or style?
Telegraph Avenue requires a mature reader.  I'm not talking about age, but rather experience and sensibility.  Why, what do I mean?  I mean that you have to persist through the first chapter's exposition to get to "the good stuff" when the plot kicks in during chapter two.  You have to endure sometimes oddly incongruous yet interesting metaphors and similes and accept that pondering them will be part of the experience.  You must accept the gamut in terms of language and characters' behaviors, some of which you might not use or engage in yourself.  And if a good laugh is low on your interest barometer, well, maybe you should lighten up a bit and then pick up Telegraph Avenue.*

So, that's two thumbs up from Mom & Me.  We both feel lucky to have found so many worthy books through our feature here; unusually lucky, really.  Neither of us would have predicted that we'd both genuinely appreciate so many of the books we've chosen to review.

Many thanks, as ever, to all at TLC Book Tours and, this time, to Mr. Chabon and his publishers for allowing us both to enjoy his novel in exchange for this honest review.

* Please note that some of my comments are simply revised from an earlier post.  I relied on my
copy from last year for the re-read, and did edit after my current read.
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