Friday, June 27, 2014

Top 10 Favorite Books

Recently I was asked to list my top ten favorite books. I could easily have listed 100, but I did manage to limit myself to the following:

Mixed Marriage by Elizabeth Cadell – a laugh-out-loud story with a timeless portrayal of family. It’s one of the rare books that has me laughing out loud every time I read it.

I Do Not Come to You by Chance by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani – Remember the flood of email scams from Nigeria? This book gives us a look at the other side – why Nigerians initiated the scams. Read more about it here –

Alphabet by Kathy Page – Ms Page was a writer in residence in a prison in England and this book is a gritty tale of one young illiterate prisoner in a high-security facility. He learns to read and write and begins an illicit correspondence with a series of women. Strong, eloquent, tightly constructed.

A Cup of Tea by Amy Ephron – The writing style is exquisite. Every single sentence is to be savored. Here’s one: “It would be easy to say the war has made us do things we otherwise wouldn’t have.” Another. On the corner, there was still the shape of the woman standing under the streetlight. It was more than an accident of death and a length of pavement that separated these two women.

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett – What happens when the Queen of England decides to borrow a book from the mobile library? So well written and lovely humor. The Queen talking to a servant – “None of his friends liked the dog, ma’am.” “One knows that feeling very well,” said the Queen, and Norman nodded solemnly, the royal dogs being generally unpopular.

Skinnybones and the Wrinkle Queen by Glen Husar – My little blog story may do justice to this amazing YA novel. I was a teacher and principal in junior high school and this story rings so true.

Griffin and Sabine series by Nick Bantock – Beautifully illustrated by Mr. Bantock, it’s great fun to take letters out of envelopes and enjoy such great art as you read. There’s a mystery here too. Is Sabine real? Is Griffin a split personality? Or is he crazy?

The Forty Days of Musa Dagh by Franz Werfel – A heartbreaking story of people who try to survive against terrible odds.  Gabriel Bagradian—born an Armenian, educated in Paris, married to a Frenchwoman, and an officer doing his duty as a Turkish subject in the Ottoman army— leads 5,000 Armenian villagers to the top of Musa Dagh, "the mountain of Moses." There, for forty days, in the face of almost certain death, they will suffer the siege of a Turkish army hell-bent on genocide.

Clash of Civilizations Over An Elevator In Piazza Vittorio by Amara Lakhous – Wonderful satire of immigrants’ life in Italy. Publishers Weekly says, “Intriguing psychological and social insight alongside a playful whodunit plot, exposing the power of fear, racial prejudice and cultural misconception to rob a neighborhood of its humanity.”

The Blue Castle by Lucy Maude Montgomery. – A gentle old fashioned love story by the author of Anne of Green Gables. Colleen McCullough was accused of plagiarizing this book when she published The Ladies of Missalonghi.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid – Intriguing look into the mind of a young man educated in the US on an international scholarship program. Presented in the form of a monologue, Hamid's second novel and holds the reader intrigued. At the end is the question of "what happened?" and "why ?" as the protagonist,  Changez, turns away from success in America to anti-American activity.

Have you read any of these? Did you like them?  And, what would your Top 10 list look like?

Friday, June 20, 2014

Old Books Can Charm or Revolt

If stranded on a desert island and only allowed one book, I’d take Mixed Marriage written by Elizabeth Cadell and published in 1963. Written in diary format, it’s the story of a young English girl about to marry a young man from Portugal. Doesn’t sound like that big of a deal, does it? So why is it so special to me? The writing style is superb, the characters lovable, the story line intriguing, and, most importantly, the portrayal of family spot on and timeless. Uncle George huffing about as patriarch of the family could be your uncle. And, it’s funny, often laugh out loud funny. Here’s a snippet of the bride meeting the groom’s family.
After lunch, entire disappearance of everybody; all reappeared for dinner, with addition of Ana, Valeria and black-clad companion known as Senhora Dona Beatriz; in all fourteen at table; Mama said with obvious sincerity that so nice to have little family party.
Another charmer is The Blue Castle, written by Lucy Maude Montgomery and published in 1926. While depicting an era foreign to us, it too has a timeless quality that sucks us into the story of Valancy’s love and adventures. Colleen McCullough was accused of plagiarizing The Blue Castle when she wrote The Ladies of Missalonghi, and indeed, there are passages that seem to have been lifted almost word for word.
I liked another oldie, Jim the Conqueror, published in 1929, so much that I searched for other books by the author, Peter B. Kyne. I found one called The Pride of Palomar which turned out to be an unbridled racist rant.
I’ve tried other authors like Wilkie Collins and found those books to be unbearable reading now even though I liked some of them when I was younger.
Scrolling through the thousands and thousands of books available today, I wonder what people fifty to eighty years from now will think of our efforts. Will our novels still be available to readers then? And, if so, will our stories charm or revolt?

Friday, June 13, 2014

Are we dumbing down our nation?

“What are those?” I ask our guide. We’re in the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul in a room filled with boxes, some inlaid with mother of pearl or tortoise shell, others encrusted with precious gems. My first thought is jewelry boxes that once belonged to the ladies of the harem.

“They’re scribes’ boxes,” Ziya says. He points out the slots specially designed for the pens and the little bowl indents that that held the ink looking rather like a miniature carton for eggs.

I’m a teacher and I can’t stop thinking about those boxes. Reading and writing, once highly prized skills, now taken for granted. I look around my classroom. I love my students and we have fun, but do they really care about learning? As principal, I wander in and out of other classrooms; bemoan the seeming lack of interest despite the excellent teaching strategies and effort to engage the students’ interest. I wonder where the curiosity went. I remember the student who sat forward in her desk, the epitome of bright eyed and eager. Why do I only remember one in all the years of teaching?

I listen to parents in my office. Their eagerness to blame the teacher alarms and saddens me. What has happened to suffering the consequences of your actions? Some parents expect a babysitting service and don’t want to be bothered by calls home. Some are obsessed with marks, but seem to care little for the actual learning. Some are genuinely interested in performance results. Their children do well with that parental support.

I watch “teacher/school” movies and cringe at most of them. As John Brantingham says in his blog on Venture Galleries -, “the clich├ęs put forth in them make me think the general public has no idea what teachers go through.”

I read the reports about the latest salary negotiations. Yes, teachers have to live and eat and pay bills just like anyone else, but you would think they were robbing the bank when they ask for a raise. And I moan when the government announces yet another education budget cut.

I'm constantly frustrated by the shortsightedness of our society when it comes to public education. Teachers are the ones who get everyone started. Without them (and Dick and Jane) our world would be illiterate. Where would we then find our doctors and lawyers and Indian chiefs?

Are we dumbing down our nation? I ask the question in all seriousness. Yes, we have computers and technology, instant methods of communication, and ebooks galore. We are rich in so many ways and live  a pampered lifestyle compared to much of the world, but as a society, I don’t believe we value education as we should. That could become our greatest downfall.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Some Books are More Special Than Others

I love the ebook revolution. I love my ereader. I love that my books are available in ereader formats as well as print. I love being able to carry a library with me.

So many pluses for the book lover. See a book that sounds interesting. Download a sample. Enjoy the sample. Check out a few reviews. Reviews are encouraging. Buy with one click.
Do all of this from anywhere in the world.

Unlike other readers, I’m not tied to print books. I don’t think there is any loss of enjoyment in the story if I read an electronic version.

But … and it’s a big but, I do bemoan the following:

Nothing matches the joy of an uncle handing you a book from his laden shelves, one you undertake to read with some trepidation, for what can the aging old fellow possibly know about your young heart? You read it anyway, when you haven’t had a chance to get to the library and nothing else is available. It’s old and battered with a dark green cover. You don’t like green. Inside you find a signature you can’t make out as the ink is smudged, but you can read the name of the town and it’s the one where you were born. You flip a couple of pages and see that it was printed in 1929. Lord, it is old. You begin to read and discover it’s a charming adventure/love story. One that you know already you will reread. Bless the old uncle. He’s not so daft after all.

Then there’s the thrill of finding a copy of The Unexpected Mrs. Polifax on the shelf of a book exchange in a coffee shop in small town Mexico. You’ve read every one of the series and here’s a first edition of the first book published in 1966. The dust cover is scruffy, the inside pages stained and musty, but who cares. It’s now your book!

And that book from the library that you read way back in high school and never forgot and still pine for, if only to read one more time. Why oh why didn’t you buy a copy back then? Maybe you could find it on Abebooks. By golly, there it is. One and only copy somewhere in the US and for a few dollars, it too, is yours. You place it reverently beside Mrs. Polifax and gloat.

Don’t forget the pride of ownership of an autographed book.  

From Camilla Gibb (Sweetness in the Belly) “To Darlene, with very best wishes and fond shared memories of Muslim Africa.”
From Robert J. Sawyer (Rollback) “To Darlene in friendship!”
From Susan Ketchen (Born That Way series) To Darlene because you know how difficult this is.”
From Glen Husar (Skinnybones and the Wrinkle Queen) “For Darlene, Love and best wishes.”
And best of all:
From Anneli Purchase (Julia’s Violinist) “This book would only be a forgotten manuscript if not for your encouragement and support. Thank you.”

Yes, books are special, some a little more so than others.