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A funny title for a just-plain-fun in the sun summer read. When I started reading this light hearted romantic comedy, I wasn’t sure I would finish it. Richard, an English artist, has cheated on his perfect French lawyer wife. He has sold the only painting that has the power to keep them together. I didn’t see myself developing sympathy for either of them.

And then the book got funny! And I had some time on the beach with this, my only beach book. Courtney Maum is a blogger and humor columnist. She lived in France, where half of the novel takes place. This is her first novel, and it follows a pretty predictable story arch. I can see it being a beautifully funny film, and I would go see it in a heartbeat, because I did end up feeling for Richard. His foibles made for a perfectly funny summer beach read – and an especially ironic beach photo.

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I am a bit of a sucker for any book with an Emily Dickinson epigraph. The title of McBride’s debut novel comes from these lines,
We never know how high we are
Till we are called to rise;
And then, if we are true to plan,
Our statures touch the skies –
which aptly introduce this novel in four voices. Set in Las Vegas, the story is narrated by Avis, Luis, Bashkim and Roberta. They all have separate and complicated lives that converge when an act of violence propels them into the same conflict arena. According to the author’s note, the plot was reimagined from an unbelievably sad headline news story. I’m not a fan of this sort of literary conceit. However, McBride’s theme is genuine and is summed up by Avis in one of her later sections with these lines – “It all matters. . . . What is most beautiful is least acknowledged. What is worth dying for is barely noticed.”

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This is not the book review I am supposed to be writing. I am four book reviews behind, but I just finished reading The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry this morning and I feel compelled to share it right away as an offering of advice to all my reader friends – and especially my English teacher friends – who know at this point in the summer, you can’t waste your beach/hammock/porch swing time with a bad book. In other words, this is the last good book you may have time for before you have to surrender yourself to the damnable “summer reading” you should be doing.

The book is a love song to reading – especially short stories – and book stores. It is also a literal love story and a bit of a mystery. I am not going to spoil anything, beyond saying the baby in a basket reading a book on the cover is already a spoiler that I didn’t even notice until well into my digital IBook edition. A. J. Fikry owns and operates Island Books on fictitious Alice Island, where a sign hangs over the door that says “No Man is an Island; Every Book is a World.” And he is the sort of red wine drinking curmudgeon I fall in love with inside of the first chapter.

The gimmick of the novel that may have annoyed me much more if it wasn’t so darned literary is that each chapter is introduced with Fikry’s brief review of a well known short story that will figure into that chapter somehow. You learn that Fikry has the highest respect for the short story as a genre. At one point in the novel he slips a list of short stories to read under the door of his daughter who is having trouble writing a short story for a school contest. (This list would be a good course syllabus for any high school writing class.) In a later chapter you get to read her short story! None of this bookish “product placement” bothered me because I was so charmed by the story itself.

And it is an Ice Cream Cone of a summer story, perfect for a day like today, when I have allowed myself a sort of vacation day in Athens, Ohio. Because I want to have this book in hand to share with friends, I broke my No New Books promise and bought a copy at Little Professor, in part to celebrate the fact that Athens still has a reliable bookstore! And I am writing this review outside of The Donkey with David, drinking an iced coffee that I am not even mad dripped all over my best white shorts. Because I wanted you to read this review and then this book, I am typing frantically with 23% charge on my Ipad. Summer is short! Life is long, but not long enough to waste on the wrong books. Read this one – you deserve a treat.

Want Not by Jonathan Miles

June 27th, 2014 | Posted by Lackey in My Reading Life - (0 Comments)

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Dave Eggers’ jacket blurb drew me to this gem of a book sitting on the shelf of our local library. Jonathan Miles’ literary dumpster dive into the world of anti-materialist, anti-capitalist, post-consumer dystopia reads like the third installment following Eggers Hologram for a King and The Circle, both not so thinly veiled critiques of the consequences of living in a semi-virtual, techno-saturated society. The characters in Want Not inhabit literal and metaphorical dumpsters overflowing with debris from Hologram’s failed capitalism and live beyond the reach of the Google/Amazon/Facebook virtual world of The Circle.

Want Not follows a handful of separate characters whose stories do not intersect until the last section. Each chapter reads like an independent short story. Talmadge and Micah are squatters in Manhattan who dumpster dive for food. Elwin Cross, Jr. is an overweight linguistics professor who is attempting to cope with his failed marriage and failing father who lives at an Alzheimer’s facility. Suburbanite Sarah, who became a widow on September 11th, has recently remarried, complicating the life of her daughter, Alexis. Each character regards waste differently.

I enjoyed the book so much, I convinced David to read it. I responded to the satiric humor and David its semi-tragic grotesqueness. Miles crafts long, detailed sentences and paragraphs which mimic Craigslist Yardsale ads, while at the same time imagining the lives of those who post them. We both agree, it makes you think for a second about what happens after you toss that black Hefty bag to the curb.

Last week, I travelled with my daughter and 16 others to serve some of the poorest school children in Honduras through a Cleveland, Ohio based organization called Hope for Honduran Children. Lovingly run by Karen and John Godt, Hope for Honduran Children sponsors more than a half dozen service trips throughout the year. Since my daughter had gone on one of these trips as a high school senior, she convinced me my teaching life would be changed forever if I came along on a trip with her this spring. And she was very, very right! An average day of the eight day trip was spent visiting a remote mountain school in the morning and spending time with the boys who live at Flor Azul in Neuvo Paraiso In the afternoons.  Each person in our group came to Honduras prepared to teach a lesson or share a craft. Of course, I wanted to combine literature with a craft that the children would enjoy.  Before we left, I zeroed in on Dr. Seuss, and after scouring Amazon for options, I found an a English/Spanish version of The Cat in the Hat to take along. A little bit of time spent on Pinterest and I located a template for making large red and white striped hats.  Card stock was printed, red stripes were traced, blue head bands were precut and red duct tape was packed in my carry on!

Karen suggested I save my activity for the day we were to visit Neguara, a remote mountain  village several hours east of Tegucigalpa.  Hope for Honduran Children takes every one of its service groups to visit this school, unless there has been recent rain, which makes the steep, rocky road to the school impassible.  We had a very long, bumpy bus ride and in addition to bringing lessons for the children, we had suitcases full of donated clothing, oatmeal, pasta, children’s vitamins and CANDY!

We were told the teacher at this school walks more than an hour each way from his home to the school.  Although he was offered a teaching job nearer to his home, he continues the daily walk to Neguara because if he didn’t teach there, he says no one else would.  And what a fine teacher!  He had the children lined up and ready to greet us as we got off the bus – smallest to tallest with boys on one side and girls on the other.  It brought tears to my eyes.

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The children hugged each of us and then hurried into their school, taking their seats to wait for the lessons to start. I paired up with my daughter’s friend Sammie, who is minoring in Spanish in college, to read the book first in Spanish and then in English.

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They listened with intent, and enjoyed when I passed the pictures around and acted it out a bit for them.

Reading Cat in the Hat – Neguara video

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The book is really quite long for the attention span of a small child, especially when it is being read twice. We decided to cut it short and move quickly on to the craft.

They loved making the hats, and with some assistance, we soon had a room full of Cats in Hats!
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Video – Showing off Hatsimage
It was a moving sight to see the whole school posing for a picture in their hats, and I was so tempted to leave the book behind as a donation, but my daughter had promised we had more kids to share Dr. Seuss with at Neuvo Paraiso. These boys go to school each morning and the return to the complex of buildings where they live, sleep and eat their meals. We had several afternoons to spend with them, playing games, making beautiful silk screened logo shirt thanks to the donations of an artist on our trip, and reading The Cat in the Hat. I was tickled to see 14, 15 and 16 year old boys working through the English text – sometimes laughing at the story and practicing their pronunciation in rhyme!

Video – Group Reading

Video of Christopher

Our very last day was spent with boys who live together at Casa Noble in Santa  Lucia.  They are mostly older boys – some attend classes at the university.  Their English is pretty good but The Cat in the Hat still presented a challenge.

Video – Alex Reading

One of my lasting memories of the week will always be of the group of us – moms, kids, new Honduran family members – huddled on the couch taking turns reading together with the a English speakers reading Spanish and vice versa. image
Video – Group Read featuring Jimmy

I ended up leaving the book at Casa Noble. I explained to them that the Dr. Seuss was commissioned by his publisher to write a primer using 225 “new reader” sight words. Ironically, I had come to Honduras with almost no words in my word bank. My teaching life was enriched forever by watching the story magically draw its own audience. That Cat in the Hat brings “Good fun that is funny” even when his name is El Gato Ensombrerato.

 

 

The Word ExchangeRarely do a close a book I just finished and begin my review, but this dystopian account of the Word Flu that sweeps American in 2016 infected me with a (hopefully false) sense that my time to write this  may be short.  I put my iPad and iPhone down.  I must write and let the words speak for themselves.

In some obvious ways, Alena Graedon’s premise is not unique.  Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World, Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story and recently Egger’s The Circle, have carried variations of the same warning – words and the stories we use them to tell – make us human.  Mostly, it brought to mind Chris Van Allsburg’s The Wretched Stone.  Graedon wraps her narrative in an entirely fresh and mildly gimmicky format.  Following epigraphs by Samuel Johnson, Lewis Carrol and Jorge Luis Borges, the table of contents shows chapters titled every letter of the alphabet and divided into three sections – Thesis, Antithesis, and Synthesis.  The main narrator, Anana Johnson daughter of Douglas Johnson, is given the coded nickname Alice (think Through the Looking Glass)  before her father disappears from his job while racing to finish NADEL (North American Dictionary of the English Language).  The secondary narrator, Bart, (think Melville’s Bartleby) tells his portion of the story through journal entries he writes as he tries to stave off the infection.

The first two or three chapters had me doubting the infectious pull of the narrative, but I was quickly hooked.  The pace is fast, the characters and the electronic devices on which they depend are contemporary, and the suggested techniques for reversing their damage are music to any English teacher’s ears – Cessation of contact with meaningless data, Reading, Conversation and Composition Therapy.  Part mystery, part love letter to language, the back flap of the cover describes it as “a cautionary tale that is at once a technological thriller and a meditation on the high cultural costs of digital technology”.  I would suggest this as the perfect summer read – preferably on a beach with no cell service.

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For Mother’s Day I purchased 5 of these and gave them to some of the finest mothers I know! I only wish I had thought of this idea first! Muldrow pairs illustrations from some of the best loved Little Golden Books with a litany of life instructions. Like this -

20140510-184928.jpg Each illustrations is labeled with the title of the book, year of publication and illustrator’s name. For more of a sneak peek, here is a link to the Pinterest page for the book When I got the books, I flipped through the pages with a nostalgic smile on my face. Of course the pictures struck a deep chord. I LOVED the Pokey Little Puppy! Each of the ladies I gave a book to thought it had been written just for her. This book makes a great gift and serves as a special reminder of life’s simple lessons. Following all of the lovely suggestions is the refrain – “And if you do, your life will be golden.”

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Graduation season is upon us again, and a tiny part of me misses sharing in the exuberance and optimism of graduating seniors. The last several years, I would leave my seniors with a reading of protagonist Blue Vermeer’s fictitious commencement address from Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl, in which she advises her classmates to “Live like a Goldfish”. If I were teaching today, I would be excited to use this slender new book, Congratulations, by the Way: Some Thoughts on Kindness by George Saunders. Saunders is an acclaimed author – one of TIME’s 100 Most Influential People in the world, a MacArthur “Genius Grant” fellow – best known for his numerous short story collections. This new book contains the text of his 2013 Syracuse University commencement address, which is not the usual patronizing sort, but more of a humble recognition that most of his regrets in life have to do with “failures of kindness.” Since it came out in April, this book has been getting quite a bit of attention – from Brainpickings to Salon. This short video includes an excerpt from the book about a girl Sauders knew in school who he wishes now he had shown more kindness. The speech is endearing and the book would make the perfect graduation gift!

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I was really excited to pick up this new foodie novel from the library.  I enjoy reading fiction and watching movies set in restaurants, and with Michelle Wildgen’s background in food writing, I thought it would be a great book.  Instead, I found myself skimming chapters and skipping ahead.  On the positive side, the food writing is pretty great.  Her descriptions of dishes are mouthwateringly delicious and I could picture the inside of the restaurants from her visual descriptions.  But the plot is luke warm. Two brothers who are restaurant partners are challenged when the third brother decides to open a new restaurant across town.  There is an undercurrent of sibling rivalry, a few forbidden romance scenes, and day-to-day patter of restaurant business stress.  I kept waiting for something big to happen, and it did not.  I would say Bread and Butter is an appropriate title.  It was certainly no Lamb’s neck with Jerulasem artichokes, broccoli rate and gremolata, even if that is the new restaurant’s signature dish.

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I did not read The Silver Lining Play Book by Matthew Quick, but loved the quirky movie characters enough to order this new novel from the library after reading a little bit about it.  The first chapter is  a letter to Richard Gere written by  thirty-eight year old protagonist Bartholomew Neil, and I almost quit when I paged ahead and realized that all of the chapters are written as letters to Richard Gere.  But I stuck with Bartholomew because something sweet and innocent and troubled about him reminded me of the protagonist Christopher in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime.  Bartholomew is trying to heal following the loss of his mother, who he cared for, from cancer.  Following her death, the priest who has been visiting the family for years moves in, complicating Bartholomew’s life, which has already been complicated enough by the grief counseling sessions he has to attend.  At counseling he meets “F-bombing” Max, the brother of the Girlibrarian that Bartholomew has already fallen for.  The novel ends with a zany road trip and an awkward, fragile sense of closure for all of the characters.  The layers of Catholicism, Jungian psychology, philosophy of Dalai Lama, fear of alien invasion and feline worship make for a much smarter book than I anticipated.  In the end, Bartholomew’s mother’s advice, that we must believe in the good luck of right now, rings true.