We are nearly one-fourth of the way through 2014, and I continue to make good progress in my reading resolution for the year. Ten of my 30 designated categories are now complete, and I have read 18 books total towards my overall reading goal of 60 books in 2014. Frankly, I am a little surprised that I am on track–even ahead–with my reading goal considering that it is testing season at work, but I also have had a student teacher in my classroom since January. With someone else around to help with lessons and grading, I have managed to read more than normal over these past few months!
1. The New Testament in Modern English – In progress. My wish is to read through at least the Gospels by the close of Lent.
2. Theology – Done! In February I read Mudhouse Sabbath: An Invitation to a Life of Spiritual Discipline by Lauren F. Winner and granted it 4 stars. My Goodreads review is below:
In Mudhouse Sabbath, Lauren Winner explores ways to apply Jewish spiritual disciplines to modern-day Christian practice. Winner was raised Jewish but converted to Christianity in young adulthood, and it is this background that pushed her to write Mudhouse Sabbath. Despite her new-found love of Christ, Winner admits that there are elements of the Jewish tradition that she misses now that she is a Christian, such as Jewish ways of observing the Sabbath, mourning, and hospitality. She does not deny that these traditions are present in Christianity, but she remarks how they exist to different degrees and specifics. In some instances, Christians can take a lesson or two from their Jewish counterparts. I found Mudhouse Sabbath thoughtful, inspiring, and accessible. Winner left me wanting to read and learn more, and I hope to take what I have read and apply it for the better to my own Christian journey of faith.
3. Pulitzer Prize Winner – Done! Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout left me with mixed feelings and therefore earned an average, 3-star rating from me on Goodreads.
I am conflicted on how I feel about Olive Kitteridge. On the one hand, it is an extremely well-written book with intelligent imagery, thoughtful observations, and vivid characterization. On the other hand, it largely lacks joy, focusing instead on the difficult, depressing sides of life. While I am not opposed to dramatic fiction that portrays a deeper picture of domestic family life and relationships, I also do not think it is realistic to focus so exclusively on the low points. Life is a mixture of both, and I feel that Elizabeth Strout largely forgets this in her series of short stories about the characters of small town Crosby, Maine.
4. Mystery – Done! (For now.) I read, and was sorely disappointed by, Death Comes to Pemberley by P. D. James. Here’s my 2-star review from Goodreads:
Billed as a mystery, I found very little that was mysterious or intriguing about this novel set in the world of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Death Comes to Pemberley plods along with characters and plot events flat on the page. Mystery and Jane Austen fans: look elsewhere for a good read.
To cleanse my mystery palate, I will be picking up an Agatha Christie before the year is out.
5. Spy/Crime Novel –
6. Science Fiction –
7. Fantasy –
8. Christian Romance –
9. Popular History – Done (twice)! Over spring break, John and I listened to Ed Herrmann narrate David McCullough’s The Johnstown Flood. Riveting and thorough, I granted The Johnstown Flood 5 stars.
The Johnstown Flood by David McCullough expertly recounts the failure of the South Fork Dam on May 31, 1889. When the earthen dam gave way after multiple days of heavy rain, the contents of Lake Conemaugh rushed down upon the town of Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Over two thousand people lost their lives, and millions of dollars worth of property damage occurred in just a few hours.
Moving chronologically through the days before and after May 31, 1889, McCullough examines the causes and effects of the flood while weaving in tales of personal bravery, terror, and despair. Edward Herrmann, the audiobook narrator, effectively brings McCullough’s words to life, making The Johnstown Flood Audio CD an example of popular history at its best.
John and I also listened to the audiobook version of Bill Bryson’s One Summer: America, 1927 during our winter holiday travels after I won a free copy from Goodreads. Here’s my Goodreads 4-star review:
One Summer by Bill Bryson is an extensive, but enjoyable and accessible, history of America in the summer of 1927. Infamous personages, including Charles Lindbergh, Babe Ruth, Sacco and Vanzetti, Al Capone, Jack Dempsey, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, and Henry Ford (among many others) had their names and faces featured on newspaper pages around the United States and the world during that long summer, and Bryson brings them all back to life with vivid detail and wry commentary. While the book covers a wide array of topics and lives, Bryson deftly weaves them together, often circling back to previously-mentioned content. Bryson organizes One Summer by month rather than by topic — a choice that gives an overall arc and direction to the book. I listened to the audiobook version of the book, which is read aloud by Bryson himself. With One Summer, Bryson does a solid job as both the author and the reader, making it an informative and worthwhile experience for his listener.
10. Social Criticism –
11. Biography –
12. Memoir –
13. Book-That-Has-Been-Made-into-a-Movie – Done! While relaxing at my in-laws’ house over spring break, I raced through Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, which was easily a 4-star novel. Now I need another break from work so that I can watch the movie version of the book!
The Namesake is the story of Gogol Ganguli, a young man born in America to Indian parents who immigrated to Boston in the late 1960s. The novel spans 30-plus years of the Ganguli family’s life, and through this lens author Jhumpa Lahiri explores cultures across continents and families across generations. Lahiri is a riveting author who speaks honestly through her well-drawn characters. My only quibble with The Namesake is that Lahiri focuses heavily on the issue of Gogol’s name for the first two-thirds of the novel, but then largely drops the story line until the end where it’s only partially resolved. Otherwise, The Namesake is a well-written, engaging read.
14. Comedy –
15. British Classic –
16. American Classic – Done! John, Kalyn, and I agreed upon Little Women by Louisa May Alcott as our winter book club read. I gave it an easy 5 stars on Goodreads:
Despite having read Little Women multiple times in childhood and young adulthood, I found that I could not put the book down upon this reread. Louisa May Alcott once again had me utterly charmed with the March family and their small circle of friends. My use of the word “charmed,” however, does not mean that all is perfect, happy, and ideal in the world of Little Women. Alcott is honest about the flaws and foibles of her characters, and indeed about humanity as a whole. We all have selfish desires and ambitions, and we all make mistakes. Even when we strive to be “good,” disappointments and tragedies come our way. Yet growth is possible and love of family paramount. Little Women may have been written in another age, but its heart is timeless.
17. Author-I’ve-Wanted-to-Read-but-Never-Have: Edith Wharton –
18. Current Bestseller –
19. Travelogue – Done! I whisked myself to the south of France courtesy of Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence, which I granted 4 stars on Goodreads.
I first visited Provence as a teenager on a school trip, and since that time I have maintained a fondness for southern France and the French people. A Year in Provence, Mayle’s account of his first year as an English-born homeowner in the remote Luberon, is witty, sincere, and both a gastronomic delight (bakeries! bistros!) and horror (sauces thickened with blood!). Mayle describes the men and women of his neighborhood with humor and honesty, but it is clear that he not only respects the natives, but he also likes them. A Year in Provence left me eager for more and itching to make a return visit to France.
20. Cookbook – I continue to (slowly) cook my way through Ellie Krieger’s Comfort Food Fix. I have 20 recipes done, with 133 still to go.
21. Culinary Memoir – Done! I heartily loved A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from My Kitchen Table by Molly Wizenberg. Here’s what I had to say about this 5-star book on Goodreads:
I picked up A Homemade Life never having read Orangette (the author’s blog) or any of Molly Wizenberg’s writing. Yet within a few pages, this culinary memoir/cookbook had me hooked. Wizenberg is honest, funny, and touching without being cloying or cute. Each “chapter” contains a brief, personal essay followed by one or two related recipes. I thoroughly enjoyed reading both. As a budding home chef and blog writer myself, I found Wizenberg inspiring, thought-provoking, and somewhat of a kindred spirit (I, too, am stubbornly attached to precisely following recipes). A Homemade Life is a worthwhile read for anyone who believes in the philosophy that cooking is an act of love.
22. Historical Fiction –
23. Christmas-Themed Novel –
24. Education – Done (twice)! In March I felt compelled to read two education books. As a teacher, I cannot help but be invested in the field of educational writing. The first of these reads was The Paideia Proposal by Mortimer Adler, which I granted 4 stars.
The Paideia Proposal was written in 1982, the year after I was born, yet so much of what Mortimer Adler finds fault with in regards to modern education still sadly exists today. Teachers spending more time dealing with behavior and paperwork than engaging in quality teaching? Check. Parents concerned about their children’s futures as a result of uneven schooling? Check. College officials frustrated by the amount of remediation incoming freshmen must undergo in order to succeed? Check again.
As an educator, it is daunting just how far we still need to go before ALL of our students are fully educated citizens able to think and reason for themselves. For this is the goal of The Paideia Proposal — to develop a system of education that nurtures all children to be lifelong learners and intelligent thinkers while avoiding a system of education that views students as unequal and places them on different life “tracks” as a result. I think Adler is right. We educators must teach our students to know, do, and understand; we must have the same high expectations for all students; and we must raise the importance of the core areas of learning (reading, writing, mathematics, science, etc.) back above extracurricular activities and electives. Without this basic schooling, another 30 years will go by and our education system–and students–will still be the same, or even worse.
I also read Results Now: How We Can Achieve Unprecedented Improvements in Teaching and Learning by Mike Schmoker. My school district is making a push towards authentic literacy, and Schmoker is one of the authentic literacy champions. I agree with much of what he promotes, and I gave Results Now 4 stars.
Four years into my career as an elementary school teacher, I already have been amazed by the number of education fads that have come and gone. The saddest aspect of this trend is that more time passes while student learning remains stagnant. The number of missed opportunities continues to pile up.
Mike Schmoker in Results Now lays out a plan of action that goes against what is so often taught in teacher and administrator preparation programs and what is in practice in most schools and districts across America. He advocates for authentic literacy in which students read, write, and talk critically, in-class, and for most of the language arts class time. While this should be the obvious, accepted norm, it is shockingly rare in the “arts and crafts” modern curriculum.
Schmoker also cites professional learning communities, or teams of teachers, as the best source of teacher professional development. Teachers best learn by learning from one another, not from the standard workshop-style training sessions that most teachers are subjected to each year.
I agree with Schmoker; real change for our students will come only with real change in practice. Luckily my school district is willing to invest in such changes; I hope my students will benefit as a result.
25. A Collection of Poetry –
26. A Play –
27. Young Adult Lit –
28. Carnegie Winner –
29. Newbery Winner – Done (twice)! After reading Little Women, I felt pulled to read Invincible Louisa: The Story of the Author of Little Women by Cornelia Meigs. I enjoyed it, but gave it an average 3-star rating on Goodreads:
While recently reading the Oxford World’s Classics edition of Little Women, I became intrigued by the various endnotes that drew parallels between the Marchs and Louisa May Alcott’s own family. I had known that Little Women was based upon the author’s life but had never realized the extent to which this was true. So upon finishing Little Women, I took up Invincible Louisa, the 1934 Newbery Award winner and children’s biography of Louisa May Alcott.
As an adult (and former history major), I found Invincible Louisa to be slightly frustrating. The book moved quickly and succinctly through Louisa’s life, leaving me longing for more details, dates, and excerpts from Louisa’s letters and other writings that were mentioned merely in passing. Yet this is a biography for children, not adults, so I cannot fault Meigs for having kept her book brief and child-friendly. The language and style felt somewhat dated to me, and I wonder if today’s children would find Invincible Louisa as accessible as the youth of the 1930s would have. Despite these quibbles, I did find the biography to be informative and even enjoyable, and I am glad to have read it.
After the 2014 Newbery winner–Flora and Ulysses: the Illuminated Adventures–was recently announced, John and I purchased the novel for our Newbery collection. I was disappointed in the book, however, and gave it 3 stars on Goodreads:
Flora and Ulysses is the tale of self-proclaimed cynic Flora, her divorced parents, and her quirky neighbors, all of whom are brought together by Ulysses, a formerly run-of-the-mill squirrel who writes poetry, flies, and learns to love after being sucked up by an all-powerful vacuum named the Ulysses 2000X (his namesake).
As a Kate DeCamillo fan, I fully expected to love Flora and Ulysses, the recently-announced 2014 Newbery Award winner, but I didn’t. Instead, I often found the novel to be choppy, uneven, and repetitive (I’m curious how many times the name of Flora’s favorite comic book series, The Illuminated Adventures of the Amazing Incandesto!, was mentioned in the book; I’m guessing at least 20).
However, the book has moments of humor and whimsy, particularly in K. G. Campbell’s illustrations which often appear in comic book form. Flora and Ulysses also has depth despite its silly premise, and I could envision that children, particularly comic-book-reading ones, would identify with Flora and find the novel to be an enjoyable one.
30. Graphic Novel –