Thursday, March 13, 2014

A Break from a Break

So yeah. About that short break I was going to take.


I've been meaning to write something about reading for a long time, but it's kind of an unpleasant topic, by itself and because it leads to other unpleasant topics.

I took my initial break from pleasure reading because I was overwhelmed with text in my new job as a middle school language arts teacher. I was reading hundreds of student writing assignments, grading grammar exercises, and going through 50 or so emails a day. When I was on MY time, I didn't want to put much more text in front of my eyes. I read blogs here and there and kept up with Twitter, but mostly I took in images from my Pinterest and Tumblr boards. I took comfort in knitting and television, especially my beloved crime shows and in the super fantastic Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. I found time for a book here and there, mostly graphic novels, but then my dad got really sick. And in January of this year, he died.

I tried to read because books had always been my refuge from the world, but the world was too insistent, and I could not extract even a modicum of comfort between the pages of a novel. I bought books. I bought a book called Knitting Yarns: Writers on Knitting, edited by Ann Hood. Hood writes in the introduction that she took up knitting after her young daughter died. Hood, too, found no solace in words and feared she would never find a way through her grief. I felt the same way, and it hurt, this double loss, for I'd always defined myself as a reader. Almost my whole identity was built around the idea that words were my life. I read, I wrote, I wrote about reading, I read about writing, I talked books all day, but when I needed them the most, I could not find my way back into stories.

Now I'm finding my way into being someone who's not Pat's daughter. Of course, I am still his daughter, but it feels so much different.

And school. Woof. How naive was I to think that I could slip right back into teaching and all would be cake and ice cream? This year SUCKS. Despite the many bright points I'm finding in supportive staff and lively, intelligent students, despite making some big strides in my skills, this year will go down as one that just sucks. It does. It. Sucks.

Right now, the only thing that's getting me through and making me feel even remotely connected with world the way stories once did is knitting. I have tried to write about it, but the words fail me these days. Still, I want to keep trying to be connected, so I started a Tumblr. I'm Trixie Tricoter (tricoter being the French for to knit), so check it out if that's your thing.

I didn't want to leave this blog without some word because I have had a few loyal readers, gotten some great comments, been Internet yelled at by a famous-ish author, and met some cool peeps through the work here, and I'm very grateful to have had the opportunity to share stories. Maybe someday I'll come back to writing, but maybe not. But I did want to say thanks to all who have stuck with me the last three years of blogging.

Adios, etc.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

A Rest from Adventuring

Dearest Readers,

So. It has come to this.

I love this phrase, and I use it whenever I can. Today, it means that I have to take a break from blogging. I haven't been that stellar since I started the new job (amazing what an extra 40 hours of work a week does to one's blogging output -- I have a big ol' stack of papers I really should be tackling). But I really like talking about books to total stranger who may or may not be spambots (and a few of my wonderful friends).

Anywhoosie, I'm going to take the rest of October and the month of November off from this blog. I'll still be writing my monthly post for Guys Lit Wire because we're a bit understaffed there (and hey, if you're interested in writing for GLW, keep your eyes peeled for an announcement asking for new contributors), and I can manage one post a month. But this week has been super rough. I was in a car accident Monday morning (lots of damage to my car, none to me or anyone else, and insurance is covering most of the bill, thank God), I have a dentist appointment this week and suspect I need some serious work there, I had to chaperon a school dance AND a pep assembly, and I got a spider in my hair. So I'm taking these as signs I need to cool my obligations for a bit. My dad is still going through chemo, and while he feels good now, I need to help out around the house more, which means less reading time.

And I'm going to try NaNoWriMo this year, which will take a few of my precious spare minutes.

Also also, Thor: The Dark World is in theaters soon, and I need to see it, like, six times at least.

So until my return, you can stare at this as a reminder to visit your local library.

Monday, October 21, 2013

So you want to read...about someone else's life

I've been grading narrative and descriptive writing assignments for the last couple weeks, and I find it utterly fascinating that humans can have such varied experiences, yet so much that underlies our lives is exactly the same. And as I go back and read that sentence, I realize it's kind of a bullshit sentence, a tautology of the sort I'm trying to get my students to stop using. I'm tempted to say, "you know what I mean," but then the teacher, Editrixie (that's my super hero name) pipes up with, "No, I don't know what you mean. Tell me."*

Anywhoosies, my point is that I like reading about other people's lives and dreams and finding commonalities among the stories. There. I said it. I tend to like themed memoirs rather than straight-up biography or autobiography because generally, the sum total of a life, from point A to point Death isn't that interesting. I like books of personal essays, too, books that let you into moments of a person's life and then back out again, the dog door reading experience. And I am hereby patenting that metaphor/simile/imagery thing, so don't even try to use it without credit.

French Milk and Relish: My Life in the Kitchen by Lucy Knisley
I am a sucker for a good food book or travelog. In French Milk, Knisley writes (and draws) about a month-long stay in Paris. Relish is about important food milestones in her life. Knisley's work is especially fun because they are graphic memoirs (autobiographical comics, maybe? Graphic memoirs sounds more like A Child Called It), and I adore Knisley's style. Relish is also one of the graphic novel nominees for this year's Cybils.

The Language of Baklava by Diana Abu-Jaber
Along with food memoirs, I love memoirs about people growing up in dual cultures. Abu-Jaber's father was from Jordan, and this memoir explores the intersections of food and culture. And there are recipes, which I have not tried since I actually hate too cook, but I really enjoyed this story.

Here if You Need Me by Kate Braestrup
Spoiler alert: I sobbed almost uncontrollably while I read the first few chapters of this memoir of family and faith. Kate is a young mother with four children when her husband, a Maine State Trooper, is killed in a car accident (not really a spoiler since it tells you this in the synopsis). Here if You Need Me is the story of how Braestrup put her life back together after. She got a degree in Divinity and became a chaplain for the Maine Game Warden Service. I really like stories about faith and every day life because that's something I question -- what do I do with faith in my life if I don't proselytize?

Looking for Mary by Beverly Donofrio
I haven't read Donofrio's more famous memoir, Riding in Cars with Boys, but I picked this book up because I still feel a deep affinity with the Virgin Mary even if I never practice Catholicism again. Donofrio, a self-described lapsed Catholic, began to collect Marian memorabilia, and this book traces the spiritual turmoil and longings tied up in that activity. I read it years ago, but I remember this book as a funny and moving story. It is very similar to Anne Lamott's books about faith, which I also really like.

The Stuff I've Been Reading series by Nick Hornby
Starting with The Polysyllabic Spree, these books are collections of Hornby's essays from The Believer magazine, and they chronicle, well, the stuff Hornby's been reading. And the stuff he buys but doesn't get around to reading. And the stuff he doesn't finish. The books are funny and poignant looks at another reader's life, and at times, they are surprisingly intimate.

American On Purpose by Craig Ferguson
You may know TV's Craig Ferguson as, well, TVs Craig Ferguson, the best late night chat show host around. Based on his accent, you know, he's not from around here. But in 2008, Ferguson became an American citizen, after a tumultuous life. This is, in part, a drug memoir, since a good part of the book is devoted to Ferguson's trials with substance abuse, but it never sinks into the graphic and gritty. Ferguson is a comedian, after all. But I am always interested in the stories of people who not only move from the place of their birth, but of those who make the conscious decision to take up new, legal citizenship in the country where they settle. I would LOVE to live abroad, but I don't know if I could give up my American citizenship. It's not that I'm particularly nationalistic, but it's a big commitment.

Knucklehead: Tall Tales and Almost True Stories of Growing Up Scieszka by Jon Scieszka
I am a sucker for humorous memoirs of the scrappy American childhoods of Baby Boomers. My dad had great stories about his childhood escapades, like blowing a hole in the side of a barn with a modified Estes rocket. Things that today would get a kid arrested or put into therapy.

Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life by Amy Krouse Rosenthal
I love this book because it is the ultimate dip-in book -- you can read a few vignettes of Rosenthal's ordinary life whenever you have a spare moment. The short format of the encyclopedia entry also helps you focus in on the moments of strange beauty that punctuate a life. And I am super jealous, because this is an ideal lazy person's memoir. Who has time for transitions and stuff? Lists, that's where it's at. I think I might have my students write something like this.

*Seriously, I wanted to just print this picture and staple it to all my student's essays. You'd think (by which I mean I thought) telling a story, getting from point A to point B, comes naturally to humans, but you (by which I mean I) would be wrong. They cannot just get to the point. And they were just supposed to write a single, solitary paragraph. Argle bargle. Oh well, I guess that's why I'm the teacher. I'm supposed to, you know, teach them and stuff.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Not a Rant, A Tiny Little Whinge

It goes without saying (but I'm going to say it anyway) -- teaching is hard work! And going from working only 20 hours a week to nearly 60 in the space of a couple weeks has been a lot harder to manage than I thought. I am totally grateful to have a job I do love in an excellent school with fantabulous colleagues (I seriously win the colleague lotto in almost every job I've ever had). Going from 20 to 60 means I don't have to worry about choosing between putting fuel in my belly or in my car. And while I kind of wish. I had my own kids and family,  I am really glad I only had to worry about myself during the lean years. Although now that I am in a slightly better position, materially speaking, I can't imagine having the time to properly manage a family, too. I had a chat with some of my aforementioned fantabulous colleagues last night while we waited for parent visits during PT conferences. I mean, you make your life work (or don't, as the case may be) with what you have when you have it.

Which brings me to my bookish point. Lately, I've been lamenting the loss of time for creative endeavors like reading all the novels I want or mega movie marathons, just me, my couch, a stack of crime DVDs and a basketful of yarn. I spend hours grading and planning on the weekends (which I'd managed to forget I would do in the 5 years between this and my last teaching job). It's especially noticeable this time because of the huge shift in time commitment and because I'm now really cut off from the hugely supportive and creative peer group I built in Boise (email and FB are awesome, but it's not the same as a Saturday chat session at Dawson Taylors or beers at Bittercreek). I do have excellent friends here, but the time, man. I go to bed at, like, 9:30 these days. Even on weekends.

Anywhoosie, in the spirit of working with what. I have, when I have it, I'm working to put my creative outlets into my job. I volunteered to help with the new crochet/knitting club at school, even though it means I have to stay at school til 5 that night. I have a projects class, which is kind of a fake elective in that the kids don't get to choose who they have, but I can choose a fun curriculum. This trimester, we're doing a modified NaNoWriMo program. We started writing this week, and the stories these kiddos are writing are fantastic! Sure, some are hackneyed, some are obviously fanfic, and one is so good, I admit I googled to make sure it wasn't plagiarism. Next tri, I'm hoping to do a sci fi class (as the Language Arts teacher, I'm all writing, very little literature, which is fine, but I miss talking about books!), with a poetry class (maybe making chapbooks) in the spring. 

Which means I need some ideas for good poetry/sci fi for seventh graders. I'm almost thinking A Wrinkle in Time for the sci fi except I hate that book. Well,  I'll figure something out. In the mean time, I have a day off, thanks to late nights of PT conferences, so I'm gonna outline the. NaNo novel, go to the yarn store, and drink another cup of coffee. 

Monday, October 14, 2013


Gentle readers, I'm sorry to say. I don't have a readers' advisory post this week. I'm reading student compositions this week, and I don't recommend you read those unless you are a teacher. Also, this week we have parent-teacher conferences. Boo!

I would like to recommend RL LaFevers Grave Mercy, a book set in medieval France/Brittany, about young women who serve as the hansmaidens of Death and work as assassins, fostered and trained by the nuns of the Abbey of Saint Mortaine. The concept is pretty interesting, and the protagonist, Ismae, is a great character. The only thing. I didn't really like about the book is that it is written in a 1st person present tense POV, which means that occasionally, Ismae knows things or has realizations that, given her previous characterisations, she shouldn't really know. But that was only mildly off-putting for me. I liked LaFevers twist on the strong girl trope, and I really liked how the romantic elements played out. The second book of the planned trilogy came out this year, and it focuses on Sybelle, another girl from the convent. I would like more time with Ismae, but it seems like LaFevers is setting up a story about the conflict between the old guard, represented by the abbess and the older governors of Brittany, and the new guard, represented by Ismae, Sybelle, and Anne, the Duchess of Brittany, and that could be a really interesting story. I'm not sure if I'll read the rest of the trilogy right away, but I think it would be worth the reading time. However, I'm working through some Cybils nominees just now. And grading papers.

Stay tuned for resumed RA posts and a slew of Cybils posts. 

Monday, October 7, 2013

So you want to the car

So you want to read in the car, do you? But you're driving. Who among us has not been tempted to hold up a book or iPad as we drive, especially down long stretches of highway? Not me! When I say a book is to die for, I mean that figuratively! Especially because I don't want to die before I finish the book. And so, Gentle Readers, audio books and podcasts are just the thing for you!

I haven’t always been a fan of audio books. I’m a very quick reader, and the pace of a speaking voice is so slow! But a good audio book can make a car trip speed by or a couple weeks of evening walks feel less like exercise and more like precious “me” time. I go in phases of heavy audio book listening and then months of listening to the crap on the radio. When I had a house with a lot of trees and a yard I was responsible for, I listened to a couple of Jasper Fforde’s Nursery Crimes* books while raking and bagging leaves. For audio books, I like to pick books that I want to read but was unable to get into the print copy. I read Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart and loved it, but I had a really hard time getting into Inkspell. I picked up the audio version, narrated by Brendan Fraser, and I was transfixed. Fraser had a knack for differentiating the characters without sounding too cartoony.

My friend Amanda, who used to drive a lot when she was a piano teacher, raves about the Harry Potter series, narrated by Jim Dale. I tried to listen to one of the books, and while I loved Dale’s narration, I wasn’t really in the mood for the book, so I haven’t finished one of the HP audio books. I want to get one of the UK versions, which is read by Stephen Fry because I love Stephen Fry’s voice! I might have to pick one up when I’m in England this summer!

Neil Gaiman’s audio books are excellent. I have listened to The Graveyard Book a couple times now. His voice is very soothing, and I like the little musical flourishes between each chapter, of Ben Sollee and Bela Fleck playing Danse Macabre. Which we are playing in our first symphony concert next week, so if you live in South Central Idaho, you should check it out! Good Omens, by Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, is excellently narrated by Martin Jarvis. And while I haven’t liked full-cast audio books with sound effects much in the past, the BBC Radio Play of Neverwhere, starring the voices of Benedict Cumberbatch, James McAvoy and Natalie Dormer, is fantastic. It’s an abridged play, so it’s only about four hours long, but it is so worth your time.

Another audio book series that gets the character differentiation right is the Kane Chronicles series by Rick Riordan. Two actors alternate between brother and sister Carter and Sadie Kane, and while they actors do an excellent job voicing their own characters, they also manage to sync the voices of the other characters. That is, when it’s a Carter chapter and he uses Sadie’s voice, Sadie still sounds like Sadie. And when the actors voice secondary characters, both actors make the secondary character voices almost exactly the same.

I’ve written before about the Amelia Peabody books by Elizabeth Peters. Barbara Rosenblatt is a most excellent narrator, although in the earlier books in the series, when she’s voicing the precocious Ramses, he is super irritating, but that’s partly because Peters wrote out his lisping dialogue, and that is super super irritating, so Rosenblatt does the best she can.

If you want family-friendly audio books, you should definitely check out the Hank the Cowdog series. I’ve only listened to one, but when I was a kid, my grandparents took my brothers on a cross-country drive, and they listened to these books with much delight.

For narrative podcasts, I adore The Thrilling Adventure Hour. Billed as “a staged production in the style of old-time radio,” the podcast is broadcasts of segments of the live show. My favorite segments are “Beyond Belief,” in which Paul F. Tompkins and Paget Brewster play a married pair of Noel Coward-esque, alcohol-swilling mediums. In fact, I was half-disappointed when I saw Blithe Spirit this summer at the Idaho Shakespeare Festival that the main characters were not more like TAH’s Frank and Sadie Doyle (clink!). My other favorite segment is “Sparks Nevada: Marshall on Mars.” It’s a space Western, and it’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever heard. The latest arc, in which Paul F. Tompkins plays a shape-shifting Jupiter spy who inhabits various regular characters, was so funny I nearly choked laughing. Do not listen to this when you have a chest cold. You might die. You’d die laughing, but still.

But my current podcast obsession is Welcome to Night Vale. I am beyond fashionably late to this podcast, something of an NPR in the Twilight Zone story, but I’m so glad to be here. And not because the Hooded Figures are making me type this. I swear. Welcome to Night Vale is bizarre, compelling, bizarre, and more bizarre. The “Summer Reading” episode is, I think, my favorite, although I would posit that the reason the librarians became blood-thirsty monsters and soulless killing machines in the first place was probably a Summer Reading program. But really, the show is all about Cecil, the DJ, and Carlos, the scientist. Beautiful Carlos, Carlos of the Perfect Hair. Carlos. Carlos. The “First Date” episode left me grinning like an idiot for days. I’ve decided that Cecil and Carlos’s theme song is Jason Mraz’s “You and I,” which is one of my favorite love songs, but it also takes on a delightful sinister tone when you set it in Night Vale. Actually, most pop music takes on a delightfully sinister tone when you imagine Cecil dedicating it to one of the citizens of Night Vale. I’m nearly caught up with the current episodes. I have four to go before I have to wait like the rest of the world for new episodes. I am torn between hoarding them and devouring them in one sitting.

Finally, here's one last podcast. It's not a narrative podcast, but The Bugle, audio newspaper for a visual world, is well worth your time. Satirical comics John Oliver (of The Daily Show) and Andy Zaltzman provide commentary on world events and, from Zaltzman, the most epic puns you've ever heard. This is another show you probably don't want to listen to this when you've got a chest cold. Choking hazard and whatnot.

*None of the links here are affiliate links. I have not yet used Audible’s services; I prefer to use my local library. But I’ve heard good things about Audible, so I’ll probably check it out soon.

Monday, September 30, 2013

So You Want to Read...Comfort Books

Fall is here, Gentle Readers! It's properly Sweater Weather in my neck of the woods, perfectly coinciding with my first paycheck from the new job, so I bought a couple snuggly cardigans. It's also time to knit and sew and drink tea and read comforting books.

This is the time of year when I want to snuggle into a story and wrap myself up in plot. Sometimes, there will be romance and smooching in my comfort reads, sometimes action, but for me, comfort books are books I close with a satisfied sigh, books that, when I finish the story, I have a big stupid grin on my face for the rest of the day.

Top on my list of comfort reads is the Alanna series by Tamora Pierce. I've waxed poetic (and not so poetic) about these books for years, so if you haven't read them by now, get thee to a library or bookstore and get reading! I used one of Pierce's short stories from Tortall and Other Lands in my creative writing class the other day, and my new favorite student, a nice young lad, told me he'd read all of the Tortall books. Big. Stupid. Grin.

Another perennially comforting book series is the Calvin and Hobbes collections by Bill Watterson. I wish I had the big, three-volume complete collection. Maybe I'll treat myself to that for my birthday. Regardless, we have a few collections lying around the house, and there are few more perfect works of art in the world than Calvin and Hobbes comics.

I'm long overdue for a re-reading of the Harry Potter series, and I adore the Enchanted Forest Chronicles (I'm using one of the short stories by Wrede in my creative writing class). I read the Enchanted Forest books last fall when I was desperately sick with a chest cold. I have no major assignments to grade in the next week, so I'm thinking it's time to visit Cimorene and company. And I need to re-read Harry Potter to prepare for my visit to the Harry Potter Studio Tour next summer!

Pamela Dean's Tam Lin is also high up on my list of comfort reads. It's a strange little book, but I love to read it in the fall because so much of the action takes place during the chilly months of the year (it's set over four years at a small Midwestern university, so there isn't much going on during the summer). 

I got a few new craft books, and I'm most excited to try a few projects from the Storyland Cross Stitch book, with whimsical, fairy tale  based designs. And I'm knitting a few hats from books that I can't remember the names of at this moment. But they are awesome. The hats and the books. 

What are your comfort books/activities for Fall?