Monday, July 14, 2014

Book Review: Where'd You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple

Two years ago everyone was talking about Where'd You Go Bernadette. I put it on my to-read list and my Amazon wish list, and then I promptly forgot about it. That was a big mistake, but one with a redeeming quality -- it meant I got to enjoy it this summer.

Author Maria Semple began her writing career with a different sort of writing -- television screenwriting. She wrote for shows like Beverly Hills, 90210, Mad About You, and Arrested Development, among others, so it is no surprise I liked her writing style.

I listened to the audiobook version of Where'd You Go Bernadette, so I can't speak to how the layout of the novel works in print. Written in emails, reports, articles, and the like (even a report card), it would be easy for it to fall apart and become a loosely jumbled together mess lacking any cohesion. Instead, in Semple's hands, it flows seamlessly, relating the story of Bernadette Fox's disappearance and her daughter Bee's search for the truth.

Bee lives with her Bill Gates-like tech genius father Elgin Branch and her brilliant architect mother Bernadette Fox. The family has a 10,000 square foot house in Seattle. Her father makes huge money at Microsoft, Bee attends a private school, and -- at least on the surface -- all seems to be golden.

But the truth is a bit darker and less than golden. Elgin spends almost all of his time at work, the house is an old girls' school in a state of chronic disrepair, and Bernadette hasn't worked (or even frequently left the house) in years. Bee, a model student and extraordinarily likable girl, is the family's shining star; she lights up their world.

As she prepares to graduate from middle school, she cashes in on her parents' long-ago promise to give her anything she wants as a graduation present. Antarctica. Specifically, a cruise to Antarctica. Her parents acquiesce, although her mother secretly tries to find ways out of leaving the house and living in such close proximity to other people during their trip. One of her coping mechanisms is to farm out the responsibilities of planning the trip to a virtual assistant in Indian whom she hires over the internet.

As Elgin hires a new admin during a whirlwind project at work and Bernadette spins crazily out of control, only Bee remains oblivious to the disastrous path her family seems bound to spiral down. Things reach a boiling point when Elgin decides he must intervene and Bernadette disappears. 'Where did Bernadette go?' is the question that drives the novel, although Semple reveals so much more throughout the course of the book.

At once a piercing satire and a genuinely heart-warming tale, Where'd You Go Bernadette is a must-read. You will fall in love with all of the characters, then become dangerously annoyed with them, and ultimately love them once again.

Links with love for Bernadette:

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Book Review: Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands by Chris Bohjalian

Chernobyl. Three Mile Island. Fukushima. The mere mention of these disasters is enough to place a knot of dread in the stomach. In his new novel Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands, author Chris Bohjalian examines a similar incident, albeit fictional. In his tale, a nuclear plant in Vermont suffers a meltdown, with disastrous consequences for those in the region.

Prior to reading the novel, I heard labels thrown around like "science fiction", "dystopian", and "apocalyptic". In fact, many people on Goodreads categorize it as such. I was pleased to see little to no evidence that this book belongs in any of these categories. Although I suppose it could loosely be considered science fiction, in that it deals with the possible consequences of technology. However, according to ReadWriteThink.org, which I frequently use in teaching middle school ELA, science fiction
"stories often tell about science and technology of the future. . . . [It] creates situations different from those of both the present day and the known past. Science fiction texts also include a human element, explaining what effect new discoveries, happenings and scientific developments will have on us in the future. Science fiction texts are often set in the future, in space, on a different world, or in a different universe or dimension." (source link)
Bohjalian fictionalizes an occurrence -- a nuclear disaster -- that has happened before. Nuclear power plants currently exist, and have for many decades. It is not set in a futuristic time or place; in fact, Bohjalian's characters often reference recent news items such as 9/11 and the Newtown, Connecticut, school shooting. The setting is present-day Vermont. Does it fit into the "speculative fiction" category? It could, although I am not convinced that anyone fully understands the definition of speculative fiction.

Labels aside, what makes the book special is the perspective from which Bohjalian chooses to write. Narrating this remarkable tale is Emily Shepard, homeless since the disaster, like many "walkers" as they are referred to -- people who were forced to simply walk away from their homes, their family, their lives. [One more aside regarding labels -- the term "walkers" seems to insinuate a sci-fi/ apocalyptic scenario. It is simply a term like "refugees", and I equated them with people displaced by Hurricane Katrina.] Emily has made her own way since then, although it has been a difficult path. She has been resourceful, building an igloo out of trash bags filled with frozen leaves for protection from the harsh winter climate. Emily's voice is the shining star of this narrative, at once worldly and naive, wise and young. Her story is one of both loss and survival.

Although the story itself is marvelous, Bohjalian's focus on Emily raises the novel to a higher level. Many tales have been told after disasters -- about Hurricane Katrina alone, dozens of books, both fiction and nonfiction have been written. The same is true for most any disaster, human-made or natural. But Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands tells more about the human condition than it tells about the disaster. I'm not sure any other author has taken this path.

You see, both of Emily's parents worked at the nuclear plant; her father was in charge the day of the meltdown. By giving Emily a voice, Bohjalian has flipped the switch on our usual disaster narrative, making sympathetic a character who many fictional characters in the novel blame. In reading this novel, I was forced to think about New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin's family, or Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco's family. Even (on an entirely different level, obviously) the 9/11 hijackers' families. In writing an entire novel from the point of view of a family member of someone vilified for their role in a disaster, Bohjalian reminds us of their humanness and forces us to examine our feelings.

While the novel is narrated by a teenager, the story itself is far from young adult. Although I'm sure some older teens would able to handle the material Bohjalian covers, themes of self-mutilation, prostitution, drug use, and homelessness place this novel firmly in the adult category.

Bonus for poetry lovers? Emily Shepard just so happens to be a lover of all things Emily Dickinson, so lines of poetry and references to Dickinson's life are sprinkled throughout the novel.

Much has been written about the novel already, although it was just released yesterday. Here are some other thoughts from around the web:

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

#TeachersWrite - Week 1, Day 1


I can't actually believe I'm doing this. My toddler makes almost everything difficult! (I say this with a smile -- she's still asleep. If she were awake, she would be hitting keys on my keyboard and causing an hour or so of my searching Google on the iPad to undo whatever she had just done.) Couple that with being a teacher & a stay-at-home mom over the summer break, and you probably "get" my life in a nutshell: busy. I'm plunging in with both feet, though. I woke up at 5am this morning, too excited about writing to go back to sleep! (And the toddler woke somewhere in the neighborhood of every hour last night. Speaking of, our assignment for Monday, from Kate Messner's blog:)

First Draft:
My daughter doesn't sleep. Okay, that's an exaggeration. Of course she sleeps. But unfortunately, like me, she doesn't sleep well. A friend gave me a copy of 12 Hours' Sleep by 12 Weeks Old before Ava was born. I remember thinking, 'I could probably do this.' I also read Bringing Up Bebe and French Kids Eat Everything. All full of great-sounding, absolutely useless (to me) advice. One day after we got back from a beach vacation this summer, I calculated that just over 5 hours of my day had been spent trying to get the baby to sleep. Roughly 2 hours for nap and 3 that night. 5 hours is about 1/3 of  my waking hours. So you see why this is on  my mind.

Some nights she drifts off without a peep. Other nights, we wrestle on my king-sized bed, sweaty and exhausted by the time she slumbers. Lately, naps have been hard, and so we've been walking -- her in our brown Ergo baby carrier, me with tennis shoes (or, sometimes, unprepared but determined, in flip-flops) and iPhone in hand.

Last night, I had an epiphany. Yes, it was dark outside, but it was warm. It's the middle of summer. After trying for 20 minutes or so, I asked her, "Do you want to go on a walk? Do you want to get in the carrier?" She, tired but unable to settle, nodded emphatically and said something close to "yes." (She isn't talking much, but that's a story for another day.) And so we walked. We walked outside beside and behind our house, cows just on the other side of the fence. We walked down the street in front of our house, a single street light to guide our way. We walked and walked and walked. Need I say that this was a flip-flop walk? But instead of being unpleasant, it was more than pleasant. It was nice. The stars twinkled in the sky, the half-moon shone. And (after one foiled attempt at returning inside), she drifted off to sleep. Maybe not peacefully, and perhaps a little sweaty, but finally. At last. Victory.

Sensory List:
smell:
baby shampoo
sweat
cow manure
cows
honeysuckle
firework smoke

hear:
cars passing
fireworks exploding
tree frogs
cicadas
hum of insects
birds
tree leaves rustling with wind

see:
stars in black sky
half moon shining brightly
cows blinking sleepily
streetlights glowing
darkened street
dark house with windows glowing

Second Draft:
The half-moon shone brightly from the dead center of the sky, lighting our way as we walked. We walked outside beside and behind our house, cows just on the other side of the fence. The earthy smell of manure and animal followed us even as we walked beyond their pen. We walked down the street in front of our house, a single street light guiding us on our way back home. Further down the street, windows glowed from dark houses. We walked and walked and walked. Need I mention that this was one of those flip-flop walks, too hurried a walk to wait for the tying of tennis shoes? But instead of being unpleasant, it was more than pleasant. It was nice. The stars twinkled in the black July sky, honeysuckle perfumed the night air, and the orchestra of tree frogs and insects created a hum sweeter than any box fan ever sounded. And (after one too-hasty attempt at returning inside), she drifted off to sleep. Maybe not peacefully, and perhaps a little sweaty, but finally. At last.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Series Spotlight: Deborah Crombie's Duncan Kincaid/ Gemma James Series

Deborah Crombie on tour for her novel
No Mark Upon Her, appearing at the Velma Teague
Library, via Lesa's Book Critiques
If you've read this blog for a while or clicked around for a few minutes, it will come as no surprise to learn that I love mystery series. Really, I love almost any kind of mystery, set almost anywhere -- hard-boiled female private detectives (think V.I. Warshawski or Kinsey Millhone), police procedurals (Harry Bosch), medical/ forensic titles (Kay Scarpetta, Tempe Brennan). I also love more literary mysteries, like Tana French's books or Sara J. Henry's novels. And then there are funny, semi-mysterious books like the Stephanie Plum series or the Sookie Stackhouse books. I know, I know -- you get it. I love them all.

Sometimes amidst all the mayhem, you  hanker for something a little more... homey. Inviting. And therein lies the need for a good cozy mystery. Books that involve a mystery, perhaps even a murder, but that give you a warm, fuzzy feeling at the end of the day. Although I've enjoyed many cozy mystery series, Deborah Crombie's Kincaid/James series is one of the best. It has been my go-to series this summer, in between books that hit hard on the emotional scale. While the Kincaid/James books aren't entirely lacking in difficult moments, they always leave you with a feeling that the world isn't such a bad place after all.

First of all, the series is set in Great Britain. I don't know about you, but for me, that marks it up immediately. I love a good British mystery. Or a good British novel. Or movie. Or TV show. (Downton Abbey? Um, yes.) Crombie does an excellent job of describing the series's setting. Notting Hill, other familiar-to-most-readers neighborhoods, even a trip to Scotland every now and again.

The main characters are also exceptionally likable -- not that they have to be in every book you read, but I'd say in a good cozy mystery it might be a necessity. Duncan and Gemma are far from perfect, but as you read the series they really grow on you. They begin as colleagues in the Scotland Yard, Duncan a superintendent and Gemma, a sergeant. As their working lives collide, so do their personal lives. Crombie weaves the two characters' lives together, both their past and present, a little at a time as the series progresses. Trust me when I say things get complicated, both in good and bad ways.


The actual mysteries the duo solves are also great stories in and of themselves. The plot line usually involves someone from either Duncan or Gemma's past (i.e., an ex-wife, an old friend), simultaneously furthering both the main characters' arc and relating an excellent story. I began the series years ago, then abandoned it for a time, as readers do. This summer I simply chose a book I thought I hadn't read, and began again from there. So far I've read And Justice There Is None and Now May You Weep, books 8 and 9 in the series. I'm pleased that Crombie has written 14 books in the series,  meaning I have more to enjoy!

For more information about Deborah Crombie, click over to her website.
For a list of the Kincaid/James series books in order, click here (lacking the newest book, No Mark Upon Her).
To read more about individual titles in the series, visit Crombie's books page.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Reading in the Classroom: Our Current Read-Alouds

Even seventh- and eighth-graders like to be read aloud to. (Yes, I could have rewritten that sentence so that it didn't end in a preposition. But I didn't. I like to teach my students that writing isn't always about rules!)

I am currently reading aloud three different novels to my students, almost one for each class. I abandoned one (really, really good) book because my first period just wasn't that into it, so I'm reading the same book to both my first and fourth periods.

Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage: I already gushed about this book in my Best Books Read in 2013 post, and I wasn't kidding around. It was one of my favorites last year. I love mysteries and also "feel-good" middle grades novels; this book happens to combine the best of both worlds. Mo LeBeau is a fantastic main character. Bonus: I get to read in several different southern drawls, as the setting is the Carolina coast. Also, it's both humorous and deals with serious topics. A bonus when you're reading to middle schoolers.

Rules by Cynthia Lord: Although this didn't make my "best of" list, it was probably an oversight. I really, really like this book. I'm not the only one -- it's won awards (as you can see on its cover). It also happens to be on the Beta Club Battle of the Books list, which many of my students need to read books from in order to attend this year's convention. Twelve-year-old Catherine wants to have plenty of friends, but helping care for her younger brother with autism takes a lot of time and patience, not to mention rules. My students identify with her family issues, even if they don't have a sibling with a disability. They also identify with her inner struggles.

The Witches by Roald Dahl: You can rarely go wrong if you choose to read aloud a Roald Dahl book. This one is no exception to that rule. Although the other two books I'm reading might be "better" for middle grades (and they are definitely more updated), I think my second  period is enjoying their read-aloud experience with this book more than my other classes. For one thing, I have to read in a Russian accent when I'm reading aloud the Grand High Witch's dialogue -- and she talks a lot! They've spent countless time wondering if I could be a witch and discussing the various ways to spot a witch. They're proving to me that a good book can be just that, no matter your age or how mature you think you are.


Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Book Review: Love Water Memory by Jennie Shortridge

January's SheReads Book Club choice is a novel with a fascinating premise: a woman is found standing knee-deep in the San Francisco Bay, with no memory of how she got there or why she arrived. In fact, Jennie Shortridge's Love Water Memory tells the story of Lucie Walker, who arrives at her watery destination with no memories at all; she doesn't know who she is, where she came from, or what her life was like.

After her picture is broadcast on the news, two people come forward: a man who says he is her fiance and an elderly aunt. After Lucie is released to her fiance's care, Shortridge relates the story of her quest to find both her memories and herself. Through Lucie, Shortridge poses questions for us all. Is who we are innate, or created? If you lost yourself, as Lucie did, would you still be you? Or another version of yourself?

Love Water Memory is a deeply charming book with characters who will fully win over your heart. My one complaint with the novel is that I would have (and wished to) read about twice the amount that Shortridge wrote. At 336 pages, it wasn't a thin novel. Yet I longed for more. I could easily have read 500 pages or more about Lucie and Grady. I wished fervently for a prequel, one in which we learned more about their lives before -- both separately, and then together. Although Shortridge expertly weaves the past into their present-day, I nevertheless wished for more.

Grady's family, full of half a dozen sisters and a father lost at sea, would be worthy of an entire novel themselves. Lucie's family and their story would fill the pages of a novel all on their own, as well. Although I seriously doubt Shortridge will return to their previous lives, perhaps she will make this new fan happy and write a sequel so that we find out more about Lucie and Grady's future.

Related Links:

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Best Books Read in 2013

Y'all, my reading this year fell a little short of my usual 100 or so titles. Okay, so it fell a lot short. I only read 39 books this year! (*I'd like to note that this number does not include children's books, which I have read a lot of. Repeatedly, many of them.) Apparently, having a baby can put a damper in your reading life. Well, having a baby, taking on a second job with your state education department, being a wife/ daughter/ sister/ sister-in-law, teaching middle school reading & language full-time... You get the idea.

Anyway, despite the numbers, I read a lot of good books this year. Much of this was a result of both reading for my middle school classroom and reading professional titles for school. The SheReads blogger network and book club also sent a large number of good reads my way. Divided into genre sections, here are my top reads for 2013.

Middle Grades & Young Adult

 Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage: Mo LeBeau is the orphaned 12-year-old narrator of this middle grades mystery novel. Turnage creates a realistic small-town setting for her larger-than-life, yet utterly believable characters. Join Mo as she and her friend Dale (yes, named for that Dale) work to solve a murder and also find Mo's Upstream Mother.



One for the Murphys by Lynda Mullaly Hunt: Foster child Carley is not happy about being placed with the Murphys. She wants one thing only -- to return to her mother's care. Or does she? As Carley remembers more about the night her mother ended up in a hospital room and she ended up in the foster care system, her strong feelings begin to change.


The Fault in Our Stars by John Green: I still haven't read another Green novel, but I plan to soon. Made into a movie coming out in June 2014, you have plenty of time to catch up by reading this bestselling novel. Although many bestsellers are not actually excellent reads, this one is. Join Hazel and Augustus on their journey through both adolescence and cancer. Read my review here.





Wonder by R.J. Palacio: If you haven't heard of Wonder, you must. August Pullman is the hero we never knew we needed. Born with several birth defects that affect his looks enormously, August has been homeschooled for most of his life. When it's time for him to enter middle school, his parents decide it's also time for him to actually go to school. August does not initially agree, but eventually he does, with spectacular results.




Adult Fiction

Someone Else's Love Story by Joshilyn Jackson: Shandi and her three-year-old son Natty will steal your heart. Read my review here.


This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz: I can't explain how blown away I was by this novel. Although I had read here and there throughout the winter and spring, my reading life was revitalized when I read this tale about Yunior. I guess Diaz was old news by the time I read this, but his work revamped the way I thought about reading and made me dive back into books with a new vigor.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman: This was the first work I'd read by Gaiman of any length (having read only a short story or two before this), and I was blown away. This novel was unlike anything else I'd read in a long while, and, like This Is How You Lose Her, Gaiman reminded me why I loved reading. His magical, nostalgic story took me into a entirely different universe, and that was exactly the point.

The Funeral Dress by Susan Gregg Gilmore Gilmore was an author I had read before and liked, but The Funeral Dress took her to a new level in my mind. The tale of Emmalee Bullard and her newborn daughter touched my heart in multiple ways. Read my review here.







Professional Education Nonfiction
Write Like This by Kelly Gallagher: I've never read a better book about teaching writing. Period.


Mechanically Inclined by Jeff Anderson: While Gallagher wrote the best book on teaching writing, Anderson is the best at the mechanics behind the writing. If you're tired of doing Daily Language Practice sentences and exercises out of the grammar book, read Anderson's book.


Book Love by Penny Kittle: Gallagher and Anderson taught me about writing, but Kittle's book is all about book love. You will be renewed in your goal to lead every student towards a love of reading after reading what Kittle has to say.

LinkWithin

Related Posts with Thumbnails