Upstream by Mary Oliver

51a-llhg2xlEvery now and then I read a book that speaks directly to my soul.  It’s happened twice this year, first with My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout and more recently with Upstream by Mary Oliver.  I’m immensely grateful to Ms. Oliver for writing such a truthful book and to Penguin Books for allowing me to read it prior to publication.

Attention is the beginning of devotion.

Upstream blurs the line between poetry and essay in its collection of 19 impeccable essays exploring creativity, nature, and the relationship between the two.

Do you think there is anything not attached by its unbreakable cord to everything else?

The book starts out describing childhood and how one grows up to be a writer. Mary Oliver shares a story about cutting class as a teenager only to go into the woods with a knapsack of books.  Books brought her comfort as did nature.  She found herself in both and built her life through books, writing, and nature.  Moving forward in time toward the present Oliver says towards the end of the book, “I don’t think I am old yet, or done with growing.”

This perspective on seeking out constant growth, the immense passion for books and writing, as well as the strong connection to nature made me feel understood by someone I have never met.  I had someone ask me the other day, “If you don’t watch TV and you rarely listen to music, what do you do?”  I answered that I read, but my answer did not quench her curiosity.  Some people do not seem to understand the fullness that can come from reading.

I read my books with diligence, and mounting skill, and gathering certainty. I read the way a person might swim, to save his or her life. I wrote that way too.

This book is one that must be read with a pen!  There were so many beautiful quotes in it; I added four of them to the quote book I keep on my coffee table and countless more are highlighted on my Kindle.  This is the perfect book to bring with you on a hike!  If i could recommend this book to anyone, it would be to my cousin, Cathy LaPointe Blundy because I feel she may connect with this book too.  She also is a talented poet so check out her blog!

Upstream will be released October 11th so go pre-order it from your local bookstore or library today!!!

A Truck Full of Money

download-1Out today is Tracy Kidder’s newest book, A Trunk Full of Money! I heard good things about Tracy Kidder and was excited to have the opportunity to review this book, thank you Random House!  A Trunk Full of Money is a non-fiction piece on Paul English, an entrepreneur and computer genius who although poor as a child, made a fortune when kayak.com was acquired by Priceline.  He then attempts to figure out how to manage this level of wealth and how to give some away to help others.

While incredibly good in the area of technology, Paul also has bipolar disorder and I liked how that was an honest part of the story without being the entire focus.  I also enjoyed stories from his childhood such as when he created a program that would allow him to steal his teacher’s username and password without being caught.

That said, I wasn’t the biggest fan of this book.  I read books on a wide range of topics and even things not typically interesting to me, like cremation for example, can be made incredibly fascinating by the author (such as  Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty ).  This was not the case with this book.  I just didn’t care; I wasn’t interested in his business deals or his money.  Also, the story was told by Tracy Kidder so was very distanced from the author’s actual experience of what happened to him.  Obviously I knew that going into this, but the characters seemed flat and some were referenced to by their role in relation to Paul without names.  I think I was hoping for a bit more depth.  I’m bummed that I wasn’t a fan, but will have to try other Tracy Kidder books in the future.

Commonwealth

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download-2When Ann Patchett’s posts on Musing became spaced months and months apart, I knew she was up to something.  It’s hardly worth being bummed about infrequent blog posts from your favorite author when you suspect that the woman has locked herself in her house to write something much bigger and much better than a blog post.  Finally, last spring, it was announced- Commonwealth by Ann Patchett would be on sale September 13, 2016!  It’s been 6 days since its release and I’ve already read it twice- it’s that good!

Typically the first novel an author writes is the most autobiographical; instead, Ann’s first novel was about a home for unwed mothers.  I saw an interview during which Ann said she wanted to go back and write an autobiographical novel, now that she was in her 50s, and that is exactly what she did.

None of it happened and all of it’s true. -Jeanne Ray

The book starts out at a baptism party for a baby in which an unwanted guest brings gin, things get crazy, and there is a kiss between two people who should not be kissing. The story follows the baby from her baptism party until she is 52 moving seamlessly throughout time delving into the world of divorce, blending families and grown children of divorced parents.

Other reviews have described the movement of time in the novel as “fluid” which is, in fact, the best way to describe the masterpiece Ann Patchett has created.  Ann’s is just one of many novels that jump back and forth in time however the passage of time is just that in other books- jumpy.  I’ve not read another book that managed time quite so well and it was, indeed, fluid and made the novel that much more beautiful.  There are glimpses into lives at various points along the way and the reader is left to fill in the missing years on their own- a task that is quite enjoyable and effortless.

She had needed to keep something for herself.

Another aspect that I enjoyed was the presence of books throughout the novel.  I’ve always loved books about books and while this was not one of those novels, there were countless books name dropped throughout the novel.  Books were often used to assist the various characters during difficult times.  There is nothing more comforting than a good book read at the right time and this message was made quite clear.

Life, Teresa knew by now, was a series of losses. It was other thing too, better things, but the losses were as solid and dependable as the earth itself.

Finally, I loved that this book talked about places familiar to me.  Part of it took place in Chicago and Evanston, both places I’ve resided in while just starting out as a special education teacher.  I cracked up as I read about where I currently live described as “the parts that aren’t Chicago” which is a common view of Illinois- Chicago and cornfields. I imagine Ann is somewhat familiar with where I live since she dated David Foster Wallace who lived not far from here although I’m not certain if he lived here while they were dating.  Regardless, it’s always a fun bonus to be able to visualize from your experience the places being written about in novels.

You can debate about your favorite Ann Patchett book all you want, perhaps you liked the plot better in another novel, but no one can argue against this being her best written novel.  Each novel is stronger than the novel before and allows her talent to be showcased at an even higher level.  I’m so grateful that this novel exists as it fills a hole that exists in literature.  So many individuals will be able to see themselves inside of this masterpiece so read it and tell me what you think!

Read Harder Challenge

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Ann Patchett leaves for an insanely crazy book tour tomorrow during which she will essentially live in airports and survive exclusively on grilled cheese sandwiches, as she crisscrosses the entire country, tissues and vitamins in tow, attempting to avoid the inevitable book tour head cold before finally reaching the finish line in my home state of Michigan on October 22nd and declaring her freedom- or at least that is how I picture the situation at hand.  It’s amazing what sort of hoops authors will jump through all in the name of selling books and yet, I am incredibly grateful because I will be there to meet her on October 21st in Petoskey.  Finally, I will be able to tell people that not only do I adore Ann Patchett, but that I met her!  At this point, my story is that I met her dog once… mic drop.

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While signing 1,800 copies of her new book, Ann decided to keep herself entertained by attempting Book Riot’s 2016 Read Harder Challenge and later wrote about it on her store’s blog!  I too was curious if I could complete the challenge using books I read this year and actually ended up getting pretty close!

Let’s do this thing:

A horror book: The Woman In Cabin 10, Ruth Ware (Although my favorite would be The Fate of Mercy Alban, Wendy Webb)
A nonfiction book about science: Lab Girl, Hope Jahren (My favorite is Dr. Mutter’s Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine, Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz read in 2015)
A collection of essays: This Is a Story of a Happy Marriage, Ann Patchett (re-read in 2016 for the millionth time- well re-listened to.  The audiobook is the best!)
A book you read aloud to someone else: The Book with No Pictures, B.J. Novak (Kids LOVE this and it’s fun to read!  I use it to show the power of language and read it to my kindergarteners around Christmas when they start to view themselves as readers!)
A middle-grade novel: El Deafo, CeCe Bell
A biography (not memoir/autobiography): The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism, Doris Kearns Goodwin (signed copy!)
A dystopian or post-apocalyptic novel: Underground Airlines, Ben Winter
A book originally published in the decade you were born: Hollyhocks and Radishes: Mrs. Chard’s Almanac Cookbook, Bonnie Stewart Mickelson (Signed copy!)
An audiobook that has won an Audie award: State of Wonder, Ann Patchett (Signed copy and my favorite book of all time!)
A book over 500 pages long: The Paying Guests, Sarah Waters (Read in 2015… I desperately want to read The Magic Mountain this year though!)
A book under 100 pages: The Testament of Mary, Colm Toibin
A book by or about a person who identifies as transgender: suggestions?
A book set in the Middle East: Zeitoun, Dave Eggers (Okay, okay… the story takes place mostly in the US, but it’s about racism experienced by someone of Middle Eastern background and there are a few scenes from the Middle East!)
A book by an author from Southeast Asia: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, Marie Kondo
A book of historical fiction set before 1900: Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead (signed copy!)
The first book in a series by a person of color: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou (read in 2015)
A non-superhero comic that debuted in the last three years: Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant?: A Memoir, Roz Chast
A book that was adapted into a movie: Brooklyn, Colm Toibin
A nonfiction book about feminism or dealing with feminist themes: Call the Midwife, Jennifer Worth
A book about religion: Gilead, Marilynne Robinson (met her this summer!)
A book about politics: The Residence, Kate Andersen Brower
A food memoir: Gorge: My Journey Up Kilimanjaro at 300 Pounds, Kara Richardson Whitely
A play: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany, Jack Thorne
A book with a main character who has a mental illness: Imagine Me Gone, Adam Haslett (signed copy!)

I guess I did pretty well for not officially attempting this challenge in January; I’m only missing one book!  What recommendations do you have to fill my gap?

 

Fall Challenge

With the summer reading challenge behind us, I’m setting a new goal for myself!  This fall, I’m going to strive to read books I already own.  The reason behind this is purely selfish; In October I will visit McLean and Eiken, which I hear is incredible!  In fact, it’s my favorite author’s favorite bookshop (besides her own), so I’m making room!

Right now, books I’ve read are displayed on bookshelves and books I need to read are kept in a closet, double stacked by category.

As you can see, I already have a lot of incredible books!!!  Remember, these shelves are double stacked so there are even more great books hiding behind the ones you see.  I also am a member of Parnassus Books’s First Edition Club so I have a few to read from that too.  I refuse to have my unread books pile over beyond these shelves and I want to shop in my little bookstore this October so… I’m going to start reading!

What do you plan to read this fall?

Engineering Eden

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This summer I took up hiking. I’ve been interested in exploring since the moment I was born and formally interested in hiking since I read Wild by Cheryl Strayed many years ago.  Portage Arch in Indiana is a great place for beginners because you feel like you are actually hiking and the view is breathtaking even though you actually only travel .8 miles!  Who knew such beauty lived among cornfields?

I also visited Turkey Run with my neighbor/co-worker on the eve of the first day of school.  Now THAT was hiking.  We went on a 2 mile “rugged/moderate” trail and climbed over all sorts of crazy things in the middle of a creek.  I was scared to death yet loved it ever so much more because of conquering that fear and finishing the hike.  One step at a time I made it.  The hike made me want to start visiting national parks, but until I save up I will have to read about them!

 

9780307454263Engineering Eden by Jordan Fisher Smith.  This book was given to me for review by Blogging for Books.  True crime meets a national park.  The year is 1972 and the setting is Yellowstone.  Harry Walker, tired of working on his family’s farm desires freedom and leaves town.  Without a plan of where to go he ends up camping at Yellowstone where his body is later found.  Organs appeared to have been clawed out of his body and his larynx crushed from an apparent bite.  Harry’s mourning family decides to sue the government because without Harry to help on their farm, they cannot stay in business.

This book tells the story of the court case as well as countless, more interesting, stories of human meets bear.  The book centers around the question of balance regarding people and nature.  National parks are designed to protect nature and animals, they are also a popular vacation destination.  People need to be kept safe while visiting but nature also needs to b protected from humans. In 2015, over 307 million people visited national parks and I’d expect that number is even higher in 2016, the National Park Service’s 100th birthday.  When one visits a National Park, they are not in a zoo, but in the wild with animals and frequently, with bears.

My favorite part of this book was the individual stories of attacks.  There was one particularly horrible situation involving friends camping when they saw a bear.  Everyone ran to climb up trees except for this one girl who yelled that she couldn’t run because the bear was clawing at the zipper on her tent.  Then she screamed that he was biting her arm.  A minute later she cried that her arm was gone and even told her friends she was dead.  The bear carried her away and when her friends finally got help, remains were found in her sleeping bag far away from her tent. She could not be identified as a female based on the mess that lay inside her sleeping bag.

Overall, I loved the individual stories of bear encounters, but the structure of the book was a bit confusing.  It jumped between the court case, history of the National Parks, and bear stories without any apparent logic or predictability.  I rated this book 3.5 stars, but it would have been higher if it had been organized a bit differently.  If you want some good bear stories, it’s the book for you!

Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul. – John Muir

Summer Favorites

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It’s official: today marks the end of the first annual summer reading challenge at my local library😦  Earlier this spring, I asked my library if they hosted a reading contest for adults- they didn’t, but after I mentioned it they started one!  Clearly, we have the best librarian/library assistants out here in this little town!!!  Now let’s recap:

Favorite Summer Reads:

This is a Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett (re-read because I love it so much!)

Blue Highways by William Least Heat Moon

Zeitoun by Dave Eggers

Stations of the Heart by Richard Lischer

Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson (Met her this summer!!!)

The Residence by Kate Andersen Brower

Call the Midwife by Jennifer Worth

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling (clearly a re-read although, it was my first time reading the illustrated edition!)

One Writer’s Beginnings by Eudora Welty

Black Boy by Richard Wright

El Deafo by Cece Bell

Hollyhocks and Radishes by Bonnie Stewart Mickelson and Judy Chard (The best gift ever! Signed copy!)

 

 

Other Books I Read:

The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware (I’m uncertain of which list to put this in… summer favorite or just another book?  I would give it 4.25 stars, but I can’t stop thinking about the ending… so read it and we can chat!)

The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman

As I Lay Dying by William Fulkner

A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean

Before the Fall by Noah Hawley

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

Gorge by Kara Richardson Whitely

Now and Again by Charlotte Rogan (I met her!  Nicest lady! Signed copy!)

The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt

Missing Man by Barry Meier

A Picture Book of Louis Braille by David A. Alder

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany, and Jack Thorne

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Another Brooklyn Jacqueline Woodson (signed copy!)

The Dream Life of Astronauts by Patrick Ryan (signed copy!)

The Bully Pulpit by Dorris Kearns Goodwin (signed copy!)

The Children Act by Ian McEwan

The Dinner by Herman Koch

Underground Airlines by Ben Winters

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead(signed copy!)

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

Eiger Dreams by Jon Krakauer

The Wander Society by Keri Smith

 

 

What were your favorite summer reads?

Introduction to Audiobooks

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Summer is travel season and audiobooks keep me sane as I make countless trips to Michigan each summer through construction  and among the company of individuals who have watched a few too many “Pure Michigan” commercials.  Michigan is pretty much amazing so who can blame them!

Many people have asked me how I listen to audiobooks and share their failed experiences.  Besides making car rides more pleasant, there are two main things I like about audiobooks: first, they allow me to maximize my reading time and secondly, they make me slow down and really savor a book.  My current method of listening to audiobooks involves borrowing them in CD format from the library however Playaways are also great and Audible is always an option too.

One con regarding audiobooks is that there is a tendency for your mind to wander.  That is why the majority of the audiobooks I listen to are non-fiction and often, read by the author.  Listening to an author read their own work is very engaging and a much more intimate experience than reading on your own.  In fact, many of the audiobooks I’ll listen to repeatedly are ones read by the author.  Educating Esme by Esme Raji Codell is my annual “playlist” for getting my classroom ready and gets me pumped for another year of teaching and learning!  With that said, on to my favorites!

Fiction:

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Non-fiction: 

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What are your favorite audiobooks?

Family Reunions

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There are two types of people: those who love family reunions and those who would rather clean toilets or scoop kitty litter than figure out things to say to relations they only see once a year.  I am in the first group of people.  Actually, I’m in my own group, a group of people whose favorite event all year is the family reunion. A group of people whose greatest joy in life is to chat about books, recipes, and family memories with those they can’t get enough of yet see only once a year.  It’s better than Christmas!  Perhaps I stand alone in this.

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If you want to see me in a state of pure bliss, just observe me on the second Saturday in July when our half Swedish, half French-Canadian clan gathers together in beautiful Michigan for the LaPointe reunion.  This particular group of (my mom’s) cousins I met periodically at funerals and the like as a child, but I didn’t really have any idea who they were, and certainly didn’t have much to discuss at the time with a bunch of adults.  In 2012, after years of attending reunions for the previous generation, the cousins decided to start their own reunion and so it began.  It was at that first reunion that I discovered how much I adored every single one of my mom’s cousins.

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I’ve had five visits to get to know these folks and each time I am amazed at how similar some of us are.  It’s an incredible thing to meet an individual from a different generation who instantly feels like your best friend and whom you share so much in common with.  There is an instant bond that cannot be described; it’s like seeing your soul in a mirror, the very essence of who you are.

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Saturday I arrived at the home of my cousin Molly only to be pulled into her house because she wanted to “tell me something”.  Once inside she shared that she had something for me.  She presented me with a book (I know this is already very exciting, but it gets better so hold on)!  The book was a COOKBOOK about a woman from a SMALL TOWN in Northern MICHIGAN who runs a FARM STAND and meets lots of FRIENDS.  Not only did Molly give me a book, but everything about me is in this book.  Just when you thought it couldn’t get any better, there’s more.  The book was SIGNED by the woman who owned the farm stand!!!  There is a true talent in giving gifts and Molly has it mastered.

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Hollyhocks and Radishes is what Molly described as a “reading” cookbook.  The cookbook tells of life in a small town throughout the seasons of Northern Michigan in a series of letters between Mrs. Chard, who owned the farm stand, and the author of the book. You feel as if you are there with her the entire time you are reading, transported to the U.P. The recipes inside are old fashioned recipes and although you don’t have to try any recipes to enjoy the book, I do hope to make some.  This book is such a treat and I gave it five stars on Goodreads!

The next best thing to eating a good dinner is reading about it.

A weekend spent with family in Michigan is such a blessing, but now I return to Illinois.  Back to my home amid the soybeans and corn where the neighbors include horses and cows and the library is an oasis for dreaming.  It feels good to be back!

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The Weekend in Books

There is no better way to restore the soul than to spend the weekend reading, especially when it’s very cold and rainy outside!

63832Friday: Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon

There are different books to read during different seasons; I read a lot of travel memoirs in the summer and this one was a masterpiece! Bill’s wife leaves him and he loses his job as an English professor around the same time so he decides to take off alone on a road trip around America following what he calls the “blue highways”, roads that are blue on an atlas or essentially country highways.  He avoids all expressways.  Along the way he meets a host of interesting characters and documents his conversations with them and discusses the various restaurants where he dines; he determined that the more calendars a diner has, the better the food.  Whenever I read during quiet time at the daycare, my students always excitedly ask me what is happening in my book. Unfortunately, they got a bit sick of me telling them that Bill was eating again, although I loved his descriptions of diner grub. His visit to a monastery was my favorite section of the book as he documented his conversation with a monk asking him about why he chose that lifestyle.  I have an interest in stepping into other people’s shoes and seeing how people live differently in various communities so I found it fascinating.  I think this curiosity is one reason I moved to country; I had never lived in the country before.

 

22693222Saturday: The Residence by Kate Anderson Brower

I discovered this book while browsing at Schuler Books, a bookstore from my childhood that I revisited recently due to curiosity.  One of the staff members placed a sign near it recommending the book and sharing that she could not put it down.  I thought it looked interested but highly doubted it would be difficult to put down.  Well, I started it Saturday morning while getting ready.  I read some more while I waited for my color to process at Kane and Co. (ask for Melissa), I read through lunch, and I read until 6:40pm when I finished reading the last sentence on the last page. The book was so incredibly interesting and allowed me to see life from the viewpoints of White House staff and the first family- again, my snoopy desire to see what the lives of others are like.  One of the most interesting aspects to me was the discussion of the transition between presidents.  The White House staff is grieving the loss of a family they have worked for throughout the past 4-8 years and yet have exactly six hours to move the former president out, move the new president in, and instantly start working for the new family without missing a beat.  This is a great summer read, especially with the election coming up this November.

 

77013Sunday: As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

I need a redo in a few years when I have a few more difficult books under my belt. This book just made me feel really dumb.  There is so much talking about nothing that I’m not actually sure what is happening except for the fact that a family is on the way to bury their mother, but then I must have missed the part where they actually do just that. I was interested in Cora, but besides that wasn’t into it.  I’m not sure that Faulkner is my cup of tea.  I feel like I should like it, but I don’t.    This girl in particular really makes me want to like it, but I can’t at this time.

 

downloadMonday: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

After a lame reading day, I decided to read something incredible.  This is my millionth time reading this book, but my first time reading the illustrated version- worth every penny.  Despite the lame American title, this book actually contains the British text which I appreciate because there was never any need to translate it for Americans.  It adds more flavor to know that Albus Dumbledore, in fact, prefers sherbet lemons NOT lemon drops.  Considering another book is coming out this month after 9 long years without Harry, I’m going to be re-reading them and watching the movies this month until the 31st at midnight (at which time I’ll either be in line for the book or at home fast asleep waiting for the mailman to bring it the next day… I’m undecided.  The only reason I want to get it at midnight is for old time’s sake <3)!!!

Let’s hope next weekend’s weather brings a bit more sunshine❤

Traveling

One of the incredible things about living somewhere that is not your home is that you get to travel, a lot!  I have traveled home, or to Chicago, every single weekend since school got out for summer.

I went home for my birthday.

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I went home for my sister-in-law’s bachelorette party.

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I went to Chicago for Lit Fest.

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I went home for my brother’s wedding.

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I was even supposed to go to a conference this weekend in Peoria…

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All of this while working more than full-time during the week, with around 30 minutes of free time daily, meant that I got sick this summer… twice already!  I don’t do well on lack of sleep (or lack of reading time). After coming home from my brother’s wedding reception with 103 fever and spending the week sick and covered in a rash, I decided to stay in Illinois this weekend.  Instead of traveling today:

I went to the farmer’s market (for the first time all summer).

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I read two books (and ate cookies).

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I watched Nova then took a nap with my dog.

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I went to mass.

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Never has summer looked so good!  Travel is nice, but there are times when my soul craves a nice weekend in good, old central Illinois where the corn is starting to rise, temperatures break 90, and where a weekend spent reading on my deck is just what the doctor ordered!

Chicago Lit Fest 2016

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The skyscrapers rise ahead of me on the expressway coming out of the fog ahead until at last I am in the midst of them, the buildings towering over, stretching to greet me, to welcome me home. I moved to Chicago for work in 2009 frightened and lonely yet found a home there. Marilynne Robinson said that being in an unfamiliar place lets you see all things new. Her wording was much more beautiful than that, but I deeply connected with her observation. Each time I moved in my 20s, I had the opportunity to settle into a new culture, to see the world through a new set of eyes.  I view that as a wonderful gift and Chicago holds an important place in my heart- a symbol of bravery, ambition, and self-discovery.

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First in line!!!

Lit Fest was the reason for my pilgrimage today, my 5th year going. Each year I’m filled with new ideas; I could just sit and think for days in complete bliss. Sometimes I listen to authors who I’ve never heard of and whose books I have no interest in, yet the things they say touch me deeply as if all writers have an intimate connection to the very fiber of humanity.  Today I kept to a tight schedule sitting mesmerized by the wisdom of the Pulitzer Prize winning Marilynne Robinson, indulging in childhood memories with R.L. Stine, and soaking in the stories and life experiences of Adam Hasslett and Charlotte Rogan (who didn’t even start writing until age 30). Each venue allowed me to secure a front row seat. I even sat right next to R.L. Stine’s grandson and his son (Matthew) while I watched their reactions to stories about Matthew’s childhood.

Learning how to see something is a great experience in life.

Marilynne Robinson said today, “Learning how to see something is a great experience in life.”  Curving through country roads on my way out of the city after Lit Fest offered me the opportunity to view the beauty of my new community. Fields this time of year are sprinkled with soybeans and corn just beginning to reach up towards the sky, small towns stand proud each with a church at their heart, and children race around on bikes or splash through sprinklers like times gone by. Now as I sit typing, the sun dips below the trees spreading out like watercolors and I feel blessed, blessed to have somehow been called to live in this small town in Central Illinois, blessed with an incredible job and wonderful friends, and blessed to still have an entire day of weekend before me to read and write and dream. Most of all, I’m grateful to be home.

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El Deafo!

One day, I realized that I would never be able to read all the books. Why I hadn’t realized this sooner I’m not sure, but I do know that the thought upset me quite significantly. It’s a quite melancholy thought actually.  In 2014, I thus decided to be more careful about the books I selected, to read higher quality writing. In doing so, I became a literary snob. I didn’t set out with this result in mind, but once you stuff your head with high quality writing you can tell poor writing from pure genius almost instantaneously.  167 books later, I’m a quite critical reader and while I still enjoy summertime fluff, such as the book I finished yesterday- Before the Fall, it’s becoming increasingly rare for me to give a book five stars on Goodreads.

Today I finally finished a book worthy of five stars!  This is only my fourth five star review in 2016 and it goes to… EL DEAFO by Cece Bell!!! I didn’t know much about this book going into it other than that it was a middle grade graphic novel and that it was funny.  In fact, a book talk about it by a Champaign Public Library librarian describing a bathroom scene actually caused one of my 4th graders to laugh so hard he had an asthma attack which resulted in him being sent home after a nebulizer treatment did little to help the situation… Yes, the book was that funny!

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I was impressed with the artwork; you can visually see the main character Cece lose her hearing after a bout of meningitis as the speech bubbles fade and finally are empty. My grandma also lost her hearing after an illness as a child so I have a strong personal connection to this story causing me to love it even more. Cece gets a hearing aide, but the author teaches readers a great deal about life with hearing aides. She illustrates how Cece can hear, but that it sounds like gibberish regardless of volume. In one scene, Cece thinks a child tells her that her grandma likes pie when actually she has said her grandma might die. It’s through responding incorrectly that she determines what the child actually told her. The author also takes time to show social difficulties experienced by being a deaf kid and not being understood.  The fact that all the characters are rabbits, highlights how different Cece felt with her hearing aide because it’s much more visible if your ears are above your head.  The book also illustrates the many ways that the hearing can communicate with deaf/hard of hearing people in ways that are hurtful. This would be great bibliotherapy for deaf kids and those who are friends with someone who is deaf. I also think it’s a great way for kids to become more aware of the world around them and different cultures, even if they don’t personally know anyone who is deaf. Finally, this book shows both sides of the signing vs. reading lips debate and really helps illustrates the pros/cons.

It was only after finishing this book that I realized the author’s name was Cece and that this graphic novel was autobiographical. My love for this book increased astronomically when I found this out.  I can’t begin to imagine the impact Cece Bell has had on so many individuals!

Now to find my next great read <3

 

Summer Reading at the Lake

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Four hours and twenty minutes after leaving my teaching friends behind at the winery, I was home in Michigan. Summer in Michigan makes my soul feel complete- I don’t know how else to describe it. Families live outside in the summer biking, walking, running, exploring, getting ice cream; Grand Rapids, in fact, is the 6th fittest city in the United States according to Fitbit data. The best thing about Michigan is that you don’t have to walk very far to get to a lake. That means, I have lots of seasonal reading spots!

Saturday, my cousin and I celebrated my 30th birthday by heading to Saugatuck where we were near the waterfront all day shopping, dining, and discovering cold brewed coffee with chocolate milk- who knew?! I didn’t get a chance to read, but I did pick up We Were Liars from a bookshop owned by a glass artist and located at the top of a creaky set of nearly hidden stairs.

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Sunday I read, a lot. We Were Liars completed the “YA” category from my summer reading challenge at Catlin Public Library and I read most of it outside soaking it all in. I thought it was really well written for a YA novel. It was also a perfect beach read because it was about a family who spends summers together on their private island until an accident.1614334741h7rkNjOhL._SX319_BO1,204,203,200_

Monday, I visited my grandma and then walked to Reeds Lake with my dog to hang out and read. She loved it, I loved it, and it was a perfect day! I finished A River Runs Through It for the “Written by an Illinois Author” category of the summer reading challenge. It was recommended to me by Andy at Parnassus; never did I ever think I would read a book about fly fishing and enjoy it, but I did!

What is on your summer reading list?

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Olive Kitteridge

IMG_20111119_152318It was the fall of 2012 and I was living in an old civic center, across from a train station, where the upstairs offices had been converted into apartments and restaurants lay below.  The train station across the street allowed me easy access to Chicago and a library stood grandly in the middle of the road as an oasis for any sort of journey one might desire.  I walked to the library frequently and State of Wonder caught my eye one day.  It was actually the second book I read by Ann Patchett, the second set it South America, and I loved every moment.  I loved the plot, the strong female characters, and especially the ending!  It took me two books to fall for Ann Patchett, but fall I did and hard. I now own all her books including books she has essays in, am a member of the First Edition Book Club at the bookstore she co-owns, and have even given her dog a belly rub- see below!  I will also be purchasing a signed copy of her book newest book when it comes out this September!10450157_10102271216236372_8551159252442718937_n

Finishing a second book by a different author today caused me to realize that it takes one book to like an author, but two books to love him or her. Today I spent all day reading Olive Kitteridge, with a brief break to walk in the forest, and have officially added a new favorite author to my schema. I liked Elizabeth Strout at My Name Is Lucy Barton but love her after reading Olive.

Olive Kitteridge is actually a book of short stories, but all revolve around Olive, the high school math teacher, and the people in her Maine town. I devour a good book about New England, but what gets me about Elizabeth is her beautiful writing and her round characters.

For many years Henry Kitteridge was a pharmacist in the next town over, driving every morning on snowy roads, or rainy roads, or summertime roads, when the wild raspberries shot their new growth in brambles along the last section of town before he turned off to where the wider road led to the pharmacy. Retired now, he still wakes early and remembers how mornings used to be his favorite, as though the world were his secret, tires rumbling softly beneath him and the light emerging through the early fog, the brief sight of the bay off to his right, then the pines, tall and slender, and almost always he rode with the window partly open because he loved the smell of the pines and the heavy salt air, and in the winter he loved the smell of the cold.

Elizabeth’s writing is on a different level.  The imagery draws me in and I have arrived. She stated in interviews how important it is to write a good sentence. To her, the way a sentence sounds is deeply connected to the story, to the emotions of the story. I guess this is why she won the Pulitzer for it!

In addition, her characters are so well developed, so human. I’ve heard people who hated the character of Olive because of her rudeness, but I couldn’t get enough of her. She reminds me of a relative of mine, very opinionated, who I deeply adore. It’s the story Incoming Tide that really caused me to love Olive because I felt like readers had the opportunity to see another side of her, to see beyond her shell.

I absolutely insist you give an Elizabeth Strout novel a try and add some more character-driven books to your shelves.

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Lab Girl

41rSfhQs1dL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I never liked science in school. Not for me. Yet now as an adult it seems that some of my favorite books are about science. Lab Girl is a hybrid between memoir and popular science book about plants- specifically trees! Hope Jahren’s story was incredible. She talks about living with bipolar disorder and at becoming a scientist at a time when it was less common for women. The chapters alternate between the author describing an aspect of tree life and then applying the analogy to her own life memoir style. Lab Girl blossoms with alluring language and imagery to describe life.

Each beginning is the end of a waiting. We are each given exactly one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.

The book takes us from her childhood through present day running Jahren Lab in Hawaii with this crazy guy named Bill. Bill may in fact be the most interesting character in the entire book. Hope meets him while in school when she sees him digging holes everywhere and convinces him to work at a lab with her because he is the best in their class. His quirkiness continues throughout the book and gave me quite a few laughs. Nothing Bill said or did could top the monkey story though. Just wait. Read it because I have no words… no words at all!

Read this and then go plant a tree!

Imagine Me Gone

c85f0b59ac0956d5f6353df145c35f3aA perfect rainy day read that draws you in with talk of summer vacation in Maine and subsequently causes you to mourn as you watch the characters over the decades to follow. This book is about mental illness and the impact it has on a family. It’s about childhood with a mentally ill parent and the adulthood that follows. If you have any experience with either, it may be a challenging and emotional read.

Imagine Me Gone tells of Margaret, an American, who falls in love with a British man and discovers that he struggles with depression when he is suddenly hospitalized. She marries him anyway and this novel follows their life together focusing mainly on their three children. The first chapter is a view of the end before whipping back to tell things from the beginning.  The writing is beautiful, really well done!

I had never understood before the invisibility of a human. How what we take to be a person is in fact a spirit we can never see.

Imagine Me Gone was released Tuesday and is the May selection of the First Edition Book Club so I have a signed copy!  I can’t wait to see what other books will come my way this year! What have been your favorite reads in 2016?

*** Update, I met Adam at the 2016 Chicago Lit Fest! ***

Men We Reaped

51W+KkjdiIL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_“Black lives matter!” I used to think this statement was rather narrow in its focus within humanity and on a few occasions even replaced it with, “All lives matter” not understanding that I was completely missing the point.  A metaphor that changed my thinking goes something like this:

Imagine that you’re sitting down to dinner with your family, and while everyone else gets a serving of the meal, you don’t get any. So you say “I should get my fair share.” And as a direct response to this, your dad corrects you, saying, “everyone should get their fair share.” Now, that’s a wonderful sentiment — indeed, everyone should, and that was kinda your point in the first place: that you should be a part of everyone, and you should get your fair share also. However, dad’s smart-ass comment just dismissed you and didn’t solve the problem that you still haven’t gotten any!

I grew up in a community where everyone was white. In fact, in a class of 400 graduating seniors, two were black (and one of those had just come her senior year).  I was taught to love and respect all of God’s children and most of the time I did. One summer day when I was a new 7 year old, I asked my neighbor to come over to play. She asked if her friend could come over too since they were already playing together at her house. I remember her asking me, “She’s black. Is that okay?” I remember thinking that was a strange question. Why did I care if she was black?

This sort of inclusive and non-discriminatory thinking continued throughout most of my 20’s and I incorrectly assumed racism was only a part of our history. The summer before my 6th year of teaching brought me to a training in Tahoe, California where I stayed at a beautiful four-star resort with some of my co-workers (two of them black).  Many of my evenings were spent bonding in one of the many hot tubs.  We developed a friendship and I experienced racism for the first time. TWICE  in the same night we calmly and quietly joined people in one of the hot tubs only to have them leave the second we got in. We were not rowdy, drunk, or offensive in any way and yet the people left… almost instantly. It upset me that people would treat my friends that way.  I experienced people being judged by something that cannot be changed, the color of their skin.

I processed through memories of that evening for about a year moving from shock to a determination to switch my mindset.  The mindset of acceptance slowly shifted to actively anti-racist because acceptance doesn’t defeat racism. That said, I’m still determining what I can do to help. Hannah Arendt once said,

There are no dangerous thoughts; thinking itself is dangerous. I think non-thinking is even more dangerous.

We need to push ourselves to think, question, and grow. One thing I’m focusing on is educating myself with the perspectives of others and trying to share what I learn. Last year only 6% of the books I read were written by POC.  This year, I’m at 24%.  I’m not trying to hit a certain percentage. It’s not about the numbers. It’s about purposefully moving beyond myself. It’s about listening without trying to make personal connections or getting offended- just listening. Today I finished, Men We Reaped and it was moving and difficult to read. Jesmyn Ward describes her childhood taking occasional breaks to describe men that she lost in her life. There are many injustices brought up and situations told from a different viewpoint. Stories change when the viewpoint shifts and I’m grateful for this, and other books, that allow me to see things from a different angle.  Through glasses different than my own.

What do you think are the best ways for white people to be allies?  What are books you’d recommend to me?

Lessons from Madame Chic

51fHa0gMvsL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_My grandma has next to nothing, but everything she has is quality and I’ve always tried to emulate that on my teacher budget.  I buy quality because it will last and look nice thus saving money down the road.  This is one of the many pieces of advice given in Lessons from Madame Chic that, if true, proves that my French heritage somehow found a way to shine through.

The author, Jennifer L. Scott, studied abroad in France and this book share some of her observations on the French lifestyle.  I love reading books on how other people live and thus of course loved this book too. Everything is covered from food to fashion and I was shocked by how many things I already do including listening to classical music after dinner, cultivating my mind (Coursera, reading insistently, and going on field trips even though I’m 29 years old), and living passionately!  I’m always trying to make ordinary things like reading a book feel special and I think this is an attitude prevalent in the book- living well.

Things I’m looking to improve on are not snacking, plan delicious dinners, be more active outside, evaluate my wardrobe and Goodwill things I don’t wear, and try to avoid bumming around in yoga pants the entire weekend!

This was easy to read and not anything close to quality literature, but would make for a great non-fiction beach read if you need one this summer🙂

This book fulfills the “self-improvement book” category of the 2016 Reading Challenge!

The Little Red Chairs

510g+yfHtnL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_Intense! Don’t read anything about this book besides the book itself. Skip the reviews (except this one) and definitely skip the dust jacket! Light a fire, grab a throw blanket, perhaps a glass of wine, and settle in for the long haul.  Watch your world fade around you as you begin reading: on a cold, dark night a stranger appears in an Irish village…

On the 6th of April 2012, to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the start of the siege of Sarajevo by Bosnian Serb forces, 11,541 red chairs were laid out in rows along the 800 meters of the Sarajevo high street. One empty chair for every Sarajevan killed during the 1,425 days of siege. Six hundred and forty-three small chairs represented the children killed by snipers and the heavy artillery fired from the surrounding mountains.

This “read in one sitting” sort of a book and was delivered to me, signed, as the March pick for Parnassus’s First Edition Book Club!