Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Happy crops

In one of the courses I'm teaching this semester, we're reading the Georgics, a set of four didactic poems by Vergil, a 1st-century BCE Roman poet. In the first one, he offers all sorts of advice about planting and sowing crops, and it includes the classic line "nudus ara, sere nudus" - "plant naked, sow naked." Now, I'm not advising this, but it would make our gardening efforts a little racier.

But to get to the real purpose of this post, I want to tell you about the word laetus in Latin. When applied to people, it is usually translated as happy. Vergil, however, uses it quite often in reference to plants and crops to mean fertile, but in doing so he also anthropomorphizes the plants somewhat. I digressed in class a bit about this word, and how I like to imagine happy crops. One of my students emailed me later to say that he liked that translation, and that it reminded him of a game called "Plants vs. Zombies." It looks like a good game - and how can you not like cartoon zombies? - so I've been tempted to get this, but I have to wait at least until I'm done with the chapter I'm writing.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

I am the Messenger

I decided to use I am the Messenger--a favorite of several of the Fertile Plots gang from last year--with my English 108 class, a class designed to prepare students for college level reading and writing. Here's a brief synopsis (courtesy of my Goodreads review):

Ed Kennedy is a 19-year-old cab driver, who hasn't done much with his life. Unlike his successful brothers and sisters, he still lives in his hometown and seems destined to take after his hapless (now dead) father. He plays cards with his friends, is hopelessly but fruitlessly in love with one of them (Audrey), and spends much of his time with his smelly, beer-drinking dog, Doorman. Then one day, he accidently foils a bank robbery and something changes. Not only does he get some press coverage but very soon after a playing card, the Ace of Diamonds, arrives in the mail. It has three addresses on it and each address has a time of day written after it. This card and the addresses it contains start Ed on a journey from which there is no going back.

I'm hoping the style and mystery will pull in reluctant readers and I'm hoping that no one will be put off by the PG-13 nature of it. I just re-read it last week and I suddenly became hyper aware of everytime Ed swears or references sex. Not sure what's up with that because my students are all adults but . . .

Anyway, I loved the book just as much the second time and I'm curious to see what my class will make of it. I actually just orderd a version of it on CD because I want to preview it for my students next week by playing the first chapter. It'll sound better read in an Australian accent.

I'll let you all know how it goes.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Newbery 2010

When You Reach Me won the Newbery Medal! I'm very happy that Rebecca Stead received this honor for her wonderful book. I'm also pleased that the award validates one of my top-10 picks.

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, another recent read that I really enjoyed, won a Newbery Honor (runner-up) award, too!

Friday, January 8, 2010

Another Top Ten!

Like JNJ said, there aren't a lot of surprises here that you couldn't have guessed from goodreads, but it is a lot of fun to look back and remember what really resonated in the past twelve months of reading. And I have you guys to thank for making it slightly more purposeful!
In no special order, my ten of '09:

Catching Fire
Collins hit this one out of the park. Who didn't want to know what happened the second Katniss got off the train at the end of The Hunger Games and now can't wait to learn about what may have really happened in District 12?

The Help
I've seen it on a lot of '09 lists, and it should be there. It's a beautifully narrated novel by three very distinct women viewing and living through a tumultuous time in the Deep South.

A Girl Named Zippy
Finally checked this gem out thanks to Doc Jen. I couldn't believe I had missed such a great memoir and how different Kimmel's life and time was to my own.

Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
One of those great first novels, Bradley mixes a mystery in a small English community with a tween-aged detective who shines as though this was a Christie cozy. I love the picture in my head of her careening about the countryside on her trusty bike.

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet
Another fabulous first novel, Ford's tale in WWII Seattle vividly described another side of Japanese internment and how some of the Chinese were impacted as well. Both the young and old Henry Lee's concern for his former classmate and friend Keiko was truly touching.

Going Bovine
I picked this over I Am The Messenger because although they both feature slacker teenaged young men, the lessons Cam learns on his cross-country trek are priceless. Especially when accompanied by a dwarf and a talking yard gnome.

Gregor and the Code of the Claw
Collins gets to have two "entries" because she really is just that darn good right now! I loved the end of this five book story arc and how Gregor and his family and friends "won" against the bad guys.

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane
I happened to read this in the fall, and really, is there any better time to read a semi-historical fiction book about a possible Salem witch?

Under This Unbroken Sky
The Oklahoma Dustbowl had nothing on the wilds of the Canadian prairie in the harsh years after the Depression. Immigrants Teodor and Maria struggle to make a go of their farm while battling family demons, discrimination and the elements in a heartbreaking tale.

The Girl Who Played With Fire
Lisbeth Salander becomes a much more rounded character in the second of Larsson's trilogy. For all of her troubles, Salander seems somewhat in control of the chaos in her life. I can't wait to see what's kicked up in the Hornet's Nest.

I decided my runners up would have a theme this year! They are all wonderful goodbyes to some very dear characters. It was nice to see the authors continue strong series to fitting conclusions.

The Last Olympian by Rick Riordan
Front and Center by Catherine Gilbert Murdock
Are These My Bassoomas I see Before Me? by Louise Rennison
Perfect Fifths by Megan McCafferty

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Top Reads of 2009

Well, here it is January 2, so it's high time that we start posting our top 10 lists! As we did last year, I'm including only books I read during the calendar year 2009, in no particular order. Since we all review books on Goodreads, there are no particular surprises, but I always enjoy going back through a year's worth of reading to decide which were real standouts and which, in retrospect, didn't stay with me as much. Here goes!

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, Jamie Ford
We see the events following Pearl Harbor through the eyes of Henry Lee, whose parents are determined that their son learn English, but still conform to Chinese tradition. When Keiko, a second-generation Japanese girl, transfers to his school, they are thrown together as the only non-whites. Then Japanese-Americans start being rounded up, and Henry is torn between his affection for Keiko and his compulsion to be a dutiful son.

People of the Book, Geraldine Brooks
A 500-year-old haggadah has resurfaced in Sarajevo after the Bosnian war. The narrative interleaves the modern-day restoration of the codex with sections about its history. Each vignette is peopled by vivid characters living at times of unrest and danger; the thread that links them all is the unique haggadah, and the sacrifices that individuals made when they crossed religious lines to save it.

Un Lun Dun, China Mieville
This is a wonderfully imaginative book. Its structure is a familiar one: odd things happen, and suddenly Zanna finds herself with her friend, Deeba, in unLondon, an alternate world that is threatened by a malevolent force which she is expected to conquer. However, Mieville starts deconstructing the “chosen one” storyline partway through the book in entertaining and unexpected ways.

Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague, Geraldine Brooks
When the bubonic plague breaks out in a small English village in 1665, they make a surprising decision: to avoid spreading the disease, they voluntarily shut off commerce with neighboring towns. Brooks focuses on Anna Frith, an uneducated miner’s widow, during this year of anguish and some surprising opportunities.

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, David Wroblewski
For 3 generations, the Sawtelles have raised dogs that are famed for their training. Edgar is born mute, but he has an uncanny ability communicate with the dogs. When Edgar’s father dies and his uncle takes his place, Edgar withdraws more and more from human contact. The parallels with Hamlet are unmistakeable, and yet this is enough of its own story that I often felt surprised by the plot as it unfolded.

The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman
Gaiman’s Newbery Award-winning book begins with the murder of a family, leaving a toddler who finds safety amongst ghosts in a nearby graveyard. After the grim beginning, the story switches to the story of the boy growing up within the confines of the graveyard. Gaiman mixes up the grim and the humorous, and he avoids easy, neat answers to complicated questions.

Catching Fire, Suzanne Collins
The world that Collins imagines is so real and so disturbing. The previous Hunger Games have provoked several districts to rebel, and the totalitarian government is cracking down harder than ever.

The Last Olympian, Rick Riordan
Percy and his fellow half-bloods have a final showdown with the Titan Kronos and his assorted monsters. There are a lot of funny lines and irreverent takes on myth, along with some monumental battles (including one based on the Iliad) and a satisfying conclusion to the series.

The Magicians, Lev Grossman
Quentin Coldwater is constantly disappointed by life. Even when he is offered admission into a school of magic, meets a great girl there, and finds out that the fantasy world in his favorite Narnia-like books is real, he sinks into disinterest and dissatisfaction. I really liked this dark side of the typical “magic-is-real” plot.

When You Reach Me, Rebecca Stead
This slim novel, told in short chapters, beautifully narrates the mundane details of 12-year-old Miranda’s life in New York City, 1978. It is a wonderful combination of realism with time-travel fantasy, using A Wrinkle in Time as a touchstone.

Honorable Mentions:
The Immortal Fire, Anne Ursu
Sorcery and Cecelia, Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer
Tender Morsels, Margo Lanagan
The Latehomecomer, Kao Kalia Yang
Atonement, Ian McEwan