Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Scent of a Memory

Memories are fickle things. Perhaps it’s a liability of age, but the older I get; the easier it is to remember things that happened twenty years ago rather than what I ate for lunch yesterday. It fascinates me how the oddest things can trigger memories. 

It happened to me last week. I was sitting at my desk (I teach high school English). The room was quiet except for the sound of the heater that hummed one steady note while it blew a continual blast of hot air. Our school has a coal furnace, and in the classrooms, all of the heat comes from one register that squats like a giant gray box under a window (I know, that’s not exactly energy efficient). In my classroom, the old unit has one control with two choices – on and off. The metallic smell of burning coal comes from the heater in faint puffs.

This particular morning, it was ten degrees, so the heater was in the “on” position. My students and I were writing in our journals, when the hum of the heater unearthed a memory. I closed my eyes and let it float to the surface. 

I am in the first grade at P. V. Dennis Elementary School, and it is a cold day just like this one. The room is warm and the acrid scent of coal burning in the furnace permeates the room. I am sitting at my desk, a little girl in a jumper and thick black tights, laboring over a writing tablet, lined gray paper with the right amount of space between lines so I can print my letters. My chubby hand grips a fat red pencil. I look up at the letters my teacher, Mrs. Yates, has printed on the board. She has a contraption that holds four pieces of chalk. When she swipes it across the board, it makes straight lines for her letters to rest upon. I am fascinated by that contraption and long to try it. 

I open my eyes and I’m back at my desk. My students are still writing and the heat is still pumping into the room. I look down at my journal; it’s lined pink pages with gold embossed edges invite me to put words on the page. Today, I am writing with a purple gel pen. I smile and keep writing.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and SweetHotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am happy I chose to read Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet as the first book of 2013. It touched me in many different ways and was worthy of praise on many levels.

I was drawn into the life of Henry Lee from the moment he appeared on the page. The elderly Henry is carrying so much sadness around with him that the reader knows he has a story to reveal.
Then we meet the young Henry just stepping into adolescence, which at the best of times, is difficult for kids, but add the coming war, and his conflicts at school paralleled by his conflicts with his father, and the reader has an intriguing coming of age story.

But this book goes beyond that, and delves into the conflict between the Japanese and Chinese culture.
Throw Henry into a friendship with a Japanese girl,Keiko, and the reader knows there is little hope that Henry can ever rise above his culture, and the prejudice of the times to form a bond with her that will endure. Hence the "bittersweet" feel to this story. Even though I was pulling for Henry and Keiko to somehow "make it," I knew they could not, but that didn't diminish my love for the book, in the least.

I have a dear friend who is Japanese-American and the first scene with Henry and his parents brought to mind her words about the Japanese and their customs. I was eager to tell her about the book and plan to discuss it with her after she reads it, which just extends my love of the book.

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Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Books I Read in 2012

January -  a time for reflecting on the past and anticipating the future. In the Appalachian mountains I call home, it's also the time of year we get the biggest snows. What better time to start reading the first book of the New Year and look back on what I read or re-read in 2012. Here's my list.

Fair and Tender Ladies by Lee Smith
Red Mist by Patricia Cornwell
The Paris Wife by Paula McLain
Beloved by Toni Morrison
Gilead by Marilynn Robinson
The Best Advice I Ever Got by Katie Couric
Pennance by Clare Ashton
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender
Lone Wolf by Jodi Picoult
The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht
Jonah’s Gourd Vine by Zora Neale Hurston
Success in Hill Country by Amy Clark
What Happiness Looks Like by Karen Lenfestey
The Descendants by Kaui Hart Hemmings
Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Stout
Wild by Cheryl Strayed
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard
Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
Good in Bed by Jennifer Weiner
The Ghost of Mandy Rosental by J.S. Egan
Top of Form
Bottom of Form
The History of Love by Nicole Krauss
Burning Bright: Stories by Ron Rash
Beaches by Iris Rainer Dart
11/22/63 by Stephen King
The Slow Moon by Elizabeth Cox
The Common Man by Maurice Manning
The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown
Midwives by Chris Bohjalian
The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton  
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
Serena by Ron Rash
Blue Christmas by Mary Kay Andrews
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

If I had to choose the best book from this list, it is Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Stout. It was wonderful on many levels, number one being the perfect main character, Olive. She was indeed a character I loved to hate! Second runner-up to best book is Stephen King's 11/23/63. If you are a Stephen King fan, read this book! If you are not a King fan, read this book!

The book that disappointed me the most from this list is Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. If ever a book would have benefited by deleting 100 pages, then this is the one. So many times when I was reading this book I said out loud "Enough is enough!" I'm all for using profanity, sex, etc. if the writer so chooses, but when it's used over and over, it loses it's "shock value" and detracts from the plot and the character development.

My favorite re-read from the list is Lonesome Dove by Larry McMutry. There is so much to love and learn from this wonderful book. 

The biggest "Surprise" from this list is The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown. One of my students gave me this book and promised me "you will love this!" and I did. The sisters, all named from Shakespeare's plays, are as unique as their names. 

Must reads from this list are The Common Man by Maurice Manning and Burning Bright: Stories by Ron Rash. Both are BRILLIANT!

My list for 2013 is off and running with Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet: A novel by Jamie Ford.

What are your favorite reads of 2012?

Saturday, January 5, 2013

My Review of The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

The Night CircusThe Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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In the world of science fiction fantasy books, I seldom find one that I enjoy. I admit, it's not my cup of tea, but I'm discovering that if it's as well written and original as The Night Circus, it doesn't matter how its categorized.

The Night Circus has all the elements of a fantastic book. It's well written, the characters are luminous, and the plot is so compelling it keeps you reading until the end. With that said, it's the originality of the story that is the biggest gem in this work. The book creates a world where magic is "real" but must be kept safe at the night circus because there, it can be presented to the world as an illusion.

Magic weaves its way through the lives of this cast of characters wreaking havoc, while maintaining an element of reality because these characters still ask the questions we all do - Who am I? Why am I here? What is my place in this world? What is going to happen to me in the future?

The most wonderful element in this book is the age old theme that "love conquers all." Even though The Night Circus has a cast of characters that are both manipulated by magic and manipulators of magic, in the end, even the most powerful of these cannot control love.