Saturday, January 24, 2015

Musings on a Saturday, 1.24.2015

On my mind this week:

1. Friday marked the end of second quarter - and the official end of my first semester at my new school. Semester endings that happen after Christmas feel terribly anti-climatic - where is the fanfare? Where is the angst? Where is the drama?

This is also the first semester in my teaching career that I have not had final exams to write - and administer - and then, oh, the dread - grade in the smallest amount of time possible. For that, I am very, very thankful to be teaching sixth grade.

2. But, oh, do I miss teaching high school and the "deep" stuff.

I know that I'm here in this place for this time. I know that God brought me to this school and these kids and this experience. I'm glad to add full-time middle school teaching to my list of experiences as a teacher, because I think it's so important to have a wide range of teaching placements to become a really good educator. I'm not complaining. But, I do miss Macbeth and Great Expectations and Edgar Allan Poe and The Scarlet Letter and even, as crazy as this may sound, the boring offerings of William Bradford's Of Plymouth Plantation. I miss teaching these texts like I  miss a dear friend.

Seriously - there's an ache in my heart for them.

That's weird, I know.

3. As promised (to myself) I started reading Anna Karenina. It's quite good, actually. I'm only about 168 pages in - only a thousand or more to go.

And, for once in my life, I'm actually not exaggerating.

4. Speaking of exaggeration (my dear old friend), we are reading My Life in Dog Years by Gary Paulsen in Language Arts. By the way - it's so good. You should read it. I've never read it before, and I get teary eyed at the end of every chapter. One of the literary devices that we focus on when we read one of the chapters, "Caesar: The Giant" is hyperbole. So, the lesson plan for that chapter included examples of hyperbole. The worksheet and examples for hyperbole had a bunch of Chuck Norris examples - like "When the bogeyman goes to bed at night, he checks under his bed for Chuck Norris" (Question: "What's the bogeyman" Sixth Grade Answer: "Someone who smears boogers on people?") and "Chuck Norris doesn't read books. He stares them down until they give him what he wants."

I have a special place in my heart for Chuck Norris jokes. In my classroom in Dakar, I had a door leading to the science room's storeroom. The door was ugly and unnecessary, so every year I covered it with a large sheet of yellow butcher paper (which, by the way, I bought at the Big Paper Store...) and called it "The Door of Whatever." Students could write quotes, or jokes, or draw pictures on the Door of Whatever, and through the year, the door would slowly fill up. For whatever reason, Tanner decided to write a Chuck Norris joke-a-day on my Door of Whatever. I don't exactly know why. You'll have to ask Tanner - this is the same child who wore bright orange prison jumpsuits to school on a regular basis (but always dressed up in a shirt-and-tie on Fridays). But, it became a 'thing' between Tanner and me, and so I was so excited to have Chuck Norris hyperboles as a part of the suggested - um, highly suggested - school district lesson plan.

Have I mentioned that sixth graders don't get sarcasm?

They did not find them funny. At all. They didn't know who Chuck Norris was. And then I insulted about half of their parents by saying Chuck Norris was on a silly show that used to be on called Walker, Texas Ranger. Of course half of those parents still watch Walker, Texas Ranger.

"That's a really good show, Miss Bowers!" they whined at me. "My dad loves that show."

Of course.

The last example was "Chuck Norris can count to infinity. Twice."

"That's impossible!" declared several students, incredulously.

"But - that's why it's funny! That's why it's hyperbole!" I said wistfully, knowing I had lost all hope of making them understand why Chuck Norris is funny. I'm sorry, Tanner. I've failed you.

"But you can't count to infinity!"

At least they knew what infinity was.

Right? Right?

I may need to make a new sarcasm sign.

5. I've come to realize that I have a problem.

A chai tea problem.

A few months ago, I began a quest for the best chai tea. First of all, for all you chai tea purists out there, I realize that what I am calling chai tea - the stuff that comes in tea bags that you buy at the grocery store - is not Chai Tea. But, it still can taste good (if not as authentic as the real stuff). I started just buying a different kind of chai tea when the mood struck.

Apparently the mood struck a lot:

And, yes, I am aware that there are duplicates.

The best so far? Bigelow Vanilla Chai. This has become my go-to Chai (I drink it every day), and consequently, all the rest are left moldering in the cupboard like Miss Havisham waiting for her fiance.

Okay, I must really, really miss Great Expectations.

Until another Saturday's - or Tuesday's - or Thursday's - musings.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Nine Random Musings on a Sunday 1.4.2015

I never write these on a Sunday. But, to be perfectly honest, just between just me and you (shhh)...I'm putting off getting ready for school tomorrow. Why finish lesson planning when you can share your random thoughts with the world?

1. I been back a few days from a wonderful week away in St. Louis, visiting my brother and also my friends Beth and Aaron (and their two adorable kiddos), friends from DA. It was a really good visit - good for the soul, I think. I also made a quick trip to Kansas City and met up with my good friend, Annie - who introduced me to the best places to eat in Kansas City (and no, I'm not being facetious) - and also took me ice skating for the first time. 

From Left to Right - Sadie Selfie, Christmas photo with Denee (Ben's fiancee) and Ben, Eli Selfie, Annie and I at the skating rink, and our ice skates - though I wasn't brave enough to take that picture on the actual ice with my precious new iPhone...

It's nice to get out of town - and just as nice to come home and be ready to be home, and back to life and routine. Does that make sense? It's been a while since I haven't come home without a sense of loneliness. I mean, I didn't gain a roommate or anything, but I just feel less...alone. I feel more present.

2. I'm actually looking forward to getting back to school - lesson planning procrastination aside! I'm hoping the kiddos have calmed down a bit from twelve days ago. But, I'm actually looking forward to seeing their sweet, cheerful faces tomorrow morning. This is also a feeling of relief: goodness gracious, I like my job! Hooray!

3. The saddest thing has happened to me, and I think I'm finally ready to admit it to the world.

I think I'm becoming lactose-intolerant. I'm not a hundred-percent sure, nor do I think I'm totally lactose-intolerant, but over the past three or four years, I've had a hard time eating ice cream. And lately, I can't drink milk with out feeling...well, you know, unpleasant. This is a tragedy!

(I know I'm using the word tragedy wrong.)

But really! This sucks. Has this happened to other people - late-on-set lactose-intolerance? Today I bought lactose-free milk, so I'm hoping that will be okay. Half-and-half in my coffee doesn't bug me too much (yet?) and yogurt and cheese are okay (thank goodness - I don't want to live in a world without cheese).

4. Speaking of dairy-products, today I bravely tried Kefir, which I've been hearing about, but been a bit timid to try - but it's 99% lactose free. And, I liked it - it's a sort of liquidy yogurt thing - but not yogurt, either. Hard to describe. According to the internet (Wikipedia...), Kefir is "a fermented milk drink made out of kefir grains" (whatever those are). Typically, I steer away from anything intentionally fermented. Or unintentionally fermented. But, it kind of reminds me of the liquidy yogurts we get in Senegal - oh how I miss buying my yogurt by the bag. 

5. Yesterday I broke down and bought the new Taylor Swift album. I've been holding out - I am NOT A TAYLOR SWIFT FAN. But I can't stop singing "Blank Space" and "Shake it Off."
Getting on the T-Swift train, and I'm not getting off.

How did I get to this place in my life? A place in my life where I'm admitting to the world that I now like Taylor Swift?

I wish I could say it's a dark day, but it's not.

6. So, I signed up for another half marathon, which I hopefully will not chicken out on. It's actually the same one I chickened out on, last year.- the Philadelphia LOVE Run. I'm running it with my cousin, Rosanne, and looking forward to this cousin-bonding activity. I'm also looking forward to running again - I've really fallen off the wagon. The running wagon. That's a strange mental picture. Anyway, it'll give me a chance to catch up on the backlog of podcasts I haven't listened to yet.

7. Speaking of podcasts, everyone is talking about Serial and I. Haven't. Finished. It. Yet. so don't talk to me about it. Yet. I would just like to say that I started listening to Serial before it was cool. Yeah. That's right.

8. Today is my half-birthday. In six months exactly...I'll be THIRTY. Gulp. 



How did I get so old? In Hobbit years, I'm still only a tween, so I'll go with that.

9. Ahh! I forgot one! Downton Abbey starts tonight...and I can't watch it yet because my stupid TV antenna doesn't get PBS. I was a good little girl and didn't watch it, um, through other means while it aired in England. And how am I rewarded for my goodness? With bad TV reception.

Consequently, my life is a perfect graveyard of buried hopes (to quote Anne Shirley). Yes. It is that serious.

Please keep your Downton facebook postings to yourself, thank you very much, until Wednesday night. Because I can't watch it till then.

No...really...could you? Please?

Until another Sunday's, or Tuesday's, or Thursday's musings - au revoir!

The 2014 (and 2013) Book Review

In which I review the best and worst books read in 2014 (and a few from 2013).

(Warning - this post is really, really long. And I don't care.)

Last year I forgot to write my annual book review. I just...forgot. Not that it has become such an important part of your lives that my failure to write it resulted in a cosmic shift in the sands of time or anything (I honestly don't even know what that sentence means), but still. I forgot. I remembered around March, and by March, I didn't care very much and decided to lump 2013 in with 2014 - that is, if I remember to do a book review for 2014.


Before I start with 2014's books, here are a few of my favorite reads of 2013:

The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale
This is the sort of book I can't wait to re-read while I'm actually reading the book! Even for an avid reader, these sorts of books are few and far between; as much as I love to read, I don't often reread novels, or at least, not for many years.

I want to reread The Goose Girl, and soon.

Ani is a princess of a small kingdom who is sent off to marry the prince of the bigger, fiercer kingdom over the mountains from her home. She is double-crossed by her servants, and forced to work as the king's goose girl as she tries to regain her identity and save both kingdoms from going to war.

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne Valente

It took me a long time to read this book, and a long time to think about what to say in a review. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making (Let's call it The Girl Who... from this point on) is a strange, fantastical, incredible children's novel. It's the sort of book I think I'd like to read to my own children some day, the sort of book I could imagine, if I had read it as a child, sparking thousands of hours of pretend time in the backyard. It's not for everyone - the language is rich and convoluted and beautiful and confusing at times. The imagery is remarkable - and strange. The story is quite different - Valente has an awesome and bizarre imagination. Reading The Girl Who is a bit like eating Chocolate Mousse. I love Chocolate Mousse - but if I eat it too fast, I get a bit woozy from the richness. 

Rainbow Rowell - an author, not a book - Eleanor and Park, Fan Girl, and Attachments
It's hard to explain Rainbow Rowell's books. She writes young adult fiction, but it's so much more than that. She has a way of describing things that just...says it exactly the way I would hope that I would say it, were I writing these stories. She's best known for Eleanor and Park, which is excellent, but give her other books a try. However, I can't really recommend her most recent novel, Landline - I just didn't really get it, sadly.

The Bryant and May mystery series by Christopher Fowler.
This is the silliest series about two geriatric detectives on the loose, solving mysteries in London. Most of the books feature impossible locked-room type mysteries, very-old men crawling through sewers and wearing rather dodgy sweaters with pockets filled with string and old scones and occasionally small animals (I kid you not). I really enjoyed the earlier books in this series, and then sort of lost steam with the later books. What I love about them, apart from the humor (and some really clever mysteries) is the love affair with London that the books convey - each book is about a different aspect of London. And I love London. I was supposed to be born British, and it is one of the greatest disappointments of my life that I am not. So, if you, like me, have an affinity for that great city, you'll enjoy Bryant and May for the fun romp through London-

My least favorite book of 2014? 
Without a doubt, it was Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. While I appreciate the potential literary quality of the book - on a sort of academic level - never have I read a book that made me want to vomit while I was reading it. Actually, that's a lie - the Game of Thrones books also had that physical effect on me (and I stopped in the middle of book three and never have looked back).


2014 has been a rather skimpy reading year for me. I usually set a goal of reading 52 books a book a week. That doesn't mean that I actually read one book a week, but during summer and breaks, I often consume one book a day, so it's not that hard for me. Unfortunately, I fell rather short in 2014 - by twenty-four books. Ridiculous! I think I spent too much time watching Scandal this summer, and not enough time catching up on my Tolstoy. And by catching up on my Tolstoy, I mean reading Tolstoy, because I haven't successfully completed any of his novels yet.

Resounding Meh:

Imperfect Bliss by Susan Fales-Hill
Dear Jane Austen Fans with a Desire to Pen Your Own Novel:
If you are truly a fan of Jane Austen, please do not attempt to write a Pride and Prejudice novel in the 21st century. I have rarely found a really good retelling of Pride and Prejudice in print - Bridget Jones's Diary is probably the exception.

Imperfect Bliss is the story of Bliss - Elizabeth - divorced-mom whose sister is chosen as the "Virgin" on a Bachelorette-style reality TV shows. Being the Elizabeth Bennett character, she is of course disapproving of her families' antics, etc, etc, etc.

This novel was the sort of novel that couldn't find itself - was it trying to be chick lit? Was it a comedy of manners? Was it Austenesque? Was it trying to elevate chick lit? There are clear parallels to P&P, but of course with the usual 21st century twists. The author seemed to struggle between wanting to write in a more contemporary style and wanting to write with Austen's prose. The result were awkward metaphors, out-of-place word choice and unwieldy cultural references.

If you want to experience Pride and Prejudice in the 21st century, go watch the Lizzie Bennet Diaries. As an English teacher, it's rare for me to recommend a video over a book, but in this case, the LBDs succeed, hands down.

(Oddly enough, my 2012 Resounding Meh was also an attempted Pride and Prejudice spin-off or sequel or whatever - for some reason, I keep reading them, hoping that someone will finally "get" it.)

Bossypants by Tina Fey
Before I begin, let's get one thing clear: I. Love. Tina. Fey.

Bossypants was funny (I literally LOLed multiple times - and you know I hate the term LOL with basically the passion of a thousand burning suns, so I must have really LOLed.). I liked some of her message (not all, as I fall on the conservative side of most things, well, particularly social issues, 9/10, I think). I'm still not entirely sure what her thesis was, which is a problem, but I'm not certain if it's her problem, or mine, since I read it rather quickly. I enjoyed her anecdotes and wise-cracks about growing up, working on SNL, playing Sarah Palin, creating 30 Rock, motherhood, etc. It wasn't really a memoir in the chronological sense - it was more like a series of slightly related essays, which is fine, but I am not sure that it was either - memoir or essays? [I'm a big fan of Erma Bombeck, whom I discovered, oddly enough, as a fifteen year old (and somehow related to, despite the fact that I wasn't a 40-something suburban mom with a septic tank problem) and Fey's motherhood and growing-up "essays" (chapters?) were quite a lot like Erma Bombeck...but were they supposed be? Is Tina Fey going to read this review and get offended that I compared her voice to Erma Bombeck and lambaste me in her next memoir? Part of me really hopes so. I'm rambling, I know.] It jumped around in time too much. I wasn't really sure what to expect from the next chapter. I think one of the comments on the book probably said it best: this is a book that is to be listened too. Fey's voice is loud and clear in the book, and that's great - but it's a little too conversational for a book. I would love to listen to this, and I wish that I had. I may even go back and listen to it, because, I really like Tina Fey, and I'd like to listen to her tell her stories. I'm just not so sure that I want to read her telling her stories.

Of course, it's a lot better than most celebrity memoirs (no disgusting sexual escapades related, for which I am super-grateful, because ew.), and I'm positive Fey wrote it herself, which is step of from most of them. So, read it if you like her. I don't think it's the earth-shattering celebrity memoir of the century, but as memoirs go, it's readable and likable, and you don't feel disgusted with her at the end of the book.

The Worst:

The Crown Tower by Michael J. Sullivan
So, I love fantasy. I will never deny this. And, I'm ever on the hunt for good fantasy. Which means I tend to read a lot of crappy fantasy in the meantime. Goodreads recommended this series to me, based on my reading history, and I thought, well, what the heck? The reviews were favorable, so, I picked up the prequel, which was a mistake.

I haven't read a lot of fan fiction (not a rabbit-hole I want to stumble down). But I imagine it would read a lot like The Crown Tower. This book felt like it was fan-fiction of the author's earlier works. I hadn't read the author's other books, but I got the impression that I would appreciate this one much more, had I read the other series. The author admittedly encourages readers to read first the books that come chronologically later. I have a problem with this because I just wonder what is the point of writing a pre-quel that doesn't have the same vim and verve as your other books. An example of a good pre-quel is Asimov's Forward the Foundation - though he wrote it much later, I believe a person can pick that up seamlessly without the sense that it would make much more sense to have read the "later" (chronologically speaking) books in the Foundation series.

Since Michael J. Sullivan wrote these after the "later" books, it felt like he was sort of pandering to what his readers might want to know about these characters. There was very little point to this book, which bothered me. The Crown Tower is the story of the two characters of his actual series and how they met. The main story line was slightly interesting – the two characters eventually become master thieves or something? But, if you want to read a fantasy series about master-thieves, read The Gentlemen Bastards series by Scott Lynch- so, so, so good. An author who not only writes well, but creates rich and likable characters. You will laugh, you will cry (seriously: you. will. cry.) I admit that's what I was hoping for with the Crown Tower, though, of course, no one - no one, I tell you - can ever quite be a Locke Lamora.

The worst part is that I continued to try reading the series, and honestly...I stalled out half way through the last book and haven't been able to pick up it up again. So, I definitely do. not. recommend.

Honorable Mention:

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
Please don't hate me for this one. But, guys, it was really, really good. And John Green is probably my soul mate - seriously. And The Fault in Our Stars was completely different than I expected. But I should have expected it to be good because I love John Green. (If you haven't watched his Crash Course videos, you 1) aren't terribly well informed about world history and 2) are totally missing out on an incredible experience.) I expected The Fault in Our Stars to basically be Twilight with cancer. And it wasn't at all. It was much more. It had literary depth and quality and made me think and make me laugh and made me cry. That's all I'm going to say about it, lest you think I've morphed into an emotional fifteen year old girl. Which, lately, that's how I feel so, whatever. 

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion
What would it look like if a high-functioning, albeit undiagnosed, man with Asperger's Syndrome set out to find the perfect mate? The Rosie Project explores this - Don Tillman decides to find himself a wife - and very methodically sets about looking for the perfect woman. Of course he finds the perfect woman, but just not the woman he planned for. It's a romance, but it's more than that. I honestly didn't even feel like I was reading a romance. You're routing for Don the whole time - but it's a little like reading a romance novel in which Sheldon Cooper decides to set out to find a wife (if he cast aside Amy or something). If Sheldon drives you crazy, maybe steer clear of The Rosie Project.

The Hypnotist's Love Story by Liane Moriarty
I randomly picked up this book, because I wanted to read another book by the same author - What Alice Forgot - but the library didn't have it, so I got this one. Oddly enough, I eventually checked out What Alice Forgot, but couldn't get into it, so I'm glad I found this one first, because I probably wouldn't have tried to read something else by her (does that make sense?).

The Hypnotist's Love Story is about a woman (who happens to be a hypnotist) who meets a guy online and everything is great - and then it turns out the guy has a stalker (an obsessive ex-girlfriend). And then the book becomes more about the woman and the stalker than the woman and the boyfriend. It's a really good read. It was challenging and funny and sad. It was really, really thought provoking. Don't be deceived by the chick-lit sounding plot and cover - it's really not. You know I wouldn't recommend Chick-lit, right? You know that - right?

Mr. Penumbra's Twenty-Four Hour Bookshop by Robin Sloane
If you take books, fonts, Google, computer programming, dragons, secret societies, hackers, and immortality, what pops out is Mr. Penumbra's Twenty-Four Hour Bookshop. It's a relatively easy read, language-wise. I can't even really explain what the book is about, other than that long list of random things. Ultimately, it's about the power of friendship - which sounds super-corny, but read the book - you'll find it's not.

The Best:

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
Neil Gaiman is an excellent author whose books I do not always love. I also read American Gods this year, and while I "got" it, and I got that it was a really impressive literary feat, and probably something that will be studied in college English classes in the future, I didn't like American Gods. It made me uncomfortable and a little depressed and unhappy. 

But, The Ocean at the End of the Lane was so different. I just really loved this story of childhood, and the frightening things that happen in childhood - and the underlying tale of God's redemption and Grace and salvation. Look, I don't try and force Christian meaning on books. My students used to asked me about that, and honestly, I think we need to be very careful how we interpret books as Christians. It's okay to see the Christian symbolism for ourselves, but be careful in interpreting a book for it's Christian imagery. And, I'd caution the same for The Ocean at the End of the Lane - but whether Gaiman intended such a strong Christian allegory or not, I think it's there. I finished the book feeling overwhelmed by God's grace and Christ's sacrifice. It reminded me of my own fallenness, and my own inability to do anything about my sin - that I need God's grace. The writing is also beautiful, and the story is gripping and exciting and frightening and I couldn't read it at night as I was going to bed because parts of the story are terrible (because it's a Neil Gaiman novel, of course).

The best books stick with you, and The Ocean at the End of the Lane has stuck with me. It hasn't faded. I'd like to teach it one day, if I'm ever teaching upper level high school again (and if I ever have the freedom to teach what I want to teach again).

The Five Books I Want to Read in 2015
(Because this post wasn't long enough already...)

1. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. Nope, never read it. Yes, I know that's a travesty. I'll try and rectify that. By the way, rectify is a really gross sounding word.

2. The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis. Only read half of it. Just saw it as a play. Would like to read the whole thing.

3. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. Don't know much about it.

4. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. I started it last year - really enjoyed what I read of it, but somehow didn't finish it. 

5. The third book in the Kingkiller Chronicles by Patrick Rothfuss. Which isn't published yet, and doesn't have a release date yet. Please, oh, please, Rothfuss...finish writing the book. 

Okay - time to pay it forward: what books stood out to you in 2014? Make your recommendations in the comments!

Until next year's novel length book review! Happy 2015, folks!