Top Five Friday: Books from the Teaching Years

People frequently ask me if I miss teaching high school. I find this question surprising, because when I was teaching, people inevitably had one of two reactions when I told them about my job. Most people said, “What’s that like?” in a tone that suggested they would rather have all their teeth pulled at once without any anesthesia. Alternatively, they would just shake their heads at me and say, “Oh, I could never do that,” with varying degrees of implied “Bless her heart,” or “What is wrong with that girl?”

The answer, by the way, is no. I don’t miss teaching. What I do miss, in addition to some great teacher friends and a handful of wonderful students, is the books. Teaching gave me a great opportunity to interact with some of my favorite books alongside my students. We made edible models of Frankenstein’s monster, learned to dance the moresca from Romeo and Juliet, and played quidditch after a test on Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone on a regrettably muddy afternoon. You don’t get to do those kinds of things with books when you read them by yourself. I do miss that particular aspect of teaching.

So this Friday, here are my top five favorite books from the teaching years.

OM&M 1. Of Mice and Men. Oh, how I love this book. I read it aloud for my CP kids twice a semester for four years. I NEVER got tired of it. It generated so many great conversations, and several times, students had some deep thoughts on the ending that I found really moving. The only thing I didn’t like was that, for some reason, students love to spoil the end of this book for the next class. I had to threaten them with my eternal fury to convince them not to ruin it for the students who would read it the next semester, and I’m sure several of them ignored me.
 romeo and juliet 2. Romeo and Juliet. Listening to the kids read Shakespeare aloud in their hilarious NC accents (not judging – I have one too) was priceless. One particularly enthusiastic pair of students insisted on being allowed to act out the balcony scene, and they brought in their own homemade “balcony” for the day. Also, each group of students did a project with R&J where they basically made me an illustrated version of each scene of the play using bingo dotters. I loved these. Some of the kids spent so much time on them and came up with some really beautiful work.
 mockingbird 3. To Kill a Mockingbird. The students never really got excited about the first half of the book, but by the time Tom Robinson enters the story, they were into it. The last six or seven chapters especially would just fly by. One year, when we were talking about Tom Robinson’s trial, I asked the kids offhand if they felt sorry for Mayella Ewell. I didn’t have to say another word for the rest of the class period – several of the kids had very firm and very opposite opinions on that subject, and they just ran with it. It was fun to watch.
 hound 4. The Hound of the Baskervilles. I only taught British lit for my last two semesters, so I only had two groups of students to read this one. I was surprised by how many said it was their favorite thing that we read. Now I just wish that the Benedict Cumberbatch “Sherlock” had been out at the time so I could have shown them an episode.
 streetcar 5. A Streetcar Named Desire. It’s hard to pinpoint why I enjoyed teaching this one as much as I did. I didn’t start using it until my third year of teaching, but each class that I used it with did a great job with it. There is just so much to work with in the play, and a lot of the students picked Blanche as the subject of their projects for the end of the semester – she was always a fun character to talk about.

Have a wonderful weekend!

 

Happy Release Day, Beatriz Williams!

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Beatriz Williams’ third novel The Secret Life of Violet Grant is out today. I’ve read her second book, A Hundred Summers, and also one of the romance novels that she writes under the pen name Julianna Gray. RT Books praises her writing for her “smart characters, snappy dialogue and ingenious literary devices that turn the ordinary into extraordinary.”

Ms. Williams’ newest book falls into the time-slip category that is so near and dear to my heart. The description reads like a Kate Morton novel, which is also a win for me.

Here is what Putnam has to say about The Secret Life of Violet Grant:

Passion, redemption, and a battered suitcase full of secrets: the New York Times-bestselling author of A Hundred Summers returns with another engrossing tale. 

Manhattan, 1964. Vivian Schuyler, newly graduated from Bryn Mawr College, has recently defied the privilege of her storied old Fifth Avenue family to do the unthinkable for a budding Kennedy-era socialite: break into the Madison Avenue world of razor-stylish Metropolitan magazine. But when she receives a bulky overseas parcel in the mail, the unexpected contents draw her inexorably back into her family’s past, and the hushed-over “crime passionnel” of an aunt she never knew, whose existence has been wiped from the record of history.

Berlin, 1914. Violet Schuyler Grant endures her marriage to the philandering and decades-older scientist Dr. Walter Grant for one reason: for all his faults, he provides the necessary support to her liminal position as a young American female physicist in prewar Germany. The arrival of Dr. Grant’s magnetic former student at the beginning of Europe’s fateful summer interrupts this delicate détente. Lionel Richardson, a captain in the British Army, challenges Violet to escape her husband’s perverse hold, and as the world edges into war and Lionel’s shocking true motives become evident, Violet is tempted to take the ultimate step to set herself free and seek a life of her own conviction with a man whose cause is as audacious as her own.

As the iridescent and fractured Vivian digs deeper into her aunt’s past and the mystery of her ultimate fate, Violet’s story of determination and desire unfolds, shedding light on the darkness of her years abroad . . . and teaching Vivian to reach forward with grace for the ambitious future––and the love––she wants most.

A Twist in the Usual Top Five Friday

On Monday of this week, author and editor William Giraldi wrote an article for the New Republic, and he decided to spend his time and energy slamming women who read romance novels. He judges all romance novel readers by the standard of Fifty Shades of Grey, and he proceeds to spend his entire article explaining exactly why that makes us all stupid, pathetic, middle class white women with disappointing sex lives and overweight husbands. I’m not kidding. He really does say that. Twice.

I have never read Fifty Shades of Grey. I probably won’t, because it doesn’t really appeal to me. But I have at least twenty friends who have read it, and I think Giraldi would be shocked (and probably a bit disappointed) to know that they are all intelligent, productive members of their community. They also read other books. Lots of them. Painting all romance readers with the same brush and implying that we’re all brainless morons who have decided to use Fifty Shades as a self-help book is a truly shocking display of ignorance.

Here are some other gems from Giraldi’s article that really stood out to me:

  1. “[R]omance novels, like racists, tend to be the same wherever you turn.”  Not all romance novels are alike.  Romance Writers of America lists seven romance subgenres on its website, and GoodReads has a staggering 186 pages of lists devoted to different types of romance novels.  This is a genre that contains everything from Jane Austen to Diana Gabaldon.  Also, that’s a pretty offensive metaphor, Mr. Giraldi.
  1. “Romance novels… teach a scurvy lesson: enslavement of the passions is a ticket to happiness.”  I think Elizabeth Bennett and Scarlet O’Hara would both be very surprised to hear that the point of their novels is to teach women that the only way to be happy is to have sex. Actually, now that I think about it, Elizabeth would probably have a terrible fit of the giggles, and Scarlet would just scratch Giraldi’s eyes out.
  1. At least people are reading. You’ve no doubt heard that before. But we don’t say of the diabetic obese, At least people are eating.” Just wow. Giraldi really has a fixation about fat people. Also, is he seriously comparing the effects of reading romance novels to a disease? That’s how I read it. I don’t think I’m wrong.

So what advice does Giraldi have for us, the sad, sappy, unintelligent readers of romance novels? Read Clarissa. Again, I am not kidding. If you haven’t read it, Clarissa is a story about a naive girl who thinks she has found the man of her dreams, but he tricks her into running away with him to live in a brothel. She dies. This, my friends, is what Giraldi thinks will be good for our souls, which are so clearly crying out to be educated about what happens to women who have the audacity to follow their heart.

Mr. Giraldi, I don’t know what your goal was for this article or what your motiviation is.  I don’t know if a romance novel reader ran over your dog with her car, or if a hardback copy of Gone with the Wind fell on your toe one day, or if you believe that your brand of shaming will turn people into avid readers of your novels rather than romances. All I do know is that you are entitled to have any opinion you like about the romance genre – it won’t change my mind, and it probably won’t change the minds of thousands of women who, as you point out in your article, buy 46% of all mass-market paperbacks sold in the USA.

In honor of the romance novels that I have unapologetically loved for years and that have enriched my reading life, here are my top five favorite romance novels. They fall into all sorts of other categories as well – they are historical fiction, mystery, and magical realism. But they are romance novels, and I am not embarrassed to say that I love them or to recommend them to you whole-heartedly, because they are entirely worthwhile.

pavilions 1. The Far Pavilions, by M.M. Kaye.
From the book jacket: When The Far Pavilions was first published nineteen years ago, it moved the critic Edmund Fuller to write this: “Were Miss Kaye to produce no other book, The Far Pavilions might stand as a lasting accomplishment in a single work comparable to Margaret Mitchell’s achievement in Gone With the Wind.”From its beginning in the foothills of the towering Himalayas, M.M. Kaye’s masterwork is a vast, rich and vibrant tapestry of love and war that ranks with the greatest panoramic sagas of modern fiction.The Far Pavilions is itself a Himalayan achievement, a book we hate to see come to an end. it is a passionate, triumphant story that excites us, fills us with joy, move us to tears, satisfies us deeply, and helps us remember just what it is we want most from a novel.
 winter sea  2. The Winter Sea, by Susanna Kearsley.
From the book jacket: History has all but forgotten…In the spring of 1708, an invading Jacobite fleet of French and Scottish soldiers nearly succeeded in landing the exiled James Stewart in Scotland to reclaim his crown.Now, Carrie McClelland hopes to turn that story into her next bestselling novel. Settling herself in the shadow of Slains Castle, she creates a heroine named for one of her own ancestors and starts to write.But when she discovers her novel is more fact than fiction, Carrie wonders if she might be dealing with ancestral memory, making her the only living person who knows the truth-the ultimate betrayal-that happened all those years ago, and that knowledge comes very close to destroying her…
 masque  3. The Masque of the Black Tulip, by Lauren Willig.
From the book jacket: “The Masque of the Black Tulip opens with the murder of a courier from the London War Office, his confidential dispatch for the Pink Carnation stolen. Meanwhile, the Black Tulip, France’s deadliest spy, is in England with instructions to track down and kill the Pink Carnation. Only Henrietta Selwick and Miles Dorrington know where the Pink Carnation is stationed. Using a secret code book, Henrietta has deciphered a message detailing the threat of the Black Tulip. Meanwhile, the War Office has enlisted Miles to track down the notorious French spy before he (or she) can finish the deadly mission. But what Henrietta and Miles don’t know is that while they are trying to find the Black Tulip (and possibly falling in love), the Black Tulip is watching them.”
 spear  4. A Spear of Summer Grass, by Deanna Raybourn.
From the book jacket: Paris, 1923
The daughter of a scandalous mother, Delilah Drummond is already notorious, even among Paris society. But her latest scandal is big enough to make even her oft-married mother blanch. Delilah is exiled to Kenya and her favorite stepfather’s savanna manor house until gossip subsides.
Fairlight is the crumbling, sun-bleached skeleton of a faded African dream, a world where dissolute expats are bolstered by gin and jazz records, cigarettes and safaris. As mistress of this wasted estate, Delilah falls into the decadent pleasures of society.
Against the frivolity of her peers, Ryder White stands in sharp contrast. As foreign to Delilah as Africa, Ryder becomes her guide to the complex beauty of this unknown world. Giraffes, buffalo, lions and elephants roam the shores of Lake Wanyama amid swirls of red dust. Here, life is lush and teeming—yet fleeting and often cheap.
Amidst the wonders—and dangers—of Africa, Delilah awakes to a land out of all proportion: extremes of heat, darkness, beauty and joy that cut to her very heart. Only when this sacred place is profaned by bloodshed does Delilah discover what is truly worth fighting for—and what she can no longer live without.
 girl  5. The Girl Who Chased the Moon, by Sarah Addison Allen.
From the book jacket: Emily Benedict has come to Mullaby, North Carolina, hoping to solve at least some of the riddles surrounding her mother’s life. But the moment Emily enters the house where her mother grew up and meets the grandfather she never knew, she realizes that mysteries aren’t solved in Mullaby, they’re a way of life: Here are rooms where the wallpaper changes to suit your mood. Unexplained lights skip across the yard at midnight. And a neighbor, Julia Winterson, bakes hope in the form of cakes, not only wishing to satisfy the town’s sweet tooth but also dreaming of rekindling the love she fears might be lost forever. Can a hummingbird cake really bring back a lost love? Is there really a ghost dancing in Emily’s backyard? The answers are never what you expect. But in this town of lovable misfits, the unexpected fits right in.

 

Never let anyone make you feel ashamed to read what you love. Happy Friday.

Happy Release Day, Emily Giffin!

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Today is the book birthday for Emily Giffin’s seventh novel, The One & Only. I’ve read three of her previous books (Something Borrowed, Something Blue, and Baby Proof), and I like her style. I don’t read many books that are straight “chick lit,” but her books that I’ve read are funny and usually have something going on in them that’s a little more in-depth than a “boy meets girl” plot. Somehow, the fact that she got her undergrad degree at Wake Forest (even though she’s not an NC native) makes me want to support her like she’s a local author. So I will definitely check out her newest book.

Here is what Ballantine Books has to say about The One & Only:

In her eagerly awaited new novel, beloved New York Times bestselling author Emily Giffin returns with an extraordinary story of love and loyalty—and an unconventional heroine struggling to reconcile both.

Thirty-three-year-old Shea Rigsby has spent her entire life in Walker, Texas—a small college town that lives and dies by football, a passion she unabashedly shares. Raised alongside her best friend, Lucy, the daughter of Walker’s legendary head coach, Clive Carr, Shea was too devoted to her hometown team to leave. Instead she stayed in Walker for college, even taking a job in the university athletic department after graduation, where she has remained for more than a decade.

But when an unexpected tragedy strikes the tight-knit Walker community, Shea’s comfortable world is upended, and she begins to wonder if the life she’s chosen is really enough for her. As she finally gives up her safety net to set out on an unexpected path, Shea discovers unsettling truths about the people and things she has always trusted most—and is forced to confront her deepest desires, fears, and secrets.

Thoughtful, funny, and brilliantly observed, The One & Only is a luminous novel about finding your passion, following your heart, and, most of all, believing in something bigger than yourself . . . the one and only thing that truly makes life worth living.

Top Five Friday: Nonfiction Favorites

I don’t read a lot of nonfiction, but when I come across something from that genre that I like, I tend to get really attached to it. Usually, if I’m going the nonfiction route, I read memoirs, but sometimes I enjoy reading informational books if the topic is one I’m interested in and the writer’s style is approachable. So this Friday, I present my Top Five Nonfiction Favorites.

 france 1. My Life in France by Julia Child. I didn’t know anything much about Julia Child until I read Julie and Julia and watched the movie. I thought Meryl Streep did such a great job in that movie that I decided to give My Life in France a try, and I am SO glad I did. I can see why Julie Powell, after spending a year cooking and immersing herself in Julia-lore, started thinking of Julia child as her own personal fairy godmother. In her memoirs, Julia’s voice is friendly and conversational, and she spends lots of time talking about one of my favorite things – food! Reading this book made me wish I could go to France with Julia as my tour guide. She would have known the best restaurants, the best markets, and the best places for sightseeing. Her life with Paul Child was fascinating, and you get a good look at their years in one of the many places they lived abroad in this memoir.
 stiff 2. Stiff by Mary Roach. For someone who does not enjoy blood and guts books, this seems like a surprising choice for my list. This book is all about human cadavers – Roach takes a good look at what happens to our bodies after we die and the various ways that human cadavers find a new life in death. To research her book, Roach gets up close and personal with cadavers who are being used as crash-test dummies, test subjects for experimenting with new types of body armor, or practice models for plastic surgery seminars. Roach talks about grave robbers and cannibals and, in her search for the different ways that our bodies keep going once we’ve left them behind, she explores some of the philosophical reasons why people feel the way they do about what happens to their earthly remains. I was really surprised by how funny this book was – it’s an interesting topic for sure.
 orange 3. Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman. People have been telling me for months that I’ve got to watch this series on Netflix. Well, I finished the book last week and started the series afterward. I’ve got to say, keeping in mind I’ve only seen three episodes, I like the book better than the show. This is Kerman’s story about her year in federal prison following her conviction on drug charges. She goes to jail over a decade after committing her crime, and her story is a really interesting mix of coming to terms with her culpability, forging relationships with her fellow inmates, and trying to survive life in prison without getting left behind by her family and friends outside. The Los Angeles Times did a great job of pinpointing one of the most interesting things about it: “This book is impossible to put down because Kerman could be you. Or your best friend. Or your daughter.”
 part of the pride 4. Part of the Pride by Kevin Richardson. I have a fascination with big cats, so I thought this was a great book! Kevin Richardson grew up in South Africa, and even from childhood, he knew he would work with animals. He talks about his unsettled years as a teenager and how he transitioned into working with some of Africa’s biggest predators. He is extremely controversial among animal behaviorists because he breaks almost all of the established rules about working with wild animals, but his book is not intended to be a how-to guide to owning a pet lion. He freely admits that he doesn’t recommend his methods to anyone else, and he includes one particularly frightening story about what happened to him once when he forgot himself and tried to make a particularly fierce lion he calls Tsavo do something that the lion did not want to do. His experience with Tsavo is scary, but incidents like that are outnumbered by the truly amazing stories of interacting with his lion “brothers” Napoleon and Tau, teaching the lioness Meg to swim, and raising the hyena Bongo from a cub. He currently owns a Wildlife Sanctuary in South Africa, where he educates visitors about wild species preservation and fundraises to help prevent habitat loss, hunting, and illegal trade. It’s a really interesting read, and the pictures are incredible.
adulting 5. Adulting by Kelly Williams Brown. I’ve already written all about this book, but it really was a fun read. I felt like I picked up several helpful tips, and I laughed a lot. I particularly loved her charts and illustrations.

Beth, it just occurred to me that you loaned me 3 out of these five books. You have excellent taste. Xo.

Happy Friday!

The Fortune Hunter

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Thanks to NetGalley and St. Martin’s Press, I had a chance to read an advance copy of Daisy Goodwin’s July release The Fortune Hunter. Ms. Goodwin has another book, The American Heiress, that I haven’t read yet, but it’s on my list!

In 1875, Charlotte Baird is a young woman with a passion for photography and a penchant for saying the wrong thing in social situations. As the heiress of the Lennox fortune, she attracts her fair share of suitors, but Charlotte is self-aware enough to realize that the men who try to win her favor are mostly interested in her money. Her overbearing brother Fred and his bitter fiancé Augusta have been managing her money and her personal life, and she has never had a reason to challenge them. But things change for Charlotte when she meets Bay Middleton, a handsome cavalry officer who finds her unladylike hobby and strange habits charming. Charlotte is starting to think she may actually have found a suitor who would prefer her heart to her inheritance, but everything changes with the arrival of Empress Elizabeth of Austria.

Empress Elizabeth, known to her friends as Sisi, lives a life of luxurious monotony. She is heralded as “the most beautiful woman in the world,” and the Emperor is indulgent of her need for travel and excitement, but she is still unsatisfied. Sisi visits England for the opportunity to participate in an English foxhunt, and she brings a household of servants, courtiers and strange pets with her. When the Earl of Spencer informs her that he has selected a pilot to guide her in the hunt, she is less than thrilled. When she finds that Bay Middleton can keep up with her though, both in speed and fearlessness, Sisi decides it is not such a nuisance to have a pilot after all. Soon, she finds that Bay’s presence is necessary to her wherever she might be, and society begins to whisper that Bay may be doing more for the Empress than guiding her through her hunts. When these rumors reach Charlotte, Charlotte questions whether Bay’s attentions toward her were honest, or if he is really the fortune-hunter that she’s been warned about.

The Fortune Hunter is, on the surface, a simple story about a love triangle. But Ms. Goodwin takes her story to another level, creating a character study of Charlotte, Bay, and Sisi. Charlotte is the quintessential romantic heroine – biddable, naive, and uncertain of her own worth. But she develops into a woman who will not be told what to do and who is not content with being anyone’s second choice.

Sisi was a great character, and you can tell Ms. Goodwin had fun exploring her motivations. In the author’s note at the beginning of the novel, Ms. Goodwin admits to having a fascination with Empress Elizabeth as a child and she says she sees “ghostly parallels” between Sisi and Diana Spencer – “Both women, who married men they hardly knew and who didn’t understand them, were famously glamorous and unhappy.” Sisi doesn’t mind the gossip about her learning circus tricks on her horse, keeping a monkey as a pet, or riding out on the hunt far in front of a pack of men, but she does very much mind the idea that people will judge her by their ideal of royalty and find her wanting. She has a fear of losing her beauty, and for someone who takes great pride in her features, she has a horror of being photographed. Sisi is accustomed to getting whatever she wants without being questioned, but she still finds that her life is missing a freedom she can’t seem to grasp.

The character I had the most trouble understanding was Bay. I wondered if he might be a little too tempestuous for Charlotte in the long run. Not only does he develop a strong fascination with Sisi when he’s supposed to have an understanding with Charlotte, but he was involved with a married woman at the beginning of the novel. The book spans less than a year of time, so I found it a little hard to believe that, in the course of that time, he could be so infatuated with three different women. I definitely thought that he cared about Charlotte, but I found myself wondering if he was really a good fit for her. Maybe that’s just me putting myself in Charlotte’s shoes and wishing she could have fallen for someone a bit more reliable!

I really enjoyed the use of photography in this novel. It was a relatively new medium for people to experiment with, and none of the characters are quite sure how to feel about it. Everyone has a set idea in their head of how they appear to other people, and if a photograph contradicts that idea, it can be an unpleasant surprise. Augusta is a great example of this attitude. She is quick to snub the idea of Charlotte’s photos as art, complains about the time involved in taking a photograph and, when she doesn’t like how she looks in a picture, she takes it out on Charlotte. She becomes much more open to the process when a photographer pets her ego by posing her like a goddess in front of a painted backdrop. Characters seem to have a fear of photographs and what a photo of themselves might reveal. As Charlotte points out to Sisi when they are formally introduced, “A royal portrait is bound by its very nature to flatter its subject, but a photograph cannot lie.” With one of her photographs, Charlotte learns a particularly hard lesson about what a camera can capture that the eye might have missed.

I thought this was a great story, and I was interested to learn that Bay Middleton and Charlotte Baird are not just Ms. Goodwin’s characters, but real people. Somehow that makes the story even better to me. I’ll have to hurry up and get started on The American Heiress soon.

Happy Release Day, Melanie Dobson!

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I went through a phase last year where I read a lot of historical fiction about World War II. I also love a good time slip novel – so Chateau of Secrets, the newest book by Melanie Dobson, sounds like a good one to try.

Here is what Howard Books has to say about Chateau of Secrets:

A courageous young noblewoman risks her life to hide French resistance fighters; seventy years later, her granddaughter visits the family’s abandoned chateau and uncovers shocking secrets from the past.

Gisèle Duchant guards a secret that could cost her life. Tunnels snake through the hill under her family’s medieval chateau in Normandy. Now, with Hitler’s army bearing down, her brother and several friends are hiding in the tunnels, resisting the German occupation of France.

But when German soldiers take over the family’s château, Gisèle is forced to host them as well—while harboring the resistance fighters right below their feet. Taking in a Jewish friend’s baby, she convinces the Nazis that it is her child, ultimately risking everything for the future of the child. When the German officers begin to suspect her deception, an unlikely hero rescues both her and the child.

A present day story weaves through the past one as Chloe Salvare, Gisèle’s granddaughter, arrives in Normandy. After calling off her engagement with a political candidate, Chloe pays a visit to the chateau to escape publicity and work with a documentary filmmaker, Riley, who has uncovered a fascinating story about Jews serving in Hitler’s army. Riley wants to research Chloe’s family history and the lives that were saved in the tunnels under their house in Normandy. Chloe is floored—her family isn’t Jewish, for one thing, and she doesn’t know anything about tunnels or the history of the house. But as she begins to explore the dark and winding passageways beneath the chateau, nothing can prepare her for the shock of what she and Riley discover…

With emotion and intrigue, Melanie Dobson brings World War II France to life in this beautiful novel about war, family, sacrifice, and the secrets of the past.

According to Melanie’s blog, Gisèle’s story is based on the real life of a French noblewoman, Genevieve de Saint Pern Menke.