There's an article up on the New York Times website about a teacher in Atlanta who allows her students to read whatever they want to* in her middle-school literature class. The students explore their reading via journal entries and one-on-one discussions with the teacher. There seems to be debate over how this unique approach affected the students' standardized test scores, but I think it's an interesting idea--when I was a kid, I had a friend who read nothing but those written-by-committee Nancy Drew paperbacks, and while the stories weren't all that great, she seemed to get a lot from their clear, easy-to-read writing style, and became a solid writer herself.
I'm not saying there's no value to force-feeding kids The Jungle or The Great Gatsby, but this article did have me wondering if there might be some middle ground. What if teachers chose classic novels, and then asked students to choose a modern novel with a similar theme? Let the kids read Stephenie Meyer, but then point 'em at a Bronte novel, or guide them from Frankenstein to Jurassic Park.
Of course, another option might be just to choose more kid-friendly required reading. In my experience, it is very, very difficult to interest a reluctant reader in, say, Ethan Frome. Many children find the language off-putting, and the ones who can get past the language are creeped out by the subject matter. But why not choose something like Shirley Jackson's The Lottery, or Agatha Christie's The Murder on the Orient Express, or the Baroness Orczy's The Scarlet Pimpernel? All of these stories have their pluses and minuses, but if the idea is to expose a young reader to a classic novel, it might not be a bad idea to choose something highly readable. And if all else fails, I think teachers should stick to teaching the books that they love, because kids do respond to genuine enthusiasm... even if it's genuine enthusiasm over Bartleby the Scrivener.
*Except Gossip Girl books or novels based on video games, apparently.
In what I can only describe as a desperate attempt to attract really young readers with the fashion equivalent of fanfiction, InStyle magazine asked several designers to sketch Bella Swann's wedding dress.
I've always liked looking at the exaggerated lines of fashion designs, so this marketing ploy aimed at the Twilight demographic worked on me. (Okay, and it helped that it was free.) Only one of the dresses looks anything like the dress described in the book*, but the pictures sure are pretty.
*Which I haven't read, but InStyle informs me that Bella's mother tells her that she looks like she'd just "stepped out of an Austen movie", so I'm assuming that means Regency, right?
I had to snicker when I read this Variety article about the sky-high ratings enjoyed by the recent episode of HBO's True Blood, which was the first HBO series episode to top 5 million viewers since the Sopranos finale in June of '07.
Now, I haven't seen this episode, but I have started watching the first season of True Blood on DVD, and from what I've heard about the second season, it's hardly surprising that a zillion people tuned in. This is a series with a fetching cast, oodles of violence, and--did I forget to mention?--town-wide orgies. It's got everything an HBO subscriber could hope for, and frankly I'm a little surprised it didn't hit the fifty-million-viewer mark straight out of the gate.
According to Deb's Manga Blog, TokyoPop has licensed Shiawase Kissa Sanchoume ("Happy Cafe"), and will be releasing it in January.
This 11-volume series overflows with shojo cliches, including a romantically oblivious heroine, emotionally reticent men, and weird-yet-amusing medical conditions, but it's still very cute, and I'm looking forward to reading it.
...and while I'm not a huge Michael Cera fan (he's precious) and I haven't read the C.D. Payne book the movie is based on, the trailer's teen-romance take on Fight Club shtick did make me snicker a few times:
Once again, my local library has come through for me with their excellent books-on-CD selection. My family and I are heading off to the beach this week, and we'll be listening to the complete and unabridged audio version of Wendelin Van Draanen's Sammy Keyes and the Hotel Thief along the way.
As longtime readers of the site know, I am a huge Van Draanen fan, and I am sincerely grateful to my library system for providing me with four hours of audio entertainment. If you don't spend much time at your local library (and a shocking number of bibliophiles never set foot in libraries, preferring to hang out in bookstores), do yourself a favor and trot on down. I can't speak for every library in the country, but most of 'em are clean, friendly, staffed by helpful, friendly librarians, and surprisingly well-stocked... with books that are free.
So, as kind of a palate-cleanser after the orgy of fiction I've been reading lately, I picked up a copy* of Carrie McLaren and Jason Torchinsky's Ad Nauseam: A Survivor's Guide to American Consumer Culture, and I am happy to report that so far it is excellent, witty and smart and surprisingly non-depressing (apart from the parts about how advertising affects the judicial process).
I haven't finished the book yet, but my favorite part thus far came from the first section, which offers a quick history of modern advertising. The authors found a glorious ad from the 1890s for Royal Seal brand oats featuring the Royal Oats can standing in the middle of what looks like the cockroach version of World War III. Clearly, the ad is meant to show that the can of cereal can survive anything... but I just love the idea of a modern ad agency surrounding any kind of breakfast food with a roach army.
*From the library, because I hate buying books about consumption.
AnimeNewsNetwork informs me that someone is making an anime version of Kaichou wa Maid-sama!, the super-popular shojo manga by Hiro Fujiwara. This series, while cute, is one of those stories that kicked off with a fun idea (the heroine is a boy-hating, play-by-the-rules student council member who secretly works at a maid café), but lets it drag on way, way too long—we're at nine volumes and counting.
...to come up with a new title for her paranormal work-in-progress. The book has been tentatively titled Always Kiss Me Goodnight for some time, which Crusie chose because the phrase has always given her the heebie-jeebies, but now her publisher is concerned that it doesn't do a good job of communicating a creepy vibe.
My first and only exposure to this phrase has been via Jennifer Crusie's book, so I had no idea it was the kind of cutesy statement people sold on wall decals at Target. It's always struck me as cold shiver-inducing, and I really like it as a title. But if you're more creative when it comes to titles than I am (and it's not hard to be, trust me), drop Ms. Crusie a line with your suggestion.
I was listening to BBC Radio yesterday, and they had a story about 62-year-old Stefan Gatward, a Kent resident who finally lost his temper over the incorrectly-punctuated sign on the end of his street ("St Johns Close") and painted in an apostrophe.
Anyway, the BBC wanted to know what their listeners thought: was it too nit-picky, or did Mr. Gatward have a valid complaint*? I'm no grammar expert, but I am a big fan of the apostrophe, so I was very happy to hear that nearly everyone they polled supported Mr. Gatward's position--particularly because my doom-and-gloom mother frequently tells me that we're all moving towards a new, punctuation-free future, and I better get over it or I'm going to give myself a headache.
So there, Mom.
*The expert opinion featured in the BBC story also pointed out that until we have an inflexion-based way of communicating the difference between statements like "the pills' effects are dangerous" and "the pill's effects are dangerous", we might want to be careful about dumping time-honored stylistic flourishes.)
Heh. I finally got around to watching the New Moon trailer, and I'm sorry to say that the hokey boy-into-wolf CGI in the first teaser does not appear to have been fixed:
And the last line of the trailer just cracked me up, possibly because the actor (30 pounds heavier or not) looks like he's thirteen, tops, so what should have been a mega-dramatic moment was veering into temper tantrum territory.
Sarah Boxer has a nice article up in Slate about the recent graphic-novel adaptation of Ray Bradbury's classic novel Fahrenheit 451--you know, the book about a world where all books are banned except for comic books, which are regarded as stupid enough to be safe for mass consumption.
Kate Winslet, apparently feeling that she just hasn't won enough awards lately (or starred in enough super-depressing movies), is hoping to play the title role in a TV miniseries based on the James M. Cain novel Mildred Pierce. I'm not a fan of either this novel or its original film adaptation, but it sounds like it would be right up Winslet's alley, seeing as it features crappy spouses, dead kids, and self-inflicted financial misery... all subjects she's tackled before, and with great enthusiasm.
Sean Dixon's debut novel The Last Days of the Lacuna Cabal is a sprawling, gorgeous mess of a book: a Canadian take on Latin American magical realism with a bunch of high-minded (and not so high-minded*) literary references woven in.
The members of the Lacuna Cabal Montreal Young Women's Book Club approach their group reading choices in a rather unusual way. Rather than just discussing the texts, they reenact them, regardless of the book's contents. When one of the club members suggests they tackle The Epic of Gilgamesh (she happens to own a copy written on ancient cuneiform tablets that her engineer father found while remodeling a cathedral basement into a shopping mall) the book club gamely embarks on a complete re-creation—one that kicks off with a voyeuristic sex scene in an abandoned building and ends up taking them all the way to Iraq, circa May 2003.
For all the surreal elements to this story, the most astounding thing about Dixon's novel is how readable it is. Setting aside all the life-imitating-art stuff about Gilgamesh and the hyper-stylized prose, this is a story about a group of genuinely appealing characters whose real lives add weight to the fantastical story they've immersed themselves in. I'll be curious to see if Mr. Dixon's future books (which I find almost impossible to picture) offer similar charms to The Last Days of the Lacuna Cabal, but in the meanwhile I'm pleased to state that it's been quite a while since I've come across such a nicely-judged blend of style and storytelling.
*In a move that might have been calculated to win Wordcandy Bonus Points, Mr. Dixon name-drops J. K. Rowling, Philip Pullman, William Gibson, A.S. Byatt, and (best of all) E.L. Konigsburg's From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Go, Mr. Dixon!
The cover of Jake Wizner’s new book looks like the promotional posters for Disney’s High School Musical. It features about 10,000 hokey musical numbers*, just like High School Musical. Its “boy meets girl, hijinks ensue, boy ends up with girl” plotline even plays out like High School Musical—but, as you may have picked up from the title, that’s pretty much all Castration Celebration has in common with the mega-successful Disney franchise.
When Olivia and Max meet cute on the first day of Yale University's summer arts camp, Olivia is quick to shoot down Max’s obvious interest. Max might make Olivia laugh, but she’s still too angry with her philandering father (and too suspicious of Max’s playboy vibe) to even consider dating anyone. She decides to spend the summer working on her musical instead—the gleefully X-rated Castration Celebration, a high school love story full of awkwardly-rhyming songs about sex. But as the program goes on, Olivia and Max discover they are, like, totally perfect for each other (shocker!), and decide that their respective plans for the summer might require a little rearranging....
For a book featuring a song about the kinkier possibilities of Edward Cullen and Bella Swann’s sex life, Castration Celebration is surprisingly conventional. This is a standard (hell, generic) teen romance about a girl who catches the eye of a popular boy, and whose pretty face and sharp tongue convince him to give up his manwhore ways. The only thing that separates Castration Celebration from a Sweet Valley High subplot is its relentlessly raunchy dialogue—which is actually the novel’s weakest element. Much like the protagonist of Wizner’s novel Spanking Shakespeare(who has a tiny cameo in this book), nearly all of the dialogue in Castration Celebration consists of American Pie-by-way-of-Woody Allen witticisms. It’s all cute and eyebrow-raising at first, but wading through nearly 300 pages of implausibly articulate banter about sex gets old faster than you’d think.
*Okay, it’s more like twelve, but it felt like 10,000. Man, I hate musicals.
Ridley Pearson's Killer Summer is his third book featuring Walt Fleming, the sheriff of Sun Valley, a small Idaho resort town. I'm always hesitant about starting a series partway in, but I found Killer Summer both totally comprehensible and tremendously entertaining.
When the rich and famous start pouring into Sun Valley to attend its annual wine auction, Walt learns that the star of this year's event is a set of wine bottles allegedly given by Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, and therefore worth millions—if they're authentic. Walt, who has taken his nephew on a fly-fishing trip, is praying everything will go off without a hitch, but those hopes are dashed when a bomb goes off just before the auction kicks into gear, and his peaceful day on the water turns into a blur of fake identities, kidnappings, and elaborate heists.
Killer Summer is much more of a suspense novel than a mystery, but the violence is surprisingly minimal. Instead, Pearson fills his pages with at least three storylines, which meet halfway through the novel in a fun (but somewhat far-fetched) flurry of coincidences. There are aspects of the novel that I probably would have enjoyed more if I'd read the previous books in the series—the emotional impact of Walt's romantic life fell particularly flat, seeing as I barely knew the candidate for his affections—but the lion's share of this novel works beautifully as a standalone thriller.
Annnnd speaking of short roads to poverty, I was recently tempted by these little baubles from Tarina Tarantino's Queen Alice collection:
Adorable, no? The combination of Tenniel's art and sparkly pink crystals speaks to my very soul (or at least the very soul of my inner 12-year-old). But they're $80. I'm not saying they're not worth it, but that's roughly $76.99 more than I usually spend on earrings, so I resisted.
By Invitation Only, by Jodi Della Femina and Sheri McInnis
Beach Reading Contest Book #5
By Invitation Only is a breezy romantic comedy co-written by Jodi Della Femina and Sheri McInnis, two authors with solid beach-reading street cred: Femina is the author of the bestselling Hamptons guidebook Jodi's Shortcuts, while McInnis is the author of a romance novel that appears to feature Satan* as its male protagonist.
After a series of romantic and financial setbacks in Manhattan, chef Toni Fratelli decides to move back home and start her own catering company. Luckily for her, “back home” means the Hamptons, one of the most popular vacation spots in the country—but it also means moving back in with her dad, taking over the food planning for her best friend's wedding, and dealing with a nasty, competitive local caterer with a mile-long client list and a coop full of exotic poultry. When Toni meets Chris, a mellow surfer type with a vintage car, he seems like the perfect distraction from her massive To-Do list... but even Chris has a secret, and Toni is about to discover that her life in picture-perfect East Hampton might end up being an even bigger mess than her life in the big city.
While Toni and Chris's romance gets top billing in By Invitation Only, the book's supporting characters are far more fun. There's Toni's best friend Layla, a free-spirited Hamptons townie, and Layla's unenthusiastic prospective mother-in-law, a New York socialite with a Botox addiction and money coming out of her ears. Best of all, there's Toni's catering nemesis, a sinister figure who seems to be modeled on Ina Garten (well, if Ina Garten was evil). Toni and Chris are likable enough, sure, but their romantic drama is merely a pleasant, fluffy distraction from the real meat of this story: the minor characters' sexual, financial, and familial hijinks.
*No, we haven't read it, but you can bet we're going to.
Speaking of things that make my world a better place, I have long been excited about the upcoming complete collection of Berkeley Breathed's Bloom County strips. Behold:
But what's with this "Volume One" stuff? That seems to indicate that there's going to be more than one, and we're going to have to wait even longer and pay an additional $39.99 for the rest of 'em. And how many will there be? This sucker only covers '80 to '82, and I'm pretty sure Bloom County ran until '89... which means I could be much, much poorer by the time this "complete collection" is actually complete.
Once again, Penguin's Deluxe Editions make my world a better place, and this time even The New York Times has noticed. Aren't these new covers from artist Ruben Toledo adorable?
Nothing's gonna convince me to suffer through The Scarlet Letter again (I got over my literary masochism faze in high school), but these covers are so gorgeous that I'm tempted to buy the book just for the pleasure of looking at it.
The title of Isobelle Carmody's book Alyzon Whitestarr sounds like an eighties hair band, the cover model looks like Gossip Girl's Little J in a bad Goth wig, and the official plot description reads like that of any other teen paranormal romance, but we are happy to report that none of the three come close to doing this sprawling, ambitious YA fantasy novel justice.
Sixteen-year-old Alyzon has always felt like the odd man out amongst her talented, bohemian family. But when she's injured protecting her baby brother, she spends a month in a coma and wakes up with a unique new ability: her senses have sharpened to the point that she can see auras, smell changes in people's emotions, and the gorgeous complexity of a cello piece leaves her with a bloody nose. As Alyzon struggles to understand and control her powers, she discovers that several of the people around her are harboring a horrible secret, and she may be the only person capable of preventing their plans from coming to fruition.
At 501 pages, Alyzon Whitestarr is so long and complex that it might lose readers with shorter attention spans. (If you like your supernatural romances snappy and quip-filled, try Meg Cabot's books.) Instead, Carmody's novel is idealistic and sincere, with flashes of genuine creepiness and a charmingly low-key romantic subplot. This is the rare YA novel that takes itself quite seriously—and for once, we mean that in a good way. Sure, you have to get past the Vegas-friendly cover art and the, er, "artistic" spelling of the heroine's name, but fantasy fans willing to overlook such trifles are in for an extremely pleasant surprise.
GYAH. Dramabeans says they're making a K-drama out of Itazura Na Kiss!!!
Why this series? WHY?!? It's already been adapted into two enormously popular Taiwanese dramas and a Japanese anime, but none of them (and they've all been relatively high-quality) have obscured the fact that this series is seriously, tragically, monumentally stupid, and I don't care how good the Korean adaptation could be: it's not going to be good enough to fix this story.
Itazura Na Kiss is the story of a sweet, stubborn girl who's as useless as she is dim-witted. She has almost no redeeming qualities, but she falls in love with the coolest, handsomest, smartest boy in her school... and when a freak accident results in the two of them living together, she decides to confess her feelings. He icily shoots her down, but over the rest of the series (and it goes on for years) he grows to care for her. He remains a cold, nasty, high-functioning prat, and she remains a total idiot, but their respective inadequacies are supposed to total up to true love.
The Unit, the debut novel by Swedish author Ninni Holmqvist, is neither fish nor fowl nor good Swedish surströmming. It's half dystopian horror story and half mid-life coming-of-age novel, and it might have worked better if the author had settled on one or the other.
Holmqvist's novel is set in a near-future Europe where "dispensable" adults (unmarried, childless, middle-aged, and engaged in nonessential professions) are shipped off to the Unit, a facility that surrounds its residents with luxury and comfort, but requires them to serve as human guinea pigs for the medical industry and donate a series of increasingly vital organs. When lonely, impoverished Dorrit Weger is admitted to the Unit, she finds new friends and an unexpected love—both of which make the impossible choice she is forced to make all the more terrible.
Many of the passages in Holmqvist's novel are gorgeously descriptive, and her heroine's love for her fellow residents is moving, but the undeniable strength of her writing is obscured by the gaping holes in her plot. The major plot twist in this novel is distractingly implausible, and its sci-fi/horror setting raises more questions than it answers. (For one thing, why is there such hot demand for organs? I mean, if every single, childless, under-employed middle-aged person in the U.S. was required to give up several organs, I'm pretty sure the organ waiting lists would be non-existent. And if you eliminate very young recipients, who probably wouldn't have much use for middle-aged organs, you're talking about an even smaller group.) Holmqvist's novel was clearly aiming for "thought-provoking", and her delicate, haunting writing style puts her several marks above the majority of the sci-fi/horror crowd, but her plot-development skills will require considerably more work before she starts challenging the status of top-shelf writers like Margaret Atwood or Shirley Jackson.
Speaking of Salon.com, they just posted another bookgeek-friendly interview, this one with Everything Sucks: Losing My Mind and Finding Myself in a High School Quest for Cool author Hannah Friedman.
Now, Ms. Friedman is a good interview (although I disagree with her about Blair from the TV show Gossip Girl having no depth, but that's an argument I have chosen to spare you), but my world was rocked when she got to the section about writing about eating disorders, and says that she didn't want to mention specific eating-disorder techniques, like "[swallowing] cotton balls to fill up [her] stomach".
People do that?! That is, like, mind-blowingly gross! Just the idea of it makes my brain shudder.
So, yeah. Solid interview, but now that she's told me about the cotton ball thing I'll never be able to read her book. If she can toss something like that out in idle conversation, who knows what horrors lurk in the pages of her memoir?
Laura Ingalls Wilder's name-taking, butt-kicking spawn
Salon.com has an article up about Rose Wilder Lane, the oldest daughter of beloved children's writer Laura Ingalls Wilder. The Salon piece draws on both an upcoming book by Wendy McClure about the Wilders and a New Yorker article on the same subject by Judith Thurman, and gives a quick summary of Wilder Lane's life and work. Apparently, Ms. Wilder Lane was quite the hell-raiser, and enjoyed a long and volatile career as a journalist, political activist, and ghostwriter. The article covers some pretty eye-brow-raising stuff, making it well worth checking out....
The Sweet Life of Stella Madison, by Lara M. Zeises
Beach Reading Contest Book #2
Stella Madison, the 17-year-old heroine of Lara M. Zeises's The Sweet Life of Stella Madison, has her hands full: her boyfriend has just professed his love, her long-separated parents have finally begun dating other people, and she's carrying a small (but seriously inconvenient) torch for one of the interns at her mother's restaurant. Worst of all, Stella has been shanghaied into a food-writing job for the local paper, despite the fact that she'd not-so-secretly rather eat a fast-food hamburger than the gourmet fare served in her mother's restaurant or prepared by her French chef father. Stella sincerely wants to be a good girlfriend, daughter, and employee, but she's got a horrible suspicion she might be failing on all fronts.
I love reading about food, and it's obvious from page one that Zeises will handle her heroine's rocky relationships with her parents and male admirers with intelligence and sensitivity, so I expected The Sweet Life of Stella Madison to be a sure bet. Unfortunately, the book is a little too short (228 pages) to give its coming-of-age story weight, the food descriptions were few and far between, and the lack of romantic resolution felt half-finished rather than tantalizingly open-ended. In short, there just wasn't enough of this book, although what little there was was very nicely done. I'll be interested to see what Ms. Zeises produces next... but here's hoping she delivers more pages, more plot resolution, and—cross my fingers!—maybe even some actual recipes, because I'd like to know more of the "Blueberry Shortcake Surprise" mentioned at the start of chapter two.
Here's what's written on the back cover of the recently-released Sourcebooks edition of Heyer's The Nonesuch:
An impetuous flight Tiffany Wield's bad behavior is a serious trial to her chaperone. "On the shelf" at twenty-eight, Ancilla Trent strives to be a calming influence on her tempestuous charge, but then Tiffany runs off to London alone and Ancilla is faced with a devastating scandal.
A gallant rescue Sir Waldo Hawkridge, confirmed bachelor and one of the wealthiest men in London, comes instantly to the aid of the intrepid Ancilla to stop Tiffany's flight, and in the process discovers that it's never too late for the first bloom of love.
Admittedly, as The Curse goes, this one isn't too bad. Apart from some minor mistakes (Ancilla is twenty-six, not twenty-eight, and Sir Waldo is not a confirmed bachelor), the biggest problem with this description is that it's highly misleading.
Nine-tenths of The Nonesuch is about Ancilla, Tiffany, and Sir Waldo's interactions in a country town outside of Leeds. Ancilla is Tiffany's governess-companion, and her job is far from easy: Tiffany is as selfish and heedless as she is beautiful, and Ancilla is constantly straining to find new ways to manipulate her young charge into at least the appearance of good behavior. When the highly desirable Sir Waldo and his handsome young cousin appear in this sleepy village, Tiffany determines to bring both men to their knees—but it becomes increasingly clear that Ancilla, not Tiffany, is the woman who interests Sir Waldo.
Admittedly, Tiffany does plan a flight to London (which doesn't happen), and Ancilla would have been left to face a scandal (although not a personally "devastating" one) had she succeeded, and Sir Waldo does come to Ancilla's aid, but that's at the end of the book. In fact, this particular blurb gives away the entire climax and dénouement of the novel, while saying very little about the first 300 pages... and proves, once again, that The Curse is not to be trifled with.