Category Archives: Adult

The art of the booktalk

This post originally appeared on the Books Blog for the Times Union

The art of the booktalk. When a friend asks you about the book you’re reading or you’re sharing a recent fabulous read, how do you approach it? Do you ask a question? Perhaps have a pre-planned teaser or maybe you’d rather share an overview. Sometimes I’m so blinded by the emotion of absolutely loving a book that I clutch the book to my chest and whisper I love this book and then just hope that someone will take my word for it. Luckily I’ve got some street cred with this approach.

2017-03-30 15.40.02-1But, I was thinking about the art of the booktalk after spending two days in classrooms talking to tenth graders about choosing a classic book to read for their fourth quarter project. I had a lot of ground to cover and not all of the books I had read. Yet that is nothing new because I booktalk frequently on topics that I may only know slightly and I am a firm believer that you can booktalk a book you haven’t read. I organized the books into categories that helped channel the number that I was talking about and then prepared my cheat sheet (things like publication date, title characters, main ideas, themes or topics, or a relevant current topic that paired nicely). And while this is necessary, I generally don’t use it as much as occasionally reference it since Benjamin Franklin put it best when he said

“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”

It’s there if I need it, but the preparation solidifies my approach and then I don’t actually need it. Especially when I capitalize on others in the room who may have loved one of the books and ask them to share. When I talk about a book I may ask a hypothetical question or have a one-liner that intrigues someone, saying little more. And I learn from others. I facilitate a book group of local school librarians and everyone has a slightly different approach, all valuable in their own way. There are some I could listen to all day myself, admiring their vocabulary and word choice. I aspire to be better after each delivery and rework it until I hit booktalk gold. We only get better with practice.

So not only am I constantly honing my booktalking skills based on my audience, I also realized I have a lot of classic literature to read (or reread to refresh my memory). Maybe I can make this a monthly post to review a classic book as a way to kickstart this exploration. Which would you start with?


Chain Mail 2.0

Yesterday I was tagged in a Facebook chain message. My first response, like any chain snail mail or email from years past was to ignore it, but this one was about books, so how could I resist?

The purpose was to quickly share, without too much thought, ten books that have stayed with you in some way. Here were my ten (with a brief explanation of why):

1. Fallen Beauty by Erika Robuck is a beautiful piece of literature that seamlessly weaves real characters and intersecting them with everyday people. The juxtaposition between Edna St. Vincent Millay and Laura Kelley is brooding with layers of passion and sacrifice that touches me deeply.
2. A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly focuses on Mattie who wants to better herself and she does it by learning new words and seeking knowledge. This is the motto of my life.
3. The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton moves me on an elemental and mystical level. It’s the deep-seated family history and Ava’s final moments with Nathaniel Sorrows that absolutely transformed me.
4. Mudbound by Hillary Jordan is a modern version of The Awakening. A woman and her sacrifice, passion, and dreams dead-ended in their muck-covered Mudbound farm.
5. Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Perez. Where do I begin with this soul-ripping, earth-shattering darkness that throws your emotions around like a rag doll? Naomi, Naomi, Naomi. Pain, passion, a quest for comfort and love.
6. Guardian by Julius Lester begins with “There are times when a tree can no longer withstand the pain inflicted on it, and the wind will take pity on that tree and topple it over in a mighty storm. All the other trees who witnessed the evil look down upon the fallen tree with envy. They pray for the day when a wind will end their suffering. I pray for the day when God will end mine.” There is nothing more to do than to read and follow the pain. One of the most uniquely beautiful opening paragraphs.
7. Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson is a contemporary classic about a girl finding her voice when it has been silenced by rape. There have been many iterations, both well-done and not-so-much, but this one takes the cake with a simple but clear message that YA readers need so desperately. And regardless of what most think, the movie was spot-on and truly showecased the mood of the book for me.
8. The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold was one of the first books that I literally photocopied pages from to keep and reread. The transcendental nature of a narrator talking from haven was unique and sad and then having read Sebold’s memoir Lucky, it all came together.
9. A Natural History of the Senses by Diane Ackerman makes me want to know more and be better. Ackerman’s knack for beautiful writing and a well-researched focus feeds my need to focus on the beauty and gratitude of nature (in the form of our five senses).
10. What Teachers Make: In Praise of the Greatest Job in the World by Taylor Mali is a force for those in education. Having been able to see him a small, eclectic bar/performing arts establishment was invigorating and his ingenuity and talent for spoken word pours from him. And though his observations are spot on and the book is a testament to that, it can only be best experienced with the ear. I’m linking my favorite here: “I’ll Fight You For the Library”.

As you can see, the books that speak to me tend to be ones where characters are experiences the darker side of emotions but are trying to chase passions regardless. There is a reason my tattoo is what it is and why I feel these books on an elemental level.

Please share yours whether it’s on social media or in the comments. Not that I need more to add to be to-be read pile, but, that’s what book sharing is all about.


Six sensational books I enjoyed… because they’re similar to others I’ve enjoyed

How’s that for a mouthful of a title? Recently I’ve been on a tear reading both in traditional and e-book formats digesting as much as I can while enjoying the summer sun, the pool, the quiet of everyone else being in bed. And of course with the pace at which I read, it’s inevitable that I’d compare books to each other. So here are a few recent reads that I enjoyed in part due to their similarity to others (that you should also read if you haven’t). 26LettersArranged

  1. The Girls by Cline similar to an all-time favorite of mine The Virgin Suicides by Eugenides
    • The almost indifferent narration of Evie’s life with “the girls” on a cult compound conjuring the Manson family is eerily similar to the Lisbon sisters. Both also include an opportunity for readers to step off the pedal of emotion: in The Girls, Evie’s time with the girls are flashbacks while the present life she leads is reflected off of a stoned son of a former boyfriend and his girlfriend while the neighborhood boys look on from the Lisbon household drawing conclusions about them based on what they see.
    • Memorable character: There’s a reason I named my first dog Lux because I wanted to be reminded of the most memorable sister (for me) of the Lisbon girls. The one that was the most daring, she wanted with a passion.
  2. Every Falling Star by Lee similar to A Long Way Gone by Beah
    • I just posted about Lee’s book and it’s similarities to the narrative of a boy soldier from Sudan as first-person stories about their trials in working toward freedom, though Every Falling Star is a rarer look as he’s defected from North Korea.
  3. Last Seen Leaving by Roehrig similar to Wink Poppy Midnight by Tucholke 
    • There’s a glut of self-discovery that happens in both. Flynn is confused about his newly ex-girlfriend’s disappearance as much as Midnight is confused about Poppy’s actions especially when Midnight’s attentions turned to Wink. Everyone needs to admit things they don’t want to admit about themselves and others and this is hard. This struggle is tangible in both stories where the characters are the sole focus and the mysteries that surround them are secondary. A lovely look at human behavior.
  4. Lucky Penny by Hirsh similar to the Lumberjanes series by an array of authors including Stevenson
    • There’s so much girl empowerment in both. Penny’s luck has run out and she’s been fired from her job and lost her apartment, but resourceful Penny moves into her friend’s storage unit, lands a laundromat gig, and falls in love with the boy at the gym where she needs a cheap (or free) membership to shower.This is all helped along by powerfully graphic images as with the girls from the camp for hardcore lady types.  Penny is willing to kick butt too when she needs, along with a vivid imagination and a sense of humor.
    • Memorable Scene: When Penny is standing in her hamburger underwear doing her wash at the laundromat where she works when her young boss walks in.
  5. Bubonic Panic When Plague Invaded America by Jarrow similar to her first in the series Red Madness: How a Medical Mystery Changed the Way We Eat 
    • Informational texts like these making learning science so accessible, but it also makes us appreciate how far science has come and makes us wonder what the future holds, too. There’s a systematic approach to her stories that showcase the advancement of medicine through the tribulations of disease (at times annihilating whole villages and half of a city’s population). But it’s the slow and measured way that scientists explore and test their theories that always provides the breakthrough.
    • Memorable quote: Spoken by the Frenchman Alexandre Yersin in the 1880s, “To ask for money for treating the sick is a bit like telling them, ‘Your money or your life,” which is why he stuck to working in a lab rather than taking on a private practice.
  6. Awkward by Chmakova similar to Drama by Telgemeier
    • Another pair of graphic novels, the innocence of middle school and figuring out where you fit it is hard business. Both deal with being members of clubs, too. The battle rages in Awkward between the art club and science club while Callie is a member of the drama club in Telgemeier’s story. Both artfully demonstrate the crazy world of middle school from weird teachers and those that drink the tears of students to those who are discovering their sexuality, interests, and abilities. We all remember those days.

Survival at all costs

EveryFallingStarThis needs to be a purchase for every library from middle school through high school and that every adult should read as well when it comes out in September. A narrative of how a boy survived and escape North Korea. Written by Sungju Lee and Susan McClelland, Every Falling Star: The True Story of How I Survived and Escaped North Korea is a harrowing account of Sungju’s time in North Korea and the journey to South Korea as a defector. In line with any child soldier narrative from African countries especially Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone, accounts of growing up during the Cultural Revolution in China, Patricia McCormick’s Never Fall Down about Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge, or in recent fictional reads like The Bitter Side of Sweet by Tara Sullivan that describe child exploitation, Lee expresses himself in a genuine and heartfelt manner so that anyone can understand the pain and suffering that exists at the hands of the North Korean government. It’s the ease of his writing that make this a book for any age and no age. The need for these narratives is overwhelming.

Memorable Character: Obviously Lee himself closely followed by his friend and confidante and fellow ‘gang’ member Young-bum. Lee is naive at the beginning, believing that his family who lives comfortably is heading to a vacation spot, when instead their family has been ostracized and sent away. From here, all bets are off and both Lee’s father and mother flee. With Lee having to defend himself and unable to protect the homestead, he forms a gang of kotjebi, whose sole purpose is to watch out for each other and survive through any means necessary. It gets downright ugly. And while hope seems lost, my favorite quote deals with this very thing…

Memorable Quote: “‘To live on the streets means we have nothing left,’ I finally said, then stopped. So many thoughts were moving fast inside my mind, I couldn’t catch just one. ‘Our families-our pasts- feel like they never existed,’ I began again. ‘We’re little more than animals now. At least that’s what the merchants say about us, and the other kotjebi, too. The government once called us the kings and queens of the nation… Everyone has abandoned us. Everything has been taken away from us, except hope. You taught me that we can only give hope away. No one can take it. And you also taught me that hope is what makes us human. That, and love. It’s time to let you go,’ I ended.

Memorable Scene: It will be no secret from the beginnings of the book that the gang of boys that Lee moves with suffer from two deaths, but who of the two is the mystery until they happen. It’s the second that is the most heartbreaking and will bring the most hard-hearted to tears. I will not spoil it, but it is Lee’s reality and a poignant example of the loss of any innocence that remained (though I would question any based on Lee’s story).

Readers are advised to be sure to order multiple copies of this culturally diverse story from a time period not so far in the past but in a place that holds so much mystery. Nothing that Lee write is gratuitous, allowing a range and variety of readers to access his admired story both for having the courage to tell it and to survive it.


What’s old is new

I am a fan of re-tellings, but with everyone that I do read, there are twenty more that I’m not aware of. It’s a question of the chicken or the sense that I ask myself, if I know that this is a re-telling, should I go back and read (or re-read) the original story so that I’m more prepared to understand the subtleties of the re-telling or let it be? Of course many I don’t realize until after, like Exit, Pursued by a Bear is based on Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale. I’ve got my The Complete Works of William Shakespeare queued up after having discovered the inspiration.

And this newest post, about Samantha Mabry’s A Fierce and Subtle Poison. It wasn’t until I was booktalking the book to an English teacher as we trade our recent reads that she said, hey, that sounds an awful lot like Hawthorne’s short story, I think it’s something daughter. Curious. So I looked it up and downloaded a PDF and tore through the twenty-page short story written by Nathaniel Hawthorne in the 1800s. Why yes, this was absolutely a re-telling and Mabry’s title is taken from the short story to boot. There’s a girl who is full of poison, there is a boy who likes her. She breaths on an insect and that insect dies. And of course there are a few differences like the setting (Italy versus Puerto Rico) and adults versus teenagers, but I would have never known had I not talked about the book with someone more widely read than I. And I feel bummed about that, that sometimes I’m unaware of the allusions, but I try to convince myself that you can’t possibly read everything to know where the inspiration came from. That makes me feel (slightly) better. I think about the statistics that tell readers that it’s just not physically possible to read every book that’s published and again feel (slightly) better.

So, do you read Hawthorne’s Rappaccini’s Daughter first and then Mabry’s A Fierce and Subtle Poison? Do you read only what you’re comfortable with (a short story from the 1800s or a YA novel from the 2010s)? Do you read what fell into your lap first and then read the other? Well, I guess that’s up to you. I know I feel better having discovered and read Hawthorne’s text to see where Mabry’s inspiration came from, the question is, with teen readers of Mabry’s book want to read the dense short story?

I enjoyed Hawthorne’s story for its more gothic appeal– the beautiful and mysterious daughter of a mad scientist who many men pine after but not many men have seen. The star-crossed love as Giovanni discovers his love for Beatrice and realizes he himself has become poisonous as she already is. Should you cure it or let it be? And to what extent will the overbearing father infiltrate himself? Ultimately both Beatrice and Giovanni must live with the tragic consequences. This is in contrast to the somewhat lighter novel. While there are still gothic elements including descriptions of the girls as they wash ashore as well as the mythological stories that the women on the island tell about the villa at the end of the street, it’s juxtaposed with the narcissism of Lucas, the son of the hotel billionaire on the island. Lucas doesn’t learn the language, he just uses the local girls and discards them until he meets Marisol. Then Marisol goes missing and messages are slipped under his door from the mysterious girl from behind the walls of the villa– Isabel. Will the resolution of this novel align with the short story? You should read them both to find out!


Hollow out time for Wolf Hollow

WolfHollowThere’s something about reading a beautifully-crafted and lyrical children’s book that instantly reminds you of the classics like Charlotte’s Web, Tuck EverlastingPeter Pan, and James and the Giant Peach.  Lauren Wolk’s Wolf Hollow will become a contemporary classic if I have any say.

Annabelle has tried to befriend Betty, a new girl living with her grandparents in their Pennsylvania town, but it’s difficult. Betty wants Annabelle to bring her things or she’ll beat her. And Betty does in addition to terrorizing a friend of Annabelle’s and a younger brother. But the absolute worst occurs when Betty begins blaming an innocent military veteran who lives on the outskirts of town. And mild hysteria comparative to a witch hunt ensues. Yet Annabelle knows the truth and is able to spend time with Toby, the veteran and neighbor, hearing stories about his life so moving that Annabelle’s confession to readers is that “I held very still and waited, trying not to hear it all, hoping, even at just eleven, almost twelve, that I would never have sons of my own.”

Tragedy is at the very root of the book in powerful scenes that transcend readership and touch on society’s reactions to marginalized individuals, but also what the power of kindness can do to overcome these baseless conclusions.

It should be on everyone’s reading list from children that is the intended audience to adults since they can connect instantly with Annabelle’s upbringing and Toby’s post traumatic stress. Yet one of the best elements is its resolution: messy, aggressive, powerful, and for most readers unsatisfactory in that while there is some hope, a lot was lost in the process. This ending is my kind of ending.


Six sensational cultural stories

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After finishing Tara Sullivan’s The Bitter Side of Sweet two days ago, I was moved by sibling relationship between Amadou and Seydou, but also blown away by the atrocity that is child labor on cacao farms in African countries. It was pointedly apparent when the boys taste chocolate for the first time and are shocked that what they farm is a treat for children across the world, while they are beaten and starved and forced to work to farm the bean. So with a return to my six sensational lists– here are my favorite multicultural stories that span interest level.

  1. The Bitter Side of Sweet by Tara Sullivan: A tragic circumstance brings Khadija to the farm where Seydou and Amadou are forced into labor and her willful disobedience and a farming accident press the three to escape their captivity in a fast-paced action story with a powerful message.
  2. Touching Snow by M. Sindy Felin: Karina’s Haitian family is fearful of authority and being deported even after Karina’s stepfather visciously attacks her within inches of her life. As she heals, she is also coming of age and questioning both her sexuality and her purpose.
  3. Garden of Stones by Sophie Littlefield: With three generations of women involved in the story, it’s ultimately about the Japanese internment camps and the relationships, abuses, and survival techniques employed to be able to continue living.
  4. Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan: Need I say more about why this book is on the list? A gorgeously lyrical story of Mexican immigrant farming lands in the United States with Esperanza’s beautiful descriptions of the earth’s heartbeat and her mother.
  5. Morning Girl by Michael Dorris: Having read this over ten years ago this character-driven story of Morning Girl and her brother Star Boy as they co-exist in their beautiful country through Christopher Columbus has other plans. The political undercurrent is useful in providing a perspective while the morality creates a complexity that is fitting for older readers.
  6. Keeping Corner by Kashmira Sheth: Leela has led a privileged life until the death of her husband who she’s never met. At her young age, she’s expected to traditionally mourn all while a revolution is taking place led by Gandhi both against British colonists as well as India’s caste system. It’s depth is moving and educational.