Cool June Morning Musings

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It’s a cool and breezy morning as I sit to write this post. The temperature has been in the low- to mid-90’s this week, so sitting outside has not been on the top of my to-do list. But for whatever blessed reason, today it’s in the mid-80’s and breezy And I’ll take that any day.

I’m enjoying the weather and I’ve brought with me my colored pencils (teachers love fun school supplies) and my highlighters to work on the first novel I’m teaching next school year. I’ve brought my Kindle to read some ARCs to review here. I’ve brought my headphones and my smile. It’s the perfect morning.

Now that this school year is over and I’ve had time to reflect and look back at my blog, I see that I am happiest when I am outside in the beautiful weather with a book in my hand. The problem is I’ve been working basically two full-time jobs since 2011. There hasn’t been nearly enough time for my to sit outside in the sunshine and read books.

That’s my goal for next school year. To dial it back. Read more books. Work fewer hours. I’m dropping out of some of the symphonies in which I play. As nice as the money is at Christmastime, I’m turning down some Christmas gigs. It will take some budgetary adjustments, but sometimes caring for your family is about more than just making money.

Money is the thing I struggle with the most. I will always feel I don’t have enough money. I will always fight with the fact that I became a teacher, when there are other jobs that make loads more money. (I wouldn’t happy at a single one of them, but that won’t stop me from being hard on myself about it.)

Realistically, I know I have nothing to worry about.

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life[a]?

Matthew 6:25-27

This verse has been quoted to me more often than I’d care to admit. But it’s only through recent prayer, reflection, and study that it’s become a message to me. I’m a slow learner sometimes, especially when it comes to self-reflection. I spend so much of my life concerned with others that I forget that I have to focus on myself from time to time

It feels selfish, doesn’t it? To take a step away from everybody and look at yourself. There’s so much pain in the world. There’s so much need and hurt and ache. And I want to fix it all. Every once in a while, though, I need that not-so-subtle reminder that if I don’t take care of myself a little bit, then I won’t be able to care for anybody else. And showing people love is one of my favorite things.

So I’m shifting my focus. Not entirely to myself, but to rediscovering the things that are most important. Taking time for my family. Taking time for myself. Spending time in The Bible and listening to the songs of nature. Returning to my roots. And focusing on being the best teacher I can possibly be. Not because success in my career is the most important thing, but because I’ve been given the amazing opportunity to teach amazing kids.

Sometimes–okay, almost always–change is good. It just doesn’t always look that way at first. Change is scary. We’re control freaks by nature. (Or maybe that’s just me?) Change means giving up some of that control to unknown factors. Things such as changing jobs give you the opportunity to reflect and react and reshape and rebuild. And today, in this cool breeze, at this shady table–sitting next to the big cardinal who just landed nearby–I’m grateful for change and for the opportunity to grow and recreate myself.

Who knew the first day of June could mean the first day of something new and exciting for me? I can’t wait to see what comes next. I’ve got great books to read, I’m 13 books ahead on my reading challenge for the year, and I’ve got two months of freedom before the next school year. That’s a recipe for opportunity if I’ve ever seen one!

Here’s what I read in May:

The Library at the Edge of the World by Felicity Hayes-McCoy
Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mulally Hunt
The Seventh Most Important Thing by Shelley Persall
The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller
The Handsome Girl & Her Beautiful Boy by B. T. Gottfried (review here)
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan (a re-read for book club)
Just Under the Clouds by Melissa Sarno (review here)

How was your May? Was it as productive? What did you read that you loved? Send me yout book recommendations! I want them all.

Also attached is my June reading playlist. This is what I’m listening to as a I read and blog.

Yours,
The Plucky Reader

 

Review – Just Under the Clouds by Melissa Sarno

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This weekend, I had the immense pleasure of reading a soon-to-be-released book. One of my favorite things about book blogging is getting to read amazing books before they come out, and Sarno’s Just Under the Clouds is exactly that.

Always think in threes and you’ll never fall, Cora’s father told her when she was a little girl. Two feet, one hand. Two hands, one foot. That was all Cora needed to know to climb the trees of Brooklyn.

But now Cora is a middle schooler, a big sister, and homeless. Her mother is trying to hold the family together after her father’s death, and Cora must look after her sister, Adare, who’s just different, their mother insists. Quick to smile, Adare hates wearing shoes, rarely speaks, and appears untroubled by the question Cora can’t help but ask: How will she find a place to call home?

After their room at the shelter is ransacked, Cora’s mother looks to an old friend for help, and Cora finally finds what she has been looking for: Ailanthus altissima, the “tree of heaven,” which can grow in even the worst conditions. It sets her on a path to discover a deeper truth about where she really belongs.

Just Under the Clouds will take root in your heart and blossom long after you’ve turned the last page.

Just Under the Clouds is middle-grade fiction, which I don’t usually read, but as I’m switching out of the music room and into the English classroom, I’m making a concerted effort to fix that. And something I’ve realized as I’m making that effort? A good book is a good book–regardless of its intended audience–is a good book.

Just Under the Clouds intrigued me from the start. Cora’s voice is authentic. It feels real and it feels like the voice of a young teenager/preteen.  So often in fiction, children speak too much like adults. I’m guilty of this in my own writing, as well. But as someone who spends several hours a day with teenagers, I know how teens should talk. I know the thoughts that young teens have every day. I know how they function. And it’s clear that Sarno does, as well. (Or she has a really good editor. But I’m going to give Sarno the credit here.)

Cora’s story is sad. From the opening of the book it’s sad and heavy and there is little hope. Cora finds the beautiful things in life and in nature, but at the end of the day, it’s apparent that Cora and her family are returning home to a shelter, to temporary housing. Cora is still mourning the death of her father. Cora isn’t doing well in school. And she is forced to play surrogate parent to her younger sister with an unstated mental exceptionality. (I assume she is on the autism spectrum, but it’s never explicitly stated.) It was tough to read, even as an adult. But it was important.

Something I really love about Just Under the Clouds is that it’s a story that needs to be told. It’s important to be told. Sarno has given a voice to people who don’t typically have a voice in fiction. And she’s done it masterfully. She’s done it artfully. And she’s done it in such a way that the readers are able to put themselves in Cora’s shoes. The reader is able to feel empathy—not pity—for Cora and her family.

“Home is more than a place. It is a feeling. Of warmth and security. Of love and stability. That no matter what we face out there, in here, we will always be looked after.”

The opening letter of this book—written by Julia Maguire, an editor at Knopf—tells the reader from the beginning that this book is about finding home. And that home is about a lot more than just having somewhere to sleep at night. This, alone, is an important lesson for anybody to learn. As a teacher, I know many, many students who do not feel at home in their own houses. Safety, security, and stability are just as important as having a roof over your head.

Just Under the Clouds opens in the middle of Cora’s story, which is something I really love. I love when the book opens and the reader is thrown into the fray of day-to-day life. I don’t like exposition. I don’t like back story. Eventually I want it, but not at once. I want to love the characters before I learn why they’re the people that they are.

Cora starts the book in a tree, watching her little sister, Adare. When her mother calls, she quickly descends and prepares to meet her mom, with Adare in tow. Except Adare is holding her breath and refuses to let it out. From Cora’s commentary, it appears that this is a regular occurrence. And this is a theme that runs throughout the book. The breath holding is important and it matters.

Another thing I love about Sarno’s writing is how everything matters. Everything in this story is important and returns later. She’s very much like J.K. Rowling that way. She’s a very smart storyteller.

As the story unfolds, we see Cora fail math. This is not uncommon in students—even brilliant students—whose needs aren’t being met. Maslow theorized that students had to have their needs of food and security and stability met before any learning could take place. And after seven years in the classroom, I believe he was onto something.

We also see Cora make her first true friend, a drifter of a very different nature named Sabina. Sabina grew up on a houseboat, floating from port to port, existing in her family unit and never attending public school. Her life is very unlike Cora’s. Her life is very like Cora’s.

Just Under the Clouds is peppered with little hints of the issues that come with homelessness, issues that don’t occur to most people. In the middle of the story, Adare and Cora are enjoying an after-school snack. When Adare doesn’t finish her peanut better, Cora feels obligated to eat it, merely so it won’t go to waste. This very subtle detail hit me hard. This is real life. And this is real life every day for students I come into contact with daily.

This is daily life for hundreds of thousands of people worldwide. It’s heartbreaking.

But stories like this offer hope.

I’m excited to stock this book in my classroom library. Many of my students have never considered what life is like on “the other side.” Most of the students I teach have never been homeless or had want for anything. They’ve never missed a meal or spent a night in temporary housing. And that’s okay. But because they’ve never had these experiences, chances are they’ve never reflected on experiences like this. It’s their privilege.

Before anybody gets their feathers ruffled: yes, I believe in privilege. I believe I’m privileged. I believe that everybody has varying degrees of privilege. And I think it’s important to understand and identify our innate privilege. Everybody’s is different. Everybody’s brings something unique and special to our society.

But it’s there. It’s real. It’s a thing that has to be acknowledged. It’s so well-written; it will make a great read for any middle grade reader, or a fantastic read aloud to younger readers. Take this opportunity to educate yourself and your children about the issues that others face.

I’m excited to share this book with you and with my students. I think Sarno has told a story that’s important.

Just Under the Clouds by Melissa Sarno will be available June 5, 2018 at all major book retailers. Pick yourself up a copy ASAP.

Plucky’s rating?

4 out of 5 stars.

What I’m Reading Next

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The school year is wrapping up and I’m finally reclaiming my time to read as voraciously as I want to. While most of my colleagues are planning their vacations or how they’ll spend time with family, or what shows they’re going to binge on Netflix, I’ve been working on my list of summer reads.

To be fair, I’ve planned all of those other things, as well. I’ve found a cabin to rent on a lake in the middle of nowhere where I intend to read by the water and get a tan and turn off my cell phone. I’ve already planned to watch my way through The Mary Tyler Moore Show this summer. So it just came down to books.

I have a stack of books I have on my TBR and I can’t wait to tear into them. But the books I’m most excited to tear into are ARCs I’ve received that I haven’t had time to read. I can’t wait to spend my days with debut authors and brand new characters.

My next few books on my TBR (in order of release date) are:

The Handsome Girl and her Beautiful Boy by B. T. Gottfred
Just Under the Clouds by Melissa Sarno
Sell All the Stars by Kit Frick
Fresh Ink: An Anthology edited by Lamar Giles
Things I’d Rather Do than Die 
by Christine Deriso

This is on top of the several thousand unread books in my Kindle. (Maybe it’s not that much, but it feels that way when I remember that there are so many and new books coming out every week.)

What’s on your list? What are you excited to read? Give me more recommendations!

Love,
The Plucky Reader

Top Ten Tuesday – Books That Inspired Broadway Musicals

Top Ten Tuesday

This morning, my day started with my mom tagging me in a post on Facebook about auditioning for The Music Man. When I was in the second grade, I was cast as Winthrop in a local high school’s production. Since then, it has been something special between us. She was with me at every rehearsal and sat with me through every tear. It was a big undertaking for a little boy. Rehearsals were long and grueling. I couldn’t even go trick-or-treating on Halloween that year. It was traumatic.

But the show went off without a hitch, and to this day is one of my favorite memories. It was really a good bonding experience for me and my mom, and will always be special to us.

Because of this good memory, I thought the most appropriate way to spend Top Ten Tuesday is by talking about books that inspired Broadway musicals. (Bonus: At the end of this post, I’m attaching a Spotify playlist of my favorite numbers from each of these musicals.)


10. Porgy by DuBose Heyward

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Full disclosure: I’ve never read this book. And I don’t know anybody who has. But it inspired my favorite opera, and that’s enough for me.

Porgy & Bess the opera was composed by my favorite American composer, George Gershwin. It’s beautiful. It’s heavy. And it gave us the beautiful jazz standard, “Summertime.”


9. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

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The Secret Garden is a classic novel. I don’t know many people who haven’t read it at some point. It’s an example of a story with a protagonist I want to hate. I never really liked the character of Mary, but I softened toward her as the book progressed. It’s a sweet, lovely ready, and translates well into visual media.

Bonus points to the musical for casting Mandy Patinkin.


8. Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie

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Peter Pan has been the inspiration to several forms of visual media. Disney animated it (kind of.) There have been stage plays. There was a lovely middle grade series that started with Peter and the Starcatchers that was then turned into its own play, Peter and the StarcatcherPeter Pan has inspired countless movies and TV shows and retellings. From Hook, the definitive re-imagining of my childhood, to Peter Pan’s appearance in ABC’s Once Upon a TimePeter Pan’s influence is far-reaching.

My favorite piece of work inspired by Peter Pan is Finding Neverland. Okay. So maybe I’m bending the rules a little bit. Because the musical is inspired by the movie which is inspired by the life of J.M. Barrie and the inspiration around Peter Pan. But this is my blog, and I can bend the rules as I like. 😜

This musical starred Matthew Morrison (of Glee fame), who is wonderful. Carolee Carmello, who played Madame du Maurier in the original cast, also happens to appear later in this list.


7. The Color Purple by Alice Walker

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The Color Purple is an epistle by Alice Walker. It’s heavy. There’s nothing particularly lighthearted about this book. (I know, you’re all so surprised that I would put a heavy book on this list.) But it’s a wonderful story. It’s full of heartbreak and hope and pain. It’s about family and love and so much.

And it translated well into a Broadway musical. It’s won Tony’s, most recently it won Best Revival. It’s been performed around the world. The music is amazing. The actors have been phenomenal. It presents well on stage.


6. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum

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The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was written as America’s great fairytale. And it’s lovely. I’ve read all 14 of the canonical books by Baum (several authors have continued the story of Oz after Baum had finished writing.)

It has, like Peter Pan, inspired tons of other works. The popular Dorothy Must Die series is directly inspired by Baum’s books, as was this fantastic SyFy miniseries called Tin Man starring Zoey Deschanel. And of course Wicked grew out of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz‘s influence (spoiler: Wicked appears later in this list.)

But seriously, nothing beats the Judy Garland adaptation, The Wizard of Oz when I’m home sick. Her singing voice has lulled me to sleep my entire life. When I was a kid, I was in love with Judy Garland, and I still feel the heartbreak I felt the day I found out she was dead.


5. Legally Blonde by Amanda Brown

Legally Blonde

Okay, so if I’m being honest, I enjoyed almost every book on this list more than I enjoyed Legally Blonde, but it’s not a bad book. However, the movie is tremendous. Reese Witherspoon is a goddess. She’s America’s sweetheart.

You know what’s even better? A musical about Elle Woods that’s rife with smartly written jokes and stars Christian Borle. It’s my go-to comfort musical. It’s my rainy day, I’m exhausted, I’ve graded too many papers kind of relaxation musical. It’s a warm blanket. And it’s so funny.


4. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl

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Didn’t I tell you once that Roald Dahl deserves to be on every top ten list, ever? I’m really trying to make that happen.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is another literary work that translates so well to a visual media. Two very successful movies have been inspired by this book. (No disrespect to Johnny Depp and Freddie Highmore, but the Gene Wilder version is superior; it’s scientifically proven.)

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is also a stellar musical that stars Christian Borle (he’s the best. Seriously. Total heart eyes when he performs.) Give it a listen. It’s adorable. It’s so true to the heart of the book.


3. Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire

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Seriously, if you’ve not heard of this musical, you may live under a rock. “Defying Gravity” was the anthem of every high school student in 2005. (And then the film adaptation of Rent rose to popularity and knocked Wicked out of public school choir programs, everywhere.)

The musical and book are two very, very different entities. The book takes a much darker approach to the story. It’s sad. There’s a very somber tone to it. But I loved every bit of it. The musical, however, is much more lighthearted. It deals with some of the same heavy topics, but through a very Ozian lens. It’s wonderful.


2. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

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Okay. So everything about this setup is perfect.

Little Women is a wonderful book–on of my wife’s favorites–that I didn’t read until I was an adult. But it’s lovely. The story is so pure and so wholesome. It deals with heavy topics, but it’s not a heavy book. It’s a perfect read for somebody who wants some drama but not to cry for three hundred pages. You will cry. Anybody who knows this book knows you will cry. But it’s still brilliant and beautiful.

The musical starred Sutton Foster (my girlfriend; don’t worry, my wife knows.) She was brilliant. She’s brilliant in everything. It had great writing. It had great music.

And it has lovely memories attached to it, for me. I played violin for a production of Little Women in college with two of my best friends. It was so much fun. We had the best time in the pit. We laughed and cried and grew emotionally attached to the actors. It’s another one of my fondest memories. It was special and maybe that’s why I love this musical, that’s not entirely much like the book. But it’s beautiful. And I love it.


1. Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt

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Tuck Everlasting holds a really special place in my heart. It’s such a lovely, wonderful book. I once wrote a 10-page paper about it (the requirement was 4 pages, but who’s counting?) I read this book like literary fiction. I read it like a marvel and like a masterpiece, because it is.

That same summer, Tuck Everlasting premiered on Broadway and we happened to be in New York. So we went. And it was a beautiful show. It was true to the spirit of the book. It had so much heart. It was adorable. It closed down two nights after I saw it, and I’m so glad I got to see it. It was unfortunate that it opened during the year of Hamiltonys, because it would have likely fared much better one year later or one year earlier.

And I’m possibly Tuck Everlasting‘s biggest fan.

BUT IT WAS SO GOOD


As promised here is my playlist of favorite songs from the musicals mentioned on this list. I love Broadway almost as much as I love books, so it’s safest for everybody if I just sign off right now.

Pablo Neruda – A Master of Love

In continuing my observance of National Poetry Month, I revisited some of my favorite poems by Neruda. He was a master of the love poem. I’d have fallen in love with Neruda if he’d written these poems to me. Guaranteed.

Neruda’s poems are beautiful in translation, but they’re so much better in the original Spanish. I don’t speak Spanish, anymore. I haven’t had someone to practice with in a long time. But I still read it pretty well and Neruda’s poems are so lovely.

I also have this wonderful edition of Neruda’s poems that prints the original text along with a really good translation. It really helped me to check my understanding. My favorite poem from this collection, however, is “Tu Risa.” I am posting the original text, alongside its translation.

“Tu Risa”

Quítame el pan, si quieres,
quítame el aire, pero
no me quites tu risa.

No me quites la rosa,
la lanza que desgranas,
el agua que de pronto
estalla en tu alegría,
la repentina ola
de plata que te nace.

Mi lucha es dura y vuelvo
con los ojos cansados
a veces de haber visto
la tierra que no cambia,
pero al entrar tu risa
sube al cielo buscándome
y abre para mi todas
las puertas de la vida.

Amor mío, en la hora
más oscura desgrana
tu risa, y si de pronto
ves que mi sangre mancha
las piedras de la calle,
ríe, porque tu risa
será para mis manos
como una espada fresca.

Junto al mar en otoño,
tu risa debe alzar
su cascada de espuma,
y en primavera, amor,
quiero tu risa como
la flor que yo esperaba,
la flor azul, la rosa
de mi patria sonora.

Ríete de la noche,
del día, de la luna,
ríete de las calles
torcidas de la isla,
ríete de este torpe
muchacho que te quiere,
pero cuando yo abro
los ojos y los cierro,
cuando mis pasos van,
cuando vuelven mis pasos,
niégame el pan, el aire,
la luz, la primavera,
pero tu risa nunca
porque me moriría.

“Your laughter”

Take my bread, if you want,
take my breath away, but
do not take from me your laughter.

Do not take away the rose,
the spear that you shed,
the water that suddenly
explodes in your joy,
the sudden wave
of silver that is born in you.

My struggle is hard and I return
with my eyes tired
of having seen
the earth that does not change,
but when your laughter enters
it rises up to heaven looking
for me and opens for me all
the doors of life.

My love, in the
darkest hour,
your laughter, and if suddenly
you see that my blood stains
the stones of the street,
laugh, because your laughter
will be for my hands
like a fresh sword.

By the sea in autumn,
your laughter should raise
its cascade of foam,
and in spring, love,
I want your laughter like
the flower that I was waiting for,
the blue flower, the rose
of my sonorous homeland.

Laugh at night,
in the day, at the moon,
laugh at the
crooked streets of the island,
laugh at this clumsy
boy who loves you,
but when I open
my eyes and close them,
when my steps go,
when my steps return,
deny me the bread, the air,
the light, the spring,
but never your laugh
because I would die.

Very few stanzas in poetry touch me that way this opening does. Take away my bread and my breath, but do not take away your laughter. It’s so moving. It’s so lovely. It explains what love is like. It describes an attainable love that seems so unattainable and unachievable. It’s the stuff of fairy tales.

And it seems real, at the same time.

I don’t know. Maybe I’m making no sense at all. That’s okay, too. I still love this poem so, so much.

I hope it brings you as much joy to you as it does me.

Yours,
The Plucky Reader

Top Ten Tuesday – Books Set in New York City

Top Ten Tuesday

Another Tuesday, another Top Ten. Today, I am dreaming (as I often do) about New York City and my imaginary life there. Years ago, before I settled into teaching in small-town Louisiana and longed for something more exciting that a mid-afternoon nap, I dreamt of moving to New York City and making my mark. I was a musician, it seemed natural to want to pack my bags up and try to make it big in the land of Broadway. Sometimes I think I could have made it, but then I remember how much I love stability and security. I like health insurance benefits and a regular paycheck.

So instead, I’ve been reduced to dreaming about what my life would be like in NYC. In my current imagining, I’m a novelist living in a brownstone in Brooklyn. I write in the mornings on my terrace, and then I wander down to The Strand bookstore and get inspired by the thousands of great books there. I write in the Jefferson Market branch of the NYPL. I attend book events. It’s a lovely dream, really.

I went to NYC in January to perform, so I won’t be returning any time, soon. Instead, I’ll have to stick to reading about New York and experiencing it through book characters’ eyes.


10. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

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A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a true American classic. It’s a coming of age tale that’s heart wrenching and soul shattering. You know, that light stuff I like to read on a Sunday afternoon. It’s semi-autobiographical and that makes it even heavier, to me. Any time a book is based on a true story, I’m much more emotional about it.

I also love this book because it’s New York in a very different landscape. The face of The City has evolved a lot since it was published in the 1940s. It’s nice to have this piece of history conserving the past.

9. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

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I read Invisible Man at the behest of a student. She did her senior project over Invisible Man and had too many feels to not share them with somebody else.

To be honest, I wasn’t sure how I felt about this book whenever I started reading it, but I powered through for Mary. It was heavy. It was dark. It said important things about race and the social climate of the 30s and 40s. It isn’t completely set in New York, but a good portion of the book takes place there. In the end, I enjoyed it and was glad I read it. It’s not a reading experience that caused me to feel inspired, as many reading experiences do. It just made me feel calm and reflective.

I love books about New York because they reveal so many faces about The City. I also apparently have a thing for New York pre-1950, because three other books on this list also fall in this category.

8. Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote

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Honestly, this book didn’t make it on the list. Not because it’s bad, but because I really, really wanted to represent J.D. Salinger on this list because I love him so much. I prefer his short stories to Catcher in the Rye, though, so I went with Capote’s novella instead.

If you’ve not read Breakfast at Tiffany’s, go get it now. It’s a novella; it’s a short, very lovely reading experience. Holly Golightly is such a charming beast of a human being. She’s so raw and not at all the typical woman in literature, and it’s so refreshing. She’s crude and unrefined and has a complex and complicated story. And there’s something so masterful about the way Capote has written a story in which the narrator and protagonist is not actually the main character of the story.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s also has the distinct honor of having my favorite literary quote, ever.

“They’ve had the old clapyo‘-hands so many times it amounts to applause.”

7. Wonder by R.J. Palacio

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Surely, at this point, you’ve read this book. Or seen the movie. Or been exposed to it at some point. If not, you should go read it. It’s lovely. It’s complex. It’s a sweet little book about a sweet little boy.

6. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

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You can’t talk about books set in New York without talking about The Great Gatsby. It’s iconic. It’s quintessential. And it’s perfect. Everything matters. Every color. Look. I know this book is overtaught in public schools. But I don’t care. I love it. It’s perfect and precious and I have the fondest memories of reading it in high school.

If you want a really nice reading experience, the audiobook is performed by Jake Gyllenhaal. He’s excellent.

5. The Afterlife of Holly Chase by Cynthia Hand

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Holly Chase is a delightful read. I’ve reviewed it here, already. It was my first review for Plucky.

Holly Chase starts off in LA, but quickly transitions to NYC, where the bulk of the story takes place. And, for those of you keeping track, this book is set in modern-day New York City, so that’ll definitely have an effect on your mental picture of New York. (Will it? Maybe? It does for me, but maybe I’m alone.)

Holly Chase is a sweet read at Christmastime and makes a good Christmas Carol substitute.

4. James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl

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Okay, seriously? Did Roald Dahl every do anything poorly? I loved James and the Giant Peach. I loved the Tim Burton film adaptation.

Let’s face it. I kind of love all things Roald Dahl. (Except for whoever made beer from his swabbed writing chair. I’ll pass on that.)

While James and the Giant Peach goes through several settings, the eventual goal and endpoint is New York City. I love this adventure. I lost this story. I love the hope and the magic and the sparkle that Roald Dahl writes with. It’s wonderful. It’s enviable.

3. Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

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This book has been raved about by podcasters and book reviewers and Oprah. And they’re all right. It’s exactly as good as they all say it is. Everything about this book is beautiful. Everything about this book is real.

Behold the Dreamers is set in 2007 just before the stock market crash. It seems crazy to me that we are far enough out from that event that there is fiction about it. I was a freshman in college; it doesn’t seem like it could possibly have been that long ago. Jende is a Cameroonian immigrant to America living in Harlem. He works hard to provide a better life for his wife, Neni, and son. As the book opens, he is hired to be a personal driver for a very wealthy and powerful executive at an invest firm. Jende is a hard worker and very proud of his work. He takes pride in supporting his family and helping Neni through school.

Just as they’re finding comfort in their lives in Harlem, the stock market crashes and their world is throw into turmoil. It’s such a wonderful story about the immigrant experience in America. Imbolo Mbue is an immigrant from Cameroon, and it’s wonderful to have a firsthand view of the American dream from an immigrant. It’s an important and timely book. And it’s lovely.

2. The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon

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The Sun is Also a Star is also a story about immigration and the American Dream. Using two narrators in alternating chapters, The Sun is Also a Star tells the story of Natasha and Daniel. Natasha is a science-minded, no nonsense kind of girl whose family is on the brink of deportation. When the book opens, she is working to make sure that she doesn’t get deported along with her family.

Daniel, on the other hand, is the son (or maybe grandson) or immigrants. Their family owns a business and he is expected to live up to his parents’ high expectations. He’s a dreamer with an insatiable love of poetry. He’s essentially me, if I were a hot book character and not a 30-year-old nerd.

Their paths cross and for one day, Natasha and Daniel fall have the most beautiful day together. But it’s only for one day.

love compressed timeline. I love books that take place in the span of a few hours or a few days. (Don’t look to my writing for that. I need an entire school year and 180,000 words to tell a story.) I was charmed immediately by the characters and their stories. And I was charmed by the way Yoon spun together not just Natasha and Daniel’s lives, but so many other characters. It’s a subtle reminder that our actions pull strings we’ll never see. We effect people in ways we’ll never know.

1. Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

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So, Rules of Civility is my Swiss Army book recommendation. I recommend it to any reader for any situation for any time in their lives.

In classic Plucky fashion, it is set in New York City in the 30s and 40s. The book opens in 1937 and focus on my a young girl with my favorite book name, ever, Katey Kontent. Katey is a Russian immigrant (seriously, I didn’t plan this, it just happened) who finds herself falling in with the social elite of Manhattan after meeting Tinker Grey. This chance meeting propels Katey and her best friend through a year of amazing opportunities and events.

The thing about this book is Katey Kontent is the most true-to-herself character I’ve ever read. She is virtuous and honest and good. She knows exactly who she is and she doesn’t allow herself to be swayed by the money or the glamor that she finds herself surrounded by. Katey discovers that almost nobody is who they seem to be in this new world. She finds that there are skeletons in everybody’s closet, but she doesn’t allow that to shake her. She is unflappable and honorable.

I’ve never loved a character as much as I love Katey Kontent. She’s a literary breath of fresh air.


Have I missed your favorite book set in the land where dreams come true? Tell me about it. I want to know everything about it. Maybe I haven’t read it, yet.

Happy reading!

Yours,
The Plucky Reader

A Very Restless Plucky

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It’s testing week! It’s testing week! And you know what that means! Actually, if you’re not a teacher, you probably have no idea. So I’ll break it down for you in a way that hopefully doesn’t sound like complaining.

It means a week of getting to school earlier than usual to sit in a room with kids you don’t teach and watch them take tests on a computer. And when I say watch them take a test, I mean that’s literally all we’re allowed to do. You may not grade papers. You may not read a book. You may not be distracted by that piece of dust that is fluttering just above that little girl’s head. You’re not allowed to daydream about sitting on the beach with something ice-cold and alcoholic in the hollowed out hull of a pineapple or coconut. I definitely didn’t do that. Definitely not. (And there was absolutely not a tiny little umbrella in my drink that I didn’t imagine. And there was definitely not a stack of books beside me that were dying to be read. That would be too much like heaven.)

It’s intense. It’s not the worst thing I’ve ever endured as a teacher. But it’s intense. The hardest part is telling yourself not to the about the things you’re thinking about. You’ve all been there, right?

Testing is over for the day, but I still have a windowless classroom to teach in. All I can think about is sunlight, and birds singing, and the smell of fresh-cut grass, and all the books I want to be reading right now.

I’m not necessarily an escapist reader; I often read very heavy books that don’t make for a good escape from life. But sometimes, all I can think about is fresh air and lighthearted books.

Do you get this way? Is this my own cabin fever? I’ve been cooped inside testing for so long that I’ve forgotten what the light looks like. (And by that I mean, I posted this week’s Top Ten Tuesday from a Starbucks patio.)

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When I go home tonight, I intend to curl up with my puppies, open the windows to let the fresh air in, and read to my little heart’s content. And that’s precisely how I intend to spend the weekend, as well.

I hope a good book finds you all, and I hope you have the opportunity to escape.

Yours,
The Plucky Reader

Top Ten Tuesday : Books About Books and Bookstores

Top Ten Tuesday

Last week, I participated in my first Top Ten Tuesday and had so much fun, I’ve decided to come back for me! Today’s topic is the very meta topic of books about books.

I adore books about books and bookstores. I find them charming. They’re usually easy, light reads. Not always, but often. I love the ways books are used as plot devices. Seriously. I adore books about books and bookstores.

10. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

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One thing starting a book blog has taught me is how to assess my reading habits. And something I’ve noticed is just how much I love historical fiction, especially anything set during WWII and The Great Depression. The Book Thief definitely checks that box for me. This story was a brilliant work of fiction. Liesel is such a strong character. The story was captivating. And what is often revered for its brilliance is the way Zusak casts Death, itself, to narrate the novel. It’s a beautiful commentary on mortality and loss and eternity.

9. Matilda by Roald Dahl

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Matilda is an often-overlooked book about books. But seriously. Books are kind of the only thing Matilda has to look forward to. Matilda’s obsession with books and reading made me connect with her very easily at a young age. Add to that Mara Wilson’s excellent performance in the movie and the fact that I will never hear “Send Me On My Way” by Rusted Root without thinking about Matilda, and you’ve got my favorite childhood movie/book combo. (Which makes me think. Maybe I’ll do a Top Ten Books-turned-into-movies one day.) Great villains you love to hate. (And Mrs. Honey made my second-grade heart pitter-patter when I saw the movie the first, second, and tenth times.)

Also, it should be noted that Roald Dahl did an amazing job at explaining very complicated concepts to children through his books. He kind of deserves a special place on every top ten list, ever.

8. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Marianne Shaffer and Annie Barrows

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Guernsey was a delightful book. I loved every page of it. And I didn’t expect to. I opened it and saw it was an epistle and was immediately turned off. But Anne Bogel  recommended it very highly on her podcast, What Should I Read Next, so I gave it a shot. And I’m glad I did. The characters were charming. The letters were precious. The story was interesting and deeper than I expected it to be. Despite the letters aspect of it all, I still adored this book. Seriously, though, who can hate a book about a writer writing books?

7. The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend by Katarina Bivald

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This book jumped out at me a couple of summers ago. I spent nearly every afternoon at Barnes & Noble, sitting in the cafe and working on my first novel. (Anyone want to publish it? Bueller…. Bueller…?) It was on the table in my line of sight all summer. And it’s hard to miss. It’s bright blue. It sticks out.

I didn’t actually buy it that summer, but it went on sale on the Kindle shop pretty soon after, and that’s when I picked it up. It was an easy read about Sara, a woman who travels to Broken Wheel to meet her long-time pen pal, Amy. But when she arrives, the finds that Amy has died. Something about Broken Wheel charms Sara and she decides to stay, and against better judgment, open a little bookstore. It’s charming and lovely, and speaks to the book lover in all of us.

6. The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde

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This book was also recommended on the What Should I Read Next? podcast, but by a guest and not the host. This family talked about the fun, quirky world of the Thursday Next novels and they sounded so fun, I had to try it. Something about this book reminded me of that old cartoon, Animaniacs. This is a world where dodos have been resurrected and you can get sucked into a book, quite literally. Thursday Next is a detective who is used to these kinds of zany adventures. But she’s not prepared when literary characters turn up missing.

It’s nutty and well-written and fast-paced and a quick read. It’s great for a rainy afternoon on the couch with your dog and a blanket. (Seriously I just need a nap, it’s been a long day.)

5. Inkheart by Cornelia Funke

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This is another book that was made into a movie, this time featuring the incomparable Brendan Fraser and Helen Mirren. Inkheart tells the story of Meggie, a young girl whose father has an interesting gift. When he reads from books, he has the ability to bring book characters into our world. The problem is, the book takes three things from our world in exchange. When Meggie was two, her father read a book, called Inkheart (it’s a little inceptiony, right?) and from within the pages, he called three characters. After a confrontation with the characters, he returned to his family to discover that his wife and the family’s two cats were pulled into the book to replace the characters brought into our world.

Inkheart is the first in a really exciting trilogy for young readers. It’s captivating and action-packed and the right kinds of fantasy for me. (I’m not a huge fantasy reader.) It’s a great family read for anybody looking to read with kids. And great for classroom libraries. (I’m teaching English next year, what can I say?)

4. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling

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Anyone who wants to tell me this isn’t a book about books can fight me. There. I’ve said it. Sectumsempra

3. Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

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I wrote about Fangirl here and I stand by it. I’ll also note that I linked the hardback book this time because the hardback is just so beautiful. I usually prefer hardback, but in this case, I’m choosing to pretend it’s the only edition that exists.

2. The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

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We read this book with my book club, the one where I met my magical librarian. (Shout out to Kathy who apparently read the post about her.) I would have never picked this book for myself. I mean, the Amazon blurb sounds so boring:

When his most prized possession, a rare collection of Poe poems, is stolen, bookstore owner A. J. Fikry begins isolating himself from his friends, family and associates before receiving a mysterious package that compels him to remake his life.

Luckily, I gave it a chance. And I’m so glad I did. I’m so, so glad I did. A.J. Fikry tells such a charming story of a man whose life is changed and who experiences great love again, after a great loss. It’s a redemptive tale. It’s a tale about family and how family is who you love more than anything else. It’s a story about learning to belong after feeling like you don’t fit in.

It’s beautiful.

1. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

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Mr. Penumbra is one of those books that appeared at exactly the right moment. I read it when I needed something less intense than I normally read. It’s not one that I felt viscerally. It’s not one that made me cry or ponder my existence or wonder about the great mysteries of the universe. It was just a really good story about a bookstore. There was a mystery and nobody died. There’s a nerdy love story. There are larger-than-life characters. There are goofy roommates. It’s really a charming book with just enough action to keep the book moving, but nothing to keep you up at night.

Something about how laid back this book is, especially when I read it, following a really heavy read, made it stick in my head as the pinnacle of leisure reading. It was perfect. It was a happy little book tied up in a perfect little package with a little bow. It’s a definite must read.

 

Tell me your favorite books about books or bookstores. Apparently I’m not along in my love for them; share yours!

Yours,
The Plucky Reader

Review – Call Me By Your Name by André Aciman

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Today, I am sitting in a lovely little coffeeshop between a rehearsal and a performance. I think I have spent more time, collectively, in coffee shops than anywhere else in my entire life. And I’m perfectly okay with this fact.

Sitting today, I have a little time to reflect the book that I finished yesterday.

Call Me By Your Name is not a book I would describe as lovely. (Which is shocking, I know. That’s my standard adjective for a book I love.) But it was a beautiful, moving, and touching story.

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I didn’t know really anything about this book going into it. I knew that it had been recently made into a film. I knew that it was considered for a lot of awards. And that’s the extent of my knowledge. Needless to say, I was not prepared for the emotional onslaught that came as I read this book.

Call Me By Your Name is the tale of Elio, a young Italian boy whose family owns a villa where they host writers who are working on new works. The writer of this summer is a beautiful man named Oliver with whom Elio is nearly immediately smitten. Immediately, the age gap between the two is noticeable. It’s a chasm that seems insurmountable when the book opens. Elio is 17 while Oliver is 24.

The book that follows is about the relationship these two men develop. It’s not your typical romance novel, and it really is like nothing else I’ve reviewed from this blog. It is intense. It’s about the intense emotions people feel when they first discover true sexuality and infatuation. It was about lust and raw attraction.

But it was also about the 80s. And about life in the 80s. And about being gay in the 80s.

Not so spoiler alert: Oliver and Elio do get together in this book. And they must do so in secret. It is the 80s, after all, and the world was not nearly as accepting of homosexuality as it is today (which is saying a lot, considering how non-accepting some place still are.)

But so much of this novel is just awkward. I read most of this book with an uncomfortable feeling in my gut. Part of it, I’m sure, is my very conservative view of sex. I am a good, southern boy after all. Sex should only be euphemized; never discussed directly. (I know. I’m bizarre. But that’s not a secret to me.)

Part of it is the apparent age gap. There is a huge difference between a 17-year-old and a 24-year-old. At those ages, seven years seems like a generation of difference, even if Elio is the most mature teenager who’s ever existed.

Elio seems to obsess over Oliver for much of the novel. For all of the novel, in fact. And I get it. I can remember being unable to shake feelings I’ve had about people. It was real, too real. I never want to relive adolescence again. (I mean, seriously, I teach teenagers every day. I never want to relive adolescence.) But Call Me By Your Name made me do so in a nearly tangible way. I could connect with Elio and understand what he was feeling.

Unfortunately, Call Me Be Your Name does not tie up in a sweet little boy. Every string is still dangling. Ever knot is undone. And that is hard for me. I want more closure than this book offers.

All this seems like a bad review, right? But no. I loved it. It made me uncomfortable. It made me queasy. But it was a great book. It was a wonderful read. It was thought-provoking. It was modern stream of consciousness and it was twisted and it was different for me.

It’s not a book that’s for everybody, but I’m definitely grateful that I read it.

Plucky’s rating?

4/5 stars

Yours,
The Plucky Reader

Top Ten Tuesday: Required Reading

Top Ten Tuesday

Happy Tuesday! This week (we’ll see what happens next week) I’m hopping on the #TopTenTuesday bandwagon. Since I spend my entire life at school, it seems only appropriate to talk about my top ten books on school required reading lists.

I’ve chosen books from all levels of education, elementary school through college. All of these books are near and dear to my heart, and have had a huge impact on my reading life. Some of the books on this list might have not been required reading for me, but they appear on required reading lists around the nation.

10. Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier

Rebecca by Daphe DuMaurier

When this was assigned my freshman year of high school, I was less than enthused about being force to read a “girl book.” The cover of our school copies had red velvet draped around and all information clearly describes this book as a “tale of romantic suspense.” I dug my feet in immediately. No sir. No way. I was not about to read a romance book. (This also happened to be a particularly dark time in my life during which I read very little, so that did not help.)

When I finally forced myself to sit down and read, I couldn’t put it down. It was exactly what the cover described. It was romantic suspense. It was dramatic. It was intense. A romance was at the core of the story, but this book is not your typical romance novel. I was fascinated that we never learned the protagonist’s name. I was enchanted by the characters. I was obsessed with the titular Rebecca. I couldn’t get enough.

Since that first reading, I’ve read Rebecca five or six times. And it’s always wonderful. And it’s always a struggle to put down.

9. The Tongues of Angels by Reynolds Price

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During my senior year of high school, my English teacher, Mrs. Wheeley gave us a list of AP-approved books to read independently. I selected this book solely based on the title. I didn’t research it. I didn’t look into it. I just called Hastings (may it rest in peace) and asked them to hold it for me. I picked it up that evening, got home, and stayed up all night reading.

I loved it. I couldn’t get enough of it. I loved Price’s voice. I loved his writing style; it was like having a comfortable conversation with a good friend. I fell in love with Raphael. It was a short read and I wanted more and more and more. I remember being intriguingly disturbed by a particular scene in the book, which only made me love it more.

8. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor

We were assigned to read Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry in the 7th grade. It was my first opportunity to read about the black experience in America. It was the first time I realized why diverse books were important. It told the story of a black family in Mississippi during The Great Depression. It taught my about racism and experiences that I would never experience firsthand. It opened my eyes to a world outside of myself and caused me to seek more and more books like this. It was not the first book that ripped my heart out (that book is later on this list) but it was a very big book in my reading life.

7. The Metamorphosis by Franz KafkaMetamorphosis by Franz Kafka

This was the first “great work of literature” that I read on my own. Sure, Mrs. Wheeley guided us through it, but I had already finished it by the time we started class discussions. This book was weird, I’ll admit. It was initially hard for me to work through. I wasn’t ready for the slipstream kind of magic realism. I wasn’t ready for this narrative style. But I was so glad when I’d finally read it. It made me feel accomplished and well-read and important.

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6. Hatchet by Gary Paulsen

Hatchet by Gary Paulsen

I don’t actually remember in what class I first read this. I think it was either in the fourth grade with Mrs. Gilley or the fifth grade with Mrs. Hughes. But it was the first “boy” novel I remember being assigned in class. It seemed like a large proportion of books we read for class had girl protagonists. It didn’t help that by this age, the boys in my class all made fun of me, because reading was a girl’s pastime. Then we read this awesome action/adventure novel about a boy who survives the wilderness and it seemed less feminine to read. (It’s amazing the way young minds think.) It helped me stay grounded and enjoy my reading life when I felt like I was under fire for enjoying it so much.

5. Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J Dubner

Freakonomics by Levitt and Dubner

Freakonomics was assigned to me in my junior English class in college. We had to read it to see how people can synthesize false information based on data. That entire class was about how to write rhetoric that interpreted data. But it was important we understand data can always be molded to fit our agendas. It was an interesting class (and was filled with even more interesting characters) that really opened my eyes to the necessity of reading data for myself to really understand what it was showing. It was eye-opening, for sure, and led to really interesting conversations in our classroom.

4. The Giver by Lois Lowry

The Giver by Lois Lowry

I did not read The Giver for school, but it is required reading at the school where I currently teach. I read it one afternoon after the end of my first semester of college. The orchestra had to stay behind after classes were over, because we played for Fall commencement. It was the best way to spend a few hours, and then stare into the distance trying to imagine what it’s like to be unable to see color. I have since reread The Giver so many times that I could nearly recite it from memory.

3. Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson

Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson

BRB, still crying over this book.

This was a class novel in the fifth grade. We read it with Mr. Bryant–the man who is probably the biggest reason I’m a teacher today–and he was really sensitive in the way he presented this book to us. We read it as a class and he helped us sort through the vocabulary we didn’t know, and he helped us understand the time period surrounding the book, and he helped us understand the difficult topics. It was the first time I remember a book being immersive and all-encompassing. This single experience is what sparked my love of historical fiction because it taught me to learn about the time period surrounding the characters. It made the setting something important and interactive in reading, rather than just a background for a plot.

2. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card

I know what you’re wondering. How can my favorite book, ever, be number 2 on a list? But it’s true. This is not the most life-changing I’ve had to read for school. It’s just my favorite book I’ve read. It’s an enjoyable story. It was moving. It was intense. It became my favorite world to hide in. I’ve reread it so many times that I’m currently on my third copy of the same book.

Ender’s Game was assigned in the ninth grade; it was a good year for reading. We had to read The Odyssey, Rebecca, The Chosen, and Ender’s Game. And I loved almost everything we read. But Ender’s Game was by far the best. I made friends because of this book. I think I harped on it enough in my first post to warrant me moving on.

1. Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White

Charlotte's Web by E.B. White

We read Charlotte’s Web in the third grade and I’m still not over this book. I loved everything about it. I love the characters. I loved the story. I loved the setting. And most of all, I loved Wilbur. This book is probably the sole reason pigs are my favorite animals. And probably the reason I love spiders as much as I do. Seriously. I love spiders and pigs almost to an unhealthy degree. It’s only just now, writing this post, that I realize this is likely the reason.

I can’t tell you why I love this book so much. I just know that I do. And that I love all things Charlotte’s Web. And that I have read this book forty of fifty times in my life. One of my most traumatic memories is leaving my copy of Charlotte’s Web at the laundromat when I was little and it was gone when we went back for it. Somebody had taken my precious, amazing book. (And today, I hope they loved it and gave it to somebody else to read, but at the time I was so upset.)

What are your favorite required reading books? Any fond memories? Tell me all about them!

Yours,
The Plucky Reader

(Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme that is now hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl. “It was born of a love of lists, a love of books, and a desire to bring bookish friends together.”)