Thursday, December 15, 2011

My 2011 Reading List (and the year's not over yet)

  • I have not included cover art for all books because I don't have time. I may finish this task or I may not. No personal slights intended!
  • Included are lists of books I reviewed, books I read for pleasure, and books I read in order to grow as a person. There's something for everyone.
  • Happy reading!

Books I reviewed or wrote about:

Books I read for entertainment:

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (Highly recommended! This is a brilliant suspense novel, and precisely the sort of masterwork that would never get published now because it takes 50 or so pages to get going, but when it does, watch out! Thank you to my favorite book catalog, Bas Bleu, for the spot-on recommendation.)

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society  (I adored this book, although I resisted reading it for a long time because it was such a commercial hit. Now I understand why everyone loved it. This novel--about WWII-era Guernsey and London and the Nazi occupation of the Channel islands--should be a film) by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

Linger by Maggie Stiefvater  (I read YA because I write YA. This particular novel is very good, even better than its predecessor, Shiver. I really enjoyed the werewolf novel, Shiver, and found it intelligent and well crafted, except for the very, very end...but that's what happens when a sequel is planned, I suppose.)

Forever by Maggie Stiefvater  (Final book in the changing-into-wolves trilogy; I think the series should have ended with Linger. My verdict is, unfortunately, negative. I really hate the multiple narrators thing, and in this case, I didn't like the characters who got the focus; they were the unlikeable characters. When different narrative voices are used in a novel--by any author--they always end up sounding alike to me. That trick is getting tiresome, and I wish the trend would die.)

Mockingjay (last Hunger Games book) by Suzanne Collins (Why does the final book in a series that started out so strong always feel like a waste of time and money? I loved The Hunger Games. I seriously loved it. The second novel, Catching Fire, felt much weaker. Mockingjay was weaker still. From now on, I will not read the third book in a trilogy…no more three part series, please, commercial publishers! The Hunger Games was awesome, but I think the story was simply pushed too far, and it read as though the author was rushed to pump out the next two books, or maybe her heart wasn't in it anymore.)

My mother lent me Tina Fey’s Bossypants (read it on the Kindle). I live next to Fey’s parents and see her several times a year. She seems nice, but I always feel like a loser when the driver in the Escalade pulls up. Fey wrote a book that will give readers some laughs (and provides great behind-the-scenes gossip about the Palin thing), but I am glad I didn't pay for this considering the gaping wage discrepancy between Fey and myself. That's just my way of evening the playing field...I am kidding. I still hold out hope that she will play me someday in the movie version (if one is ever made) of my memoir...I get, "You are just like Tina Fey as the teacher in Mean Girls!" all the time when I am teaching. 

A Stolen Life by Jaycee Dugard (Jaycee was the girl who was kidnapped and lived with her captor for decades, bearing two children by him...the story is so creepy. Dugard is largely self-taught, and I think she had ghostwriting help, but she's still an inspiration. This book is not literature per se, but it's an interesting story and sheds much light on Stockholm Syndrome and brainwashing.)

The Coffins of Little Hope by Timothy Schaffert   (Utterly lovely novel from a great small press. I was enchanted by this book about an eccentric family. I don't recall specifics because I read it months ago, but I really enjoyed the novel. The title is from left field; it's a sweet, quiet, literary story--just what I like.)

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery; Translated by Alison Anderson (Intelligent, impressive, thought-provoking and truly amazing for a translation. I see that its Amazon reviews are not fabulous, but maybe you have to be a Philosophy major, like me, to get it...)

Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell.  (A fine novel that is engaging, haunting, and leaves you thinking. There is a strong, young female protagonist, and interesting details about American poor in the Ozarks. I have been recommending this book as supplemental reading for all the AP English students I tutor because it has many relevant themes and something interesting to say about human nature and resilience.)

The Patron Saint of Liars by Ann Patchett. It took me a while to get to this novel by Patchett (I greatly admire her memoir, Truth & Beauty), possibly because it's about unwed mothers, strict Catholicism, giving babies away, etc. (Disclosure: I am an adoptee and found many parallels between my own birth and this novel.) I found the main character unsympathetic and inscrutable, but nevertheless, I loved the story. It disturbed me in some ways, but I am impressed by Patchett's ability to imagine a world she probably doesn't know at all.

Back When We Were Grownups by Anne Tyler. I found this book in our beach house. Anne Tyler is always good. Always. What a prolific and talented writer! This novel is about a catering hall of sorts, and it's about the strange, sudden choices we make that alter our lives forever; it's also about accepting ourselves for what we've become and not trying to rewrite the past.

Game Change by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin. I was so looking forward to this book (all the dirt about the Clintons, Obama, McCain and Palin), but I found it a bit of a let-down. It's impressive from a reportage standpoint, but all I really learned is that the presidential candidates apparently cuss like sailors...and that Palin is as doltish as I already thought she was.

Books I read for my own personal edification:

The China Study by T. Colin Campbell (Very interesting; about the health dangers and heart problems caused by our consumption of animal-based foods, written by a scientist who used his own family story as the basis for his research. )

Jesus Land  (a memoir) by Julia Scheeres. (Why I read so many books about hard-core Christianity this past year, I do not know. But this one was great. Scary, disturbing, traumatic, and sad. This is what happens when people focus on religion and their church but don't actually care for other people--what I would term hypocrisy. Scheeres had two adopted brothers--one of whom raped her constantly, but the other  she loved dearly and tried to protect, to no avail.  Her parents were modern-day Puritans and obvious racists. The kids, Scheeres and one brother, got sent to a frightening Christian reform school that they barely the book.)

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi.   (Absolutely brilliant graphic novel about a family and young woman enduring the Iranian revolution. You'll learn so much about this horror, and, ironically, you'll laugh and love the cartoons. For all ages.)

How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and 20 Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell  (This is a great book about one of my favorite topics--Montaigne's essays--and one I will surely re-read. Includes fascinating biographical information about Montaigne; this book is so well crafted. What I learned most of all is that life for Montaigne hundreds of years ago was not all that different--from a human perspective, from an emotional and intellectual standpoint--as it is now.)

Innovation You: Four Steps to Becoming New and Improved by Jeff DeGraff  (Part business consulting, part life coaching, this is the type of book I would ordinarily never read, but I found much food for thought here and plenty of useful advice. In fact, I racked up a big library fine because I didn't want to bring the book back...I should just buy it. And so should you!)

90 Minutes in Heaven  by Don Piper and Cecil Murphey (I picked this up because one of my daughter’s friends told her to read it. My child didn’t like it because I think it scared her…it wasn't scary, but I thought the description of heaven was vague and unsatisfying—Piper, by his own account, didn't see much of heaven and never even went through the pearly gates before he was sent back—but I liked the parts about recovering from injury. I know what that's like.)

Note: I also read The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven by Kevin Malarkey and Alex Malarkey (I found it relentlessly evangelical and freaky. It sort of feels like one of those chain letters. Now, as a huge fan of The Tibetan Book of the Dead and other classic works of mysticism, I am always interested in books about the life of the spirit and "proof" of God and angels, but I am definitely not a Bible thumper, as one would probably have to be in order to connect with or love this book).

Then They Came for Me by Maziar Bahari  (A scary and enlightening memoir about a journalist's recent imprisonment in Iran under the Ahmadinejad and Khamenei regime. It may be TMI in some areas--tons of background info on the big Iranian pols and religious figures that starts to blur, in a way. Still, it's an apt warning for all societies about what can happen when intolerant religious fundamentalists feel threatened by open-minded academics, journalists, etc. That happens all the time, and it could even happen here (and has). Fortunately, Bahari escaped execution; he got out of prison, but just barely, and endured countless beatings and savage, absurd interrogations. Of course, Bahari hadn't even done anything wrong. As I told my students, this is the type of cautionary tale that potentially applies to any and everyone--and then I explained the title, based on the Pastor Niemoller quote. I understood much more about Iran after reading Then They Came for Me; my attention to the topic had initially been grabbed by Persepolis. This new memoir was the perfect follow-up.)

Main book I taught this year:

Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder (Needless to say, I recommend this interesting nonfiction biography of the amazing and saint-like Dr. Paul Farmer; it's about poverty and public health in Haiti--and in Russia and Peru. It's also about how much we can accomplish if we actually have purpose in our lives, and it's about the truth of life: work never ends, and there is always more we can do to be of use to humanity.)

Books I read to be on same page as my daughter

Revolution is Not a Dinner Party by Ying Chang Compestine (lovely middle grade novel--based on the author's own childhood experiences--about the 1970s Communist revolution in China under Chairman Mao. This one made my pre-teen think...and I found the writing crystal clear and perfect.)

The Code: The 5 Secrets of Teen Success by Mawi Asgedom (This book--half memoir, half self-help guide--is hugely inspiring, a keeper for life. Motivational speaker and Harvard grad Mawi Asgedom is the best role model a kid could probably ever have. Do your own kids a favor: give them this book. It's basically a Mawi lecture in book form, but for those of us who don't have Mawi speaking at our schools, get the book!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Apps Help Improve Writing Skills (as Does Wide Reading)

Big news lately: Doctors are prescribing reading books to babies.

l can tell you from experience that reading to kids from infancy fosters a love of literature that will last a lifetime. Not only that, but the earlier we start reading or being read to, the more we can read and absorb, and the more we will know.
Perhaps some people need to see a formal article or scientific study to back up the claim that increased exposure to books helps kids develop literacy skills (I would think this would be a no-brainer!), but, for the rest of you: just try it. You can't go wrong reading books to your kids.
I can also tell you--as a teacher and as a person who learned how to write and developed a desire to write because I was, and still am, a wide reader--that reading helps with writing.
What I did not know is that all those apps out there now (like the ones my children charge to my AmEx from their iPods, or apps you can buy for your iPhone or iPad) include some great, fun tools that can actually help kids improve their writing skills.
Guest writer / teacher Elaine Hirsch has the details:
Top Five Apps to Help Improve Writing Skills

Helping your children with their writing used to mean repetitive writing exercises in notebooks and endless piles of grammar worksheets, but technology has changed the way in which kids can learn how to write. Tablets and smartphones have been instrumental in this change, so check out these great apps which can help improve your child's writing skills in an engaging and fun manner.

Chronicle for iPad
 (see screenshot, above) is an app that allows your children to create individual journals that are carried on their tablets. Kids can record short items like lists or scraps of conversation, or they can fully describe an important event. Not only will this app help child writers organize their thoughts, it will also allow kids to record a written snapshot of their lives and improve their writing skills at the same time, a skill which will reap dividends later on.  

Essay-Czar is a professional app that is helpful to your kids as they get older (high school and college). This app is often purchased by schools to help students find answers to questions about essay writing. Essay-Czar explains how to write more than 40 types of essays while also giving students an idea of what to expect on the SATs.

My Writing Spot is the solution when your student wants to write but is away from his or her desk. This app has the full functionality of a good word-processing program, including features such as word count, document groups, dictionary, thesaurus, and spell-checking. It is fully compatible with Bluetooth keyboards, and it also allows your child to lock writing work with a password.

Chapters is an app that allows each child to keep his or her own notebook on your smart phone. These virtual notebooks get different cover styles with their own passwords, and you can also separate notebooks by category. Consider how much fun your kids will have creating notebooks on their lives, on their schoolwork, and on their personal projects. (Sounds like an easy way for a kid to start writing a novel or book-length work!)

Grammar App HD takes your children back to the basics. This app is oriented around getting better with grammar, which helps children pick up the basic building blocks of writing, making communication easier. This interactive app quizzes students and helps them become more comfortable with grammar and what it can do. (This is a great choice if you need to entertain younger students on long car trips but want to steer clear of time wasters such as Angry Birds.)

A definite link exists between students' writing and their capacity for success, so don’t underestimate the help your iPhone or tablet can be. Many of the apps mentioned provide enjoyable ways for children and students to exercise their writing skills. 

There are plenty of tools out there for parents who want to help their children become better writers, so consider these apps when teaching your children or students.

(And don't forget to keep reading!)

Sunday, December 4, 2011

On Reading, Writing, Editing, Time Mgmt, & Study Skills

This is my end-of-the-semester review sheet for my college students, but it would work for any student, I believe. I hope it helps. We are all students of life, after all...

My Best General Tips on All of the Following School-y Topics


·      Make reading active. Read with a pen or pencil in your hand. Use that writing instrument to underline, make margin notes, scribble little stars by important passages, AND—if you really want to remember what you are reading—copy down key passages in the notebook that is sitting next to you. (There’s a notebook sitting next to you, right?)  *Note: students should NOT rewrite a textbook in their notebook. Taking notes on EVERYTHING is pointless and will only lead to confusion about what's most important (and it will lead to lack of retention of the information). Just read a bit. Think about what you read (purpose, tone, thesis). Jot down some key phrases, questions, and ideas. Copy facts you might need to know for a test. That's it!

·      Don’t read in bed late at night unless it’s a book you are reading for recreation (not for college or work). First, you won’t complete the reading you need to because you will fall asleep too soon. Second, you won’t remember what you read because how many people lie in bed with a pen and notebook along with a book? Hardly anyone. If you do, well, good for you, but I can tell you from experience that you will inevitably get big, impossible-to-remove ink stains on your sheets from the pen that will (also inevitably) drop from your hands after you fall asleep. Lying in bed with a pen is like falling asleep with gum in your mouth. It never turns out well. Think about it.

·      After you read, try to talk about the book with another person who has read it (ideally, people in your class). Go out for coffee with people and talk about books (no, really). We need to be sure that we can articulate our ideas about our reading. Try this verbally for starters. Try to articulate your ideas about your reading in your class writing, too. Listen to others talk (aural comprehension). It all helps to enhance your understanding!

·      Ask the questions or make the two points you wrote down in your notebook…because you always, always prepare for a class by planning two things to ask or say, right? (This is my big hint for getting your prof to admire you, and for making an impression, learning something, and upping your participation grade. You can do this for class or business. Just do it. You will feel better about yourself, and everyone will admire your brainpower and self discipline.)


·      When you feel you have nothing to say, free write. This means: write anything, just get going, even if you start off by writing, "I have no idea what to write about. I am supposed to write a persuasive paper about the ethical decisions behind the recent bill to blah blah blah, and I don't get it; I don't have any opinions; I don't know what to say..." Even if you start off doing this, you will eventually get to a point, to some usable material. Just start writing and then see where the writing takes you. You will--maybe after a page or two of scribble--get somewhere, and it’s good training (like running, which always starts hard and then you hit your stride).

·      Write a little bit everyday when you have a big assignment or paper looming. Don’t try to do it all at once. It will not be good writing.

·      Writing is RE-writing. I am a professional writer and guess what my first drafts of my personal essays or creative writing look like? Nothing like my final drafts. Night and day. My first drafts are stupid and boring, and so are yours (probably).

·      So, write until you just don’t feel like writing anymore (make notes at your stopping point about what you might say next; I always do this with my fiction writing, and it’s a lifesaver, trust me. I usually know where I think I want to go with something so I will write, EXPAND MORE ON ALIX’S DREAM HERE, or something like that, and it makes it simple to pick up the writing again when I am fresh. If I did not do this, I would forget everything and be stuck. Try a similar tactic.


·      Always come back to your writing and add more.

·      Then, go over what you already have written and make it better. (Don’t do this before you add more because you will spend all your time/energy fixing the old stuff but you won’t make any progress in terms of content. If you think you’re done with the complete draft, then it’s okay.)

·      Look at it again (REVISE) and read your work aloud. You will hear what sounds convoluted, and the awkward parts can be difficult to see (they are always easy to hear, so make reading your work aloud a habit before you turn it in).

·      Proofread. Self-edit. Let someone else read your work, too, and/or let them listen to you read it. Ask them where they were confused or wanted to know more. Take notes based on what they tell you and be objective, not defensive. Everyone’s work can always be better. Try to make your writing better, and don’t leave it all until the last minute.

·      When we edit ourselves, we do not only add more (expand on our thoughts and keep going), but we also fix errors and CUT what isn’t serving our paper. Do not be afraid to cut parts of your writing. Everything needs to be working toward your goal: supporting your thesis (you have a thesis, right?).

·      Usually, other readers are the best people to tell us where we should cut. This is  always the hardest thing to see in our own writing/editing.

·      Use a service such as or, for book length work, AutoCrit. Grammarly, for example, will show you where your writing is too wordy, confusing, grammatically incorrect (and pay attention here so you don’t keep making the same mistakes over and over!), etc.

·      It is tough to edit your own work! Try to exchange papers with someone and help each other. I have to pay people to edit my work. Try to find someone who works for free but will still do a good job for you.

·      When you get a paper back from a professor, read the notes. Trust me: time was spent reading and commenting on your paper. There’s nothing worse (from a prof’s perspective) than making the same comments over and over and over again because clearly, no one was reading them.

Study skills

·      Take notes while you read (see my comments on reading, above).

·      If there’s anything you want to remember (this is how I memorize information), copy it down. Read it again. Try to copy it from memory. Check how you did (quiz yourself). What did you miss? Read the text and write it from memory again. Keep doing this until you have it memorized and it’s perfect.

·      You can do the above with flashcards, too. WRITE your own flashcards (don’t buy them pre-made). Staring at flashcards will not magically make the information imprint itself into your brain. You have to pick up a pen and write/re-write to get the information memorized. This makes the learning visual and kinesthetic at the same time—a brilliant recipe for academic success.
Read ahead of the syllabus or class plan. You will never be in bad shape if you do this. Ideally, always read a book in its entirety before discussions even begin. Then, read it piecemeal as the discussions happen. Your comprehension and retention of the information will be so amazing, it will feel like you grew a new brain. Try it!

·      Review your notes every night.  Spend about 10 minutes looking over the notes you took for each class. If you do this, you will never have to study again. Never. Can you imagine? No, you can’t imagine it because you have probably never done it before. Try it for two weeks. No more cramming; no more all-nighters. Why didn’t you think of this before? God only knows, but you get it now, so live your life in this new, far easier way.

·      Study sitting up at a table like a Scandinavian student. (I am half Scandinavian, but I didn’t know about this Nordic trick until I was about 28 and in grad school. It totally works—probably because it is much harder to fall asleep when you are sitting at a table). You will need to prop up your books with a little  reading rack. They sell these wooden desks-for-desks in the Levenger reader’s catalog, but you could also use a cookbook holder or something.

Time management

·      We all procrastinate. I am not sure why. Maybe it has to do with dreading a certain task or tasks…maybe it’s because we’re worried about failure or success. Maybe it’s because there are simply too many distractions in life. Well, whatever. We can’t afford to procrastinate. Procrastination makes our lives suck. We must resolve to cease procrastinating and resolve to be more disciplined!
The best tool I’ve found to help with procrastination is (as I’ve mentioned) the Pomodoro Technique. Google it if you missed that class. The Pomodoro Technique calls for you to decide how much time you think a dreaded or overwhelming task is going to take. Break it down into little chunks (20-30 minutes). Work one un-interrupted (this is key!) chunk at a time. Check off your bwat or little sketch of a tomato. Congratulate yourself for a second. Do it again. And again. And again. Take a mini-break. Are you done now? Probably close to it. How awesome are you for buckling down and getting that task off your desk and off your mind? You are so awesome. Now, finish the next horrible task the same way and feel the relief wash over you…you are more productive and less stressed, aren’t you? I told you so. (Believe me, I have the same problems when it comes to work I have to do…)

Know your limits. My writing limit is 3-4 hours. I seriously cannot write for any longer that that. My brain is fried at that point (it's as if a switch turns it off), and I have to stop. If you know your limits, you can plan accordingly and not force yourself into writing garbage all night long because a paper is due tomorrow. 

·      Sometimes, the only solution is to physically remove yourself from the source of all distraction. Use the library. Lock yourself in one of those box-like rooms. Draw the blinds. Turn off your phone. No checking the internet, either! You can do this for 20-30 minutes. Try it. If you don’t feel like stopping for a tiny break after that, don’t. Keep going until you can’t anymore. This really works!

My best wishes for the rest of your academic careers (and your careers after that). It has been a privilege to meet and teach each and every one of you. Thank you!
--Elizabeth Collins