Category Archives: Books I enjoy!

“Frog on His Own” by Mayer & the JOY of Wordless Books

Who will sit here? What will they watch? Story prompt? Naomi’s Photos

This post was going to be a joyous “Sharing -books-with-kids-ROCKS” kind of post, not related to work or the classroom, a suitable post for the weekend. But the teacher in me can’t look at a children’s book without thinking about sharing the joy in class…

Yesterday I stumbled upon a short post praising the use of wordless books in class “Using Wordless Books with English Learners” by Herrmann. It stopped me short, with my finger still on the mouse.

I can’t believe I forgot about this. I haven’t thought about such books for years and haven’t been recommending the use of them.  Wonderful books that tell an entire story in pictures, nary a word in sight.

Total amnesia.

So I went to the bookshelf and found the four books that I own.

“Frog on his Own” by Mercer Mayer was a hit with my own kids and in class. This amusing story of a pet frog having adventures in a local park was very clear to my sons and they enjoyed telling the tale. From a very early age children  know that in “traditional” books their parents are reading the words to them but here it is permissible to tell the tale a bit differently each time, and for the child to “read”  to the parent. This also worked well in class when I taught grades 3-6. Students wrote up the sequence of events, invented the text or the dialogue. Pure educational FUN!

My own sons loved the books “Moonlight” and “Sunshine” by Jan Ormerod much more than the previous one, but I couldn’t take them to class. These books are a gem for parents because of the combination of humor and reality of life at home with a child. Moonlight tells the story of a little girl who doesn’t want to go to bed while Sunshine depicts  the same girl who plays ” the big girl” and looks after herself while her parents sleep in. We loved everything about these books!

However, the heroine of these books is clearly around five years old (okay, maybe first grade, maybe) and there was no way my fifth graders at the time would accept such a book.

Which reminded me why the books were forgotten.

The first three are too childish for high-school…

There’s that pesky age where children refuse anything that might make them seem childish…
Naomi’s Photos

I do have one wordless book considered suitable for older readers “Anno’s Journey” by Mitsumasa Anno but, sad to say, I don’t get it.

The book is highly praised, it is supposed to include hidden storybook characters, visual puzzles, reference to famous paintings and more among the drawings, but I am truly embarrassed to say that  I myself have identified very few. Except for the pages with the windmills, I can’t even tell which parts of the journey are supposed to depict which European country – it could all be the British countryside as far as I’m concerned. Perhaps I need a teacher’s guide for it..

If I can’t narrate it myself, or write clues for the students to read and go on a treasure hunt , I truly can’t bring it to class.

I guess my “amnesia” had a reasonable basis.

So I will now return all four books to the bookshelf, and wait for grandchildren to share them with…

Lost in a Book: “Fall of Giants” by Ken Follet

Not a giant at all…
Naomi’s Photos

Ken Follet knows how to push all the right buttons.

Here’s the thing.  I usually abhor authors who seem to count the number of pages needed to insert regularly something related to affairs of the heart / flesh, particularly in conjunction with a generous sprinkling of “costume drama” (ranging from clothing, buildings and any other comforts of the aristocracy and the rich).

But Follet so cleverly combines those “buttons” with so much fascinating historical information, behind the scenes diplomacy and egoism that affected the lives (and deaths) of millions of people,  that I was willing to forgive the author for just about anything irksome in the entire book.  All 920 pages of it! I stopped reading my magazines – the book was addictive!

The characters are presented in such a  vivid and engaging way, the Welsh mining family and the local aristocracy, the German diplomats, the Russian peasants along with the American contingent. The book follows these imaginary characters along with very real politicians of the period during the years that lead to WWI, through the war years and immediately afterwards. You feel the tension of the arguments and the decisions even though I knew the outcome of some of them.  I’ve read extensively about WWll but realized I didn’t know nearly as much about how so many countries got involved in this war.

That’s not all. The book follows the battle to give women in Britain the right to vote. I had no idea of the influence the war had on that issue and even of the perception of women’s roles. It also brings you right into the heart of the Russian revolution. Somehow I had never thought about how all these things were happening at the same time and what that meant.

In short – I was HOOKED.

This is the first part of a trilogy. The first two books quite literally fell into my lap, without the third. I’m going to wait a while before starting the next one – not ready yet for another world war!

I’ve now started a completely different kind of book. Updates will follow!

Lost (not) in a Book: “The Sea” by John Banville

Moving in place…
Naomi’s Photos

I feel almost apologetic about it.

Perhaps like the cliché “No, it’s not you, it’s me”. The book won the Man Booker Prize in 2005 and it’s not that I can’t see why.  Banville’s use of language is impressive, his descriptions are rich and I used the dictionary a few times to look up words I had never encountered.

But the skillful use of language was the only thing that kept me reading as far as I did. And that’s not enough.

I found myself not looking forward to my “reading time”.

The combination of the very slow pace of the book,  the fact that very little actually happens ( mostly memories and thoughts) and the fact that the hero is mourning the recent death of his wife was too much for me at this time.

Perhaps if the timing had been different I would have been able to hang in there and see where all these thoughts led the protagonist but there it is.

I have moved on to the next book.

Lost in a Book: “The Color of Water” by James McBride

I was totally mesmerised by this book. TOTALLY.

And that’s putting it mildly.

Yes, you may wonder where I’ve been. The book was published in 1995. I don’t how I missed it.  I must have heard of the book often enough for the title to trigger a reaction when I spotted it, because I reached for the book immediately without being able to recall what it was about. It was waiting for me on the “Book-sharing”  bookcase our school principal kindly set up outside his office.

I found every aspect of the book fascinating. What an amazingly clever way McBride used to tell both his mother’s life story (which he did not know for a great many years) and to tell his own, and to connect them in such a seamless manner.

And what a story it is.

But here’s the thing.  This book isn’t just about a child of Ultra Orthodox immigrant Jewish parents from a totally dysfunctional family who winds up having 12 African-American children in New York. Despite grappling with poverty and  a host of problems, every single one of these children graduated from college and went on to have successful careers.

***Note – that wasn’t a spoiler. You can learn that much from the first page and back cover. Believe me, there’s more to read.

This book is also about people’s need to know where they come from and to figure out their own place in the world.

I feel that it is also about not letting the circumstances you were born in define your destiny.  There are real people out there who “reinvent” themselves.

As someone who is passionately interested in education, I was particularly interested in the details related to that subject – one which was incredibly important to the author’s mother (more so than actual food…).

I’ve donated books to the principal’s special bookcase and will do so in the future. I’m not bringing this book back, though!

 

Lost in a Book: “A Good American” by Alex George

A question of perspective
Naomi’s Photos

The book was surprisingly good!

I say “surprisingly” because I was very suspicious. The title hints at slogans, platitudes, stereotypes or just plain “shmaltz”. It’s a library book (as opposed to one you spend money on) so I took it out despite my reservations.

So glad I did.

The multi-generational tale of the Meisenheimer family who immigrated from Hanover, Germany to a tiny town in Missouri in the late 19th century is actually everything the blurb promises it would be. It gets even better as the book progresses. The book is an easy, flowing read with a story that is both touching and amusing.

Best of all, I really couldn’t predict a thing! The ups and downs of this family, generation after generation,  did not follow the script I imagined after reading / watching other multigenerational tales.

What a pleasure!

 

Lost in a Book: “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood

Who is behind the woman?
Naomi’s Photos

The book deserves all the accolades you’ve heard.

The book.

I didn’t watch the TV series and I don’t intend to. The book left a powerful enough imprint on my brain as it is. I don’t need it spelled out any clearer and I don’t need the graphics of the violent parts.

Margaret Atwood is a master of the “how”, not only the “what”.  The story progresses, is full of drama and tension in the here and now. Throughout it all,  information relating to the past, to explaining how one earth did all of this come to pass, drips in, appears through the lonely single window of Offred’s room, slips through the closet and pops up all over her grocery shopping expeditions.  From remarks on the lack of plastic bags, for example, the reader suddenly realizes that Offred (who once had another name, one which we do not know) had  a daughter. The background and the backdrop literally grow in front of your eyes in a very subtle way.

And yes, it is scary. I read an edition with an interesting forward by the author. As she said, most of the events in the book have actually happened somewhere already. All the events are plausible and possible.

I’m glad they made a TV series out of it, even if I won’t watch it. More people will be exposed to this powerful tale. which is a good thing. All I can do is hope it will make people think.

 

 

Lost in a Book: “Speak Swahili, Dammit!” by Penhaligon

Full title: Speak Swahili, Dammit – a Tragic, Funny, African Childhood.

Naomi’s Photos

I discovered this book completely by chance and really enjoyed it. My son was explaining to me that Amazon actually has free Kindle books and was demonstrating how one finds them, when we stumbled upon this one. I had never heard of it, but at the price of $O.O , with such an intriguing title,  it was an easy decision to give it a chance.

James Penhaligon grew up in a truly remote, tiny cluster of homes near a mine by Lake Victoria. A child of British parents who picked up Swahili before English, he tells the story of an unusual childhood. He earned the right to use that subtitle, the tale is fascinating, funny and tragic. But it is more than just the story of his childhood, Penhaligon also tells the story of the region in East Africa, what was once called Tanganika, the battles fought there, how it changed hands and the very diverse people who ended up living there.

My only complaint is that the book is too long. Slightly less detailing of every escapade would have been better. Young James had many an escapade indeed!

I was so absorbed in the story, now that I’ve finished reading the book I feel I’m going to miss the characters! On the last page it says another book will soon be out , describing what happens next. However, as far as I can tell, it hasn’t been published. I’m very curious regarding what happened when the mine closed and all the residents had to leave.

Back to Amazon, I discovered two things after finding this gem of a book:

When you scroll through the options for free Kindle books, Amazon starts suggesting  sleazy looking romantic novels with suggestive covers , supposedly based on your viewing preferences.  There are a ton of such books in the free section. ANNOYING!

This book, at least today, is no longer free. I assume that if they see people are downloading it they start charging for it again.

 

Lost in a Book – “Solomon’s Song” by Toni Morrison

Moving from darkness into “go safely”…
Naomi’s photos

Toni Morrison had me hooked by the end of the first paragraph.

Hooked from beginning to end, when I finally figured out at least a few of the layers of meaning that the title refers to. No spoilers here!

I found myself comparing a few elements of  this book to “The Bluest Eye” which is still my favorite book by Morrison.  “Solomon’s Song” has an educated African-American family of means at the center of the story.  It isn’t as gut wrenching to read as “The Bluest Eye” with its tale of a child caught up in endless cycle of poverty, lack of education and woe.  A book that was nonetheless mesmerising – I couldn’t put it down.

In Solomon’s Song, through the tale of four generations, one encounters a rich tapestry of tales over the generations. We have racial tensions, gender issues, politics and ideology, history and much more. The language used is different too.

The whole issue of people’s names and their implications is fascinating too.  The main character is called Macon Dead. His aunt is called Pilate…

This is the kind of book I would be happy to study in a literature course and discuss with others. There is so much food for thought in it!

 

Saturday’s Book: The Tobacconist by Seethaler

You can’t hide for long…
Naomi’s Photos

I have mixed feelings about this book.

One hand I certainly have patience for “slow-moving books and I prefer books that don’t feed you every bit of information with a teaspoon.

I also think it is a clever idea to have an imaginary character having conversations with Freud in Vienna on the eve of  WWll.

However, some things really annoyed me.

The main character’s infatuation with a woman who doesn’t give him the time of day is one of the  important influences on Franz ( the main character) on the path to growing up and truly seeing what is happening around him,  I understand that. However,  the amount of detail and the length of the descriptions were way more than necessary. It’s as if the author to lost for a while.

While I’m willing to accept that Franz was sort of a simpleton who achieved an awareness, I found the mother’s letters harder to believe in. They didn’t fit.

In short, this book has some annoying parts, especially in the middle section but does have some interesting parts as well.

I’m quite hesitant about recommending it, there are so many other books I would rather recommend. If you have it available, read it, but don’t make an effort to get a hold of it.

Saturday’s Book – “Human Acts” by Kang

A human act from a different part of the world.
Epstein family photos

All the accolades I have read about Kang’s skills as a writer are justified. The writing is unique, the perspective highly unusual.

If it hadn’t been for the writing I wouldn’t have made it through the first two stories, or chapters (because the stories are connected). Perhaps scenes would be a better way to describe them.

However, the topic of a particularly brutal massacre of a student uprising in South Korea (1980) is horrific. Kang’s skill in bringing the emotions straight to the reader made it explosively powerful.

It was too much for me to read any more than those two chapters. Tragic. Kang has won my respect as an author but that was all I could read.