Thursday, February 28, 2013

a random list.

Things that have made me go 'hmmm' this week:

  • people who sing or talk on the phone whilst conducting 'business' in public restrooms
  • many, many pieces of modern art
  • I seem to have a skunk stripe forming along my part that will put Stacy London's to shame if I'm not careful. Not sure how I feel about this. Time to get a new hairstyle, touch up my roots (or at least part it on the other side?)
  • the weather around the country of late
  • why does gravity seem to be stronger in my closet? things fall at an astonishing rate in there
  • and why is February the longest month? I know it's really the shortest but man it seems to drag on and on and on.  I'm glad to be done with it!
  • people who come into the library, take every book off of the shelves, allow their children to step on them and then give you dirty looks when you suggest that they not step on them in case they should slip (or better, to protect the books!)
  • the FDA adding sweeteners to milk
  • why, when one is so exhausted, is it so hard to get a good night's sleep?
  • wondering how to spend all my free time (ha!) and which show to get sucked into now that I've finished this one
Happy to say adios to February and welcome in March.  I'm not sorry to see it go. Even if it snows, somehow March feels warmer than February.  I don't know about you but I'm ready for a breath of fresh spring air. Here's hoping...

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

a good book.

Our first book club meeting was a wonderful success. We had some lively discussion about the characters and plot with people siding on both the 'like' and 'dislike' end of each.

I'm still not quite sure how I feel about all of it myself. There was some interesting progression among the two main characters, both rather weak females (though Dr. Swenson came across as domineering and strong I feel it was more of a front to hide her insecurities.) The ending was ambiguous enough that we argued a bit over whether Marina stays home in the north (with running water and mattresses) or finds herself drawn back to the wilds of the Amazon.

There was a discussion on cannibalism and how they decide who to eat. We all shuddered over the mysteries of giant snakes and the various creepy crawlies that dwell in the murky waters of the river. And we all equally bashed the love scene that seemed thrown in for the sake of a love scene.

It was a super slow start for me. I didn't get interested until Marina finally made it into the jungle and then things moved at a break neck speed until it reached the rather abrupt ending. It wasn't one of my favorites but it definitely made for an interesting discussion. Have you read it?  What are your thoughts?

Next month we're reading The Chosen by Chaim Potok. Care to read along?

Saturday, February 23, 2013

a day spent wandering.

Yesterday I had the opportunity to go into the District and spend the whole (drizzly, cold) afternoon wandering aimlessly through several museums before meeting some friends for dinner. My first stop was the Corcoran Gallery where I drooled over Degas, Monet and Rafaelli. Their collection includes modern and contemporary art, photography and the decorative arts, but I tend to  prefer the European myself.

Next up was a visit to the Renwick Gallery whose collection focuses on the American crafts and arts. There I was amazed by Wendell Castle's Ghost Clock, (all carved from a single piece of wood and made to look like a clock draped in a cloth...fantastic!) and somewhat haunted by Karen LaMonte's Reclining Dress.

Then it was off to the Old Post Office and a quick tour of the clock tower (too bad the views were obscured a bit by all the clouds) before making it to the National Portrait Gallery.  They had a wonderful exhibit of Civil War art; some paintings of battlefields and bivouacs, some of Matthew Brady's photography but a few of my favorites were some scenic views whose subjects had nothing to do with the War itself but were painted in the era and had some strong underlying symbolism.

There were four of them; one depicting a double rainbow arched over a jungle chasm signifying the reuniting of the two halves of the country, another shows a volcano in the distance ready to burst as tensions in the country mounted to a boiling point, and another showed the aurora borealis--the northern lights a symbol of the North's cause.

My favorite though was a painting of great icebergs, painted off the coast of Newfloundland. It was first displayed at the outset of the war and was proclaimed as the most splendid work to come out of the country and a reminder of what the country (as a united whole) could create.  Having seen glaciers and bergs in person I was awestruck by his ability to capture their majesty, enormity and fragility all with a few brushstrokes. I was swallowed up in the grandness of the painting that stood nearly as tall as I and twice as long. I could almost feel the cold Arctic air on my face (or maybe that was just the air outside blowing in through the open door!)  I confess it made me a tad homesick. (Do you call it "homesick" if it's for a place you've only visited briefly?!)

(I've stolen the image from this website about the artist, Frederic Edwin Church. Normally I'd just send you there to look at it but I wanted you to be able to see it without scrolling through all of them to get there --but know that it doesn't even begin to do the actual work justice. And I encourage you to scroll and see the rest of his work when you've got a few minutes.)

It was a wonderful way to spend an afternoon and made me grateful to live in a city where I could so while away my time.  What is your favorite way to spend a free afternoon?

Thursday, February 21, 2013

making headway on a goal.

In an effort to kick my writing into gear (yes, I'm trying one more time!) I signed up for a writing class through the local community education office. Meeting with 5 strangers and baring your soul is an interesting way to spend a Thursday night. I'd hoped to have a bit of instruction and guidance but it's turned out to be more of a 'group' than a 'class'.  We take turns sharing what we've written and offering up critiques and criticisms as well as a sprinkling of praise.

While I've definitely found ways to improve my writing based on their feedback of my own work I think I've learned the most by listening to what others have written and listening to the ways that they offer feedback rather than from the feedback itself. Some people are natural writers. And some people have a gift for knowing what will and won't work in a written piece and knowing which questions to ask to help the writer improve.  I find I'm still a little stuck in the 'it's good' 'I really liked it' mode of critiquing. I can usually tell you if it works or not but not necessarily why it does or doesn't. As I've paid attention to the way others listen and respond I find it trickling into my own responses but amazingly, into my writing as well.  Re-reading a piece I try to read it with their eyes and ears, what will they notice, how can I fix it? And now even in my reading of books in general I've learned to watch for the same cues and responses.

It's amazing what a new reader and a worthwhile critique can produce. (And I've added 20 pages of new text...hooray!) It's a slow process but it's nice to be able to see some actual progress finally and feel as if I'm making some headway. Let's hope I can keep it up once the class ends!

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

a good book.

Author: Terry Pratchett
Pages: 360
Age Range: 13 up
Published: 2012
Genre: Historical Fiction/YA
Cover Score:****
Overall Score:****
Rating: PG-13 (violence, sexual innuendo)

Dodger is an orphan in Victorian London, making his way in the world as a tosher, searching the sewers for lost coins, rings etc. One stormy night he’s crawling out of a hole in the ground when he encounters a group of thugs beating a young girl.  He comes to her rescue and unwittingly finds himself entangled in an international incident with Charles Dickens stepping in to lend a hand.  At first Dodger plays Baker Street Irregular to Dickens' Sherlock Holmes but Dodger quickly moves into his own (it is his story after all) and uses his street smarts to his every advantage.

In the process of trying to uncover the truth of the girl's identity (and protect her from further harm) he also crosses paths with Sweeney Todd, Benjamin Disraeli, Angela Burdett-Coutts and even HRH Queen Victoria herself (among others).

Sprinkled liberally with cockney and colloquialisms as well as some helpful (and humorous) footnotes this is a delightful read particularly for those who can appreciate all of the historical references and meta moments. This is a coming of age/self-discovery story teeming with Pratchett's trademark humor and bringing a well-loved age of history to life.

Just a small sampling of some of my favorite passages:

Dodger had heard that god watches everything, although he thought that around the rookeries, He tended to close His eyes. -pg 268

"Well, dear Mrs. Mayhew, I can promise you that there will not be any hanky-panky, because I do not know what panky is and I've never had a hanky. Only a handkerchief." -pg 93

Dodger had never read a book, but if he had ever done so, he would have read the cook just like it--and it was amazing how much you could glean from a look, or a snort, or even a fart if it was dropped into the conversation at just the right place.  -pg 21

If you have any interest in Victorian London or Charles Dickens and his writing you're sure to appreciate this creative and wholly original homage to both. And as a bonus, it was one of this year's Printz honor winners.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

all things Downton.

I've been holding off on this post until after the final episode aired in the US as to avoid letting any spoilers leak. And let me tell you how hard that's been!

So, if you've not seen it yet please skip to the videos etc. If you have seen it, well then...what the what?!?!?! I mean, I know the guy who plays Matthew hadn't signed on for another season but really, did they have to kill him? So gruesomely? And right after they'd had a tiny smidge of happiness? Couldn't they have sent him off to India or somewhere to do business and had him go missing or something less drastic? Yikes! And poor, poor Edith. Let's hope next season brings her a bit of joy, huh?

And some random fandom...

If you haven't seen this photo circulating yet, of the cast in the NY city subway, it's a great one.
Our Mr. Thomas is kind of a hottie when he's not being a creeper! Wow!

And I'd heard that Lady Cora's alter ego fronted a band but who knew Ladies Mary and Sibyl also had some pipes? And that they (at least jokingly) want to start a band together? Check out some sample singing here.

And oh, the spoofs and parodies! Here's a site that has compiled some of the best of the best.

If you don't know what I'm talking about then you are seriously missing out on some great television (ie a period soap!) Classic. Go watch it, you know you want to. And when you're done come back and we'll chat all about it.

And one final comment, when I grow up I want to be the Dowager Countess. She gets all the best lines!

PS--The Mumford and Sons concert was absolutely amazing!! One of the best I've ever seen. If you get a chance to see them strut their stuff live and in person, take it, take it, take it!! You won't regret it. And if you do (regret it, I mean) well, then we can no longer be friends.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

a silly holiday.

When I was little I loved Valentine's Day. The expectation of a zillion cards (and candy) all crammed into a blinged-out shoe box was enough to send any child into fits of ecstasy. (We won't talk about how much I 'loved' that experience as a teacher!)

As you grow older and your Valentines are handed out as a matter of choice rather than as a matter of classroom equality and fairness it starts to lose a bit of its shine. And unless you are in some sort of relationship it becomes known more familiarly and fondly by the acronym S.A.D (Singles Awareness Day.)

In an effort to stave off the grumpy feelings I tend to harbor on this chocolate infused day of celebration (though who can complain about chocolate?!) I figured I'd share some tunes.  First up, an appropriately titled "Be Mine" by Alabama Shakes.

And, saving the best for last, I'll give you an opportunity to be a bit jealous. Tonight I've actually got a date. With Mr. Marcus Mumford and his musical 'sons'. Like I said, be jealous!

And may your Valentine's Day, with whomever and however you choose to celebrate, be filled with awesomeness! I know mine will be ;)

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

hearing the right words at the right time.

I was perusing this book of poetry by Mary Oliver today and came across a phrase that hit me like a ton of bricks.  Her poem Hurricane* ends with the lines "For some things there are no wrong seasons. Which is what I dream of for me."

I read that four or five times and then sat with it rolling around in my brain for a few minutes, and then read it again. I've been struggling with some major life decisions lately and trying to come to terms with the fact that some seasons of my life seem to have passed me by while I've put off doing certain things while waiting for a particular season to come. I have a very specific definition of the seasons of my life and the timelines that I think I should be following but for some reason life has a different definition.  And somehow this phrase gave me a freedom I didn't know I'd been looking for; the freedom to erase my own predetermined labels, confines and constraints and just live the life I've been given.  Easier said than done, of course, but the first step is acknowledgment so I figure I'm at least on the right track.

 *You can find the complete text here.

(and a huge thanks to Madame M for introducing me to her works.)

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

having a hero

We all know that President's Day is coming up next week (hooray for 3-day weekends!) originally celebrating the combined birthdays of two of our greatest presidents, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. 

Washington is the hometown hero around these parts. There's a parade in Alexandria in his honor and his home, Mount Vernon (incidentally, one of my favorite places to visit in the area), holds special wreath laying ceremonies and has birthday cake and everything. There's even a visitation by the general (he tends to take this label more often than president) himself. His actual birthday is February 22.

Lincoln's birthday gets a tiny bit of fanfare.  We do have a beautiful monument to him after all. But unless it's a noteworthy anniversary (like the 200th a few years ago) he's mostly just lumped into the general celebrations on the Monday holiday. His actual birthday is February 12. Today! 

A friend posted this link on her facebook wall and it made me giggle so I just had to share.

I've long been fascinated by Charles Darwin and Lincoln is also a hero. I love imagining the two of them chilling together complimenting each others' beards! In reality though, could you imagine the conversation between those two great minds? What I wouldn't give to be a fly on the wall!

Care to learn more than what wikipedia might have to say about them? Give these things a glance.

Darwin's Four Great Books
I haven't read them in their entirety yet but have perused both On the Origin of Species and Voyage of the Beagle. Fascinating stuff.

Charles and Emma: The Darwins' Leap of Faith
An engaging biography focusing on the relationship between Darwin and his very religious wife.

Along the same lines, the movie Creation looked at their relationship and his struggles with faith and belief in God (and his decline in health.)

This award-winning photobiography gives a great overview of Lincoln's life and has stunning pictures to boot.

This sweet fictionalized picture book
focuses on Lincoln's relationship with his sons and the heartache he experienced after losing young Willie.

 And of course, there's the highly acclaimed movie based on Doris Kearns Goodwin's book.  I haven't seen it yet but have heard nothing but good about it. Perhaps I'll find a matinee on Monday. It seems only appropriate!

What have I missed? What are your favorite books, movies, mentions about these great subjects? Who are your heroes?

Wednesday, February 6, 2013


Part of my job consists of conducting twice a week storytime sessions for 3-5 year-olds. I've decided my next theme is going to be ninjas.  There have been quite a few cute ninja books to cross my desk recently. Here are my favorite picks so far:

Nighttime Ninja
Author: Barbar Da Costa
Illustrator: Ed Young
Pages: 32
Age Range: 3-6
Published: 2012
Genre: Picture Book
Cover Score:****
Overall Score:****
: G

When all is quiet the ninja creeps through the house in search of treasure. But just as he's about to strike the lights come on and….Ah! Mom is foiling his plans to steal cookies! And it's back to bed for him. Young's cut paper illustrations have a decidedly Asian flare. Bold framed pages outlined by ribbon accent the dark, shadowy action. And the cute twist at the end is perfect.

The Boy Who Cried Ninja
Author and Illustrator: Alex Latimer
Age Range: 4-7
Published: 2011
Genre:Picture Book
Cover Score:***
Overall Score:****
: G

When a boy blames all of the 'bad' happenings in his life on ninjas and giant squids and various other creatures his family doesn't believe him and he gets in trouble for lying. When he decides he'll just fess up and claim responsibility he gets in trouble for doing all the bad things. So, he sends out some invitations to a party and when all of the creatures show up he feels vindicated and his parents realize their mistake. Silly fun with great Oliver Jeffers-ish illustrations.

Wink: The Ninja Who Wanted to Be Noticed
Author and Illustrator: J. C. Philipps
Pages: 32
Age Range: 4-7
Published: 2009
Genre: Picture Book
Cover Score: ***
Overall Score: ***
: G

Wink tries and tries to do his best in Ninja class but he can’t be silent. He wants to share his accomplishments with everyone and show them what he has learned. But “silence is the weapon of the ninja” as his master reminds him often and “the loudest cricket is the first to be caught.”

His grandmother tries to console him with tickets to the circus but Wink chides her that ninjas don’t go to the circus. On his long walk home from class one day Wink comes across a young boy practicing acrobatics and Wink steps in to lend a hand. Days later his grandmother and master each receive tickets to the circus in the mail where they see Wink shining in the spotlight doing all of his greatest moves in a flashy costume to the applause of a large audience. Cut paper illustrations filled with humor, texture, and perfect Eastern flavor.

The Three Ninja Pigs
Author: Corey Rosen Schwartz
Illustrator: Dan Santat
Pages: 32
Age Range: 4-7
Published: 2012
Genre: Picture Book
Cover Score:****
Overall Score:****
: G

The story of the 3 little pigs gets an oriental kick when the 3 pigs, tired of the rampaging, huffing puffing wolf decide to train at the new ninja school.

The first pig takes aikido but gets bored and drops out. Pig two takes jujitsu, learns a few skills and then leaves convinced he’s ready to take on everyone. The third goes with karate (a girl, btw) and slowly works her way through all the skills month after month (some nods to karate kid in the illustrations)

When the wolf comes knocking, Pigs One and Two in their straw and twig houses still can’t compete and come running to the third for rescue. Showing off her newly acquired skills she breaks some boards and bricks and sends the wolf running before she can apply them to his hide. The two brothers are grateful and return to school to finish their learning.

A fun rhyming text sprinkled with martial arts terms (and a glossary in the back) makes for a perfect read aloud. Santat has a way with color focusing on deep golds, greens and reds. There’s a touch of comic book feel particularly during the action sequences (panels, frames, close ups, movement lines, speech bubbles) and fun nods to The Karate Kid that parents will get a kick out of. Gorgeous end pages show a Japanese landscape filled with hills, mountains, cherry and bonsai trees. And there are fun illustrated author and illustrator ‘photos’ on the back flap.

The Legend of Ninja Cowboy Bear
Author: David Bruins
Illustrator: Hilary Leung
Age Range: 3-6
Published: 2009
Genre: Picture Book
Cover Score:***
Overall Score:****
: G

3 friends share many of the same interests but they also each have their own strengths. One day they get frustrated with each other and devise a series of contests to see who is the best of all, but the contests leave them more confused than ever. They each go their separate ways and while meditating and pondering they realize that they appreciate their strengths and differences and that’s what makes them unique.

A definite “moral” book but it’s such fun you can mostly overlook it. The illustrations have a decidedly Eastern hint, stylized like anime and paneled like a graphic novel. The greatest part is the game in the back. Walking like you would in a western showdown the players stand back to back, count 3, turn and pose like either the ninja, the cowboy or the bear. In a full body version of rock paper scissors each wins out over one of the others. 

If I were really cool and didn't mind facing the backlash that would inevitably surface by promoting weapons in a program, I'd follow up the stories with the creation of these ninja nunchucks. I'll probably just stick with the less threatening ninja stars (though with my group I'll probably have to make them myself and just let them do some appropriate decorating.) And if I had unlimited funds/time/permission I'd send them all home with a treat...Ninjabread Men!

Monday, February 4, 2013

a random list.

Brought to you by the letter 'P'.

First up, I failed to acknowledge the 200th anniversary of the publishing of Pride and Prejudice, last week. Here is everyone's favorite Mr. Darcy (courtesy of IMDB) to help us celebrate in style.
"You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you."  Well, okay, if you must!

Next, is this charming Pixar short, Paperman, up for an Oscar later this month.

Speaking of Oscars, I went with some friends on Saturday to see Life of Pi. I hadn't loved the book but after watching the film I think I might need to go back and re-read it.  Not only was it beautiful (definitely deserving of the nominations for cinematography and effects) but the story was touching, full of allusions to God and spirituality that one rarely sees in mainstream media. I highly recommend it!

And lets finish up with some music by the amazing Piano Guys. They've been making the rounds on youtube for awhile now but their musical mash-ups and instrumental innovations are phenomenal! Just watch all the ways they use this piano!

And that's all for today. Happy whatever's left of your Monday.