Monday, December 28, 2009

It's Monday! What are you reading?

This week I finished reading:Here are the books that I have in progress and am attempting to read:

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Happy Boxing Day

Here are the books I received this holiday:

Hello, Cupcake! by Karen Tack

America’s favorite food photography team, responsible for the covers of America’s top magazines, shows how to create funny, scary, and sophisticated masterpieces, using a zipper lock bag and common candies and snack items.With these easy-to-follow techniques, even the most kitchen-challenged cooks can
• raise a big-top circus cupcake tier for a kid’s birthday
• plant candy vegetables on Oreo earth cupcakes for a garden party
• trot out a line of confectionery “pupcakes” for a dog fancier
• serve sausage and pepperoni pizza cupcakes for April Fool’s Day
• bewitch trick-or-treaters with chilly ghost chocolate cupcakes
• create holidays on icing with turkey cupcake place cards, a white cupcake Christmas wreath, and Easter egg cupcakes.
No baking skills or fancy pastry equipment is required. Spotting the familiar items in the hundreds of brilliant photos is at least half the fun.

I'd put Hello, Cupcake! on my Amazon wishlist to bookmark it after hearing good thing about it from an online friend. My mom thought it was so neat that she had to get it for me.

Knitting and Tea by Jane Gottelier

Crisp lace table linens.
Tinkling silver spoons on saucers.
The billowing steam of freshly-brewed tea.
Skeins of fine yarn on delicate needles.

Knitting and Tea brings together these two hallowed traditions in all their beauty, charm, and poise. The author takes you on a journey from the lush tea plantations of Sri Lanka to the tearooms in the United Kingdom to explore the intertwining history of these two passions. The luxurious photographs of each location entice you to sit and sample the delectable teatime recipes included and to knit designs that evoke classic elegance. From a stately Cricket Sweater to lovely Tea Cozies, an embellished Cupcake Cardigan, and timeless Argyle Socks, the author shows you how knitting and tea can go hand-in-hand anywhere.

I've been wanting this book. See this post.

Sorcery and Cecelia: Or the Enchanted Chocolate Pot by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer

A great deal is happening in London and the country this season.
For starters, there's the witch who tried to poison Kate at the Royal College of Wizards. There's also the man who seems to be spying on Cecelia. (Though he's not doing a very good job of it--so just what are his intentions?) And then there's Oliver. Ever since he was turned into a tree, he hasn't bothered to tell anyone where he is.
Clearly, magic is a deadly and dangerous business. And the girls might be in fear for their lives... if only they weren't having so much fun!

I already own The Grand Tour, the book that follows Sorcery and Cecelia, so I was so excited to receive this one. I started reading it this morning.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein

The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein by Peter Ackroyd

19th century London is brought to life in Peter Ackroyd's retelling of Mary Shelley's classic. In The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein, the titular character becomes friends with Percy Shelley while studying at Oxford and Percy (and his wives) become key players in the story of Frankenstein's monster. To fully connect the Shelleys to Frankenstein's tale, Ackroyd brings his characters to Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva to visit Lord Byron and recreate the environment in which Mary Shelley imagined her Frankenstein.

The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein is neither better nor worse than the original, it is just an interesting take on it. At some points the plot follows the original fairly closely, at others it departs quite significantly (the same could be said of Ackroyd's version of Shelley's lifestory).

Ackroyd portrays both Frankenstein and his monster quite sympathetically (less so, Byron and Percy Shelley). He also does a wonderful job of explaining the science and philosophy of the period, as well as describing the overall atmosphere of that London (complete with resurrection-men). The ending of the novel is a bit rushed, but given the final plot twist it makes sense for it to be that way.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Beneath a Marble Sky

Beneath a Marble Sky by John Shors

In his debut novel, John Shors tells the personal story of India's most famous monument, bringing 17th Century Hindustan to life.

The heroine of Beneath a Marble Sky is Jahanara, daughter of the Shah Jahan I and his favorite wife, the woman who has come to be known as Mumtaz Mahal. A favorite of her father's, Princess Jahanara is asked to oversee the construction of the Taj Mahal after the death of her mother. She falls in love with the architect, but Beneath a Marble Sky is so much more than a love story. The constraints women lived under during this time period, the vagaries of royal politics, loyalty and sacrifice are all themes of this mesmerizing novel.

Monday, December 21, 2009

It's Monday! What are you reading?

This week I finished reading:Here are the books that I have in progress and am attempting to read:

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Ways of Dying

Ways of Dying by Zakes Mda

In Ways of Dying, Zakes Mda's acclaimed first novel, Toloki is a "professional mourner" in a vast and violent city of the new South Africa. Day after day he attends funerals in the townships, dressed with dignity in a threadbare suit, cape, and battered top hat, to comfort the grieving families of the victims of the city's crime, racial hatred, and crippling poverty. At a Christmas day funeral for a young boy Toloki is reunited with Noria, a woman from his village. Together they help each other to heal the past, and as their story interweaves with those of their acquaintances this elegant short novel provides a magical and painful picture of South Africa today.

I'm sad to report that I didn't have any strong feelings about this multiple award-winning novel. The book is full of brutality and dark humor (and dark humor as commentary on post-Apartheid South Africa). Some of the language was quite beautiful. The two main characters, Toloki and Noria, are interesting, but not completely sympathetic (by sympathetic here I mean not easy for readers to relate to). There's a fascinating mythology surrounding Noria, but that is often overshadowed by the horrific events that occur again and again in her life. Despite everything Toloki and Noria are optimistic and that hopefulness, I think, is the message that Mda wants to leave readers with.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Why Don't Students Like School?

Why Don't Students Like School?
A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions about How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom

by Daniel T. Willingham

In Why Don't Students Like School?, cognitive scientist and educator Daniel T. Willingham makes cognitive theory accessible, bridging the gap between theory and practice.

The book is divided into nine chapters, each of which is begins with a question (like Why do students remember everything that's on television and forget everything I say?) and is focused on a fundamental principle and it's applicability to the classroom. The principles are:
  1. People are naturally curious, but they are not naturally good thinkers.
  2. Factual knowledge precedes skill.
  3. Memory is the residue of thought.
  4. We understand new things in the context of things we already know.
  5. Proficiency requires practice.
  6. Cognition is fundamentally different early and late in training.
  7. Children are more alike than different in terms of learning.
  8. Intelligence can be changed through sustained hard work.
  9. Teaching, like any complex cognitive skill, must be practiced to be improved.
This book was required reading in preparation for our information literacy summit next month. It's geared toward K-12 teachers, but I found it very enlightening nevertheless, particularly the sections in which Willingham dispels certain prevalent pedagogical practices.

My favorite quote from the book is one that Willingham cites in his notes for chapter one: Sir Joshua Reynolds' "There is no expedient to which man will not resort to avoid the read labor of thinking" (17).

The one thing that I didn't like very much about the book was the layout of the text. Willingham includes lots of visual material (charts, graphs, illustrative photographs), but they are occasionally distracting* and the way the text flows around them on certain pages is very awkward.

* This is particularly the case with the image of the author's grandmother on page 123. In chapter three Willingham writes about a 4th grade teacher who had his students bake biscuits as part of a unit on the Underground Railroad (because biscuits were a food staple for runaway slaves). He explains why this wasn't an effective lesson because the students spent more time thinking about measuring flour, etc. than about the Underground Railroad. For me, the grandma photo was like the biscuits. I vaguely remember something about "grandma psychology" but have completely forgotten the broader context.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

book clubbing in December

My book club met a bit early this month because of the holidays.
Our selection for December was The Princess Bride and I have to say that I was surprised how many people in our group hadn't read the book or seen the movie. Of course, I'm the youngest member of the book club, but still. I hadn't read the book before this month, but I've seen the movie many times.

The Princess Bride by William Goldman

The subtitle of The Princess Bride is "S. Morgenstern's Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure; The 'Good Parts' Version" and in the novel carries on the ruse that he's abridging a classic and the text is full of his commentary on the original work. Usually I have no problem with kind of literary device, but I have to admit that Goldman's digressions really started to annoy me after a while. I have the 25th anniversary edition and I didn't even bother to finish the special "Buttercup's Baby" section at the end because of it (full disclosure: I was sick and so probably more easily irritated than usual).

In any case, book club: like I mentioned above, there were a number of people who were unfamiliar with The Princess Bride. Reactions were really all over the board: some loved it, some disliked it, and some were neither here nor there. We talked about fantasy in general, Goldman's writing style, what we did/did not like about the story, and the differences between the novel and the movie (as well as casting choices).

The Princess Bride is really the perfect jumping-off point for a discussion about movie adaptations because Goldman and director Rob Reiner were able to stay so true to the original.

On a side note, while writing up this post I came across something that referred to The Princess Bride as a Ruritanian romance. I'd never heard that term before so I set out to investigate it. Apparently the term refers to a story set in a fictional country (like Goldman's Florin). British author Anthony Hope (1863-1933) created Ruritania, a fictional country in central Europe, as a setting for The Prisoner of Zenda and two other books.

Monday, December 14, 2009

It's Monday! What are you reading?

Given the fact that I haven't posted since Monday of last week it should be obvious that I didn't get much reading done. It's just a hectic time of year.

The only book that I finished reading is Broken Glass Park by Alina Bronsky.

I am, however, knitting a pair of socks for my dad (Christmas present) from one of the "master" patterns in New Pathways for Sock Knitters by Cat Bordhi (sock one complete, sock two in progress) so I haven't been neglecting books altogether.

Here are the books that I have in progress and am attempting to read:

Monday, December 07, 2009

It's Monday! What are you reading?

This past week was a wash. I caught a virus of some sort and didn't feeling like doing anything (reading and knitting included). The only book that I finished reading is The Princess Bride by William Goldman (our book club selection for December). I have the 25th anniversary edition and I didn't even bother to finish the special "Buttercup's Baby" section at the end - that's how unmotivated I've been.

As always I have loads of titles waiting in the wings, but here are the titles I'm actively reading:

Thursday, December 03, 2009

System of Vienna

A book I reviewed for Library Journal this fall is in stores today.

The System of Vienna: From Heaven Street to Earth Mound Square by Gert Jonke

In Austria, Jonke's award-winning work has a reputation for being extremely difficult; outside, he is still virtually unknown.

The System of Vienna is both a collection of short stories (originally and disparately published in 1970 and 1980) and an inventive autobiographical novel. The first-person narrator details his travels on the streetcars of Vienna and through life, starting with his blue-skinned birth and ending with a stony love scene, and belatedly explaining the book's subtitle. Translator Vincent Kling's attentiveness to Jonke's use of language—long, intentionally confused sentences, repetition, and fantastically superlative compound words like darkgreenblackcreepingplantalgaemurky (a descriptor for canal water)—helps retain the book's balance as well as its complexity.

This slim volume is not an easy read, and, while Kling's afterword does make it a bit more accessible, readers who aren't into experimental fiction may want to skip it.

See review in Library Journal...

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Last Orders at Harrods

Last Orders at Harrods by Michael Holman

Set in a slum in a fictional East African country, Last Orders at Harrods is both tongue-in-cheek and deadly serious. Holman puts the novel's diverse players (precocious street urchins, World Bank presidents, and everyone in between) through the paces all the while shedding light on the state of East Africa today.

Nothing good came of Charity Mupanga, the proprietress of Harrods International Bar (and Nightspot), being mentioned in a Financial Times article. Ever since she's been receiving threatening letters from solicitors representing Harrods in London. She seeks help from Edward Furniver, a British expat and head of the local cooperative bank. Furniver's advice only made things worse and now a visit from the solicitor is imminent.

This storyline, from which the novel's title is obviously taken, is but one of the threads that Holman follows in Last Orders at Harrods. There's an outbreak of cholera. A corrupt politician attempts to assure the outcome of an upcoming election. Fiercely-loyal Glue-sniffing pick-pocketing boys roam the streets alternatively causing mayhem for the authorities and providing protection for those individuals they hold in esteem. NGO employees and members of the foreign press ineffectually complete three year stints in the country.

More political than Alexander McCall Smith's No.1 Ladies Detective Agency books, Last Orders at Harrods is similarly episodic and slow-paced. Readers of the No.1 Ladies Detective Agency books may find Last Orders at Harrods a fascinating companion to them, but they may also be turned off by the distinct pessimism of Holman's novel.

Apparently Last Orders at Harrods, Holman's debut, is the first book in a series. It's follow-up Fatboy and the Dancing Ladies was published in 2007 and a third title is expected in 2010.