Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Review: The Family Romanov by Candace Fleming

The Family Romanov--Candace Fleming
January 2014 by Schwartz & Wade
304 pages--Goodreads

From the acclaimed author of Amelia Lost and The Lincolns comes a heartrending narrative nonfiction page-turner. When Russia’s last tsar, Nicholas II, inherited the throne in 1894, he was unprepared to do so. With their four daughters (including Anastasia) and only son, a hemophiliac, Nicholas and his reclusive wife, Alexandra, buried their heads in the sand, living a life of opulence as World War I raged outside their door and political unrest grew into the Russian Revolution.

Deftly maneuvering between the lives of the Romanovs and the plight of Russia’s peasants and urban workers—and their eventual uprising—Fleming offers up a fascinating portrait, complete with inserts featuring period photographs and compelling primary-source material that brings it all to life.

This was a really interesting read.  I was surprised by some of the things I learned, like that the Romanovs were not all killed the very night of the revolution as Bolsheviks stormed the imperial palace.  Granted, all of my previous knowledge about the Romanovs came from the movie Anastasia, so it's not like I was any sort of expert on the family or that time period or anything at all about Russia.  But it still surprised me.  We (I) internalize probably far too much of the faux history presented in fictional tales.  

The Family Romanov:  Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia (great title by the way, I love long titles) is more than just a biography of Nicholas Romanov.  It is more even than a biography of him and his family.  This book covers the the legacy of the Romanovs, Nicholas and his family, his poor decisions as a ruler, the Russian aristocracy, the Russian peasantry, the development of the Bolsheviks, Lenin, civil unrest, the revolution, the early attempts at democracy, the transition to communism, the reality of communist Russia not living up to Lenin's ideals, the rise of Stalin, the execution of the royal family, conspiracy theories about the potential escape of some of the royal children, and the discovery of the Romanovs' bodies years later.  Not bad for a children's nonfiction. 

Fleming takes this ambitious scope and presents a narrative that is both interesting and easy to follow.  We really get to know Nicholas and the other Romanovs and we sympathize with them as people.  But we also see how their awful decisions and their oppression of the people led to civil unrest and eventually revolution.

I listened to this on audiobook (which was great for the pronunciations I never would have gotten on my own), so I missed out on all the great photographs in the physical copy.  I've heard they're amazing, so I'll have to drop in at the library and flip through a copy so I can see them.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Bree Newsome--Real Life Super Hero

Photo Credit:  Adam Anderson
If you have not yet read about Bree Newsome's beautiful act of civil disobedience, you need to read this story.  We often think of nonviolent protest as a thing of the past, something that Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr, and Gandhi did, but not something that happens anymore.  But of course it does.  Racism is not a relic of the past, and neither is protest against it.

I was inspired by Newsome's courage, as well as by the many pieces of art that have sprung up around her action, to write this poem.  

Now is the Time for True Courage
Art Credit: Rebecca Cohen

Do you see her
standing atop that flagpole?
Bree Newsome
scaled 400 years of oppression
to strike down a symbol of hate.

Do you see her?
Avenging angel of Justice
armed not the sword but with
the word of God.
Her cape flutters in the wind
where a flag once flew.
Art Credit:  Eric Orr
She, beacon of hope
standing atop that flagpole,
denounces a heritage of violence.
Justice was on her side
the day Bree Newsome
scaled 400 years of oppression
to strike down a symbol of hate.

Do you see her?
Beautiful Black woman,
warrior of power and truth,
no mask hides her face.
Standing atop that flagpole
Art Credit:  @Niall_JayDubb
she can see the
mothers who went before her
to sit on that bus,
to cross that bridge,
to walk into that school,
to register for that vote,
to worship in that church.
And they were with her the day Bree Newsome
scaled 400 years of oppression
to strike down a symbol of hate.

And I know no one woman can
fly faster than all the bullets speeding into black bodies
Art Credit:  Legends Press Comics
in churches,
on playgrounds,
on streets,
in homes.
But when I see Bree Newsome
scale 400 years of oppression
to strike down a symbol of hate,
I believe in courage.
I believe in hope.
I believe that we can change.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

What I'm Reading

I've never been one for TBR posts/videos.  I know a lot of bloggers do them, but they just don't work for me.  I don't plan out my reading schedule month-by-month.  Since I don't accept review copies, I don't need to get to a particular book within a particular timeline; I just finish my current book and then decide to read next based on what I feel like reading.  And I figured that since everything I read would show up in a review, a TBR post would be redundant.  

But now that I'm not doing as many review posts, the redundancy is gone and I feel like talking about what I'm reading, so let's get down to it.

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros

Everyone knows Mango Street, or if they don't they should (but really?  you never read "My Name"?  ever in any of your English classes?  really?  go read it now.)  So I won't bother with a description.  Cisneros' style is really interesting.  She just gives us little snapshots of her life and she has this talent for starting a vignette with a happy optimistic tone and then gut punching  you in the last line. And yet it's not a depressing book.  And the way she crafts her words!  I'm about halfway in and am really enjoying it.

The Family Romanov by Candace Flemming

This biography is ostensibly about the Romanov family, and it is.  But it is as much, if not more, a history of Russia itself in the years leading up to the Bolshevik Revolution as well as the formation of the Soviet Union.  It's really interesting get to know the ruling family better, and I know almost nothing about the formation of the Soviet Union, so this is all new information for me.  Teach me MOAR!  I'm listening to this one on audiobook, so I'm missing out on all the cool pictures, but even the narration is good.  

Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool (historical fiction), Story of a Girl by Sara Zarr (contemporary fiction), How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr (contemporary fiction), The Wand in the Word by Leonard S. Marcus (nonfiction, interviews with fantasy writers)

I'm reading this set for a children's literature symposium I'll be attending in a few weeks.  Three days of just listening to these awesome children's authors (plus Gene Luen Yang and Jon Klassen and Marilyn Singer) and buying lots of their books.  I could just go and listen, but the experience is richer (and you can earn credit) if you've read some of their work.  And it's good work; I started The Wand in the Word last night and am really enjoying getting to know some of my favorite authors better.  

Aaaand then there are the many, many stacks and boxes of books from my classroom library that I, ever diligent teacher, thought I might get to over the summer.  

I haven't read a single one so far.



Hey, I actually did read the purple Nathan Hale book down there in the box in the bottom picture.  It's his latest one about Harriet Tubman.  But I bought it after summer started in preparation for a presentation by Nathan Hale so I could have him sign it, so I'm not sure that it counts.  Good book, though.

I would say I was ambitious when I picked out almost 30 books to bring home, but the truth is I was just indecisive.

So that's what I'm reading, or at least what I'm supposed to be reading.  What's in your reading stack these days?  Let me know or leave a link in the comments below.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Grand Theft Poetry

That writing summer institute from my last post, I'm going to keep talking about it. 

 Each morning we started with nibbles (breakfast) and scribbles (a writing prompt).  Seriously, there was sooooo much food at this thing.  This was our nibble on the final day:  kolaches from Hruska's.  Still warm.  They're like Danishes but without the glaze, just a fluffy, flaky, squishy roll with jam in the middle.  Or cream cheese.  Or both.  I may or may not have gone to this bakery several times since institute ended to buy more of them.  And it only ended last week.

But anyways, we start each day with a nibble and a scribble.  The scribble on our last day was an activity that I am definitely stealing next year for my classroom:  Grand Theft Poetry.  It's like a more structured version of found poetry.  Start by giving all of your students a poetry book (thank you public library).  Open up to a random page in your book, write down a random line, and pass your book to the right.  Continue doing this until you have amassed a good list of stolen lines.  Then revise for seven minutes or so, taking words out, rearranging lines, adding things, playing around with line breaks.  Viola.  Instant poem.
I love this activity for a number of teacherly reasons that I won't get into at the moment because that's not the point of this post.  Instead, I will share the poem that came out of this scribble.  I'm rather proud of it.  It's certainly not perfect, but I like the way it came out. 

Let Me Be Not Mad

I may be mad,
for I am sick of love.
Love is the same at different times to different people,
a timepiece out of sync.
Love is a new heaven begun,
a new hell to endure.

Into the dangerous world I leapt,
full of folly,

I think we are all mad.

Spotty Posts

Hello, world.  Things have been a little dry here lately.  A post here, a post there.  This is for a number of reasons.  I've been teaching and thus have less time than I used to.  I also got a bit burned out on book reviews. I felt like I was saying the same thing about every book, and I wasn't saying anything that other reviewers weren't already saying.  So I stopped for the most part.

But all of that is about to change, sort of.  I just spent the last three weeks at the Central Utah Writing Project's summer institute.  For three weeks I wrote, read, taught, talked about using writing in the classroom, ate (seriously, so much delicious food), and read some more.  Seriously, if you are a teacher, you have to go to this thing.  Look up the National Writing Project for your state and just go.  It was the best three weeks I've spent in a summer.

And the best thing about it was that it taught me to be a writer again.  To write what I want to write.  To write every day.  To get feedback from other writers.  To publish.  I'm still on a post-CUWP high, and I want to keep this up.  I want to keep writing.  So, the plan for now is to use this blog as a place to put my writing.  Not all of it, as some of it makes no sense, some of it is meant for a very specific audience, and some of it is not yet polished enough for publication.  But some of it will show up here from time to time.  Some will be poetry, some fictional prose, heck, maybe even a book review now and again when I read something I really like and actually have something substantive to say.  The point of this blog was always to write what I felt like writing, so that's what I'm doing.  Because I am a writer.  Welcome back.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Review: A World Away by Nancy Grossman

A World AwayA World Away--Nancy Grossman
July 2012 by Hyperion
400 page--Goodreads

A summer of firsts

Sixteen-year-old Eliza Miller has never made a phone call, never tried on a pair of jeans, never sat in a darkened theater waiting for a movie to start. She's never even talked to someone her age who isn't Amish, like her.

A summer of good-byes

When she leaves her close-knit family to spend the summer as a nanny in suburban Chicago, a part of her can't wait to leave behind everything she knows. She can't imagine the secrets she will uncover, the friends she will make, the surprises and temptations of a way of life so different from her own.

A summer of impossible choice

Every minute Eliza spends with her new friend Josh feels as good as listening to music for the first time, and she wonders whether there might be a place for her in his world. But as summer wanes, she misses the people she has left behind, and the plain life she once took for granted. Eliza will have to decide for herself where she belongs. Whichever choice she makes, she knows she will lose someone she loves.

Eliza's journey really resonated with me.  Knowing what was expected of her, but still being curious about the outside world.  The tension between living authentically but letting people down and living a lie that preserves everyone's expectations.  Feeling torn between two worlds and seeing no way to choose both.  I love how the novel resolved.  I thought that Grossman would have to end before Eliza revealed or made her choice because many readers would never understand why Eliza would choose an Amish life and many others would feel betrayed if she chose an English life.  But in the end, this worked really well.  Eliza's choice was the right choice for her.  It made sense for her and her journey, and Grossman didn't try to sell it as the only choice that should be made.

The shunning was just heartbreaking.  I think all religions, from the most isolated to the most open, participate in shunning to some degree.  Communities are defined in part by borders, so what do you do when someone crosses those borders?  I don't have a lot of great answers to that, nor do my personal religious affiliations, but I know they shouldn't shun.  Rules should not be more important than people.  In that light, I loved the relationship between Beth and Eliza's mother.  I can't say too much without spoiling things, but it was just...right.

And the romance wasn't stupid and corny!  I know that doesn't sound like high praise, but it is.  In recent years I've lost a lot of patience with YA romances.  I feel that they usually get in the way of the much more interesting parts of the story.  This book did not make me swoon.  In fact there may have been a bit of eye rolling.  But it was fine for the most part.  And I am so glad that Eliza explicitly made her decision for herself and not for a boy.  This could have turned into an awful triangle where she lived her life based on the boy she choose, but it wasn't.  Thank you YA gods.  I will go sacrifice the requisite goat.

Minor complaint time.  Super minor.  Barely even a thing:  The book is slightly dated.  This feels weird to say since the book was only published in 2012, but it was.  It wasn't anything huge: a brief mention of renting a movie from a rental store, the continued popular existence of CDs, and one of those early generation ipods that used the spinny circle thing to menu options.  I wanted one of those so bad in high school!  Ahem.  Back to the review.  Other than those minor dated references, Eliza's transition into the "normal" world worked really well.   I loved her exploration of modern technologies and the minor mix-ups, like thinking that Josh worked at a fruit stand since he sold Apples.

A World Away appeals to the universal experience of feeling out of place and stuck.  While it tells a very specific story, many readers will find elements of themselves in Eliza.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Review: A Path Appears by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating OpportunityA Path Appears--Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn
September 2014 by Knopf
400 pages--Goodreads

An essential, galvanizing narrative about making a difference here and abroad—a road map to becoming the most effective global citizens we can be.

In their number one New York Times best seller Half the Sky, husband-and-wife team Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn brought to light struggles faced by women and girls around the globe, and showcased individuals and institu­tions working to address oppression and expand opportunity. A Path Appears is even more ambi­tious in scale: nothing less than a sweeping tap­estry of people who are making the world a better place and a guide to the ways that we can do the same—whether with a donation of $5 or $5 mil­lion, with our time, by capitalizing on our skills as individuals, or by using the resources of our businesses.

With scrupulous research and on-the-ground reporting, the authors assay the art and science of giving, identify successful local and global initia­tives, and share astonishing stories from the front lines of social progress. We see the compelling, in­spiring truth of how real people have changed the world, upending the idea that one person can’t make a difference.

We meet people like Dr. Gary Slutkin, who devel­oped his landmark Cure Violence program to combat inner-city conflicts in the United States by applying principles of epidemiology; Lester Strong, who left a career as a high-powered television anchor to run an organization bringing in older Americans to tu­tor students in public schools across the country; MIT development economist Esther Duflo, whose pioneering studies of aid effectiveness have revealed new truths about, among other things, the power of hope; and Jessica Posner and Kennedy Odede, who are transforming Kenya’s most notorious slum by ex­panding educational opportunities for girls.

A Path Appears offers practical, results-driven advice on how best each of us can give and reveals the lasting benefits we gain in return. Kristof and WuDunn know better than most how many urgent challenges communities around the world face to­day. Here they offer a timely beacon of hope for our collective future.

This book is ambitious.  I don't know that I've seen such a wide scope in a single book before.  In general, A Path Appears is about increasing opportunity, both domestically and internationally.  More specifically, it covers education, crime, poverty, malnutrition, gang violence, addiction, sex trafficking, early childhood intervention, prenatal care, family planning, agriculture, mentoring, literacy, charity, business, advocacy, human psychology, metrics, investments, marketing, and pretty much everything else under the sun that can be linked to aid work.  Kristof and WuDunn take a strategic, research based approach to determining the efficacy of aid groups and evaluating which groups make the most impact per dollar.

The book is peppered with suggestions for how you can get involved in making a difference.  If you take anything from this book it is the idea that ordinary people, not just millionaires, can make a significant difference in the world by making smart aid decisions.  Pick a cause, and the book probably describes a group that addresses that cause.

I was disappointed that the book didn't spend more time on sex trafficking or domestic violence. The accompanying PBS documentary dedicated an episode each to those two issues, and they are super important.  Sex trafficking in particular doesn't get the kind of attention it needs.  Looking at that decision from further back however, it makes a bit of sense.  A documentary on sex trafficking will pull in more attention and funding than one on micro nutrients and efficacy metrics.  And a chunk of people who watch the documentary will go off and immediately start reading the book (me), so I suppose it was an effective marketing strategy.

This book is important, yes, but it is also compelling.  Kristof and WuDunn are excellent story tellers.  They make you care about each and every one of the people they highlight and the many dozens of causes those people support.  They manage to capture the magnitude of these problems without making you feel helpless.  Rather leaving you drowning in a sea of unfillable need, they empower you with tools to do good.  A Path Appears is a must read for anyone who wants to make a positive difference in the world, whether in your own neighborhood or on the other side of the world.  And if you haven't read their earlier book, Half the Sky, do that right now.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Review: The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson

Well hello, poor sad dusty neglected old blog.  It's been a while.  I never called, I never wrote.  Let's jump back into the swing of things with a review.

The Girl of Fire and Thorns (Fire and Thorns, #1)The Girl of Fire and Thorns--Rae Carson
September 2011 by Greenwillow
423 pages--Goodreads

Once a century, one person is chosen for greatness.
Elisa is the chosen one.

But she is also the younger of two princesses, the one who has never done anything remarkable. She can't see how she ever will.

Now, on her sixteenth birthday, she has become the secret wife of a handsome and worldly king—a king whose country is in turmoil. A king who needs the chosen one, not a failure of a princess.

And he's not the only one who seeks her. Savage enemies seething with dark magic are hunting her. A daring, determined revolutionary thinks she could be his people's savior. And he looks at her in a way that no man has ever looked at her before. Soon it is not just her life, but her very heart that is at stake.

Elisa could be everything to those who need her most. If the prophecy is fulfilled. If she finds the power deep within herself. If she doesn’t die young.

Most of the chosen do.

This book has been floating around in my periphery for a while, but it looked like just another generic fantasy adventure, so for the longest time I didn't bother picking it up.  Boy, was that a mistake.  I've been missing out on a fascinating world, endearing characters, and a plot that is at times an intensely satisfying slow-burn and at others a compelling page-turner.  From the very beginning of the novel, even when not much was happening, I couldn't put the book down.

As interesting as the plot is, where Carson truly shines is in getting you to care about the characters.  From surly, little Prince Rosario to the genuine, sweet Humberto and even the aloof and weak King Alejandro.  You can't help but want to know more about them, and spend more time watching them live out their stories.

I also really enjoyed the development of the mystery surrounding the Godstone, its powers and mythology, and Elisa's place as God’s chosen one.  The way Carson wove in the previous stone-bearers, especially the ones who had failed, was really interesting.

The book certainly isn't perfect.  Carson saves most of the world building for books two and three, leaving the setting a bit underdeveloped in this first installment.  And the spinning Godstone bellybutton amulet at the end was more than a little bit hokey.  But at that point, I just didn’t care.  I have fallen for this series hook line and sinker.  I’ve devoured book two and am well into book three.


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