Hmmm… Seems to be a Book! Ten Gift Suggestions for Christmas Reading

Among my friends, (who, lets face it, often regard sunlight as the enemy) there can never be a better Christmas present than a coveted book. Most of our friends, family members, and colleagues know we love to read. However, what to get your favorite bibliophile can be daunting:

“Hmmmm… well, Diana sorta likes cats. How about this special, 40 lb tome of Cats Through the Ages?” 

-or-

“Who doesn’t want to learn the ancient art of origami?” (*Me) …Variation: “Who doesn’t like spy novels?”  (*Also me).

So, instead of grabbing a random book, here are ten suggestions from my well-read friends that may help you select a welcomed gift that will actually be read:

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10.  Bringing Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel 

This Man-Booker prize winning sequel, as well as  Mantel’s first novel Wolf Hall (which also won the Man-Booker!) are both on my personal list.

From Publisher’s Weekly: Henry VIII’s challenge to the church’s power with his desire to divorce his queen and marry Anne Boleyn set off a tidal wave of religious, political and societal turmoil that reverberated throughout 16th-century.

9.  Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats 

A required volume for lovers of poetry. Both newcomers and those already familiar with the work of Yeats will appreciate this collection which ” includes all of the poems authorized by Yeats for inclusion in his standard canon. Breathtaking in range, it encompasses the entire arc of his career, from luminous reworkings of ancient Irish myths and legends to passionate meditations on the demands and rewards of youth and old age, from exquisite, occasionally whimsical songs of love, nature, and art to somber and angry poems of life in a nation torn by war and uprising.”

8. The Language of Flowers by Vanesa Diffenbach

Consider picking this New York Times best-seller and recent book club favorite:

The Victorian language of flowers was used to convey romantic expressions: honeysuckle for devotion, asters for patience, and red roses for love. But for Victoria Jones, it’s been more useful in communicating mistrust and solitude. After a childhood spent in the foster-care system, she is unable to get close to anybody, and her only connection to the world is through flowers and their meanings. Now eighteen and emancipated from the system with nowhere to go, Victoria realizes she has a gift for helping others through the flowers she chooses for them. But an unexpected encounter with a mysterious stranger has her questioning what’s been missing in her life. And when she’s forced to confront a painful secret from her past, she must decide whether it’s worth risking everything for a second chance at happiness.

7.  January First: A Child’s Descent into Madness and Her Father’s Struggle to Save Her by Michael Scofield

A good choice for a lover of non-fiction reads, one friend says the memoir is “heartbreaking and engrossing at the same time. I couldn’t put it down and read it mostly in one day.”

At six years old, January Schofield, “Janni,” to her family, was diagnosed with schizophrenia, one of the worst mental illnesses known to man.  What’s more, schizophrenia is 20 to 30 times more severe in children than in adults and in January’s case, doctors say, she is hallucinating 95 percent of the time that she is awake. Potent psychiatric drugs that would level most adults barely faze her.

7.  The President’s Club: Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy 

Got a political junkie on your list? A friend tells me this is a Can’t-Put-It-Down choice.

Starting with the surprisingly effective relationship of Harry S. Truman and Herbert Hoover, and following through “Obama and His Club,” TIME Magazine‘s Executive Editor Nancy Gibbs and Washington Bureau Chief Michael Duffy trace the surprising, complicated story of “the world’s most exclusive fraternity.” Sitting presidents and their predecessors have at times proved remarkably simpatico, at others impossible thorns in each other’s sides. The authors’ extensive research demonstrates that ex-Presidents have a penchant for morphing from consummate team players into irascible rogues, sometimes within weeks, as they strive both to remain relevant and to shape their own legacies.

6.  The Word Made Flesh: Literary Tattoos from Bookworms Worldwide by Eva Talmadge and Justin Taylor

Under that frayed sports coat lies the heart of a beast! Your English professor or quiet librarian may well be hiding a little secret… tattoos that express their love of literature. This beautiful text is “a collection of more than 150 full-color photographs of human epidermis indelibly adorned with quotations and illustrations from Dickinson to Pynchon, from Shakespeare to Plath. With beloved lines of verse, literary portraits, and illustrations—and statements from the bearers on their tattoos’ history and the personal significance of the chosen literary work—The Word Made Flesh is part collection of photographs and part literary anthology written on skin.”

5.  Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

Perfect for both the  book lover, bookstore lover, and mystery fan, Sloan’s novel is “a gleeful and exhilarating tale of global conspiracy, complex code-breaking, high-tech data visualization, young love, rollicking adventure, and the secret to eternal life—mostly set in a hole-in-the-wall San Francisco bookstore.”

4.  Fairy Tales from the Brother’s Grimm: A New English Version by Philip Pullman

Most people know that the versions of the Grimm Brothers’ tales many of us grew up with were “sanitized” verisons of the original stories. In this new edition, author Philip Pullman “retells his fifty favorites, from much-loved stories like “Cinderella” and “Rumpelstiltskin,” “Rapunzel” and “Hansel and Gretel” to lesser-known treasures like “The Three Snake Leaves,” “Godfather Death” and “The Girl with No Hands.” At  the end of each tale he offers a brief personal commentary, opening a window on the sources of the tales, the various forms they’ve taken over the centuries and their everlasting appeal.”

3.  Judging a Book by Its Lover: A Field Guide to the Hearts and Minds of Readers Everywhere by Laura Leto 

This is another entry from my personal Wish List. Do you know how some people snoop through bathroom medicine cabinets or desk drawers? Personally, I eye their bookshelves. Most book lovers do. We want to know what we have in common or who we need to stay away from, often making instant friendships or enemies based on libraries alone. In her study, Leto provides a “hilarious send-up of—and inspired homage to—the passionate and peculiar world of book culture.”

2. Cezanne: A Life by Alex Danchev

Okay, I confess. This is also on my list (get yer own blog!).  Cezanne’s life has long fascinated me, and after hearing an interview with Danchev, I am eager to learn more.  Here’s an overview:

With brisk intellect, rich documentation, and eighty-eight color and fifty-two black-and-white illustrations, Danchev tells the story of an artist who was originally considered a madman, a barbarian, and a sociopath. Beginning with the unsettled teenager in Aix, Danchev takes us through the trials of a painter who believed that art must be an expression of temperament but was tormented by self-doubt, who was rejected by the Salon for forty years, who sold nothing outside his immediate circle until his thirties, who had a family that he kept secret from his father until his forties, who had his first exhibition at the age of fifty-six—but who fiercely maintained his revolutionary beliefs.

1.  Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kerns Goodwin

Steven Spielberg’s wonderful new film Lincoln was largely based on the research of famed historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. Anyone interested in politics or history will certainly enjoy this compelling re-examination of the drama surrounding the eventual adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment.

No More Smokin’ in the Boys’ Room: Tracking Chips On the Rise for Junior High and High School Students

I have a child in junior high and a child in high school. Every day, both of them must wear their school-issued identification card on a lanyard around their necks at all times. The doors to their schools are locked at 8:30 a.m.  After being checked out on a video camera and buzzed in, parents and other visitors must present a driver’s license upon entering the building, and then that visitor is issued a sticker with a scanned image of their license picture and their name in bold letters.  The sticker must be worn at all times while on school grounds.

My children do not attend school in the Gaza Strip. They are in a small Texas suburb where, honestly, the biggest threat to their well-being are West Nile mosquitoes, all of which, sadly, are too tiny for State-issued sticky-IDs.

Still, it is not enough. Now in addition to their dog-collars…err.. I mean “IDs,”… soon, they, like thousands of other Texas’ kids, will be required to have their IDs “chipped,” as in microchipped with GPS tracking devices that will let administrators and, presumably, teachers, know where they are at all times.

Not surprisingly, there has been backlash. One student, Andrea Hernandez of San Antonio, Texas, just won the right to refuse to wear the embedded identification.  While Hernandez’s reasons for balking at the requirement may be unusual (she believes the tracking is “Satanic”), many parents and students also contend that the practice is invasive and in violation of their rights. It all feels a little too creepily “Big Brother-ish” to lots of dissenters.

For their part, schools are embracing the GPS IDs because increased attendance means increased funding. Additionally, they claim that students’ “rights being violated” is inapplicable since the students are under age. Moreover, there are voices on all sides, parents, teachers, administrators, and students, who argue that there should be nothing to worry about and no objections…if your student (or you) are where they (or you) are supposed to be.

What do you think? Yes to chips or no? And why?

2002 Has No Idea What You’re Talking About, 2012!

A couple of years ago, my then 10-year-old son declared that “everything is the best it could ever be.” He was quite sure that, new iPhone in hand, nothing could surpass the (then) current marvels of the Modern World.  I was just as sure that everything could and would be surpassed. Twenty-five years ago, if you told any adult that typewriters would be as extinct as the buffalo, no one would have believed it.  Today, 95% my 19 and 20-year-old students have never even touched a typewriter. I have seen card catalog cabinets busted up for firewood (not really, but you get it). I remember when floppy disks really were floppy. Now there aren’t even disks! I remember when…. excuse me, “Hey, kid! Get off my lawn!!” 

Anyway, a group of friends and I got into a discussion about what has changed in the last ten years. I asked them to come up with sentences that would have made no sense to someone in 2002.  Here is what we came up with:

1.   There’s an app for that!

2.  You can download movies to your tv and control it with your Android tablet.

3.  Did you check in? I’m the mayor of this coffee shop.

4.  “I’ll Facebook you.”

5.  “I’ll Text You”…”I’ll IM You.”

6.  I just got this 4D camera.

7.  I can de-friend anybody I want to.

8.   I am going to put all these thumbnails on my flashdrive.

9.  I asked a silly question and got over 60 responses from all over the country in a matter of a few minutes.

10.   I 3D printed a new handle for my suitcase.

11.  Call Homeland Security.

12.  Dang it! I got busted by a red-light camera.

13.  Did you see the Tupac hologram?

14.  There’s a fee for checked in baggage.

15.  Let me check Snooki’s Twitter feed.

16.  I drove over a cliff because I trusted my GPS.

17.  Hey, wanna Skype?

18.  Gay marriage was approved by voters in several states.

19.  We elected a black president. Twice!

20.  I store my books and music in the cloud.

21.  I don’t know what time that show comes on. Everything’s on the DVR.

22.  Send that PDF to my FTP.

23.  Stream it.

24.  I’ll download the podcast from iTunes.

25.   Park in the Blink so we can recharge the car.

26.  thx ttyl kbye o_0

27.  “Can I haz cheeseburger?”

28.  Do you have a Tumblr?

29.  Would you take a picture of my paycheck and send it to BofA?

30.  Occupy Wall Street

31.  Fracking destroys water supplies.

What about you? Can you think of any more words in common use that would not have made sense in 2002? We’d love to hear them.  Who knows what is coming, and what will be obsolete by 2022.

Life of Pi: the Book and the Movie

“Which story do you prefer?”

Have you been following the trailers for Life of Pi?

After months of anticipation, I was fortunate enough to attend a screening of it last night. The new movie is the cinematic adaptation of Yann Martel’s celebrated 2001 novel, is directed by Ang Lee, and has been generating Oscar buzz for weeks thanks to its imaginative art direction and astounding special effects. But there’s more about the film you should know…

There are a lot of movie adaptations set to be released in the upcoming months–The Hobbit, Anna Karenina, and The Great Gatsby to name a few–the wait for which brings excitement to the literary masses, though the products often bring disappointment; avid readers time after time conclude that the magic that comes with reading a novel just cannot be translated onto the big screen. And I am usually one of them.

But Life of Pi is a unique case. For one thing, I actually didn’t even enjoy the book all that much. My apologies in advance to the die-hard fans out there, because I know you’re there; the novel has such a polarizing effect, it seems that everyone I’ve ever talked to about it either loved it or couldn’t finish it. On the one hand, its manuscript was rejected by five publishing houses before it was accepted by Knopf, on the other it was endorsed by President Obama in a private letter to Martel as, “an elegant proof of God, and the power of storytelling.” Oh yes, and it won the Man Booker Prize in 2002.

What kind of precedence does that set for its translation into film? Well, having watched the movie, I can say that it’s given me a new appreciation for Martel’s storytelling. His writing, so hard for me to get through on paper, has been transformed into a format that can celebrate all of its surrealist qualities and make them magical. Just watch the scenes on meerkat island if you don’t believe me.

But you’d have to celebrate that surreality to make the film a success. In a novel, the allegorical tale of a boy sharing a lifeboat with a massive Bengal tiger just works. In a movie, the fact that it’s impossible to throw your lead actor in with a real-life mankiller is only upstaged by the greater challenge of bringing character to the animal and making him real. On that I will only say that I was told that fewer than a quarter of the tiger shots in the film depicted a non-CG tiger. Good luck picking out which ones. Not only do we end up believing Richard Parker is real and alive, but we, like Pi, believe in his soul, all thanks to the reality-bending technology of computer graphics and the artistry of Parker’s animators.

Because of his embrace of the novel’s surreality, director Ang Lee has not only managed to retell Martel’s story, but to bring to it a spark of magic that is normally only reserved for the original book, something relatively unheard of in an adaptation.

Based on Martel’s own words from the novel, I think he’d agree:

“That’s what fiction is about, isn’t it, the selective transforming of reality? The twisting of it to bring out its essence?”

Life of Pi

So, are you excited to see a movie based on this bestselling book? What are your thoughts and expectations for movie adaptations, or this one in particular?

More on Life of Pi from eNotes:

The Life of Pi eNotes Study Guide, a perfect reading companion complete with chapter summaries and analysis. Have a question? Post it to our Q&A area for the novel and our expert editors will provide answers.

Test your knowledge of the novel with eNotes’ Life of Pi Study Questions.

Teachers, planning on teaching Life of Pi in the classroom? We have an eNotes exclusive Teaching Unit to help you with that, plus related lesson plans from Prestwick House Publishers to aid your instruction.

Would You Tattoo for Education?

Private schools, well-known for their tolerance of the off-beat,  surely welcomed Kari Smith’s son into their fold (sarcasm). In 2005, unable to afford the pricey tuition, Kari did what…well, almost no one, I had hoped… would do. She offered her forehead as advertising space online and soon had a taker, the virtual casino “Golden Palace.com.”

Like me, you may have hoped that this was a random act of desperation but alas, it was just the beginning. While mobile marketing like wrapped cars are a frequent sight, they just aren’t able to get into tight spaces, like Wal-marts. Did I mention Ms. Smith collected a cool $10,000? That fact motivated dozens of other people to go under the tattoo gun.  If you think this sounds like a dandy idea, check out http://leaseyourbody.com. The website promises you will get “novel attention.” And for those of us who are writers, any attention, especially the “novel” kind, gives us pause.

Ruh Roh, JK Rowling Upsets Middle England and Sikh Community

It seems that when beloved Harry Potter author JK Rowling departed Hogwarts with her latest novel, she strayed a little far from her adoring public, too. The new book, A Casual Vacancy, has been published for all of a week and is already shrouded in controversy. Though it was never intended to be for a young audience, its mature content was the first apparent no-no that sent some readers over the edge. Next, she offended her home county of Gloucestershire by depicting its inhabitants as snobby bigots. Now, the author battles allegations that her novel is offensive to Sikhs, and may actually face a nation-wide ban in India. Deary me. Before we’re all caught up in the sensationalism of these allegations, here are the straight facts of the book:

1. This is NOT Harry Potter and the Casual Vacancy, people.

Anyone expecting this book to be a follow-up to the Harry Potter series, or even in the same vein, has quite the shock coming. Clearly, when she wrote The Casual Vacancy Rowling was looking to her next project as a departure from the world of fantasy that she dwelt in before. I think I would be too if I had been writing in the same world for nearly two decades. She has been quite clear from the start that this is not one for the kiddies.

Unfortunately, the writer will have a hard time shaking the identity associated with her name, as parents now have the tough task of explaining to their kids that they can’t read the latest Jo Rowling creation. For one thing, her self-described “rural comedy of manners” has some quite mature content. While the most deplorable word uttered in Harry Potter was b****, in this one Rowling gets a little more, um, creative… In fact, some of the scenarios and colorful vocab seem to have been heightened by the sheer fact that Rowling couldn’t write them in her first seven published novels. She explains her need to write the rude bits in an interview with The New Yorker:

She was ready for a change of genre. “I had a lot of real-world material in me, believe you me,” Rowling said. “The thing about fantasy—there are certain things you just don’t do in fantasy. You don’t have sex near unicorns. It’s an ironclad rule. It’s tacky.”

Quite right. In any case, you’ve been forewarned–this one is rated R.

2. This book should be placed under the Fiction section.

Rowling comes from a small village in the English countryside called Tutshil. While she probably used the quaint Gloucestershire surroundings as inspiration for the backdrop of her story, I doubt the plot of a parish council election gone haywire is anything but the figment of her imagination. However, the book’s fictional town of Pagford, “a hotbed of cruelty and snobbery,” has tongues wagging all over Middle England, saying Rowling has shed an unflattering light on her home county, probably for “the novel’s bleak subject matter, which includes child abuse, prostitution and drugs.”

Does nobody read that fine-print reminder that everything and everyone contained in the book is a work of fiction, and not based on facts or real people? I suppose that message flies out the window when your hometown’s feelings are hurt. Still, this is a little blown out of proportion.

3. The characters’ thoughts do not reflect the author’s.

This goes for any book. One doesn’t read American Psycho and assume Bret Easton Ellis shares the views of deranged serial killer Patrick Bateman. But for some reason, perhaps because of the grand scale that this novel has debuted on, readers are offended by the derogatory views expressed by a select group of unsavory characters in The Casual Vacancy. In particular, the language used in reference to an Indian girl in the novel has members of the Sikh community in an uproar.

In the novel, Sukhvinder is a young Sikh girl who is bullied by some of her peers. In the dialogue (NOT in the third-person objective narration) she is meanly called “the Great Hermaphrodite,” a “hairy man-woman,” and finally “mustachioed yet large-mammaried.” It’s these descriptions of her that out of context have Sikh spokesman Avtar Singh Makkar calling for a widespread ban of the novel. Note: the important words to reiterate there are out of context.

From The Telegraph,

Rowling has said she included Sukhvinder’s experiences as an example of “corrosive racism”. She has spoken of her admiration for the Sikh faith and said she was fascinated by a religion in which men and women are “explicitly described as equal in the holy book”.

A spokesman for Hachette, Rowling’s publisher, said the remarks were made by a character bullying Sukhvinder. “It is quite clear in the text of the book that negative thoughts, actions and remarks made by a character, Fats, who is bullying Sukhvinder, are his alone. When described in the narrative voice, the depiction of Sukhvinder is quite different to this,” the spokesman said.

However, Rowling’s statement of defense may not be enough to prevent a country-wide boycott of The Casual Vacancy in India, if the members of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee deem it derogatory once they’ve finished reading it.

                                                            

The whole controversy surrounding this novel has obviously been brought on by the massive expectations set for Rowling. She certainly wouldn’t have had to face such scrutiny had this novel been published before her famed fantasy series. I can’t help but think that it’s not really fair for her to be accused of such things; it’s as though everyone holds Rowling to a higher standard than other fiction writers. Is it possible for her to shake the Harry Potter image and create a new fan base? Mixed reviews for the content of the book aside, do you feel this criticism is warranted or not?

Names and Nonsense: Ten Curious Names of the Famous, Infamous, and Others

Naming your baby is a weighty task. Most people strive to select names that either have a connection to family or ones that have a  certain panache.  But then there is that portion of the public where the name they select for their newborn is either offensive, unpronounceable, or unbelievable…sometimes all three. In the United States, you can name your baby Dustpan Ghoul III if you please. Hey,  freedom of speech, although I am guessing none of the Founding Fathers would have envisioned this right being applied to Lil’ Dustpan. Some countries, however, are not so laissez-faire. In New Zealand, as much as you may want to,  you are officially, not, nope, no way, allowed to name your bundle o’ joy “Anal” and your fall-back choice, “Prince of Darkness,” is out too. Here are a few odd names from history that you will probably be glad you never heard screamed at you on the playground.

1.  Armand Hammer, famous industrialist born on 21 May 1898 in Manhattan, New York. His father “had named him after the symbol of the Socialist Labor Party.” As a youth, he sometimes claimed that his father had named him after Armand Duval, a character in the Alexandre Dumas novel La Dame aux Camélias (1848).

2.  Ima Hogg: Ima Hogg’s first name was taken from The Fate of Marvin, an epic poem written by her uncle Thomas Hogg. She endeavored to downplay her unusual name by signing her first name illegibly and having her stationery printed with “I. Hogg” or “Miss Hogg”. Although it was rumored that Hogg had a sister named “Ura Hogg”, she had only brothers.

3.  Christine Daae: The Phantom of the Opera fan “changed her name from Victoria Bohm by deed poll” so that “if the Phantom came back today he would have a Christine Daae who would stay by him at the end.”

4. Kal-El Coppola: Is there some sort of pretentiousness contest when celebrities have babies? I vote for Superboy, aka Kal-El, son of He-of-the-Perpetually receding hair-line, Nicholas Cage.

5.  Velveeta: Anyone who has taught for as long as I have has their own personal stash of unusual names. My all-time favorite was a woman named “Velveeta.” She simply explained her mom loved the … cheese… and liked the sound of the product name. Velveeta, the woman, isn’t famous yet but I would not be a bit surprised if she was one day.

6.  Ikea: My 15-year-old daughter has a classmate named “Ikea.” My guess is that the Dr. Spock manual was about as helpful as assembly instructions in Swedish.

7.  Lady Bird Johnson: If I had titled this image “Claudia Alta Johnson” I bet those of you non-Texans would have no clue who this woman was.  She is in fact, the former First Lady of the United States, wife of Lyndon Baines Johnson. “Though she was named for her mother’s brother Claud, during her infancy, her nurse, Alice Tittle, commented, she was as “purty as a ladybird,” which is a brightly colored beetle. “That nickname virtually replaced her actual first name for the rest of her life. Her father and siblings called her Lady, though her husband called her Bird, which is the name she used on her marriage license. During her teenage years, her schoolmates had called her Bird, though mockingly, since she reportedly was not fond of the name.”

8.  Tupac Shakur: One of most recognizable faces and one of the best-selling artists of the 1990s and beyond, Tupac is indeed his given name and he was named after an ancient Incan warrior and chief.

9. Dovakiim: Completely, 100% accurate representation of the offspring of two obsessed Skyrim fans. I think I hear Triumph the Insult Comic Dog warming up in the background… On the plus side, he need never leave his parents’ basement as the reward for naming him “Dovakiim” is a lifetime supply of free games from Bethesda.

10.  Napoleon:  Perhaps you want to honor your French heritage. Perhaps you just like the polysyllabic name Napoleon.  Everyone knows the dangers of giving your child a lofty name to live up to. Maybe it will work out for Cash, or Lakshme, or Sultan. But it might also be this…

How about you? What memorable names have you come across? Whether it be someone you know, a name from history, literature, a celebrity, whether you have been given an unusual name yourself, or given someone a unique name… we’d love to hear them!