Saturday, January 9, 2010
Into the calm lake of our lives the first stone has been tossed.

Set in rural India at the dawning of a new age, Kamala Markandaya's Nectar in a Sieve tells the story of one woman's quest for happiness and peace amidst heartache and hardship.  Despite attempts to ignore comparisons, one is indelibly reminded of Pearl S. Buck's classic The Good Earth.  The heroine, Rukmani, is a sort of female Wang Lung, who narrates the rise and fall of her family as India grows and changes around them.

The story begins with Rukmani remembering her past, already advanced and age and living without her husband and sons.  She begins her tale with the day she came to her husband's village; leaving her life of relative privilege behind at the age of twelve to become the wife of a poor tenant farmer. The book ebbs and flows, following the seasons of planting and harvest, rising and falling between plenty and famine. Markandaya as Rukmani speaks with a simplicity and an economy of words that is elegant and at times poignant.  Despite the struggle that life throws at the family, there is an undying sense of optimism that is simultaneously endearing and heartrending. It is a story of struggle, but also of joy in the simplicities of life, as the characters are happiest when our most mundane needs of sustenance and companionship are met.

But the story is not only the biography of a family, it is also a commentary on the realities of change and the impact of modernization.  It displays the futile struggle to preserve our connection to the land and each other as the world becomes ever more industrialized.  Markandaya uses the construction of a modern tannery in the small village to explore the impact of modernity on a way of life that has remained constant for centuries.  As time stretches on, the reach of the tannery (and the city that grows up around it) spiderwebs into the lives of every character, forever changing their course in life.

Through the character of Kenny, a western doctor who floats in and out of the story, Markandaya also produces a commentary on the social condition of the suffering in this world; painting a picture of the suffering Indian spirit, which accepts their plight and burden, refusing to cry out for help. Kenny is often seen as cold and frustrated, but the reader is to understand that he struggles to comprehend the complacency of the villagers, and their unwillingness to protest the destitution that runs rampant around them.

At only 186 pages, Markandaya's novel leaves a mark that far outstretches it's paucity.  Though, at times, the novel can seem to be a litany of struggle and hardship, the characters' reactions and reflections give insight into the human condition. Though the words of the title never appear in the novel itself, the reader has little difficulty understanding their meaning once the book is finished.  Like nectar in a sieve, the sweetness of life is fleeting.  We must cup it with both hands, and take solace and joy in each and every drop we are afforded in this life.
Tuesday, January 5, 2010

A sad, but interesting topic for readers everywhere...

public domain
The status of any creative work, invention, or device that is not protected by copyright law. Such items are available for use without permission. Often, works enter the public domain after patent, copyright, or trademark rights have expired or been abandoned.
-NOLO Law Dictionary

Ordinarily, January 1st of any year is cause for celebration (for numerous reasons), but it is also the happy day on which any copyrighted works whose term is expiring will enter the public domain.  This year, that should have meant that seminal works like Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, and Arthur Miller's  The Crucible became free and clear for public use. But sadly, we won't be getting free use of these works, or any works.... until at least 2019!

This site, produced and maintained by the Duke University Law School's Center for the Study of the Public Domain, has a very interesting and informative explanation of the issue.
Monday, January 4, 2010

Today was our first day back from winter break (just over two weeks long), which naturally means some serious re-adaptation for all the parties involved.  In the long time since I've seen my students, I've forgotten how tiring it is on my voice to talk so much during the day.  And apparently my students have remembered just how much they like talking all day, because that is pretty much what they did... nonstop... the whole period!

All joking aside, it was a pretty good day.  Winter break is a magical time, when somehow illnesses that have been keeping your students from school (or just your class) miraculously heal.  They forget how much they hated you/your class (simultaneously forgetting everything else you've ever taught them) and they might even come back to class and stun you when they proclaim "I missed you!"  Don't tell my students this... but I actually missed them too!

The highlight of my day was definitely my last period class.  They were in a very goofy mood, and we had a lot of fun (and somehow still managed to finish the day's lesson).  They also reminded me about one of the most important life lessons for a teacher... it's ok to smile... sometimes!

I was getting a bit frustrated with the chatter, and I did my usual freeze and stare... but the culprits didn't pick up the hint.  So, Mike (who coincidentally is usually my biggest talker/disruption) turns to look at the girls and yells "Blatant disrespect!" Tasha (who my kids say "has flavor") snappily responds with "I bet you don't even know what that means!" But Mike won this one with the most memorable line of the day... "Ohh, yeah! It means your disrespect is blatant!"

We all had a good laugh, and actually moved on.

You may have noticed that this post so far has nothing to do with reading.  But that's because my day so far had nothing to do with reading.  I got three pages of Nectar in a Sieve read during lunch, and that was the extent of it.  Goal for tonight: Finish at least another 15 pages.

Blogging Day: 4            Days to go: 361
Sunday, January 3, 2010

As I mentioned previously, I've decided to undertake a "Reading Challenge" to help me stick to my goal of reading more for fun this year.  I think this is partly due to my Teach For America brainwashing that I need to set measurable goals, but after all, having a clear goal in mind isn't a bad idea either so, here we go...

The challenge I've chosen is the 2010 Global Challenge, which I imagine is going to overlap quite a bit with other challenges throughout the year. I'm going to rein my inner over achiever and not go for the "Expert" but moderation is the key so I am undertaking:

The Medium Challenge
Read two novels from each of these continents in the course of 2010:
  1. Africa
  2. Asia
  3. Australasia
  4. Europe
  5. North America (incl Central America)
  6. South America
Try to find novels from twelve different countries or states.

So here are my proposed picks.  As the year progresses, I will revisit this page and cross them off as I read them.  This list (like anything) will change (a lot) over the year, so feel free to send along any recommendations you might have.  I would especially appreciate recommendations of authors from continents I haven't hit yet...

(Note: Clicking on any of the photos will take you to the amazon page for that book.  I've tried to stick to paperbacks or kindle editions, to keep the cost down.)

1) Africa:

Say You're One of Them (Oprah's Book Club) 

Say You're One of Them by Uwem Akpan - Nigeria

To say that I have heard good things about this book would be an understatement. It's a collection of five short stories by a Nigerian Jesuit Priest about life in Africa.  I am really looking forward to reading this one!

The Last Friend 
The Last Friend by Tahar Ben Jelloun - Morocco

If I can get my hands on a copy of this in the original (French) I would like to read it, but a translation will have to do if not.  North Africa is a region of the world that I know very little about, but should know more.  As a French teacher, I think Morocco is a fitting place to start, and this novel should be a great introduction to the history of Moroccan independence.

2) Asia:

Nectar in a Sieve (Signet Classics) 
Nectar in a Sieve by Kamala Markandaya - India

This is one that has been sitting on my bookshelf for a LONG time.  It was recommended by a friend back in college, and I never actually got around to reading it.  Set in rural India, the book tells the story of a family through the eyes of a mother.  It looks like a great book, and my friend was absolutely in love with it, so this one sounds very promising.
COMPLETED: January 9th, 2010

In Other Rooms, Other Wonders

In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin - Pakistan

I really love short stories, and this anthology of eight stories set in Pakistan has been touted as "sublime" all over the place.  Now I just have to hope that it lives up to the hype!

3) Australasia

The Bone People: A Novel 
The Bone People by  Keri Hulme - New Zealand

I have to admit that I was stretched to come up with books for this one.  I've been really curious about New Zealand ever since the amazing endorsement it received via Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy, so I thought a good Kiwi book would be a worthy choice.  I don't really know a lot about this one, but it is described as being a blend of Maori mythologies and modern narrative.

The Secret River
The Secret River by Kate Grenville - Australia

This novel won the 2007 Orange Prize is set in a fascinating period of Australia's history; through the eyes of a petty thief, the novel weaves the narrative of a frontier family's struggle to survive amid the backdrop of early Australian history (when it was still a British penal colony).  I'm hoping this one doesn't end up being a "wild west" style story, because I'm really not one for westerns. Would anyone who has read it like to comment?

4) Europe

The Picture of Dorian Gray (Oxford World's Classics) 

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde - Ireland/Britain

This is one of those books that I have heard about over, and over, and over..... So I am using this challenge as an excuse to finally sit down and read it.  I absolutely loved The Importance of Being Earnest, so I am hoping that I will love this one as much.  Best part... it's a classic so it's FREE at Gutenberg!

Zadig; L'Ingenu (Penguin Classics)Zadig by Voltaire - France

Another classic.  I read quite a bit of Voltaire in college (and a bit in high school, since the French tends to be on the easy side even if the philosophical concepts aren't)  but I never got around to this one.  This seems like the perfect time to tackle Voltaire's critique of we silly believers in "fate" and "Divine plans." I'll be reading this in the original French, but the link to the right is for the translation.  I've (obviously) not read this one, but the Penguin series tend to have pretty decent translators so I don't see why this one would be any different.

5) North America (Including Central America)

Monkey Hunting (Ballantine Reader's Circle) 

Monkey Hunting by Cristina García - Cuba/America

This is a book that I have seen sitting on other people's bookshelves, but that I have never picked up myself. The book is the story of a family split between two countries, Cuba and China.  The novel is a story of hardship, tradition, love, and struggle.

Runaway by Alice Munro - Canada

It's time that I finally read something by the woman that Jonathan Franzen (New York Times Book Review) said "has a strong claim to being the best fiction writer now working North America."  My love of short stories, and my need to complete the North America section makes this one an easy choice!

6) South America

The Storyteller: A Novel 

The Storyteller by Mario Vargas Llosa - Peru

I haven't really read much South American literature so this one was tough.  But, this book stood out at me from a mile away.  A Peruvian Jew is determined to preserve the culture and story of an Amazonian tribe, so he becomes their "habladore"(storyteller). 

Love in the Time of Cholera (Oprah's Book Club)

Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez - Colombia

Having read (and enjoyed) One Hundred Years of Solitude I knew that I wanted to read another Márquez.  This one came highly recommended.  It's a love story told over many years, but in a rather unconventional format. Looking forward to reading this one!

Ok, so there's my list.  Please feel free to leave me comments, suggestions, critiques, or encouragement!

Blogging Day: 3                Days to go: 362
Saturday, January 2, 2010

In an effort to read more this year, I have decided to start the year off with a bang by collecting recommendations from other sources, and "challenging" myself a bit.  Not that I don't already have a list about a mile long of books I want to read, but listening to/reading what others have to say about their favorite books is really a great motivator to actually sit down and get some reading done myself!

It is in that spirit that I began listening to a great podcast called "Books on the Nightstand." The podcast (subscribe via iTunes or enjoy the feed directly from their site) is put out by two passionate and well read book reps working for Random House.  However, don't let that lead you to believe that they are biased or untrustworthy.  They are highly objective and consider books by any publisher.  But, one cool perk of their inside connection is that you often get the scoop on books before they are published.

One side-effect of listening to their podcast and reading their blog is the discovery of a new concept (for me) known as the Reading Challenge. If you (like me) are new to the world of book blogging, you may also be scratching your head right now trying to figure out what this is... well prepare to be wowed my friend:

A reading challenge is an "competition" (for lack of a better term) that encourages, inspires, and motivates people to flex their mental muscles a bit by reading books in a certain category.  So, for example, one challenge might ask you to read 4 books, each with a different season as their theme (i.e. read a winter themed book in winter...) others might challenge you to read books from different centuries, countries, genres, etc.

So this sounds like a great way to get started on my own reading.  As per the recommendation of BOTN podcast, I went to "A Novel Challenge" and picked a challenge.  The site has a HUGE list of ongoing challenges, and a list of previous/perpetual challenges. I've always loved reading international authors, so a natural choice was the 2010 Global Challenge. This challenge asks you to read at least one book from 6 different continents. I'm posting a separate entry with my picks, which you can follow throughout the year as I update it.  Please feel free to recommend your favorites too (especially if it's from a continent I haven't hit yet!!)

Ok, off to the races...

Blogging Day: 2         Days to go: 363
Friday, January 1, 2010

Yes, I'm taking the first step on the road to recovery and I am admitting I have a problem.... I've blogged before but never for more than a week (or two) at a time. In my short experimental stints, I proudly managed to gain a whopping ONE reader, who coincidentally was a comment spamming bot that simply filled every entry with random adwords. So, naturally, those blogs didn't last very long and are now floating somewhere in the clouds of cyberjunk.

So, why the sudden renewal of interest in blogging. Well, it is actually two-fold. Firstly, I am starting the new year off with a commitment to actually stick it out this time and be a dedicated blogger. I'm one of the most opinionated people I know, and I love telling people what to do (why else would anyone ever become a teacher....).  And of course, I need an outlet for all of the crazy, interesting, hilarious, witty, and sometimes sad things that take place in my classroom each day.

Secondly, I hope that this blog will help me fulfill my other goal of reading more books that I want to read (instead of work reading). As a high school teacher, I don't always get a lot of time to myself, and sadly I often find myself turning to the "easy consumption" medias (read: television) for diversions.  I miss sitting down with a good book and miss even more the opportunity to discuss what I am reading with others.

So, now that I have bored you to death with this introduction (I am off to a great start toward beating my old record of ONE reader, huh?) What the heck is this blog actually going to be about.  Essentially, it's a hybrid: one part narrative, wherein I will wax poetic about the goings on of a "typical" Baltimore City classroom, and one part reader review where I will post about what I'm reading, what I've read, and future plans in the literary realm.

I invite you to join me in my quest to escape the humdrum reality through books, and please feel free to comment, question, critique, or otherwise leave your mark on these pages.... after all, a blog with no readers is just another Failed Blog!

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