Saturday, December 4, 2010

Poetry 101: The Villanelle

I was inspired to do a Poems 101 spotlight on my blog by a presentation given at a library meeting by branch manager Wendy Saz from the Crozet Library about April's 'Poem in Your Pocket Day,' a day when they get the rights to print many different poems, roll them up, and tie them with a ribbon, like a tiny scroll.

On April 30th, these poems were distributed throughout the JMRL system libraries, but also at hospitals, senior centers, and right on the Downtown Mall in Charlottesville. The idea that poetry isn't widely read anymore, but that it still can make a big impact on people's lives really resonated with me. The scrolls were handed out in Hopice and in the emergency room at Martha Jefferson Hospital, and were very well received.

Every month, I will try to feature a poem, or a poetic form-- just to keep it in your mind. And don't forget that every April is designated National Poetry Month!

This month's featured poem is the villanelle, which gets little to no notice when studying poems in school. It's a repetitive form that is really quite pretty, and also very much fun to write!

So what is a villanelle, exactly?
  • The villanelle is a poem of 19 lines-- it consists of 5 stanzas of three lines each, with a final (6th) stanza of four lines.  
  • Here's where it sounds confusing (but the example will clear it up)-- the first line of the first stanza is repeated as the last line of the 2nd and 4th stanzas. And to add to the mayhem, the third  line of the first stanza is repeated as the last line of the 3rd and 5th stanzas.
  • Do you think you have that? Add to these rules that the rhyme scheme is aba, and you'll have the makings of a villanelle! Due to the repeating scheme, there are really only 2 end rhyme sounds throughout the whole poem.
This example will hit it home for you:

"One Art" by Elizabeth Bishop

1     The art of losing isn't hard to master;                   a
2     so many things seem filled with the intent             b
3     to be lost that their loss is no disaster.                   a

      Lose something every day. Accept the fluster        a
      of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.                 b
1    The art of losing isn't hard to master.                    a

     Then practice losing farther, losing faster:             a
     places, and names and where it was you meant     b
3   to travel. None of these will bring disaster.            a

     I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or    a
     next-to-last, of three loved houses went.               b
1   The art of losing isn't hard to master.                    a

     I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,            a
     some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.      b
3   I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.                    a

     --Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture     a
     I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident                  b
1    the art of losing's not too hard to master             a
3   though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.    a

The lines on the left side of the poem indicate the lines that are repeated, to make it a little easier to understand. The letters on the side show the rhyme scheme. It makes a lot more sense when it's written out this way. 

I hope that I showed you a new type of poem, and maybe that you'll be encouraged to write your own. It doesn't need to be deeply meaningful. Make it fun, or make it somber, but whatever you do, make it your own! I wrote one about how I love my feet-- so clearly seriousness is not an issue.


Strand, Mark and Eavan Boland, eds. (2000). The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms.  New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Books to Cure a Broken Heart

This post is a semi-recycled post from Oprah's website called "8 Books to Read With a Broken Heart," written by lists these books with these synopses:

1.      Six-Word Memoirs on Love & Heartbreak by Writers Famous and Obscure Edited by Smith magazine

If you could describe your breakup in six words, what would you say? At a loss for words? No problem. Six-Word Memoirs on Love & Heartbreak is happy to fill in the blanks. Composed of hundreds of nuggets on love and loss, these memoirs say just what you've been trying to articulate yourself—without going over six words. Whether it's heartbreaking ("What once were two, are one"), tongue-and-cheek ("Reclaimed maiden name after every divorce") or just confusing ("Don't trust a man who waxes"), this read has a sliver of wisdom for anyone with a broken heart. There's also a little something for those who wish to remain optimistic on the state of love, including, "At 12 found soul mate, still together." Now don't we all wish we could write a memoir like that? 

2.      What Was I Thinking? 58 Bad Boyfriend Stories By Barbara Davilman and Liz Dubelman
For every woman who missed that red flag waving wildly in her face (He owns a faux dog! He's Homer Simpson's clone! He's a porn star!), this book is for you. Fifty-eight women share their hilarious tales of the romances (and the men) that took a nose-diving turn for the worse. Even if you can't relate to their stories, you'll at least get a good laugh out of them.

3.      Love, Loss and What I Wore By Ilene Beckerman
Two divorces, six children and one fabulous wardrobe. In this quirky pictorial for adults, author Ilene Beckerman takes you back through the most pivotal moments in her life...and what she wore along the way. From Brownie uniform to prom dress to wedding gown, each clothing item holds a strong memory. Good and bad, Beckerman remembers them all and encourages us to look back on our own lives and wardrobes. By the end of it, you'll be throwing out that old he-broke-my-heart dress, strapping on some ready-for-a-fresh-start heels and heading out to create a closet full of new memories.

4.      Bridget Jones's Diary  By Helen Fielding
This classic chick lit book might be the ultimate tale of what not to do when you're single and lonely. Do not stare at your phone for an entire weekend, binge on chocolate Christmas tree decorations or have an affair with your cad of a boss. However, this book's plucky heroine also does quite a few things right. On Bridget's to-do list? Do lean on your fabulous friends, give that nice man (whom you once snubbed) a second chance and turn every humiliation into a laugh-out-loud moment, all in the name of finding love and "inner poise."

5.      Eat, Pray, Love By Elizabeth Gilbert

This soul-searching memoir has become the bible of all breakup books, and if you haven't already turned to it to nurse your broken heart, you need to now.  After going through a bitter divorce and a disastrous love affair, Elizabeth Gilbert sets out on a journey that changes her life forever. She finds pleasure (and pizza) in Italy, peace in India and love in Bali. And the best part? It comes complete with a happy ending.

6.      Split: A Memoir of Divorce  By Suzanne Finnamore
It's a story as old as time: Boy meets girl, boy asks girl to marry him, and five years later, boy downs two martinis and announces that he wants to divorce girl. We've all heard this tale before, but for California journalist and author Suzanne Finnamore, it was very real. With brutal honesty and deadpan humor, she divulges the dirty details of her marriage and divorce—and how she ultimately muddled her way through all the lies, betrayals and attorneys. Finnamore's book is not your typical divorce diatribe. It's more like sitting down with your wittiest, most acerbic friend as she throws out her filter and tells you how it all went wrong...and how you can do things differently.

7.      Personal History  By Katharine Graham

Take notes from a woman who survived much worse than a breakup. In Katharine Graham's powerful autobiography, this Washington socialite recounts her husband's very public affair, his mental illness and subsequent suicide, as well as her unexpected accession to power at the Washington Post. Here's why you'll relate: Katharine Graham suddenly found herself thrown in a situation that she never wanted or expected (sound familiar?). She never claims that these changes were easy or that she walked into them with confidence. Instead, she says: "What I essentially did was to put one foot in front of the other, shut my eyes, and step off the ledge. The surprise was that I landed on my feet."

8.      High Fidelity By Nick Hornby
Want to know what's going on in his head? Of course you do! You may remember John Cusack in the movie adaptation of Nick Hornby's High Fidelity, a cynical breakup tale told from the male perspective. After being dumped yet again, music addict Rob looks back on his "all-time top five" breakups. Read along as he relives the losses, and then ask yourself, "Does this breakup really make my top five?"

I’m not sure I completely agree with 6 and 7, but I’ll leave them on there to complete the 8… I wouldn’t want to leave you all wondering, after all. But I have a few of my own to add to this list that I’ve read and loved—

1.      Going in Circles by Pamela Ribon

After leaving her husband and wallowing in self-pity, new friend Francesca helps down-and-out Charlotte Goodman find herself again when she makes her join roller derby. Pamela Ribon is absolutely hilarious. She’s contemporary, makes ridiculous but insightful comparisons, and gives a funny yet realistic spin on a subject people usually don’t like to talk about.

2.      Open House by Elizabeth Berg
A woman who’s been left by her husband decides to take in boarders to help pay her bills, and by doing so finds a little more out about herself than she realized. Elizabeth Berg is truly an amazing writer—her characters are so real and full. Sometimes the characters are a little too realistic, and you realize she’s somewhat of an annoying woman who’s lost herself along the way and wants to cry about it, but sometimes you then realize that you’re in her shoes after a breakup and want some commiseration. 

3.      Good in Bed by Jennifer Weiner
Cannie Shapiro is a 28 year old woman who’s nursing her ego after her boyfriend Bruce dumps her. Her ego takes an even bigger hit after she reads her ex’s magazine column where he states that “loving a larger woman is an act of courage in our world,” officially marking a downward spiral into tequila and self-wallowing. She pulls herself back up, gets her dreams back in order, and finds out that there are bigger fish to fry in life. Weiner is absolutely delightful to read, and while the story reminded me of Pamela Ribon’s other book Why Girls Are Weird (which might be one of my all-time favorite books), it has its own uniqueness and humor to it that makes you just love Cannie.

That’s all for now… feel free to post a book you think is good for getting over a broken heart-- Oh, and about the formatting. Don't start a blog out in Word. The formatting doesn't translate.

Hamilton, A. (2010, March 18). 8 Books to Read With a Broken Heart. Retrieved September 29, 2010, from

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Words at Work and Play

I'd be willing to bet that most people agree that words are significant in our society. Just ask the Old Spice Guy, and he'll tell you the same.  Maybe you're reading this because you want your words to take on more significance, or maybe it's that time of year when you or your loved ones are being forced to take standardized tests (with the kind of vocab that makes you think that learning these inane [adj: silly, stupid, not significant] words is an antedeluvian [adj: 1. old 2. of or pertaining to the time before the flood in the Bible] form of torture). The power of words and a strong vocab can be a great thing, and can make you feel smarter than the people around you, and who doesn't love that?

There are lots of standardized tests in which vocab knowledge goes a LONG way. Trust me on that. Some tests a better vocab is essential for are the SAT, ACT, GRE, and the MAT (Miller Analogies Test-- a lesser known test that can substitute taking the GREs for some grad schools, and is much better for students with vocab skills-- but check your applications to see if it counts).  But if studying vocab is dull and boring for you, maybe you're not doing it right to suit your own needs.

First off, words and vocab can and should be fun. Word masters like Edgar Allen Poe (The Bells) and Lewis Carroll (Jabberwocky) knew that. Even Eminem knows that. Sure, I'm not a huge fan of the messages he raps about, but he's pretty great with words.

1.  READ. This one's easy. You can read pretty much anything you like and you'll improve your vocab. Yes, graphic novels and comic books included. Magazines and blogs too! The more you read, the more vocab you'll come across. Take words in context, and if you're confused, look them up! It's just that simple.

2.  CROSSWORD PUZZLES. I love crossword puzzles, and sometimes they can be really challenging. You can buy them pretty much anywhere-- drugstores, grocery stores, bookstores, you name it! They're easy and they'll make you think, but better than that, they make words a game.

3.  AUDIO -- I've said it before, and I'll say it again. Podcasts are awesome when it comes to learning new vocab. When I was studying for the GREs, I listened to vocab podcasts in the car on my way to work. This cut down on the time that I needed to actually study when I got home, because I could do it in the car. The one I used the most was the Vocabulist by Prestige Learning, available on iTunes, or on their website.  It uses mnemonics (a device used for memorization, in this case-- pairing the vocab word with a funny way of remembering it) to help aid memorization.  (To see other tips for studying for the GREs, see my previous blog entry, "GREs: Grating, Repulsive, and Enervating"). There's also this thing called Flocabulary that incorporates vocab into rap and hip-hop music. It's AWESOME.

4.  STUDY with materials that don't make you want to shove your pen in your eye. I've been there before-- you see a vast ocean of words in front of you, bobbing up and down on the waves of the pages, and you think to yourself all of the other things you'd rather do than study those words. Use materials that will be the most helpful to you for studying for your test. Companies like the Princeton Review, Kaplan, and Barron's spend a lot of time researching the words used on previous standardized tests and then include them in their lists.  

If flash cards aren't appealing (and they weren't for me unless they were foreign language flash cards), then think of fun ways to use these words in sentences or even in poems, or make up your own lyrics to your favorite songs with them. Make up mnemonic devices for them. I Googled "words that frequently appear on SAT" and found this list of 100 words that most frequently appear on the SAT, so I'll show you some examples of mnemonics:

abate: v. to lessen, reduce    mnemonic: if your friend Ab ate something, he reduced it, or lessened its amount
brusque adj. short, rude   mnemonic: If someone has one too many brewskies, he/she may become more brusque
deleterious adj: harmful  mnemonic: If you accidentally delete that 10-page paper you finished on your computer, it will be harmful to your grade.
They can be dumb or funny, but the more they are, the more you'll probably remember them. 


List of 100 Most Common SAT words (linked above also):
I don't know where they got this information from, but looking at it, it seems like a    pretty good bet.

The Prestige Vocabulist by Prestige Learning  This is a link to the iTunes listings.  This is a link to the youTube videos that the Vocabulist has (and I think are probably the same as the iTunes ones).
The audio mnemoic vocab list that you can listen to in your car or even watch videos for online. It's awesome! This is what I used when studying for the GREs, but will also help you study for the SATs.

Software: Vocabulary Synapse: The Best Software for SAT and GRE Vocabulary by Mind Sculptor Software
I've never used this before, but it may be worth checking out at only about $11 on It uses Windows Vista/XP/Mac, Linux, Mac OSX

Audio: Flocabulary!
I had never heard of this, but found it recommended for vocab on It's actually got vocabulary building songs-- mostly hip-hop and rap-- and they make them for grades 2-8 and also at the SAT level! I'm so impressed by this... It also has the lyrics in it, so you can see the words they are rapping with.

Confessions of a High School Word Nerd by Arianna Cohen and Colleen Kinder. 
It's a short book, and it's written as an actual story but incorporates SAT vocab. Wherever they use an SAT word, its definition is added as a footnote at the bottom of the page. Pretty useful... 

Vocabulary Cartoons I and II by Sam Burchers
This has incredible reviews. I've never used these before, but they are meant to help learning SAT words using cartoon drawings.

Princeton Review's Word Smart by Adam Robinson
Great resource for those learning words for the SAT or GRE, by the Princeton Review, so you know they've done their homework. Also comes on audio CD if that works better for you!

601 Words You Need to Know to Pass Your Exam by Murray Bromberg  A vocab book put out by Barron's, so you know they've also done their homework.

Wordplay: Master SAT Vocab with Entertaining Rhymes by Eric Tackeff; Uses wordplay including synonyms, antonyms, and idioms for lots of words.This is only $0.01 on, so it's at least worth a shot!

Word Play Almanac by O.V. Michaelson; A just for fun approach to words-- full of "the most intriguing collection of word wit, wisdom, and amusement ever--served up by a former puzzle columnist for the Mensa International Journal" according to editorial reviews on Amazon.  Uses palindromes, anagrams, and all kinds of other fun word puzzles to get you thinking.

There are a lot of others-- don't be afraid to Google search ways to build your vocab!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Children's Author Highlight 2: Chris Van Allsburg

Chris Van Allsburg is a great children's book author and, in my opinion, an even better illustrator. Known especially for his pencil drawings, his depictions are surreal and even have dark tendencies. 

Most of his better-known works have become movies, with the animated  The Polar Express (2004) being the most notable.  Others are surprised to find that Jumanji (1995) with Robin Williams was also a Chris Van Allsburg creation. More recently, the book Zathura, which happens to be an off-shoot of the Jumanji story, was also turned into a movie in 2005. 

Although the movies are suitable for some children though, I wouldn't recommend them for all. Some of his stories might be scary to a lot of children. Although highly imaginative, they aren't light-hearted or feel-good books, but are rather more serious and require a little more thought than other children's books, so the concepts or themes may really be better suited for older children. And after reading several of his stories, I'm wondering also if he was the victim of torture by an older sibling... as that seems to be a common element throughout many of his books.

Stories I would recommend for all: 

The Polar Express (1985) Probably needs no introduction. A journey to the North Pole, and a little bit of faith.

Probuditi! (2006) Good for kids, and teaches you not to be mean to younger siblings. Beautiful sepia toned pencil drawings.

Just a Dream (1990) One that I loved as as kid, shows a kid what the world would look like if people stopped taking care of it. 

Ben's Dream (1982) After Ben falls asleep without studying for his geography test, he has dreams about the monuments he was supposed to learn about.  Not great if your child has a short attention span, because there are no words.

The Wreck of the Zephyr (1983) One of my brother's favorites. About a boy who learns how to fly his boat among the clouds, but learns humility as well.

The Z Was Zapped (1987) An alphabet book that describes the various maladies of letters-- uses larger language that younger kids may not quite understand.

Bad Day at River Bend (1995) A very creative way to incorporate a child's play into a story. 

Books I would recommend with some reservations or for older kids: 

Jumanji (1981) May be scary for very young children, but otherwise seems fine.

Zathura (2002) Again, may be scary for young children.

The Widow's Broom (1992)  A book about a magic broom that is threatening and on the scary side.

The Stranger (1986)  After a strange man is hit by a truck, he is invited into a family's home. The stranger can't remember who he is, but seems to have special abilities.  Although the story line is sweet enough, it would be bad to encourage young children to be so trusting toward strangers living in their house.

The Wretched Stone (1991)  Definitely the darkest of his books, it almost has an Edgar Allen Poe quality to it. There is an evil stone making strouble aboard the ship.

Two Bad Ants (1988)
The Sweetest Fig (1993)
The Mysteries of Harris Burdick (1984)

For more information, see Chris Van Allsburg's website:

Information about the movies can be found at 

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Animal I Have Become: A Memoir

People are suckers for great animal stories. Let's face it, when it comes to movies, there are millions-- Old Yeller, Free Willy, Homeward Bound, and the list goes on endlessly. But what about books? There are a lot of them that go unnoticed, and maybe some that you've heard of.  For example, Marley & Me by John Grogan, has gained a lot of popularity for its portrayal of a neurotic trouble-maker lab who, despite his bad behavior finds his niche in a family.  The nice thing about stories like this is the way the story of the animal entwine with the story of the person writing the memoir. Animals have an extraordinary way of making people rethink their own lives, and many of these memoirs reflect that. But the greatest thing about animals and their stories, is that besides being insightful to our own human nature, they are hilarious. Absolutely hilarious. Now if only the zookeeper that had raised Knut the baby polar bear was still alive to write one today...
Marley & Me by John Grogan (2005)
As described above, the story of a family with an awesomely destructive dog. Funny at times, sad at times, winds the story of Marley in with the obstacles that the family must overcome.
The Dogs Who Found Me: What I've Learned From Pets Who Were Left Behind
  by Ken Foster (2006)
The author finds and adopts dogs who have been discarded by society. He writes, "I adopted Brando not because I was worried he might be put to sleep, but because after several days of visiting him I couldn't stand the idea of him living with someone other than me...Within a few days I had developed a feverish dog-crush." Funny.
Wally's World: Life with Wally the Wonder Dog by Marsha Boulton (2006)
A great story about a woman, her husband, and their bull terrier who share a wonderful zest for life.  Her writing is superb and funny, and just the first page will draw you in.
The Horse Boy: A Father's Quest to Heal His Son by Rupert Isaacson (2009)
The memoir of a father who discovers that his autistic son Rowan's condition improves after an interaction with the neighbor's horse, and from there, the family embarks on an adventure to the steppe of Mongolia to cure his son through shamanic healing and horses.

Homer's Odyssey: A Fearless Feline Tale, or How I Learned About Love and Life with a Blind Wonder Cat by Gwen Cooper (2009)
A memoir about a woman who takes the blind kitten home from the shelter, and aptly names him Homer (the title sparked my interest in this book, naturally). Although blind, Homer's very adept and courageous, with a very lovable personality. 

Dewey: the Small-town Library Cat Who Touched the World by Vicki Myron 
Dewey was discovered by a librarian (the author) half-frozen in the library drop-box. After he was rescued, he was adopted as the resident mascot of the library, and makes dozens of friends in his hometown in Iowa.  Again, with the clever naming!

Wesley the Owl: The Remarkable Love Story of an Owl and his Girl  by Stacey O'Brien (2008)
When, Stacey O'Brien first takes in the four-day-old barn owlet, she couldn't know that it would be his love and fierce loyalty that would help her overcome her own illness.  Now only if it also delivered mail to the magical world...

The Good, Good Pig: The Extraordinary Life of Christopher Hogwood
  by Sy Montgomery (2007)
The autobiography of a woman, who as a naturalist, has always been comfortable around animals and being on-the-go. But after taking in a small, sick piglet, who grows to be the 750-lb Christopher Hogwood, she is forcibly grounded. Mr. Hogwood, however, becomes a neighborhood favorite, and teaches the author about the community all around her.

Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human by Elizabeth Hess (2008)
Raising Nim Chimpsky, and teaching the chimp American Sign Language, was an experiment that meant to refute Noam Chomsky's theory that language is an exclusively human trait. What starts as an experiment turns into an introspective and funny look at what makes us human.  Plus, with a take off of Noam Chomsky's name like this, you know it's gotta be good.

The Daily Coyote: A Story of Love, Survival, and Trust in the Wilds of Wyoming
by Shreve Stockton (2008)
 The story of a photographer who moves to a small town in Wyoming from New York, and winds up taking in an orphaned coyote pup. She learns to adapt to her new lifestyle and new pet, whom she names Charlie. It explores the differences between nature and nurture, and domestication and wildness.

Rascal  by Sterling North(1663)
Somewhat older than the others, Rascal is a story about a boy's adventures with his pet raccoon in a small town in Wisconsin at the end of World War I. I've always wondered what it would be like to keep a wild thing for a pet. It's too bad Dad always told me no...


Monday, June 14, 2010

Let the Empire Strike Back Already

Shelving books in the library, I overheard the following conversation in the children's section between a mother and her two sons:

Son 1: (to Son 2, as they both fumble excitedly through the various Star Wars series collection) Number 4 is called The Empire Strikes Back! (to Mom) Mom! Mom! Can we get these? 
Mother: (looks disapprovingly at the Star Wars books, then looks animatedly down at a volume from another series-- The Boxcar Children) Umm... wow! Look at these books, I remember these... What were these series called? Oh yeah! The Boxcar Children! Have you heard of these... ooooh, The Mystery at the Fair! This looks like a good one! 
Son 1: (Blatantly ignoring mom's comments) We could get Number 3 and Number 4! 
Son 2 reaches excitedly for the book Son 1 is holding...they are almost wrestling to see what's in the book.
Mother: You can't get any of those books. That is sooo not quality literature. How about those Boxcar Children?! 
Son 1 and 2 exchange exasperated glances at one another. Son 2 tries one more attempt at showing his interest in Star Wars, again ignoring his mom's suggestion.
 Son 2: Ugh, Number 4 isn't The Empire Strikes Back, it's Return of the Jedi! Mom, please can we get this? 
Mother: No! Definitely not. Alright, look, pick either The Mystery at the Fair or The Summer Camp Mystery. You aren't getting any of those Star Wars books. (She's getting huffy now)
Son 1: When we get home can we watch The Empire Strikes Back! 
Mother: (Definitely annoyed) You have better things to do than to watch Star Wars all summer long!!! 
Son 2: (under his breath, sarcastically) Yeah... like reading the Boxcar Children...
Son 1 and 2 snicker as Mom stalks off.

I'm taken by surprise. First off, the Star Wars movies are great. Second off, the fact that these two boys around the age of 10 are wanting to read about Star Wars, not just watch the movies, is even greater.  And the last and most stressing fact from this conversation is that Mom, by denying her kids' subject of interest in reading, fails to realize that she is probably smothering any idea that reading could be fun, and sending the signal that reading is supposed to be about "good literature" (although where she gets the idea that the Boxcar Children is defined as high-quality literature is one mystery that still hasn't been solved by those ruddy little orphans).

Sorry, Gertrude Chandler Warner. Don't get me wrong about the Boxcar Children. I loved the first book when I was little, and I think it's incredible that children still check them out to this day since the first one was published in 1924.  But even if they are considered a "classic" in the world of children's literature, does that mean they are right for everyone? No. For 10 year old boys drooling over Star Wars chapter books? Definitely not.

There are plenty of books for kids that I think are garbage. [Take the Rainbow Magic series, all about fairies, with awesome names like Sky, the Blue Fairy; Sunny, the Yellow Fairy; Storm, the Lightning Fairy; and yes, even Hayley, the Rain Fairy (thanks, a lot Daisy Meadows, if that's even your real name).]     BUT, the bottom line is: if they are reading, then LET THEM READ.  Star Wars books aren't racy or crude. They aren't the greatest example of children's lit, but it's what they are interested in, so roll with it! 

Boys especially are susceptible to being turned off of books at a young age. After hearing the aforementioned conversation, I decided to do some research to find out what types of books boys at that age might enjoy. I also did a little research on boys and reading. 

Statistics (from Connecting Boys with Books: What Libraries Can Do by Michael Sullivan): 
  • Boys are on average one and a half grades behind girls in reading
  • 70% of students in remedial classes are boys 
  • Boys aren't the majority in library programs
  • Boys are the majority saying they spend zero time reading for fun
 Although I can't promise to fix these things, here are some things to help the lost boys out: 

  1. Boys need male role models showing them that reading is fun. Have their fathers or other male role models take them to the library, the bookstore, or read them their bedtime story. Let the library feel accessible to them. 
  2. Take them to library programs when they are younger (and if possible, try to encourage some of his male friends to enroll too so he has other male peers to share the reading experience with). Library programs run by male librarians are rare, but if you see one on the schedule, make it a point to have him attend that one!
  3. Encourage him to read what interests him!!! I can't stress this enough!  If you squash his interests in reading when he's little, his reading material when he gets older will consist mainly of Playboy magazines that probably won't read "just for the articles."
  I'll end this blog with a list of books that I've gathered on boys and their reading lists, and on what I've seen boys eager to check out at the library. This isn't a fool-proof list, and it's not in any particular order-- I'm just offering another option that might suit them better than, say, the Boxcar Children. 
  • Non-fiction! Okay, I know that this is incredibly vague, but boys seem to take to non-fiction pretty well. See what their interests are, and promote them: let them learn about Egyptian mummies, Roman soldiers, how cars run, the most poisonous animals in the world, how to build things, the solar system, or any other number of things boys find intriguing. 
  • Books by Matt Christopher. This guy writes fiction about almost every type of sport, and boys seems to love it. 
  • The Magic Tree House series by Mary Pope Osbourne. This woman is a genius! She writes fiction stories about two children who travel in time and space to go on tons of adventures. She's got lots of different stories, and many of them come with non-fiction research companion guides to accompany them. For example, the first in the series, Dinosaurs Before Dark, comes with a research guide all about dinosaurs of the prehistoric world! Boys and girls alike love this series.
  • The Time Warp Trio series by Jon Scieszka. Another time travel novel about boys who travel having kooky adventures, with fun titles such as See You Later, Gladiator; Viking It and Liking It; The Not-So-Jolly Roger; The Knights of the Kitchen Table, and Your Mother Was a Neanderthal. :)
  • R.L. Stine's Goosebump series-- Boys like scaring themselves and seeing how much they can handle. Once I had a boy come up to me, and with a devilish gleam in his eye, challenged me to find him the scariest book we had. Although I can't promise these are the scariest, they do fulfill that need for a little horror.
  • The Animorphs series by K.A. Applegate also still does pretty well, even though that was much more popular when I was younger. What boy doesn't love humans turning into animals? 
  • The Hardy Boys series, by Franklin W. Dixon. This is old, I know, but I still get boys running up to me asking where the Hardy Boys are. They also make this in a comic book form now.
  • The Harry Potter series. Enough said! 
  • Eoin Colfer's The Artemis Fowl series. A fantasy series about a ruthless teenage criminal mastermind who tries to obtain money by stealing it from fairies and the like.
  • The Hatchet by Gary Paulsen. A story about a boy who has to survive on his own after his plane crashes in the woods. 
  • As far as picture books go, reading books to a boy about boys or animals (curious monkeys for example) who get into trouble, any form of transportation, pirates, dinosaurs, and pirate-dinosaur combinations will get you far! 
 Sheesh, I've given you enough books, now get to work! I'll do more digging to have more titles available at a later date.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Audiobooks: Because Lady Gaga in the car just wasn't enough

I never was a fan of listening to audiobooks. It wasn't because they didn't appeal to me, it was rather that they had never really occurred to me. Lately, however, I have definitely come to love them. I decided to write this little blog after realizing by a coworker that it had been too long since I'd written, and also because I keep getting asked by patrons, "What do you recommend in the way of audiobooks?"

One day, I contemplated reading Jane Austen, and writing a blog on what can only be described as the hysteria of writing that revolves around Jane Austen and all of her characters. I collect "classic books," and had a Jane or two on my shelf. **[As a disclaimer, I love collecting books deemed as "classics." I don't know who deems them, but they are the types of books that are always on reading lists somewhere-- in high school, college, or even in books telling you what million books you should read before you die (which ultimately makes you feel like you are wasting your time reading that book when you could be reading one that will "absolutely change your life"). So I collect these books, thinking proudly to myself, I will be well-read and get every question on literature on Jeopardy. They then proceed to collect dust on the shelf.]

The Janes I happened to have collected were Emma and Sense and Sensibility. I didn't have Pride and Prejudice, the most famous of the Janes. I know it sounds incredibly ironic, but I was actually prejudiced against Pride and Prejudice for the longest time. I had decided at 10 years old that the story must be boring because I fell asleep watching the six-video set of the movie. Yes, even when I was 22 I decided my 10-year-old self must have been right on that account. Well, she wasn't.

Most often, I collect these classics and they sit on the shelf just waiting for their turn to be useful. But, I decided to give Emma a go. I failed. I tried reading it-- mostly when I was too tired to really pay attention. But it was slow. My 10-year-old self whispered in my head, See, I told you Jane Austen was boring. She's still wrong though.

So one day at the library, I was about to simultaneously reshelve a copy of Mr. Darcy, Vampyre (by Amanda Grange) and The Private Diary of Mr. Darcy (by Maya Slater). As I set it back on the shelf, I noticed Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters (by Ben Winters), and I. just. snapped.

WHAT IS IT WITH JANE AUSTEN? I thought back to all of the movies that have come out revolving around Jane Austen and her work-- Becoming Jane with Anne Hathaway, Pride and Prejudice with Kiera Knightly, and even a Bollywood take Bride and Prejudice with Aishwarya Rai. There has got to be a good reason!!! [This will be addressed in a future blog, for there isn't the room for this rant today]

I became determined. Hell-bent on reading something by this beloved author. Why not start with her most famous? I was already reading a book though... and if I was easily bored, I would just ignore it. What to do?

My problem was solved on my way home as I realized that I was bored with all of my music, and had a 35 minute drive to and from work every day, resulting in an hour and ten minutes of driving time spent while my brain was lollygagging.

I immediately put the audiobook CD version of Jane Austen Pride and Prejudice on hold.

It was AWESOME. Here's why:
  1. It's so much better to hear the book in an English accent.
  2. The dry English humor came across so much better when it was spoken aloud. Mrs. Bennett would have bugged the crap out of me otherwise, but she became much more comical in that love-to-hate sort of way through the voice of this old British lady.
  3. I could still be completely involved in reading my other book at home without thinking of having to juggle this one in.
Sometimes, I would sit in my car just listening to it for 10 to 15 minutes longer in my driveway at home just so I could find out what would happen next.

Next, I listened to the BBC radio edition of Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, which had it's own eerie music written just for the presentation, and with more fantastic English accents. Brilliant!

My most current is the audiobook of The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. I began reading a paperback copy of the book, and found that I hated having to put it down when I got in the car. The solution to my problem? Audiobook it! Now I can pick up the audio where I left off in the text, and vice versa. The narrator of this one has a deep rich voice, perfect for this story, and it's especially nice to hear how to correctly pronounce all the German words in it.

So, my advice for audiobooks? If you haven't tried one before, get to it! Especially if you have a long commute to work. You'll feel so much more accomplished. Get something that you might really like the idea of reading, but you always seemed to put off. Who knows, maybe one day you might even get to hear my audioblog via podcast. Wouldn't that be the day?

Saturday, February 27, 2010

The GREs: Grating, Repugnant, and Enervating

The GREs can be scary to anyone looking to go back to grad school. Let's face it: with the economy being so bad, it really gives you a boost to have a grad degree, so here's to everyone who is going back to school and has to take the GREs-- which is a major motivational roadblock to applying to colleges, if you ask me.

It took me forever to actually buck up and take the GREs. I had the book (borrowed from the library-- because clearly I had no desire to keep it around as a momentum after I was done with it, or to spend any extra money on a test I was loath to take). I had the time-- although I did find quite a number of excuses to explain why I wasn't studying for the GREs ("I'll study as soon as I get done making these crepes..."). I still lacked the motivation though.

My initial goal was to take them in November 2009. I read up on the grad schools I wanted to apply for, I read up on the GREs themselves and tips for taking them. I studied the kinds of questions that they would ask me, re-familiarized myself with the math and glanced over the five lists of vocab words that they said were crucial to the GREs (with fun list names like "Hit Parade Group 1" to entice me to study...?). So I wrote up flash cards and stored them away for a couple of months. I let all the math I'd relearned start leaking back out of my brain. And then all the sudden it was January, and all the sudden, I realized I was screwed. I hadn't even signed up. I had kept putting off signing up for the the GREs because I said I wasn't quite ready yet and I'd just wait until I felt a little more confident before I made the commitment of $120 (yes, that's the actual cost of the GRE as of January 2010-- and yes, you have permission to cry about it).

I realized that I was in trouble. I needed to take the GREs immediately if I wanted to get into grad school in Fall 2010. [Side note: Master of Library Science programs have later dates than most grad school programs, so if you put it off as long as I did, you'll probably be in worse shape than I was.]

So I just signed up. I had already read most of the book. I signed up for a GRE date in late January-- two weeks exactly from the date I signed up.

First things first: Taking the GREs:

The most important thing to note: the GRE is a computer-adaptive test. This means that if you answer a question wrong, then it gives you an easier question. If you get it correct, the questions get harder. However! It also means that it pinpoints your general score early on in the test. So remember, spend the most time on the first half of the questions, and the least time on the ones at the end. By the end of the test, they are only tweaking your score very minutely.

Before you take the test: The test is about four hours long, so EAT SOMETHING, MAKE SURE YOU PEE, and know that you can't take anything into the test center with you (you get a locker, and all your stuff has to stay in there). You get one 10-minute break, and that's it. I hope you don't have a small bladder.

The Layout of the test:

  • 45-minutes to write an argument essay. They give you two options for the topic-- read them each carefully. Pick the argument that you can most easily defend, and make sure that includes examples.
  • No break. You don't get a break between essays.
  • 30-minutes to write a critique of someone else's argument. You get no topic options on this one. It is crucial to remember while writing this that you are NOT trying to defend a position here or argue why you do or don't agree-- rather, you are trying to find holes in the person's argument. Do they use statistics or facts to back up their argument? Figure out what they are overlooking. That's your critique.
TEN MINUTE BREAK: Now you get to pee again, and they might allow you to access your locker for food and water. You definitely can't look at your cell phone though, or study any materials, so don't even think about it. And stretch. Stretching's good.

VERBAL AND QUANTITATIVE: You will get three sections here-- one math, one verbal, and one either math or verbal that acts as a test section. Yes, it will suck to take two of the same section, but don't get lackadaisical when you get to the repeat section! You won't know which section counts and which doesn't, and you also won't know which section you'll get a repeat of. I was lucky enough to receive two verbal instead of two math... whew! Both verbal sections seemed similar, so you can't guess which one is the test section. Beware!
  • The verbal section consists of 30 questions in 30 minutes.
  • The quantitative section consists of 28 questions in 45 minutes.
  • Pace yourself. And remember: the first questions are the most important, so take your time on those!
How to study for the GREs:
  1. Read the book-- understand the layout of the GRE so that you know how to manipulate it. Know what kind of math and verbal questions you are going to be asked. I used Princeton Review's book and it worked pretty well. Don't however, do the test questions in the back of the book -- if you're taking the GRE on the computer, study on the computer (I'll give you the best website to study later in the post.
  2. JUST SIGN UP ALREADY. Even if you feel unprepared now, it'll give you a deadline and something to work up to. Otherwise, you'll never want to do it. TRUST ME.
  3. Go to and get yourself an account. This website is a god-send. I promise. It gives you an endless supply of practice questions in verbal and quantitative (math) sections, and keeps stats about your accuracy of each kind of question (sentence completion, analogies, antonyms, fractions, percentages, etc). This way, you can see where you need the most work. Then you can also set your practice sessions so that you only get those kinds of questions. You can also review all the questions you've taken, and it gives detailed explanations for the correct answer. They also give you a timer so you can see how long it takes you, and in the stats section, it shows you your average time for answering questions. You can do as many questions in a set as you want, so even if you only have five minutes to spare, this website makes it SO easy to study on the fly.
  4. Studying vocab is tedious and boring, but it's the best way to improve your verbal score. The Princeton Review gives an overwhelming number of words to learn. I've always been a proponent of flash cards, but this was just too much for me, and so I never got around to using them. Therefore, I came up with a solution! I spend a lot of time with my iPod, especially in the car. So I downloaded vocab podcasts on iTunes which are meant to strengthen your vocab. The one I liked best was called the Vocabulist by Prestige Learning -- you can also get it online at their website. It works by using mnemonics, pairing the vocab word to a weird saying or mental image which helps you remember the word more easily. There are also plenty of other vocab podcasts out there, but I found this one to be the most useful. Listening to even a half-hour of vocab a day really helps, and it's a lot less effort than sitting down with flashcards.
  5. Read a book that you enjoy. Reading helps vocab, so don't underestimate pleasure reading to help you improve your GRE score. Comic books and nudey magazines probably don't count though, even if you do "just read them for the articles".
  6. When you feel pretty confident with how you're doing (and after you've signed up to take the test), go to the ETS website (they administer the GRE), and download their Powerprep software that simulates the actual GRE. It is the same program that they use at the test center, and you can get used to how the computer adaptive test works and also how the layout of the program works. It is a full-length (writing, quantitative, AND verbal), it is timed, and has the same rules that will be given to you at your testing site. At the end, it gives you a score on the verbal and quantitative parts so you can gauge how well you'll do on the test.
Doesn't all this useful information want to make you take the GREs? No. Probably not. But I hope it helps, and makes it a little less stressful to think about.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Do you smell what the Tarts are cookin?

As a certifiable foodie (and by all means self-certified), I have come to realize how important a good cookbook is. And with an enormous wall of books devoted to just that-- to be found in the non-fiction 641s-- then how do you choose just one?

Well, first of all, you don't. I feel like to get a really good balance of awesome food recipes, you have to get a variety. I mean, Paula Deen might know her stuff on Southern cooking (use excesses of fats and cream), but I wouldn't trust her to enliven my tastebuds with traditional Italian cooking. On top of that, I am extremely attracted to some cookbooks are narrow in subject, and therefore, you know exactly what you'll find when you go looking in them.

Like a book all about breads. There are so many different kinds of breads, and most books have little snippets on how to make bread, but if you really want the best kind of bread-- find the best bread book. That's where you find the kind of bread that you set out on the counter to cool, and when you come back an hour later, half of it has been demolished by hands too impatient to even use a proper bread knife (which is serated, btw-- I'm always amazed when people don't know that). Then there are the specialty breads: pannetone, stollen, cinnamon buns, sticky buns, and even the infamous bread sculptures -- such as our world-famous bread elephant. (For the record, the best bread book I've run across is Ultimate Bread by Eric Treuille).

But as far as standard cookbooks go, here are a few of my favorites:

The New Doubleday Cookbook by Jean Anderson and Elaine Hanna
This pretty much has everything you need to know about cooking in it-- how long to cook various cuts of meat per pound, what seasonings go well with different meats, an encyclopedia of herbs, and an insane amount of recipes in general. Pretty much comprehensive, and has great as well as simple recipes.

The Joy of Cooking
by Irma Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker
A good back-up manual to the Doubleday, just in case.

Betty Crocker's Cookbook by Betty Crocker
Ah, good old Betty Crocker. This is a great book for people just beginning because it's so easy to follow and has awesomely traditional recipes. On top of that, old Betty's got great tips on baking, which is definitely where she comes in handy in my kitchen. An old standard, Betty is not someone to overlook.

Now, I'm a traditionalist when it comes to food sometimes. I don't feel drawn to food simply because it's gourmet, or because it's expensive, or because it's designed to look like it has the crowning headdress of a cockatoo. I'm into the taste, the texture, and the feel. This said, I must say, I'm not a huge fan of Rachel Ray's cookbooks. She means well, she really does, and she's cute as a button. But she has a knack for fancying up a recipe that could be simplified very easily with all kinds of food-stuffs that you won't have unless you only cook by her book (which I'm sure would get pretty tedious after a while). I'm sorry that veal, pancetta, arugula, Italian tuna, saffron powder, piquillo peppers, Swiss green chard, and capocollo hot ham are not regulars in my kitchen. I actually am. These are ingredients directly from her book. Clearly there are some that I make substitutions for if not readily available or out of my meager price range (bacon subs for pancetta, spinach for arugula, etc)-- but for others like piquillo peppers, although I could look them up, it's much more likely that I will skip over that recipe involving them entirely.

As far as a series of books which verge on gourmet, but still have a reality check and also have incredibly mouthwatering pictures (another key factor in specialty cookbooks), I say you can always count on Williams-Sonoma. In fact, I'm pretty sure I don't need another dessert book after Williams-Sonoma's Desserts by Abigail Johnson Dodge. I have been fascinated by just about all of the Williams-Sonoma series books and have yet to be disappointed. They are simply written, with informative side-bars on special ingredients (and their substitutes!) or how to make something incredibly simple but absolutely delicious. My favorite thing that's come out of that dessert is on the cover-- flourless chocolate torte topped with chocolate ganache and raspberry coulis. Mmmmm... and all you needed to hear from that was "smooth chocolately goodness with raspberry topping". Yum!

Then there are magazines-- like Cooking Light and Gourmet and all that. But I think the best by far (and I think many library users would back me up on this one), is Cook's Illustrated. It's just awesome. Their spiel is that they have a test kitchen where some lucky cook gets to test the hell out of a traditional recipe for something, such as say German chocolate cake or meatloaf. They find out everything that could possibly be wrong with it, deduce how to make it the best through scientific methods, and then come out with an awesome product. In the meatloaf article, they actually made 110 meatloaves and used 260 pounds of beef... talk about dedication to perfection. Plus, they explain the whole process in a well-written way. They also have user tips that weren't written by morons, and the writers of this magazine actually take into consideration both the time it takes to make a dish and the availability of the products they are using, which is pretty refereshing. They also rate kitchen supplies, telling you which ones they recommend and which they don't, and take price into account when deciding what the best is for your money. Awesome!... oh and did I mention that they don't have any ads at all?

Also remember, that most cookbooks are just guidelines and can help you think about what you might want to make, but tweaking a recipe is what makes it unique to your own tastes. However, in baking, this is a horrible horrible idea. Don't do it in baking unless making very minor changes, because that seems to make a huge difference in the chemistry of baking.

My best advice, however, is: get yourself a 3-ring binder and copy recipes like a madman/woman. Write down your favorites that you use all the time, and record the changes you make so you can make it again the same way if it was good. Make sure that you've tabbed it so things are easy to find. I call mine the Tried-and-True cookbook. I save up recipes to try, and put them in a separate folder. Then once I've tried them, they get put into THE PAGES. If I'm good enough and if the end result is pretty enough, I sometimes take my own picture as a sort of trophy. Since I scimp on ink though, this tends to lead to a build-up of pictures on my computer that don't get printed out and put in the pages. But maybe when I'm a rich and famous librarian I will have the means to do that... haha.

Til then, bon apetit!

Also-- minor note: Mad Pie Day is officially March 6th this year (it occurs on the first Saturday of March every year since 2008). Go eat pie for breakfast, lunch, and dinner! Quiches, fruit pies, chicken pot pies, and then get creative! This year I think I'm going to try the asparagus-parmesan quiche. There will probably be coverage of this event in the aftermath, so I'll keep you posted. In 2008, we had about 15 people throughout the day, and 12 pies. 2009 showed growth with 19 people and 18 pies. This year it's expected to grow beyond the bounds of our own house. It's up to you, dear citizens, to take this Mad Pie Day and embrace it with all your might. Invite all your friends, make each party bring a pie, and let the madness begin!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Calories don't count when you're reading a book

I have always been a big fan of cooking food (and naturally eating it, too) but after working at the library with literally a wall of cookbooks, I know now that my food interest borders on obsession.

I noticed and accepted this when I realized that in addition to checking out multitudes of cookbooks, I have also begun checking out novels written about food.

A while back, I read a book by Sarah Addison Allen called Garden Spells. In addition to being beautifully written, having well-developed characters, and being absolutely addictive, I found myself drawn to the magical realism in it. The story takes place in a small town in North Carolina, where every family has their own unique gift. The Waverly sisters are known for their magical gardens, and Claire Waverly is at the core of it, weaving her home-grown herbs, spices, fruits, and vegetables into recipes which can change the way people feel, see, and understand things.

Some time later, I read Chocolat by Joanne Harris. Pretty good (although, I'm sorry to say I liked the movie with Johnny Depp which develops a romance between the main character Vianne and the gypsy Roux). It incorporates some magical realism into it also, with the idea that her delicate candies and pastries are able to touch people.

The next I read was Sweet Love by Sarah Strohmeyer, about a middle aged woman who meets up with her teenage crush while enrolled in a dessert class. The things they cooked sounded so delectable that all I could think about was making desserts.

Now onto Anthony Capella, my new hero, and the reason I decided to write this today. He's my new hero. Well, okay, I only read one book of his, The Food of Love, but I'm about to read his other two: The Wedding Officer and The Various Flavors of Coffee. I absolutely loved the Food of Love (his first novel!), a story about a girl Laura studying art history abroad in Rome (le sigh!), and this guy Tommaso who pretends to be a chef to woo her, while his friend Bruno, also in love with Laura, actually cooks the food that she goes nuts over. On top of the way Capella talks about food, recipes, and the way food makes people feel in this book-- he includes beautiful snippets of art and culture, and delightfully crude Roman remarks, which had me cracking up the entire time. This guy really REALLY knows his stuff. Oh... and there are recipes in the back. Did I say that Anthony Capella is my hero? I really meant it.

I sure am glad that reading about food doesn't make you pack on the pounds like eating it does.