Friday, April 30, 2010

The Book Club Tweets and Tubes

The News-Herald Book Club is multiplatform. (If I weren’t so repressed, I would have ended that sentence with an exclamation point.)

We have a YouTube page and a Twitter feed and everything.

In fear of sounding like an old man, I’m relatively new to this Twitter thing and taking suggestions.

Who should I be following? What writers? What critics? What magazines and newspapers?

Thus far, I am the disciple of eight feeds.

I follow the Book Examiner Michelle Kerns (you may remember me raving about her Literary Review Cliché Bingo); Carolyn Kellogg of the LA Times book blog; Michael Schaub of Bookslut; Elizabeth Baines (also known as the Fiction Bitch); Electric Lit (who tweeted Rick Moody’s short story last year); Colson Whitehead (Fantastic quipper. “You don’t have to put on the red light, but it would help with the mood and general ambience. No pressure. Just putting it out there.”); Neil Gaiman (Yes, I am a fanboy); and Margaret Atwood.

There are probably legions of fantastic Tweeters I need to follow, but I will never know them without your help. So hit me with some suggestions — via the blog or Twitter.

Also, Nathan Bransford has finished his experiment. The most popular query also had the most popular manuscript.

Bransford doesn’t claim the query process is flawless. Instead, he argues it is the best system we have.

“And all things considered, given the time constraints I still don’t know if there’s a better replacement out there for a query + short sample, even with its imperfections. Queries really do give an agent insight into the overall work, with the sample pages providing another glimpse.”

-Jason Lea, JLea@News-Herald.com

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Thursday, April 29, 2010

Not blue about having read this memoir



Malcolm Jones' memoir "Little Boy Blues" stood out for me more for what it doesn't say than for what it does.

It's not the vivid description of a disintegrating marriage touted on the cover flap. How could it be? Jones was not privy to all the factors the led to his parents' break-up. He was a child, an observer unable to comprehend the full import of certain events going on around him.

That's actually what I enjoyed about it. It's not told in a woe-is-me fashion. He shows an amazing acceptance of his parents' shortcomings, perhaps because an absentee father and mother consumed by her idea of respectability are all he has known. Perhaps because as he writes, "Death forces you to realize that there is no more to be said, that what was said is all there is or will be."

I closed the book and thought, if only I could be more accepting of the people in my life that way they are.

- Tricia Ambrose

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Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Are some things truly "Unforgivable"?


Once again, Jason issues a challenge like hint fiction and I can think of little else.

Those little exercises are harder than you might think.

Reading, now that's the easy part.

I'm a bit behind on sharing what I've been reading - or perhaps I've just been reading more than usual. I had a three book weekend, but haven't been able to pick up anything new since the work week began. Sigh.

On to the works.

"Unforgivable" by Philippe Djian (translated from French by Euan Cameron)poses interesting questions about what exactly is unforgivable.

"Where does that feeling one sometimes gets that life is mocking you come from?" ponders Francis, the novel's central character. Francis is remarried after the accidental deaths of his first wife and one daughter and has a complicated (to say the least) relationship with his surviving daughter.

But who hasn't shared that wonder at one point or another?

Among the issues readers are asked to consider as "unforgivable" are marital infidelty and abandonment by parent or child. Can people truly move beyond such events?

"I had made the mistake of believing that certain terrains remained firm and solid, and could withstand wind and tide," Francis admits.

There were enough such observations to keep me turning the pages, nodding my head and asking myself those questions.

Generally I have an easier time connecting with a female lead character, especially in a novel focused on relationships, but Djian's Francis pens a diary that allows for that intimate connection despite the gender difference.


- Tricia Ambrose

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Does the Query Process Work?

Nathan Bransford has started an experiment to see how effective the querying process is.

Bransford writes a blog from his perspective as a literary agent for Curtis Brown Ltd. (I think it’s the second best agent-run blog for writers. QueryShark is number one. Both help writers understand why agents make the decisions they do.)

First, some background: Most authors are published via agent representation. Agents often pick which authors to represent based upon a process that begins with a query letters that the writer sends describing their manuscript. (I use words like “most” and “often” because there are exceptions.)

If the agents don’t like the query, the process ends. The author does not get an agent. The book likely goes unpublished.

On Thursday, Bransford asked his readers if they thought the query process worked. Does it weed out the right people? Does it help good writers find the right agents?

Some said “yes;” others, “no.” My feelings tend to coincide with that of L.T. Host, who commented, “I think there’s probably a better way. I just have no clue what that could be.”

Now that everyone has had a chance to give their opinion, Bransford has arranged for an experiment that will give us quantifiable information.

He will take five queries and the first 30 pages of their corresponding manuscripts and post them on his blog. Then, he will ask his readership to rank the queries along with their pages. Finally, we will see if there is a large discrepancy between the quality of the queries and the actual text.

(In case you haven’t guessed, I’m writing about this contest partly because it coincides with my comments on the query process yesterday.)

On an unrelated note, Robert Swartwood is holding a hint fiction contest. Hint fiction employs the same principle as the Hemingway Challenge. Writers use no more than 25 words to hint at a larger story. Here are some examples. The deadline is midnight April 30. Winners get some stuff.

Last year, Swartwood’s contest was judged by Stewart O’Nan. This year — James Frey. Yes, that James Frey.

-Jason Lea, JLea@News-Herald.com

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Monday, April 26, 2010

The Trouble with One Thousand White Women

I don’t write a lot of book reviews. I rarely have anything worthwhile to say beyond, “I liked (or disliked) the book.”

However, after finishing Jim Fergus’s One Thousand White Women, I would like to add my thoughts to Tricia’s.

In short, I think One Thousand White Women is an indictment against the way books are selected for publishing.

That sounded meaner than I intended. Fergus has not written a bad book, just middling. It has a great central concept and narrator but not much else.

Fergus tells the fictional story of how President Ulysses Grant traded 1,000 white women to the Cheyenne for 1,000 horses. The idea behind the trade is that Native American tribes are matrilineal, and the children of the white women would be able to integrate themselves into the white person’s world.

In other words, it’s like when royal families would arrange marriages between scions as part of a treaty.

Fergus tells the story from the perspective of May Dodd, a former Chicago socialite. Her family incarcerated her in an asylum after she coupled with someone they did not like. This “wife swap” is her best chance for freedom.

Fergus has a great hook. When Tricia told me the premise of the book, I wanted to borrow it.

Unfortunately, the hook is better then the book.

Fergus struggles to wring the most from his great hook. His strength is in plotting. He sets up what could be great story beats, but he does not maximize them. (“Maximize” is a horrible buzzword, but you know what I mean.)

There is one scene in which Dodd offers her own body to a rapist so her step-daughter will not be victimized. The scene should be powerful. There is no violation worse than rape. None. Dodd, as a former rape victim, realizes this. We need to know her thought process. We need to know why she chose to suffer this violation again to protect her step-daughter.

But we don’t get that.

We get two paragraphs describing the act. No thoughts, no description of the damage — emotional or otherwise.

It is a missed opportunity. There are others, but I don’t need to list them all for you to understand my point.

As per characters, May Dodd is a great narrator. She survives challenges by latching onto whatever slim slice of good news she can. When there is no good news, she holds onto hope.

Dodd does this without sacrificing her common sense. She isn’t naive. She’s practical and realizes complaining won’t help her.

It’s a thin line, but Fergus threads it.

That’s the good news. The bad news is Fergus does not create any worthwhile secondary characters for Dodd to interact with.

Fergus populates his story with familiar stereotypes. The disgraced southern belle is a drunken racist. The priest is a child molester. The Cheyenne chief is a stoic model of dignity. The former slave is an athletic prodigy who sings spirituals. The rascally Irish twins get into shenanigans.

They’re all predictable, as if Fergus sketched the characters through a word-association game in which he blurted the first attribute that came to mind.

And why is this an indictment of the way books are selected to be published? What does one average — not bad, just average — book have to do with the query-agent-publisher gauntlet?

Agents and publishers put a premium on a strong hook. “Convince me quickly.” “Make me want to read it in two sentences.”

That’s not to say they will publish anything with a good hook; but they’ll publish a dozen weak books with a strong premise before one strong book with a subtle hook slides through.

Fergus’s strengths coincide with what agents and publishers are trained to look for. His weaknesses are less important because one has to read the book to discover them. If you’re browsing through a bookstore or online, you won’t know it has weak secondary characters until you read a few chapters. But you can glance at the back cover and see the great hook.

I don’t want to pick on Fergus. I’m not saying One Thousand White Women should not have been published. It just benefitted from a flawed system.

And I can’t even suggest on how to improve that system. Agents and publishers are inundated with queries. They probably would love to have unlimited time to sift through the manuscripts; but the world ain’t ideal, and writers usually have one or two pages to convince the next rung on the ladder to let them climb.

So what conclusion can I come to? That Fergus wrote a bad book? No, just flawed. That the agent-publisher system is unfair? No, just flawed.

I guess I have no strong conclusion. Does that make this review worthless?

No, just flawed.

-Jason Lea
JLea@News-Herald.com



P.S. From Tricia: I sort of agree with you, Jason. I think that lack of secondary character development has more to do with the set-up of the narrative as a series of diary entries than anything else.

We see these characters only as May herself sees them, which perhaps explains some of the stereotypes. And as far as the rape scene goes, I found it believable that she wanted to record as few details of the event as possible.

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Sunday, April 25, 2010

Odds and Book Ends (April 26-May 2)

Book ends features activities and events in the area related to libraries, books and authors. Send your events to Community@News-Herald.com, and check back to The Book Club every week for upcoming events and activities at your local library.

The program "Birds of Prey" will be presented at 7 p.m. April 27 at Chardon Library on Chardon Square.
Presented by Lake Metroparks Wildlife Center, the program will feature live birds of prey including falcons, hawks and vultures.
For details, call the library at 440-285-7601.

An opening reception for the traveling exhibition of "Harry Potter's World: Renaissance Science, Magic and Medicine" will take place from 6 to 7 p.m. April 27 at Chardon Library on Chardon Square.
The exhibit was obtained through a grant presented by the National Library of Medicine and the American Library Association.
For details, call the library at 440-285-7601.

A Hospice of the Western Reserve volunteer appreciation dinner and Katie Dolesh lecture event will take place April 28 at Executive Caterers at Landerhaven, 6111 Landerhaven Drive, Mayfield Heights
The guest speaker is Dr. Robert Martensen, author "A Life Worth Living: A Doctor's Reflections on Illness in a High-Tech Era."
Doors open at 4:30 p.m. for a book signing. The dinner and program will be at 5:45 p.m.
The event is open to the community. Cost of a ticket is $24.
For more information or to register, call 216-383-3731 or 216-383-3742.

The American Association of University Women Heights-Hillcrest-Lyndhurst Branch will meet at 6:45 p.m. April 28 at the Beachwood Branch of the Cuyahoga County Library, Meeting Room A, 25501 Shaker Blvd., Beachwood.
The program topic will be Advocacy and Human Rights with Sr. Diane Theresa Pinchot from Ursuline College will speak about "Acting on Conscience: Why I Went to Prison," describing her 2009 imprisonment for civil disobedience and her thoughts about ways in which peace and civil disobedience can coexist.
The event is free and open to the public. For details call 216-556-4968 or e-mail aauhh@adelphia.net

The Open Book Family Learning Center of Morley Library will host a Murder Mystery Dinner Theatre at 6 p.m. April 30 at the Lake Metroparks Dance Hall, 1025 Hardy Road, Painesville. Random Acts will perform Law and Murder!
Proceeds will benefit the Open Book Family Learning Center, which assists parents and their children in achieving academic success.
Tickets are $35 per person or $250 per table of 8. For ticket information call 440-352-3383, ext. 402. Tickets can be purchased at Morley Library, 184 Phelps Street, Painesville.

Perry Public Library hopes to be able to show parents and caregivers what resources are available to them, at both the library and in the community, to help their children be better prepared for starting school, and to be more successful once they begin school.
There will be an Early Learning Open House from 12:30 to 2 p.m. May 1.
Parents will have the opportunity to meet representatives from local preschools and childcare centers and get a sneak preview of the library’s new "Little Readers" summer rewards program.
There is no registration for this event.
Also May 1, the library will be having a Ready to Read class for parents and caregivers of 2- to 4-year-olds. The class will be from 1 to 2 p.m.
Attendees will learn how to play early reading games with their children at home.
Register by phone at 440-259-3300 or online at www.perrypubliclibrary.org.
This program is for adults only.

Exploring Family History -- an Introductory Workshop will take place from noon to 3 p.m. May 1 at the Western Reserve Historical Society Library/Archives and Genealogy Center, 10825 East Blvd., Cleveland.
The workshop is for people new to tracing their roots. Time will be available for directed research. Admission is $15. For reservations call the WRHS Library Reference Desk at 216-721-5722 or send an e-mail to reference@wrhs.org.


-- Cheryl Sadler
CSadler@News-Herald.com

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Friday, April 23, 2010

In praise of the phrase

Since The Book Club began, a few things have changed about my reading habits.

I now feel less guilt letting the household chores slide to read a book, because, after all, I have to, it's for the blog.

And I now find myself noticing the clever turns of phrase authors use. And, of course, wishing I were as clever.

That was certainly the case with "Gone Tomorrow" by P.F. Kluge.

My usual reading speed was slowed so I could attach Post-Its to the pages that held the passages I admired.

"Gone Tomorrow" tells the story of George Canaris, a small-town Ohio college professor killed in a hit-and-run accident. The author of acclaimed works early in his career, now he was being forced out of his position at the college. The professor named his literary executor sets out to find the Canaris' unpublished works.

Perhaps that description doesn't do it justice, because the novel really is a page-turner.

Some of what gave me pause:

In a description of parents leaving their children at the college for the first time: "They pulled out of their parking lot, their left or right turn signal waving goodbye and I saw their kids walk away thoughtfully, fighting a tear perhaps."

In a description of his collection of books: "They survive one move after another, they sit on shelves for decades, reminding us not so much of how much we have read as how much we have forgotten, an uneven contest between reading and memory which might well end with someone surrounded by all the world's books yet incapable of summoning up his own name."

And this, in a description of the weather: "And when I walked over to invite her to join me, I saw what she hadn't noticed yet: that our monotonous, month-old gray sky was shedding snow."

Can't you just picture that Ohio winter sky??

- Tricia Ambrose

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Less than Everybody Loves Apple

I guess my Everybody Loves Apple tag was too hasty.

Princeton University has blocked some iPads, because it causes DHCP client malfunctions. Personally, I have no idea what that means; but TechNewsDaily says that the tablet creates interference with the way other devices connect to the university’s wireless network.

(The headline to the story is “Universities Ban iPads,” but the only ban mentioned is the one in Princeton. Consequently, I am unsure if other universities are taking similar measures.)

Princeton isn’t alone in its iPad woes. The country of Israel has banned the device but for different reasons.

The U.S. allows things to broadcast at higher power levels than Europe or Israel. The iPad’s stronger signal interferes with other devices’ wireless connections, so Israel has banned their use.

European countries, while similarly afflicted, have not tried to ban the iPad.

So, if you’re going to Jerusalem, bring a Kindle. Or a Nook. Or a book.

And now for something completely different — McSweeney’s (via Salon) presents Seven Unproduced Screenplays by Famous Intellectuals. (I mourn the loss of the Aldous Huxley-Walt Disney Alice in Wonderland.)

Continuing the “seven” and “lost to all time” themes, Cracked presents Seven Books We Lost to History That Would Have Changed the World.

The Cracked article may be unsafe for work depending upon your work’s standards. There is partial nudity and lots of unnecessary profanity.

-Jason Lea, JLea@News-Herald.com

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Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Culture shock

It's been a while since I mentioned any of the works I've been introduced to through Morley Library's e-mail non-fiction book club.

This week's is so fascinating, I just had to.

"Lucky Girl" by Mei-Ling Hopgood is the story of this Midwestern girl adopted from Taiwan. She has struggled with her ethnicity and is now a young professional comfortable in her own skin.

Her birth family reenters her life.

"My birth parents were shadows, known to me only in the folds of my eyelids, the curve of my chin, or the shiny dark of my hair," she writes.

The first few excerpts in the "club" have mostly focused on her hesitation over meeting this other family and the culture shock that is sure to follow. They've offered hints at the upcoming insights into that culture.

I have to get this book from the library.

I've long been fascinated by the glimpses into Asian cultures provided by novels.

Works like "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan" by Lisa See with its haunting description of foot binding:

"Walking, my whole body trembled. By nightfall the eight toes that needed to break had broken, but I was still made to walk. I felt my broken toes under the weight of every step I took, for they were loose in my shoes. The freshly created space where once there had been a joint was now a gelatinous infinity of torture."

Or from "Memoirs of a Geisha" by Arthur Golden, this description of an obi:

"An obi like the one Hatsumomo wore is twice as long as a man is tall, and nearly as wide as a woman's shoulders. Wrapped around the waist, it covers the area from the breastbone all the way to below the navel. Most people who know nothing of kimono seem to think the obi is simply tied in the back as if it were a string; but nothing could be further from the truth. A half dozen cords and clasps are needed to keep it in place, and a certain amount of padding must be used as well to shape the knot."

And now what awaits in "Lucky Girl"?

- Tricia Ambrose

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

'Crazy' Women and Bad Penguins

Vivienne Parry rediagnoses the “mad” women of literature on BBC News.

She suggests the Woman in White may have had a learning disorder and Madame Bovary wasn’t crazy, just a fantasist who would have fit in on reality television.

Parry talks about how “insane” women in the Victorian Era were often institutionalized for female sexuality.

Coincidentally, I’ve borrowed two books from Tricia in the last year. Both of which told the stories of women unfairly put in asylums because of their sexuality. (Interpret that how you want — not just that Tricia keeps reading books about the subject, but also that I keep borrowing them.)

On to the next one, Penguin Group Australia gave a backhanded apology for printing a cookbook with a recipe that called for “salt and freshly ground black people.” In case you were wondering, they meant “pepper.”

Bob Sessions, its head of publishing, said, “In one particular recipe [a] misprint occurs which obviously came from a spell checker. When it comes to the proofreader, of course they should have picked it up, but proofreading a cookbook is an extremely difficult task. I find that quite forgivable.

“We’ve said to bookstores that if anyone is small minded enough to complain about this very ... silly mistake then we will happily replace [the book] for them.”

Let me get this straight. Penguin published a book with an unintentionally (I hope) racist typo, quickly forgave its proofreaders, and called anyone unhappy with your faulty product “small minded.”

This would be like if I rear ended Mr. Sessions’s car, forgave myself for texting while driving and called him a “jerkface” when he asked for my insurance info.

Finally, I love Everyday Shakespeare. Where else can I get sonnet battles about poorly parked cars?

-Jason Lea, JLea@News-Herald.com

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Monday, April 19, 2010

Author v. Author

I gave Nicholas Sparks a hard time for criticizing Cormac McMarthy, but author-vs.-author smackdowns are nothing new.

Michelle Kerns, The Book Examiner, was kind enough to compile 50 of the best authorial insults. Here are some of my favorites.

Ernest Hemingway, according to Vladimir Navokov:
As to Hemingway, I read him for the first time in the early ‘forties, something about bells, balls and bulls, and loathed it.

Bells, Balls and Bulls would be an excellent name for an unauthorized Hemingway biography (or, at least, a Hemingway blog.)

William Faulkner, according to Ernest Hemingway:
Have you ever heard of anyone who drank while he worked? You’re thinking of Faulkner. He does sometimes — and I can tell right in the middle of a page when he’s had his first one.

Yeah, Hemingway’s one to talk. He wrote with a pencil in one hand and a drink in the other. In fact, new game — read a Hemingway story and try to guess when he passed out on the page.

Voltaire, according to Charles Baudelaire:
I grow bored in France — and the main reason is that everybody here resembles Voltaire...the king of nincompoops, the prince of the superficial, the anti-artist, the spokesman of janitresses, the Father Gigone of the editors of Siecle.

Baudelaire took the Joakim Noah route and didn’t just diss the man. He dissed the locale. (Personally, I thought Voltaire was clever when I read him in college. Now, I realize how worthless cleverness is.)

John Updike, according to Gore Vidal:
I can’t stand him. Nobody will think to ask because I’m supposedly jealous; but I out-sell him. I’m more popular than he is, and I don’t take him very seriously...oh, he comes on like the worker’s son, like a modern-day D.H. Lawrence, but he’s just another boring little middle-class boy hustling his way to the top if he can do it.

See, Gore, this is why nobody likes you.

Bret Harte, according to Mark Twain:
Harte is a liar, a thief, a swindler, a snob, a sot, a sponge, a coward, a Jeremy Diddler, he is brim full of treachery, and he conceals his Jewish birth as carefully as if he considered it a disgrace. How do I know? By the best of all evidence, personal observation.

I am disappointed that Bret Hart never tried to avenge his namesake. Hart v. Twain — the sharpshooter v. the sharp wit — I’d drop $30 on a pay-per-view to watch.

As a final stray link, enjoy some passive-aggressive library signs.

-Jason Lea, JLea@News-Herald.com

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This week at local libraries (April 19-25)

Events set for this week at local libraries:

The Chardon Friends of the Library will host its annual Maple Festival Book Sale in the Chardon Library’s Bostwick Room.
There will be a Friends Members only preview from 10 to 11 a.m. April 22. It is possible to join the Friends or renew membership at the door. General book sale hours will be from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. April 23 and 24, and 1 to 5 p.m. April 25. Sunday is bag day, with $3 per bag of books.
Cost of most hardback books is 50 cents; paperbacks, 25 cents.
For details, call the library at 440-285-7601.

The Friends of the Ralph M. Besse Library Group of Ursuline College are hosting a spring book and stamp sale April 23 through 25 with a preview night from 4 to 7 p.m. April 22. The price of admission to the preview event is $25 per person. Bargain bag day, on April 25, will offer shoppers discounts on a wide variety of items. There will also be postcards and stamps, including first-day covers, plate blocks, used and unused stamps, unique stamps, albums and catalogs.
"The book sale not only supports the library, but it also puts great books into the hands of the local community," said Betsey Belkin, director of the library.
For more information call 440-646-8184.

Friends of the Euclid Public Library April Book Sale will be 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. April 23. Non-members may join the Friends of the Library that evening.
The Public Book Sale will be 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. April 24 and 1 to 4 p.m. April 25. Sunday only will be fill-a-bag with books for $2.
Euclid Public Library is at 631 East 222nd St., Euclid. For details call 216-261-5300.

Send your library events to Community@News-Herald.com, and check back to The Book Club every week for upcoming events and activities at your local library.

-- Cheryl Sadler
CSadler@News-Herald.com

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Friday, April 16, 2010

Essay from the past

I confess: I am a hoarder.

It's not to the point where you can't move around most rooms in my house or anything. But I watch those TV programs and I hear the people talk about how they can't throw out a broken lamp because their grandmother gave it to them or that it would be wasteful to toss items they no longer use, and I understand.

I like stuff. Old, broken stuff. Stuff I'll never use. Stuff I used to use. You get the drift.

But, my husband is not a hoarder.

So it was that we were clearing out our attic.

In a long-forgotten trunk I found essays I had written in high school. (I know, sad, but true.)

One of those musty papers, dated Oct. 3, 1983, was titled, "What is a good book?"

Here it is, in all its over-written glory!

Upon turning that final page of a book and snapping it shut, the reader will either breathe a sigh of satisfaction and smile or emit a groan of disgust and grimace. What makes a book leave its reader fulfilled in some small way? Disregarding personal tastes, because not everyone will like even a book considered to be a masterpiece, nearly all agree that a good book should have a universal theme, an interesting plot and believable characters.

A universal theme should speak to all, no matter the time or place. "Jane Eyre" by Charlotte Bronte is a book with one such theme. The story of the life of a young girl on the moors of England speaks the same message of the effects on childhood on later life to a 60-year-old woman living in the United States in 1983 as it would have to a 20-year-old man living in Italy in 1920.

Another timeless theme is embodied in Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter." The danger of beholding and criticizing sin in others but not in one's self is as great now as it was in Puritan New England. The author of a good book locates man in his universe and illustrates a basic belief common to all.

The ability to create a believable world is rare, but it is an essential part of a good book. The theme will never be passed on to the reader if there is nothing in the plot to hold his interest until the end of the book. Author Daphne DuMaurier has mastered the art of suspense as is evidenced in her novel "Rebecca." No one having read more than the first chapter would have the strength of mind to discontinue reading and not find out what will befall Mr. and Mrs. DeWinter, the novel's star-crossed lovers. Suspense is not the only element of plot that will grasp a reader's interest. The storyline of "The Bridge of San Luis Rey" by Thornton Wilder contains virtually no suspense since the outcome is known at the beginning. What holds the reader's attention is a kind of reverse suspense. One wants to discover the events which led to the result, instead of vice versa.

A possible definition for a good book is one in which the reader becomes totally and completely absorbed in empathy for the characters. This must be the most difficult thing for an author to accomplish - to create characters which seem to live and breathe, characters which think and speak as complexly as people, and characters which retain the ability to surprise and astound. Charles Dickens was a master of characterization. "A Tale of Two Cities" contains a vast gallery of characters, all distinct and complex entities. From the split personality of Doctor Manette to the avenging wickedness of Madame Defarge to the selfless love of Sydney Carton, Dickens' characters spring to life on the pages of his book. Margaret Mitchell's characters also seem to have a life of their own. The selfish and impetuous Scarlett O'Hara and the adoring, masculine Rhett Butler have been made immortal in the novel, "Gone with the Wind."

What is a good book, then? It is one which has credible characters, an interesting plot, and a universal theme, as has been aforementioned. But there is something more. There is that essential artistic quality which enables an author to depict the characters, themes, and plots that are products of his imagination in such a manner that they exist as real people, ideas, and situations for the reader. It is this undefinable characteristic which earmarks a truly good book and evokes the sigh of satisfaction at its completion.

- Tricia Ambrose

Post Script from Jason: One final treat for the weekend. The News-Herald Book Club explains how it can make your reading experience more enjoyable in video.

video.

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Wednesday, April 14, 2010

I'm not saying the bookstore is dead but...

Bookstores received bad news regarding their February sales. Apparently, they have been exempt from the retail sector’s slow recovery.

I feel for bookstores. Publishers have wrung their hands over Amazon and e-books, but they only need to acclimate. Bookstores’ livelihoods are threatened by these new outlets and technologies.

Even if paper books ceased to exist, someone would still need to create content. (As a writer for a newspaper, this is the one thought that calms me.) But bookstores have become increasingly marginalized.

Sites like Amazon make brick-and-mortar sites unnecessary. You don’t need a physical store to download an e-book, and traditional books can usually be found cheaper on the Internet.

This makes me sad because I like bookstores. I like browsing the shelves and asking people who work there for suggestions. I like to sample books by reading a few pages.

Yes, I suppose you can do all of that online, except the Web site dictates what and how many pages I can sample before I buy. Amazon certainly isn’t devoid of opinions or suggestions. (Some of them are even helpful.)

I survived when my favorite music store closed, though I listen to fewer new artists as a result. I survived when the local video rental store closed. I will survive if my local bouquiniste closes, but I’ll be poorer for it.

One bright note for bookstores — the Guardian has suggested there may be hope in finding a niche. Sure, the linked story is about British political bookstores and may not apply stateside; but if chains are struggling, the answer may be to go small.

A few unrelated notes before I leave you. GalleyCat wants your help writing the world’s longest literary remix.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t at least link to the Pulitzer winners.

-Jason Lea

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Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Mentor, Mentor-on-the-Lake officials celebrate National Library Week

Staff Writer Larece Galer headed over to Mentor Public Library to catch some officials celebrating National Library Week.

Celebrity reader Police Chief Joe Doran of Mentor-on-the-Lake chose "The Police Cloud" by Christoph Niemann to children at Mentor Public Library in honor of National Library Week. The readings were followed with cookies and lemonade for everyone.


Mentor Fire Chief Richard Harvey and Smokey the Bear read "Firefighter Ted" by Andrea Beaty and Pascal Lemaitre.


How are you celebrating National Library Week?

--Cheryl Sadler
CSadler@News-Herald.com

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Victor Hugo Wrote Naked and You Can Too

Lapham’s Quarterly has a diagram of what rooms famous artists (writers, composers and painters) used to create their work.

My favorite — Victor Hugo apparently would write naked in his bedroom, telling his valet not to bring his clothes until he was finished writing. (That valet is an unsung hero and suffered for all of us.)

John Cheever would don a coat and tie, descend to his basement, strip to his underwear and, then, write. (I imagine Ric Flair has a similar routine.)

People make a big deal out of the fact that Virginia Woolf wrote while standing. Well, Ernest Hemingway would stand with a pencil in one hand and a drink in the other.

Demosthenes would shave half of his head while working on his orations. That way, he would not be tempted to leave his home until it was finished.

Most of the writers seem to go out of their way to create an atmosphere of discomfort while working, which would support Matt Shoard’s theory that complacency makes for lousy literature.

I think modern writers have an enemy even more nefarious than complacency, the Internet. The Web offers a multitude of distractions to tempt the weak-willed. Let’s say you’re working on the Great American Novel and need a synonym for “smelly.” Go online. Find the word “fetid.” While online, check your Facebook page and maybe a forum you frequent. Update your Twitter. Check the price of a Scottie Pippen throwback jersey. Watch an episode of Bones on Hulu.

And now you’ve wasted an hour of your life. In that hour, Hemingway could have finished six pages and a fifth of vodka.

On an unrelated note — love books? Want to write for The Rumpus? Want to write for The Rumpus about the last book you loved? Follow the link.

-Jason Lea, JLea@News-Herald.com

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Monday, April 12, 2010

More on National Library Week

State Rep. Lorraine Fende, D-Willowick, visited Mentor Public Library on Monday to read to youngsters. Watch the video (by Staff Writer Jean Bonchak) to read along.




Looking for something to do during National Library Week? The Geauga County Public Library System has scheduled several events.

Individuals are invited to travel around the county to explore a Geauga County Library. A Geauga County Public library card is valid at the Bainbridge Library, Chardon Library, Geauga West Library (Chester Township), Middlefield Library, Newbury Public Library Station, Thompson Public Library Station and the Bookmobile.

Visit any Geauga County Public Library during the week to participate in a wide variety of events or to experience the several resources that libraries provide.

Here's a listing of events:

Middlefield Library, 7 to 8 p.m. April 13 — Clara Barton portrayal, sponsored by the East Geauga Friends of the Library; call 440-632-1961 to register.

All Libraries, April 13 — celebrate National Library Workers Day by stopping in to say hello to library staffers in any Geauga County Public Library.

Bookmobile, April 14 — Celebrate the first National Bookmobile Day. The Geauga County Public Library bookmobile visits day care centers, senior centers, assisted living facilities, Amish farms and more circulating a record number of items every year as Ohio's busiest library on wheels.

Chardon Library, 7 p.m. April 15 — pajama party storytime for preschool children; call 440-285-7601 to register.

Bainbridge Library, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. April 17 — Passport Fair and travel ideas coordinated by the Friends of the Bainbridge Library; call 440-543-5611 for more information.

Geauga West Library, 2 p.m. April 18 — Picturing America Series family art program: "Dabbles, Doodles, and Drawing"; call 440-729-4250 to register.

Further upcoming events include:

Bainbridge Library, 7 p.m. April 22 — Patrick Henry portrayal, presented by the Friends of the Bainbridge Library; call 440-543-5611 for more information.

Geauga West Library, 7 p.m. April 28 — Picturing America speaker Jesse Bryant Wilder, co-author of "Art History for Dummies"; call 440-729-4250 for details.

Chardon Library, April 27 through May 15 — Harry Potter's world events; call 440-285-7601 for more information.


-- Cheryl Sadler
CSadler@News-Herald.com

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Happy National Library Week

I got a chance to sit down with Wickliffe Public Library Director Nancy Fisher today and get her thoughts on why libraries are so wonderful and what challenges face them video

-- Tricia Ambrose
TAmbrose@News-Herald.com

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Friday, April 9, 2010

Just how bad would your life have to be ...?


I'm not sure if this title would be classified as good or bad according to Darragh McManus. I'll mark it down as intriguing - and isn't that at least one function of a title?

"One Thousand White Women: The Journals of May Dodd" delivered on that promise.

The premise of Jim Fergus' novel is that a deal has been struck between President Ulysses Grant and Cheyenne Chief Little Wolf. One thousand white women for one thousand horses. The goal of the program: to help the Cheyenne become part of the white man's world via the children who would result from the exchange.

May Dodd volunteers to be one of those women.

You think your life is bad?? Imagine what your life would have to be like that you would rather be traded into a culture that was foreign to you than stay where you are?

The situation she finds herself in isn't quite as romantic as perhaps she'd hoped.

Fergus has created largely believable, if a bit too one-dimensional female characters and his story construct is a good one.

National Library Week is next week.

Please take some time to check out what's going on at your local library. We are fortunate in Northeast Ohio to be surrounded by a bevy of wonderful libraries.

Here's just a few of the things on tap next week at some of them:

Sights and Sound of Euclid Beach Park at 7 p.m. Tuesday, April 13 at Wickliffe.
Join Jim Seaman for an evening of history and reminiscing about Euclid Beach Park featuring a slide show and props. Registration at 440-944-6010 is required.

"Little Bee" by Chris Cleave will be the topic of discussion at 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 14 at Euclid.

At Mentor, celebrity readers will entertain children with stories every day next week. Get the full schedule here.

Painesville's Morley will be the site of a 2 p.m. Tuesday, April 13 discussion of "Loving Frank" by Nancy Horan. ( A book I enjoyed.)

Happy reading!

- Tricia Ambrose

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Thursday, April 8, 2010

Reviewing the Reviewers

Michelle Kerns is my favorite literary columnist right now. (I can be fickle. Susan Schorn was my favorite earlier today.)

Kerns already called out bad book reviewers by creating a bingo board from their clichés. Now, she’s taking the next logical step.

She plans to monitor 20 outlets that review books throughout the year and tabulate how many clichés they use. She will also record their cliché density by graphing how many they use per 100 words.

Then, she’s going to release her results at the beginning of each month; so we, the readers, can see which publications are doing their job and which are cobbling together clichés into a facsimile of an actual review.

In her words:

Clichés are leeches. They drain the blood out of everything a reviewer is trying to say ... Burn those leeches off, baby, and you’ll find you’re left with something worth saying. Or, perhaps, you’ll find you have nothing to say whatsoever. Sometimes, it’s a toss-up as to which scenario is more terrifying.

The best part is Kerns is not afraid to name names, both good and bad. She calls out a Publishers Weekly review that forces 10 clichés into 218 words and a New York Times critic who needs to stop “limning.” (Full disclosure: I have used the word “limn” in a book review. I was young. I didn’t know any better.)

Kerns also compliments reviewers who avoid clichés. She especially praises NYT critics Janet Maslin and Dwight Garner. About Garner, she says, “His reviews are so good — and so cliché-free — I’m not entirely certain that he is mortal. Hey, Mr. Zeus, come on down and give me a visit.”

(I saw Clash of the Titans Tuesday. Everyone who invokes Zeus in that movie either gets god-raped or smited. Kerns may want to rethink her request.)

I will be following (and updating you) on Kerns’s progress. If this gets enough attention from readers and critics, Kerns could change the way people approach literary critiques.

(My only knock on Kerns is she makes an unnecessary reference to the Ides of March in her lede. Isn’t that the same sort of lazy writing she is fighting against?)

Speaking of bad book reviews, amateur critics complain about literary classics on Amazon!

My favorite is an anonymous poster’s take on Jane Eyre:

Endless, pointless description. DESCRIPTION, DESCRIPTION, DESCRIPTION!!!

To be fair, that’s not too different from my take on Moby Dick.

-Jason Lea, JLea@News-Herald.com

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Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Taxonomy of Lousy Book Titles


Darragh McManus complained about bad book titles. Eric Puchner of The Rumpus went the extra mile and actually classified the different types of bad titles.

He divides them into:

The Faux Poetic but Authentically Meaningless (“Hunt the Mist Slowly”);
The Purely Descriptive (“One Early Morning in Topeka at Dawn”)
The Lofty Abstraction, a.k.a. the Bad Kundera (“The Lonely Shackles of Mortality”)
The Hardy Boys Special (“The Hike from Hell”)
The Grammatically Complete Sentence (“Gladys Pemberton Strikes It Rich”)
The Inspirational Cliché (“Dreams of Rebirth”)
The Uninspirational Cliché (“Losing My Marbles”)
The Alliterative Tongue Twister (“Peripatetic Papa”)
The Allusion to Another, Much More Famous Work of Literature (“The Story of Christ”)
The It-Doesn’t-Get-Any-Cuter-Than-This (“Runaway Grandma”)
The Melodramatic Image (“Blood Dries Brown”)
The My-Life-Changed-Unexpectedly-and-I’m-Going-to-Tell-You-About-It (“Epiphany in a Tattoo Parlor”)
The Bad McSweeney (“How We Lie to the Moon, and How the Moon Lies to Us”)
The Scratch ‘n Sniff, a.k.a. But-It-Will-Make-Such-a-Lovely-Cover-Someday (“In the Valley of the Gardenia Blossoms”)

I have a soft spot from the Grammatically Complete Sentence. (Examples: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, And to Think I Saw It All on Mulberry Street, All’s Well that Ends Well and Something Wicked This Way Comes — though Something Wicked could also be filed under The Allusion to Another, Much More Famous Work of Literature, in this case, Macbeth.) Otherwise, I agree with Puchner’s taxonomy.

Also, I think we should start calling David Sedaris The Bad McSweeney.

Onto a new subject — want to buy your wife a Hester Prynne jersey shirt? Or, for the man in your life, a Huck Finn? There’s also a Moby Dick shirt available, but it could easily be misunderstood.

I’ve received a few links for literary T-shirts recently. Out of Print Clothing has the best looking but I prefer Literary Rags. (Check out Out of Print’s Lolita shirt. If Prynne doesn’t send the wrong message to your lady friend, Lolita probably will.) Literary Rags keep it simple — a black-and-white image of the author and one of his or her more recognizable quotes.

Like most trendy T-shirts, these are pricey; but it costs to dress smart.

-Jason Lea, JLea@News-Herald.com

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More good reads from Flock


The Tremendous Power of Book Love IS a great blog title, Jason. Perhaps that could be the subtitle of my autobiography??

My quest to read all the works of Elizabeth Flock continued on my weekend car ride with "Everything Must Go."

It's the story of Henry Powell, a high school football hero whose promising future fizzles. He finds himself stuck as a clerk in a small-town departments store still dreaming of his future still crushed by guilt and family demands.

Flock's Henry is to be pitied.

Over and over as the novel leaps back and forth in time from his high school days to his middle age to his childhood and in between, he chooses to stay stuck.

Do we do the same?

Do we have internal conversations about what we are going to do and how we are going to change our lives, only to keep sabotaging those moves?

Do we get stuck in a time warp, not realizing how quickly life is passing us by?

Henry sure does.

After a failed relationship, he obsesses over what went wrong. After months he works up the nerve to call her, and she cuts it short. Then there's a chance meeting at the department store.

""You never called me back that time I called you. You said you were just going out for about an hour to run and do something and I waited and you never called me back."
Her mouth drops open.
...
"Oh, my God, Henry. That was almost six years ago, she says.
She pulls her purse in closer to her body. "Oh my God.""

Those six wasted years are par for the course in Henry's life.

As in her other works, Flock has created characters that are easy to connect with.

And I can't wait for more.

- Tricia Ambrose

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Monday, April 5, 2010

IPads and the Tremendous Power of Book Love

Apple sold 300,000 iPads in 15 hours.

If the Pope were selling absolutions at half the cost of the e-reader (between $500 and $700, depending on how much memory you want), it might cause less of a sensation.

Those numbers are huge, bigger than expected. To give a bit of context, experts estimate that Amazon sold about 700,000 Kindles in the last two years. (We can only estimate because Amazon will not release how many it sold.) The iPad will probably match that by the end of the year.

The Kindle isn’t doomed, per se. The iPad still has some kinks (no Flash.) But it’s safe to Amazon’s hegemony has ended.

I am not one of the 300,000 people who bought an iPad Saturday, so a linked review will have to suffice.

In related news, Anna Quindlen is optimistic about reading’s backlit future. She also makes a call for the snobbing to cease amongst techies and literati.

There is and has always been more than a whiff of snobbery about lamentations that reading is doomed to extinction. That’s because they’re really judgments on human nature. If you’ve convinced yourself that America is a deeply anti-intellectual country, it must follow that we don’t read, or we read the wrong things, or we read them in the wrong fashion. And now we have gleeful e-elitism as well, the notion that the conventional product, printed and bound, is a hopeless dinosaur. Tech snobbery is every bit as silly as the literary variety. Both ignore the tremendous power of book love.

If I could, I would rename this blog The Tremendous Power of Book Love.

Moving on — Channel 4 will be tweeting Romeo and Juliet. It’s been done. Tweeting a classic is no longer the revolution it was 10 months ago.

Finally, I offer a pair of disappointing examples of censorship. Both books — The Shepherd’s Granddaughter by Anne Laurel Carter and Number the Stars by Lois Lowry — talk about the persecution of a minority. In Carter’s book, it is Palestinians; in Lowry’s, it is Jews.

The antagonistic history of the Palestinians and Jews aside, both populations have suffered. They both have been the victims of stereotypes and prejudice.

Censoring does not stop prejudice. You know what does? The Tremendous Power of Book Love.

The best way to combat bigotry is to learn about the other people. The best way to learn about them is to hear their stories. Denying children access to these stories solves nothing.

-Jason Lea, JLea@News-Herald.com

P.S. Mentor’s Reader has returned from her hiatus. What could bring her back? One hint: Zombies...

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Novel more than just a good story


I love a long car ride.

I love it when I'm driving. My husband and kids put in their ear buds and we pass the miles in silence. Aaah.

And I love it when he's driving because then I can immerse myself in a book without feeling guilty over all the undone household chores.

So while I was a bit perturbed that our drive to visit my parents over the Easter weekend took place on the two beautiful sunny days and our day of visiting was cold and rainy, the sunshine did allow me to catch up on some reading.

I have to start with "Matterhorn," by Karl Marlantes.

I was blown away by this novel of the Vietnam War.

I confess it's not a topic generally in my wheelhouse when selecting a book. I picked it up because I thought I understood my mom to say it was being touted as required reading for those studying this war. (As it turns out, that's actually "The Things They Carried" by Tim O'Brien.)

But I am so glad I was confused.

Marlantes is a decorated Marine veteran of Vietnam and spent 30 years crafting this novel.

It's long (566 pages), but it really does fly by when you're engrossed in the plight of these Marines.

Marlantes drops the reader in to the bush much as a Marine must have been. There's minimal scene-setting and character background. But as the Marines of "Matterhorn" say, There it is.

His pacing keeps you on edge, echoing the constant stress the characters are under.

"Matterhorn" mixes the unspeakable horror of war with the unbreakable bonds it forges among those at its core.

As Marlantes writes of his main character Mellas:

"He ran as he'd never run before, with neither hope nor despair. He ran because the world was divided into opposites and his side had already been chosen for him, his only choice being whether or not to play his part with heart and courage. He ran because fate had placed him in a position of responsibility and he had accepted the burden. He ran because his self-respect required it. He ran because he loved his friends and this wast he only thing he could do to end the madness that was killing and maiming them. He ran directly at the bunker where the grenades from Jake's M-79 were exploding."

It is unimaginable that this is written of a boy barely out of his teens.

It is unimaginable that there is a thirst so great that you will lick the dew off a rifle.

It is unimaginable that a man can push on after having witnessed such atrocities.

But, There it is.

This novel left its mark. And now I really have to read O'Brien's work.

- Tricia Ambrose

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Friday, April 2, 2010

Margaret Atwood and Pagan Fertility Rituals

My family didn’t celebrate Easter because my mom said it had its origins in a pagan fertility ritual. (Why do you think people dye eggs?)

Ishtar may have flopped in the Lea household, but it’s still going to be a Good Friday. Inhale the melange.

Craig Teicher addresses the relevancy of poetry from the perspective of critic.

But in almost any conversation on the topic of poetry reviews, one question comes up: what’s the point? This question isn’t always asked with the flippant air that actually means “who cares?” Often, people really want to know: what is accomplished by poetry reviews? Do they help sell books? Do they keep the art form in line? Do they spur writers into creating better poetry or kick bad writers out of the halls of Parnassus? Do poetry reviews help readers?

There is talk of keeping poetry “vital” and “alive,” but the article does not eulogize the art form or devolve into cliché.

In what can only be considered the greatest news of all time, Margaret Atwood is on Twitter. Even better, she’s blogging about being on Twitter.

She says having a Twitter feed is like having “33,000 precocious grandchildren.”

They really shone when, during the Olympics, I said that “Own the podium” was too brash to be Canadian, and suggested “A podium might be nice.” Their own variations poured onto a feed tagged #cpodium: “A podium! For me?” “Rent the podium, see if we like it.” “Mind if I squeeze by you to get onto that podium?”

My first thought reading her blog was, “Margaret Atwood would be the coolest grandma ever.” But I didn’t want to say that in fear it would be perceived as sexist or ageist. Then, Atwood called us precocious grandchildren and removed any possible awkwardness... just like a cool grandma.

(Atwood tweets. Alice Walker blogs. It is a wonderful time to love the typed word.)

Jan Freeman talks about banned words in newswriting and the repetition inherent in the business.

The call for “fresh language” is another cliché that demands a closer look. Sometimes repetition and formulaic language serve a speaker’s purpose better than novelty; sometimes the story really is the same — only the names have changed — and too much striving for originality may annoy and distract.

Finally, because it can’t be all good news, I offer two more reasons one might hate Amazon.

-Jason Lea, JLea@News-Herald.com

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Required reading before graduation

I couldn't let the week pass without giving my 2 cents on books everyone should read before graduation high school, after Tricia and Jason.

I'll admit that I haven't read all of the books on the original list, nor Tricia's or Jason's. I'll agree with "Catcher in the Rye" (which I just read for the first time this year), but I'm not sure if I think the others they named should be required.

I'll add to my list F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby," which spurred in-depth conversations in my 11th-grade honors English class about symbolism and good writing. Since then, "Gatsby" has been one of my all-time favorite books.

I might also add to the list "Fahrenheit 451" by Ray Bradbury, which I just read for the first time this week. My ninth-grade honors English class opted to read Bram Stoker's "Dracula" instead. The "Dracula" reading has come in handy for all the vampire knowledge I obtained (totally helpful when watching "Buffy the Vampire Slayer to know how vampires can be killed), but I missed out on Bradbury's classic that hammers home the importance of reading, learning and not censoring. I wish I would have read this book in high school.

I don't like that this list I made includes no female writers. Tricia's pick of "My Sister's Keeper" is a good one, in my opinion, because Jodi Picoult is a fantastic writer (seriously, Jason), and "My Sister's Keeper" may be my favorite book of hers. I also don't have any modern literature on this list. It's tough to keep it just to three books.

While I was trying to decide what books I would want to include on my list, all I could think about is how important it is for people to read -- no matter what they read. Literacy is a big key to success. We saw this in theaters with "Precious: Based on the novel 'Push' by Sapphire," when Precious and her classmates were encouraged to write whatever they wanted to write every day, and to read their journals to their classmates. Their teacher helped them improve their literacy skills, just from encouraging them to exercise them.

On a more personal note, a former roommate of mine did the same sort of exercise to help middle-schoolers during her student teaching in college. When she got to the school, several of the students were failing reading class. She told each student who was failing that they needed to come in either before school, during lunch or after school and read. She came in early, stayed late and ate lunch in the classroom to ensure that the kids would read. When they raised their grades, they did not have to come in any more; but many of them continued to do so. By the end of the school year, no one was failing -- all because their teacher asked them to sit and read.


-- Cheryl Sadler
CSadler@News-Herald.com

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