Bookish Links

1. Who Reads Poetry

A collection of essays from readers of varied backgrounds about why they read poetry.

2. Kazuo Ishiguro Wins Nobel Prize in Literature

Kazuo Ishiguro won the Nobel Prize for Literature this week. His only book that I’ve read is The Buried Giant (which I loved), but I see several more in my near future.

3. 13 Diverse, Spooky Reads for Kids

A great list of Halloween reads for kids. I particularly enjoyed The Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste.

4. Women Writers of the African Diaspora

I have a particular interest in African writers, and in women writers. Here’s a list where the two overlap.

5. 10 Memoirs by Women in the Culinary World

Culinary memoirs from women around the world — India, China, and the USSR all feature in books on this list.

 

Picture Books about the Middle Ages: Monks and Monasteries

In the last 15 years or so, there’s been a change in the world of picture books. The picture books that explore history and the lives of famous people have gotten so much better. You can see it in the Caldecott lists, with titles starting to appear such as Henry’s Freedom BoxA River of WordsDave the PotterMe…JaneThe Noisy Paintbox, or Freedom in Congo Square — all books that tell compelling stories while at the same time exploring a particular historical person or event. As both a history buff and a lover of picture books, seeing more of this kind of picture books makes me very happy.

There’s something magical about exploring history through picture books.  Instead of a list of kings and battles and dates, you get a compelling narrative or personal story, complete with illustrations that give the kind of visual cues for the historical setting that are almost impossible to relate solely through words. A well done historical picture book engages the senses and gives a unique window into the time period.

So when I started looking over my 7-year-old son’s history curriculum for this year, I was disappointed with the lack of picture books. We homeschool and our curriculum (Sonlight) relies mainly on A Child’s History of the World and The Usborne Book of World History for its survey of world history. These are both good books, but I thought the experience would be enriched by adding in some well chosen historical picture books along the way.

In this first post, I will share the picture books we used to supplement our study of monks and monasteries during the Middle Ages. I’ll continue with an ongoing series of posts featuring the picture books that align with various periods of history as we study them. Our curriculum for this year covers the rather daunting period of the Middle Ages through World War II. With this large of a time span, it’s obviously going to be a high level survey, with just a few hand picked picture books to go along with each era.

So whether you’re a homeschooler, a teacher, a librarian, or just a parent or care-giver who wants to explore history with the kids, I hope you enjoy diving into this collection of picture books.

Picture Books About the Middle Ages:

Monks and Monasteries

The Ink Garden of Brother Theophane – by C.M. Millen

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This tale follows a plucky young monk named Theophane as he works in the scriptorium of an Irish monastery, copying manuscripts and creating books. Told in lilting verse, and with beautiful stained-glass style illustrations, the story brings to life a number of aspects of bookmaking — making the ink, collecting herbs and berries for color, binding up donkey hair for brushes, etc. My favorite aspect of this particular book was the fact that it incorporated into the text translated quotations of actual poems written by Irish monks in the margins of their manuscripts.

Magic in the Margins – by W. Nikola-Lisa

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This story also focuses on a young boy working in the scriptorium of a monastery, but the focus is different than in The Ink Garden of Brother Theophane. Our main character, Simon, is just an apprentice in the scriptorium, and he longs to progress from simple sketches and exercises to being able to fully illuminate pages in the manuscripts. An unusual assignment from the abbot of the monastery leads Simon on a journey of discovery about meaning and imagination in art. This book goes into more depth about the artistic marginalia that monks included in the illuminated margins of their manuscripts than other books I’ve seen.

Saint Francis and the Wolf – by Jane Langton

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Set in 12th century Italy, this is the tale of a wolf who terrorizes the town of Gubbio until Saint Francis steps in and brokers peace between the wolf and the town. The charming illustrations are in the style of medieval illuminations and give a good sense for both the dress and the architecture of the time.

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{For fellow homeschoolers: this list of books aligns with Week 1 of Sonlight’s Core C}

 

 

A Reading Life: {Guest Post} Literature as Companionship

Literature as Companionship

by Margarida Cadima

 

In his semi-autobiographical novel Satori in Paris, Jack Kerouac writes about “…the tale that’s told for no other reason but companionship, which is another (and my favorite) definition of literature…”. I quote Kerouac because throughout my life, literature has had a panoply of qualities, among which companionship.

Due to my father’s job, I moved around quite a lot growing up. I’m Portuguese, but I was born in Rome, and have lived in Lisbon, Nairobi, Geneva, New York, Paris and London. Being an only child, I didn’t have a sibling with whom to share this nomadic experience, so I turned to books as companions. Literature was my travel companion.

In 1999, when I moved to Nairobi, Kenya with my parents, I had a children’s version of The Three Musketeers with me. I used to read and re-read it, and through D’Artagnan’s adventures, I could better cope with my own adventure, of adapting to a new culture, a new school and a new language, English. I remember fondly the lunch hours spent in the library reading children’s books and magazines (I was a huge fan of American Girl magazine!), at first trying to read and understand the words on the page, then eventually being able to string together the words and comprehend the story I was reading. Literature was my language companion.

As I grew older, literature continued to accompany me and helping me better understand the world I lived in. In high school, we read Machiavelli’s The Prince, and there you have sprawled on the pages of this work human nature. It is all the more impressive when you think that this book was written some 500 years ago, and how pertinent it remains to our present day. Literature is my companion in understanding human nature.

I will never forget the day when I decided I wanted to devote my life to the study of literature. It was 10th grade English and we had to read The Great Gatsby. Never had I read a book that, to put it simply, contained all of life. The decadence, the idealism, the unrequited love: it was all there! To everyone who has read and loved The Great Gatsby, you know what I’m talking about. At that moment, I knew then I wanted to read and learn about and study more literary works. I want to spend my life delighting and discovering everything literature has to offer. As Italo Calvino said, “A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.” I wanted to engage in this dialogue. I wanted to join this never-ending conversation. It was then I decided. Literature is my companion, for life.

I graduated high school in June 2009, less than a year after the global financial crisis exploded. In the news, all we heard was that people were being laid off. There were no jobs. Nobody was being hired. So studying literature did not seem like an obvious choice. Perhaps this generalized hopelessness made it all the more clear that you have to study what you love. It may be cliché, but you have to follow your passion. To this effect, I’m concluding with a quote by  literary critic M.H. Abrams, who graduated high school during the Great Depression and justified his choice of studying literature as follows: “There weren’t jobs in any other profession,” he explains, “so I thought I might as well enjoy starving, instead of starving while doing something I didn’t enjoy.”

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To connect with Margarida, check out her Instagram.

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Interested in being a guest blogger for A Reading Life? Submit your ideas here.

 

Bookish Links

1. On the Philosophical Implications of Shelving Books

For anyone who has struggled with the question of where on the shelf a book truly belongs.

2. 100 Biographies and Memoirs of Remarkable Women

From Helen Keller and Anne Frank to Tina Fey and Malala Yousafzai — a fascinating list of books by and about women.

3. Best Translated Book Award Fiction Longlist – 2017

For anyone interested in new and acclaimed translated fiction. The list includes books translated from Icelandic, Arabic, Spanish, Portuguese, German, French, Italian, Macedonian, Wolof, Dutch, Hungarian, Russian, and Japanese.

4. On the Accidental Origins of Beloved Books

Or why I write more while I recover from ankle surgery.

5. Celebrate Poetry Month: 28 Breathtaking Poetry Books to Read Now

For anyone interested in reading more modern and contemporary poetry. Each listing includes a sample of the poetry, so you can get a feel for the poet’s style.

A Reading Life: {Guest Post} Nancy Will Save Me

Nancy Will Save Me

By E. Barclay Spriggs

Maybe it began with how the pages felt on my fingertips. Perhaps it was the smell of the leaves and glue. Every time I hold a book in my hands, I can leave this world to discover other realms. Even the solid, rectangular shape helps me to stay grounded yet capable of immediate escape. To feel it. To hold it like an old sweater close to my chest. I have always found comfort there.

I chose to study literature because I believe that a passion can be a career. But I became tired. Tired of reading. Books were no longer a joy but a burden.

I study the depths of trauma and violence, abuse and rape. These are real worlds that I feel deserve investigation and exposure. Yet I wondered why I chose this proverbial rabbit hole that continually pulls me into worlds so plagued with darkness. When did literature become so painful? I had made my passion a chore; using books like bricks to wall myself into a somber, lonely place.

I knew I needed a change when the books took over my couch and bed. I spent three nights in a guest bedroom because my work was eating my life. One evening when I couldn’t sleep (what’s new?), I turned over and looked at my late grandmother’s bookshelf where I keep pages of sentimental importance. Instead of turning out the light to stare at the ceiling fan, I sought out one book with a yellow exterior: The Secret of the Old Clock. Its smooth cover and worn pages felt more comfortable than the blankets on the bed.

The violence and trauma of the reality I study faded away as I absorbed the words. They were replaced with childish mystery and action. I had entered a world that I had forgotten; a world that re-released my passion. Nancy Drew had come back to my life. How can she possibly make it? Why would someone leave that threatening message? Who can she alert to say that she is trapped in the cellar?

I ordered the next ten books of the series the following day. I simply could not stop. The stories seemed so innocent and sincere. I had found my therapy: the key of keys that reminded me – despite the brutality of the world – that literature is salvation.

Sometimes we need to return to the place where it all started. For me, it is Nancy Drew: the unstoppable, determined young woman who perseveres. She can tap dance Morse code, she can navigate a schooner single-handedly, she can do acrobatics on a horse’s bare back. And, like a child, I fade away into the pages and forget about the world that will rudely awaken me in the morning.

When the sun sets and I close the book on violence and suffering I enter a place that heals me; that makes me remember how words can lead to other dimensions where happy endings exist. We all need such relief. And I can only hope that we find it, or else life remains an uncomfortable mystery that only the likes of Nancy Drew can solve.

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Interested in being a guest blogger for A Reading Life? Submit your ideas here.

Bookish Links

And now for your weekly dose of bookish links from around the web:

 

1. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: “Can people please stop telling me feminism is hot?”

A fantastic profile of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, one of my favorite authors. She’s written books like Americanah and Half of a Yellow Sunand she’s known for TED Talks like The Danger of a Single Story and We Should All be Feminists. This profile discusses her upcoming new book.

 

2. Norse Mythology: Stories from the top of the world

The book to read alongside Neil Gaiman’s newest.

 

3. The Sharp Horn of Africa: Best Books on Somalia

If “pirates” is the only word that comes to mind when you think of Somalia, here are some books to better understand the country as a whole.

 

4. Jhumpa Lahiri: On the compulsion to translate Domenico Starnone

I’m always intrigued by authors who write in multiple languages. Jhumpa Lahiri’s voyage has intrigued me — her very first book (written in English) won the Pulitzer Prize, but after writing several more acclaimed books in English, she decided to publish a memoir in Italian. Now she’s started translating Italian works into English. Her thoughts on translation in this essay are compelling.

 

5. Picture Book Biographies of Nobel Peace Prize Winners

I don’t know about you, but I think picture book biographies have gotten much better in the last 5-10 years. This list features picture book biographies of famous Nobel Peace Prize recipients, from Theodore Roosevelt to Desmond Tutu.

 

 

A Reading Life: {Guest Post} Off the Beaten Path

Off the Beaten Path: Excursions into the lesser known works of classical authors

By Margaret McMillan

The pathway into the oeuvre of a famous author begins differently for every reader. Our unique experiences or timing shape what we take and what we leave. The first work that we read by an author is really a first handshake. Like any initial impression, certain features of an author’s work may stand out, only to be confirmed by future encounters. Other features startle at first, only to gradually fade away. Is the handshake firm? Supple? Do they look you in the eye when they speak?

Unlike a personal introduction, first impressions of authors depend much upon the individuality of the reader. We aren’t confronted face-to-face, but rather we follow along behind – picking up the bread-trail of a writer’s life. We also get to choose what work we read, and this choice in turn often defines how we think about an author’s legacy. What is it that Robert Frost said, “that has made all the difference?” Although we can continue deeper into an author’s thicket of works, when we read that first novel, or poem, or play, we have taken a certain path from which there is no going back. Fortunately, there are twists and turns that allow us, if we’re diligent readers, to revise our preconceptions. Yet, that first work, that first handshake, remains as a powerful impression nevertheless.

It’s a great misfortune that most pathways to classical authors begin in the driest of settings; the high school classroom. Reading a heavily annotated edition of a classic work under the duress of assessment is like trying on prom gowns in an ill lit dressing-room stall. As an English teacher, I realize the challenges of cultivating a good first impression, and try my best to choose works with the realization that this might be my student’s first encounter with an author. I cross my fingers that it won’t be their last. Paving the way for a good first impression is a tall order. Do you choose works that are emotionally accessible or formulaically recognizable? Or do you prioritize the daring or progressive work of an author’s oeuvre? Do you take a risk on the wacky or eclectic, with the hope that students will want more? What exactly makes a work important?

But I find myself rambling away from my intended path for this essay – what happens when we dive deeper into the works of one author? Fortunately for avid readers, first impressions often don’t deter us from returning for more. Part of the joy of reading emerges within the protracted encounter with a single author. When we read multiple works by the same author, we begin to form a relationship that allows us to explore what is really singular and spectacular about their work. Reading the span of an author’s lifetime allows us to understand writing as a process that requires diligence and practice. What a shock to discover a masterpiece that post-dates the accepted zenith of a writer’s career! How humanizing and comforting to stumble upon an earlier novel that’s underwhelming. Discovering the lesser-known works of an author allows us the opportunity to revise and deepen first impressions. I find this particularly true for classical authors whose popular reputation rests upon one well-read book (there’s that prom dress again). I wanted to take the opportunity to share some gems that I discovered by classical authors that are off the beaten path. You probably won’t find them on a high school syllabus, or on your shelf at the local box bookstore. Some of these texts are a footnote in an author’s legacy. Each one offered a new insight for me on an otherwise widely-known author. But, who am to say? For me, these were the paths not taken. For you, they might have been your entry-point.

piazza-talesHerman MelvilleThe Piazza Tales. I’ll begin with Melville because I had the misfortune of a very bad first impression. My experience with Melville began as an undergraduate, reading his bizarre, critical flop, Pierre, or the Ambiguities. As a late teen, the labyrinthine plot, with its Freudian undertones, defeated me. I didn’t return to Melville until graduate school, when a nagging feeling that as a scholar of American studies I probably should give Moby Dick a chance finally prompted me to pick up a copy at an airport kiosk. From there, our relationship was rekindled.

If anyone has the misfortune of being labeled a one-hit wonder, poor Herman Melville certainly would take the literary prize. His masterpiece, Moby Dick, tends to eclipse the rest of his contemporary legacy like a super moon. Ironically, at the time that he published his heavily philosophical story about the white whale, Melville actually experienced a decline in popularity from a readership more interested in his earlier – decidedly lighter – adventure novels and travelogues. This all changed after the 1920s, when literary scholars began to salvage Melville’s legacy, and along with it, the wreck of the Pequod. Now you can pick up a copy anywhere (as proof, see my anecdote above).

For a man whom some scholars designate the first American novelist, it’s no surprise that his lengthiest masterpiece is also his most read. But Melville was a much more versatile writer than Barnes & Noble gives him credit for – he tried his hand at travelogues, short stories, and poetry, including an 18,000 line epic poem in iambic tetrameter. For a taste of Melville that displays his talents in a different light, take a look at his short story collection, The Piazza Tales. The story of Bartleby, the Scrivener puts Melville’s unique humor on display, while Benito Cereno sends chills down your spine and proves that although Ishmael can talk your ear off, Melville doesn’t necessarily require page length to impress.

dred.jpgHarriet Beecher Stowe. Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp. Stowe clearly suffers from a similar tragedy as her contemporary, Melville. Characterized by her most famous (or infamous?) work, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Stowe has been pigeonholed into an important but over-simplified role in relationship to American slavery. Despite Stowe’s pro-emancipation sympathies, her sentimentalized portrayal of race in Uncle Tom’s Cabin has since received castigation by numerous scholars, including the African American novelist James Baldwin. However, to view Uncle Tom’s Cabin as Stowe’s one thesis on race is to do a tremendous disservice to her legacy as the most prominent abolitionist of her time.

The tucked up edges of Uncle Tom’s Cabin unravel under the pressure of the political and social complexities explored in Dred. Naïve racial characterization is abandoned for a more sophisticated understanding of African American identity. And at the center of the novel, the problematically submissive figure of Uncle Tom has been replaced by the powerful, prophetic voice of an escaped revolutionary.

captainsRudyard Kipling. Captains Courageous. A book by this title, written by a British Victorian, immediately summons comparisons to Treasure Island. But, Captains Courageous was not written by Robert Louis Stevenson but a more unlikely novelist. Best known for his short stories about India, Rudyard Kipling remains most beloved as the author of The Jungle Book. Luckily for his English-speaking cousins on the far-side of the sea, Kipling also wrote a children’s classic about Americans that resembles the coming-of-age novels of Mark Twain.

As the son of an American millionaire, Harvey Cheyne Jr’s posh lifestyle is interrupted by a storm that washes him overboard during a transatlantic voyage. He is subsequently rescued by a fishing vessel but when he fails to convince the captain of his status, he must spend the rest of the summer catching cod and learning the meaning of real work. The tale’s moral conclusion comes across as authentic rather than heavy-handed, and Kipling’s use of dialect to capture the fishermen’s unique speech patterns adds color to his portrayal of maritime life.

cape cod.jpgHenry David Thoreau. Cape Cod. Usually readers first encounter Thoreau in one of two places; on the banks of Walden Pond or in jail. But, as Thoreau himself admits in his numerous essays, he enjoyed a good long walk, and he sometimes would travel great distances by other means in order to take one. Cape Cod describes several such walking excursions to what Thoreau describes as the “bared and bended arm of Massachusetts.”

For even aficionados of Thoreau, Cape Cod might still be off the beaten path, simply because this work was published posthumously and has received limited critical attention until recently. During his lifetime, Thoreau lectured on a wide variety of topics, including this trip. According to newspaper accounts, his description of Cape Cod kept his audience in stitches. Despite Thoreau’s admiration of the Romantic poets, Cape Cod might be considered a satire of picturesque nature writing. Thoreau’s sardonic observations about the harshness of coastal life provide a more complex picture of the hostility of nature than Walden. Despite the irony, Cape Cod contains some of Thoreau’s most poetic descriptions – in particular, his account of a lighthouse. Reading Cape Cod further clarifies Thoreau’s perception of the natural world, and man’s place in it.

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Margaret McMillan just finished an MA in American Literature, where she spent some quality time with our good pal Ishmael. Now, she’s enjoying staying home with her toddler and reading lots of Llama Llama Red Pajama

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Interested in being a guest blogger for A Reading Life? Submit your ideas here.