Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Okay, I'm Done With Mockingjay. Now what?

Mockingjay (The Final Book of The Hunger Games)I won't spoil anything for you here. I just want to decompress and reflect in a very non-spoiler-ish way. I'd love to hear what you thought, too (and spoilers are okay in the comments, just know they might be there).

I read Mockingjay as slowly as I could possibly manage because I knew when I was done, it would really, truly be over. No more Capitol, no more Katniss, no more Peeta. Sigh. But the thing about Suzanne Collins is that she makes it impossible to read slowly. She is a master of the cliffhanger, the chapter ending that manipulates your brain so that even though you can hardly keep your eyes open, you physically cannot put the book down. I think that's why so many adults have taken to this series. When is the last time you found yourself so caught up in a book that everything else but the need to know WHAT HAPPENS NEXT fades into the ether? The dishes, the laundry, the bills all disappear and it is just you and the story.

As a kid, I was always so absorbed in whatever book I was reading that my mom would have to call me to dinner five times and then physically drag me to the table. To me, reading The Hunger Games is like getting to be a kid again. But not in a puppy dogs, lollipops, and rainbows way. Death, destruction, cynicism, and manipulation are all over these books. It's a dystopian trilogy, after all. But I love that Ms. Collins doesn't forget to give us glimmers of hope for humanity. She doesn't forget to make her characters complex. We're not allowed to fall into the easy Good vs. Evil/Rah-Rah-/Team default. War is messy. It's confusing. She paints it that way.

Is the trilogy heavy handed at times? Of course. Is the final book perfect? Not really. Does it matter? I don't think so. In fact, absolutely not.

After I read the first two books in the Hunger Games series (my original comments are here), I could rest easy, knowing there was more to come. I could excitedly mark my calendar for August 24th and wait for it like Christmas. But now, for better or for worse, the game is over. And I'm sad that it is, but satisfied with the way it ended. I think that means Suzanne Collins did her job. Very well, I might add.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Jump Little Children: Cathedrals

Last weekend, Kevin and I took a beautiful drive up to Boothbay Harbor, Maine to sit and watch the sailboats come in and out of the harbor. On the drive up, "Cathedrals" came on the radio and, as usual, stunned me into silence.

This is one of those songs. I've never owned it. I had to look up who wrote it for this post. Turns out, it's by a now-defunct band called Jump, Little Children (the name of a very cool Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee song...maybe more on that next week). Yet, every time I hear it, I hush. I turn up the radio. I feel a swelling in my chest. Every time.

It's the melody. The slow build. The beautiful cello. But it's also the lyrics.

I once spent a summer in Bologna with my grandmother's cousins. My "aunt" Paola (really a cousin some times removed) insisted that we go to Rome. She took me on the train and we spent the day in hot, crowded lines looking at the all the beautiful architecture and breathtaking murals. It was a strange feeling, being in the presence of such awe-inspiring history and art in the middle of a crushing, Disney-like mass of people. We entered the Sistine Chapel and were literally pushed by the crowd, shoulder to shoulder, from one end of the building to the other, necks craning to take in the view as we were jostled out the door. I felt small. I felt wonder. I felt overloaded. I worried about my purse.

Mostly, the experience gave me a profound and inexplicable feeling of loneliness, almost of loss. A longing for home, in the truest, non-locational sense of the word. And somehow this short song by Jump, Little Children captures all of that. So simply. So beautifully.

Jump, Little Children: Cathedrals (live at the Music Farm, 2002)

In the shadows of tall buildings
Of fallen angels on the ceilings
Oily feathers in bronze and concrete
Faded colors, pieces left incomplete
The line moves slowly past the electric fence
Across the borders between continents

In the cathedrals of New York and Rome
There is a feeling that you should just go home
And spend a lifetime finding out just where that is

In the shadows of tall buildings
The architecture is slowly peeling
Marble statues and glass dividers
Someone is watching all of the outsiders
The line moves slowly through the numbered gate
Past the mosaic of the head of state

In the cathedrals of New York and Rome
There is a feeling that you should just go home
And spend a lifetime finding out just where that is

In the shadows of tall buildings
Of open arches endlessly kneeling
Sonic landscapes echoing vistas
Someone is listening from a safe distance
The line moves slowly into a fading light
A final moment in the dead of the night

In the cathedrals of New York and Rome
There is a feeling that you should just go home
And spend a lifetime finding out just where that is

Monday, August 23, 2010

Suzanne Collins: Mockingjay!

Eeeeeee...August 24th is tomorrow! Cue fan-girl squeals and much anticipatory silliness.

Seriously. Don't try to call me.

Mockingjay book trailer:

Friday, August 20, 2010

Summer Blog Reruns: Another Secretary Gag

Another blog rerun for a busy week. It's true. I heart Candid Camera.

Back in September, I confessed my love for a certain goofy television series and mentioned a Woody Allen bit that I couldn't find on YouTube. Well guess what I found? I *love* this woman's reactions to his dictation. Ah, high comedy.

(If you're reading from Facebook, here's the link)

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Summer Blog Rerun: Lean on Me by Bill Withers

I'm working furiously on a revision of my novel this week, so here is another blog rerun. I taught the kids in my Songwriting for Kids class this song again this year...they loved singing the bridge, of course!

Ever since I can remember, Bill Withers' Lean on Me has been one of my favorite songs. My brother and sisters and I used to sing it constantly--on car trips, while doing the dishes--getting especial pleasure from the "Call on me brother, if you need a hand" line (which is still the most fun part to sing).

I remember sitting with my brother at the old upright piano in my grandparent's guest cabin trying to figure out the chords while my mother talked about the bear she'd seen through the window. (Yes, my grandparent's guest cabin had one dusty bed, no running water, and an outhouse, but of course there was a piano. My grandmother will always be the a-house-is-not-a-home-without-music type of soul.)

The thing I love about this song is how it captures our innate, human tendency to feel like we are alone in this world. When hard times come (and boy, do they), we often try to shoulder the burdens on our own, either because we think it's heroic to "soldier on," or we don't want to bother anyone, or we just don't think anyone cares.

But the song reminds us of something we need to try very hard not to forget: we are all in this together. We need to swallow our fear and pride and acknowledge that we all need someone to lean on every once in a while. And then, we need to reach out a hand.

Here is a great live version of Bill Withers singing Lean on Me (listen closely to the lyrics, they're so simple, but they're creative genius):

Lean on Me
by Bill Withers

Sometimes in our lives we all have pain
We all have sorrow
But if we are wise
We know that there's always tomorrow

Lean on me, when you're not strong
And I'll be your friend
I'll help you carry on
For it won't be long
'Til I'm gonna need
Somebody to lean on

Please swallow your pride
If I have things you need to borrow
For no one can fill those of your needs
That you don't let show

Lean on me, when you're not strong
And I'll be your friend
I'll help you carry on
For it won't be long
'Til I'm gonna need
Somebody to lean on

If there is a load you have to bear
That you can't carry
I'm right up the road
I'll share your load
If you just call me

So just call on me brother, when you need a hand
We all need somebody to lean on
I just might have a problem that you'd understand
We all need somebody to lean on

Lean on me when you're not strong
And I'll be your friend
I'll help you carry on
For it won't be long
Till I'm gonna need
Somebody to lean on

Lean on me...

Monday, August 16, 2010

Summer Blog Reruns: Rules by Cynthia Lord

This week, I'm working hard on a revision of my novel, so I'm going to take a break and do a few blog reruns. In honor of Cynthia Lord's new book Touch Blue coming out this month, here is a rerun about her first book.

Rules by Cynthia Lord: Originally posted June 11, 2007

I know that I'm behind the times. It's been well over a year since Cynthia Lord's book Rules came out, and about six months since it received the American Library Association's prestigious Newbery Honor Award for her "distinguished contribution to American literature for children." My favorite kidlit bloggers published their thoughtful, insightful reviews ages ago. And I just read the book this weekend.

Rules, simply put, is a story of a young girl trying to find her place in family, friendships, and life, while also figuring out how to deal with her younger brother's autism and all the unusual pressure and demand that condition can put on a family. This may not sound like light reading, but Cynthia Lord's humor and honesty and real, three-dimensional characters make the chapters fly by and you hardly want to put the book down. (As evidenced by this Sunday morning when my husband said, "Let's make pancakes!"...which is usually enough to make me drop whatever I'm doing and immediately dash for the kitchen...and instead I mumbled absently, "Mmmm...maybe after I finish this chapter. Or the next.")

I don't want to say much because you really should just read it, but here is one of the details I loved most about this book:

Catherine, the main character, is constantly writing rules for her brother, David, so "at least he'll know how the world works, and I won't have to keep explaining." Some of Catherine's life rules include:
  • If someone says "hi," you say "hi" back.
  • Not everything worth keeping has to be useful.
  • No toys in the fish tank.
  • Pantless brothers are not my problem.
While some of these rules are written out of adolescent frustration, there are some rules that are incredibly poignant and show a real, deep love. For instance, David often has trouble finding words to express himself, so Catherine writes him these two rules:
  • If you don't have the words you need, borrow someone else's.
  • If you need to borrow words, Arnold Lobel wrote some good ones.
So throughout the book, Catherine and David, quote to each other from Andrew Lobel's Frog and Toad books, almost like a secret language between brother and sister.
"Dad's still coming," I say. "Late doesn't mean not coming."

But those words don't help. So I reach over, wipe away his tear with the side of my thumb, and say the only words I know will calm him: "'Frog, you are looking quite green.'"

David sniffles. "'But I always look green,' said Frog. 'I am a frog.'"
This is what makes the book so lovely. The relationships. The very real, honest quality of Catherine's interactions with her brother, her father, the new girl next door, the boy she meets in the waiting room of David's occupational therapy appointments. This is not a drama about how difficult it is to live with autism. This is a book about growing up. About families. And as Cynthia Lord (who lives in Maine!) wrote on her website (totally worth checking out) in answer to a 5th grader's question about why she chose to write about autism:
Life is long and challenges come into every family, even if you don’t start life with them. RULES is about accepting there is value in everything, even in imperfection. Sometimes things can’t be changed, but you can change your feelings about them.
According to Booklist, Rules is geared for grades 4-7, but I think there's something here for all ages. I think a younger child would enjoy having this read out loud, and obviously I enjoyed reading it as an adult. (I did eventually get to those pancakes, too!)

Friday, August 13, 2010

Grab Bag Friday: Blackberry Crisp

After all that blackberry picking last weekend, it's been a bit of a blackberry theme week. Yum! This crisp recipe was SO delicious. I got it off the Rachel Ray website, then modified it (reduced the sugar, eliminated the sunflower seeds...in a crisp? is she serious?) until it was just right. (For me, anyway--if you like your crisp more goopy and sweet, double the granulated sugar and corn starch that goes on the berries.) I think it's the almonds that makes this so yummy. I'm putting almonds in all my crisps from now on.

Blackberry Crisp

1/2 cup (1 stick) plus 1 tablespoon cold butter
3/4 cup rolled oats
1/2 cup flour
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup sliced or chopped almonds
1 teaspoon cinnamon
4 cups blackberries
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon cornstarch

Pour the blackberries into a wide shallow baking dish (an 8x8 should do the trick). Sprinkle the 2 tablespoons of sugar and the 1 teaspoon of cornstarch over the berries. Set aside.

Combine oats, flour, brown sugar, almonds, and cinnamon in a bowl. Cut the butter into small squares and knead into the flour mixture (I prefer to do this by hand, but you could probably cut it in with a fork.) Spoon on top of the blackberries to cover, but not absolutely thoroughly.

Bake 25 minutes and serve with ice cream.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Pearl by Bright Common

I've been listening this week to a new album by Bright Common, a local group here in Brunswick. Pearl is their first album and by turns, it's haunting and lovely, expansive and intimate.

Around here, lead singer John Bisbee, is more well known for his sculpture than his crooning. He works almost entirely in metal, and more specifically, nails (hence the band named after a nail). His sculptures are intricate and breathtaking. When you stand in front of a John Bisbee work you can't help but be moved in some inexplicable way. Perhaps because all that common metal suddenly looks so delicate and beautiful. In 2004, The New Yorker described his work perfectly, "In Bisbee's hands, the spikes are transformed into objects of surprising grace." [See some of Bisbee's art]

Bandmate Mark Wethli is also a visual artist. Mainly a geometric painter who deals in deep swaths of shape and color, his full-scale Piper Club airplane sculpture was recently on display at Fort Andross this year and was a very cool departure. Like Bisbee's work, this piece took something as large and industrial as an airplane and allowed us to look at it from the inside out until it became something delicate, fragile, and full of wonder. [See some of Wethli's art]

But this post is about music, not art, and this is all to say that this is not your typical first album, nor your typical new band. These artists are attempting to bring the same sensibilities they bring to their visual art into an aural realm. And it's really quite a lovely experience.

Listen to free downloads on Bright Common's MySpace page.

Download the full album on CDBaby or Amazon.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Blackberry Picking by Seamus Heaney

Blackberry Bush
Photo by respres
Kevin and I spent yesterday afternoon picking blackberries. The berries were perfect. So ripe that sometimes you barely touched the branch and two or three berries would go tumbling to the ground. I got bramble scratches up my arms and a ping-pong-sized welt of a bug bite on my ankle, but it was SO worth it. Especially after I made the most delicious warm blackberry crisp ever (more on that on Friday).

In Poetry Writing for Kids this year, my students (third through fifth grade) were going to study Seamus Heaney's poem "Blackberry Picking," but I am always a bit overly ambitious. Instead of studying 25 poems in 5 afternoons, we only had time for about 20 (they did, after all, have their own writing to do). This one, sadly, is one of the ones I cut from the roster:

Blackberry Picking
by Seamus Heaney

Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickening wine: summer's blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full,
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard's.

We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermetted, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn't fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they'd keep, knew they would not.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Grab Bag Friday: Twitterpated

Okay, I've finally succumbed to this whole Twitter thing. I'm just testing the waters and figuring things out, so if you're an old pro, please do come by and say hi. I can be found @josephinewrites. Hope to see you there!

As the wise old owl explained: "Don't you know? He's twitterpated!"

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Hooray for 2010 Summer Workshops!

I had so much fun teaching my Poetry, Fiction, and Songwriting workshops for kids this summer. It's hard to believe they're already over. In Fiction, the students wrote fabulous stories about adventures that took place everywhere from Mt. Kilimanjaro to Mine Hole Land to a drawer in someone's bedroom. In Poetry, there were sestinas, villanelles, and beautiful free verse that could break your heart.

This year, in my Songwriting for Kids workshop, the class worked together to write a song about a river that I'd like to visit (especially that cave full of gold!) I think my favorite line in the whole song is "the trees are doing the cha-cha in the wind." How great is that? You can listen to this year's class singing their song in The Listening Room and here are the lyrics:

The Moon Shines Bright onto the River
by the 2010 Songwriting for Kids class

The moon shines bright onto the river
The moon shines bright onto the river
The moon shines bright onto the river   
The moon shines bright onto the river

Verse 1:
The owls are hooting
The river’s moving
The trees are doing the cha-cha in the wind

The waves are crashing
Against the rocks
Drops of water splashing on a stranger’s skin

The moon shines bright onto the river
The moon shines bright onto the river
The moon shines bright onto the river   
The moon shines bright onto the river

Verse 2:
Flying fish are soaring high
Starfish on a rock
The water’s deep and cold

Coyotes are howling
An owl lives in the forest
Near a cave full of gold

The moon shines bright onto the river
The moon shines bright onto the river
The moon shines bright onto the river   
The moon shines bright onto the river

The dark blue sky is like
A blue blanket
On my bed

The moon shines bright onto the river
The moon shines bright onto the river
The moon shines bright onto the river   
The moon shines bright onto the river 

Monday, August 2, 2010

Neil Gaiman: The Graveyard Book

The Graveyard Book CDThis weekend, Kevin and I went on an exciting trip to New York City where we ate great food, spent time with old friends, saw a great Broadway Show, and for the car ride, we brought along the audio version of Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book. You know...that little book that came out in 2008 and got some attention by winning the Newbery Medal, the Hugo Award, the Carnegie Medal, and oh, at least a half dozen more major literary awards. I admit, I'd never read it.

Now, I'll also admit, I'm *glad* I'd never read it. Because listening to Neil Gaiman read the book aloud is so much fun, I'm certain I wouldn't have enjoyed it half as much if I had read it on my own. Most books, I like to curl up on the couch and create a world in my own head. But Neil Gaiman's voice is built for storytelling. He draws you in and invites you to hang on his every word.

Of course, the story is chilling. Our hero, Bod (short for Nobody), enters the novel as an infant whose family has just been brutally murdered. In an unprecedented act of generosity, the ghosts of the local graveyard take him in and vow to protect him. What unfolds is part mystery, part straight-up fantasy/adventure, but what is most intriguing is Bod's coming of age story. Bod is a living, flesh-and-blood human being trying to fit into a world that is not his. In the end, after all is said and done, The Graveyard Book is about familial love, growing up, letting go, and finding your place in the world.

Next time you're trying to decide what to listen to on a long car trip, I recommend checking it out.