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Here, Have a Black Spot.

When I first read Treasure Island, I was living in Georgia’s low country, an area embroiled in pirate history (in fact, the Benbow Inn is rumored to have been modeled on Savannah’s Pirate House).  I like my reading to provide a little bit of local color. Anyway, perhaps it was my own location that made it easy to fall into Stevenson’s world. I can understand how Jim Hawkins might feel every time his little world is intruded upon by a pirate, those dual senses of danger and thrill, and how those emotions both might appeal to a kid like Jim (who manages to not only encounter danger, but practically invite it at every available opportunity). I’m a grown woman, and I recommend reading the first part of the book in a darkened room, at night, on a full moon. It’ll add to the experience.

The book is a classic, and it’s a classic for a reason. You will find the DNA of nearly every pirate trope here (minus any relating to women, as they are few and far between here). I will admit to being a lot more impressed with the characterization the first time I read Treasure Island, but I’m wondering if my impressions were strongly colored by the different film versions (it is one of the most adapted books in film history). I recall a Long John Silver who is as warm and paternal as he is changeable and cunning, which of course adds to the danger, and a Jim who is hungry for a similar father figure. I didn’t quite find them here. What I did find, however, was a classic story of suspense and adventure, well worth an evening read.

This review has been posted at the Cannonball Read, where I am attempting to read and review 52 books in 2016. Read along with me!

 

Scandalous!

I don’t remember how I discovered Anne Helen Petersen’s Scandals of Classic Hollywood series over on the Hairpin. But I do remember devouring the latest entries during downtime at my job as a secretary. Petersen let contemporary fans like myself experience the restrictive glamour of stars under the old studio system. She did it with a clever, confidential voice that benefitted from hindsight, and I found the results fascinating. Her blog was a weekly read.

The book is more of the same, which feels familiar but oddly not enough. It’s divided into multiple parts, each focusing on a classic Hollywood phenotype, with chapters about separate stars (in other words, long-format essays akin to one of the Hairpin pieces). Much of it is ground already tread in the Hairpin, which I expected to some degree. However, the book was a quick read, and it left me feeling unsatisfied. Make of that what you will.

This is also pretty obviously going to appeal to a very niche audience (of which I am obviously a member). Petersen approaches gossip that’s up to a hundred years old with an academic’s interest, but a blogger’s voice. That’s appealing to me. While contemporary audiences lap up gossip about today’s stars, it’s easy to assume that I’m not “one of them,” even as I devour a chapter about Mae West’s bawdy career. Again, Petersen is concerned with what this interest in stardom says about the film industry and society at large. That’s certainly a subject worth tackling. However, I found myself constantly questioning my own motives for reading this book. Was I couching my own schadenfreude in academic curiosity? The lives these stars led (at least the ones Petersen focuses on) were pretty tragic. Was I consuming them (again) for further entertainment? The answer is, probably. I do get a vicarious thrill from reading about these stars, much like their contemporary audiences did, much like we get from our own stars today. Gossip is appealing for a reason, and apparently, it’s timeless.

 

This review has been cross-posted to the Cannonball Read, where I am reviewing books as I attempt to read 52 in a year!

Breaking Brontosaurus News

I loved My Beloved Brontosaurus. I really did. I was trying to pinpoint some sort of flaw as a reason why I would rate this book anything other than five stars, and I couldn’t. Maybe you’re not into science or dinosaurs (if that is the case, why did you pick this book up to begin with?). But I do love dinosaurs, truly, and the author takes some 200 years of paleontological research, including controversial updates, and synthesizes it into 222 pages of accessible, engaging science. I found it delightful, and inspiring.

For a topic as dry as dinosaur bones, the writing is funny. The entire chapter on dinosaur sex (at this point, discussed in hypotheticals) is pure gold, providing several laugh-out-loud moments, and at one point, prompting me to grab my phone to tweet a line. The book follows a practical procession of dinosaurs’ lifecycles, from conception to their inevitable (maybe), untimely (perhaps) destruction. Switek makes multiple detours along the way for recent scientific revelations, and those revelations hold the heart of the book.

Switek (an amateur paleontologist, freelance science writer, and the dinosaur adviser on “Jurassic World”) is appealing in particular to latent dino lovers who discovered the giants at a similar age to himself – late ’80s/early ’90s millenials whose worlds were rocked when the Brontosaurus was relegated to Pluto-status (or rather, denounced as not a dinosaur, was never a dinosaur, and should never have been named a dinosaur to begin with). I mention the age not because I think it should exclude anyone who was not a “true 90s kid,” but rather because I relate to that viewpoint so well. I understand exactly where Switek is coming from. So much of contemporary conventional paleontology has changed since my second grade dinosaur unit. I think sometimes, as learners, we are taught “facts” that stick in our brains, immobilized, almost fossils themselves, until something comes to root them out. This book makes a first-rate shovel.

 

This review has been cross-posted to the Cannonball Read. My goal is to read 52 books in 2016.

So Many Religious Puns…

…And I’ve attempted to avoid all of them. I obviously enjoyed Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s The Wicked and the Divine enough to read the issues again, this time as a collected trade paperback titled The Faust Act. I’ve been following the series since I started buying comics again, roughly a year ago, and I’ve enjoyed the pair’s original work, following them from Phonogram and so forth.

 

But this review is about The Wicked and the Divine. The premise is this: a pantheon of gods return to the earth every ninety years as pop stars. They live for two years, and then through various means, pass away from this world. For the current recurrence, we readers have Laura, a uni student and admitted fangirl, to serve as our eyes and ears and entry into the world of the gods. Laura strikes up a relationship (flirtation/quasi-employment) with the incarnation of Lucifer, brilliantly inspired by David Bowie. This leads to all kinds of mayhem, and Laura’s further inculcation into the pantheon.

The gods themselves are portrayed as human and petty as such gods as ever have been, yet they continue to hold some fascination for the faithful. In this first trade, we get glimpses of their world: assassins, conspiracies, mind-boggling powers.Those powers themselves are fairly shadowy. Even within their world, only those who attend the shows are able to experience the gods’ power, as any attempts to record the music result in only static and silence. As for the shows themselves, imagine the best concert you’ve ever been to, and then imagine you experienced religious levels of euphoria, possibly resulting in passing out or sexual climax (or maybe both?).

My favorite character is Laura. I can’t relate to any of the gods, but she is unapologetic in her fervor for the gods. She is quintessentially a fan, in a universe where fan tips over into zealot. One of my favorite bits is Laura’s inner commentary on the proceedings, the things she says to herself (and to us) that she believes are too much for everyone else to handle. Everyone can relate to that. I don’t dig her desire to be one of the pantheon, that thirst to be special, but even that is something everyone can see in themselves.

The art is beautiful. I always admire McKelvie’s line work, but Matthew Wilson’s coloring is radiant, reinforcing the idea of candles burning too brightly. As to the story, as I read the trade, I was confused by several points, such as the gods’ purpose (Ananke makes a brief reference to inspiration, but otherwise the point is not driven home). But this is at heart, a long, high-concept murder mystery (lasting roughly two years). I’ll be re-reading the second trade as well, and I expect those issues will be clarified.

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This review has been cross-posted to the Cannonball Read. My goal is to read 52 books in 2016.

The coffee is unusually bitter.

The following is being linked to as part of the Cannonball Read, the reading challenge I’m participating in during 2016. My goal is 52 books. By all means, join in, share your thoughts, read with me! There are few things I love so much as talking about books.

***

Agatha Christie’s Black Coffee is frothy, mildly offensive (much like hyoscine), and formulaic. The miserly, inventive patriarch of the Amory family has called in Detective Poirot because he suspects someone in his family is attempting to steal a formula that is incredibly important. Poirot shows up, but not before the thief murders Sir Amory as well. There are xenophobic undertones, spy hijinks, bemused spinster aunts, and absolutely nothing of any note. Put together, the book’s parts are entirely underwhelming.

 

I typically pick up a Christie novel when I’m looking for something light, but literate. It’s notable that this book was actually her attempt at a play. It was adapted into a novel by Charles Osborne in 1997, twenty years after Christie’s death. As I don’t have the script of the play to compare, I will just express disappointment with the book, and not the author. Nearly every character is a caricature (see above, re: bemused spinster aunt). We have hints of interesting characters in Lucia and her husband Richard, but even then, they receive barely a hint of page time. Poirot, as always, is smug and patronizing, but hey, maybe you go for that sort of thing.

 

If you read mysteries for the sake of the mystery, I think this one will leave you cold. There’s barely any “there” there. I enjoy solving a mystery along with the detective, and a well-written mystery will have clues interspersed along the way. Those clues, much like the rest of the substance in this book, were an afterthought, and very few.

 

One more note on Amory’s formula: it is unfathomable to me that an amateur scientist would be able to contain a formula to “bombard the atom” (I have no idea what that means) in his country home in post-WWI England, especially with all the prospective murderers running around. But in this book, the disregard for national security is treated as an eccentricity. We’re told that Amory has been wretched to his companions, but we see none of this. Yet another of the book’s oversights.

Drink the Mead, See the World

The following is being linked to as part of the Cannonball Read, the reading challenge I’m participating in during 2016. My goal is 52 books. By all means, join in, share your thoughts, read with me! There are few things I love so much as talking about books.

***

2016 began with a re-read of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. I’m a big proponent of re-reading, and American Gods, in particular, is one book where I can always be certain of discovering something new. Gaiman packs quite a lot into his story; if you’re into road trips, or Americana, or mythology, or murder mysteries, or romance, or ghost stories (and I am into all of those things)…it’s cliché to say that there is something for everyone here, but it’s the truth. Of more interest than that, though, is that every person is likely to find something different. For instance, if I knew anything about chess (I had to ask my husband what a bishop does; “It goes diagonally.” Not as much info as I’d hoped for)  or the Tarot (my college roommate tells me this is significant; I trust her on that), I’m certain that would add another level to my reading.

Throughout this reading, I was struck by how cinematic the book is. American Gods is being adapted by STARZ for television, and this book is a no-brainer for adaptation. The characters are oddball enough that they’ll look fantastic on television, if a bit grim. The visual qualities don’t detract from the sensual; reading the book is a very sensory experience. As you read, you can feel the cold, smell the mold, and if you’re not the type to find music too distracting, by all means press play on this playlist. There are extensive references to different songs and locations in the book, and listening to the songs as they’re mentioned adds to the ambience. Gaiman’s characters also travel quite a bit around the American Midwest, and if you’ve traveled there as well, it is fun to spot the locations (I can imagine how many road trips this book has inspired).  I’ll be re-reading the book again before watching the show in 2017.

I should note that this time around, I read the 10th Anniversary “Author’s Preferred Text” edition. The changes were subtle enough that I didn’t note any difference between this text and the previous versions I’ve read. There is a deleted scene included post-epilogue, but to my mind, it was rightfully cut. I feel, after finishing the book…full. Pleasantly sated, not overly stuffed. Like after a nice glass of Soma. I would absolutely recommend the book to adult readers, fans of anything I’ve listed above, or those who have yet to experience Gaiman’s delightful weirdness.

My Strengths, My Classroom

So much of what I try to do, professionally and personally, stems from a perceived lack. This perception typically has its origins in other people- the things people tell me about myself that have been reinforced, over and over again, for decades. Lately, I’ve had some great luck in having those perceptions shaken up.

 

I took a class this fall, for professional development. I thought it would behoove me to improve my grammar, as that was where I felt I was weakest. Why did I feel this way? Well, the last year of trying to teach it definitely showed some gaps in my education. So I jumped headfirst into a syntax class, which felt like “grad-school light.” It was hard, and I earned an A (although it wasn’t the A I wanted). When discussing the course with another student, she asked what I taught. When I told her English, she said, “Oh, you seem really familiar with grammar.” And I must be a true English teacher, because someone complimenting my grammar warmed me right up.

 

As another example, in a one-on-one with my principal today, she noted my organization, and my willingness to engage in conflict (not confrontation, not aggression; just a determination to do what needs to be done). These are both areas I’ve made specific efforts to improve, because they’re also areas in which I don’t feel particularly strong. It’s so nice to know that my efforts of compensation are working, and being noticed.

 

That said, maybe it’s time to reevaluate myself, and eliminate some new weaknesses.  And what about you? Any areas of your life you’re compensating for? Any improvements you’d like to share?

These First Few Days

The end of August slunk in, quiet and messy as a wet cat. Back in May, I made all of these grand plans for how to use my time off wisely. I was going to read every single book I planned on teaching this year. I was going to revamp the unit plans for the books I taught last year. I was going to refresh my knowledge of grammar. I was going to do all of this while working a summer job, and maintaining a respectable summer glow.

None of that happened. But does that mean my summer was a waste? No, indeed. Here’s what I did do: fell in love with whitewater rafting. Played tourist with my niece in Chicago, a city I’ve visited dozens of times already, but hadn’t seen through the eyes of a five-year-old since I was one. Published three pieces, a tiny sum, but approximately 300% more than I’ve published since college. Even without the plugging in the teacher time, I managed to wring good things out of the season.

But was I prepared to go back to school last week? No, not really. I pulled together every bit of wisdom I earned last year, and read a few books (including Harry K. Wong’s The First Days of School, which apparently every other teacher has read), and cobbled it together into a classroom management and lesson plan. I panicked a few times, because where last year felt like I was reinventing the wheel at every turn, my procedures and plans for this year felt routine. To me, at least. The new plan stirred up some comments from my students.

“Ms. B., you’re like, hardcore this year! Last year, you didn’t care about rules!”

“Last year,” I tell them honestly, “I didn’t know what I was doing. I’m learning too.”

Best-Laid Plans

This week, in the midst of resurrecting a 25-year-long dream, I started preparing for the fall semester. Writing is what I’ve always loved; teaching is what I started doing to pay the bills (this is humorous on a cosmic level, I’m sure). Once I started teaching, however, I received this delightful surprise: I actually do enjoy it. Now the trick is to get better.

One of my goals this year is to be more organized. Last year was my first at this school, and my first year in my own classroom. I’m not ashamed to tell you that it took the better half of the first semester to catch my breath, let alone figure out what I was doing. As I start to put the year together, I’ve started making my planner.

There are plenty of beautiful planners on the market, and plenty handmade by enterprising bloggers, who are generous enough to share. Why make my own? Well, simply put, I’m a control freak. When I customize my own, I get the exact look that I want, all the features I need, even hand-picked quotes by my favorite authors for quick doses of encouragement (you know, when it’s No-School November and I’m in the planning weeds).

Bonus: in addition to a beautiful planner, I get to brush up on my long dormant computer skills. But the planner isn’t finished yet. So, fellow teachers: enlighten me in the comments: what do you find completely necessary in a planner?plannersample

Who Am I?

I’m a writer and teacher based in the St. Louis Metro-East. I earned my B.A. in English Language & Literature from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, and blog at Brasel Night at the Movies.

Feel free to contact me for more information about my services and rates.

E-mail me: tera.brasel@gmail.com

Tel: (618) 334-0319