December 6, 2013

A Bibliophile's Christmas

It’s that time of year again!  The holiday season is upon us – sorry, Hanukkah, I am so bad at blogging on time that I missed you – and gift-giving anxiety has arrived!  While my favorite part of the holidays is picking out and giving gifts, for many people this is a stressful time, depending on whom you are attempting to surprise this holiday.  If you are shopping for the bibliophile in your life, gift-buying can be complicated.  Much like attempting to buy a movie buff the newest DVDs, gifting books to a bibliophile is a difficult task, and a gift certificate to a local bookshop is appreciated, but not very personal. 
Never fear.
I've found some of my absolute favorite book-nerd gifts for this holiday season for any of you still lost on what to buy for the bibliophile you've mistakenly let into your life.  Some I actually own, some I wish I owned, and some I may or may not have already purchased for myself and others and are being shipped to my home at this moment. 

I may have bought this for myself...
Out of Print is one of my absolute favorite websites for literary paraphernalia; my Gatsby t-shirt is from this site, and not only is it a completely awesome shirt, but the fabric is ridiculously soft and comfortable.  
I own this shirt!
 Beyond just clothing, they also have pouches, phone cases, notebooks and cards, accessories, and other awesome stuff that is just nerdy enough to be a bibliophiles dream. 

But the best part about this company is the mission: "In addition to spreading the joy of reading through our tees and accessories, we acknowledge that many parts of the world don’t have access to books at all. We are working to change that. For each product sold, one book is donated to a community in need through our partner Books For Africa."  Not only can you purchase gifts, but you can rationalize how much money and time you spend on the website because it's going to promote literacy for future generations -- giving the gift of the written word, so to speak.

The Book was Better
Really though, it was
If you love a bibliophile (or are forced into a relationship with said person due to family situations), this sweatshirt says everything for you.  I am so guilty of this -- and I am VERY aware that many of you are thinking the same thing -- but a decent number of my friends are, too.  I firmly believe that the book is always better than the movie.  I can enjoy the movies (Harry Potter, duh) but the books will always hold a special place in my heart.  So before the movie even begins, I will already be prepared to utter this statement at the conclusion.  Or right after it starts.  Or 124,503,594 times during the movie when something just isn't perfect.  

So if you love someone who does the same, this might be the perfect gift for Christmas.  Or for her literary intervention.  Or before you go to see Catching Fire.  You could even wrap the DVD of The Great Gatsby you got for him in the sweatshirt!  Oh, irony.

For the bibliophile in your life who has a sick obsession with Harry Potter or The Hunger Games -- if the sick obsession is with Twilight, please find a new friend -- it can be simple to find gifts.  Here are some of my personal favorites.

This mug is literally the greatest gift ever.  HINT.  Honestly though, every voracious reader I know is also a huge fan of coffee or tea.  I can go through an entire pot of coffee when I'm spending a rainy day reading.  If you aren't a Harry Potter fan, 'accio' is a summoning spell and the bottom of the cup is a reference to the third book, when Harry is forced to read tea leaves in his Divination class.  Which is my favorite book in the entire series.  Which is clearly because Sirius Black is my boyfriend.  It also might have something to do with how the third book starts to really show the details that weave the entire series together.  Also, Sirius Black.  (Seriously.  Haha, see what I did there?) 

Anyway, this mug is fantastic.  End of rant.  Find it here.

This is actually now on my Christmas list.  Mom!  Pay attention!  This is yet another more subtle HP reference from the second book, when Hermione has run off to the library to look something up:

“But why’s she got to go to the library?”
“Because that’s what Hermione does,” said Ron, shrugging. “When in doubt, go to the library.” 
Hermione is the smartest one in the trio.  That bitch saves the day more often than Harry Potter.  Whatever.  This bracelet is awesome.  Need I say more?  Perfection for the HP nerd in your life.  Find it here.

  The  Hunger Games.  Not the movies, the series.  Because the book was better (see above).  Anyway, this is a more romantic gesture, so as a gift for a sibling or a platonic friend, it might not be your best move.  Without too many spoilers because this is a reference to the third book in the trilogy, anyone who is well versed in the novels will appreciate the sentiment.  It's simple, and it's f*cking adorable.  This and the HP bracelet above can be personalized with different fonts as well.  SO MUCH FUN! Find it here.

Most Random and Unnecessary Items Best Gifts Ever

I have an intense love affair with reading in the bathtub.  So do many other people I know and love, and there are SO MANY BATHTUB READING ACCESSORIES ONLINE!  I search on Amazon, and seriously.  Tons of options, tons of different styles, lots of different price ranges.  

My favorite part, however, is that most of them include some place to put your wine glass.  Because, real talk?  Nothing is better than reading AND drinking in the bathtub. 

 There are many options on sites like CafePress and Etsy for personalized or clever and original ideas.  I'm a big fan of the bookshelf shower curtains.  This is one of my favorites!  And seriously, every room can use a bookshelf.  This one just happens to be waterproof, too!

Here's where you can buy this shower curtain

As a kid, I was given sheets and sheets of "From the library of" stickers to put in my own personal library.  They were KICKASS, because they had a sleeping golden retriever puppy with glasses, but they also had my address (which is not my address anymore) and as I got older, I switched to simply putting my name in my books.

A personalized stamp is a fantastic gift for anyone who is constantly lending books and forgetting (not me, no sir, seriously though, if you have any of my books let me know), and it's a classier alternative to the stickers or handwritten names scribbled in corners.  Get your stamps here

Find the iPhone charger here
Find the case here
Great gifts?  Or greatest gifts?  I'm a big fan of merging electronics and literature because books are much more attractive to me than computers or cell phones.  Cell phone cases that look like books are a personal favorite, but these two nifty contraptions make me smile, too.  

Welcome to the wonderful world of board games for bibliophiles.  While there are plenty of options out there, including themed version of Monopoly and Clue (Mystery at Hogwarts was a favorite of mine in college), I'm suggesting that you consider purchasing Trivial Pursuit: Book Lover's Edition.  Not only is this the cutest game EVER (just look at the player tokens!!!), it is also the most difficult game I've ever played in my entire life.  Hands down.  

We played once in college on teams with English professors and it was still the most difficult game ever.  Try it for yourself!

Happy Holidays, everyone!  And may the gift giving odds be ever in your favor!

October 24, 2013

Thoughts for Thursday: Rumi and A Wrinkle in Time

Welcome to another edition of Thoughts for Thursday!  While I might not be the best at updating my blog, I’m trying to establish a routine of posting, and if I can start with every Thursday, perhaps I’ll get somewhere!

                I spend a decent amount of time browsing Pinterest when I can’t sleep at night (I even have a Leah Reads board!  Just be aware that I pin a lot of Harry Potter related things… NO SHAME), and I’ve had my Thoughts for Thursday board for quite some time where I would put quotes I considered using in my lesson plans.  Rumi is an author whose quotes appear fairly often when I’m browsing the quotes section, and there is a simplistic and timeless element to his words.  As a 13th century Persian poet, Rumi could begin to feel outdated, but as it is shown time and time again, good literature and true emotion transcends eras and cultural boundaries.

                Our quote for today has been tumbling around in my mind for quite some time now; originally I thought I would only do quotes about literature when I posted my Thoughts for Thursday; then I figured quotes from authors would be fair game as well; now, although the second edition of this topic is an author, I’ve decided that if the quote can relate to books overall, I’m going to allow it.  So, uhhhhh, that pretty much eliminates nothing because I can relate almost anything to literature.  NO RULES.

                The thing I love most about this quote is that it comes in two parts and each part is equally significant.  Stop acting so small is simply good advice, and it is advice I’ve been neglecting – actually, it’s advice I’d suspect about half the population has been neglecting.  It always seems like people are either bragging about themselves or putting themselves down.  We get the egomaniacs who constantly try to make every situation about themselves, even when it’s not necessarily something to be proud of (ever notice how people constantly try to one up each other when it comes to how busy or tired they are?  Can’t we all just be busy and tired?); then we have those who are always lamenting that they aren’t enough of anything – not smart enough, or pretty enough, or brave enough, or whatever enough.  Or they keep their mouths shut completely, because even acknowledging that they exist seems like too much.  Those are the ones acting so small.

                There is little wrong with taking pride in oneself.  And size – literally or figuratively – should have no bearing on the ability of a person to make changes or do good things.  Doesn’t the saying go ‘big things come in small packages’?  Think of all the literature that deals with children making the changes, with those who are not in a position of power rejecting the idea of being small. We have characters that climb up through established social classes and established society; characters who overthrow the dark wizard who has powers much stronger; characters who steal from the rich to give to the poor.  Stop acting small, these characters tell us.  Stop acting less than what you are capable of achieving.

                This is solid advice, but it’s hard to take when we are constantly berated with media and advertisements and, hell, other people who are trying to keep us down.  We are told we aren’t good enough, and after a while, we come to believe it.  Or we tell ourselves that while maybe we aren’t so great, we are at least better than that guy over there.  It’s a cyclical process of decline.  Those lucky enough to pull themselves out have changed the world.  And that’s where part two of the quote comes into play.

                You are the universe in ecstatic motion.  What a grand idea; not only are you not small, but you are an important part of the universe.  And not only that, but you are what creates joy in the universe.  Just by existing.  Wrap your head around that for a minute.


Good? Okay.


                I won’t pretend like I always understand or accept this idea.  I don’t always think highly of myself or others, but Rumi is telling me that I need to accept it.  Not just for myself, but in how I view and judge others.  And when I started to consider where I wanted to go with this post (which, I admit, rambles quite a bit) I immediately thought of A Wrinkle in Time.  If you’ve never read A Wrinkle in Time… GTFO. No, not really, but go grab a copy. It’s a beautifully written book with amazing literary merit and magnificent messages and themes.  There are also three other books in the series, which often people don’t realize.  All are wonderful.  But I digress.

                In Wrinkle the main female character is a young high-schooler named Meg Murry who struggles at school, is awkward and gawky (and brilliant, albeit misunderstood at math), and doesn’t fit in.  Her younger brother, Charles Wallace, is essentially a five year old prodigy, but people in their town see him as a freak.  Their father has gone missing while on secret government business – he’s a scientist, not a spy – and one afternoon, Meg, Charles Wallace, and their friend Calvin have to travel through time and space to rescue him and save the planet from the Dark Thing.  That sounds ridiculous, but it’s just that my summary is pretty shitty.  The thing is, Meg, Charles, and Calvin are all young.  They are all seen as slightly strange.  Meg hates herself.  But the three of them have to believing in themselves and overcome fear, and threat of death to save not just Mr. Murry but the entire universe.  From the smallest part of the human body, everything plays a part.  Indeed, there is even a section of the book where the children try to listen to the music of the stars in celebration.  The universe is singing.
                It’s a hard lesson to learn, and I am guilty of thinking poorly of myself more often than I’d like to admit.  I try to encourage the people around me, but I am not always able to pull myself out of my own head.  But the truth is, each of us has an important role to play.  No matter how small, everyone and everything is part of the music and joy and fluidity of the universe.  Love might make the world go round, but believing in yourself makes the universe move.

October 17, 2013

Thoughts for Thursday - C. S. Lewis

“Since it is so likely that children will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage.” – C. S. Lewis

Happy Thursday!  Because I’m not currently in a classroom on the reg, and I’m sure my teacher friends are getting annoyed with me butting into their lesson planning, I’m bringing my standard Thursday warm-up to the blog.  Thoughts for Thursday is exactly that: we start class with a quote and my students are expected to answer three questions

1.       What does this quote mean? Restate it in your own words.

2.       What does this quote suggest about the speaker?  What does he/she appear to value or believe from this quote.

3.       How can we connect this quote to other quotes, works of literature, things from class, or your own lives?

Say what you will about high schoolers, but after the first few times of going through a warm-up like this, they get very good at it.  I always try to find quotes that tie into our current unit, or quotes that deal with wherever we’re headed with class that day, or quotes from our current author, but I am also guilty of using this time as a mini-platform to share life advice with my students.  They might roll their eyes at my attempt at uplifting messages, but when it comes through a third party in a cleverly worded phrase, sometimes it reaches them.

                The quote I picked for the blog today is from the always fascinating C. S. Lewis, possibly best known for The Chronicles of Narnia and The Screwtape Letters, as well as his Christian writings.  (Random aside: Lewis died on November 22, 1963.  No one cared much because JFK was assassinated that same day… but this year is the 50th anniversary of his death and he is being honored in Poets’ Corner. Redemption?).  I think it fits well with the theme of this blog, but it also is so very relevant to contemporary life.

                Obviously we could look to films and television as a medium for heroes and knights, but my mind takes me immediately to literature.  I often go off on tangents about how children – and adults – simply don’t read enough.  I won’t go into that here, because there are real studies done on how reading improves EVERYTHING in an educational spectrum.  What I will go into, though, is how reading improves life.

                Yeah, I said it.  Being a reader means your life is better.  I’m not trying to be hyperbolic, either.  I firmly believe this.  And here’s why.

                I’ve been reading my entire life.  I don’t remember learning to read, and I never remember a time when I wasn’t reading.  I was lucky this way.  Not all kids are that lucky, but even if they don’t grow up to be voracious readers like some obnoxious people, they need to have some exposure to bravery and goodness before the real world gives them a swift kick to the ass.  The world can be a cruel and scary place, and as more of my friends start having children (and I start making more friends who already have children), I hope more and more that they are prepared.

                One of my best friends has sons, and he told me once that his only goal in life, really, was to ensure that they grew up to be real men who were ready to face the world (I know, right??? Father of the year!!). Many of us want to protect the children in our lives, but we have to recognize that we can’t do this forever.  At some point they have to be pushed out into the real world, and like my friend said, we have to make sure they are prepared for the cruelty of life.  This is a huge responsibility, and literature can help through this process.

                There are some arguments that fairy tales and other stories in this genre aren’t good for young children, primarily girls, because they perpetuate gender roles and expectations; while this holds merit – after all, there are studies on what male and female children will read, and while girls will relate to and read stories with a male or a female protagonist, boys will often avoid female protagonists – there is something to be said for early exposure to the battle between good and evil.  Yes, Little Red Riding Hood has to be ‘rescued’ by the strapping woodsman because her genteel nature gets her into some trouble, and it’s often an evil stepmother plotting the death of children, however there are other stories where the good and evil conflict is not rooted in gender issues.  The Chronicles of Narnia includes good and evil characters of both genders, and includes strong female characters.  So does Lord of the Rings, and more contemporary works like Harry Potter and The Hunger Games which span the gender divide in readers.  But I digress…

                Literature provides a safe space for grappling with the issues of good and evil; we are not in any true bodily harm when knights go to battle against dragons and evil sorcerors; we are protected when Lord Voldemort threatens to Avada Kedavra everyone and everything in his path(for you non-Harry Potter people, that’s a spell that kills).  We recognize that evil exists in these literary worlds, and although sometimes it seems like there is no way out, unless we are dealing with a dystopian novel or something more experimental, good almost always triumphs in the end.   For children who are learning to maneuver their way through life, seeing good triumph can be a positive influence.  Knowing that there are good people in the world, projecting themselves into the heroic role allows them to shape a framework for future interactions with evil people and difficult circumstances.

                Literature can also provide an escape from reality.  As a teenager, I struggled with many of the common middle school issues.  Life seemed futile, and other teenagers can be incredibly cruel.  I always was a reader, but during this period of my life it became my salvation.  I saw characters that might not be considered heroes or knights, but their survival gave me hope for my own. 

                In the end, the wolf never wins.  There may be destruction and death and fears and turmoil along the way; the hero may face obstacles and fight terrifying battles, but when good overcomes evil in literature, we give children – and yes, even adults – courage and optimism that we need to travel through the reality of life.

August 5, 2013

Literature Friends are the very best friends...

So I’m currently sitting in a Starbucks in Maryland waiting for an old friend to arrive; I decided to try and get here early so I could chat with someone on Skype and attempt to write a blog post before going to Sean’s tonight.  It’s mostly out of fear, since Sean is pretty much the only person who encourages me to blog – he also reads all my posts and if I get this done before I see him, he’ll know it exists without me even telling him.  I had no idea what I was going to write about, but since I just came from Sunday Funday (and hangover Monday) with Richard, I want to write about my friends.

Let me be more specific: I want to write about my literature friends.  We all have friends that fall into different categories and we all have friends that serve different purposes in our lives.  Some are people we like to go out and drink with, some are shopping friends, or music friends, or work friends, but I have a select group of friends that are my literature friends.  We talk about books, we exchange suggestions, we argue about the value of one author over another, and we nerd out together.  The majority of my friends do enjoy reading (I’m obnoxious like that), which makes me very lucky, but there are a few that truly are my literature friends.  I trust their recommendations more than anyone else, and they rarely steer me wrong.

The 52 books that comprised the original reading list for the blog (I swear I will eventually get to all of them!) were a compilation of suggestions from friends and family members.  Those that weren’t direct suggestions from people were still often through word of mouth; I remembered someone (maybe I couldn’t remember who, but I knew it was someone!) who had read the book and really enjoyed it.  I love when my friends get me books as presents; it has to be a careful selection, but when someone gives me a book I end up loving I feel like they know the truth of me. 

There is also something magnificent about sharing a favorite book with a friend.  That’s an instant connection that cannot be replicated.  My dad and I both LOVE The Stand (the unabridged edition, obviously) and it’s something we share.  We talk about it, we discuss movie options and make jokes about characters.  Diana and I shared a physical copy of A Movable Feast (sorry for stealing it for so long, novia!), Richard and I shared every English class at McDaniel (for three years, I think!). I shared David Sedaris with a friend from work – really though, I read his stories OUTLOUD to him one day after school.  That’s how great my friends are.

But in honor of Sean, one of my best literature friends (and all around friend), I want to share my favorite book-nerd-friendship story.  My senior year of college I was ridiculously overwhelmed by senior seminar, student teaching, and the impending fear of adulthood.  Sean called me to calm me down – standard best friend behavior – but then he went one better.  He read to me.  Over the phone.  He read a chapter from what has now become one of my favorite books to me over the phone from another state.  He told me to calm the f*ck down and shut the f*ck up and he read to me.

Nothing better.



The book, in case you were wondering, is Bird By Bird, which I use when I teach.  My 7th graders gave me a copy when I was finished student teaching.  They had all signed it.  It’s currently at my friend Joe’s house because I’m passing on the same thing Sean gave me.  Also I have two of his books that I need to read and return.  I love my literature friends, but I am SO BAD at keeping track of the books we all pass around.

May 15, 2013

This is a post about Gatsby, old sport.

If you know anything about me, you KNEW this post was coming.  If you don't know anything about me, I'm sure if someone had asked you 'what is Leah excited about, movie-wise?' you would eventually have guessed at the answer.

Gatsby.  The GREAT Gatsby.  The greatest Gatsby (according to Stephen Colbert).  That old sport Gatsby.  Okay, I'm done now.  As a heads up, this post contains a crazy amount of spoilers, because I am about to go HAM on The Great Gatsby.

If you've never read the book, you need to go get a copy.  Right now.  Obviously, I'm a supporter of the book-is-better-than-movie movement, but I will always admit when the movie is just as good.  I'm a big fan of both the novel and the film version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, for example.  Different perspectives, a different take on the story, but each is equally magnificent in its own right.  That's partially why I love the Harry Potter movies (and even the film version of To Kill A Mockingbird); they are not better than the novel, they are not even as good as the novel, but as a stand alone film (or series), there is something magnificent about those films.  If I separate myself from the novels, I can appreciate them in isolation.  I love them, but I'll always choose the book.  And I am the person who leans over in the middle of a scene and whispers that's not what happened in the book!  Ugh, I'm so obnoxious!

But back to Gatsby (Gatsby?  What Gatsby?) and the beauty that is Fitzgerald's novel.  I had the insane luck to actually teach the book twice this year to my 20th Century Lit seniors, and I have to be honest, the second time around was a much better experience.  That's true of all teaching -- the first time through might not be a total disaster, but it's not going to be pretty.  I don't think I did the book justice first semester, but this time through, I was ready to roll.  The impending release date of the film was a good selling point, but I focused on the story this time around.

That sounds weird.  What I mean is that we just read the book.  Obviously we looked at symbolism and the use of colors (our study of Daisy's name as a metaphor was the reason they laughed so much at the Colbert clip I linked above), but when you have 27 students who simply don't read (EVER), your priorities shift.  I wanted them to love the book, not feel overwhelmed by it.  I read a lot of the book out loud to them, for some of the same reasons I read the majority of part one in Mockingbird to my 10th graders.  My personal inflections and intonations, and even just my awkward pauses, made the book come alive.  Not my skills as a reader, mind you -- although I do LOVE reading to people.

As an avid reader and a student of English literature, I often forget that they way I read is not normal.  Many of my students struggle just to understand the words on the page, which doesn't allow much freedom to read between the lines, understand the humor, or just enjoy a story.  It has nothing to do with technology or generational gaps, but instead is just a sign of how little people read.  When reading is not part of a daily routine, it does become more difficult and boring.  And I didn't want that for my students.

So I read to them.  And you know what?  I found a deeper understand of the novel through my reading.  The reunion between Daisy and Gatsby is so tense and awkward and hilarious, and I recognized it in a way that wasn't always so clear on my own readings.  It was simple for me to pause in the middle of a chapter and Tarantino it (as one of my students dubbed the technique), going back through the plot points, rereading sections until they understood what was happening.  Some of them followed along, some just sat and listened (two of them fell asleep most of the time), but they became enthralled by the strange and twisted lives of the characters.  By the time we hit the second party at Gatsby's, I was able to tell them to read the rest on their own.  Some of them had already finished it, and were completely devastated by the ending.

So what does all of this have to do with the film?  Well, The Great Gatsby is a visually stunning novel -- wait, wait, hear me out -- even though it's not a visual.  The use of color in the book is overwhelming at times, always symbolic, always important, always memorable.  The green light, the yellow car, the scarlet walls, the white dresses, Gatsby's gold tie.  The descriptions are simple but done with a finesse that is distinctly Fitzgerald.  He is able to waltz his characters from scene to scene, location to location, party to party, without missing a beat.  This, in theory, should transfer easily to the big screen but it doesn't.  The novel is not meant to be a film.  It's like the 5th Harry Potter, The Order of the Phoenix; it's so much inside Harry's own thoughts, and that makes for a pretty shitty movie.  No one wants to listen to 3 hours of straight narration!  The novel is told through flashbacks and introspection from Nick, and he's annoying enough as it is.

But I was still excited.  It's Leo.  And Baz.  And I was going in with low expectations because no movie has ever been able to capture the novel.  Did it do justice to what is arguably one of the most iconic American novels?  Ehhh, not quite, but it was close.  And here's why.  If Gatsby were to make a movie about himself to show Daisy, it would be this version.  Minus the weird screaming angry scary Gatsby parts (WTF was that????).  It's corny and romanticized and over the top and loud and glitzy and cost wayyyy too much money to make and... wait a minute, didn't I just describe ALL OF GATSBY'S LIFE AFTER DAISY MARRIED TOM AND HE TRIED TO WIN HER BACK BY MAKING MONEY AND THROWING LAVISH PARTIES AND BASICALLY JUST BY BEING A CREEPY AWKWARD WEIRDO????  I mean, I'm just saying, but really...

I think people want to hate the movie because it's the type of movie 'literary types' aren't supposed to like.  We are expected to scoff at the plebs who haven't read the novel and don't understand the magnitude of this film, those who just like the Jay-Z soundtrack because they can't appreciate jazz, we are expected to ridicule those who aren't as educated or cultured as we, the civilized types... wait a minute, didn't I just describe TOM BUCHANAN'S DOUCHBAGGARY AND THE EAST EGG WEST EGG DIVIDE????  I mean, I'm just saying, but really...

I liked the over the top moments, and the fireworks that exploded when he told Nick "I'm Gatsby" because it just felt so appropriate to what the novel is really about.  Decadence, materialism, reality verses fantasy... the movie is unbelievable because Gatsby himself is unbelievable.  Was it perfect?  HELL NO.  Was it pretty effing good?  Absolutely. I'll give it a solid B.  It lost points because of the funeral scene, and the fact that Klipspringer never called to get his tennis shoes back.  It's the little things, I suppose.

I waited 5 years for this movie to be released and.. wait a minute, didn't Gatsby wait for Daisy for five years?     Dammit, Baz, you sneaky devil.