Sunday, March 28, 2010

Olive's Ocean

In yesterday's post, I mentioned that my students are doing an independent reading project in class. They got to select a book from a wide selection of recommendations from their peers. I like to read the first few pages of all the books, just to get a sense of what they're about. That way I can help kids pick books that will work for them.

One book in particular, Olive's Ocean, caught my attention. I usually read the author bio first, and when I saw that Kevin Henkes lives in Madison, my interest was piqued. Then I read the first few pages, and I was hooked. By the end of the day, I was half way through the book. I cranked out the second half easily the next day. Olive's Ocean is actually the story of 12 year Martha Boyle. Olive was a classmate who recently died when her bike was hit by a car. Martha and Olive weren't friends, but Olive wrote in her journal that Martha was the nicest girl she knew. The story begins when Olive's mom hand delivers her daughter's journal to Martha. The Boyles are getting ready to spend a week at their Grandma's house on Cape Cod. Martha and her brother, Vince, call their grandma Godbee, and Martha looks forward to their visit every summer. This visit is a journey of self-discovery for Martha.

There's a lot of humor in this book, and young readers, even the guys, will definitely be able to relate to the issues Martha is dealing with: parents, siblings, loss, friendship, boys/girls. It will ring true to kids 12 and older. I definitely want the girls to read this one, but not before 12, that feels like the right cut-off. What's really impressive is that parents will enjoy this book as well. Henkes has given adults a nice look into the mind of a young person on the cusp of adolescence. This is truly a book for readers of all ages.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Lark and Termite

I have my students doing an independent reading project right now, so I've been reading with them. We call that modeling in the teaching world. This has allowed me to get a lot of reading done the past couple weeks. When we started, I brought in the book I was reading at home, Lark and Termite, by Jayne Anne Phillips.

I'd call this a family secrets novel, akin to Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres, but with a gothic feel. Phillips starts us in 1950, with the story of Robert Leavitt, Termite's father. Leavitt is a soldier in the Korean War, caught in an awful situation, and his story unravels throughout the novel to its tragic end. From Korea, Phillips takes us to West Virginia in 1959. Lark and Termite are siblings being raised by their Aunt Nonie, their lives haunted by the absence of their mother, Lola. These story lines are expertly woven together, creating an emotional crescendo, no small feat.

Lark and Termite was a National Book Award finalist, and with good reason, Phillips is clearly a master. While I enjoyed the book, and would recommend it to others, I did find the writing a bit forced in places, almost like Phillips was trying to be literary. It's not a deal-breaker, just a thought.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Hoops and Healthcare

I wrote my last post on the eve of the Badger's second round game against Cornell. The Badger's last few games weren't very encouraging, and I had a feeling they might lose. Being a fan, there was still hope, but those hopes came crashing down Sunday afternoon. Cornell simply dismantled Wisconsin. I have to say, I can't think of a bigger beat down in the Bo Ryan era. Let me say this, that was not an upset. I watch a lot of college basketball, and Cornell is a damn good team. A buddy of mine said he thought Cornell would have won the Big Ten, and I think he's right. No way they were a 12 seed. I've seen a lot of 12 seeds in my time, and that was no 12 seed. So Wisconsin's season comes to an end. Pretty good season all things considered: beat Duke, finished in the top half of the Big Ten, again, and a 4 seed in the tournament. As for this year's Sweet 16, I'll be cheering for Cornell, St. Mary's, and Northern Iowa, all true Davids with a real shot.

Obama signed the healthcare bill today, and conservatives everywhere are apoplectic. I'm concerned about the cost, but I think this is a worthy expense. I know cynicism is king these days, but I think reform can lower costs. Our premiums get jacked up to cover the uninsured as it is. It makes sense to me that preventive care can lower expenses. I respect that it doesn't make sense to everyone. I guess we'll have to see who's right. For now, I'm cautiously optimistic. I'm proud to live in a country that looks out for all its citizens, but I am more than a little embarrassed by how contentious our politics have become.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Ode to March Madness

What a great tournament so far! I could be wrong, but it sure feels like more upsets than usual. I think we're going to see some new blood in the Final Four. Really excited for Northern Iowa, couple Green Bay kids on that team. Watching KState/BYU right now. I love the Fredette kid, but KState is awfully tough, very tenacious. Not very happy about how my Badgers played yesterday. They better play a lot better tomorrow against Cornell or their run will be over. I'd love to see them have a crack at Kentucky. Of course, Kentucky is pounding Wake Forest by 30 right now, but that's the thing about the tournament, you never know.

The tournament has always been my favorite sporting event of the year. So many great memories, where do you even start. I remember One Shining Moment before it was a big deal. My earliest memory is Al McGuire and Marquette winning the title in '77. My dad went to Marquette, so that was our team. A few years later some of the Marquette players came to my school, St. Thomas More, for a little basketball clinic, and I remember being in awe. When Marquette fell on hard times, I just kind of followed the game in general, usually pulling for the underdogs. I remember losing my mind, like everyone else of course, when Lorenzo Charles snatched that ball out of midair and slammed it home. I loved Rollie and Nova taking down mighty Georgetown. Keith Smart"s jumper in '87 was a highlight of my senior year. Unfortunately, the Badgers never made the tournament when I was a student, that would have been amazing. My buddies and I followed Tony Bennett and UWGB during our college years; their victory over Jason Kidd and Cal was huge for the state. The Badgers finally became a factor in the Dick Bennett era. It wasn't always pretty, but they won, and if it wasn't for Michigan State, we probably would have won the national championship in 2000(?). Bo Ryan has turned UW into a perennial power on the hardwood, but in my mind, the Badgers have often underachieved in the tournament. They had a nice Elite 8 run a few years back, losing a tough one to eventual champ, North Carolina, but other than that, too many loses to lower seeds. Hell, last year Trevon had me jumping up and down with the buzzer beater against Florida State in the first round.

Kentucky is mighty Goliath this year, but who knows, if Wisconsin can take care of Cornell tomorrow, maybe they can pull off a classic David in the Sweet 16. That's what this tournament is all about.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Proud Poppa

Lots of Irish dancing this weekend. The girls performed at the Tucson Festival of Books Saturday, and today the girls walked in the St. Pat's parade and performed at Armory Park afterward. Tomorrow they go down to Green Valley for a performance. Quite the schedule for these little Irish dancers.

I love watching the girls perform, makes my heart swell every time. The girls put a lot of effort into their dancing, and that hard work is really paying off. Irish dancing has really taught them a valuable lesson: if you want to get better at something, you have to work hard. They've embraced that, and their progress is amazing to me. All the performing they do has given them real confidence. They don't think twice about getting out there in front of big crowds, they're totally composed. Even if they do mess up, they've learned to keep their wits and carry on. It's all very impressive.

All the girls, regardless of age or ability, are extremely supportive, there's a real community spirit. It's really fun to watch Scout and Quinn interact with the other girls. That might actually be the best thing about this whole experience, the friendships. I have a feeling these are going to be some lasting friendships, and it's a blast seeing those bonds develop. On a day like today, I'm really glad Meg got the ball rolling with the Irish dance. It's not the cheapest thing in the world, but it's been great for my girls, and that's all that really matters.

Friday, March 12, 2010

When Will There Be Good News?

I'm a huge Kate Atkinson fan. At this point, I'll read anything she does, she's that good. I waited a long time for this one to come out in paperback, and it was well worth the wait. This is the kind of book you don't want to put down.

When Will There Be Good News is the third go round with Jackson Brodie, a private detective who seems dogged by tragedy. Brodie is a great character, kind of a man's man, which is quite the feat for a female author. Atkinson does a masterful job of moving between multiple story lines, expertly bringing them together in the end, to devastating effect. That's one of the best things about this series from Atkinson, seeing how she ties the seemingly disparate characters and stories together. Kind of reminds me of a Tarantino movie. In fact, that's a great idea, I'd love to see Tarantino do a Jackson Brodie movie.

I don't know what Atkinson's plans are for Jackson Brodie, but I hope she isn't done with him yet. I know she doesn't consider herself a crime writer, and she doesn't think the Jackson Brodie books are crime novels, they just happen to involve characters dealing with crimes. I agree, there's a lot more character development in these books than your typical crime novel. I have a feeling she's ready to move on. I actually thought the other detective, Louise Monroe, kind of took over as the central figure in this one. I wonder if Atkinson is going to shift focus to her in the future. That would actually be quite interesting, a few books with her, tie in Brodie now and again. If this does turn out to be the end of the line for Jackson Brodie, it sure was a great ride.

Do yourself a favor, make your next book Case Histories, the first Jackson Brodie book. I guarantee you'll be hooked, and you'll knock the next two out like a kid reading Harry Potter.

Thursday, March 11, 2010


I've had a few days to let the Oscars sink in, so here are some thoughts about the whole thing. Meg and I had a blast watching with our friends Jane and Chris, who made the trek from Minnesota, most fun we've had watching the show in years.

Apparently Neil Patrick Harris is some kind of go-to-guy for award show dance numbers, but quite frankly, stupid way to start the show. Let Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin do their intro standup and get on with it already. Martin and Baldwin were funny: solid funny, not talk-about-it-the-next day funny. Their best stuff was the Paranormal Activity riff and the snuggie shot. Not a lot going on with the presenters other than Ben Stiller's bit, which I thought was a nice piece of Andy Kaufman-inspired awkward humor. The highlight of the acceptance speeches for me was Jeff Bridges, what a classy guy, The Dude does indeed abide. The Kanye moment for the best short subject documentary was fun, talk about promoting your film. Kathryn Bigelow was a bit incoherent when she came back onstage for the best picture win, but I actually found it kind of refreshing that someone was flustered by the enormity of the moment without screaming to mask it. I thought it was brilliant to have past winners of the short film award explain how important the award was to their careers, made that award relevant for me. My favorite part of the show was the John Hughes tribute, nostalgic in the right way, loved seeing all the actors.

Not a lot of surprises with the awards, for me at least, not that I agreed with all the winners. My real beef is with best actress. The whole Sandra Bullock lovefest didn't work for me. There is no way she should have beaten Gabouray Sidibe. That girl knocked it out of the park. I was glad to see Precious win for adapted screenplay, even though I thought Up in the Air was a great adaptation. I don't have a problem with Hurt Locker winning best picture, but I think Precious was a more powerful film. I thought Inglorious Basterds should have won best original screenplay, but it was Hurt Locker's night, so that made sense. I think Hurt Locker is a great movie, and I love the DIY spirit of the thing, but I thought 3 or 4 other films were better, with Precious being my choice for best film of 2009.

Oh, and one last thing. What the hell was Clooney's problem? I read somewhere he was swigging off a flask, but it sure didn't look like he was having any fun. Maybe he should have done some Lemoncello shots with Devito in the parking lot.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Couples Retreat

I'll write about the Oscars later this week. Our friends, Jane and Chris, were in town this weekend, and we watched Couples Retreat Saturday night. Wow! That is one BAD movie. I saw that Transformers won the Razzie for worst picture, but for my money, this was worse. Transformers is a bad action movie because there's too much action, it's mind-numbing. Couples Retreat is a bad comedy because the laughs are few and far between. Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau are usually hilarious, but not this time. Very little laughter in our family room Saturday night. Some brief chuckling when the yoga guy was doing his thing, but other than that, crickets. You have to wonder, what the hell were Vaughn and Favreau thinking? It sure felt like they just wanted to make some quick money and get a sweet vacation at a posh resort, but Favreau wrote the script, so I have to believe there's more to it. Bad judgement is more like it. The guys who gave us Swingers get a lifetime pass, and they definitely have to use it for this one. Better luck next next time fellas.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Birthday Girl

We celebrated Quinn's 7th birthday on Friday with a bowling party. For the last 3 years we did the jumping castle party at the house, but this year Quinn wanted to change things up. Good party, the kids bowled a couple games, ate some pizza and ice cream, ended with the presents. It's just a blast to watch Quinny goof around with her friends.

My little girl is 7! It's not right. I know it's trite, cliche, but seriously, where is the time going? Leading up to her birthday I was joking with Quinn that I wasn't going to let her turn 7, she had to stay 6 for the rest of her life. Her indignation was hilarious. I am so proud of Quinny, she's making such big strides. She has worked very hard on her reading this year, and she's right at the cusp of being an independent reader. She was a stud on the soccer field this year, and her Irish dancing has really come a long way.

It's bittersweet, this parenting gig. I'd love to keep my little 6 year old Q forever, but it's pure joy to see the beautiful person she is becoming. The kid just has a lust for life, she's full-on 24/7. That energy is infectious, she picks me up all the time. A lot of changes for my baby girl this year, but I know that spirit will never change. Part of me hates to see another year roll by, but at the same time, it's incredibly rewarding to see how far my little girl has come.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Boy Who Couldn't Sleep and Never Had To

I enjoyed this book, the debut novel from DC Pierson. It's the story of Darren Bennett, a socially awkward teenager growing up in the greater Phoenix area. Darren spends most of his time working on Time Blaze, a sci-fi movie trilogy, with supplemental books to fill in the gaps. Made me think of James Cameron and the whole Avatar/Pandora thing he's got cooking. Darren's isolation is ultimately broken up when he meets Eric Lederer. I like how the two just sort of fall into being friends. Eric compliments Darren's drawings in math class one day, and the next thing you know, they're collaborating on Time Blaze, spending all their time together. There's a Gary and Wyatt/Weird Science quality that I liked about these two.

Eric is the boy who can't sleep, not a night in his life that he can remember. Darren keeps the secret until Eric steals his girl. Once the cat is out of the bag, there's a mysterious guy trying to bring them in, and they spend the last third of the book eluding capture. This is where Pierson weaves in some sci-fi of his own. The mystery guy appears because Eric can transfer things from the world of his imagination to the real world of metropolitan Phoenix, a byproduct of his sleep deprivation. During the climax, we see some other things form the world of Time Blaze, and I guess that type of sci-fi thing may work for some people. It's not really my cup of tea, so I didn't enjoy the last third of the book as much, but it wasn't enough to ruin it for me. This is a nice little tale of friendship, and I look forward to seeing more from Pierson.