a writer's journey as a reader

Why We Say: #15

Watercooler chatter: “That new CEO doesn’t do much, does he?”
“Yeah, bit of figurehead, I figure.”

Today’s lesson involves some sailing knowledge. First, it’s important to know the front, the bow, from the back, the stern. The bow would be decorated with some sort of figure which actually is fairly interesting (go on–have a peek). They didn’t serve any real purpose, but they sure made the ships look imposing, important, regal, at times intimidating. There is also the thought that a figurehead, as in politics and business, can be controlled by other forces, much like the figurehead on the ship is controlled by the sails or other power. Hmm, is there a connection between these two figures in terms of being figureheads?

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA  Elizabeth II greets NASA GSFC employees, May 8, 2007 edit.jpg (I think highly of the Queen, BtW)

Any Laurel and Hardy fans out there? You might recognize this saying, “This is a fine kettle of fish you’ve gotten us into.” If you recall, this was flustered out by Oliver Hardy to Stan Laurel after some frustrating incident. But why a kettle of fish? Maybe Ollie had some Scottishishness about him and was recalling how fishermen thought they could coax the best flavor out of the fish by cooking them right on the spot in a large kettle. They must have known the secret of cooking up a fine kettle of fish, since no one else could replicate it. Hence, from then on “a fine kettle of fish” is actually referring to a mess instead of success.


Singing in the Rain is a personal favorite, especially all those great song and dance numbers by Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor. How about this one:

Why “fit as a fiddle?” Kelly and O’Connor might not have realized they were referring to boxers, the fighters (not the dogs) in their ditty. Apparently the original expression was “fit as a fiddler” because boxers had to be in top condition in order to go a few rounds in the ring. Wait, a minute, Gene and Donald must have known that to be “fit as a fiddle and ready for love” they would have to be ready to fight for their love. Makes sense…


(images from Morguefiles and Wikipedia)


ReReReReally Rejected

Starting the month of March with four rejections shadowing me from the last week of February prompts a bit of reflection.

1. Perhaps I should check my email more often. This would prevent rejections from multiplying if left unattended.
2. One rejection is par for the course, two rejections is irritating, three rejections is laughable, four rejections is laughably ridiculous.
3. Repeating “It’s not me being rejected, it’s my writing,” is great only in theory because me I wrote it, right?
4. I’d rather have one big punch than several smacks. A bruise is a bruise.
5. Cheery demeanor: “Well, at least I know now and can move on to submit the piece elsewhere.”
6. Bad attitude: actually I don’t have one–rejections are part of the landscape of writing.
7. Overall takeaway: just one more story I get to store up for when I am keynote speaker at my award acceptance banquet.

Okay–back to updating my submission ledger…

Blog Spotlight: Mustardseed

An encouraging word. A bright spot. A story of motivation and encouragement. All this and more is found by following MustardSeedBudget. Pastor Mike Ashcraft provides faith memes and positive messages on his blog. He will also regale readers with his appreciation for soccer. And he especially likes to pass on to others his special love for the church he left behind in Guatemala.

I look forward to his frequent postings and I appreciate how he takes time to visit my blog. I can’t really say how I found his blog, but I’m ever so glad I did. I must be in good company because he has over 4,500 followers. I must not be the only one who knows that something as small as a mustard seed has a way into growing into something big.

Thanks, Pastor Mike for your words of faith.


I have become a victim of over booking, and I have only myself to blame. No, I didn’t get postponed at the airport, or delayed at the restaurant. Actually, it’s all my fault I got caught in this dilemma. Life just happens sometimes, you know?

For the first time since fifth grade I am conscious of how many books I am reading this year. In fifth grade Mr. C, my fifth grade teacher, challenged us to read over the summer and bring him the list in fall. I think I read a 100 books–memory tends to fade the accuracy of details. I do recall the look of surprise when I trucked in my list on my way to sixth grade next door. I’d like to think I was the only one who took up his challenge. I would have read all summer anyway. Too bad I didn’t keep the list. It would be fun to revisit what I was interested in reading at eleven years old.

This year I have taken up the GoodReads Challenge and I am diligently marking off my books with reviews. My goal is 50 books, because I think I can manage that amount. I now realize how idealistic that amount might actually be. Therefore, my dilemma. I calculated I will need to read at least 4 books a month to hit my goal. And for honesty sake (former Campfire Girl) I will double or triple up on children’s books because they are so much shorter. Then again, does a 400 page plus book count as double? War and Peace count as triple? I’ll figure it out.

This is why I am currently reading 4 books 3 books (just finished the newest this morning).

  • In the car I’m listening to Lois Lowry’s Silent Boy, a mesmerizing story of a young girl, Kate, remembering back to the time she befriended Jacob, who everyone in town referred to as “touched.”
  • On the living room side table is Will in the World by Stephen Greenblatt. I have been gnawing away at this one for a while because it is so fabulously rich in content. I should just buy it, since I put a sticky marker in every other page. If you are interested in the texture of Shakespeare and his times, this is THE book to read. Probably explains why it earned National Book Award Finalist.
    • By the bed, and in the bookbag, and at school it’s a rereading Jane Eyre. As long as I teach it, I tend to read it. JE is one of favorite heroines, so it’s a pleasure, not a chore. In fact, there are times that I miss my Jane time because I get so busy I can’t sit down and relish her story. I am involved with this novel. I’m studying it, analyzing it, researching it, and most of all enjoying it. Again.
    • Back to four books. Make that five. Both holds came in: Way of the Peaceful Warrior (saw the movie and I’m curious) and The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller–a recommendation from one of my many book review blogs.
    • Actually six–I picked up Number the Stars by Lois Lowry as a reread.

Sigh. Anyone else overbooked this week?

The movie definitely got my attention… image:

Will I be able to NOT think Brad Pitt as I read this? image: GoodReads

I have to read a Lois Lowry I haven’t liked image: Wikipedia




Good Taste, Good Reading

Is YA too angst driven? image: The Scream by Edvard Munch/


In my stack of reading material I came across a 2013 Imprimis, a publication of Hillsdale College, entitled “The Case for Good Taste in Children’s Books” by Meghan Cox Gurdon, Children’s Book Reviewer for The Wall Street Journal. The MEPA had flipped it my way, and I thought it would be interesting enough for reading, later. Later has arrived, a year and a half later. Does anyone else have an overwhelming TBR stack?

The article is a speech delivered at Hillsdale College on March 12, 2013, and Gurdon hits upon a sensitive issue: the dark topics found in current YA titles. She starts her speech by mentioning the two hot topics on Twitter on June 4, 2011 were the Anthony Weiner scandal and her article “Darkness Too Visible.” Her article discussed how in the four decades that YA has existed as a separate genre, it has become increasingly “lurid, grotesque, profane, sexual, and ugly.”

Books show us the world, and in that sense, too many books for adolescents act like funhouse mirrors, reflecting hideously distorted portrayals of life. Those of us who have grown up understand that the teen years can be fraught and turbulent–and for some kids, very unhappy–but at the same time we know that in the arc of human life, these years are brief. Today, too many novels for teenagers are long on the turbulence and short on a sense of perspective.

Gurdon continues to express her concern over how the first person perspective is the narrative choice, which means the immediacy of “I” and “now” is present in YA novels and keeps readers in “the turmoil of the moment,” creating a sense of wearing blinders to the current hormone-laden environment in which they live. To this I agree, to an extent.

Many YA novels focus on the immediacy of choices, or lack of them, the trauma and drama that teens live in. However, it is momentary. I recently switched from teaching ninth grade English to instructing seniors–talk about paradigm shifts. I had to almost reinvent my style of teaching because there is very little drama with 17 and 18 year olds compared to the 14 year olds I’m used to dealing with. And so it goes with what they read. Everything is so much more to a fourteen year old because so much less is happening: they don’t drive yet, don’t hold a job, barely have started dating, maybe barely have started puberty. Less is more. The books I hear them talk about, and see on their desks, reflect their need to read about the amplication of their feelings.

Gurdon related how she was charged by YA book writers JudyBlume and Libba Bray of “giving comfort to book-banners.” However, Gurdon argues that she doesn’t want books to be banned or instill fear into writers; she only wishes there would be an exercise in discretion.

What I do wish is that people in the book business would exercise better taste; that adult authors would not simply validate every spasm of the teen experience; and that our culture was not marching toward ever-greater explicitness in depictions of sex and violence.

In the remainder of the article, Gurdon provides examples of lurid YA content, and the results of recent studies conducted at Virginia Tech. Her point is well-taken how media, particularly books, can establish a norm. Federal researchers, Gurdon pointed out, remained puzzled about the anti-drug/tobacco campaigns directed at elementary and middle schools and the actual use of the substances by the students. Apparently the conclusion is that the children were learning a paradox: adults must think you are using if they are telling you the dangers of doing so. Does this same logic apply to novel content?

Gurdon points out that “problem novels” normalize and validate the horrendous experiences of teenagers. She affirms this idea with Emily Bazelon’s book on about bullying, how schools are beginning to use a method that promotes the idea that cruelty isn’t the norm. The idea becomes estabished that there isn’t as much bullying going on as everyone says there is. The proclivity to be cruel isn’t justified, simply because it isn’t as big of deal as everyone is making it to be.

There is the tendency to gravitate towards the sensational. The gruesome, shocking, and disgusting make viral headlines and get repeated enough to establish an acceptance that if it’s in the news it must be what’s happening. Gurdon obviously riled a few people with her plea for discretion–authors, librarians, readers all reacted as if they were being vilified. And it is here that I feel Gurdon’s frustration.

I don’t hear her banning books or rebuking YA content; instead I hear her dismay. She emphasizes that she doesn’t believe that the vast majority of 12 to 18 year olds are living abject, miserable lives, and she doesn’t understand the purpose of providing material that emphasizes that life for those who are. She encourages the book world to seek out books that embrace wisdom and beauty, those books that provide answers to hard questions found in life. Perhaps that is the distinctive between what is today’s bestseller and tomorrow’s classic.

Gurdon closes her article with St. Paul’s words found in Philippians 4:8:

Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.

She then asks the audience to think upon those words when shopping for books for children.

As I sign off, I am given pause about promoting more of the lovely, excellent, and praiseworthy when I provide literature choices to my students. As William Wordsworth once wrote:

What we have loved
others will love, and we will teach them how.



Author Snapshot: Daphne du Mariuer

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…


One of the more famous opening lines for a novel is Daphne Du Mariuer’s first sentence of the eponymous character recalling her days at Manderley. Rebecca, a gothic romance, if there ever was one. No wonder Hitchcock snapped it up. I’m not sure which is the bigger hit: the novel or the film. They are both memorable, eerie, and suspenseful. Whenever I reread the book, I immediately want to view the film again. The novel leaves a legacy found in a variety of mediums:


  • Stephen King alludes to Mrs. Danvers, the troubled housekeeper, several times in Bag of Bones, and again refers to her in “Father’s Day.”
  • Jasper Fforde creates an army of Mrs. Danvers clones in his  Thursday Next series.
  • Danielle Steel nods to the novel in her Vanished, since the plot is similar to Rebecca.


  • The Man with Two Brains, a Steve Martin comedy, acknowledges the novel as his character consults the portrait of his deceased wife, Rebecca.


  • Dark Shadows, the original 70s Gothic soap opera (not the Johnny Depp film) relied on Rebecca’s sinister setting to create its creepy plotline.
  • Carol Burnett lampooned the novel with her “Rebecky” skit.

And if Rebecca‘s Gothic romance plot line isn’t your cup of tea, perhaps you remember The Birds? It was a short story before Hitchcock got ahold of it and produced a movie that still freaks me out. I found her short story in an anthology of animal uprising stories including Animal Farm. Watch out for pigs and birds–they pack a punch when they take over the world.

While Daphne Du Mariuer might not be in vogue as much as she once was, she definitely left on impact on the literary world with her contributions of novels, plays, and non-fiction. She often wrote ahead of her time, as evidenced in her House on the Strand, which alluded to the mind-altering drugs used in the sixties. There is some controversy about plagiarism, which I choose not to dwell upon. And some aspersions about her personal life, which I won’t delve into either. What fascinates me is her diversity as a writer. Though labeled as a romantic novelist (a label she disliked), she proved she could write beyond what critics’ and the publics’ labels. She wrote historical biographies, chilling mysteries, science fantasy, and wrote them well.

Some trivia which isn’t trivial:

  • awarded the Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire.
  • daughter of actor parents: Sir Gerald du Maurier and Muriel Beaumont; granddaughter of George du Maurier, Punch cartoonist.
  • cousin to the Llewelyn Davies boys, who were the inspiration for J.M.Barrie’s Peter Pan.

    Daphne du Maurier in her later years image: BBC news

2/50: Bloom’s BioCritiques–William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare  Frustrated Harold Bloom.

Harold Bloom knows a lot about literature. I think “intimidated” along with “impressed” are among my reactions to his introduction on William Shakespeare


2015 is going to be my Shakesyear, since I have set out a goal to gather research to write about Shakespeare. I’m not sure from what angle I’ll proceed, but I’m looking forward to the process. I do enjoy researching. It’s the doing something with it all that I struggle. I do know I have a daunting task ahead of me. Consider how little we know about him, I realize I’m probably going to be chasing about looking at the same old information presented by different people. Maybe I’ll be fortunate and find two needles in the info haystack…

The first book I’ve come across is a dandy. Harold Bloom, esteemed literary critic, takes on the task on presenting literary biographies of all sorts of famous authors. Although intended for juvenile readers, I found his vocabulary and syntax fairly challenging at times. For instance, what middle schooler would grasp this sentence easily: “I surmise that the egregious interventions by Vencentio and Iago displace the actor’s energies into a new kind of mischief-making, a fresh opening to a subtler playwriting-within-the-play.”

Bloom creates a portrait of Shakespeare through the observations of others including Samuel Johnson and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Considering this volume is under 200 pages, it’s packed with vital insights, including a chronology, works list, and a bibliography, to set me off along the trail in my search for Shakespeare.

Some new-to-me facts about the Bard:

  • he was “fostered” out to another family whose connections might have helped him rise above the failings of his father (which is quite the story in itself)
  • in 1587, when Shakespeare was 23, five theatrical companies visited Stratford and it wasn’t long after that Billy Boy went off to London
  • Hamlet, produced in 1601, was among the first plays the Lord Chamberlain’s Men performed at the Globe theater
  • Shakespeare’s company performed at least twelve plays every year for King James and his court
  • The purchase of the Blackfriars, another theatre, allowed Shakespeare’s acting troupe to perform year round since this was an enclosed theatre, unlike the Globe

I look forward to my discovering of William Shakespeare, and I hope you won’t become bored with my Bardinating over the course of the year.

Button, Button

My usual adage of “The original source is always better” went out the window after watching The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
When the movie came out in 2008, I promptly avoided it. I thought the premise strange, that a baby would experience life backwards–going from old and decrepit to incapacitated infant. It especially seemed odd, even a bit creepy, since a romance was part of the plot.

Aging backwards. Not a new concept, apparently backwards aging is not a truly new trope. After all, Shakespeare hinted at our returning to our infancy state in his “Seven Ages” poem.

I also was a bit leery of Brad Pitt at the time. Fight Club isn’t exactly my type of genre. The male progeny tried to interest me (who can resist bonding with their sons via a movie?) but after a few minutes of gruesome artsy cinema, I deferred. However, since Fight Club Pitt has appeared in movies I do like, such as the Oceans triple, and Mr and Mrs Smith. Into the library basket went Benjamin Button as I gathered movies for the week. I didn’t realize I was committing to two and a half hours.

A sick day, and no energy for reading and in popped the movie. I sat spellbound. I even cried at the end. And was a bit indignant that Brad Pitt got passed over for an Academy Award. This trailer captures the heart of the movie well:

The most interesting part for me is that the movie is based on a F. Scott Fitzgerald short story. The fantasy genre intrigued me because I didn’t peg FSF for writing anything but brooding rebellious characters from the Roaring Twenties. The story’s biting satirical tone is very much Twain, and I learned that Fitz was indeed influenced by MT, who had made a comment about what a shame we don’t experience the best years, our older years, first. Interestingly enough, the only thing the movie and short story have in common is the title and premise. Here is the story link:


Any of you been surprised by the film being actually better than the written work?

Why We Say: #14

Facing the music. For most of us that does not mean we are a conductor or going to a concert. Usually it means we have messed up and are about to deal with our consequences. Wait a minute–music is considered pleasant. Wouldn’t facing music be pleasant? Not if the band is playing and you’re in the line up for the firing squad. And the band played on takes on a whole different meaning.


“So, Eddie–what’s with the guy in the blind fold over by the wall?” image: morgue file

The scene: a business exec, clad in suit enters suburban home circa 1950s and excitedly greets wife stirring up dinner at the stove.

“Hey, Martha! Guess what, honey? You’re looking at the guy who just landed the Happy Holstein account. Get ready for some serious vacation time once my commission check comes through.”

“Oh, George! That’s wonderful, dear. That’s quite a feather in your cap. You worked hard to get that account.”

Fade out: happy couple celebrates over dinner and raised glasses of cheer and smiles.

George was fairly pleased with himself, and deservedly so. That Holstein account involved many overtime hours to get the right campaign ready for presentation. George placed his figurative feather in his cap for his achievement. If George had lived in the days of Edward the “Black Prince” (think the nice prince Heath Ledger’s William character faced in Knights Tale), he would have received three ostrich feathers for his valor or perhaps he would have fared well as a Lycian soldier who added a feather to his cap for every enemy soldier vanquished. Either way George can be pleased how he absolutely slayed that tough assignment.


George rocks his cap feather. image: morgue file

 a thing that is a complete failure, especially in a ludicrous or humiliating way.
“his plans turned into a fiasco
synonyms: failure, disaster, catastrophe, debacle, shambles, farce, mess, wreck
If George had blown the Holstein account he might have arrived home with the glum, instead of glad news, that his day had been a fiasco. Fiascos should be avoided, especially if one’s profession is a Venetian glass maker. Venetian glass is exquisite and craftsman pride is evident in the end product. If the slightest flaw became detected, the bottle was relegated to a common task which took on the name of “fiasco.” If you think about it, some mistakes can be as transparent as glass.

“Quartet of Fiascos” image: morgue file

A band of feathers and faulty glasses brought to you by Why We Say: a Guidebook to Current Idioms and Expressions and Where They Came From by Robert L. Morgan (if 1953 is considered current…)



Last Minute Housekeeping: 2014 Vocabulary

Before January totally rolls into February, I wanted to take up Vanessa-Jane Chapman’s nudging to “trot out” my 2014 vocabulary list. And I only thought about doing so because she did such a cool thing by coming up with a word of personal significance for each of the 365 days in 2014. Some of the words a person can only wonder about: Pirate?

My list seems rather mundane in comparison. I set out to record all the new-to-me or review, please words as I read last year. I usually read with my iPhone nearby and type them in my notes (which I can then email to my Google Docs account–handy). I started doing this with my AP reread novel Jane Eyre, which I began in February last year. Periodically I reread books I teach, just to refresh my memory of whatever it is I’m trying to impart to my students. I soon realized my vocabulary wasn’t up to snuff. Here’s a sampling of my Jane Eyre word collection:

appanage: benefit or rank belonging to someone
meretricious:attractive with no real value
diablerie: reckless in a charismatic way
seraglio: women’s apts in Muslim palace
puerile: childishly silly
avidity:keen interest or enthusiasm
inanition:exhaustion caused by lack of nourishment
elysium: Greek mythology-the place where Greek heroes went to be honored after their death
aspirant: ambitions to follow something, as in a political career
coadjutor: bishop which assists a bishop
ineradicable:unable to be destroyed or removed
pertinaciously:holding firmly to an opinion

Some of these I doubt I will be using anytime soon: “appange”? And others I hope to pop out with aplomb at some advantageous point in a conversation: “My inanition requires we go to lunch sooner than later.”  I seriously don’t think I will ever have an ocassion for “coadjutor”; however, I am prepared now should the need arise.

Other words I added from here and there encounters, including one from watching David Suchet in a Hercule Poirot episode and I ever so want to slide it into a conversation (look for *):

poltroon: utter coward
propound: put forward
adamantine: unable to be unbroken
apocryphal: doubtful statement
quash: reject as invalid especially in a legal procedure
blazon:form of poem which describes person through body part description. (Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 is a parody of the form).
*avuncular: acting as an uncle figure
venal: susceptible to corruption or bribery
louche: disreputable or sordid
gallimaufry: jumble
kloofs: African valley
intercalary: calendar alignment-Feb 29
imbroglio: confused situation
vitiated: impair vitality
vertiginously: high or steep
antinomy: a paradox
soteriology : the doctrine of salvation
verdure: lush, green vegetation
encomiums: speech of praise
abstruse: difficult to understand
perfidious: deceitful and untrustworthy

Has collecting these words improved my overall diction? No, not really. Truthfully, I forgot most of these until I attempted to entrap them in the block quote (I give up, Mike, I can’t figure out the boxy thing–sigh). So why do I bother with finding them, typing them in, defining them–yada, yada. Why? I am a confessed word nerd. I just gotta know what that word is. I have a compunction about taking the time to look up the meaning so I continue reading (or watching) my story without being bothered by not knowing. I don’t think that’s because I’m a librarian gigging as an English teacher–I just like words.

Any other word nerds out there? Any words off the list that totally pop out at you for being extra cool? How about “kloofs”? Tish Farrell–you run into any “kloofs” in your African adventures?

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