Page 1

Don’t read the ‘best’ books; read the ones that resonate for you I recently made a new acquaintance at a group dinner, and when he found out that am a professional book recommender for a major metropolitan newspaper, he had something to confess to me. He said that sometimes, based on a review in a culturally significant publication, he will buy a book, but that the experience of reading the book that has been hailed as important is less than satisfying. This gentleman wanted to know if there is something wrong with him, if he is missing something, perhaps even if he is somehow defective. Now, this is an extraordinarily accomplished person, a lifelong reader and appreciator of culture. Lest you doubt, the group outing that had brought us together was to see a movie at a French film festival. That’s right: The movie had subtitles. And we liked it. There is nothing wrong with this gentleman or anyone else who is nonplussed by a book that has been widely hailed by the critical establishment. Frankly, I am distressed that someone who is such an engaged and eager reader would consider such a thing, but his questioning points toward one of the problems of a society that sometimes seeks to make such clear distinctions between “high” and “low” culture. If a stringed instrument is at rest and you play the proper tone at the proper frequency, the strings start to vibrate. This is known as “resonance.” As I see it, readers are similar. We are strings at rest in search of the books with which we resonate, and what produces this phenomenon in different individuals is as variable as we would expect and demand from a diverse and vibrant culture. It is even more complicated, because what resonates changes over time. When I was 3, I could page back and forth through “Richard Scarry’s Busy Day” for

hours, fascinated by the lives the anthropomorphized creatures were living. Now, not so much. Some of the masterpieces I was expected to read in graduate school felt like a chore. I remember wondering if I didn’t have what it took if I kept falling asleep through Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair.” I’ve kept all those books and sometimes will pluck one off the shelf and find the dog-eared page where I gave up on it. Starting back at the beginning, I will be captivated and wonder what was wrong with me 20-plus years ago. The answer, again, is nothing. It is tempting to think that I’ve matured, but I think the reality is that the context is different. The stress and pressure of school, combined with concerns about my worthiness, put me in a state that made achieving resonance much more difficult. I’d ask those who sometimes find critically heralded books wanting, but who also believe that students must read a particular set of books to be considered properly “educated,” if there isn’t room for reconsideration. Might there be a benefit to giving young people the same kind of freedom as readers that we exercise for ourselves? There is literally no point to elevating a particular class of literature as most worthy. Sure, what tends to be considered for major awards and the best-of-theyear lists tends to share some traits, but even within those selections one finds incredible diversity. Reading is not a test. The point (for most of us) is not to think we’re there to judge a book or for the book to judge us. If a book isn’t resonating, that’s fine. Put it down, and search for something else that meets your frequency. John Warner is the author of “Why They Can’t Write: Killing the FiveParagraph Essay and Other Necessities.” Book recommendations from the Biblioracle

1. “A Crooked Kind of Perfect” by Linda Urban 2. “The Long Way Home” by Louise Penny 3. “Unwind” by Neal Shusterman 4. “Mrs. Pollifax on the China Station” by Dorothy Gilman 5. “Empress of the East: How a European Slave Girl Became Queen of the Ottoman Empire” by Leslie Peirce — Erica H., Winthrop Harbor, Illinois A definite penchant for book that come in a series with a mystery or suspense element. I’m hoping that Erica overlooked Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series so she can start with “The Eyre Affair” and continue the fun from there. 1. “Exit West” by Mohsin Hamid 2. “Remainder” by Tom McCarthy 3. “Cloud Atlas” by David Mitchell 4. “Educated” by Tara Westover 5. “We, the Drowned” by Carsten Jensen — David A., West Chicago For David, I need to pick something that is, for lack of a better term, sufficiently “weird.” I had a good time contemplating various choices, but in the end, I’m going with Donald Antrim’s “The Verificationist.” 1. “The Overstory” by Richard Powers 2. “The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks” by Terry Tempest Williams 3. “You Are Here” by Katharine Harmon 4. “Desert Solitaire” by Edward Abbey 5. “The Bone People” by Keri Hulme — Maureen S., Helena, Montana A strong trend towards books concerned with geography and place. For me, that points to John McPhee and his “Annals of the Former World.” Get a reading from the Biblioracle

UHD E-Book Library helping Houstonians learn to read The University of Houston-Downtown is using illustrated e-books to help Houstonians learn to read. The University of Houston-Downtown is using illustrated e-books to help Houstonians learn to read. Photo: University Of Houston-Downtown Photo: University Of Houston-Downtown The University of Houston-Downtown is using illustrated e-books to help Houstonians learn to read. The University of Houston-Downtown is using illustrated e-books to help Houstonians learn to read. Photo: University Of Houston-Downtown UHD E-Book Library helping Houstonians learn to read Illustrated storybooks have long proven to be an effective tool in helping children learn to read. Authors and educators agree that the right combination of text and illustrations contribute to the development of children’s language skills. Likewise, books with meaningful, familiar content also helps develop students’ reading comprehension. At the University of Houston-Downtown, an ongoing initiative has been helping young English Language Learners and their families learn to read in both English and Spanish. UHD’s E-Book Library has offered free online children’s books (with audio narration) in both languages for more than a decade. The texts are written and illustrated by Urban Education students in UHD’s College of Public Service. Leading this project is Dr. Maria Bhattacharjee, associate professor of Urban Education. “The UHD E-Book Library is a very important resource to support the reading education of young Hispanic children in our community,” she said. “Having

access to storybooks that are culturally meaningful to them is critical to becoming successful readers.” This semester, Dr. Bhattacharjee guided students in her Children’s Literature in Spanish class as they developed 30 children’s E-Books written in both English and Spanish. Her class worked with Pre-K students at Houston’s Energized for Excellence Academy Inc. in developing these texts. Soon, the finished books will be showcased at UHD. On Dec. 3, the University will host the E-Book Exhibit. This event will take place from 5 to 7 p.m. in UHD’s Welcome Center. Bhattacharjee’s students will be on hand to meet Energized students and their parents and to discuss their books. Among the students who will be in attendance are Maria S. Garcia and Graciela Benitez, the creative team behind the E-Book “Why Can’t I Take My Pet to School?” or “¿Por qué no puedo llevar a mi mascota a la escuela?.” Garcia composed the text and delivered the audio narration for the online book, and Benitez provided the illustrations.” It is dedicated to two Energized students, who provided the inspiration for its theme. “We met with students who wanted the book to be about pets,” Garcia said. Both Garcia and Benitez visited Energized Academy to meet students and learn what topics interested them. After selecting the subject of pets, they collaborated on creating English and Spanish versions of the book. The project was not only an exercise in literacy education, it taught both students about the collaborative process. “We learned from each other every step of the way,” Garcia said. “And we shared ideas on what would work best for the book and what children would like to see in it,” Benitez added. Both Garcia and Benitez agree that the E-Book project is helping them prepare for careers as educators.

“It’s helping us work with children in developing their fluency,” Garcia said. “And, it helps both Graciela and myself understand how to incorporate technology into teaching. We can actually create books for our own students when we’re teaching … and maybe even teach students how to make their own books.” This is the third year Bhattacharjee’s students have collaborated with Energized for Excellence Academy Inc. on this project. Students received assistance from retired UHD faculty member and English as a Second Language (ESL) expert Susan Paige. Likewise, Energized faculty members Dalia Rodriguez and Santa Grimaldo provided assistance by incorporating the E-Books into lesson plans. Other Houston-area students and teachers benefit from the E-Book Library, including those at Crockett Elementary School (the project’s original partner). According to Bhattacharjee, it is used as a resource for that institution’s reading classes and will be used for an initiative focused on parents next semester. “The UHD E-Book Library is very beneficial to families,” Bhattacharjee said. “Many Hispanic parents do not know how to effectively read and write in Spanish or English and are not able to support their children’s literacy development. This resource helps parents participate in their children’s literacy growth.” The E-Book Library project is supported by a grant from UHD’s Center for Community Engagement & Service Learning. Additional support is provided by UHD’s Information Technology Department and Dr. Irene Chen, professor of Urban Education. College of Public Service Dean, Dr. Jonathan Schwartz is providing funding for the Dec. 3 Book Exhibit.

Readers and writers: So many books to read for work, but these were lovely distractions My stack of books to be read, most of them by local authors or those who are coming to read, is growing higher by the day as spring books begin to appear. But sometimes I indulge myself by reading books that just look interesting. Here are two novels and a biography of three Chinese sisters that captured my imagination and kept me up too long. “Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister� by Jung Chang (Knopf, $30)

When I was a kid after World War II, I remember a lot of publicity about a visit to the U.S. of Madame Chiang Kai-shek, first lady of pre-Communist Nationalist China. There was newsreel footage (shown before the main movie in those days) of this elegant woman being received respectfully by our nation’s leaders. I didn’t know then that she was one of the three famous Soong sisters who were, as this book’s subtitle says, “at the heart of Twentieth-Century China.” The sisters — Ei-ling, Ching-ling and May-ling — were China’s princesses, Chang writes, because of their extraordinary marriages. Ching-ling married Sun Yat-sen, who pioneered the republican revolution that overthrew the monarchy in 1911. Although he’s revered through the Chinese-speaking world as the Father of (republican) China, he wasn’t exactly a saint. (Ching-ling later became Mao’s vice-chair and is referred to as Red Sister.) After Sun died in 1925, his successor, Chiang Kai-shek, married May-ling, Little Sister. He formed a Nationalist government in 1928, and ruled China until the Communists drove him to Taiwan in 1949. Big Sister, Ei-ling, married H.H. Kung, who was prime minister and finance minister for many years. Thanks to her husband’s connections and her smarts, Ei-ling became one of the richest women in China and Chiang’s unoffical main adviser. The beautiful, poised sisters, educated in the United States, lived through remarkable times, sometimes working against one another and doing what they could for their husbands. As China went through political convulsions, they were sometimes in danger. Chang, author of “Wild Swans,” does a masterful job of clearly describing the tangled web of 20th century Chinese politics without overwhelming the reader or taking her eyes off the sisters. She brings these astonishing women to life as they love, scheme, have their hearts broken, survived war and navigated changing times. Chang writes of how they remained close emotionally, even when they embraced opposing political camps

“Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister” is a joy to read, and you’ll learn a lot about modern Chinese history. “The Colonel’s Wife” by Rosa Liksom, translated from the Finnish by Lola Rogers (Graywolf Press, $16)

There’s much discussion these days among writers and readers about whether a protagonist has to be “likable” for a book to succeed. There’s no doubt which side Rosa Liksom comes down on; she’s given us an unabashed narrator who doesn’t shy from her years as a Nazi, married to an unlovable man. The story is the memories recounted by an elderly woman in the last years of her life as she looks back on her childhood as the daughter of a member of the right-wing Finnish Whites before World War II, and how she became married to the Colonel, 30 years her senior. She and the Colonel hobnob with the Nazi elite and retreat to the deepest northern woods in Lapland. The woman recalls, “I saw it all at Ilse’s house — the camps, the violence, the killing, the murder, the liquidations. The hate. I knew. And so did everyone else in Finland. If you knew how to read, you knew what the Nazis were doing.” By 1944, the Colonel and his wife learned how fickle was Hitler’s regime, when a high-ranking officer tells them that after Germany wins the war they would be put to death because “the racial doctrine of the Third Reich taught that the Finns weren’t Scandinavians, we were Magyars, like the Hungarians, and we’d be exterminated immediately, or have our eyes poked out and get sent over the Urals as slave labor for the Siberian mines … he felt sorry for Finland because the Finnish people had given their all to advance the cause of the Third Reich, never knowing that their dogged work for the Fuhrer’s victory would be their own downfall.” As the war world darkens, so does the marriage. The Colonel beats his wife into unconsciousness, then asks forgiveness. There is a breakup and the wife starts anew. Looking back, she thinks that “Nazism didn’t end when Hitler killed himself. I think that, given a chance, new Nazis and fascists will spring up, because that’s how people are.” The ugliness of much of this book is offset by the author’s gorgeous writing about the environment of Lapland, the bogs and fogs and berries to pick. In a harsh story, nature is the lovely protagonist.

“The Dollmaker” by Nina Allan (Other Press, $16.99) If you enjoy leisurely writing from the British Isles, this is the novel for you. Allan, who lives in Scotland, tells the gentle story of Andrew Garvie, who makes historically accurate dolls and is an authority on them. Alone and ready for adventure, he begins a correspondence with a woman whose delightful name is Bramber Winters. It’s soon revealed that Bramber lives in some kind of institution and Garvie decides to rescue her, although there is no indication she needs rescuing. As he travels through the old towns of England, not a lot happens, but Garvie’s thoughts are interesting as more is revealed about his background and how dolls came to dominate his life. And when he gets to Winters’ home? Not telling; no spoilers here. This is a quiet one to sink into when you want to escape the noise of the holiday season.

Profile for Antar Bhowmik

Reading Book  

My stack of books to be read, most of them by local authors or those who are coming to read, is growing higher by the day as spring books be...

Reading Book  

My stack of books to be read, most of them by local authors or those who are coming to read, is growing higher by the day as spring books be...