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Every year I like to do a round-up of the best books of the year. Since I don’t always read freshly published books, this isn’t technically a “best books OF 2016”; it’s a “my favorites that I READ in 2016.” However, that being said, many of them are pretty new. So let’s get started.

I read a lot of fiction and YA and this year it really showed. Only one of my favorite books that I got around to reading was nonfiction. So let’s start with that category, since it’s so small.

Nonfiction

the-geneThe Gene: An Intimate History, by Siddhartha Mukherjee. The author’s book about cancer a few years back, The Emperor of All Maladies, was excellent, and this book about the history of genetics, the code that informs all life, was just as informative and interesting. It takes readers on the odyssey of piecing together information about the human gene and genome since the early days, ending with the research and work that is happening now, in the decade after the completion of the sequencing of the human genome. The most recent research was news to me, and I found it fascinating and at times alarming. As Mukherjee posits about what we now know, “What will we do with this information?”

Fiction

Britt-Marie Was Here, by Fredrik Backman. An older woman who really, REALLY likes to have everything just so finds out her husband has cheated on her and goes out in search of work. She can only find a temporary position in a tiny town that’s on the verge of essentially closing up shop. She slowly gets pulled into the lives of the people who live there and finds herself truly “getting a life.” The book is gently humorous, tender and at times sad. It’s entertaining and sweet. There are too many wonderful metaphors for me to have kept track of, and I loved each one of them. I ended up taking my time reading the book because my life was busy, but I was able to savor it more that way, which was a bonus. A lovely book.

every-heart-a-doorwayEvery Heart a Doorway, by Seanan McGuire. Children have been known to slip through hidden doorways into other fantastical worlds. And some return to their everyday lives, for various reasons. Some do not long to get back to those worlds; others do. The latter consider those fantastical worlds their true homes and miss them terribly, always looking for that secret door to open again. Of course no one, including their parents, understands or believes their stories. But someone actually does believe their stories — and understands their longing to be “home.” Eleanor West runs a boarding school that caters to these children and teens, that tries to help them figure out how to move forward in a life that may never have them seeing that door again.

I cannot express just how truly unique this book felt. I’ve never read anything like it. The premise is clever but then the feel, the world, the execution of it all… just amazing. I felt transported.

Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d, by Alan Bradley. This is the 8th Flavia de Luce mystery novel, and if you haven’t read any of the previous ones, go and start from the beginning. Now. And any year that has a new novel, most likely, it’s going to be on my best-of. These stories are technically murder mysteries but are more about their tween/teen heroine than anything else. She is curious, precocious, a lover of chemistry, an annoyed youngest sister and proud sleuth. This go-round wasn’t the most “mysterious” of all the mysteries; I saw much of it coming from a mile away. But, again, since it’s more about time spent with Flavia and her charms, and chuckling a good deal, that’s almost neither here nor there. I’ll keep reading as long as Alan Bradley keeps writing.

Uprooted, by Naomi Novik. In the valley near the Wood where Agnieszka lives, the Dragon, a powerful wizard who lives in a tower, takes one girl from the villages to serve him, then lets her go, every 10 years. The girls who will be 17 in that year fear the possibility of being chosen, and their families dread it. Agnieszka (and everyone else) is sure her beautiful best friend Kasia will be chosen, so they are all taken aback when at the last moment, Agnieszka is selected instead. She herself is completely unprepared and is devastated when the cool, detached wizard takes her, and then, inexplicably, starts trying to teach her how to do simple spells. It turns out she, as opposed to the other girls, who were just taken to be servants, has potential as a witch, and she and the Dragon must find a way to keep the evil power of the nearby (and encroaching) Wood at bay. The story is complex and rich in detail and atmosphere. It’s essentially a Polish fairy tale set in the 1500s, where magic is real. I was caught up in it but the reading was slow going. I didn’t just breeze through it. But that turned out to be a blessing by the end, which was hugely satisfying and led me to want to just sit quietly within the story and appreciate it for all it contained. Just lovely.

Young adult

Lady Midnight (The Dark Artifices, book 1), by Cassandra Clare. The Shadowhunters, humans with angel blood who fight demons, return in another series by Cassandra Clare. Those who have loved her other series (set in New York and Victorian London) featuring the defenders of humankind (or “mundanes,” as Shadowhunters call humans) will no doubt want to read this new one, set this time in current-day Los Angeles. I did love being back in the Shadowhunter world but I had a few quibbles. One, there wasn’t quite as much humor in this book as there was in City of Bones and other initial entries in the Mortal Instruments series. Two, these are teenagers. They admittedly have a great deal of responsibility, much more than the average human teen. But in these series, and in this new book particularly, they pretty much go about their business without much adult guidance and restraint. That’s kind of a plot point, but it leads to a lot of stuff happening that parents should know about if their teen is reading this new book/series. Not the best of Clare’s work, but I do love the world.

lady-janeMy Lady Jane, by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton and Jodi Meadows. I LOVED, LOVED, LOVED this book. It’s laugh-out-loud funny, romantic and just a rollicking fun time. Plus, it turns a tragic romantic tale from history into a happy ending, that of Lady Jane Grey, the nine-day queen of England, and her husband, Lord Guildford Dudley, who were beheaded after Queen Mary took over as monarch and after the Protestant rebellion of Thomas Wyatt the Younger. What’s not to love?

The Love That Split the World, by Emily Henry. This is one of those rarer books about which I don’t want to share very much. Discovering the story and what’s happening is one of the joys of reading this book. It unspools just a bit at a time, revealing at last the bittersweet and devastating truth. It’s beautiful and heart-rending and just cool in its exploration of the reason behind the strange things the main character is experiencing. The end grabbed me and shook me and left me a bit emotionally exhausted.

The Skylighter (The Keepers’ Chronicles, book 2), by Becky Wallace. This is a sequel to a fine book, and it’s just a duo, rather than a trilogy. There’s a world of magic and royalty and intrigue, with a few dashes of romance. The story follows several threads from various perspectives and pulls them all together at the end. I enjoyed this second as much as the first (The Storyspinner) and am still impressed with the skill of the writer.

These Broken Stars, by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner. An intergalactic war hero and a young heiress controlled closely by her father are stranded together on an alien planet. They hope for rescue, but as time goes on it seems less and less likely. The two have to figure out how to get along and how to work together. How to stay alive. Strange things start happening, particularly to Lilac, and the mystery of why the Icarus crashed becomes compounded by the mysteries of an empty but terraformed planet and strange visions and “whispers.” It’s part romance and part sci-fi mystery. About two-thirds of the way in, the action and mystery ratcheted up and I was compelled to just keep reading because it was so interesting. I really enjoyed the story.

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According to Goodreads, I read 51 books this year, a total of 18,639 pages. There were just a few more that I didn’t enter onto the site, but that pretty well sums it up. Thanks to that site, I end up not having to plow through many stinkers, so I did enjoy almost all of the books I read. A few stand out, however. Here are my 10 faves from this year of reading.

Young Adult

illusionsIllusions of Fate, by Kiersten White: This was practically perfect. I borrowed it from the library but then had to buy it because I loved it so much. Kiersten White has created a world not unlike ours, set in a time much like that of the early 20th century, but has imbued its nobility with magical powers only they know about and use. Her heroine is smart and courageous and all too human, and though she is “just an ordinary girl,” she is a force to be reckoned with. That’s what makes her — and the book — so great. I just lost myself in the setting, the characters and their interactions with each other, and the story. I absolutely adored this book. Bonus: it’s clean. I rated it Mild on Rated Reads.

Circus Mirandus, by Cassie Beasley: This middle-grade book is about faith, magic and hope. It’s about opening your eyes to the possibilities. It’s about family, love and dedication. It’s sweet, poignant, delightful. It’s written for children, sure, but adults will be charmed as well. It’s one of those books everyone should get to read and keep on a bookshelf at home. And since it’s for younger readers, it’s clean. I rated it None on Rated Reads.

The Storyspinner, by Becky Wallace: This book with a strong female heroine is an engaging tale of danger, cunning, political intrigue, magic and a few touches of romance. The plot and writing are excellent, seeming to have come from a more seasoned writer, and once I got into the story, I could hardly put it down. It’s clean; I rated it Mild on Rated Reads.

weight of feathersThe Weight of Feathers, by Anna-Marie McLemore: The prose in this Romeo-and-Juliet tale set in the Central Valley of California that swings between two carnival families is just so, so lovely, and the writing is so masterful it’s hard to believe this is a debut novel. It’s gotten some hype, and it actually lives up to it. I rated it Moderate on Rated Reads.

Challenger Deep, by Neal Shusterman: This book is one of those Important Novels people should read to gain a bit of empathy, understanding and awareness about mental illness, particularly in teens. It could have foundered in less skilled hands, but Shusterman has the chops to make this brilliant. He writes in an author’s note at the end that his own son “journeyed to the deep” and with his help, he’s “tried to capture what that descent was like.” He also points out the reality that helping people who are dealing with mental illness “is not an exact science, but it’s all we have – and it gets better every day as we learn more about the brain, and the mind, and as we develop better, more targeted medication.” I rated it Mild on Rated Reads.

Fiction

lake houseThe Lake House, by Kate Morton: Yes, I adore Kate Morton’s books. This one did not disappoint. Morton is a master at crafting these kinds of novels: long and richly detailed stories of family secrets that span generations and decades, that have long-reaching consequences. As I reluctantly and slowly closed the back cover, I was overcome by that sadly delicious, mixed feeling of completion that means a book has brought me much gratification as I’ve taken it all in but regret that the experience is over and can’t be duplicated. And it’s clean reading: I rated it Mild on Rated Reads.

Us, by David Nicholls: The book is practically perfect: it examines so beautifully a longtime marriage between two very different people, the highs and lows and in-betweens, without resorting to cheap plays for readers’ sympathies. Even serious matters that could, in the wrong hands, be maudlin are deftly and lightly handled. Nicholls’ previous book, One Day, was a good one, but it did resort to a big bang of a twist that could be seen as a nasty trick by the writer. Here, however, the story plays out naturally and is balanced wonderfully. There are laugh-out-loud moments that gave me no choice but to read them aloud to whoever was near and descriptive passages that made me in awe of Nicholls’ cleverness. I can’t say enough about how well written this book is. It’s not clean reading, though: I rated it High for strong language on Rated Reads.

Nonfiction

body of truthBody of Truth, by Harriet Brown: I have not yet posted a review of this on Rated Reads, but it’s coming soon. I’m also hoping to write a nice in-depth analysis on here in coming days. It’s that important. Brown shares what she’s learned in a decade of examining research on weight, obesity, eating disorders, etc., as well as from interviewing hundreds of women and scientists. The reality is this: our society is completely obsessed with weight. And though the media and doctors tend to go on certain “truths” as givens, those are not necessarily true or even based on solid research. Weight is a very complex matter, and we still know far too little about how best to regulate it. We certainly know far too little about how to help people lose weight and keep it off “for good.”

A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity, by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn: Husband-and-wife writing team Kristof and WuDunn explore ways that we can all make a difference by donating our time, talents or resources to help others in this world. Even a little helps. They share inspiring stories and then tell readers specifically how to make our money or time really count. I was galvanized by this terrific book. It’s simply inspiring, but it’s also practical and addresses concerns and problems with charities even as it shares solid advice on how to tailor your giving to your own interests and capacities. I rated it Mild on Rated Reads.

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory, by Caitlin Doughty: If you are a fan of Mary Roach’s fascinating book on what happens to our bodies after death, Stiff, you are likely to appreciate Caitlin Doughty’s book focusing mostly on the aspect of cremation. While the book is informative and curiosity-slaking while also liberally sprinkled with dry wit and gallows humor, it’s also a reminder that Americans today are far removed from death. And this is much of Doughty’s point: after spending about a year working at a crematorium in Oakland, California, she then decided to pursue the career and attend mortuary school. The experiences served to incite in her a passion for helping people in our culture reacquaint themselves with death. Rather than fearing aging and death and dead bodies and shoving all we find distasteful off onto professionals who work behind a screen, we would be better served mentally and emotionally if we had more to do with the whole process. I rated it High for language on Rated Reads.

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I like to read a variety of genres and subgenres, from adult fiction and nonfiction to young adult and some middle-grade books, but I thought I typically tended to skew more toward fiction. This year, however, the books that have really spoken to me and stuck with me have been more often nonfiction. I’m not sure if that speaks to the quality of the nonfiction I’ve read or to some disappointment I’ve had in fiction I’d thought would be better this year. So I’ll start with the nonfiction books I’ve found compelling in 2014:

  1. The Good Spy, by Kai Bird: This story about Robert Ames, a CIA agent in the ’60s and ’70s who spent his career in the Middle East, had me absolutely fascinated; it was challenging reading, to be sure, that required real focus so I could absorb all the pertinent details about places, people, and politics. But it kept my interest and left me feeling well informed about the big picture, better educated. This is a must-read for anyone interested in the complex history of the divisions in the Middle East, especially in the Holy Land area and its immediate environs, and all the repercussions of each action taken by locals and world governments.
  2. EichmannEichmann Before Jerusalem, by Bettina Stangneth: This fine book that will likely change the whole conversation not just about Holocaust architect Adolf Eichmann but about future research into Nazi Germany and its continued relevance. As with The Good Spy, this book is not a quick and easy read; it is a work of scholarship that is comprehensive and thoroughly researched and the conclusions of which are meticulously documented and explained. But it is well worth the time and effort to tackle: anyone who has ever been acquainted with Hannah Arendt’s characterization of Eichmann during his trial in Jerusalem (he made Arendt conclude that “evil” often exhibits itself as “banal”) must read this more accurate examination of the mass murderer.
  3. On Immunity, by Eula Biss: Biss examines the issue of people choosing not to vaccinate, not primarily to persuade “anti-vaxxers” to change their minds, but to show how our culture has fostered this dangerous movement. And the result is a fascinating, informative, and thought-provoking look at parenting in 21st-century America. Not only is On Immunity a quick primer on the history of vaccination and the current attitudes about it, it is an interesting examination of a new kind of class inequality. Regardless of one’s attitudes about vaccination, this book should spur some good discussion about attitudes in our modern society and our responsibility to each other.
  4. Invisible HistoryThe Invisible History of the Human Race, by Christine Kenneally: This book is just as much about genealogy and its popularity and history as it is about how DNA relates to it. The author sets up how DNA comes into the picture by exploring the interest in and history of family history research, of cultures, of eugenics, of how people look at race (for one thing), and then adds in the puzzle piece of DNA. Her writing style and approach are engrossing and interesting, and I found myself dog-earing a lot of passages that spoke to me in various ways.

Now, on to a few works of fiction that particularly pleased me. First, this year brought the conclusions to a few good series, including Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments, Neal Shusterman’s Unwind, and Deborah Harkness’ All Souls Trilogy. I enjoyed all three but I think I was most satisfied with UnDivided, the fourth and last book in the Unwind dystology. I wrote earlier this year that I was disappointed in Harkness’ failure to share certain vital information that was pertinent to the whole series in the final book, The Book of Life. Are we supposed to accept that she made us expect a conclusion and did not provide it for us? I didn’t think so. And while I was mostly satisfied with The City of Heavenly Fire, I didn’t think it was as great as earlier books in the series (let’s face it: the first three books were great, and the next three after what seemed like a “conclusion” weren’t quite up to Clare’s previous standards). So an official mention of Shusterman’s achievement comes first in my fiction list (which is going to just include young adult fiction, so I admit I’m mixing genres, which seems fitting now that YA fiction is being read just as much by adults as teens):

  1. UndividedUnDivided, by Neal Shusterman: A conclusion to a series that’s been as thought-provoking as it’s been action-packed. It fit perfectly with the rest of the books and did not let me down. I loved how he wrapped things up. So cool. Just read the series about a future in which the U.S. has settled on a “compromise” between pro-lifers and pro-choicers by not allowing abortion but by allowing parents to “unwind” their teenagers if they cause problems (or for any other reason): their bodies are dismantled and every part is donated to others.
  2. Love and Other Foreign Words, by Erin McCahan: I loved this author’s first YA romance, I Now Pronounce You Someone Else, and this second made me just as happy. This book’s heroine is only 15 and quite precocious for her age in some ways because she is so ridiculously bright. Josie attends high school for half the day in her town of Bexley, Ohio, but starts the day with classes at a nearby college. She especially enjoys languages and how they are used by their respective groups. She is precise in her approach to the use of words. This love of precision (oh, how I love her for that!) causes her difficulties, though, when it comes to “love.” Love and Other Foreign Words is funny, real, vibrant, clever and utterly charming, and a bonus is that it has at its heart a girl who is deeply loved and nurtured by her parents and older sisters and who loves them back; the family is intact and very happy. Refreshing!
  3. The Casquette Girls, by Alys Arden: I reviewed this one for the San Francisco Book Review without knowing much or expecting much of it and was quite pleasantly surprised. Yes, this is YA, and yes, it’s paranormal, but it’s pretty cool. It’s an engaging story that’s rich in historical detail and has a richly developed setting. Readers who love magic and the supernatural will particularly eat up this well-written novel about supernatural creatures causing problems in post-Katrina New Orleans.

And there you have it: some wonderfully researched, intelligent, absorbing, informative nonfiction reads, and a few fun fiction picks that just happen to be written for young adults. Apparently, the “adult” fiction titles disappointed me a bit this year. Let’s hope for better in 2015.

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Deborah Harkness provided me some useful information but no answers.

Deborah Harkness provided me some useful information but no answers.

It’s been several weeks since I finished reading the final book in the “All Souls” trilogy by Deborah Harkness, The Book of Life, and after writing a few reviews of it for various sites and chewing on my ideas for some time, I had the opportunity to attend Harkness’ book signing in San Francisco a couple of days ago. After asking the author two questions during the open Q&A and then one “spoiler” question while she signed my books, I still have mixed feelings about how the series concluded.

I’ll just say that this observation is a little spoiler-ish but not in detail, so if you have not read the final book, then skip over this paragraph: I felt that many of the questions I had about Ashmole 782, the elusive and strange magical manuscript introduced in the very beginning of A Discovery of Witches, were not answered. And while some of my questions may be just “my own” or somewhat indirect, some were directly brought up by the characters in the book quite early on. And THEY WERE NOT RESOLVED. ARRRGGGGH. Considering that this was a huge part of the plot of the series, I felt gypped as a reader (of 1700 pages, no less) that they were left open. Talk about unsatisfactory. So I asked Harkness this: “Do YOU know where the book came from, who made it, etc.?” And she immediately and firmly responded with a “yes.”

She KNOWS, and she did not tell readers? Whaaaat?

Harkness told me this: “Everything readers know in the book comes from the point of view of Diana and the other characters. She doesn’t really know (at the end of the series) yet the answers to these questions, so readers don’t.”

During the hour of the author reading from the book, talking about it and herself, and then doing Q&A, she said a few things that are relevant: One, she really intended to keep the series as a trilogy, so as she explored the story while writing, she had to limit herself so it wouldn’t get unwieldy. Two (and I’m piecing this together a bit), I think she said, essentially, that anyone’s full story is never contained in a book. Things happen before and things happen after. The book is then a part of the whole story. And (after someone observed that the last book was the darkest of the series) she was trying to show what happens in a relationship after the fun, easy, falling-in-love part, where it gets trickier and is more work, and so on. So I’m going to extrapolate that she doesn’t intend for her writing to “tie everything up in a bow” at the end. But the part of their lives that is the pertinent story is captured and pinned down a bit within the pages of the series.

Now here’s where this gets interesting. Some readers can get up in arms when a story doesn’t end the way they expect, or it doesn’t end “happily” or it doesn’t tie up all the loose strings. And it may show a sign of reader immaturity when one gets mad that a story doesn’t end with a happily ever after — life, after all, is never that simple and “satisfying,” and books are best when they reflect the messiness and realities of life. So at what point should readers rightly expect some kind of conclusion?

Here’s my take: it depends on the type of book (genre) and how thoroughly expectations were set up in the book and plot. In a mystery, for example, it’s understood that various disparate elements are going to be introduced and then the mystery “solved” at the end, with those elements put together in certain ways to provide a satisfactory ending, leaving the reader with the “aha!” feeling of “That’s why all those items were important.” In a memoir, one may fairly reasonably expect the author to recount parts of his or her life that relate to a certain theme, a story arc that includes pertinent facts, experiences, and observations, because it would be impossible and undesirable for that person to just sit down and write everything that’s happened without giving it shape, form, or meaning.

Regarding the expectations, if a few things are simply mentioned as facts that might give a better idea of characters’ personalities, motivations, expectations, development, etc., they don’t require further attention by the author. But if the book frequently mentions certain plot elements and has the characters and readers questioning them as a large part of the book and plot, they need to be answered.

In the case of the All Souls series, as Harkness put it in her talk, the three “main characters” are Diana, the historian and witch; Matthew, the vampire and researcher; and Ashmole 782, the manuscript. Since she herself said that explicitly and since all of the book’s promotional materials and synopses focus on those three characters, one rightly expects to get questions answered about them. We learn quite a lot about Matthew and Diana’s histories (where they came from), their personalities, and their fates. We don’t know all the details about what will happen to them in the long term, but their stories as presented in the books are concluded well and make sense. But Ashmole 782, as a “main character,” gets short shrift. We know where it ends up, but we still have no idea where it came from and why. I appreciate that Harkness says readers only know what Diana and the other characters know, and that she had to keep the series to a manageable size, but I still feel she did not do her job as an author and conclude that part of the story. If she had to cut out other things to still keep it manageable, or if she had to make it a little longer so readers could come along to the point Diana knew more, then so be it.

Harkness did make one comment that gave me some hope for future satisfaction: I said, “I’d really like to know what you know!” and she responded something along the lines of “You will.” But since she said she won’t be writing more about Diana and Matthew, but may revisit the “world” of the books to explore other characters and stories, I’m not sure how that might come about. So we shall see.

What do you say? How much should readers expect in these situations?

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I haven’t been a fan of “No Child Left Behind” since it started. It’s clear to me that essentially saying, “We’re going to make education the same for all kids and make them all perform well” isn’t going to work. I have two major gripes, addressing kids on both ends of the spectrum — and I know whereof I speak. I have a child with Down syndrome whose IQ and certain academic abilities are far below normal. Yes, she is a bright, alert and involved girl who’s eager to work and do lots of things, but she will never grasp certain concepts, at least not well enough to pass a test on par with her non-disabled peers. Though I do want to push a little to see where my daughter’s boundaries (and full capacities) lie, that doesn’t mean there aren’t some real limits to what she can do compared with people who don’t have her intellectual disabilities.

On the other end of the spectrum, I have daughters who do not have that genetic limitation, and they are very intelligent and talented. Problem is, though they have been tested and shown to have high capacities (IQ, academic abilities, creativity, what-have-you), there are no active programs to encourage them as they develop those skills. Our school system in this city has what’s called a Gifted and Talented program (GATE), but it’s essentially just a pretty, shiny sticker to put on my girls’ academic folders. It means absolutely nothing because it has no funding and no activities besides maybe a field trip once a year to see colleges or something similar.

I have to chuckle when I think about the contrast here with my experience in the great gifted program I enjoyed in my middle school years. Here’s why: it was in Mississippi, which many basically consider the educational laughing-stock of the country. But despite the truths and/or misconceptions in that assumption, it provided for the gifted students. We spent a good part of one day per week exploring other parts of our brains, creating and thinking differently. It was challenging, interesting, and lots of fun.

My oldest daughter has enjoyed the fun and creative challenge of the Odyssey of the Mind program.

My oldest daughter has enjoyed the fun and creative challenge of the Odyssey of the Mind program.

Now I find it extremely frustrating to have children who have the need to explore, create and “think outside of the box” but have no program that addresses those needs. My oldest has been lucky the past two years to get involved with a program called Odyssey of the Mind — but only because she had a friend who was already involved at another school. She was allowed to participate in the program by special arrangement, because she attends a different high school in the district. Thank goodness that was allowed to happen. This is a really neat opportunity for her to create, stretch herself, think outside the box, and so on. Now I would like to see my younger daughters involved. But I’m thinking the only way that’s going to happen is if I pay for the program and take charge of it myself. (I may very well do that.) It fits very nicely into what I envision as being a perfect GATE program. Why doesn’t our district use it?

So this has been on my mind for years, literally, and for the past few weeks I’ve been thinking about how to improve things a bit just here in my younger girls’ schools (middle school, elementary). But, again, this is a much bigger problem that’s not affecting just my kids; it’s affecting all the high achievers throughout the country. I read a great piece in the Boston Globe on the topic today, and I sat here nodding my head, shaking with frustration. Why can’t we actually tailor education to different kinds of students with differing natural abilities? Why do we have to act as if students all can be equal if we just say it’s so or should be so? (That’s another topic as well….)

Here’s a great excerpt from the article:

In 2002, President George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act, which penalizes public schools that don’t bring the lowest-performing students up to grade level. The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act regulates special education and provides schools with more than $11 billion annually. A provision of federal education law called Title I allocates some $14 billion to schools that have a higher proportion of students from low-income families, to pay for programs designed to keep them from falling behind.

The smartest kid in class, by contrast, is not an expensive problem. A boy or girl who finishes an assignment early can be handed a book and told to read quietly while the teacher works on getting other children caught up. What would clearly be neglect if it happened to a special-needs child tends to look different if the child is gifted: Being left alone might even feel like a reward, an acknowledgment of being a fast learner.

Not surprisingly, programs oriented toward gifted children get barely any federal funding.

Once again, we see a problem that affects kids from varying economic and social backgrounds. There are bright, capable kids from immigrant families, from families that are poor, from families that aren’t well educated. But they could really over-achieve and give back to society in a big way if given extra attention. Problem in our current climate is this: if they were underachieving, they’d get more attention. ISN’T THAT INSANE?

I am lucky to be able to give my daughters lots of enrichment because I’m college educated and well-to-do enough to have the funds to introduce them to museums, good classic films, art, books, etc. I also have time to spend with them. That’s great for my girls. But, as I said in my previous post, it would sure be nice if I didn’t feel I HAD to provide all their enrichment because the schools are shorting them. Given these issues, again, Why can’t education be tailored to kids with different abilities? Why can’t we say, Yes, these kids could use some enrichment and encouragement in their naturally gifted ways? And other kids who have disabilities need special help and concessions, and we need to help them reach their highest potential, but not expect that potential to necessarily be the same as kids who don’t have those intellectual disabilities?

Gah! It’s enough to make a mom and concerned citizen scream.

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It’s no secret I adore reading. I’ve been a book reviewer for a solid 15 years, for newspapers and, more recently, a book-review publication that has done print and e-versions. For a long time, I kept up a membership in the National Book Critics Circle. A few years ago, I just stopped sending in yearly membership checks; I intended to get around to it but never did. Oh well. But in all honesty, I don’t see myself as a critic. I’m just a reviewer.

Here’s the thing: I don’t read a ton of literary fiction. For those of you who aren’t really aware of the distinction among different genres, there’s “literary fiction” and there’s “popular fiction,” among other things. To put it simply, the literary version of fiction is highbrow. It’s what you’d read and dissect in an English 353 college class. It has Meaning. Popular fiction is fun and far more accessible.

Now, literary fiction can be fun, and pop fiction can have plenty of discuss-able elements. But I’m just keeping it simple here. And honestly, I often do not get the literary stuff. I’ll say it straight-up. I consider myself an intelligent person, one who enjoys dissecting and discussing. But when a book I’m reading requires heavy concentration and a professor to help me figure out what it’s supposed to be About, then I’m inclined to chuck it.

So while I do skim through the New York Times Book Review, I don’t read a lot of the books featured in its lofty pages. I don’t typically read many Nobel winners, either. Pulitzers, sometimes. What I do end up reading are the Newbery and Caldecott winners, though. I find those wonderful library awards to be right up my alley. The books honored are targeted at young readers, and they can be absolutely charming, insightful, and even Meaningful. But they’re still absolutely accessible. So I sit up and pay attention when those are announced, as they were today.

Nah, I’m not a snobby reader. I guess I’m just a middle-of-the-road reviewer. Yes, I have standards: if you’ve read my other book posts, you’ll know I do not like certain churn-’em-out writers, and I am still mostly wary of self-pubs. I like to feast my eyes and mind on books that give me something to consider, to ponder, to chew on. I like to be transported. I love to sink my mental teeth into some delicious metaphors and beautifully arranged words that describe a feeling or an experience to a T. I can be pretty picky. But I am not a Literature reader or critic.

I think, though, that’s a good thing, because most other readers aren’t, either. (Literature fans will likely bemoan the sorry state of the reading populace, but bah humbug on them.) What I can do as a mostly middle-of-the-road reader and reviewer who has standards is present some wonderful reading options (and with content ratings on my Rated Reads site, as an added bonus) that will satisfy most other middle-of-the-road readers with similar standards. As with anything, it’s always handy to find like-minded people when you’re looking for a recommendation, whether it’s for books, movies, TV or restaurants. I’m happy to offer up my mind to those who like it. Here’s to us non-critics.

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As I pulled the peanut butter muffins from the oven the other night at 9 p.m., I thought, “Now, this is the kind of mom I am.”

Yes, I am that mom who bakes. I’m also the mom who cooks dinner every night. I “spoil” my family a bit by making them breakfast, too. Sometimes.

muffins

Yes, I bake. A lot. Muffins are a breakfast favorite.

But I don’t make breakfast every day, at least on school days. And I do NOT get up early so it can be fresh. No, if I feel like making breakfast on a school day for my husband and kids, I make it the night before so I can sleep in. Muffins will still be tasty but not hot from the oven, guys. Either you eat them cold, or you can have them warm if you give ’em 12 seconds in the microwave.

I’m the kind of mom who does things on my own schedule, at least when it’s possible.

I’m not the kind of mom who does everything I find on Pinterest. It’s fun to browse and get ideas for cool projects or decoration or holidays or … whatever. But I’m not fool enough to think I need to actually DO all that stuff. Honestly, I think Pinterest has just upped the ante yet another 10 notches on what seems to have become competitive parenting.

I am the kind of mom who reads to my kids, or has read to them for much of their young lives. I can’t help it; I love books. I have shelves and shelves of them. There are bookshelves in all the bedrooms, as well as the living room and office.

I’m not the kind who schleps my kids to all kinds of activities and lessons. Two of my girls take piano lessons. And that’s it on the scheduled stuff. My philosophy is the old-school one that holds that kids need plenty of free time to find their own way, be creative, play, figure things out on their own. Plus, I just don’t have the money to pay for gymnastics, dance, etc., and I don’t have time and energy to taxi them around nonstop after 3 p.m. They don’t play organized sports, either. I love to exercise, and I want them to be active, but I admit I’m personally not very good at sports. So, yeah, that’s kind of influenced my parenting. But my girls have plenty of opportunity to play and be active. We have a pool in the back yard, a swingset and slide, a basketball hoop, and other outdoor play stuff.

I’m a mama bear when I need to be. Some things that happen to my kids (at school, primarily) make me instantaneously morph into werebear. But the rest of the time, I try to let them figure things out themselves. I am not going to step in and take care of little details. I don’t have time and energy for that, and they need to learn. Simple as that.

I’m the kind of mom who still spends plenty of time reading. If dinner’s half an hour later than our “usual” time sometimes, so be it. If I’m sitting at the computer writing or doing my freelance editing, they know they will not get a welcoming response if they ask me something that isn’t truly urgent. And it almost never is, believe me.

It’s difficult to have a “life of my own” (which is still a fluid concept, open for definition and tricky to pin down) with four daughters, from a high school senior down to a first-grader. But I certainly do try. If I don’t get some free time, some quiet time, some space to myself to regenerate and let my mind wander and my body rest, I am a prickly, mean mom. So for the happiness of everyone, I need that time to myself. Balancing the right amounts of that is, again, tricky. But they know that I need it and I know they feel the difference in the atmosphere when I haven’t had “me” time.

I’m that kind of mom. I nearly wear myself out for my family much of the time. I’d do whatever is necessary to do what’s best for them. I absolutely ADORE my girls. I am in awe of them. They are beautiful inside and out and amazing and talented and funny and sweet.

But I’m the kind of mom who will never say “my children are my life.”

Right now, of necessity for their well being, their needs take up much of my time and energy, but I am still ME and have a SELF that’s not defined by being their mom. I have a life, and my children are a big part of it. I love that. I chose that. It’s seriously hard work. But I’m the kind of mom who values my individuality and still has goals that don’t directly involve my kids.

Yep, I’m all kinds of things. On some fronts, I’m the kind of mom who “does it all.” On others, I might seem to do too little. But I’m a great kind of mom.

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