Saturday, October 31, 2020

Taking a Short Break


A chipmunk I met on a recent fall hike

Hello everyone! As I've mentioned in a previous post, it's been a whirlwind start to the school year. I've been helping to build the language arts curriculum for our program, and it's been a bit like being a first year teacher all over again.

I've managed to keep blogging just because I banked quite a few posts ahead of time in the summer.

I've decided to take a blogging break in November. I hope that will allow me to catch my breath and come back in December for Insecure Writer's Group and more book features.

Thanks for reading! Have a blessed November and Thanksgiving!

Monday, October 19, 2020

#IMWAYR: Symphony for the City of the Dead: Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad


I was drawn to Symphony for the City of the Dead: Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad  due to its author. M.T. Anderson is brilliant. And then it's about Russia. I studied Russian in college, and I am especially partial to 20th century Russian history, even though it is quite dark. I visited St. Petersburg when I studied in the Crimea in the mid 90s. Here is a photo of a plague commemorating the siege. 

Sorry for the dark photo! My loose translation: Citizens! During the shelling this side of the street is dangerous.

Then there’s Shostakovitch. Back in March, my husband and I went to a concert featuring one of his pieces. And though the conductor implied that Shostakovitch wrote that piece to celebrate the Russian revolution (and we should too, scarily enough), I didn’t believe him. 

Reading this book was my way of proving to myself that Shostakovitch music only seemed to be lauding Stalin and communism.

Here is the synopsis from Amazon:

“This ambitious and gripping work is narrative nonfiction at its best. . . . The book has all the intrigue of a spy thriller. . . . A must-have title with broad crossover appeal.” — School Library Journal (starred review)

In September 1941, Adolf Hitler’s Wehrmacht surrounded Leningrad in what was to become one of the longest and most destructive sieges in Western history—almost three years of bombardment and starvation. Trapped between the Nazi invading force and the Soviet government itself was composer Dmitri Shostakovich, writing a symphony to rouse, rally, eulogize, and commemorate his fellow citizens: the Leningrad Symphony. This is the true story of a city under siege, the triumph of bravery and defiance in the face of terrifying odds. It is also a look at the power—and layered meaning—of music in beleaguered lives. Symphony for the City of the Dead is a masterwork thrillingly told and impeccably researched by National Book Award–winning author M. T. Anderson.


1.  Anderson points out that it’s really hard to find the truth about Shostakovitch meaning behind his music, because telling the truth meant death during Stalin's reign. But considering that Shostakovitch often wrote letters to help friends who were arrested, never denounced anyone, and was almost purged at least twice shows that he wasn’t a fan of communism.

2.  The people of Leningrad who survived did not lie down to conserve their strength. There’s something about going about your daily tasks and acting as if life is normal that breeds hope. And I loved that they entertained each other by reading and quoting the Russian classics!

3.  I found it interesting that although a German nutritionist advised Hitler to not attack the city because the people would die in a few months of starvation, he was wrong. This nutritionist and the Germans in general underestimated the Russian people, whom they considered subhuman. Yet the Nazis didn't consider how much a people's will to live, their love for their homeland, or the intangibles of life (faith, love, family, etc.) can impact a person's ability to survive.

4.   It is a powerful scene in the book when Shostakovitch's 7th Symphony is finally performed in Leningrad. The audience consists of starving people who’ve given up their day’s rations to buy a ticket, and the band includes Red Army soldiers on leave from their duties, because so many have died of starvation. Yet, with each note they played, they demonstrated how music and the arts can elevate the soul. 

5.   Anderson made a smart choice in letting Shostakovitch be our eyes through the terrible events of the first half of 20th century Russia. I probably couldn’t have stomached the barbarity of the revolution or Stalin’s purges without a mild-mannered man like Shostakovitch to root for. His love for his family and his willingness to do so much for others and so little for himself was truly inspiring.

I think another reason this book spoke to me was the timing. I shared in the spring some funny and light-hearted books that cheer me up. But I’m also finding that difficult books, especially about people surviving trials far greater than I can even imagine, puts life in perspective for me. Reading this book will make you grateful for the gift of food, of family, and the ability to speak the truth without losing your life.

I hope you will enjoy it as much as I did.

Have you read any books about difficult times lately?

Monday, October 12, 2020

MMGM: Roll With It


When I read the premise for Roll With It, I knew had to read it. A girl with cerebral palsy wants to be a baker! I love baking, and I’m always excited to see a book about a kid with a disability where the story is not just about the disability.

This book has a lot of plots and subplots, and they all come together for a heartwarming story about finding your tribe.

Synopsis from Amazon:

Ellie’s a girl who tells it like it is. That surprises some people, who see a kid in a wheelchair and think she’s going to be all sunshine and cuddles. The thing is, Ellie has big dreams: She might be eating Stouffer’s for dinner, but one day she’s going to be a professional baker. If she’s not writing fan letters to her favorite celebrity chefs, she’s practicing recipes on her well-meaning, if overworked, mother.

But when Ellie and her mom move so they can help take care of her ailing grandpa, Ellie has to start all over again in a new town at a new school. Except she’s not just the new kid—she’s the new kid in the wheelchair who lives in the trailer park on the wrong side of town. It all feels like one challenge too many, until Ellie starts to make her first-ever friends. Now she just has to convince her mom that this town might just be the best thing that ever happened to them!

What I loved:

1. A relatable main character: Ellie is a different kind of character with a disability. She treats her limitations in a practical way without letting them totally flatten her. While sometimes her sarcasm grated on me a bit, she showed a welcome range of emotion, and the story didn’t pivot on her teaching other people a lesson, but having her learn one herself.

2. Memaw! I’m not sure if I’ve enjoyed a MG grandma I loved as much as Ellie’s Memaw. Her faith was real and not saccharine. She wasn’t afraid to tell Ellie’s Mom the truth, and she always had Ellie’s back. Loved her!

3. Fun sidekick characters: I really enjoyed how Ellie found her people with Coralee, a pageant contestant and aspiring singer, who tells it like it is (not unlike Memaw) and Bert, who has autism. The scenes with the three of them together were so much fun, especially the miniature golf scene. Coralee wasn’t afraid to tell Ellie the truth, even risking their friendship, which is the sign of a good friend.

4. Letters to famous chefs/bakers! The only downfall with this book in my opinion was the lack of recipes. I wanted to try Ellie’s creations. But I really enjoyed how each chapter started off with a letter to a baker or a chef. Even one of my favorites, Mary Berry, was included.

5. An author who writes from the heart. In the afterword, the author states her story was inspired by her child, who also uses a wheelchair. I have found that some of the most authentic reads about people with disabilities are written by parents. In this way, it reminded me of Out of my Mind by Sharon Draper, another wonderful read by a parent of a child with a disability.


Have you read any good character-driven middle grades lately? 


For more Monday Middle Grade reads or to join in on the fun, please visit Greg Pattridge's Always in the Middle blog.

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

ISWG: The Unexpected Benefit of Staying Home

In July, I wrote about my tendency to put off everything to the summer or “Octember”—that mystical month when everything gets done. I have to report that I’ve accomplished a lot last summer.

And that’s made me wonder why.  

I like to look back on the Golden Age of my writing—when I accomplished the most—as the year my oldest was in afternoon kindergarten, and my youngest still took naps. Oh, I had a glorious two hours each day to write. I accomplished much.

But the key was, I couldn’t go anywhere during those two hours. Running to my keyboard was the most exciting option.

This summer, I did work part time for a few weeks, but that structure was helpful. On my days off, I focused on writing. On the days I worked, I gave myself grace and set very low expectations.

I also read some nonfiction. I don’t know what it is about nonfiction that inspires me more than anything else. I got jazzed about two new story ideas—I’m still not sure which I’m going to focus on, but there’s something about new ideas that keeps writing fresh.

I also discovered that if I don’t work on the same thing all the time, I don’t get bored. Right now, I flit between writing blog posts, writing/researching the new projects, and revising my old project. This variety keeps me energized.

When this post is published, I will have been back at full-time work for over a month. September is my busiest, craziest month with the start of school for me as teacher, a homeschooling mom, and it’s also happens to be the month of my 23rd anniversary. Whew! It feels sometimes if I can just make it to the end of the month in one piece I have done well.

I’ve prepped a lot of blog posts ahead of time, but I think September could still be productive because I probably won’t be doing as many outside activities as usual.

Maybe that’s one benefit of all the craziness of the last few months. Staying home more has been a gift. It’s given me more time to write. More time to read. More time with my family. Also, I’ve found without the constant input from people outside my family, I’m less prone to care what other people think.

And I don’t know about you, but caring what other people think is a huge roadblock for my writing. It’s hard to write anything when you imagine people looking over your shoulder, already judging your work.

So, although I can’t say that I’m thankful for all that’s happened in the last few months, I am thankful for having more time at home.

As Mrs. Elton says in Emma: “Ah! there is nothing like staying at home for real comfort writing.”

This month's question: I consider myself to be a hobbyist/aspiring writer, and this is even after I have sold some of my writing. Perhaps it's because writing isn't my day job or that the sales are few and far between. I don't think it's wrong to consider yourself a hobbyist. Hobbyist love their hobbies, and that's where I am at with my writing right now. When I treated it like a career, I ended up feeling guilty all the time and not enjoying it. I write better when I enjoy it, so I'll stay a hobbyist.

Has staying home more affected your writing? What are your writing goals for the fall? Are you a working writer or a hobbyist?