Improving Vocabulary in 2012

When I was in 8th grade, my English teacher, Ms. Giles, made us use a book titled 1100 Words You Need to Know to improve our spelling and vocabulary.  That book was full of PSAT and SAT beauties, like “perspicacious,” “innocuous”, and “erudite,” and each week, we added five more gems to our knowledge base. 

An old, but well used dictionary in my house
Ms. Giles taught vocabulary and the rules of grammar with intimidating and uncompromising exactness.  I still remember the time she praised me in front of the class for a persuasive essay I had written, but ridiculed me for a basic, and unfortunately repeated, error in my writing. 
“How can a reader take you seriously when you mistake ‘loose’ for ‘lose’ more than once in the essay?” she demanded as she waved my paper in front of me.    Although my face burned with humiliation that day, I know now that Ms. Giles gave me a strong foundation for my word nerd tendencies (an obsession with proper grammar and a fascination with word etymology).  Wherever you are now Ms. Giles, thank you. 

Twenty something years later, when I’m reading and I come across a word that I know I should recognize,  I feel the need to look it up and educate myself.   (Do you ever feel that way too, or is this a word nerd issue?)  This year, I’m going to nurture that urge to learn, and I’m going to drag you along with me on the road to improved vocabulary!

The first Friday of every month you’ll find a “Word Nerd Workout” post that features a few of those SAT type words that we need to know, usually from the novels in the 2012 Reading List.  And since we learn best by doing, I’ll also suggest exercises for you to use those vocabulary words in small, creative ways.  For reference, I’ll keep a running list of the Word Nerd Vocabulary in a separate page on the blog.  You’ll find the tab at the top of the home page.

So, let’s get started! 

a samovar
I’m currently reading my book club’s January selection, Winter Garden, by Kristin Hannah.  The narrative repeatedly refers to a mysterious thing  called a “samovar” in the kitchen.  Now that I’ve looked it up, I know that  it comes from a Russian word and that it’s an urn with a spigot at the bottom used (especially in Russia) to boil water for tea. 

Also, on p. 179 of the same novel, it says, “The house was preternaturally silent, as if it too, were waiting.”  Preternaturally means “exceeding what is natural or regular” or “extraordinary” from the Latin praeter naturam (beyond nature).

Ready to exercise?  Try to use one of those words in your own sentence.  Here’s mine:
  •  Watson marveled at how Holmes could preternaturally detect subtle clues at the scene of a crime. 

Now it’s your turn.  Click on the comments button below and add your own sentence, or other vocabulary words, or your general feedback on the idea of a Word Nerd Workout.  Thank you so much for joining in!

And please, feel free to direct high school students preparing for the SATs to my blog!

The Meaning Behind Auld Lang Syne

At the end of one of my favorite movies, Harry Burns asks Sally Albright, “What does this song mean?  My whole life, I don’t know what this song means.”  Now, if you’re old enough, and you like a good comedy, you should know that the movie is When Harry Met Sally, and the song is Auld Lang Syne.  And during New Year’s Eve festivities tomorrow night, you will probably hear, and maybe even sing, the song again and wonder the same thing Harry does.

We can trace Auld Lang Syne back to a Scottish poem written in the 18th century by Robert Burns, although some records show similar lyrics in pieces that predate Burns’ poem.  The tune comes from a pentatonic* (see note below) Scots folk melody that was, most likely, originally used at a faster tempo.  The phrase “Auld Lang Syne” means “old long past,” “old long since,”or, more loosely translated, “old times’ sake.”  It’s similar to the phrase “once upon a time” often found in English literature. 

People in English speaking countries around the world sing Auld Lang Syne at midnight on New Year’s Eve to mark the significance of the passing year.  But the song is also heard at funerals, graduations, or to commemorate the closing of other momentous occasions.  

The World Burns Club website provides a line by line translation of Burns’ poem which basically substitutes the phrase “for old long past” for “auld lang syne”.   Ultimately, the lyrics of the song pose a simple question:  Is it acceptable to forget old times and old friends?

In When Harry Met Sally, Harry Burns, of course, cannot let it go with one simple question.  He rambles about forgetting old acquaintances and difficulty of remembering them once you’ve forgotten them until Sally quiets him with, “Maybe it means we should remember that we forgot them.”
I tend to get sentimental and sappy this time of year as I recount my blessings, miss old friends, and recognize how quickly time passes, as the lyrics of Auld Lang Syne encourage me to do.  But fortunately my kids won’t let me wallow too long.  They’re already planning a “Just Dance 3” competition for our New Year’s Eve festivities.  (However, they don’t realize how well I know songs by A-Ha, Lenny Kravitz, and the Pointer Sisters!)  I’m glad I have them to balance my introspection, because although I believe it’s important to remember “old long past”, it’s just as critical to appreciate the people and events of the present.

Have a safe and Happy New Year!  How will you mark the passing of 2011?  Share in the comments below!

Pentatonix performs on The Sing Off

*Word Nerd Note:  Pentatonic” refers to a musical scale with five notes per octave.  Most major and minor scales have seven notes (heptatonic).  The word pentatonic struck me because I’m also an a cappella nerd, and my favorite a cappella group, Pentatonix, won The Sing Off  this season.  Five members make up the band, so I guess that’s how they got their name, but I wonder if they knew about this musical term as well? 

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever

Do you know the Herdmans?  Six unruly, unsupervised children who steal, smoke cigars, and set fire to small buildings?  If you’ve read The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson, then you’ll know that these mischievous kids are the unlikely messengers for the good news of the Christmas story. 

This year, for various reasons, I decided I needed to read the book, so each night this week I have settled my kids down from their holiday hyperactivity by gathering them together to listen to a chapter from Robinson’s comical yet touching novel for children.

When the Herdmans show up at church looking for free cake and kool-aide, they learn about the annual Christmas pageant and decide to bully their way into all of the main parts.  But once rehearsals begin, it’s obvious that the children have never heard the Christmas story, and that’s when the magic starts. 

As these brazen youngsters express profound compassion for Mary’s plight and outrage at King Herod’s deceit, they give pause to those of us who have heard the story multiple times and have perhaps grown complacent about its implications.  They make us wonder, what would have happened if the Wise Men had returned to Herod, as instructed?

And so, unexpectedly, by the end of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, the wild Herdman children make us see, in a new light, the beauty and miracle of the Christmas story as they discover its wonder for the first time.  As so often in the Bible, it’s the people who make us the most uncomfortable who have the most important message for us. 

At the beginning of Advent, my pastor encouraged the members of our parish to look generously for the good in others, as it would increase the good in each of us.  The Best Christmas Pageant Ever illustrates, with simplicity and humor, how we can find beauty and goodness in the most unlikely places.  I hope you will find it, and share it, this holiday season.

Merry Christmas to you and yours!

Reading List for 2012

I confess that I have some type-A tendencies.  For example, I generated a grocery list on my computer, and I keep printed copies of it in the kitchen.  When I realize I need something, I circle the item on that week’s list- why reinvent the wheel every Thursday? 

So, when I sat down with my Book Club last week, and we decided on our ENTIRE Reading List for 2012, I felt ecstatic!   We’ve NEVER chosen for the whole year before, but we had so many intriguing book suggestions, we couldn’t stop ourselves!  I hope this becomes standard procedure. 

So, here’s our Reading List for 2012.   Please join us next year as we cover lots of historical fiction, a few classics, and an atypical Nicholas Sparks.  If you click on the title of each book, it will lead you to a page on the Amazon website where you will find reviews and purchasing information.

·         January:  Winter Garden by Kristin Hannah.  Two sisters reunite after their father’s death to care for their difficult mother, and they learn new and startling things about her past in Russia.

·         February: Run, by Anne Patchett.  This novel covers 24 hours in the life of a Boston family after a heated argument and an accident in a blizzard.

·         March:  Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand.  This is a true story about a delinquent turned track star turned Army hero and his amazing war time journey after his plane crashes over the Pacific.

·         April:  The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern.  Two magicians compete and fall in love in the dazzling setting of a night circus.

·        May:  The Kitchen House, by Kathleen Grissom.  A white servant girl struggles to find her place in plantation society.

·         June:  Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens.  An orphan mysteriously inherits a fortune, which dramatically changes his life.

·        July:  ”  “

·         August: Little Bee, by Chris Cleave.  No one wants to say much about this book except that it involves an African girl, a wealthy British couple, and a brutal scene on a beach. 

·        September:  The Johnstown Flood, by David McCollough.  The story of the tragic flood in 1889 that killed 2000 people and caused a national scandal.

·         October:  Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte.   The story of a courageous woman and her stormy relationship with the brooding Mr. Rochester.  The first feminist novel- before feminism ever existed!

·        November:  Three Weeks with My Brother, by Nicholas and Micah Sparks.  A memoir that chronicles a three week trip during which the brothers recall their childhood and learn what matters most in life. 

I’ll keep this Reading List posted as a separate page that you can refer to throughout the year.  You’ll find it next to the “About Me” tab at the top of the blog. 

I know we left off December; life’s too busy then.

And, if anyone knows of any potentially disturbing content in the Reading List, please warn me. Well ahead of time.
After my monthly book club meeting, I’ll post a review for each book.  Please add to the on-line discussion by posting comments and questions.  Happy reading!

The Pros and Cons of eReaders

The Pros and Cons of eReaders

Two summers ago, while we were on vacation in the Adirondacks, my tech-savvy friend Don sat me down with his latest gadget: an eReader.  “As much as you read, I think you’d like this,” he said as he demonstrated the e-reader’s features and quick downloading capability.  He nodded to the novel in my lap, Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth, a three inch thick volume.  “This is much lighter than THAT.”

I humored him, fiddled with the buttons, saw how I could read even in the morning sunshine without worrying about glare.  But in the end, I shook my head and told him, “I like the feel of a real book in my hands.”  He glanced again at Pillars, shook his head, and then turned to my then nine-year old son.  “Okay, how about you?”

“Yeah!” my son said, eagerly grabbing the eReader.

Well, our family purchased an eReader  this year, and I’ve used it enough to see the possibilities.

eReaders eliminate bulk. 

My house has many overflowing bookshelves.  An eReader can store thousands of volumes in the space of one thin chapter book.  And as my friend Caroline pointed out, “Think of all the trees we aren’t killing!”  Since they minimize bulk, eReaders also eliminate weight; it’s much easier to travel with an eReader than multiple hardback novels and self help guides!  They are also easier to hold in bed at night (the Kindle turned my hubby into a more willing bedtime reader).

eReaders make reading more cost effective. 

With an eReader, you can sample before you buy.  Or you can sample, and then look for the book at the library!  Also, more libraries, including the one in my little town, now offer eBooks for lending through the library system to patrons with eReaders.   And lending isn’t limited to libraries.  Owners of eReaders can share books with other eReaders, and Amazon just introduced its Kindle Lending Library; Amazon Prime members can borrow one book a month from an “eLibrary” filled with present and former best sellers. 

But I still have reservations.

Sharing eBooks isn’t always easy.  There are time limits (Kindle = two weeks) and financial restrictions (most cost at least $100 and an Amazon Prime membership costs $79 per year).  According to the local librarian, a lot of the patrons she sees do not have the computer knowledge or equipment to borrow the eBooks available.   I believe everyone should have access to literature, and I worry that eReaders exclude significant segments of our population.   

My final holdout:  traditional books please the senses so much more than their digital counterparts.  I love the feel of a smooth cover, the colors and designs that reveal each book’s personality.  I like folding down corners, underlining sentences, and knowing, by thickness, how much of a book I’ve read.  I enjoy handing a favorite book to a friend and saying , “You’ve got to read THIS.” 

And, I like to take my novels into the bathtub. 

So, I think eReaders are a great option for book lovers, but they shouldn’t be the sole source of literature.

Do you agree?  Have I missed something?  Share your thoughts by clicking on “comments” below. 

Book Gift Ideas for the Holidays

Any word nerd worthy of her name will want to give or receive books this holiday season.  And I’m proud to say that my kids follow my example, as books, or requests for money for books, have made every child’s gift wish list.  (Except for the five-year-old’s , but he isn’t reading independently, YET, so he doesn’t count).  Here are some gift ideas for word nerds of all ages!
For Young Children:

Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak.  This picture book earned my love years ago for its sparse , but moving/poetic language (Max “sails in and out of weeks…to where the wild things are”) and most importantly its ending: Max stands up to those wild monsters. 

Knuffle Bunny, by Mo Willems (see also Knuffle Bunny Too and Knuffle Bunny Free).  Willems combines humor, irony, and a unique style of illustration (cartoon mixed with photograph) to entertain kids and adults alike.  Have you experienced a toddler going “boneless”?  You’ll love these books!

For budding, but hesitant readers:
 The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick.  This VERY thick chapter book might cause alarm, but if you can get a child to flip through the pages and see that detailed drawings comprise half of the book, I’m sure he or she will immediately begin to pour over the fast paced story told with words and pictures.  The movie based on the book comes out over the holidays, making this a timely gift.

Igraine the Brave, by Cornelia Funke.  Igraine’s family expects her to be a princess, but she wants to train for knighthood.  This book was perfect for my daughter as she emerged from her Disney induced princess haze.  

Middle Grade:

The Ranger’s Apprentice series by John Flanagan.  These books follow the adventures of Will and the rangers, a group of shadowy characters who secretively combat evil in a medieval / fantasy setting.  My 40 year old husband enjoys these stories as much as my 11 year old son! 

Peter and the Starcatchers series  by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson.  My daughter has loved these books that expand on the Peter Pan and Neverland myths. 

Young Adult:

Matched by Ally  Condie.  This dystopian fantasy explores the underlying conflicts in a society where the government efficiently directs everything for the good of its citizens, right down to the food delivered each night for dinner.  Word nerd alert: “dystopian” comes from ancient Greek words meaning “bad place;” it describes  a society under repressive government control, usually in the guise of “utopia.”


The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, by Alan Bradley.   Flavia, a precocious and headstrong  young lady, finds a dying man on the grounds of her father’s estate and immediately launches an investigation.  Suspense and humor color this classic “English countryside mystery.”

The Blueberry Years by Jim Minnick.  This award winning memoir recounts, in lovely, descriptive prose, Minnick’s years running a “pick your own blueberry farm” in Virginia.  Minnick has also published books of poetry, so you can expect vivid, colorful details. 

Please also see my previous posts on The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and The Last Days of Summer. 

Can you add to this list of gift ideas?  If so, please do!  Post your comments by clicking the comment link below, and thanks for contributing!