This Week’s Favorite: The Scarlet Letter

the scarlet letterFour years ago, when 60secondrecap.com debuted, I was coming out of a fog of re-reading a dozen or so classics to launch our library of classics videos. Among them was Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Like the other titles I recapped for our library, I felt I had a nuanced understanding of the novel. But I was surprised that—after the intensive collegiate study that granted me a degree in English, and even after many years of critical reading as a book reviewer—I still didn’t feel much connection to what’s thought of as a masterpiece of American Literature.

I was 16 the first time I encountered Hester Prynne and her flaming symbol of sin, and I had two responses to the book. First, I thought that the language took way too much decoding (i.e. that reading the book was a slog). Second, I thought Hawthorne’s constant hammering of the symbol of the A bordered on hilarious.

It wasn’t that I missed the point of the story. I studiously deconstructed it in class, then convinced a group of friends to go trick-or-treating with me…as Hester Prynnes. This, mind you, was after my birthday party, at which I forced everyone to play a rousing game of pin-the-scarlet-letter-A-on-Hester. I was an unqualified nerd even then—but at least I had a sense of humor. (And yes, I’m still friends with some of my fellow Hesters—in case you were wondering.)

I’ve never lost my one-eyebrow-raised response to Hawthorne’s work—especially to his perhaps over-the-top use of the A. (Though, as you’ll see here, I maintain an appreciation for the meaning with which Hawthorne managed to imbue the letter.) But this week, I found a different feeling overcoming me as I read the book for the fourth time: awe.

I was moved by The Scarlet Letter. For the first time, I felt very deeply for Hester. I felt an emotional connection to the situation—especially to the way the two main creeps, er, male characters, feed off her transgression for their own self-centered purposes.

It’s funny: In the past, The Scarlet Letter has always seemed to me to be primarily a book about sin, hypocrisy, and guilt. It’s still about those things. But it’s also about a person–a character who finally sprang off the page for me, not as some silly 19th-century construct, but as a human being. And thanks to Hester, I began to understand Hawthorne’s mastery: seldom has a character seemed so real, her plight so poignant, her journey so gripping.

I know what changed. It’s the first time I’ve read The Scarlet Letter as a writer instead of as a reader. I suddenly get what Hawthorne’s doing—the choices he’s making, the structure he’s building, the characters he’s unpeeling. I’m not saying you have to be a writer to appreciate the book; I’m just saying that I’m glad I finally do.

I highly recommend you give this masterpiece—and my new favorite—a chance, too.

This Week’s Favorite: Get Lucky

get luckyIt’s still a sad season for middle grade and YA fiction. Partly, it’s me. With all the work on the redesign of 60secondrecap.com—which is LIVE, by the way, so check it out if you haven’t yet—I’ve had very little time to think about anything else. I’ve dipped into a few books, sure, but nothing that’s really grabbed me. And though I’ve poked at my massive pile of new titles, I’ve yet to feel inspired.

Partly, too, it’s the books. I can handle tried and true conventions—love triangles, “dark secrets,” even the occasional character that strains credulity—if there’s enough plot and message to keep the story moving and the reading engaging. But over the last few months, it’s been mainly convention—and, by extension, eye-rolling predictability—and very little that’s fresh and fun. (Of course, I’m always happy to forgo convention entirely for a surprising and thought-provoking and totally original book. So…any suggestions?)

In the meantime, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to do other kinds of reading—namely, reading of the new material we’ve started to add to 60secondrecap.com. We’re excited to begin this chapter of helping teens win, not just in English class, but in life. And I was even more excited to find out that you can win by de-cluttering. Or that you can win by altering your sleep habits—in just ten minutes a week.

One article, however, really got me pumped. An article about luck—but not luck, really, as you’ll see when you read it. We’re hopeful it’ll get teens—and adults!—thinking about their lives in a different light. I know it’s helped me in the way I think about mine.

So for now, that’s this week’s favorite read. A piece that reminds me that there’s good in each day, possibility in each day, and opportunities to be and do good…even if I’m still waiting to find a new book to gush about.

We’re SO Close!

New site design coming soonRight now, I’m obsessed with one thing: Finishing the redesign of 60secondrecap.com. For months, we’ve labored to upgrade our site–not just to move it to a new platform, but also to update the design, expand our editorial offerings, and just make it better, cooler, more helpful…because we love you! (OK, and yes, because we  want the search engines to be able to find our content.)

So while this is stating the obvious, I still have to say it: This process has taken WAY longer than we ever imagined. But it will be worth it, I tell myself. Soon, I tell myself. By the beginning of next week at the latest (so help me God). I’ll be sure to let you know when we finally go live.

I also know, though, that just because I’m living, breathing, and even dreaming about the website doesn’t mean that life isn’t still going on somewhere out there. In fact, I know it must be, because here and there, I’ve still managed to catch glimpses of funny bits, and sweet bits, and I-have-to-share-this-with-my-friends bits from around the web this week. And now, I take this brief moment to stop being a workaholic hermit (Hi, World!), and to share them with you.

5 Things I’m Obsessing About This Week, September 18, 2013:

1. I had a hamster as a pet growing up (my beloved Muffin), so you can understand why I LOL’d at this video.

2. OK, these were just too hilarious for words. Really, people?

3. THE FIST. (Well, I love all of these, actually.)

4. Did someone say cat librarian?

5. And speaking of animals, these renderings of Downton Abbey characters as dogs are eerily accurate. I want them all!

Happy Wednesday!

#XtremeDream

best headline of the weekDistance swimmer Diana Nyad didn’t realize her dream of swimming from Havana, Cuba to Key West when she made her first attempt as a 20-something swimmer in 1978. She failed again (twice) in 2011, and again in 2012. But take one glance at this afternoon’s jubilant headline from CNN, and Nyad’s enduring legacy is clear: This remarkable woman won’t be remembered for the four times she didn’t make it, but for the one time she did.

After nearly 53 hours of swimming, Nyad became the first person to complete the 110-mile journey from Cuba to Key West without a shark cage, flippers, or a wet suit. Yes, she had help. A directional streamer kept her on-course. A special mask protected her from the worst of the jellyfish. And a support team kept her fed, hydrated, and safe–well, as best they could. But Nyad alone swam every stroke, battled fatigue, cold, and currents, and pushed through the worst resistance of all: the doubting voices, both internal and external, that told her to give up, to stop pushing, and to let go of her (extreme) dream.

Fortunately for us, she didn’t give up. And I say “fortunately,” not just because I’m inspired by her courage, persistence, and strength. Actually, I think Nyad’s triumph tells a bigger story–a story about knowing who you are, and being unafraid of what that means.

Most of us don’t dream of plowing through jellyfish- and shark-infested waters to achieve the kind of athletic feat that Nyad did. But our individual dreams may be, in their own way, just as extreme. Maybe we dream of making a difference in a failing school system. Maybe we dream of being artists in a world that says art isn’t valued, or that no one cares. Or maybe we dream of reconciling with an estranged family member, or a friend with whom we’ve had a falling-out.

Whatever the dream, it expresses something of who we are. Our reason for being, the contribution we have to make to the world, the spark, the inner fire that makes you uniquely you, or me uniquely me. Doubting voices will attempt to squash and invalidate these dreams. The darkness of “I can’t” or “what’s the point?” will try to put out that light. We’ll be called fools, crazies, dreamers–and we’ll be assured that everyone sees the epic failure ahead. Everyone, that is, but us.

Of course, sometimes circumstances will force us to reevaluate our dreams, and to reshape and rethink them. Diana Nyad saw that. She had to make multiple attempts, refining her approach to the swim each time. But she kept the vision. She worked hard, both physically and mentally, to make sure that real strength, not just the force of ego, was driving her. But through that work, she must have also found a measure of grace–the grace that allowed her to persist with her dream, no, with her destiny.

That, to me, is Nyad’s real victory. Having the courage to say, “I was born to do this.” She was humble enough to revisit that bold statement, but she was also fearless enough to continue reaching for it, in spite of naysayers, age, and past experiences. Her success was not quick or difficulty-free, but it was inevitable. That she proved today.

Do I have Nyad’s courage? I’ve faced my own share of “I can’ts,” obstacles, and naysayers, especially in the short course of my writing career. And I admit: I’ve had times when I’ve just wanted to stop swimming. We probably all have. Today, though, a 64-year-old woman showed me what happens when you fearlessly embrace your destiny. When you resolve to put one arm in front of the other until night turns to day, dreams do become reality, and you reach the other shore.

I haven’t forgotten about you.

That's a lot of typing.

That’s a lot of typing.

Really, I haven’t. It’s just that I’ve been a wee bit busy working on that pile of pages over there and haven’t found myself with a lot of words to spare. In the meantime, though, I wanted to leave you with a few links to brighten your mid-week. Well, not just links: obsessions. I just may have watched that Kristin Chenoweth spot upwards of 30 times. But everyone needs a little break from writing once-in-a-while, don’t you think?

5 Things I’m Obsessing About This Week (when I’m not obsessing about that giant 47k-word document up there), August 28, 2013:

1. When Kristin Chenoweth called an audience member up to sing with her at the Hollywood Bowl, I’m sure she wasn’t expecting this to happen.

2. If you can excuse the profanity (and the plot spoilers), you’ll understand why this list absolutely, positively made my week.

3. Being the women’s college nerd that I am, I have to say that this piece of news got me more than a little stoked.

4. BIOLUMINESCENCE! (First I had to learn how to spell it; then I could go ga-ga over its beauty.)

5. In early July, I highlighted a time-lapse film of Boston. Here’s NYC: bigger, louder, faster!

Happy Wednesday!

News Worth Obsessing About

Yesterday, a gunman walked into an Atlanta-area elementary school, intent on wreaking the kind of havoc that devastated the city of Newtown, Connecticut last December. But instead of tragedy, something amazing happened. A school clerk named Antoinette Tuff reached out to the young man with love, and convinced him to lay down his weapons. He surrendered, and no one was hurt.

There’s a lot that’s remarkable about this story. Tuff’s grace and courage under fire. The way love can reach and soften even a heart that seems hopelessly hardened. And the fact that almost no one is talking about this very real and powerful triumph of good.

When tragedy strikes, the news cycle turns into a barrage of coverage. We’re forced to relive the details of devastation over and over–ad infinitum. There are endless parades of the faces of the dead. And commentators and opinionators become the voice of the public–searching for meaning where there’s usually none to be found.

That’s why my obsessions this week are simple, but serious. I’m obsessed with getting Tuff’s story out there. Watch her tell it in her own words. Share her story with your friends. And think about this: How would the world be different if we greeted every situation–from the mildly annoying, to the utterly terrifying–with the kind of heart full of love that Tuff did?

This week’s most important news story proves that fearless, life-changing love is possible. That it’s more powerful than a gun, than a mind obsessed with evil, even than evil itself. That this love is the demand on all of us–and that living such love could have effects far beyond what we can imagine.

In lieu of my weekly obsessions list this Wednesday, I leave you with this challenge: Find transcendent love within yourself, and then go out and share it. I promise I’ll be joining you.

Feeling Fruity

Little bites of heaven.

Little bites of heaven.

It seems strange to call apricots a vice, which is why I prefer the word obsession. Whatever the appropriate term, this week marks the return of my love affair with the fruit–available for only a brief season each summer. But while the apricots here have been good, even very good on occasion, the perfect fruit remains elusive.

I know what a perfect apricot tastes like, thanks to the one, too-short week we spent in Northern California during my childhood. At the time, my dad’s mom–my grandmother, Marjorie–was living on a ranch in the San Jose area. I remember several things about that ranch: It was magical in the way that the West is magical. It was cluttered with old-fashioned trinkets and memorabilia that my sister and I found strange and exotic. And it was home to several dozen apricot trees.

To say I gorged myself during that trip is an understatement. I ate the apricots in the fruit bowl on the counter. I went out and ate them off the trees. I would have eaten more, except my mom–and eventually, my gut–stopped me. But only temporarily. Soon enough, I was splitting open another perfect apricot, my hands dripping with golden-orange juice that tasted like a mixture of honey and flowers and a tiny bit of the tartness of plums.

I’ve never had another apricot like the ones I plucked off those prolific trees. Too soon, the ranch was gone, and though we returned to California after that, it never seemed to be during apricot season. But a few times this week, as I savored the red-hued apricots making the rounds in Boston, I could almost recapture the feeling of standing on those dust-brown hills. Of the perfume of apricot nectar in the air, and the taste of ambrosia filling my mouth.

5 Things I’m Obsessing About This Week (beginning and ending with apricots), August 14, 2013:

1. I love eating apricots out of hand, but I did save a few to make this delicious breakfast treat. I highly recommend.

2. Major heart-warmer.

3. This was surprisingly eye-opening.

4. Giant LOLs. It’s hard to believe how inappropriate/clueless some of these are.

5. And if there are any apricots left, there’s nothing that looks better than this recipe for roasted apricots. Stirred into yogurt? I can’t think of a better way to say goodbye to my favorite season.

July Books: Highlights and Lowlights

All of a sudden, it’s August. In my news feed on Facebook, teachers are posting about organizing their classrooms, and parents are talking about their kids going back to school. Here at 60second Recap HQ, we’re working frantically on the new website, which we’ll be launching right after Labor Day. I can’t wait for you to see it.

In the meantime, though, I’m not ready for summer to end. July was a grueling month–relentless, oppressive heat, and the sounds and smells of construction in every possible direction. But August has been lovely so far, and I find myself in a sudden frenzy to make the most of this last month before the inevitable march toward winter begins. I want to pack in as many visits to the farmer’s market, and tromps along the coast, and piles of fresh tomatoes and corn and summer berries as possible. I want to go out for walks late, when the sun is still visible in the almost-night sky, and relish the silky feel of summer evening air.

And I want to read some good books.

As I mentioned in Friday’s post, July was pretty uninspiring, book-wise. I read some books that I enjoyed, and some books that I did not enjoy. But I didn’t read anything earth-shattering, or life-changing. Hopefully, that will change in August.

In the meantime, here are July’s highlights, and a few lowlights. There are definitely some books worth reading on this list. No, maybe not favorites. But books I still hope might make it onto your end-of-summer pile, or onto your Kindle for that last, glorious trip to the beach.

fallout Fallout by Todd Strasser. This was, by far, July’s most compelling book. It was also, by far, the most disturbing book I’ve read, perhaps in the last year. In this coming of age story, Scott, the main character, finds himself in a hauntingly plausible dystopia when threats of nuclear war become a reality and his family–along with several interlopers–is trapped in an increasingly dismal situation in their underground bomb shelter. The author, who came of age in the early 1960s, when this story is set, lived through the tensions of this era, and his memories of collective paranoia and fear are palpable in this book. Definitely a page-turner, but not for the faint of heart. I found myself disturbed for days afterward–so I imagine many younger readers would be, too.

nobodys secretNobody’s Secret by Michaela MacColl. The best word for this book? Charming. What if 15-year-old Emily Dickinson met a handsome stranger…then found herself embroiled in the mystery of his murder? That’s the premise for this novel, which I found enjoyable enough, albeit not quite as compelling as I’d hoped. Perhaps it’s just that I’ve watched one too many cop dramas, but I think what landed this book in the “like” instead of “love” category was that the mystery lacked the kind of suspense and oomph to really keep me turning the pages. I loved the premise, and I loved Emily, and I certainly enjoyed Emily’s sleuthing–it just never quite grabbed me the way I’d hoped it would.

roseRose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein. Let me tell you, after Code Name Verity, I was predisposed to love this book. I was predisposed to fall for it–hard. And I did enjoy Rose Under Fire–aspects of it, at least. But Code Name Verity it was not. Rose features another spitfire protagonist: pilot Rose Justice, a US teenager whose family connections get her a gig flying Allied planes in Europe during WWII. It’s all pretty uneventful, until Rose is captured by the Nazis and ends up in a concentration camp. Here, she fights for her survival, and that of the remarkable women she meets. The book explores some marvelous friendships, and there’s an unexpected twist toward the end that set my heart soaring. But my biggest issue with this novel was that it felt absolutely relentless. Without the surprises and revelations of Code Name Verity, it became “just another Holocaust novel.” I have a hard time typing that, because it’s a very, very well done Holocaust novel, and certainly memorable in its own way. But the brilliance of Verity was its structure. The more straightforward approach of Rose made it much more devastating–and much more difficult to get through. (p.s. This story also features characters who are the victims of stomach-turning medical experimentation…so be forewarned.)

the extraThe Extra by Kathryn Lasky. Speaking of Holocaust novels, this is a book offering a new take on that horrible period–the Nazis’ persecution of Sinti and Roma Gypsies–that completely intrigued me. What a disappointment. Although I liked the premise–after she’s sent to a concentration camp, main character Lilo is chosen to be an extra in a movie directed by Leni Riefenstahl–the book’s execution really left something to be desired. The story felt overly long to me, but as long as it was, I still never really managed to connect with Lilo. Additionally, Lasky, a veteran writer, surprised me by falling prey to cliches, as well as to an enormous amount of telling instead of showing. I could barely get to the end of this one and definitely found myself skimming during the last third. Overall, a book with a lot of potential that never lived up to its promise.

sundayA Summer of Sundays by Lindsay Eland. Ugh. This book bugged me so much! Sunday Annika Fowler is the middle child of six, and this summer, she’s determined to do something to set herself apart. That something ends up involving things near and dear to every agent, editor, and publisher’s heart: a library, and an author, and a mystery box–the contents of which may lead to fame and fortune, or which may end up causing complications (of course). In other words, I can see how this book got published, but honestly, I just couldn’t stand it. For one thing, Sunday is the only kid in her family with a totally bizarre, stand-out name…yet she doesn’t stand out at all. OK, that makes no sense. For another, the author goes to absolutely ridiculous lengths to have Sunday be the forgotten child, the glossed-over child, the child who is constantly left behind and left out and out of place. Her dad won’t thank her for helping because she’s too old (what?), and he also can’t ever remember her name (PLEASE). Not only was the extremity of Sunday’s situation completely unbelievable, but then her obsession with doing something to get herself noticed turned her into a whiner and a character I couldn’t relate to at all. Did I mention that this book bugged me?

nowhereNorth of Nowhere by Liz Kessler. I guess I just didn’t get the magic of this book, which has gotten rave reviews from many others. When Mia and her mother land in the sleepy town of Porthaven, it seems there’s a mystery afoot. Mia’s grandad has vanished, and her new friend and pen pal–the only friend she makes in Porthaven–seems more than a bit elusive. Are the two mysteries related? And if so, how will Mia connect with the two people she’s come to care about so much? I don’t want to give away the reveal in this story, but let’s just say that I think one of the reasons this book was kind of a “meh” for me was that it felt awfully similar to other children’s books I’ve read, and used a conceit that I’ve never really loved all that much. Definitely a book that will probably hold much more appeal for its intended audience than for adult readers who will easily figure out the mystery.

wigThe Wig in the Window by Kristen Kittscher. As you may remember from this post, The Wig in the Window was a book I couldn’t wait to get my hands on this summer. But instead of being delighted by this middle grade mystery, featuring two best friends whose relationship is changing, I found myself disturbed, confused, and ultimately disappointed. My biggest problem: a deluge of appearance slurs, which left me more than a little uncomfortable. (I mean, I know that teen girls are image-conscious and judgmental, but shouldn’t a book for this age group do more to lift them out of this kind of thinking and behavior than this one did?) Additionally, I felt like this book wasn’t sure what it wanted to be: realistic fiction, dealing with tween relationships, or outlandish farce. Sadly, The Wig in the Window was not the delight that I’d so hoped it would be. (Though yes, I still love the cover.)

Searching for This Week’s Favorite

Not just any books. Good books.

Not just any books. Good books.

It’s been a sad state of affairs around these parts. I mean that in a totally first-world-problems-for-book-snobs kind of way. But seriously, things are getting a little desperate. I haven’t had a new favorite book in weeks. I haven’t even had one that’s approached favorite status.

What I have had have been a lot of books for which I’ve initially had high hopes. Maybe those hopes have even bled into the first few chapters, propelling me through a story that my inner editor was already starting to shred. But inevitably, hope is a thing with feathers, not a thing with 300-some pages, and I’ve had to give up. The result: another potential favorite tossed aside in despair.

I won’t list the names of the offending titles here, but I will say that they’ve covered a multitude of topics, genres, and age ranges. There have been disappointing middle grade books, and disappointing YA titles. There have been dystopias that haven’t lived up to their potential, and realistic fiction that’s been a complete snooze. There have even been a few books which would usually be automatic winners, with all the charm of a good, old-fashioned story, that simply flopped within the first fifty pages.

Where have all the good books gone?

So I turn to you, my fellow readers. What’s been inspiring you this summer? What new favorites have you discovered? What new favorites can you recommend? This forlorn reviewer awaits your advice.

Memories in Miniature

Childhood memories

Hello childhood obsession

I don’t recommend leaving several unopened boxes under your bed for seven years, but if you do, I hope you’re as delighted by what you find when you open them as I was.

Not everything inside was delightful, of course. In fact, most of it was stuff I’d (clearly) managed to live without since I moved into my current apartment seven years ago, and could hastily be recycled, discarded, or donated. (Speaking of which, does anyone need a TI-82 graphing calculator? I even managed to hold on to the user manual…)

Among my more pleasant discoveries was a tiny box filled with doll-sized treasures. A rainbow set of magic markers, not even two inches in length. Hello Kitty colored pencils–each just a little thicker than a straight pin. There was a drawing tablet the size of a postage stamp, and some teeny scissors I remember poaching from a miniature sewing kit.

I was obsessed with such things as a child. As the mother of five dolls, I was constantly on the lookout for goodies that could be reappropriated for their use. As you already know, I was not fortunate enough to have an American Girl Doll, or any one of the doll-sized goodies that the company sells. So I had to get creative. When Burger King gave out mini sports equipment, my sister and I wheedled for kids’ meals until we had our doll-sized soccer ball and football and basketball (and hoop!). When the stationary store near our home in South Miami began selling tiny Hello Kitty paraphernalia, I saved my allowance–then shopped for my dolls as though it was Christmas. And when my dad received a fruit basket, courtesy his office, I immediately made off with the ornate french horn ornament that adorned the handle. That Christmas, my doll Mandy received the instrument she’d been dreaming of. And Mama was happy.

These days, of course, such obsessions are merely pleasant memories, as I consider which real-life children of friends might become the recipients of some of my old treasures. But as with many things I’ve loved and lusted after, a piece of my fascination with all things miniature has never really left me. I guess that’s why this precious photo, which has popped up in various corners of the internet over the last few weeks, charms me every time. My dolls, I like to think, would be delighted, too.

5 (miniature, and not-so-miniature) Things I’m Obsessing About This Week, July 31, 2013:

1. Speaking of darling tiny things, I’m totally smitten with this series of photos.

2. I wonder if my little froggy friend would be willing to share his umbrella with these spiders.

3. Summer = beach. Beach = beach reading. In other words, this looks pretty ideal.

4. Totally grooving on this Wizard of Oz remix/remake/reimagining.

5. The science of TWINKIES!

Happy Wednesday!