Monday, July 28, 2008

Wade into the Awkward: Broken Communication in Zadie Smith's On Beauty

A passage in a book I recently read broke my heart and left me thinking for days. I found it in On Beauty, by Zadie Smith, a novel about the falling apart of a family made up of a white father, black mother, their three children and drama that ensues as each struggles with what makes up his or her own identity and life. At one point the father, Howard, goes to visit his own father, Harry, whom he hasn't seen in 4 years. Now an intellectual professor at an elite east coast college, he goes back to his old working class neighborhood in England and struggles to communicate:

"Harry on the edge of his seat, pleading, and always pleading with the wrong words. Howard already incensed...They didn't mean for it to be like this. But it was like this. Both had other intentions...Harry just wanted Howard to sit down, start again. There were four more hours of quality viewing lined up before bedtime--all of which he and his son might watch together in silent companionship, occasionally commenting on the presenter's overbite, another's small hands or sexual preference. And this would be another way of saying: It's good to see you. It's been too long. We're family. But Howard couldn't do this when he was sixteen and he couldn't do it now. He just did not believe, as his father did, that time is how you spend your love. And so, to avoid a conversation about an Austrailian soap actress, Howard moved into the kitchen to wash up his cup and a few other things in the sink. Ten minutes later he left. " (page 296, 302)

I suppose that I find myself sympathizing most with Harry. I can picture his face, wrought with the anguish of good intentions, but being deeply misunderstood. My heart falls apart picturing the thick, deep emotions across his face, as if I can see into his very self. When Howard walked in it says: " The older man was already crying. His hands shook with emotion." I want to shake Howard and tell him to grow up, to have patience.

People fall into patterns of behavior that somewhere along the line they begin to believe that they can't break, so they cling to moments of awkwardness rather than trying to see what lies beneath the surface...rather than trying to see through to the person's heart and goodness. Ugh. I can't really find any other words for this, except that it pains me. Sigh. And I think in order to avoid moments like this, and to move forward and heal, we have to wade into awkward.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Chronicle of a Death Foretold

A few weeks ago I finished Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, an author I've been wanting to read for quite some time. I did a little bit of research on him, and among other things, he is known for his very unconventional narrative styles and Chronicle was no exception. My typical favorite kind of book is one that incorporates poetic prose; one that lyrically uses language to convey the parts of life where mere words are not always enough.

However, this book is told in a very straightforward, (though non-linear) matter of fact way, which makes sense because the narrator is a journalist. He is trying, years later, to gather of all the facts about the murder of Santiago Nasar, What stood out to me the most is that Nasar's death really was foretold--the Vicario brothers were under the impression that he slept with his sister, the reason the sister was returned to her family after her wedding night, and were out to defend her honor. They told everyone they ran into that they were going to kill Nasar. So I have two questions:

Why were they telling this to everyone? Was it a crying out for someone to stop them, so that they can still feel they were honoring their sister, but didn't have to go through with it? Was it an intentional boldness, showing that they weren't afraid of the coming consequences? Was it a testing of the townspeople?

One of the most interesting parallels in my experience is that time and time again, students of mine tell me that they want to have consequences and boundaries in their lives. (Of course in the same breath they will tell me that they want to break them!) I have seen parents either afraid to tell their children no, or sadly, parents who do not care enough to say no, which brings me to my next question:

Why didn't the townspeople do something? Nearly the entire town had heard about this impending murder before Nasar, but only a couple of people actually tried to warn him. Did they think that it wasn't their business? That someone else would do something? Did they suffer guilt afterwards for not striving to stop this?

What scares me is how much this parallels humanity in general. What are the things that we know are happening in our neighborhoods, cities, country and world, but we look after with a vague apathy? What kind of walls have we created around ourselves that cause us to sit and watch things happen, but not step in to do something? Not that people can fight for everything, but should we all be fighting for the one thing that really moves us the most? Are we serving-and loving- the people we care the most about as we watch them make destructive decisions?

A death was foretold. Foretold. Ugh.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Summer Book.

The title captures everything. I really think that this is *the* summer book, literally. I won't say much about it besides recommending it to the following kinds of people:

1. You think summers are best spent on lakes.
2. You enjoy witty, wise grandmothers.
3. You find adventurous little girls endearing.
4. The summer time makes you sigh and you often think about what summer is meant to be.
5. You miss having whole summers that seem to encompass all that summer is meant to be.
6. Well written, poetic vignettes make your heart hurt.

Sigh. This was a lovely, lovely read.

The Unfortunate Space Between Books.

I have been reading quite a bit this summer and I have found that sometimes I hate picking out a new book. Even if I have dozens in my room stacked and waiting to be read. Even if I have books I know will be good.

I've realized that I have a hard time giving up my shared life with the characters I've been so invested in. I find it not fair, sometimes, that they get to go on living, but that I have to journey back to my world. And I get so used to those characters that I find myself not ready to get to know new characters right away. This is a problem because I am a chronic reader--I always have a book in my bag.

This is an issue reading shorter books as well: as soon as I get to know the characters pretty well, the story ends. And if it's still early enough before bed, I will want to keep reading, but sometimes it is simply impossible to pick up a new book with all the old characters on my mind still.

Sigh. Reading on summer vacation. It's a tough life.

Monday, July 14, 2008

A Note on the Weather.

The past few days in Brooklyn have been amazing: blue skies, bright sun, little humidity, cool evenings...basically everything you want summer to be. Until this morning. I was awakened by the sound of rain around six am and it was the most welcome view out of my window. There is something about rain that allows me to relax and not feel like I need to go anywhere. Granted, I have that luxury as a school teacher on summer vacation. But I've written about this before. Though this particular Monday morning, it was quite nice to have the option to just lay in my bed and let the rain fall, enjoying the fact that I had no where to be. The overcast sky was comforting.

Ironically, I was also motivated to do a lot of the work that I have put off the past few weeks. Somehow when it's nice out, I feel like I am committing a sin if I am not outside in some capacity. I feel guilty and wasteful if I do not take in the full enjoyment of the summer sun that I long for so much throughout the year. Today, I felt motivated to curl up in my living room and do the writing I've been meaning to do, and now I love that I'm in the back of a relatively windowless coffee shop in my neighborhood about to embark on some school related work.

So let it be known. I like cloudy days sometimes.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

It's Young Adult Fiction Day in the New York Times.

Not really, but there were two pretty interesting articles on a couple of the most popular books among my female students:

The Twilight Series
Writer Gail Collins looks at the legacy that Edward Cullen is leaving behind and it's impact on female readers

Gossip Girl
Writer Michael Winerip discusses the "brand placement" in teenage girl series and asks how adults should respond to the consumeristic mentally in such series.

Both are thought provoking and worth the read.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

What is currently breaking my heart.

From Gourmet magazine, seen on Abigail Goes Design Scouting


“It is perhaps not too much to say that, in the first decade of the new millennium, humanity has entered into a condition that is in some sense more globally united and interconnected, more sensitized to the experiences and suffering of others, in certain respects more spiritually awakened, more conscious of alternative future possibilities and ideals, more capable of collective healing and compassion, and, aided by technological advances in communication media, more able to think, feel, and respond together in a spiritually evolved manner to the world’s swiftly changing realities than has ever before been possible.” -Richard Tarnas

I found this book on my roommate's shelf a few months ago and was immediately intrigued by the title. In my urban life of over-commitment and busyness, Blessed Unrest sounded like the best example of an oxymoron. The subtitle made it so clear, though: How the Largest Social Movement in History is Restoring Grace, Justice and Beauty to the World. This book essentially discusses how the wide variety of social justice and environment groups are bringing about real change...and how we need small groups in all different places to be actively pursuing the health of our planet and its people.

I have long been convinced that so much in this world needs healing and that greed has done so much of the damage that afflicts humanity. Working toward this healing isn't restful, but it is good and blessed. This book challenges some of the accepted realities of the world and of the United States and asks the reader to reconsider his or her thinking. I cannot respond to this book as a whole because it is merely too rich in information...I can only recommend that others read and think about what it addresses.

I am convinced that our country cannot be about the only the financial bottom line--but that we need to figure out how people can be the bottom line and how markets can be a healthy way to support human dignity and what makes life worth living. Below is a list of some of the most thought provoking quotations that I read along the way.

"To those who carp about low wages and poor working conditions in developing countries, free market advocates argue that freedom and prosperity require time and sacrifice. But whose time and whose sacrifice?...The world's top two hundred companies have twice the assets of 80 percent of the world's people." (page 119)

"Why must such groups [that argue, demonstrate and litigate for human rights] operate at the margins of society simply if they believe that social justice and human rights should not be sacrificed when corporations shift their manufacturing to the lowest-wage countries?" (page 126)

"As effective as markets are, they are tools, not reality. Markets make great servants, but bad leaders and ridiculous religions...Trade is not the salient issue; the critical question is: Who sets the rules and who enforces them? There can be no sustainability when institutions whose primary purpose is to create money are dictating the standards." (page 135)

"When small things are done with love it's not a flawed you or me who does them: it's love. I have no faith in any political party, left, right or centrist. I have boundless faith in love. In keeping with this faith, the only spiritually responsible way I know to be a citizen, artist, or activist in these strange times is by giving little or no thought to 'great things' such as saving the planet, achieving world peace, or stopping neocon greed. Great things tend to be undoable things. Whereas small things, lovingly done, are always within our reach." (page 188, quoting Duncan)

So I suppose my closing thought is that change is within our reach--because if we bring this love of humanity into each of our spheres in life--our homes, our friendships, our workplace, our places of worship, our neighborhoods--that is when change will begin to occur. And that is when we will all begin to remember--on micro and macro levels--what makes life valuable, and that it typically has nothing to do with money at the end of the day.

Human Rights Watch
Natural Capital

Wednesday, July 2, 2008


I'm not going to lie. This picture that my friend Shannon posted on her blog along with the following quotes are what made me most intrigued to read Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger; that and my love of Catcher in the Rye and Nine Stories.

"Just because i'm so horribly conditioned to accept everybody else's values, and just because i like applause and people to rave about me doesn't make it right. I'm ashamed of it. I'm sick of it."

"i'm sick of not having the courage to be absolutely nobody."

The novel is grouped into two sections, "Franny" being abour 45 pages and "Zooey" being 150. In the first novella, Franny is on the verge of an emotional breakdown of sorts. She has met her boyfriend Lane for a big Ivy League homecoming game. Lane is very into having the right girl at the right place and being perceived as very intelligent; he calculates his facial expressions to remain elusive. Franny is at a place where she realizes that she may share similar tendencies, but is cognizant enough to know she doesn't want them--but does not know how to communicate that to Lane or herself. It is difficult to watch her continually apologize for herself while simultaneously exhibit physical symptoms of her inner state.

"Zooey" picks up with Franny at her parents' home, and is mostly a conversation between Zooey, her brother, her mother and herself. It continues with a dialogue between the different family members about Franny's state of mind and what to do with her.

Franny's struggle is not unique, though. She has grown up with expectations placed upon her and a certain understanding of what she would do with her life. All of a sudden she has realized that she doesn't necessarily have to do those things or be dictated by them. Such a realization can be life changing or life shattering; both incredibly freeing and confusing. I just think that most people choose the safety of what they know rather than rebuilding a new world view...hence the quotes mentioned above. Her actions is both stories beautifully typify the physical manifestations of this inner tension, and Salinger has really done a brilliant job.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Best Read of 2008 So Far.

I almost feel like to write about this book would trivialize it. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is haunting; it's characters so endearing that they break your heart and his attention to poetic detail about people hard to match. Set in Nazi Germany, the story follows the childhood of Liesel and is based in her learning to read and write and her love of story side by side with the attempted destruction of the human spirit. Death is the creative, omniscient narrator who himself becomes haunted by her story. While collecting the souls of the lost, he comments that not only does he see the worst of humans, but the best and beauty of them and can never quite figure out the contradiction.

I really can't say anymore at this point, except that my train ride this weekend and my arrival at home was filled with sobbing over some of my most favorite characters since Oskar (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close), Owen (A Prayer for Owen Meany) and Philibert (Hunting and Gathering). Sigh.

I am meeting to talk about this book with some really fabulous people next week, so I may follow up then...(most likely with a rant on why we need to live for what matters and take care of people's souls and really learn from our past), but until then, all I can do is beg you to read it.