Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Year in Review Part Two: paragraph style

If you know me, you know that I function better in Microsoft Word and paragraphs than Excel or even the most basic kind of list. So, here are a few paragraphs about story in my life this year.

There are three main ways that story impacted my life this year, for better or for worse.

1. Television.  Having no real responsibilities outside my job paired with my introverted need to recharge by myself and the fact that I avoid the outdoors at all costs in the winter means that I have a tendency to get wrapped up in a few shows. Besides the fact that I can thank television for starting many of my friendships, my argument for you TV haters out there is that story is story is story.  And some of these shows made me think more than a lot of the books I read. Television winners of 2009:  Friday Night Lights (thank you Mary Elaine and Carolyn), Mad Men, Damages, The Closer.

2. Young Adult Literature.  My job being what it is, I like to stay relatively up to date on what my students are reading. I have a love/hate relationship with YA Lit for many reasons. I love coming across literary heroes for my students and having answers when they ask me what I recommend.  I love it when books open windows for life experiences and make my students deeper, more well rounded people. But, sometimes my brain stops working when I'm reading a lot of Young Adult Lit, or it only stays in teacher mode.  I read so many young adult novels this fall/early winter (Impossible, Your Own Sylvia, The Secret Garden, The Mysterious Benedict Society, The Tenth Circle), that I'm ready for some seriously challenging and thought provoking adult fiction.

3. Book Clubs. This was by far the best part of my reading year.  A friend and I decided to start our own book club  and read: Lolita, Anna Karenina, The Brothers Karamazov, Anne of Green Gables, The Savage Detectives, The House of the Spirits and The Age of Innocence. Our meetings are some of my favorite nights and reading books with someone makes me a better reader...I read more closely and carefully. If you're not in a book club, start one. We started by wanting to read more of the classics that we somehow were never assigned to read.

4. I am my mother's daughter and come from a long line of readers. When my brother and I were little, we were "required" to read for at least 30 minutes every night. I laugh now because my brother and I both have a ridiculous amount of books piled up on our nightstands. My mom and I both bought the same book for my brother for Christmas.  We are both in book clubs. I no longer bring books home because I know she'll have a few that I want to read since my last trip.  My cousins are my favorite book recommenders (and television commenters, for that matter) and the ones that keep my "to read" pile nice and high. I love it.

Books on Deck for 2010:

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver
No Logo by Naomi Klein
(plus all the ones on my blog sidebar. I'd better get on that.)

Monday, December 28, 2009

Year In Review Part One

My top ten reading experiences of 2009:

1. The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein.  Hands down the most thought provoking book (fiction or nonfiction) of the year.

2. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. The first of the Russians that my book club read. Love.

3. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. There really aren't words for how much I loved this book. Favorite fiction read of the year.

4. The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion.  One of the most beautiful, honest memoirs I've ever read.

5. The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick. Children's Lit combined with gorgeous, gorgeous pencil drawing illustrations. So enjoyable.

6. Compassion by Henri Nouwen. Most influential book in my thought life. How I want to live.

7. The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano.  Bolano fascinates me (his Amulet made last year's list).

8. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Long, but so worth it, especially when reading with a book club.

9. Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery.  Because rereading this book never gets old.

10. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. Not so much for its literary value, but for the perfect morning of escapism I had in Central Park this summer.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

More well rounded than Bella.

Work has overtaken my life in recent weeks...I find myself leaving school after it is already dark, frantically reading drafts to give feedback and arrange small group work and. Reading endless young adult literature. Apologies for those who look to me for adult recommendations. My winter break will be dedicated to reading books at my own level. But, young adult literature still captures what draws me to literature to begin with: story. Characters who change.  Moments frozen with meaning. Life.

(If you don't know what happens at the end of the Twilight series and want to be surprised, don't read on!)

That being said, I've spent my week so far with Impossible by Nancy Werlin; a story inspired by Simon and Garfunkel's Scarborough Fair.  What starts as realistic fiction takes on fantastical faerie tale elements: a seemingly normal teenage girl, Lucy, finds that her family line has been cursed...she will be pregnant at 18 and after giving birth go mad.  The majority of the story is Lucy attempting to break this curse and is of course sprinkled with romance.

For much of the novel, I could not help but think of Bella Swan of Twilight. I read the first novel for the same reason I read all young adult literature: to know what my students are reading. But I confess outright that I got pulled into the pop candy that it is.  But, as the series went on, I became increasingly frustrated with Bella as a character: her entire life revolved around Edward and she didn't seem to have any other interests.  She lost her voice.  When Lucy falls in love with the boy next door-Zach-, I began to wonder if she, too, would be another girl in literature to completely lose her voice and passion and Zach would be another "perfect" person for teenage girls to swoon over as he saves the day.

Interestingly enough, Zach's family calls him out on his hero-complex (Ryan Atwood, anyone?), which never happened in Twilight.  Lucy pushes back a bit, too...genuinely struggling with letting someone help her. She also maintains a solid relationship with her best friend, who is also a life line for her  in the closing scenes.  She keeps her family in the loop all the way through.

In short, this is young adult literature that I would recommend to my students. But now its time to read something on my reading level:)

Sunday, December 6, 2009

An artist.

Although I've read Sylvia Plath, I've never really studied her work in depth.  Although I vaguely knew her story of passion, poetry and suicide, I did not read The Bell Jar until I took a class about Literature and Cold War Culture.  It offered a completely different immersion into the era: though McCarthyism and the Rosenburgs linger at the edges of the text, it addresses themes of art, women's roles and depression.  In graduate school I had a four hour writing class once a week where we convinced our teacher that we should go see Sylvia and discuss it over drinks afterward instead of class.  She agreed so long as we studied and wrote about her poetry in preparation. Done. By the end of all this, I could hold a  decent conversation on her and haven't read much of her since.

A lot of my students in Brooklyn are much more intellectual than I ever was in middle school and I'm always trying to find books that will inspire them and sate their curiosity. I heard about Your Own, Sylvia last year at a conference and it has been sitting on my book shelf ever since. I've been trying to do research about young adult literature for girls and various genre writing for kids in general, so I finally picked it up. By the end, I was pretty floored. (See previous post for general overview and style notes.)  Though I am not the primary audience for the book, the research and footnotes were incredibly helpful and the poems the book was written in impressive. But this is not what I want to mainly discuss.

I had a few students in mind who I thought would really fall in love with Plath...they are girls who see through the sometimes shallow, always awkward, existence that is middle school.  They read with feminist lenses at the age of 12. As I was reading Your Own, Sylvia, I realized that though Plath is different from the average woman in the 1950's in so many ways, she was at core a struggler, just like the rest of us.  She was painfully meticulous, studious and ambitious while at the same time dating multiple people at once and when she married, seemed to fall just behind her husband.  But she wrestled and lived with her heart--and that may be what makes an artist: one who struggles rather than succumbs.

And so, I relearned what the world has been trying to make me see for the past seven years or so: that beauty comes from struggle and no one really has their act together. And perhaps that is what the adolescent girls who read this book need to hear most of all.

Inspired to Teach Research in Writing.

There has been a burst of popularity in books that are written in verse: Ellen Hopkins and Patricia McCormick are two of my students' favorite authors who use this technique.

Yesterday I read a completely different Young Adult book in verse called Your Own, Sylvia by Stephanie Hemphill. Though a work of fiction, Plath's life is highly researched and her poems studied in depth.  It is set up chronologically, structured by poems "written" by a cast of characters who knew Plath from her mother to ex-boy friends to psychiatrists to, of course, Ted Hughes.  Each of the poems written by a "character" include footnotes about Plath's relationship to and history with them and where she found the information. Hemphill also writes poems  for Sylvia herself, all of which are modeled on one of Plath's own poems, which she footnotes.

I've been thinking a lot about teaching creative writing lately.  My curriculum is filled with it (short story, memoir, poetry, journalism), I've incorporated "independent writing" into my time with my 7th graders (where kids have the freedom to write whatever they want to write and my teaching is about the process of combining passion with the management of a "publishing" deadline), I've applied to teach it at a summer program and I currently have some amazing students who meet for hot chocolate and writing in my after school program (see picture. they're great.).

Not only was this book a really creative introduction to the life and complexity of Sylvia Plath, but all I could think about while reading it was how this could be an amazing "mentor text" for my students as writers, or a text that serves as a model for a genre or craft.  In our independent writing publishes, many students have attempted the "journal style" of writing and creating poetry anthologies, but I haven't seen a book attempted in verse...or based on research.  The research part is exciting because the 7th grade team has incorporated it into our fiction unit and I think it will really raise the bar of story writing in our classes.  I can't wait to share the structure of this book with students and see how it inspires a handful of them to try something new.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

so it *was* 65 degrees this week.

as wintry mix

The Mysterious Benedict Society.

 I think I may have become that adult who, on sunny days, wants to sweep children out of doors, into their imaginations and away from their computers and game systems.  Or the adult who, on rainy days, encourages the devouring of books. And it might be true that I want to possess both of these characteristics myself. After spending the last week or so catching up on some Young Adult Literature, I remain convinced that adventure stories about smart, creative kids are my favorites under the YA umbrella.

 The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart opens with this advertisement: "Are you a gifted child looking for special opportunities?" The story that follows is one filled with 4 adventurous, bright children who embark on an undercover mission to figure out what and who is behind the "Emergency" that is plaguing the country.  Here's what I love: adult characters who take children seriously and children who seek out knowledge and adventure, rather than succumb to the boredom that often accompanies being one of the smarter kids in the room.

Besides encouraging adventure, these books invite a deeper kind of introduction to the symbolic and kind of a "sci-fi lite" experience: even though there aren't "Whisperer" machines that create a false sense of well being or "brainsweeping" that hides your memories from yourself in the real world...or wait. Are there? Books like The Mysterious Benedict Society invite kids into reading the world through a critical, literary lens. It is amazing to watch them make connections and begin to understand the art of reading.  A lot of parents want their children to jump right into classics in the 7th and 8th grade, but what they miss is that there are a lot of great stepping stone books that create engaged, thinking readers.

Anyway, my favorite days of walking around my neighborhood involve running into a handful of past students who have started a band, created amps out of olive oil containers, built their own ukuleles and set out to eat a chair in a year's time.  I guess I just want my students to have literary heroes who don't settle for laying around and then follow in their footsteps.  (Hilariously enough, I just watched the another episode of Mad Men where Betty tells her children when they are bored/scared/overwhelmed to go watch television.)

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Advent. Compassion. Or, and they will call him Immanuel.

The day the clocks spring forward and the days begin to grow longer, I rejoice.  My ankle length down coat can be packed away and I am free to revel in the spring, summer and fall.  Falling back, however, is not as easy.  I watch the sun sink behind Brooklyn at 4:30.  I have to wear coats and layers and put away my flip flops.  Curses.  I realized that when daylight savings ends, I begin to wait.  For five long, cold, bundled months.  I am not good at it.

Then I remembered today is the first Sunday of Advent, the season of waiting.   One of the best books I read this year that I did not post about was Compassion by Henri Nouwen.  Since I was thinking about it yesterday, I thought I would pick it back up and see what I underlined and it completely changed how I want to be spending the next four weeks of this season:

The virgin shall conceive and give birth to a son and they will call him Immanuel, which means God-is-with-us. Matthew 1:23  "By calling God Immanuel, we recognize God's commitment to live in solidarity with us, to share our joys and pains, to defend and protect us, and to suffer all of life with us."  Nouwen goes on to describe what the definition of compassion means to him: "It is not a bending toward the underprivileged from a privileged position; it is not a reaching out from on high to those who are less fortunate below; it is not a gesture of sympathy or pity for those who fail to make it in the upward pull.  On the contrary, compassion means going directly to those people and places where suffering is most acute and building a home there."

Now I'm trying to figure out how all of these threads fit together, other than the word and thought association led me from one to the next.  I think it is this: I struggle so much with all that is a mess in the world.  I am constantly waiting to see things change.  But, I do not have to despair.  For this liturgical season of waiting, I want to be filled with this kind of compassion.  I want to remember that it is often in the waiting that we are most changed; that in the waiting is when our cup just might overflow.

Saturday, November 28, 2009


Walking into a bookstore is always dangerous for me. I will inevitably find at least five titles I want to read, curse myself for not being able to read faster and choose one that was a serendipitous that I must read, even though the stack of unread books in my apartment is way too high. All that to say (and I fully realize that I am an over-sharer of background information in my story telling) I purchased a hard cover book for the first time maybe ever this fall, I forgot to post about it and it relates to what I had to say about The Age of Innocence. So.

Donald Miller's Blue Like Jazz was published the same year I moved to New York (2003) and came at a perfect time: his thoughts on the Christian faith seemed so refreshing and real, something I desperately needed as I left behind the comforts and sometimes small world setting of southwestern Ohio, despite my deep deep love for it. I hadn't read a book about faith since Henri Nouwen's Compassion last February and honestly didn't really have a desire to. But then I saw Miller's A Million Miles in a Thousand Years newly placed on a shelf, I bought it on impulse and read it in three days.

What drew me to it initially is the entire premise is structured around the concept of story: a character, a character who wants something, a characters who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it. Miller writes about what he learned after he started working with two men who wanted to turn Blue Like Jazz into a movie:

"In a pure story," Steve said like a professor, "there is purpose in every scene, in every line of dialogue. A movie is going somewhere."

"What Steve is trying to say," Ben spoke up, "is that your real life is boring."

It didn't occur to me at the time, but it's obvious now that in creating the fictional Don, I was creating the person I wanted to be, the person worth telling stories about. It never occured to me that I could re-create my own story, my real life story.

I think the reason I was not interested in reading books about faith is because I grew tired of reading books that inevitably added another to do list to my mental check-list: want peace? Here's how to attain it. Want to love people better? Try this out. Want to be a better person? Aye. The mere thought exhausted me and seemed the opposite of what a full life should be: checklists.

What I loved about Miller's book was first was his decision to not live in mediocrity and how he stepped into adventure and beauty. He decided to get up and chase the things that make life meaningful. But, second, he didn't do this out of naivete, thinking one adventure after another would make a great story. He knew heartbreak would most likely abound and struggle would ensue, but that option is so much better than merely watching other people's stories from the comfort of one's couch.

If only Newland Archer had realized this.

Monday, November 23, 2009


Halfway through The Age of Innocence, the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Edith Wharton that chronicles the life of Newland Archer and New York's upper class in the 1870s, I had categorized it solely with the other texts I have read and watched recently that revolve in one way or another around infidelity, which I have no patience for. It does, but among other things, like the shallow social society of old New York. But no matter. Inconsequential of the ending (which was a huge surprise to me), it addresses two of my biggest frustrations.

One, believing that the beauty and adventure is meant for someone else in a different place or time or circumstances:

"...we could sail at the end of April. I know I could arrange it at the office."
She smiled dreamily upon the possibility; but he perceived that to dream of it sufficed her. It was like hearing him read aloud out of his poetry books the beautiful things that could not possibly happen in real life.
"Oh, do go on, Newland; I do love your descriptions."
"But why should they be only descriptions? Why shouldn't we make them real?"

The beginning of winter weather is the best time, for me, to remember that a stagnant life is not really life at all. Admittedly, it is ridiculously easy for me to declare the weather as the number one justification for reading a book by my window and not venturing out. Ever. Well, until April, at least. The tea kettle is 30 yards away; what more could I need? But. I read passages like those and everything in me wants to scream at May to jump in the boat before it's too late.

Two, living in the safety of a life prescribed. Newland's society is filled with hypocrisy and nonsensical tradition. He senses this and understands its ridiculousness, yet very much struggles to live outside of it--of course, at a certain point in the book comes the complex moral struggle of duty and passion (a common theme is this year's texts, as I've noted) becomes the forefront of the plot:

"You gave me my first glimpse of a real life, and at the same moment you asked me to go on with a sham one. It's beyond human enduring--that's all."

I don't understand why people--and these stupid fictional characters (!)--don't choose the poetry and adventure *before* they have made commitments. Apparently, that is not the kind of drama that readers/viewers are looking for--not in 1920 when this book was published, and clearly not now. Curses. Anyway. Wharton describes what happens when one ultimately chooses the safe and the prescribed over all else:

"Outside it, in the scenes of his actual life, he moved with a growing sense of unreality and insufficiency, blundering against familiar prejudices and traditional points of view as an absent minded man goes on bumping into furniture in his own room. Absent--that was what he was."

Without the search for truth and beauty, poetry and adventure, one's reality fades into the imaginary--and the life one is living becomes increasingly incapable of sustaining life that is truly Life--for it is now only a shadow.

Absentia is a heartbreaking existence.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

I think I need a secret garden.

As much as I anticipate the glory of spring after the hated season, as much as I revel in late summer evenings, there is nothing that compares to the fall in my mind. Perhaps this is so because the house I grew up in was neighbors with three enormous, ancient maple trees and our backyard was yearly carpeted with the best piles to jump in EVER (which I'm sure my dad was not thrilled about...after all this is before his discovery of leaf blowers, snow blowers and electric pumpkins...ha...the good, old days). Maybe it was because my birthday was in the fall and for years we went to Hidden Valley Farm for hayrides and pumpkin picking. Maybe it was because I spent a fair amount of my childhood romping through the woods and the colors added a whole new element for my imagination.

This year's fall has been rainy nearly every weekend. My perfect fall moments have become few and far between and my midwestern heart is not quite sure what to do with the lack of romping through the leaves this year. Even though its been at Prospect, Central or Riverside Park the past seven falls, there is still plenty of space for proper frolicking.

I just finished rereading The Secret Garden and, not surprisingly, found myself longing for countryside. Mary and Colin start off the book as spoiled, selfish and neglected children who are ultimately healed emotionally and physically by spending time inside a garden untouched by adults and expectations, being changed by its magic.

As I read, everything inside of me wanted to run off to the woods and just be. Or be driving down the rural part of State Route 73 in southwest Ohio. Or laying in a pile of leaves in my backyard. Stuck in a long, frozen moment of crisp fall air and open spaces. I realized that I count on the fall to renew my spirit before the winter begins and in between the rain and the craziness of the first quarter at school, it just hasn't happened this year. This is not ok. So. Since there isn't a cloud in the sky today and since the high is 68, I am off.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

The House of the Spirits.

Isabel Allende's epic of the Trueba and del Valle families is filled with every provocative theme in literature: love, violence, betrayal, mysticism, wealth, poverty, and politics. My book club picked it in direct response to The Savage Detectives, whose author Roberto Bolano detested Allende along with the established canon of Latin American literature.

Stylistically and developmentally, they couldn't be more different. The thread that runs through both of them is a desire to have life restored to what we (first person plural because I think that this is in all of us to some degree) feel it should be: beautiful. The following passages serve almost as a call to action from Allende's voice herself: to tell the the stories that need to be told and to search for beauty in the broken. First:

"Cement walls were erected to hide the most unsightly shantytowns from the eyes of tourists and others who preferred not to see them. In a single night, as if by magic, beautifully pruned gardens and flowerbeds appeared on the avenues; they had been planted by the unemployed, to create the illusion of a peaceful spring."

This creating of an illusion is present in the smallest of ways in our lives like not admitting to failure, or being more concerned with image rather than person and not wanting to get mixed up with other people's messes. And in the largest: gated communities, displacement of people in the name of development, serving those with the most money to throw at the economy. I want to be a person who prefers to see the messes and know the people. Living in illusion to truth seems more dangerous than the other way around.

And second:
"Clara also brought the saving idea of writing in her mind, without paper or pencil, to keep her [Alba's] thoughts occupied and to escape from the doghouse and live. She suggested that she write a testimony that might one day call attention to the terrible secret she was living through, so that the world would know about this horror that was taking place parallel to the peaceful existence of those who did not want to know, who could afford the illusion of a normal life, and of those who could deny that they were on a raft adrift in a sea of sorrow, ignoring, despite all evidence, that only blocks away from their happy world there were others, these others who live or die on the dark side."

If we are to break down the illusion, we need books and art and music that are courageous enough to tell the story of the mess of humanity. And people who are not scared to steep in these stories for a while and be changed.

And I think that if we start letting grace seep into our own messes and of those closest to us, we'd be a step closer to abandoning the illusion and finding beauty and hope in the broken?

Sunday, October 11, 2009

anne shirley, you're my hero.

I joined a writing group and ever since have been absent from my blog. Ha. This is slightly ironic. But, my focus for the group has been fiction which I haven't seriously attempting since my junior year creative writing class at Miami, so due to my quasi ineptitude of writing a story and the craziness of the fall, I have been absent. But this kind of writing feels like home, so on day two of a three day weekend, here I am. I may have a few posts today.

Back in June I wrote about the opening reading assignment we're doing with the 8th graders: to reread a childhood favorite with new eyes, and to ultimately write "an appreciation" for the book. This idea was inspired by the redesigned children's classics by Penguin (see previous post for the link), which include an "appreciation" by a modern author (seriously gorgeous: I highly recommend checking them out).

This is my appreciation in honor of Anne:

Anne of Green Gables is a marker of lifelong friendships for me. I have been lucky enough to always have amazing friendships in my life and to have known Anne since age 8, but I didn’t know true kindred spirits until I was nearly twenty and met three girls who embodied not only the love of Anne, but the characteristics that make her so, well Anne: a longing for adventure, a lover of beauty, a desire to be completely moved to the core and an inescapable ridiculousness. These are girls whose friendship has spanned nearly ten years, four cities and two coasts, but we are able to pick up immediately where we left off.

I moved to New York City right after college with three great guy friends from Ohio, without a kindred spirit in sight. I spent many evenings as “one of the guys” but I can vividly place myself on the patio of Rudy’s in midtown (think duct tape seats and free hot dogs) with them and a girl I had just met. We realized we had similar stories prior to moving to New York and then in a burst of energy we both asked the other if she loved Anne . It was over. One of my best, best friends. Another time, I was introduced on the subway platform to a girl who had recently moved to the city. I kid you not, we found out within minutes that we were both lovers of Anne and were literally jumping up and down, much to the disturbance and confusion of those around us. But. Kindred spirits are one of the dearest parts of life, as Anne knows, and cause for celebration.

It’s difficult to name the enchantment that was placed over all of us that would continue to impact our lives well into adulthood and cause us all to return to her story on a regular basis. Anne chased adventure and the beautiful, got lost in her wanderings and loved learning. Anne is the perfectly imperfect heroine; the best kind. Her excitement for life was contagious and her theatrics and exaggeration wildly entertaining. Anne is smart, determined, stubborn, loyal, passionate. Not only that, but she gave name to what I didn’t know other people felt:

“Pretty? Oh pretty doesn’t seem the right word to use. Nor beautiful, either. They don’t go far enough. Oh it was wonderful-wonderful…it made a queer funny ache and yet it was a pleasant ache. Did you ever have an ache like that, Mr. Cuthbert?”

“Oh, Marilla,” she exclaimed one Saturday morning, coming dancing in with her arms full of gorgeous boughs, “I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers. It would be terrible if we just skipped from September to November, wouldn’t it? Look at these maple branches. Don’t they give you a thrill—several thrills? I’m going to decorate my room with them.”

I thought for a long time that finding a character who experiences the world in the same way I do was enough. But. C.S. says: “Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another, ‘What! You too? I thought I was the only one.’”.To find someone who loves those same things…sigh. Anne was that person for me and gave me the word for others: kindred spirits.

I reread this book almost every year not only to transport me back to my own childhood and the early 1900’s Prince Edward Island (a time period and setting completely romanticized in my mind) but becauseAnne reminds me of my need to frolic: something that gets lost in my city life sometimes (save for the fall, when I, too am so moved by the trees on fire). It reminds me of my carefree days spent in the woods with flowers in my hair; days that need to be remembered as I sometimes bury myself in my to do lists. I need regular reminders to soak in small beauties and to “dust off my ambitions.” Anne reminds me of the things I love the most: my family, my friends and the tiny things in the world that make my heart soar that are easy to miss if you’re not looking.

As a teacher, I live my life closely watching children become young adults. I really believe that Anne and characters like her are the best guides into adulthood: strong, young women who do not take a backseat in adventuring, learning, imagination. Young women who do not feel entitled, but who work toward their goals and dreams. Young women who know that wealth and prestige are not the makers of happiness.

“We are rich,” said Anne staunchly. “Why, we have sixteen years to our credit, we’re happy as queens, and we’ve all got our imaginations, more or less.”


Sidenote: Well designed book covers are a joy of life.

For some reason, blogger won't let me post pictures anymore, so you'll have to go to this link and look at Penguin's Great Ideas series: I love the design for all four series and think I may start collecting them.

Also. Puffin relaunched children's classics with gorgeous covers and they are only $5!

These. I swoon over.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Shock Doctrine and an english major's never ending existential struggle with economics.

My concession before you read this is that somehow I got away with never taking an economics class. I even got away with linguistics in lieu of statistics or calculus in college. But. Being a literature major enabled me to know pieces the human story. I'm not exactly sure of how to frame what I'm thinking, so bear with me and my apologies if I sound a bit scattered.

I am a fan of organization and productive work. I also work for New York City and am fully aware of how inefficient the system is. My hope is always that someday someone will be in charge who not only understands how to run the enormous school system with financial intelligence but who also understands education: children and learning are not equations where you can guarantee an certain outcome because life gets in the way. The variables in my job include broken homes, hormones, poverty, peer pressure, family pressure, teenage angst, the list goes on. But this post isn't just about education.

I hate the reality that in our society people are rarely, if ever, the bottom line.

While reading The Shock Doctrine I learned of countless examples of the government and the wealthy "shocking" a financial system with the hope that it would eventually create a healthier living environment for people, but that ultimately provided themselves with more wealth while the average person faced with huge struggles to make ends meet and reconfigure themselves in a different world while waiting for it all to get better.

In the introduction to the fourth part of the book, Klein includes the following quote: "The worst of times give rise to the best of opportunities for those who understand the need for fundamental economic reform" (Haggard/Williamson). My question is what kind of opportunities are being sought after? Opportunities to make our world sustainable? Opportunities to enable the majority of people to have peaceful, fulfilling lives? Who benefits? "Are they [free market idealogues] driven by ideology and faith that free markets will cure underdevelopment...or do the ideas and theories frequently serve as an elaborate rationale to allow people to act on unfettered freedom while still invoking an altruistic motive?" (297).

It's not that I don't understand capitalism. Competition and compensation provide motive. Communism failed. But money can't always be the bottom line, even in individual lives: if we accumulate wealth but then spend all of our time working, what is the point? Does a one or two week vacation make up for living life in an office? Having money makes life easier, but doesn't necessarily make life good. Good living is laughing with family. Eating with friends. Breathing deeply and looking for the beautiful. I'm sure at this point you may be laughing and calling me naive, old fashioned (or midwestern!) but I'm ok with that.

Klein talks a lot about the privatization of government jobs and current government responsibilities and I feel like this quote does a good job explaining my frustrations (from the introduction to chapter 15): "There's something civil servants have that the private sector doesn't. And that is the duty of loyalty to the greater good--the duty of loyalty to the collective best interest of all rather than the interest of a few. Companies have duties of loyalty to their shareholders, not to the country"(David M. Walker, comptroller). Privatization can provide greater efficiency, but is the value of life and the human narrative figured into the equation or just the financial bottom line? I just think that before policies are made, the policy-makers should look at the faces of the people it will affect and hear their stories.

I'll close with this: no matter where you fall politically, I feel like this was a highlight of Obama's speech last week:

"You see, our predecessors understood that government could not, and should not, solve every problem. They understood that there are instances when the gains in security from government action are not worth the added constraints on our freedom. But they also understood that the danger of too much government is matched by the perils of too little; that without the leavening hand of wise policy, markets can crash, monopolies can stifle competition, and the vulnerable can be exploited. And they knew that when any government measure, no matter how carefully crafted or beneficial, is subject to scorn; when any efforts to help people in need are attacked as un-American; when facts and reason are thrown overboard and only timidity passes for wisdom, and we can no longer even engage in a civil conversation with each other over the things that truly matter – that at that point we don't merely lose our capacity to solve big challenges. We lose something essential about ourselves."

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Shock Doctrine: A context for my brain of late.

The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism by Naomi Klein is one of the most fascinating--and frightening--nonfiction books I have ever read. It provides the well documented narrative behind "disaster capitalism" in a way that cannot be summarized in a blog post. But. What follows is a brief attempt and provides a context for where my brain has been for the past month and a half. Then I will write about where my train of thought has been as a result. I can do nothing but recommend that you pick this one up and then call me afterward to discuss, whether you agree with Klein or not (seriously).

Klein opens her book documenting the Cold War-era electroshock therapy research (financed by the CIA), with its purpose to create "the blank slate, cleared of bad habits, on which new patterns could be written" (37). This is the stuff of science fiction: the desire to create robots in human skin; to remove people's stories and therefore rid the country of those with "wrong" or "dangerous" opinions.

Shock therapy is used as a metaphor in documenting "the rise of disaster capitalism" (or making a profit in the aftermath of a natural--or man made--disaster. It revolves around the philosophy of Milton Friedman of the University of Chicago economics department and his belief in absolutely free, privatized markets. They associated political freedom and democracy with free markets. The two major actions that Klein traces throughout history are (1) their work with governments in fiscal crisis, teaching that socialistic and communistic societies must be shocked with privatization (which rewarded the rich quickly and left the middle and lower classes in utter confusion, waiting for money to trickle down) and (2) using natural disasters and mass disorientation as an opportunity to make money.

She reminds us of the goal of electroshock therapy and uses it as a metaphor throughout the book: to remove that which allows us "to know where we are and who we are." She also documents the history of torture in Latin American countries when socialist or communist activists fought against the ways of Friedman: "the point of the exercise was getting prisoners to do irreparable damage to the part of themselves that believed in helping others above all else, that part of themselves that made them activists" (139).

Klein takes us through the history of this line of thinking, from Chile and Bolivia, to Russia and Poland, to New Orleans and Indonesia, to Iraq. Individual human lives and collective human story weren't counted as cost. The aftermath of violence inflicted on countries wasn't a consideration. She writes: "The National Libray [of Iraq], which contained copies of every book and doctoral thesis ever published in Iraq, was a blackened ruin. Thousand-year-old illuminated Korans disappeared...'It was the soul of Iraq...the deep memory of an entire culture has been a lobotomy'" (425).

Thoughts to follow, mostly about my ongoing frustration with life that people are never the bottom line.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Coming of age. Again.

I received the memoir Trail of Crumbs by Kim Sunee for free a few years ago when a friend of mine in publishing took me to the Book Expo of America. After travelling in Spain with a quick stop in Paris and finally finishing The Savage Detectives, my overworked brain and sad-to-be-home heart knew it was time to read a book that I could curl up with for a few days and escape the dreariness of coming back from vacation.

Despite the fact that my younger brother has been sending me Happy 30th Birthday cards since I turned 26, it's still another year off--but that didn't stop my friend Jenny and I to discuss on our trip, at length, how different we are now than when we first moved to New York City in our early twenties. We thought that we were incredibly mature and knew everything, a belief that turned out to be utterly false.

The reason I bring this up is because Trail of Crumbs is a coming of age story. I'm certified to teach English to 7-12th graders, so don't get me wrong, I love the adolescent coming of age tale as well. But I do think that finally figuring out who you are in the adult world can be just as poetic and cathartic (and I'm sure I'll look back at this revelation and laugh at my immature almost 29 year old self). Kim Sunee was abandoned at Korean market at age three, adopted by a couple in New Orleans and moved to France around age twenty. Her memoir is her story of a long relationship that included a house in Provence, an apartment in Paris, some incredible cooking (each chapter closes with recipes) and her journey of finding what home and self meant to her.

After much discussion, I am concluding that this age is a good place to be, even as it seems crazy to me that I have been at my (first and) current job for five years, even as I live in a city where I'll never be able to afford to buy a house, much less a studio apartment, even though my life looks completely different from what my 21 year old-junior-in-college self thought it would be.

September is still my new years and October brings 29. I am excited about it. (And I have a mom who just celebrated her own birthday and is still absolutely amazing and fabulous, so I suppose there is only more good to come.)

Last day of August. Summer reading update.

Good things: drinking tea. wearing a hooded sweatshirt on a 65 degree August Monday morning. the windows wide open.

I just checked my list of books I wanted to read this summer and checked off *one* of them. Ha. This is not to say I didn't read this summer, but my plans went awry...

Here's what was actually read this summer: a mix of old and new young adult, old and new literary fiction, a few guilty pleasures, one new absolute favorite*

Rereads. I couldn't help myself.
From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler
Charlotte's Web
Anne of Green Gables
Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince
The Summer Book
Pride and Prejudice

New Reads
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society
The Elegance of the Hedgehog*
The Savage Detectives
Trail of Crumbs
Hurricane Song

Even though school doesn't officially start until after Labor Day, this week is going to be filled with prep work. I still get beginning of the school year anxiety, but I confess that I am kind of excited to meet the 90 kids I will be spending at least 1500 hours with over the course of the next 9 months. And. I love that my job is to get kids excited about reading and writing. I love asking kids what their absolute favorite book they have ever read it. And yours?

Sunday, August 23, 2009

poetry is a metaphor.

Signs of a good weekend: 16 miles on a yellow vintage bike, a long brunch with favorites, strolling in my city, crazy summer storms seen through my window while making risotto for tonight and polenta for tomorrow, finishing the book I started in Barcelona (yes, that was on July 31st)

True to form, in Spain I packed up my fear of being without ample reading material for each spare moment and brought 3 books. It is a bit of a blow to my pride to admit that I didn't finish one of them, but not for lack of trying. The Savage Detectives was a long one and I'm not even sure how to approach writing about this book, as what I really need is a college lit class to unpack it all in the context of post modern Latin American writing.

Roberto Bolano sandwiches the book with journal entries of a boy that tell the story of a three month adventure with the two main characters, poets Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano, the founders of the "visceral realist" poetry movement in Mexico. The middle of the book tells their story from almost every possible perspective except their own.

Bolano is quoted in the introduction to the English translation as saying "All of Latin America is sown with the bones of its forgotten youths." I cannot get this quotation out of my mind; that what is most true and most representative of a people is lost in those whose faces deemed not worth knowing, words not worth believing, voices not worth hearing. In The Savage Detectives, these youth are resurrected, but in such a fleeting, poetic manner that the reader is not quite sure how to hold onto or even respond to them.

One of the narrators is an older man, haunted by the poetry of his youth and fascinated by the young poets he finds in front of him. This passage speaks volumes:

Like so many Mexicans, I too, gave up poetry. Like so many thousands of Mexicans, I too turned my back on poetry. Like so many hundreds of thousands of Mexicans, I too, when the moment came, stopped writing and reading poetry. From then on, my life proceeded along the drabbest course you can imagine.

Do we grow up and forget the poetry of our own youth? Is the poetry of the youths most likely forgotten too painful to bear? Too close to our own? Too much of a reminder of what defines actual life?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Cafe con leche.

One of my favorite parts of my time in Spain was breakfast.

Eating out every day is a double edged sword: it is wonderful because one must sample all different kinds of foods and restaurants, but for those who are like me and enjoy a little regularity, it can also be stressful. After one day in Barcelona of buying a chocolate croissant in one place and a coffee in another, we had breakfast everyday at a lovely restaurant with an outdoor cafe literally two doors down from our hotel. This morning routine lasted throughout the entire trip, as did what I ate everyday: toast with marmelade, fresh orange and cafe con leche (normally, I am a tea drinker, but when in Spain...).

What we found ourselves talking about quite a bit though was the fact that the only place where you could get coffee "to go" was Starbucks (and no we never went in). Fast food is counter cultural and we began to weigh the pros and cons. One of my favorite things to do in New York, especially in the fall or the morning, is to walk around with a warm beverage in hand. It is part of the ambiance and comfort. Plus one for to go cups. In Spain, though, we were "forced" to sit and enjoy our coffee, talk and take in the atmosphere. It is rare to ever slow down in New York. Plus one for to stay cups. I've found that I want to enjoy the best of both...which basically means to take the time to do the things that are meaningful...whether that means just sitting and being or doing things that are good for my heart, like walking with tea in Brooklyn in the fall (which I am getting increasingly more excited for, especially as the temperature hovers around 90 degrees...and that means college football, let's be honest).

Also, having pretty breakfasts that I sit down and enjoy rather than eating standing up on my way out the door. And siestas. Sigh.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

gone to spain.

After much consideration, I have decided on reading the following two books while I'm traveling:

If you are looking for some things to read and are struggling because this lovely blog won't be updated for a while (ha), here are some old posts and recommendations:
The History of Love by Nicole Krauss
Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

Sunday, July 26, 2009

brooklyn incoming storm story.

on the fourth floor
i live
on a hill
my old bay windows
are good for watching
weather sweep and change.

across the street
my neighbors stand
on a roof
i wish i had a roof
to see the lighting over the bay
but i have my screenless window
wide wide open.
a bird might fly in.
but i love the air
and the early sunset light behind the clouds
and the the lightning that almost blends in
i'm wondering if the rain will follow?
the clouds are creeping, leaving
eveninglight behind.

i was hanging out the window
when the sky decided to speak
the clouds had moved so fast
that half the sky was ominous, half at rest.
drops assailed the sidewalk
and the smell of asphalt city summer steam
met me at my window.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

i want to go to there.

I just wrote an email to some friends who are doing a similar trip to the United Kingdom that I did a few years ago. I was using my photo album from the trip as a guide to send them links of the hostels where we stayed and some of the places I'd recommend. My heart just began to ache for England. All I would like to do right now is order a cream tea with some kindred spirits and then fall upon the grass and read. Then maybe go hiking.

I know I've already written about it just a few weeks ago, but since then I've realized that the majority of my reading this summer has been rereads of my favorite books, most of which take place in English countryside, London, or countryside from a century ago. Harry Potter 6, Anne of Green Gables, Pride and Prejudice and I think I'm going to reread Swallows and Amazons next (which I can't recommend highly enough if you love kids stories with adventure and imagination). All of these books just capture me. I realized it was getting bad (or good...) when after I read Anne of Green Gables for the hundredth time, I couldn't even look at a book that took place in the modern day.

Anyway. My summer reading update is that it has been completely wonderful. I don't have a lot of deep thoughts, but my heart is just soaring because of these stories.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Revolutionary Road. Do not watch this before going to bed unless you want to be up all night.

Last night I watched Revolutionary Road and I'm trying to think of words to describe it other than "bleak and utterly depressing."

If you haven't seen it or read the book, it follows the story of April and Frank Wheeler who, with a slight chip on their shoulders, believe that they are better than their suburban Connecticut counterparts; that they aren't going to buy into the delusion of the American dream despite their picturesque home, 2 children and his good (though unfulfilling) job. The 1955 setting adds to April's feeling of entrapment and some of the social pressure Frank feels.

It's interesting because I usually associate entitlement with my own generation...but usually that entitlement still resounds within the modern American Dream...wanting the life that it took our parents decades to build almost immediately after college. The Wheelers sense of entitlement is that they think that there should be something more to life for them.

And they're right. There is something more to life--but I think I think I think that it is completely separate from our place and our things (though I am in love with my city and I am guilty of saying my life would be perfect if I only had a porch and a grill). My sweet poet friend Shannon titled a photo album "The Land of the Living" and that phrase jumped out at me (as I was online after watching this movie, trying not to fall asleep thinking about the bleak and utterly depressing film). I guess I feel like the minute we...I start living out of routine and checking the boxes of what needs to get done I stop living. But when I remember that its about loving people and that everyone has a story to tell and that there are little moments waiting to make me smile, I am reminded about what living really is.

So my question is what makes up your land of the living? What are the things that remind you that life is beautiful?

One of my favorites is from 2002 when I was driving with a caravan of 3 mini vans back to Ohio from a spring break spent camping trip on an island in Florida. Sitting in the front passenger seat, playing my favorite songs with the windows down and my hand rising and falling with the air outside of it and orange blossoms in bloom, my friend Sarah and I could do nothing but smile and declare ironically at the end of a vacation, on our way back to gray Ohio March that life is good. A passage from The Secret Life of Bees describes this feeling perfectly:

"I didn't know what to think, but what I felt was magnetic and so big it ached like the moon had entered my chest and filled it up. The only thing I could compare it to was the feeling I got one time when I walked back from the peach stand and saw the sun spreading across the late afternoon, setting the top of the orchard on fire while darkness collected underneath. Silence had hovered over my head, beauty multiplying in the air, the trees so transparent I felt I could see through to something pure inside them. My chest ached then, too, this very same way."

And even though they're fictional, I wish that the Wheelers could see how such small moments connect the dots of our existence--giving it beauty and meaning alongside the sorrow and disappointments.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

A quick question on memory (well, quick to write, not to think about, hence this post.)

This summer I made writing goals with some of my students and one of mine was to write a short story. It is in the very early stages of drafting, but is centered on the idea of memory, born from how prominent a place it has in the literature that I read, so it didn't surprise me when another book centered on memory popped up--and for better or worse, it was asking some similar questions that I have been thinking about.

The narrative of Evening by Susan Minot alternates between the main character's present: dying in her bed in and out of consciousness, and her recollections of a single weekend from her past which has haunted her entire existence since. She met and shared an intense few days with a man named Harris and her entire perception of love changed--and herself right along with it. They parted ways and Ann went on to have three marriages and five children.

My question is if you can or should let one memory color your entire existence? I can't decide if it is deeply beautiful or incredibly sad.

This isn't a rhetorical question. I am soliciting thoughts and answers.

louisville summer storm story.

i promised my mom i'd rescue the cushions
from our covered porch.

but instead i curled up
i mean i am curled up
watching the the birth of a storm, announced:
layers of water
landing on the pond, the yard
darting through the drainpipe
dripping off the birches
and thunder keeping time

i risked it all ending without me
to make some english breakfast tea
and now this.
this. is perfect.

a couple chipmunks taking cover near me,
watching wearily
and seven sparrows playing out on the grass
some petals fall down
because they are delicate
and the rain is heavy.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

I heart summer.

I am finding difficulty giving words to what I want to say, mostly, I think, because I am trying to name at once a specific moment right now that is overlapping with a succession of moments in my past.

I think it starts with summer evening air? Summer evening Midwestern air, perhaps, that is drenched with soil, blooming trees and creeks, made cool by the disappearing sun and held close by woods and fields.

Or perhaps it starts with summers growing up and this particular smell blanketing every experience I have running barefoot through the neighborhood yards, catching lighrning bugs, playing freeze tag, swinging until the sky turned dark and all the kids had to go home. Even then I would open my window and gulp in this perfect air and I, each night, would fall in love with summer evening…butterflies in the stomach and all.

And tonight I sit in Kentucky, hours away from my childhood home, but the air is the same and I still can’t get enough. I’ve moved my pillows to the foot of my bed so that I can be closer to the open window. I sat on the porch late into the evening so make the most of this air that exists only in tiny pockets in hidden corners of my city parks.

All this is to say that I reread The Summer Book by Tove Jannson today and it captures the essence of summer and the magic of childhood and the wisdom of grandparents. Her writing is straightforward and almost sparse, but so right on that no further description is necessary. I have decided that this will be a yearly reread. Last summer I loved it so much that barely had words and could only beg people to read it.

The interesting part is that it is different from other favorites like Anne of Green Gables and Tom Sawyer in that it’s not written for children…the audience is anyone whose heart aches for all that summer is meant to be and for those who remember the goodness of what it was when it was unmarred by work and schedules.

My heart just aches right now in the best of ways.

Monday, June 29, 2009

God Save the Queen.

This is today. It happened on accident after I got to Central Park at 7 am to get tickets for Twelfth Night and learned that there are no shows on Monday. I already had a book, blanket and breakfast, so I went to the Shakespearean Gardens for the morning:

This is the English countryside three summers ago:

And these are my sweet kindreds in photos that describe better than words our general feelings about the English countryside, which we had pictured in our minds for so long, but didn't really believe it actually existed until we found ourselves frolicking in it:

I couldn't stop thinking about these kindreds and England this morning as I drank my tea and had a hard boiled egg for breakfast, reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, and feeling thoroughly British:) (The book is definitely the English dork's version of Chick-Lit, but I will put aside my snobbery because it was such a lovely indulgence. Set first in London right after World War Two, the main character is a 32 year old female writer whose path crosses with fellow readers who live on mostly rural Guernsey Island in the English Channel). This stolen time reminded me of Beauty and Goodness and Story and Friendship, which all seem so elusive sometimes. I'm not sure why I so often forget all of this and the feeling of a full heart, but I'm pretty sure I would be a better person if I didn't.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

this is brooklyn not seattle. stop it.

i swear i see a vein of orange
just north of verrazano


despite the layers of almost yellow
and the stripes of nearly blue

above the rising slope of brownstones
and bursting greens of treetops

the water wouldn't stop
impeding my view.

You should really believe in magic.

Magical realism by easiest definition is when an author weaves magical aspects into an otherwise realistic story. I would describe it as poetic exaggeration...but exaggeration is the wrong word because it has a connotation of ridiculous. Poetic...amplification? Magnification?

Gabriel Garcia Marquez describes it as: "...the way my grandmother used to tell stories. She told things that sounded supernatural and fantastic, but she told them with complete naturalness...What was most important was the expression she had on her face. She didn't change her expression at all when telling her stories and everyone was surprised. In previous attempts to write, I tried to tell the story without believing in it. I discovered that what I had to do was believe in them myself and write them with the same expression with which my grandmother told them: with a brick face." Sigh.

Like Water for Chocolate, by Laura Esquirel, is the love story of Tita, the youngest of 3 daughters, on whom the family duty falls to remain unmarried and take care of her mother until she dies;though love story in the broadest--and fullest--sense of the word: passion but also the deep love of great friends and the love of food and life and of course, inevitable heartbreak, all tragic and yet beautiful. It is the hints of the fantastical that make Tita's story so beautiful, and ironically enough, more real. Stark realism just isn't enough sometimes. (These old posts explain a bit more fully.)

I would have to quote way more than what is appropriate for a blog post to fully explain why and how magical realism takes your breath away in this story, so it's probably just a better idea to read the book and see the streams of tears, blankets the measure 3 hectares and the visits of ghosts for yourself. I stand fully convinced that everything is better if a little magical.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

For the love of reading.

June planning is half of the reason I still live in New York. The time at the end of the year when my department at work reflects on the past year and begins making plans for the next. I suppose it's a sign that I'm in the right profession, because every year the idea of re-imagining how to help kids love reading and writing is incredibly energizing. Five years ago probably this week I was deciding whether I should move back to Ohio or stay in New York. My first year of teaching was a circus: teaching 3 different subjects, two grades and not having my own classroom, I was literally beat. But when my team sat down to talk, I realized I actually had insight, rather than my typical sitting at meetings and soaking in other people's advice and ideas. Planning was a creative outlet for me. So I stayed, excited for the next year (and an all 7th grade ELA program, obviously)...and the prospect of living in a bug free apartment with two of the greatest friends in the world (the other half of my reason for staying.)

Anyway. My 8th grade ELA team's June planning has been so invigorating. In our re-imagining of our reading curriculum, it has left me wanting to do nothing but read. Truly. 8th grade reading is mostly about going deep, making connections and being excited about the ideas you find. In order to teach into this idea, we are revisiting old favorites from childhood and reading them with a closer lens--teaching skills for close, thoughtful reading with an incredibly accessible text. Then they can practice in a childhood re-read of their own, then apply the skills to their on-level reading. Make sense? Stay with me for why this is relevant to you.

Our read aloud is Charlotte's Web. Yes, the book that you probably read in second grade. But. You have no idea just how thought provoking, well written and life-giving this book is. The teachers are also reading "The Annotated Charlotte's Web" in preparation, which includes a ridiculous amount of information on E.B. White, his overall brilliance, writing craft and the tracing of themes. This facilitates "reading like a writer" better than any text I've come across. I can't wait to talk about this with my students. But. The greatest part:

After our students have read Charlotte's Web with us, and have re-read a childhood classic, they will write an "appreciation." A colleague found these forewords in Penguin's Children's Classics: an author writes about his/her childhood experience reading the book and what it means to them as an adult. It has been so much fun talking about our favorite reading experiences as children: The Little Princess, Anne of Green Gables, The Wind in the Willows...We can't wait to give our students the opportunity to revisit these books and write about their experience with them the first time and what it was like to reread them as young adults. Sigh. It just takes me back to the world of imagination when playing pretend felt so real.

You should seriously consider going back to some childhood favorites and rereading them. I'm convinced that they help remind us of all that is good and true. I just love how reading can change us and shape us and I am forever grateful that my parents "forced" my brother and I to read every night before we went to bed...a habit I never grew out of. I'll post my "appreciation" later this summer. I'd love to hear about the books that defined your childhood. Reread and remember.

I love books.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Soliciting Summer Reading Suggestions...

I typically get a little over zealous in the number of books I can read in the summer, but I do have a lot of time. Books I'm considering right now:

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
The Hobbit By J.R.R. Tolkien
1984 by George Orwell
The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano
The House of Spirits by Isabel Allende
American Pastoral by Philip Roth

Recommendations? Comments on these choices?

An updated official list with pictures coming soon...

Friday, June 5, 2009

I like television. This is dedicated to my favorite science teachers out there, Beth Mount and Joanna Santarpia.

I really enjoy a lot of television programs.

Every time I say this, there is something in me that feels like it is a confession. Perhaps the true confession is that when I didn't watch a lot of television in college somehow thought I was better? Gotta love the pride of thinking you know everything at age 20. Granted, living vicariously though television shows is probably not smart either: there are real people out there to talk to, though I do have introverted tendencies. (The same argument could be made about incessant reading-but somehow that makes me smarter? academic looking? Ha.) And I don't schedule my life around television shows...that's what and netflix are for. But. I've realized that I watch most television the way I read books. There are different categories:

1. I read for plot. These are the books that are mostly entertainment, pure enjoyment and often suspenseful (Anne of Green Gables, Harry Potter--whose literary value is enormous to me, the Twilight series, whose doesn't). Television shows in this category include: Bones (seasons 1-3 only, people), Law and Order, The Closer

2. I read for brilliant portrayal of or commentary on a time or place. These are enjoyable, yet artistic and thought provoking (Pride and Prejudice, The Book Thief, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Invisible Man). Television shows that fall into this category include: Mad Men, My So Called Life

3. I read to better understand people. Human complexity, heart, struggle and change captivate me (A House of Mango Street, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Anna Karenina). Television shows that fall into this category, among others already mentioned: The OC (don't even get me started, I swear I will write you a treatise on why I love this show), Friday Night Lights, Damages

Now that that's all out of the way. I just finished watching season one of Lie to Me on Today it's description in my mind changed from pretty interesting and entertaining to brilliant. The premise is that Dr. Lightman, the main character, is an expert in reading human emotion through micro-expressions and leads a team of experts who work on various cases involving lie detection. What I realized while watching the season finale today is that one of the reasons I like this show so much is that it is courageous and timely in its subject matter. Lightman and his colleagues face ethical dilemmas concerning the nature of lies and truth, whether withholding information is playing God and the personal repercussions for working toward the greater good. The final episode of the season brilliantly (and without subtlety) challenged methods of FBI interrogation of terrorists, which I thought was incredibly interesting (and correct).

And though I'm not scientifically minded myself (as with music and art, I have to partake in the skills of others), I really walk away from shows like this one, the forensic anthropology in Bones and even the investigations in CSI wishing I knew more about science--and I think that kids who watch these shows might be more inclined to pursue degrees in science...and I also believe that every town needs detective workers with incredibly precise and sophisticated skill sets: a Dr. Temperance Brennan (Bones) and Dr. Cal Lightman, for example. (Aw, and what the heck, everyone needs a David Caruso, er Horatio Caine). The most interesting layer is that both of those characters are based on real life scientists who also write regularly.

Because I am a dork and was so fascinated by the end of Lie to Me tonight, I did some research. Lightman's character is based on Paul Ekman, who i quite prolific and someone I'd love to read more about. He also writes a blog to comment on each episode of Lie to Me.

My point is. [Some] television can make you smarter.

Of course, I can't end it just like that. I taught my students (wait...retaught for the hundredth time) today that at the end of an essay it's a good idea to revisit their thesis statements. I believe that some television shows explore story just as well as books or good films. Story is story is human experience and imagination. And I love that.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Brothers Karamazov. Existential Dilemmas. Jumbled thoughts. Etc.

"Poetry replaces grammar, gospel replaces law, longing transforms obedience, as gradually as the tide lifts a grounded ship."

This is one of my favorite quotes by C.S. Lewis. I feel like it encapsulates all of the beauty and essence of what Christian faith should be. That being said--enter existential dilemmas that plague my thoughts on a regular basis: Despite my history as and oldest sibling/child and teenager who was most of the time afraid to break the rules and my generally moderate lifestyle currently, I cringe when I hear about faith without heart; faith where there are prescribed checklists for political parties and issues; faith that forgets the person of Jesus in the midst of checking the right boxes; faith that then only rants against people who believe in those issues and politicians. The brokenness in my heart. In yours. Sorry.

The Brothers Karamazov, a story of a family crime, was the perfect book to be reading in a season of life where such spiritual issues are haunting my brain because Dostoevsky interweaves an exploration of Christianity with dense complexity.

Together, the Karamazov men all seem to represent a somewhat elusive picture of how life should be experienced. The brothers are preceded by their father's reputation for utter abandon to his selfish, sensual desires. Alyosha, the youngest brother, seemingly misses that gene, is known for his goodness and enters a monastery, mentored by the beloved (by most...of course nothing is really cut and dry) Father Zossima. Ivan is the intellectual atheist. Dmitri is reckless, rash and passionate, whom most of the town views in a similar manner to the father.

Each of these men seems to carry a piece, though, of what makes my heart ache (in the good way) about humanity. Dmitri doesn't think through anything, but this is a man whose passion and vigor enables him to be in the moment. Ivan, though much more emotionally cool, understands that it is the small moments that matter in life: "I have a longing for life, and i go on living in spite of logic. Though I may not believe in the order of the universe, yet i love the sticky little leaves as they open in spring. I love the blue sky, I love some people." Alyosha truly loves people.

One of the most interesting things that happened in the book is that Father Zossima, Alyosha's mentor at the monastery, bows down to Dmitri at one point early on, after he causes quite an embarrassing scene for the family. No one can understand, not even Alyosha, why Father Zossima has done this. Why would a monk bow to this out of control, thoughtless, unholy man? He later tells Alyosha that he "bowed down yesterday to the great suffering in store for him." Zossima saw to the depth of him and ached for him. He encourages Alyosha to leave the monastery and its safety in its orderliness, to love and help him. This is what lifts the grounded ship.

The irony of this moment is that when Father Zossima dies, his corpse gives off a foul smell, which all of the monks take as an ominous sign that something wasn't right within him. Is Doestoevsky commenting on our desire to find something wrong with someone who goes against the mold? Or maybe he believes that Zossima was crazy to bow before Dmitri, but I doubt it.

There are two scenes that seem somewhat parallel to me. One is when Zossima criticizes humanity for pursuing things that ultimately don't bring life: "Interpreting freedom as the multiplication and rapid satisfaction of desires, men distort their own nature, for many senseless and foolish desires and habits and ridiculous fancies are fostered in them. They live only for mutual envy, for luxury and ostentation. To have dinners, visits, carriages, rank and slaves to wait on one is looked upon as a necessity, for which life, honour and human feeling are sacrificed, and men even commit suicide if they are unable to satisfy it." We chase the wrong things and our hearts break. Over and over.

The other is when Ivan shares his fable of The Grand Inquisitor, where Christ comes back, but is arrested and sentenced to be killed. The Grand Inquisitor explains that his return would interfere with the mission of the church. Shoot. Historically, the Church has run into most of it's problems when it desires order, power and control. Ivan completely understands this, thus his justified distrust of the church.

So it's not about what we can consume for ourselves. It's not about controlling people. But loving people. Being with them when we are there. Seeing the small moments of beauty?

Poetry. Gospel. Longing.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Kindred Souls.

I've realized that there are two kinds of literary experiences I enjoy: reading, no matter what the style, masters of language and thought, and reading books whose characters are crazy endearing. Sometimes these two experiences overlap (see Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, The House on Mango Street, etc. ) and sometimes they do not. No matter.

As soon as I finished The Brothers Karamazov (master of language/thought category,) I knew that I needed to read something where I would just fall in love with the characters and get lost in the story. In such cases, it is always best to go with a recommendation from a kindred reader. Thanks to Julie Mecca, I spent the last three days reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery and fell in love.

One of my favorite quotes from C.S. Lewis: "Friendship arises out of mere companionship when two or more of the companions discover that they have in common in insight or interest or even taste in which others do not share, and which, to that moment, each believed to be his own unique treasure (or burden). The typical expression of opening friendship would be something like 'What? You, too? I thought I was the only one." Of course, such friendships are one of the greatest parts of life...and when a kindred soul passes on a book filled with kindred souls who embody all of C.S. Lewis' words, all things in the world seem right. Sigh.

The book is essentially a mini treatise on the nature of art, philosophy, literature and the question of what makes life worthwhile, alternately narrated between Renee: a self proclaimed frumpy, poor, 54 year old concierge in Paris who is a closet intellectual and lover of all things beautiful and Paloma: a precocious, rich 12 year old girl who lives in the building and is hopelessly disenchanted with the world of privileged masquerading that surrounds her. They are two of the most winsome characters I have come across in a long time.

My favorite thing about these two seemingly disparate characters is that they, as well as I, watch the world for moments of small beauty and ultimately realize that such times are what lends meaning to life. Barbery's skill in naming these moments so so precisely was so impressive that while reading, I just had to stop. And breathe. Reread. Remember.

"When Manuela arrives, my loge is transformed into a palace, and a picnic between two pariahs becomes the feast of two monarchs. Like a storyteller transforming life into a shimmering river where trouble and boredom vanish far below the water, Manuela metamorphoses our existence into a warm and joyful epic."

"There are days when I feel I have been able to grasp all there is to know in one single gaze, as if invisible branches suddenly spring out of nowhere, weaving together all the disparate strands of my reading..."

"I know tea is no minor beverage. When tea becomes ritual, it takes its place at the heart of our ability to see greatness in small things. Where is beauty to be found? In great things that, like everything else, are doomed to die, or in small things that aspire to nothing, yet know how to set a jewel of infinity in a single moment?"

I could continue to quote longer passages for quite a while, but the bottom line is this: Renee and Paloma are characters I want to hug and the things they observe in life are given such beautiful, precise language that makes me reconsider how often I settle for using the phrase "this hurts my heart."

Thursday, May 28, 2009

I finished The Brothers Karamazov.

I consider this a major triumph in my reading life. Now I feel like since I did read it, I should give some serious thought time to it. So. This post will be transformed into something brilliant just as soon as I have time to think.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The existential questions come round again. Or, lives as novels. Or, justification for an English Degree.

This post is based on and quotes a lot of this Atlantic Monthly article. The entire piece is incredibly interesting. In it, Joshua Wolf Shenk writes of George Valiant and a longitudinal study that he began in the early forties with 72 men attending Harvard, poised for what most would consider an incredibly successful life. The study offers, as Shenk says, a glimpse into the human condition, wondering if there is a formula—some mix of love, work, and psychological adaptation—for a good life. Following are some of the most interesting excerpts from the article and a few thoughts about them.

So many of us think that if we attain x, y and z, then we will have "successful" lives. What was fascinating to me (though not surprising, per se) was seeing in a scientific study the fact that in terms of life satisfaction, people matter over education, wealth: In an interview in the March 2008 newsletter to the Grant Study subjects, Vaillant was asked, “What have you learned from the Grant Study men?” Vaillant’s response: “That the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.” Being reminded of this always makes me rethink my priorities. My question is if we all know this in the back of our minds, but since relationships can be difficult to maintain, we find ourselves drawn to things more measurable and tangible.

The biggest mystery of life that never leaves me alone is the longing...the underlying feeling that all is not right and the ardent desire to have everything make sense...and while it is not measurable in scientific terms, it is almost the essence of the human experience. “Everyone in positive psychology who seeks to explain the mysteries of the psyche wants deeper stuff. George is the poet of this movement. He makes us aware that we’re yearning for deeper stuff.” I always tell my students to avoid using the word stuff. But here, I enjoy the fact that this scientific study needed a person to be its poet; to wonder about the threads that make us all human, the things that make us all feel.

Can the good life be accounted for with a set of rules? Can we even say who has a “good life” in any broad way? At times, Vaillant wears his lab coat and lays out his findings matter-of-factly. (“As a means of uncovering truth,” he wrote in Adaptation to Life, “the experimental method is superior to intuition.”) More often, he speaks from a literary and philosophical perspective. (In the same chapter, he wrote of the men, “Their lives were too human for science, too beautiful for numbers, too sad for diagnosis and too immortal for bound journals.) This is one of the greatest parts of the article to me. We are all obsessed with the three points to make us deeper thinkers, or the ten steps for a more meaningful life, or for someone to just tell us what to do so that we can get our lives together. But. We are not wired for that kind of existence and there is beauty, deep deep beauty, in humanity that cannot be contained in rules or generalizations or lists. Sigh.

With this level of intimacy and depth, the lives do become worthy of Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky.
And this is what I love. It always, for me, comes back to story. All I have wanted to do lately is to read and write. As I was walking around a book store this week, I kept wondering what I am hoping to accomplish by my incessant reading: I have at least ten books at home waiting for me and dozens more I can't wait to read sitting on the shelves of shops. I keep returning to the novel because each one offers a window into humanity. I find myself continually seeking out the story.

Perhaps in this, I thought, lies the key to the good life—not rules to follow, nor problems to avoid, but an engaged humility, an earnest acceptance of life’s pains and promises... For all his love of science and its conclusions, he returns to stories and their questions.

Sigh. No more words.