Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Best Books of 2010.

This year was the first year that I actually numbered the reading experiences. Each is linked to the original blog post (or two).  Enjoy.

10. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. It's a mystery about (life and) books. It's set in Barcelona. What is not to love?

9. The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger.  I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this book. I thought it would be a little too sappy or not well written, but I was very pleasantly surprised.

8. Suite Francaise by Irene Nemiresky.  I love historical fiction and Nemiresky's personal story as connected to this unfinished piece about Germany's occupation in France was fascinating.

7. American Pastoral by Philip Roth. I wasn't sure how I escaped Roth.  This dark story went along brilliantly with a lot of the cultural portraits and critiques I've read or seen recently.

6. March by Geraldine Brooks: how I got away with not writing about this book, I have no idea.  This short book followed the father's story from Little Women, but had plenty to say about both men and women. Post to follow soon!

5. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo Trilogy by Steig Larsson: I jumped on the bandwagon and got sucked in.  These are incredibly smart and addictive mysteries (technically I'm finishing the third one in the final days of 2010...100 pages in as of now).

 4. The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver: The Poisonwood Bible was one of the most thought provoking books I've ever read.  My book club decided to read this as soon as it came out and it was a gorgeous blend of storytelling and history.

3. Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann: this book was phenomenal. Go buy it now. 

2. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling reread with students: Harry Potter 7 made my top ten list back in 2008, but this fall's rereading experience with my students was a-maz-ing. So much passion. So much intellect.

1. Great House by Nicole Krauss: History of Love, Krauss' second novel, made the top ten in 2008 right along with HP. I could not wait for this book to be released and had its date on my refrigerator months in advance.  This book is beautiful, haunting and thought provoking.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Not good for the soul.


There are a lot of things that make me appreciate my neighborhood in Brooklyn: the lack of chain stores, the Farmers' Markets, Prospect Park, that I can walk to work, that the guys at the bodega know my order (medium English breakfast with one splenda and skim milk, if you're wondering) as soon as I walk in the door.  Between my colleagues who have become great friends, my friends who have transplanted themselves here, my church that loves Brooklyn so well and running into faces that used to grace M.S. 51's room 116 on a daily basis, there's a lot to love.

That being said, there are plenty of people who love to make fun of my neighborhood--and there is a lot of fodder that I can laugh at it, too--as long as we all remember it was ranked best neighborhood to live in by my favorite New York Magazine.  The trees in the fall, the vintage Christmas lights strung across the streets, snow covering brownstone steps, the park in the summer and spring. It all outweighs the ridiculous that one sometimes sees in Park Slope.

Last summer there was a lot of buzz about Prospect Park West by Amy Sohn, a book set in Park Slope whose tag line could be read in a similar way to Gossip Girl's (and I believe it is being discussed for a new series).  Though I don't read the subgenre this book falls into, when a hard cover copy was left in the lobby of my apartment (another thing I love about this neighborhood),  I thought I'd check it out as long as I wasn't paying for it.

Satire well done makes me laugh.  Satire well done is brilliant.  But this didn't feel like either to me: the underdeveloped characters seemed to try their hardest to turn me into a cynical hater.  And that's no way to live, right?

That's really all the time I want to devote to this book.  I left it in the lobby on my way to work this week.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

On Harry Potter and Another Reason Why My 8th Graders Are the Best. Seriously.

Cover Art by Mary GrandPre

Rereading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows with my students pre-movie was one of my favorite experiences as a teacher.  Epic conversations came out of our meetings, which were a safe haven to bring out each members' inner nerd (I say that in the best of ways, children.  I think the inner nerd is the best part of anyone.) as we discussed character arcs, endings, losses, loves.  I have challenged each of the members of the book club to post an epic book response in the coming week about what moves their hearts the most in the series.  Obviously, I cannot wait to read them and I'll write my own epic post as well. But to help them remember all the glory we discussed--and for it to get all the other Harry Potter fans I know thinking as they reread/watch the movie, I thought I'd post some of their brilliance/some windows into our discussions here. Do not read ahead if you have not finished the series, as our discussions looked at the entire series story arc. 

One of my favorite comments presented in all of the book clubs was when a student said: "I love the passion of Ron, Harry and Hermione--and how they have a quest and something to believe in." I responded with the idea that I think that we can have that in our lives, though sadly without broomsticks and spells and apparating.  But, I teared up a little with the conversation that followed. What do you think?

On Dumbledore.
How even as readers, we (and the characters) didn't feel safe after the end of Book 6. What does this say about the character of Dumbledore? Are there equivalents in our world?

Is it ok to be young and stupid? How do we carry the layers of our pasts with us into adulthood? How do we deal with the flaws of those we look up to? What does all of this teach us about what it means to be human?

Should adults trust children with difficult truths or wait until they have "come of age"?

Do you learn by someone telling you what to do or experiencing it for yourself? Do you agree with the way Dumbledore let Harry learn many truths for himself?

Dumbledore and Grindelwald went in completely different directions after their young adulthood: Grindelwald sought more political power, while Dumbledore went into education.  Which do you think is more valuable?

On Snape.
Is Snape the true hero of the series?

Consider his presence at the Deatheater meetings in early Book 7.  What do you think is going through his mind? What kind of complexities exist for him? If he hadn't known Lily, would he have truly wanted to be there?

What do you think Rowling is suggesting by the fact that Snape was changed through love? What kind of foil does James Potter play--for Snape, for Lily, for Harry?

In what ways are Harry, Snape and Voldemort similar and different?

What is the true value of sacrifice? How did it change Snape? What other characters sacrifice? Was it worth it? What about in our lives? What other literary characters do you know who sacrifice and what was the result?

What do you think Rowling is saying about government? Racism? What connections is she making to history?

What is the definition of evil? Is there anything human left in Voldemort? What do you make of the changes of heart that we see in book 7 (Dudley, Narcissa, esp.) ? What is the difference between Bellatrix and Narcissa?

What do you think about Draco?  What do you think about Dumbledore's final act of grace towards him?

Consider Hermione's loneliness in Book 7. How has she changed since we first met her?

There were some fierce debates about Ron in class 813 and Harry in class 804. What do you think of these two characters and how they have changed?

Why do you think JKR created Ron, Harry and Hermione to be on the fringe of the social life at Hogwarts?

There is a lot of loss across the series.  Why do you think Rowling wrote the story that way? Do you have specific opinions about particular losses?

What inspires Neville's character change?

My students are brilliant. 

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Life as mess.

I saw One Day by David Nicholls all over bookstores and on reading lists in magazines all summer.  When I was last in a bookstore, I decided I couldn't resist and knew I would want a guaranteed enjoyable read post Nicole Krauss.  I started it on Wednesday and finished it Saturday--and did not watch a single crime procedural during that whole time, which says a lot for me.  It follows the friendship of Emma and Dexter from college graduation for about twenty years, but each chapter is dedicated to the same single day of each year, each part of the novel aptly named "early twenties," "late twenties," etc.  I think it's meant to be the kind of book where you fall in love with the characters and close the book wishing you could begin again for the first time.  I read this book quickly, but I can't seem to find the same praise that I read about all summer.

The idea of "who am I becoming?" and which layers of experience stay with a person and which ones fall away is fascinating, especially the older that one gets.  My favorite parts of the book that spoke to this idea were actually the literary quotations that began each part and cut to the essence of Emma and Dexter's friendship, and in turn the concept of the book. They are too long to quote each one, but "Late Twenties" is: "We spent as much money as we could and got as little for it as people could make up their mind to give us. We were always more or less miserable, and most of our acquaintance  were in the same condition. There was a gay fiction among us that we were constantly enjoying ourselves, and a skeleton truth that we never did.  To the best of my belief, our case was in the last aspect a rather common one," (from Great Expectations, Dickens).

I just had a hard time with the characters' major flaws: Dexter seeking the next good time and landing in a the bottom of a glass in between, Emma as judgmental and flirting by joking about Dexter's character flaws.  I could not figure out why they even liked one another, and I couldn't find that moment where they actually saw one another. Perhaps it happened in between July Fifteenths? Their messiness should have resonated with me on a human level--but all I could think about was that this reminded me of Mad Men, in that I was watching something a tad too depressing that could go on forever in that state (which I think is the fear that both plagues and paralyzes people).  The scariest part is that the state humanity is often best portrayed in those scenes of bleakness.

What was heartbreaking, though, and what might have assuaged the bleakness of certain parts, is if Emma and Dexter were able to actually say what they meant when they meant it.  Things went unsaid, a great tragedy always--and because it was an omnicient third person narrator, the reader is left knowing what each of them feel, while the person that really needs to know is in the dark.  The book is filled with missed chances, and I suppose, such is life.

Wow. One Day was entertaining. I don't mean to sound like such a cynic on a Sunday morning.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

in the small and ordinary.

"We live, each of us, to preserve our fragment, in a state of perpetual regret and longing for a place we only know existed because we remember a keyhole, a tile, the way the threshold was worn under an open door." from Great House by Nicole Krauss

It is the small objects; the ones that look so ordinary but hold the secrets of all that make us human.  The most striking realization I had of this was the first time I walked through the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. It was impossible to walk around without a weight on my heart, reading about the beasts humans can be to one another.  Most overbearing for me, though, was the small display of personal effects, collected from victims in the camps: hairbrushes, razors, the small kinds of objects that have no meaning, really, in the context of their daily use. But when considered in light of loss, these tiny items haunted me with the humanity that was denied to their owners, so much so that I had no other option but to retreat to the dark, concrete room where you hear stories of survivors piped in through speakers and let the darkness settle. 

This narrator is an antiques dealer, specializing in objects seized by the Nazis.  He searches all over the world to find the objects that hold the weight in the world within them for some.  I love how Krauss' characters often have a respect for the small details of life that speak volumes of who we are as a people. The fate of this dealer, though, is wrapped in the inability to put the pieces of his broken life back together again--the impossibility to curate a moment that has passed, and he is left standing the burden of unbearable longing, which I think is humanity's signature. 

Saturday, October 30, 2010

My ongoing struggle between the ideal and the real.

 I read Tana French's first novel, In The Woods, this summer and was impressed with French's ability to raise some serious questions about humanity in her mystery novels.  Someone in my building conveniently left her second novel up for grabs by our mailboxes, so I recently followed up with The Likeness.  

The story follows Detective Cassie Maddox as she goes undercover investigating a murder of a woman who looks nearly exactly like her, and was using the identity of a person she and her boss made up for a previous undercover operation, Lexie Madison. She lived with 4 of her best friends, all getting their PhDs in literature, in a house that one of them had inherited outside of Dublin.  The police squad decides to tell the roommates that Lexie survived the attack and will be going home.  Maddox's job is to get to know the roommates in order to narrow down a suspect.

Life at the Whitethorn House, as it is called, seemed to be picturesque.  With no television, the friends spent their evenings reading, playing cards or working on the house itself.  The girls prepared breakfast each day while the boys cooked dinner every night.  Their rhythms felt old fashioned, and it was in that simplicity that they seemed to come alive that such an existence possible. Daniel, who inherited the house and gave the other 4 ownership in it described it as: "colors were so beautiful they hurt, life became almost unimaginably sweet and almost unimaginably frightening.  It's so fragile, you know...everything was so beautiful and precarious, it took my breath away."

Literature, like any other art form, is able to capture moments of ultimate beauty--and when I am standing in front of an impressionist painting or listening to any slow song with a pedal steel or rereading one of my favorite books I am carried away into the belief that the moment's perfection can last.

But it doesn't. And it can't. And that hurts me.

The crux of the mystery in this story lies in the fact that the illusion was shattered, and it was this passage that I couldn't stop thinking about: "The idea was flawed, of course... innately and fatally flawed.  It depended on two of the human race's greatest myths: the possibility of permanence, and the simplicity of human nature.  Both of which are all well and good in literature, but the purest fantasy outside the covers of a book.  Our story should have stopped that night with the cold cocoa, the night we moved in: and they all lived happily ever after, the end." 

But all good readers know that a story without tension is boring and happily-ever-after stories aren't as satisfying as one would think because they don't feel authentic.

I live between the ideal and real, and feel its tension deeply: it is impossible for me to walk without being firmly grounded in what I know is real, and yet my soul would wither if I couldn't hope in the beautiful.  I suppose it is the reciprocal emotions that create the human experience.  To solely chase perfection in this world is ultimately a destructive pursuit.  Likewise, to live strapped to reality is utterly unromantic and unappealing.

So, with grace, the struggle goes on.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Harry Potter is just too big for a blog.


I was mortified when I realized that I haven't written on this blog since September 30th.

It's definitely not that I haven't been reading, but I think it's because I've been reading so much for school: my students have all created their own reading blogs and since it's so early in the process I feel compelled to read them all 93 every week, which has been happening over my Saturday morning tea rather than writing about my own reading experiences, per usual (which must change). I've also been preparing for the book clubs that are starting up in my classroom. This is the first time I have attempted to be in book clubs with students all year long.  A little crazy.  My brain has been consumed lately with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.  While my reading focus has been on what my students' book club experiences will be like, I also realized that there are depths to be mined in old Harry Potter.  I've been overwhelmed by all of my thoughts that I have no idea where to begin, and this has snowballed as I've been reading multiple essays in Harry Potter and Philosophy and Reading Harry Potter: Critical Essays.

That being said, I'm currently looking to reinvent some healthier rhythms that don't involve quite so much work *and* I promise I'm on a mission to draw some serious conclusions about Harry Potter (though, I can say that I'll be rereading this series for the rest of my life, so I suppose I don't have to discover them all now).  For now, here are some of the biggest Harry Potter threads going in my brain (please do not continue reading if you have not read the entire series, and on that note, if you haven't read this series, I'm not sure what you're waiting for):

  • The fact that since we are able to be inside Harry's brain, Rowling brilliantly creates a narrative in which most readers begin to trust all of Harry's thoughts and the conclusions he draws, especially about Snape, and especially in retrospect in light of the ending of book 7. 
  • "In book II, Dumbledore tells Harry that the essence of one's character is defined by what one chooses to do rather than by any inherent ability...by Dumbledore's standards, is [Snape] not an even greater hero than Harry?" (from Cruel Heroes and Treacherous Texts, Schanoes)
  • "Both Snape and Black complicate a black and white moral schema. Where Snape forces the reader to accept a bad person who chooses the side of good, Black forces us to acknowledge the potential for violence and ruthlessness that can exist in a good person." (from Cruel Heroes and Treacherous Texts, Schanoes)
  • The character arc of Neville Longbottom, and the development of Harry, Ron and Hermione, obviously. 
Tomorrow the Harry Potter 7 Reread book club begins their "pre-club" thinking work...developing the narrative arcs of the first six books in order to provide a foundation for our approach to book 7. My guess is that my conclusions won't be totally drawn until I've talked all this through with my brilliant students.  My hope is that I will be posting on the other aspects of my reading life before then, though. 

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Childhood Favorites Post #9 Stuart Little and an Ode to E.B. White's Craft

After rereading both Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little in recent months, my love for E.B. White has grown immensely.  I think that it is rare to find an adult writer who so richly describes the imaginary hopes of children: his details are so realistic that I come to believe that animals must indeed talk, that the Central Park boat pond is capable of squalls, that people can really befriend creatures.  While I was reading Stuart Little, I found that I couldn't find the same depth as in Charlotte's Web, but his literary attention to imaginary details made me really believe that this was a real story. Here are some favorites:

"...and the west wind (which had come halfway across America to get to Central Park) sang and whistled in the rigging and blew spray across the decks, stinging Stuart's cheeks with tiny fragments of flying peanut shell tossed up from the foamy deep."  I love how alive the wind seems--as though it were on an arduous journey to get to New York City at this exact moment. White goes on to create an entire ocean on the small pond and I can't help but get caught up in it.

I also love White's passion for the country, which can be heard in the sweet bird Margalo's voice (and reminds of The Cricket in Times Square, sigh): "I come from the fields once tall with wheat, from pastures deep in fern and thistle; I come from vales of meadowsweet, and I love to whistle."  White not only describes but creates an entire sense of place and person (well, bird). This kind of writing makes me want to write my own Ohio version of this sentence.

Stuart is incredibly endearing when he asks to the class he substitute teaches and E.B. White comes across as one of those adults who truly understands children and never lost his sense of wonder:
"How many of you know what's important? Henry Rackmeyer, you tell us what's important." 
"A shaft of sunlight at the end of a dark afternoon, a note in music, and the way the back of a baby's neck smells if it's mother keeps it tidy." 
"Correct. Those are important things. You forgot one thing, though. Mary Bendix, what did Henry Rackmeyer forget?" 
"He forgot ice cream with chocolate sauce on it." 

Stuart Little is the kind of book that did not exactly carry me away the way that Charlotte's Web did--the ending seems way to abrupt and we don't find Margolo.  I remain wondering what happened to sweet Margolo and whether she was just White's impetus to get Stuart out of the city and into a life of adventure, or whether the rumors I researched are true and he had a deadline he had to meet. Either way, I suppose I'm left thinking. But this was a story, for me, less of narrative perfection and more of an endearing escape and a reminder of sweet things that are far too often on the periphery of my mind.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Childhood Favorites Post #8 On Death and Love.

We started the Childhood Favorites Reread Unit and while I was running around my classroom talking with all the book clubs, I found myself saying that to the kids that it seemed like the author trusted his or her readers with some weighty material in many of the books.  I heard myself say this multiple times before I realized that 4 of the 8 books included death at the end: Charlotte's WebBridge to Terabithia, Freak the Mighty, and The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. It could be argued and interpreted that the same happens in The Giver.  My next questions were why are young adult authors tackling such heavy topics and why are these the books that kids love, return to and claim as favorites later?

A part of me thinks that the reader becomes so attached to the well developed characters, that when we lose them it is a deep cut to the heart.  The pattern I notice is that the characters we lose (Charlotte, Leslie, and Kevin) teach the reader so much about how to live life well, that it seems impossible that those left could ever move on.  And yet, we see the ones who are left (Wilbur, Jesse, Max) deliberately choose to live life differently because they had experienced such incredible friendship.  It is not that these characters have great fortune in the end, but it is as though they have been trusted with a great, deep secret that people who haven't experienced loss often do not understand: there are things worth much more than any tangible object, amount of money could ever give us.  Love.

I think it is Edmund in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe who demonstrates this the most--or, perhaps it is Aslan as my ultimate literary hero.  Edmund is less rounded than the other characters I've mentioned and his flaws are not endearing.  Unlike my immediate love for Jesse Aarons, I basically can't stand the selfishness he displays for the majority of the story and have a hard time conjuring up any sympathy for his middle child antics. But. Aslan sees in Edmund what he can be (he later becomes, we find at the end of the story, Edmund the Just).  Aslan shows the ultimate form of love and sacrifices himself for Edmund--not something that I could ever do because Edmund seems so rotten.  But it is in that display of love that Edmund is rocked to the very core of his being, as I was as the reader.   (And, lucky for us, the deepest magic of Narnia brings Aslan back to life, more glorious than before. Thank goodness!)

All that to say, these authors trust my students--and me-- with real life and true life and good life.  They aren't afraid to put our hearts through the wringer a bit in the hopes that the story they have to tell will stay with for quite some time.  And they have.  All I can say to the book clubs happening over these stories in my classroom is that they hurt my heart in the best of ways.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Young Adult Female Protagonists: Nancy Drew


I am among the throngs who couldn't get enough of Nancy Drew mysteries when I was younger.  It fed into my obsession with Mary Higgins Clark in 7th grade and is probably the foundation of my love of too many mystery television shows.  I've been trying to read a lot of young adult books with female protagonists to get some insight into why we love certain ones, why we need certain ones (or why we should hate certain ones).  I found a copy of The Secret of the Old Clock for a dollar while shopping with my mom this summer and just re-read for the first time since...1988?

I couldn't get enough of her when I was younger.  In fact, I think I wanted to be her: driving around in a blue convertible, solving mysteries for all my neighbors, a blond beauty.  I'm pretty sure she was the impetus behind the "Mysterioso Club" I formed with my best friend, when we tried to find mysteries to solve in our midwestern neighborhood.  Maybe it was a combination of her cunning and her "smart" outfits that got me. (What are "smart" outfits, anyway?)

Generally, I am a fan of female protagonists who are imperfect--girls a reader could see herself in (the Judy Blume response is coming soon...).  Nancy Drew is so creepily perfect in behavior...and very stereotypical suburban, upper middle class and white that I doubt any of my students could see themselves in her. If I had read the book for literary and cultural study alone (without my nostalgic childhood dreams of fighting crime), this post would be very different.  But I find myself incapable of betraying Nancy like that.  And, it is interesting to me that such an independent, teenage girl character was published only ten years after women got the right to vote.

All that to say, that despite the unfortunate nature of its literary style and characterization, I am still a fan of Nancy's adventures--their vintage nature is perfectly delightful.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Never Let Me Go

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro is a dystopian, slightly science fiction novel that takes place in England in the late 1990s.  It is narrated in what feels very stream-of-conscious by a 31 year old woman named Kathy H., who is remembering her child and young adulthood at a boarding school called Hailsham.  She narrates the way that I often talk--she has an initial point, but the details of narrative are built into the back story she provides while getting to that point.  Her narration has a deep tone of nostalgia and it is clear from the beginning that she is trying to make sense of what her life has become and the fate she knows she cannot avoid.  It is this tension that drives the book: the hope that the truth somehow didn't apply to the characters.

What I have been considering since I finished the book is how do we, as people, handle the truths about life that we accumulate along the way, especially the ones we do not wish to believe, not matter how confident we are of their existence?

One of the most poignant moments of the book for me was when another character, Tommy, faces the reality of his situation.  He is in a car with Kathy, and asks her to pull over.  He walks into the woods at the side of the road and screams his lungs out.  The injustice of reality is too much for him to bear, and he can think of no other way to respond.

Later, it appears that Tommy and Kathy have succumbed to the "safety" of knowing what is inevitable.  Perhaps they feel foolish for ever wishing existence to be more.  Kathy repeatedly talks about their knowing when they were children at Hailsham, but they just went right on playing and pretending.

When does it become naive and adolescent to fight what is bound to happen?  Are there certain realities that can be fought?

Is it ok to accept what is?  What do we do with the angst that remains? Live a life with trips to an isolated wood so we can scream our lungs out about it?

(Don't continue reading if you plan on reading the book or seeing the movie.  All conclusions drawn so far are thought provoking without the ending. But I had such a strong opinion of the ending that it is impossible for me not to write about it).  My biggest disappointment in the book is that the characters don't fight (very hard, anyway).  I wanted to see them rise and buck authority and defy the life that was set for them, but instead they got angry and then settled into sadness and nostalgia. The book is ironically called, then, Never Let Me Go...but they do. And I kind of hate that.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Slouching Toward Bethlehem.

"There is always a point in the writing of a piece when I sit in a room literally papered with false starts and cannot put one word after another and imagine that I have suffered a small stroke, leaving me apparently undamaged but actually aphasic," (preface).

"I have as much trouble as the next person with illusion and reality," (32).

I read The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion about a year and a half ago and ever since have wanted to read more of her work.  Didion is able to capture--I don't want to say the heart, because though the heart is filled with mystery, such an overused term does not quite feel nuanced enough for her--the essence of a person or a place or an event in her nonfiction writing.  Her nonfiction essays in Slouching Toward Bethlehem are not merely a chronicle of something or someone that happened, but they cause the reader to enter into the exact temperature of mood and are given thorough understanding and feel of the time and place.  These essays were published individually in the sixties, then pulled together for this collection in the early seventies.

Didion's writing style made me think about how a sense of place creates a sense of self...or, about how remembering the small details of a place that was once our own can remind us of who we were, and wonder if those tree rings of experience are still buried somewhere.

"I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not," (139).

My first studio apartment in New York City in an Upper West Side brownstone--the worn banister next to the slightly crooked steps leading up to the third floor, my ikea furniture and new towels that matched my shower curtain.  My ritual of walking to Riverside Park every night with a mug of tea, looking west, leaning on the black, pointy rail imagining Ohio beyond the horizon.  I knew in those homesick moments that I would look back on them and feel nostalgia for the very reason my heart was then breaking.  Those days when New York didn't feel like home and my naive sense of self seem so endearing in a "bless her heart" kind of way that I wonder if the hardness of the city has gotten to me, after all.

I can think that way about any place, really.  My high school's football stadium.  All the backyards of my old neighborhood that ran together.  My first year teaching when I didn't have my own room and knew those 8th graders were playing me.  While I was visiting my parents in Louisville this summer, I really wanted to make a trip to Ohio--to see people, too, of course--but to run the 3 mile loop through the woods that I ran almost every day of every high school summer.  I romanticize that if I could just run at Sugarcreek every day, then continue my life in Brooklyn, that I'd have such a better sense of self.  Time and logistics didn't allow me to get there, and I can't decide if that were a good or bad thing.


Thursday, September 9, 2010

Overwhelmed by books.

September is my new years.  I've never left the school year calendar, so I am lucky enough to still relish in new pencils and notebooks and post-its each fall.  My summer days are pretty leisurely, but there is something in my persona that is absolutely ready to start using my tiny moleskin planner again.  I also leave behind my nice, neat world of summer reading and end up with massive stacks of books to read and the desire to read them all at once.  It is September where I usually start reading a few books at once, given that they are different genres.

These are my current genres and a few titles of what you might be seeing posted around here in the near future:

Young adult for school. I'm doing book clubs with my students all year, so I'll be in a young adult book at all times. We are starting with Sold by Patricia McCormick and in a month or two we are doing a "I read Harry Potter #7 way to fast" reread club!

Young adult for research. I've been trying to study books with female protagonists.  I'm going to revisit some favorites like Nancy Drew and Dicey's Song.

Fiction for book clubs and/or my sanity. Upcoming picks: March by Geraldine Brooks and A Short History of Women by Kate Walbert.

Nonfiction for research, to add to the female protagonist study: Shelf Discovery: Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading and Everything I Needed to Know About Being a Girl I Learned From Judy Blume.

Nonfiction to learn. Surprised by Hope by N.T. Wright. No Logo by Naomi Klein.

There is a good chance I'll be reading one of each at any given moment and I couldn't be more excited to get started.  There are just so many words to read! Cheers to the feeling of fall and the beginnings of great things (and the most glorious season of life)!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Summer Reading Conclusion.

Somehow September started and I barely noticed.  Then I found myself in my classroom at school trying to set up my library before the kiddos arrived and I realized summer was indeed over. Interestingly enough, last summer's reading conclusion was written on a 65 degree August day. Today, the high is 94 degrees and I've got a hurricane looming over my labor day weekend flight to the homeland. 

The biggest clue to summer ending for me is that I find myself needing/wanting to read 5 books at once.  It is a habit I typically grow out of during my season of freedom because I am able to spend so much time reading, that I finish books pretty quickly.  Here's how it went this year:

I read almost all of the books on my list! I think this is due in part to the fact that I was traveling, which forced me to plan. These included:

Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirevsky
In the Woods by Tana French
The Girl Who Played With Fire by Steig Larrson
March by Geraldine Brooks
Stuart Little by E.B. White (children's)
Freak the Mighty by Rodman Philbrick (young adult)
The Giver by Lois Lowry (young adult)
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle (young adult)

I picked up a few along the way, borrowed from a friend and my mom (and two I broke down and bought):

American Pastoral by Philip Roth
The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein
Chasing Fireflies by Charles Martin
The Summer Book by Tove Jansson
The Curse of the Good Girl by Rachel Simmons
Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian by Alexie Sherman (young adult)

Final conclusions: Favorites: March and rereading The Summer Book. Also, despite (almost) always having a book on hand, I found myself missing my bookshelves and some randoms I wanted to reread on lazy days at home (Harry Potter, especially).  Also, my books weighed too much and took up too much space in my carry on.  It was the only time I have ever wanted an e-reader of some sort.  Scary. Anyway, cheers to the fall and the craziness that my reading life is sure to become (which is the subject of my next post!)

Thursday, August 19, 2010

My favorite summer book. Of all time. I don't say things like that very often.

I've written about The Summer Book before.  I first read it in 2008 and fell in love.  The post is so short because I had no words to describe how much I loved it.  I have recommended it, given it as a gift and reread it every summer since then.  Pure joy. You should be on your way out the door to find a copy by now.

Each chapter is a separate vignette style story that distills the essence of summer, childhood and adult sense-and nonsense-ability.  Sophia, her father and her grandmother have an easy way about them, as they live quietly and adventurously all summer. Sophia is six, feisty, and pays attention to all of the small details and mysteries of life for the first time.  Her grandmother is 85, equally feisty and is paying attention to the small details and mysteries of life, but with the kind of wisdom only age can give.  I have found myself falling for the way that Jansson captures Sophia's awakening to life and the endearing patience with a side of crankiness with which Grandmother watches it happen. These are just a few things I was thinking about today as I was reading:

In "The Robe," Sophia is going through a "rebellious" stage.  This is the part that makes me love Grandmother with all of my heart: "...she played cards with grandmother.  The both cheated shamelessly, and their cardplaying afternoons always ended in a quarrel.  This had never happened before. Grandmother tried to recall her own rebellious periods in order to try and understand, but all she could remember was an unusually well behaved little girl.  Wise as she was, she realized that people can postpone their rebellious phases until they're eighty-five years old, and she decided to keep an eye on herself." 

In "The Tent," Sophia tries to sleep all night in a tent outside and comes in under the pretense of wanting to hear about her grandmother's experiences in tents. "A very long time ago, Grandmother had wanted to tell about all the things they did, but no one had bothered to ask. And now she lost the urge...That's strange, Grandmother thought. I can't describe things anymore. I can't find the words, or maybe it's just that I'm not trying hard enough...unless I tell it because I want to, it's as if it never happened; it gets closed off and then it's lost."  This is kind of random, but this speaks into my writing life: although sometimes a little discipline is required, I've found the best time for me to write about something is the moment in which I am excited about it.  That is when the most passion is conveyed in what I'm trying to say.  It also made me think about how sad it is when stories get lost because the moment it should have been told or written has passed.

Jansson does not let the moment pass, though, because this short book crystallizes so much. Seriously. Find a copy. Curl up somewhere summer-y: I'm predisposed to the porch at my parents. A lake would be ideal. And love.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Fiction as Eye Opener.

I've mentioned before that I love mystery.  The literary genre held court in my elementary school life (Nancy Drew, R.L. Stine) and middle school life (Mary Higgins Clark), but then dropped out of sight until recently.  Inspired by my love of mystery shows from The Closer, which is great in every aspect, to Bones, which isn't, and all the Law and Order, CSI:NY and Lie to Me in between, I was ready to get lost in the literary genre once again.

 I just finished the second of the three Steig Larsson books, The Girl Who Played With Fire.  There are many literary aspects that set these books apart from a lot of the pulpy bestsellers, most notably the complex characters who are developed over the course of all the books. But. What I want to focus on more is that the main mystery of the book revolves around trafficking and the sex trade.  This book was originally published in Sweden in 2004, which means that the original research was completed years before.  Larsson was ahead of his time in making the public aware of what is happening worldwide.

In the past few years, trafficking has become a more well known issue, but I remember first becoming really informed around 2005 by a friend who helped to found Restore NYC (in 2004), which "aims to provide safe housing and special legal, medical and employment services, as well as optional spiritual activities" for women who have been sexually trafficked into New York City. In the early days, my friend spent a lot of time educating everyone she could about the issue of trafficking--and one of the main responses were jaws dropped in horror that one, this was occurring, and two, that they didn't know about it. 

All that to say, I am glad that there are books and authors who aren't afraid to delve into the darkest corners of our existence (for the issue of trafficking, see also the young adult Sold by Patricia McCormick).  I am a firm believer that fiction is one of the greatest ways to understand the complexity and depth of the hardest issues in society.  Fiction forces the reader to not just read statistics or facts, but to know the physical and emotional impact on individual characters.  Not facing these issues leaves us utterly ignorant and only promotes living in a bubble of safety, unaware of anyone else's needs but our own. Go. Read. 

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

An Illusion? A mess? The American Pastoral?

I had a bit of a packing quandary when I was leaving New York for two months.  Determined only to have a carry on, I did not realize the impact this would have on my reading life.  I only had room for three books, which I hoped would last me through my trip to Colorado, 5 weeks later. Fail. This is the only time I found myself wishing I had a Sony Reader (take a look how Sony has been supporting education here, thanks to Kenneth Byers), as the idea of reading books electronically skeeves me out a little bit, but would have been so practical for the summer.  Anyway, I spotted American Pastoral by Philip Roth on a San Diego neighbor's bookshelf and borrowed it.  I justify buying books all of the time, so this is a pretty big step for me. It is also my first jump off my summer reading list.  Sometimes I type the way I talk and give a lot of background information.  Anyway.

American Pastoral is a book that beyond its intricate narration and literary value, covers a lot of material between its cover: ethnic relations, industrial history, politics, war and family, but most of all it is a book about illusion and coming to grips with reality.  Reading this as I've been rewatching Mad Men episodes and watching the premiere, the question that I can't stop thinking about is how do we cultivate lives filled with meaning? The number of movies and television shows and books dedicated to the emptiness that people feel (Catcher in the Rye, Revolutionary Road, etc.) can make the world feel bleak.

The illusions. 
The book is narrated by Nathan Zuckerman, a writer who shows up in a number of Roth's books.  Through a series of events, including his a 45 year high school reunion, he learns the adult story of Seymour "The Swede" Levov, his (and his town's) adolescent idol, whose athletic victories helped ease the weariness of World War Two.  Zuckerman, well into adulthood, was under the impression that the Swede's life maintained its childhood perfection.  He learns facts that prove otherwise and begins to ponder about the nature of human relationships: "The pictures we have of one another. Layers and layers of misunderstanding. Completely cocked up.  Only we go ahead and we live by these pictures. "

I started to think about the pictures that our culture has of one another: advertisements that allow us to misunderstand what will add value to life.  Photoshopped pictures in magazines that allow us to misunderstand what beauty is.  Even facebook photos allow us to think that everyone else's life is anything but lonely.   I can picture these misunderstandings snowballing in our minds--layers and layers--and as we live by them we are only more disillusioned and further from what is actually true.

The messes.
The structure of the book speaks volumes in and of itself.  The first section, "Paradise Remembered" is about the youth of the narrator and the main character, a time when following the local high school sports team is an umbrella from reality, where despite the larger fears that have swallowed the adult population, the narrator remembers the safety of childhood.  Aptly named, the second part is "The Fall," when the main character, Seymour "Swede" Levov's daughter commits an act of political terrorism and all of the Swede's visions of his American pastoral are shattered.  The final section, "Paradise Lost" follows how his life essentially falls apart in the aftermath:

"Initiating the Swede into the displacement of another America entirely, the daughter and the decade blasting to smithereens his particular form of utopian thinking...The daughter who transports him out of the longed-for American pastoral and into everything that is its anthithesis and its enemy, into the fury, the violence, and the desperation of the counterpastoral--into the indigenous American berserk."

Is the American berserk a better description for what happens to us? It was jarring for me that the book ends in the midst of the berserk--or, rather, that the world continued to be out of control and the characters are left to choose how to respond.  I watched the characters become paralyzed at the realization that life had not come to what they always thought it would.

This post has remained in draft form for a few days because I have no idea how to wrap it up.  The shattering of illusion and the inability to deal with the mess that is life hits the reader over the head as the story weaves in and out of countless moments in the past that lead up to the disastrous state we find the characters in at the end.  I could think and talk about this book for a long time. But here are a few conclusions.  We cannot control anything.  It is easy to create illusions. It is easy to believe illusions.  We cannot prevent messes.

I think that the book critiques obviously the absurdities of the American culture of privilege and entitlement.  And though I really believe that hope can change our lives, if we are hoping in what is purely material or the idea that it's possible to cultivate a life on earth insulated from pain and suffering, we will surely find ourselves wandering in the American berserk.  So, I guess rather than going on about ideas on how to cultivate a life of real meaning, I will leave you to think about it.  Or call me to get some coffee.  I will absolutely be thinking about this for some time to come.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Childhood Favorites Post #7: Utopias and Dystopias in Young Adult Lit, or trusting young readers with deep material

Another overlapping idea that I have found in my re-reading of childhood favorites is the concept of forming "utopias" in books with science fiction slants, The Giver by Lois Lowry and A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle.  Readers learn that the places that were designed to be easy and safe are actually disastrous.

In the world of The Giver, the community was designed to be "extraordinarily safe" and "meticulously ordered."  Emotions are seen as dangerous, so at the onset of puberty, every citizen is given pills to keep the "stirrings" away.  Anything that wasn't practical was done done away with: "the weather made transportation almost impossible at times. It wasn't a practical thing, so it became obsolete when we went to Sameness." The community operates out of the fear of mistakes, out of the fear of bearing pain, sorrow or inconvenience, and in turn sacrifices all of the good as well.  One person in the community, The Receiver, is chosen to hold all of the memories prior to Sameness: pain, color, love, choice.  The Receiver bears all of the knowledge and pain so that the rest of the community doesn't have to.

In A Wrinkle in Time, the kids land on a planet called Camazotz to rescue their father.  They feel completely creeped out when everyone seems exactly the same.  Finally they meet IT, who explains:
"For you, as well as for the rest of all the happy, useful people on this planet, I, in my own strength, am willing to assume all the pain, all the responsibility, all the burdens of thought and decision.  I am peace and utter rest. I am freedom from all responsibility. To come in to me is the last difficult decision you need ever make."  Charles Wallace attempts to fight IT, but loses and falls under the Camazotz spell as well: "Why do you think we have wars at home? Why do you think people get confused and unhappy? Because they all live in their own, separate, individual lives. I've been trying to explain to you in the simplest possible way that on Camazotz individuals have been done away with.  Camazotz is ONE mind. And that's why everybody's so happy and efficient. "  Creepy!

I think that these books have content that is not only interesting for a reader of any age (most of my students read these titles in elementary school and loved them for separate reasons then), but that invites adolescent readers into some serious questions about the nature of life and the decisions that they have to make as 12-13 year olds. For example, despite the initial allure, relinquishing responsibility isn't all it's cracked up to be, and not worth the cost of what you lose.  Middle school is the time when you learn what it means to be more independent and responsible and it is a scary time. Also, these utopian/dystopian books celebrate individuality and I'll be the first to say that in middle school all I wanted to do was to be like everyone else. These characters and conflicts can arm kids with courage.

Readers watch characters they love struggle with figuring life out and growing up right before their eyes.  Meg realizes:  "Maybe if you aren't unhappy sometimes you don't know how to be happy." This is a really deep thought for an adolescent (or even pre-adolescent) reader, that I imagine can create amazing book club conversations and even intellectual arguments.  Books like The Giver and A Wrinkle in Time are ones that kids, if they are able to pick up on these threads, will walk away with not only an incredible read, but feeling smarter and feeling changed as a thinker.  Do you remember the first moments when you  realized the world is a lot bigger/deeper/more interesting than you ever thought possible? These books trust kids with intense issues...and I think that kids want to be entrusted; they want the adults in their lives to recognize the capability they have. Of course, different realizations will come at different times for different kids.  That is why I am so excited to hear what my 8th graders have to say about these books in the fall as they reread them.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

bound together as humans?


"Dolce," the second novella of Suite Francaise, set in the provincial countryside of France, was what captured me and got me thinking the most.  The characters seemed more complex and conflicted, more endearing than those of "Storm in June." The question I walked away considering was:

What is it that makes us human, and why are those things not enough to bind us together?

By nature I am a micro-thinker.  I am interested in the larger systems: how they function, why we need them, how to change them, but ultimately my life works on the tiny level within a system: as a teacher, as a canvas bag carrier to the grocery, as a user of public transportation.  I tend to see the smaller, personal level before putting it into a larger, more complex system, which was why one of the main conflicts of the novella was so heartbreaking for me.

Lucille is a provincial French woman, whose husband had a mistress and a child across town but is now a prisoner of war, whose mother in law cannot stand her, who feels miserable in how stuck she is in her own life.  When she and her mother in law are asked to house a German officer, the initial revulsion to housing an enemy weighs heavily in the house, until Lucille begins to see some of the underlying similarities between herself and this foreign enemy, namely through music: "Anything was better than music, for music alone can abolish differences of language or culture between two people and evoke something indestructible within them," (334).

Lucille and the officer find that they have a connection joins the ranks of history's star-crossed: "But occupation is more terrible in a way, because people get used to one another.  We tell ourselves, 'They're just like us, after all,' but they're not at all the same.  We're two different species, irreconcilable, enemies forever," (333).  She almost couldn't bear the things that brought them together because all it raised in her was guilt in having feelings toward the enemy and the confusion when their connection seemed to be above their respective countries' political stances.

It seems that the all of the residents of this occupied town are grappling with the idea of the collective "good" for their countries versus what would make them as individuals feel whole: The German officer lost his autonomy in the name of the war: "Madame, I am a soldier.  Soldiers don't think. I'm told to go somewhere and I go.  Told to fight, I fight. Told to get myself killed, I die. Thinking would make fighting more difficult and death more terrible," (273).  The two, each in their minds, attempt to reconcile their hearts with their national duty, and it just becomes more complex and heart breaking.

I do my best to stay on top of the world news and understand the deep rooted conflicts, but each time I never fail to become broken hearted over our inability to see each other as humans...with families and passions and sorrow.  I hate that those connections are so often not enough to bind us: whether in small, inner circle conflicts or those of a worldwide nature. 

The mother in law's response seems simultaneously out of touch as well as chillingly brilliant.
She faded into play-acting in her room, barely leaving: "It was neither delirium nor the first signs of madness; never had she been more totally lucid and aware of herself. It was deliberate play-acting, the only thing that brought her some solace, in the same way as morphine or wine. In the darkness and the silence, she could relive the past...she [also] anticipated the future. Though she lied and deceived herself, the lies were her own creation and she cherished them," (305).

This I think, though, is the danger: the pretending that everything is fine that in turns just paralyzes a person.  I think that it is better to live in the complexity of human nature than to just pretend that everything is all right, even if being a part of humanity leads to heartbreak.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Suite Francaise and Suffering.

Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky requires some background information, as its journey to publication is quite extraordinary.  Nemirovsky was a well known writer in France throughout the thirties and at the beginning of World War Two.  She made a plan for a five novellas with overlapping characters about the war, as it was occurring, but only had time to write two of them, as she was arrested by the French Police during the German occupation and sent to Auschwitz, where she died.  Her daughter found the manuscript in a journal fifty years later, which is what now comprises Suite Francaise. I typically read appendices and any kind of editor or translator's notes after I read the novel, so some of the issues I had initially while reading the book vanished once I saw the notes she had for the plot and character arcs and understood that the novel I held in my hands was only 2 of the 5 planned novellas.

"Storm in June" is the first novella, which is centered around its portrayals of how different classes of people experienced and processed the war.  I wanted to punch some of the characters in the face; I'm not sure if they were overly flawed intentionally or just drove me insane, namely the ones who could think only of their beautiful material goods or of how vulgar the lower classes were.  This blatant self centeredness almost seemed unrealistic to me; that  suffering would arouse disgust and disdain rather than empathy.

The inner conflict that seemed so realistic was when a well-to-do mother smugly passed out treats to lower class children, feeling as though she were upholding her Christian duty.  My gut reaction to her was disgust.  But, she became more human as I read about the panic she felt when she realized that there wasn't food to go around, even for the wealthy.   Watching her hubris shrink and her maternal instinct of survival and protection rise made her more real in my mind.

I think that watching suffering, more often than not, brings out complex emotions that are difficult to wade through as an individual and even as a reader: when I am faced with homelessness everytime I get on a subway, it weighs on my heart.  Walking by feels so wrong and after living in the city for seven years I still don't know how to discern when and how to help.  But, I prefer living in a place where I am forced to wrestle with it, rather than forget that it exists...but does thinking make a difference? What I found while reading was that wartime only heightens the complexity of what to do with the suffering one sees.

And, just like the characters in the book, suffering will in time turn from voyeuristic to personal for all of us, and remind us of our own fragility, and, I think, help us to stand in solidarity with humankind.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Childhood Favorites Post #6: A Spiritual Journey with A Wrinkle in Time

"She keeps thinking she can say things in words," (page 70).  This was one of the first quotations in A Wrinkle in Time that made connect in more than just a literary sense with what Madeleine L'Engle was up to while writing this book. There are a lot of different lenses that I try to teach my students to read literature through, and one of them is by making personal connections.  Mrs. Who's quote I just shared reminded me of the "mystery" that is a part of my personal faith...the fact that there are some things that I cannot physically give name to, either for their beauty, glory, brokenness or depth.  Not long after this quote came many others that echoed my Christian faith and many verses from the old and new testament. That in turn led me to do research on L'Engle.  This is partly a record for me of some of the examples, and an attempt try to pull some of the threads together to think about author's purpose. I'm looking forward to discussing this book as soon as someone would like to volunteer to read it!

One of the planets that the children land on is filled with creatures singing: "Sing unto the Lord a new song, and his praise from the end of the eath, ye that go down to the sea, and all that is therein; the isles, and the inhabitants thereof. Let the wilderness and the cities thereof lift their voice; let the inhabitants of the rock sing, let them shout from the top of the mountains. Let them give glory unto the Lord!" (Isaiah 42:10, page 77).

The universe is fighting the Black Thing and it hovers over the earth, that echoes biblical themes of spiritual warfare and the sense that something is amiss in our world. Mrs. Who and Charles Wallace discuss some of the strategy involved in fighting it:
"All through the universe it's being fought, all through the cosmos, and my, but it's a grand and exciting battle." 
"Who have our fighters been?" 
"Oh, you must know them, dear. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehend it not." "Jesus!" Charles Wallave said. 
"Of course!" Mrs. Whatsit said. "Go on, Charles, love. There were others. All your great artists. They've been light for us to see by." 
"Leonardo da Vinci? And Michaelangelo? And Shakespeare, and Bach! And Pasteur and Madame Curie and Einstein! And Schweitzer and Gandhi and Buddha and Beethoven and Rembrandt and Saint Francis!" (page 100-101). What I love here is that credit is given to artists and musicians and scientists that deepen the richness of the human experience and amplify the good and the beautiful, and are a microcosm of truth in themselves, much of what C.S. Lewis discusses in his essay The Weight of Glory.

"We were sent here for something. And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose,"  (page 190, Romans 8:28).

"Are you fighting the Black Thing?" Meg asked.  
"Oh, yes," Aunt Beast replied. "In doing that we can never relax. We are called according to His purpose, and whom He calls, them He also justifies. Of course we have help, and without help it would be much more difficult." 
"Who helps you?" Meg asked. 
"...Good helps us, the stars help us, perhaps what you would call light helps us, love helps us."  I think that L'Engle's theology here is incredibly refreshing.  In my own life I have enormous frustrations when Christians aren't able to see glimpses of universal goodness and truth in all aspects of the world, and how all people who are doing good are moving the earth toward a better place.

"We look not at the things which are what you would call seen, but at the things which are not see. For the things which are seen are temporal.  But the things which are not seen are eternal," (2 Corinthians 4:18, page 205) To read this in the context of the story, you would see that L'Engle uses her science-fiction imagination to give a name and space to that which we don't know or understand.  Some of Christian theology's biggest mysteries are revealed through that imagination in a way that enables the reader to grasp it in a more tangible way.

"Listen, Meg. Listen well. The foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men...but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty..." (page 222, 1 Cor 1:25).

So, here's the bottom line for me as a public school English teacher who read this book and also happens to be a Christian: I love that anyone can read this and get lost in the adventure, be captured by the settings and relate to the inner struggles the characters face.  At the same time, my personal reading experience was enhanced by the way that L'Engle used adventure, story, art and science to amplify many of the truths of my faith and pushed me to think about them more deeply. I think it could also be an interesting angle for an adult reader of a different faith. Either way, reading A Wrinkle in Time was a win-win for me.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Childhood Favorites Post #5: On Growing Up


Sometimes I call it oldest child syndrome.  Sometimes it's Type-A.  Sometimes it's overly organized. Whatever name I give it, and despite the creative side of my brain, I have a tendency to want everything to be orderly and as it should be, whether it is my unit binders on my desk at school, my belongings in my apartment, or my personal life.

It has been a long, slow, frustrating journey to realize that I don't have the ability to get everything right, no matter how hard I try.  What used to feel like personal failure, I am finally learning at 29 is an unavoidable part of human life.  One of the basic tenets of my faith is that we are all fallible, and when I remember this, it makes it so much easier for me to breathe. It is amazing to me to read books intended for children in elementary school and find so much of myself in them. I can't help but wonder if everyone else got this down at age 10? Ha.

In Freak the the Mighty, Kevin made a dictionary for Max for Christmas, filled with all sorts of clever and poignant definitions, based on the way he saw the world. The one that stood out to me the most was his entry for human: "an improbable, imperfect creature."

In my crazy rush to finish all of my childhood favorites before leaving New York for the summer, I began to see all kinds of crazy connections between them all.  Through the character of Meg in A Wrinkle in Time, I watched her grapple with the humanity's imperfection as she realizes that her father (who is lost in time and she goes to rescue) cannot solve everything that goes wrong, and in turn, she begins to grow up.

"Her father had been found but he had not made everything all right  Instead, everything was worse than ever, and her adored father was bearded and thin and white and not omnipotent after all. Not matter what happened next, things could be no more terrible or frightening than they already were."

"Disappointment was as dark and corrosive in her as the Black Thing.  The ugly words tumbled from her cold lips even as she herself could not believe that it was to her father, her beloved, longed-for father, that she was talking to in this way...She had found her father and he had not made everything all right. Everything kept getting worse and worse. If the long search for her father was ended, and he wasn't able to overcome all their difficulties, there was nothing to guarantee that it would all come out right in the end.  There was nothing left to hope for.  She teetered on the seesaw of love and hate."

I love that Madeleine L'Engle lets Meg dwell in this feeling for a while, as these realizations and feelings are the epitome of coming of age.  I wonder if this goes over the heads of first time readers of the book.  I am anxious to talk with my students in the fall about the re-reading experience and how they connect with the emotional changes that Meg experiences.

I appreciate the way that L'Engle characterizes the father as well.  He is fully aware of his own limitations and I imagine that as a parent it must be difficult (and yet exciting) to watch his daughter realize this as well: "My daughter, I am a human being, and a very fallible one."

Meg captures it all when she says: "I wanted you to do it all for me. I wanted everything to be easy and simple...So I tried to pretend that it was all your fault...because I was scared, and I didn't want to have to do anything myself."  As I read this I smiled at this enormous revelation of hers and the fact that I myself fall into the trap of wanting everything to be easy and simple, and forgetting the great beauty--and the essence of humanity--that can emerge from the struggles.

Though, that is not to say that I don't hurt with nostalgia from time to time about the safety of my childhood. Sigh.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Childhood Favorites Post #4: Remembering with Freak the Mighty

"Remembering is a great invention of the mind," so says Kevin in the young adult novel Freak the Mighty. The whole concept of memory is fascinating to me, and I tend to write about it every time that it comes up in a book.

Freak the Mighty is a story of friendship, of hardship, of transcendence.  The characters in this book go through so much, that it is hard to believe that most of my students read it in elementary school. Max lives with his grandparents because his father is in jail for killing his mother.  He considers himself stupid and is in learning disabled classes at school.  People are frightened of him because of his father, how much he looks at him and how large of a person he is.  Kevin has just moved in to his block with his mom. He has a disease that has left him crippled and sick, but is absolutely brilliant.  The two form an unlikely friendship and dub themselves "Freak the Mighty."

"You don't need a time machine if you know how to remember," says Kevin in a theoretical conversation between the boys about recalling what he has learned about the ice age in reference to an imaginary game they are playing.  What he doesn't realize is how weighty this will become for Max. Kevin is wise beyond his years and knows how sick he is.  As much as his friendship with Max has changed him, he is aware that Max will have to move forward without him in the future.  The greatest gift that Kevin offered Max in their friendship was the use of imagination and the reminder of how memories can give strength.  What is so smart about Philbrick's writing, is that he writes in Max's voice throughout the book--Max who hated school, Max who had no confidence in his intellectual ability--and only at the end do you realize that Kevin asked him to write down their story.  At the end of the book it is incredible to "witness" how Max rose above all of his challenges to accomplish this and to see how the memory of his friendship with Kevin empowered him to do so.

And so, yes, remembering is a great invention of the mind.  And even though we all have things we wish we could forget, we also have the store of memories that remind us of who we really are and the things we really love...and those are the memories that give us the strength to move forward as changed people.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Reconciling the past and present.

This summer marks the seventh year that I've lived in New York City.  When people ask me where I'm from, I've found that I have a variety of answers.  When I was abroad last summer, I said I was from New York.  While in the city, I typically say I'm originally, originally from Long Island, partly because it's so close and partly because it's where I was born, where all my extended family roots and my parents' pasts lie.  I follow that up with the fact that I'm really midwestern, having spent every year of school in southwest Ohio.  Basically, there is never a straight answer and I don't feel fully like myself without mentioning all these aspects of my past. There is a part of me that will always be from Long Island, from Centerville, Ohio and from New York, and I've realized that I feel most like myself when I account for all of these parts.

Reconciling the past and present and learning how to sift through the layers is one of the biggest conflicts of In the Woods by Tana French. One of the settings of the book is the woods of Knocknaree, a tiny suburb outside of Dubin, Ireland.  In the beginning of the story, a 12 year old girl is found murdered in the woods and the main character Detective Rob Ryan is called in for the investigation. The twist is that Ryan, unbeknownst to anyone but his partner, grew up in Knocknaree and was the sole survivor of a crime that left his 2 best friends missing. He was found covered in blood and without a single memory of what happened.  He has spent the rest of his life essentially forgetting until this case began.  The novel is not only the mystery of the girl who was killed, but also of Ryan's past and his psychological state as he is forced to face all he has left behind. 

Beyond being the site of two horrific crimes, the Knocknaree woods is also in the middle of another conflict: it is the site of an archaeological dig, which is forced to rush because construction for a highway is slated to begin.  French does an impressive job making this story about more than just solving a crime.  The woods becomes symbolic in its vastness, it's darkness and its   The reader, like Detective Ryan, is left wondering should one dig through the past, carefully trying to make sense of it and put the pieces together in a meaningful way or pave over it, moving into the future leaving it all locked underneath cement?

The ending, unlike most episodes of The Closer, Law and Order and CSI: NY, is not quite as neat as I have grown accustomed to in my television dabbling or in the pulpy mystery reads I consumed in middle school.  I think French's literary merit in this book is the psychological depth of Detective Ryan and her skill at depicting it within the genre.  He is complex and heartbreakingly human in the decisions that he makes throughout the case as simultaneously faces the past and tries to hide it from others and hide from it himself. I walked away from this book wondering about how he will choose to move forward with all the layers of his past, rather than the satisfaction of figuring out the puzzle.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Short Recommendation.


I have no idea how I haven't posted about Sloane Crosley after reading her first book of essays, I Was Told There'd Be Cake a few years ago. But since I made a hard cover purchase the day her second book was released (I can count all previous hard cover purchases on one hand...and I buy a lot of books), I realized it's high time that I publicly recommend her highly amusing essays to the 5 people who read this blog.  Crosley's essays resonate with me as she grew up in the suburbs, moved to New York and is about my age, but I remain convinced that they are pretty funny for almost anyone.

Anyway, nothing too deep, but if you are looking for an entertaining summer read, either of these two would work.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Look out.

My after school creative writing class this year was hands down one of my favorite parts of my teaching career.   These rock star middle school students each wrote a piece to be published in our anthology and I'm making the prediction here and now that this is only the beginning. I will be the one waving around short stories in the New Yorker and newly published novels claiming to everyone I know that once upon a time these fine writers were in my class.  These ones made my Thursdays, made my jaw drop with their creativity, made me laugh. I just adore them.  So, all I'm saying is that this anthology was one of my best reads of the year.

Childhood Favorites Post #3. On Distractions.

As a side note, I'm having a hard time deciding what to write about in response to everything I've been reading lately. Usually, I feel compelled to distill what I find to be the most meaningful aspect of a book and put it into the context of both the entire work as well as my current thought life.  But then there are the random sentences I underlined while reading that spark an idea.  I'm going to have to do a little bit of both throughout the Childhood Favorites series because inside these "juvenile" books there is just. so. much. Which, lucky for me, is the purpose of this unit in the fall.

One of the creatures set on preventing Milo, Tock and the Humbug in The Phantom Tollbooth from rescuing Rhyme and Reason is the Senses Taker, who collects an absurd list of information from each character before he can, literally, take their senses.  When Milo tells him that their destination is The Castle in the Air, he says he is sure they would rather see what he has to show them. Milo begins to see a circus on the horizon.  Tock the dog smells marvelous scents.  The vain (but loveable) Humbug hears a crowd applauding and cheering for him.   Their senses--literally and figuratively--have been taken from them.

Juster's description of what happened to them was so creepy:  "They all stood as if in a trance, looking, smelling, and listening to the very special things that the Senses Taker had provided for them, forgetting completely about where they were going and who, with evil intent, was coming up behind him...Milo was too engrossed in the circus to notice, and Tock had closed his eyes, the better to smell, and the bug, bowing and waving, stood with a look of sheer bliss on his face, interested only in the wild ovation."

I'll be the first to admit that sometimes, distractions are quite nice.  Piles of papers to grade? CSI, how I love you.  Stressed? Oh, Glee. Such joy. Of course, hikes and runs and laughing are more healthy distractions when life gets a bit overwhelming.

But other times, distractions take me on a path that veers so far away from where--and who--I want to be, that it does seem like there is an old, evil Senses Taker trying to prevent me from getting where I know I could be.  But he's tricky, because it's so easy to settle into the comfort of what is easier and more enjoyable, just like Miles, Tock and Humbug.

"And furthermore, I'll steal your sense of purpose, take your sense of duty, destroy your sense of proportion..." This is when the destruction sets in. I wonder how many dreamers have forgotten their initial ambitions and hopes by losing sight of what they were originally chasing.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Childhood Favorites Post #2: The Phantom Tollbooth-An Overview and its General Brilliance.

I just read The Phantom Tollbooth for the first time and was floored by its utterly hilarious wit.  It made me wonder if it all would have gone over my head as a child. But then, children tend to get lost in the adventure of the story and it isn't until much later that we realize all the wisdom we ever needed to gain was in books we read in elementary school.  But, as an adult, all I could do was nod my head in agreement with his criticism of society, all the while laughing out loud at how clever and pun filled it all is (yes, I laugh at puns. I can't help it.).

The main frame of the story is that the main character Milo begins as an incredibly bored boy.  Then a tollbooth shows up in his bedroom and he goes on a crazy adventure in The Lands Beyond, where chaos seems to reign ever since King Azaz, ruler of the land of words and letters, and the Mathemagician, ruler of the land of numbers, have banished their sisters, the Princesses Rhyme and Reason (get it?). Every character he runs across builds Juster's criticism (and wit) while being incredibly creative and entertaining for the average ten year old reader just looking for adventure.  Here an example of one of kinds of characters that Milo encounters through the land of Ignorance that I thought was most clever:

The Terrible Trivium, demon of petty tasks and worthless jobs, ogre of wasted effort and monster of habit.  In his own words, after he asked Milo and his friends to move a pile of sand using a tweezer, empty a well using a dropper and dig a hole through a cliff using a needle:

"Think of all the trouble it saves...if you only do the easy and useless jobs, you'll never have to worry about the important ones which are so difficult. you just won't have the time.  For there's always something to do to keep you from what you really should be doing."

I felt as though the Trivium had called me out personally on this one.

Once all the demons realize that Milo and his friends are trying to restore Rhyme and Reason, they all come out and it is said that they only had one thought in mind: "destroy the intruders and protect Ignorance."  

This sentence almost sounds like it came out of a Cold War science fiction story (it was published in 1961, so that would be an interesting thing to research): the government trying to keep people in the dark about what was really going on.  I can also link it to advertising, which tells us stories of things we need, so that we don't have to think for ourselves of what is truly valuable.  It is crazy to me just how many directions the reader can take this book in.

My favorite part, after finishing the book and looking over my notes actually came from the very beginning:

"What had started as make-believe was now very real," (page 16).  Let the adventure begin. And isn't that we always hoped for? 

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Summer Reading: the final list.

Despite the fact that it has been flip flop weather for quite some time, the trees are full with leaves and I'm sure there are lightning bugs out there somewhere, summers for me as a New Yorker officially start in July. Our last day this year is MONDAY, June 28th. Monday? Seriously? But, we don't go back until Tuesday, September 7th and then have the 9th and 10 off (and the kids only come on the 8th).  Anyway. The end is finally near and I have narrowed down the summer reading choices (and yes, it's ok if you make fun of me because this is my third post about summer reading). I think the final list is pretty great. It will be interesting if I stray. Anyway:

1. Finish the Childhood Favorites. 5 more to go.

2. NYC book club summer picks:
  • Istanbul by Orhan Pamuk
  •  Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky 
3. My mom and I decided to have a mini book club while I am in Kentucky in August. We are going to read a couple Pulitzer winners that we've missed in the past few years:
  • Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Stout
  • March by Geraldine Brooks
4. Mysteries: 
  • The Girl Who Played With Fire by Steig Larrson
  • In the Woods by Tana French

Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Things They Carried.

The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien has been on my nightstand's "unread" pile for years.  But after reading All the Broken Pieces to my students and realizing how little reading I've done on Vietnam, I was eager to learn more.   Published in 1990, it was a finalist for the Pulitzer.  When I closed the final pages, all I could think was that the book was absolutely. brilliant.

History has always come alive for me through literature. I have awful memories of of taking endless notes in my 10th grade Western Civilization class from my teacher's tiny, perfect cursive on an overhead projector.  I was able to memorize and get A's, but I was impassioned by nothing I learned.  My American Literature class, though, is what painted a broad scope for our country's history: seeing the different cultural beliefs, trends and events and then reading what was produced at that time was fascinating.  One of my regrets of college is that I didn't double major in History (but I guess since I changed my major 3 or 4 times, I should just be glad that I made it out in four years), but I feel like studying literature gave me a a desire to keep learning about it. My assignment to teach 7th and 8th grade Social Studies my first year (basically ALL of American history!) also served as a good crash course.

All that to say, what is the best way to learn about history, especially wars? Obviously it's a balance of understanding overarching timelines of events, cultural trends and changes, but those remain just facts on the page.  I think it has to come through a variety of lenses while studying the humanities: What music? Whose music? What art? Whose art? What literature?  Whose literature? I am so convinced that we need to be a people who studies and understands history--and the present.  One of the characters comes home from Vietnam to people who had no idea what was going on and no desire to attempt to understand, leaving him feeling utterly alone: "The town could not talk, and would not listen.  The place could only blink and shrug. It had no memory, therefore no guilt.  It was a brisk, polite town.  It did not know shit about shit, and did not care to know (143)."

O'Brien's book is a work that makes the reader know.  It declared as a work of fiction, and yet it is filled with stories inspired by what he knows.  His narrative style is brilliant and elusive, one in which the reader never really knows what he actually witnessed and what he fictionalized--which is one of the most artistic craft moves I have ever read.  He explains: "I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening truth...what stories can do is make things present (179-180)."

I've never read this kind of narrative structure and style before.  O'Brien unpacks the complexity of the soldier's experience in a war that they didn't necessarily understand themselves.  The title comes from the opening chapter in which O'Brien lists the literal and figurative items that each solider in the story carried with him.  There is something in one's personal effects that breaks my heart in their pure representation of an individual's humanity.  Basically, this book took my breath away and really, any further attempt to explain it would only take away from it's significance. Please go find a copy immediately.